31 December 2011

So Small a Hinge

Soon we will breathe in 2011 and breathe out 2012.  So small is the hinge on which the world hangs.

It's easy to poo-poo the whole New Year business.  "It's just another tick on the clock," one might say.  But get this:

On so small a hinge I switched from umbilical cord to lung.
On so small a hinge I spoke my first word.
On so small a hinge I became a father.
On so small a hinge I ordained.
On so small a hinge I will die.

So yeah, I get making some kind of deal about one year ending and another beginning.  Between that in breath and that out breath all manner of things are possible.  In that silence between the in breath and the out breath whole worlds are renewed.  In that most barely perceptible of pauses all beings are at ease.

What's not remarkable in that?

29 December 2011

Home is Where the Temple Shows Up (Once in a While)

"What's this about you coming over to clean the house?" a relatively newish member asked.   I had sent out an email to the sangha offering to do home purification ceremonies during these weeks around New Year's, and she thought it had something to do with washing floors and dusting!  "No cleaning involved," I told her, "at least on my part," and we both had a good laugh when I explained what was involved.

The custom of doing home purifications had lapsed for quite some time in our sangha.  I don't know if it was teacher fatigue, undersubscription by the sangha or a combination of both.  This year I made the offer to do them again.  One member took up the offer.

So last night a visiting Dharma brother and I packed up a few ceremonial things and headed over to the home.  We started off with a short period of sitting.  I then said a few words to the effect that home is where it all stops and starts, and it is at home where we are most ourselves, warts and all.  When we do such a ceremony, I continued, it's not about performing some kind of magic on the woodwork but about renewing the commitment of those in the home to living more skillfully and to practicing with greater effort.  We then did a short chanting ceremony and then proceeded room by room chanting and gently ringing bells and shaking the shakujo, stopping at each altar to light incense and do a water purification, then continuing for a total of three circumambulations around the place.  We closed with a special return of merit and then chanted the Four Vows together.  Afterwards we had some food and spent a couple of hours socializing before the Dharma brother and I packed it up and headed back to the center.

I had never done such a ceremony before, and it hadn't worked out to have one done at my home back in the day (we were then living 70 miles from the center), so I had no idea what to expect. 

The thing that impressed me most was the sense of bringing something of temple life to the home.  All at once, ceremonial forms and chants and objects that belong under the temple roof came before the familial hearth.  Things said only in zendos and Buddha Halls were now being said in the living room and bedroom and outside the bathroom.

The home isn't the temple, the householder is not the homeleaver, the business of the workaday world is not the structured atmosphere of practice.  It's good that each has its own place, and that each does what it needs to do at its own pace and according to its own rules.

But that is precisely why it's a good thing to have each side make its presence known in each other's space, to infuse the other with an aspect of life that is not its own.  I don't follow those who would have children at regular sittings, but I do believe there have to be days when kids can run amok at the center, and parents can schlepp the diaper bag in and change the baby.  In the same way, the home should not be a mini-monastery, but I do believe there have to be days when the temple folk show up with  different objects and different clothing and different things to say. 

I found out that in Orthodoxy, the priests will do similar home purifications.  Rabbis visit and bless Jewish homes as well.  This clearly isn't exclusive to one form of religious practice; in fact, it's probably at the heart of all religious practice, such thin lines that connect home and temple.  I hope we can encourage it more in our sangha and that more folks will avail themselves of such an opportunity.

27 December 2011

Just Sitting

I found out recently that our lineage is one of the very few in the States that doesn't allow moving during formal rounds of sitting. 

When I first started sitting I was a basket of anxiety plated with armor.  The first time I tried to sit, I broke into a cold sweat and just about passed out.  No mat and cushion for me, the teacher said, and I was shown a chair.  Next time I came back I was bound and determined to get on the floor with everyone else.  I propped myself up with extra support cushions, but I can't say that the extra padding did anything to alleviate the pain.  Still not knowing the distinction between pain and suffering, I thought that the way out of the suffering was by eliminating the pain, so at each kinhin I grabbed another support cushion until I was seated atop a stack of now increasingly unstable cushions.  Toward the end of the evening rounds, the pain was more than I could bear, so I adjusted my leg a bit.  "No moving!" stated the monitor, in as clear and dispassionate a voice as possible, and I held the position until the end.

I kept coming back, and I kept feeling the pain, and every once in a while I would see if I could get away with a little bit of an unauthorized adjustment, and the voice came back, "No moving!"

At any point I could have said, "Fuck this shit," but I'm glad I didn't.   I could have said, "These people are attached to their forms; don't they understand about being beyond form and emptiness?" but, again, I'm glad I didn't.

And why?

Because dukkha is a teacher of the highest order, and whenever I seek to avoid dukkha, whether in day-to-day life or on the mat, I play hookie from school, fail to learn the lesson, and fall short of my aspiration. 

Eventually I stopped playing this game of trying to move on the mat.

Eventually, as a result, the "I" began to stop more and more.

I don't think it can be emphasized enough that the point of all this practice – the point of our ceremonial forms, the point of koan training, the point of sesshin, the point of dealing with sangha, the point of shikantaza – is to see into and live the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end, and the path to its end.  If we're not about ego-attrition, then what, pray tell, are we about?

Allowing moving on the mat is like, I don't know, allowing cigarettes at a smoking-cessation clinic.  If one says one wants to taste the liberation Buddhism has to offer, but instead keeps retreating into ego habit and comfort, then what's the point, exactly? If we can't manage to learn to let go of fidgeting while on the mat, then what are the chances we'll be ready to let go when the stakes are higher? 

I came to Zen because I saw in it a practice that could bring about what I had come to sense was true: that the fullness of life requires the death of the self.  I had heard that message preached for years, but I never knew how to begin to realize it.  In its utter simplicity, Zen gives us a tool by which to do that.  It's called zazen, seated focused meditation.  Like any tool, though, it has to be kept sharp and well-tended and – most of all – used properly.

24 December 2011

I Believe in Father Christmas

When I was a lot younger there was a song put out by Emerson, Lake and Palmer called "I Believe in Father Christmas."  It doesn't get a lot of (= any) play on the non-stop-holiday-programming stations, probably because it's not exactly all chock full of wonder and cheer:
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
Til I believed in the Israelite

And I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
Then I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him right through his disguise
Still, it isn't completely Grinchy, either, and it ends on a charitable, if rather sober, note:
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'd be peace on earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve
Well, for what it's worth, here's my take on the matter:
I believe in Father Christmas
I believe in the Israelite
I believe that Peace-Is-With-Us
I believe in that Silent Night

For I know that there lies within us
All the good there is yet to do
Let's start once again with a foe or a friend
And a new kind of dawn with break through

And I know that there's snow at Christmas
But also sun, sleet and wind and rain
The peace that we want for Christmas
Comes all the same in our joy and pain

No need for help from distant planets
No need to search near or far away
There's one thing to do, it's simple, it's true:
Wake up and know, "It's a good day"

22 December 2011

Dharma Rain

The Buddha said:
I look upon all things
as being universally equal,
I have no mind to favor this or that,
to love one or hate another.
I am without greed or attachment
and without limitation or hindrance.
At all times, for all things
I preach the Law equally;
as I would for a single person,
that same way I do for numerous persons.
Constantly I expound and preach the Law,
never have I done anything else,
coming, going, sitting, standing,
never to the end growing weary or disheartened.
I bring fullness and satisfaction to the world,
like a rain that spreads its moisture everywhere.
Eminent and lowly, superior and inferior,
observers of precepts, violators of precepts,
those fully endowed with proper demeanor,
those not fully endowed,
those of correct views, of erroneous views,
of keen capacity, of dull capacity –
I cause the Dharma rain to rain on all equally,
never lax or neglectful.
Lotus Sutra
The Dharma rain that falls of the Buddha's wisdom and compassion is of one flavor throughout: liberation.

That said, all receive as they are able, and only as they are able.  The superior plants, as the sutra continues, receive in superior measure.  The middling plants receive in middling measure.  The inferior plants receive in inferior measure.  Those who observe the precepts receive as precept observers.  Those who violate the precepts receive as precept violators.  Those who hold to correct views receive as correct view holders.  Those who maintain erroneous views receive as maintainers of erroneous views.

This is not a problem.  The Buddha cannot be reproached for the fact that superior plants receive in superior measure, that precept holders receive in ways that precept violators do not.  It is not done out of love or hate.  It is not done to reward or punish.  It's just the way things are.

I really bristle when I hear that we are not to exercise sound judgment in distinguishing the superior from the middling from the inferior.  "All are Buddha; all are fully enlightened," I hear in some quarters.  "Don't pick and choose," gets tossed about as a maxim of skillful action.  Well, as soon as those folks and I live in the realm of the absolute, I'll be more than happy to entertain such propositions.

Until then, we do reality and ourselves a disservice by pretending things are more equal than they are.  When I give a C for a C-quality exam to one student and an A for an A-quality exam to another student, I am not doing it because I like the one student more than the other.  When I ask a person with decent pitch to start us off in a round of "Happy Birthday" at the party, I am not being mean to the tone-deaf among us. 

I don't think any of this is controversial.

I do, though, think there's a misunderstanding afoot that equates a judgment of distinction with an act of praising or blaming, affirming or rejecting.  To say that the one apple is ripe and ready and the other apple is wormy and rotten is not to praise the one and disparage the other.  It is to be absolutely one with reality.  And to put the wormy and rotten apple into the pie for the holiday dinner in the name of "not picking and choosing" is a stupidity of the highest order.   I can love the wormy and rotten apple thoroughly as a wormy and rotten apple.  I can love the ripe and ready apple thoroughly as a ripe and ready apple.  This is not a zero-sum game.

21 December 2011

One More Ingredient

This past Sunday the sangha heard a teisho on the qualities that a teacher looks for in a student when considering making that student a teacher.  There were no surprises, really.  The student should have come to some degree of awakening.  The student should adhere to the precepts generally and be exemplary in the practice of the first five.  The student should possess some ability to communicate well and work with others.  The student should have the respect and support of the sangha.

All of those points are important, but if that's all there is in the mix, then I'm not yet seeing a teacher; all I'm seeing is a decent senior student. 

I guess I take seriously (perhaps much too seriously, I don't know) the idea that the teacher should pour him or herself out in service to the Dharma.  Seems to me that there should be a palpable zeal in the mix, an eagerness to "support the gate and sustain the house" with everything one can muster.  One who would be a teacher should act as if the future of the Dharma rests on his or her shoulders alone while having at the same time the humility to realize that he or she could not even begin to do it alone.

Without that zeal, there is the risk that the prospective teacher will treat his or her teaching as a hobby, something on the side, a feather in one's cap, perhaps.   We don't need that kind of nonsense.  The world is on fire, burning with greed, anger and confusion.  A cup of even the purest water won't start to douse the flames; we need it by the hose and pumper and hydrant full!

20 December 2011

Bala Pāramitā

The ninth pārāmitā of the Mahāyāna, bala pārāmitā, is the perfection of spiritual power.  This pārāmitā, along with upāya, pranidhana andāna, are the pārāmitās that allow one to bring wisdom and compassion to bear on everyday life in truck with the world.  Absent them, one may be individually perfected, but one is not yet fully capable of bodhisattvic practice.

I've found myself in the presence of spiritually powerful men and women.  Without doing anything particular, just by being themselves, they were able to effect in me a movement toward greater practice and greater realization.  Unlike
upāya, which requires a bit of smarts and cleverness, bala simply proceeds without intent to accomplish anything at all, thereby accomplishing everything.  (I can't help but think of the 無為 [wu wei] of the Daoist sage in connection with bala.)

I'm guessing that most folks are probably somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of spiritual power because they confuse it with spiritual authority.  Spiritual power is not spiritual authority.  Authority is bestowed from another; power springs forth from within.  Authority can be withdrawn; power may diminish, but it cannot be taken away.  Authority holds fast to the distinction between higher and lower; power calls all to the same level of attainment.  Authority forces obedience; power elicits growth.  Authority fosters fear; power brings all to ease and joy.

I suspect that those who possess spiritual power are afraid to show it (unlike their counterparts, those with spiritual authority, who tend to flaunt what they have).  Times being what they are, we can do without the reticence!

19 December 2011

Home Alone

The semester is now officially over.  The center goes on autopilot for the next couple of weeks as we have sittings without teachers around.  Friends and kin are headed out of town for Christmas.  I have time on my hands and quiet in my ears, stillness before my eyes and rest in my body.

It's solitude time.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't like these days of relative aloneness.  To tell the truth, I can't speak of them highly enough.  I've come to welcome them as I do few other times of the year.  All support structures are removed.  I can't hide behind schedule and role and task.  I have to take ownership for everything I do.

And what a revealing state of affairs that is!  Issues I thought were over and done with bubble up.  Character traits I thought I'd managed to clean up show up as mucked up as ever.  Points of equanimity I thought I could come to rely on evaporate without a trace.  Habits I thought had long since died send out their tugs on my thought and action.

It's the honesty of all that that I love.  So stands this state of affairs I label "myself," and I can't deny it!  Once seen again, though, I can set about the real work I need to do with greater skillfulness and more appropriate measure, and for that I am most grateful.

16 December 2011

Circus Time

I'm gearing up for a weekend of hustle and bustle around the center as we receive a special visitor, the head of the lineage.  The soup for tomorrow's lunch is on the stove, and bedding and towels are in the washing machine.  I'll start the banana bread for the one-on-one meetings this afternoon, and in between I'll vacuum and do the second floor bathroom and kitchen.   Yesterday was given over first to hosting about 40 high school students in the zendo, only to turn around and get the zendo and Buddha Hall ready for 30 each for Sunday sitting and teisho.  I'll pick up a carry-out menu today to order tonight's dinner from, and some time tomorrow I'll give a thought or two to what I'll make for the Sunday potluck.

This is nothing at all to deal with compared to the seemingly infinite variety of hopes, expectations, fears, suspicions, adorations (my goodness, some of the fawning going on!) and fascinations I've heard expressed concerning the visit.  I'm really glad that my only job description for the entire weekend is to attend to the material conditions of the event.

Today I reminded those at morning sitting that in Zen we do not, like our Vajrayāna kin, take refuge in a teacher.  Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, we commit to stick to our practice through all the ups and downs, carnival sideshows and pageants, machinations and intrigue of such occasions.

"Only mu, bro," I reminded my Dharma brother and fellow resident yesterday when he offered he was dreading this weekend, "Only mu."  He texted back, "One finger."

I almost replied, "Make sure it's not the middle one," but I think he knew that already!

15 December 2011

Precept X

I do not know what the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha are, but I have vowed to treasure and uphold them.

Buddha is enlightened Mind and our true nature, too.  Buddha is also the figure on the altar, the lint under the chair, and the price of tea in China or of gas in Poughkeepsie. 

Dharma is the 2500 year old teaching of Gotama Buddha, as remembered by Ananda, accepted by the First Council and carried on backs across mountains and in luggage holds across oceans.  The 10,000 things, no less, are Dharma, too, with their connections, causes and ceasings.

Sangha is the current roster of the Chicago Zen Center and those who stop by.  It is the kindred houses of the lineage.  It is the venerable community of home-leavers.  It is the noble community of householders.  It is men and women of every race and tongue and people and nation.  It is the teeming mass of sentient beings, whether born of egg, womb, water or air. 

The Three Treasures must increase.  I must decrease. 

I have no special place here.  No matter what insight I might come to, it does not trump the living Buddha, the living Dharma and the living Sangha.  As soon as I set myself apart from anything – particularly if that setting apart is based on some kind of practice, or training, or Buddhist or Zen attribute or quality – the precept is violated:
Bodhidharma said, "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the One, not holding dualistic concepts of ordinary beings and sages is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures." 

13 December 2011

Calling on the Dharmapālas

According to lore, the dharmapālas are wrathful deities who protect and defend the Dharma.  They are bodhisattvas appearing as grotesqueries of one kind or another.  Their fearsomeness is, at times, exactly what is required for the sake of sentient beings.  Sometimes, more nice-nice and reservedness and self-effacing is the most unskillful thing one can do. 

I'm coming to appreciate their inclusion in the Buddhist world-view.  Let me amplify that some:  I'm coming to hope that they really do exist!
With folded hands I beseech all Dharma-defenders
To rouse their compassion and stand firm.
Emptiness manifest in fang and claw,
We shall repay your benevolence!

11 December 2011

New Blood

Today two more people signed on as members.  In the last year we've added some seven or eight people to the membership list.  That's a growth rate of well over 10%.  From what I understand about the current landscape, that's a quite impressive figure, seeing as how many churches and temples and the like are losing membership.  That said, I have been around long enough to know that there are many who sign on as members only to evaporate in a year or two or ten, so who knows what this means for the long haul.

I do know that it's exciting for me to be able to answer newbie questions, to help get them off and running with practice in a sangha, and to draw on their enthusiasm.  Most of all, though, I am reminded that when the new people show up, they'll be looking to see what the blue-robed ones are doing and taking their cue from them.  The newcomers will be setting their own bar, in part, with reference to how high I set mine.  Old hands are likely to be much more forgiving of my weaknesses and stupidities than the newcomers. 

At this rate, think of how much more my practice will improve if we get another eight new members in 2012! 

07 December 2011

Admirable Companionship And Then Some

I wish I could begin to convey the overwhelming sense of pride and gratitude I feel when I consider the members of my sangha.

We just finished up five days of sesshin.  Everyone there did his or her level best.  They all took time out of their schedules and money out of their pockets to open themselves up to a schooling in the Dharma, whether the schooling came as a sore rump, stiff legs, drowsiness or a seemingly incessant parade of thoughts and emotions, or whether it came as a poignant dokusan encounter, an insight embedded in a teisho, a deep samadhi in the middle of the night, or a line in a chant taking up residence in the body-mind in a new way.  Round after round, I watched them settle back onto their cushions and mats to do what they needed to do.  Day in and day out, they threw themselves into practice as best they could.

These are everyday people.  They aren't some trippy "Zen-types." They have relationships, kids, the stresses of aging and job loss, mortgages and car payments.  They ranged in age from 23 to 73.  To see them on the street you would have no clue that they practiced Zen, and, to my mind, that's just how it should be.  I couldn't imagine a group of practitioners with less Zen stink about them.

I can honestly say that my practice is richer because of them.   I can honestly say that my practice is better because of them.  They have absolutely no idea just how much they give me without knowing they're giving me anything at all.  If I were to approach them and thank them personally for that, I'm not sure they would know how to respond (I know I don't know how to respond when they thank me for my "work" in helping their practice along; what are they talking about?).

"Sesshin" sometimes gets translated as "touching" or "unifying the heart-mind," but I refuse to believe that this refers to a personal, private heart-mind or something along those lines.  There is but one heart-mind that beats and breathes and moves through all of us.

I once told someone that while I kind of grasped the idea all along, I never experienced communion until my first sesshin.  Would that all could taste and see just how good it truly is!

02 December 2011

House-Builder, You Will Be Seen

It's Rohatsu sesshin time again.  Time to face what needs to be faced, to let go of what needs to be let go of, to know what there is to know. 

May all who practice extra hard over the next week or so find the house destroyed, never to be built again.

30 November 2011

Operation Delete

I heard about something today on the radio I'd never heard of before: the right to oblivion (le droit à l'oubli).  In a nutshell, this is an idea being invoked to support arguments that one should be able to request (or have automatically triggered by law) the removal of data and images relating to oneself floating about in cyberspace. 

Let's say you got wild and crazy at the beach party last summer.  Pictures were taken, and you thought nothing of posting them to your Facebook page.  Now, however, you're in line for a sweet job, you don't want the prospective employer to find out about your, perhaps perfectly legal but nevertheless unseemly, behavior, and so you request google or Facebook or any other such entity to permanently delete and/or block these images.

I'm given to understand that there is movement in some European countries to have such measures kick in routinely after some years have passed.  At the age of 40, say, one can watch one's 20 year old and younger self just vanish, and when one turns 41, anything from one's 21st year will follow suit, and on and on.

The program I was listening to centered on the legal and constitutional issues surrounding privacy, unwarranted search, image and data ownership, etc.  What is fascinating to me, and what seemed to just pass by as unproblematic in the program, however, is the very idea that one should be able to be free of one's past at will.  As one commentator I heard put it, such a right speaks directly to the "American ideal of self-creation."  Self-creation, so it seems, requires self-erasure.

Now I'm not one to go in for a lot of karma talk, and I hold to the non-substantiality of the self as one of the marks of conditioned existence.  Still, I think it's simply a matter of a sane assessment of conditions to say that one just can't pretend one's past never happened, even if one is no longer the one that one once was. The person one is is – in a not insignificant sense – conditioned by what one was.

I'd propose a different solution, though I will admit, pushing the delete button would be a lot easier:

Let's just lighten up on each other some.  It's not the end of the world, nor does it necessarily speak poorly to one's professional qualifications, to have evidence that one's teen's and twenty's weren't the best-spent years of one's life.  Let's understand that we have all – every last one of us – made stupid decisions, or gotten entangled in bad relationships, or misspent money, or had too much to drink, or whatever.  Let's not hide our warts and nicks and bruises and cuts in order to pretend to some retrievable virginal purity.  Is it really too much to ask that people get to be exactly who they are, have been, and will yet become?

29 November 2011

Reading vs Doing Koans

The other week in teisho there was a reference to Bach's "Partita No. 2 in D minor."  When I looked up the article the teisho was making use of, up came a picture of the score to the piece.

I've had a little bit of musical training; I've sung in choirs and I play the guitar.  But I've never achieved the level of musical training that would make me competent to sit down, look at a piece of Bach, and begin to understand what I was looking at.  "There's a C#," I could offer, and I can tell the difference between an 8th and a 16th note in a measure.  If I were to have next to the Bach, say, a bit of Philip Glass, I could certainly see a difference in the structure of the two pieces and make note of Bach's abundance and Glass' paucity.  And that would be about it.

Now I could spend a lot of my free time doing this business of picking up pieces of sheet music and taking such forays into them.  Everyone has a hobby.  I might even tell my friends something about it, since I'm finding it to be such an agreeable thing to do, and I want them to share my joy.  If I did it long enough, I might even feel unembarrassed to invite strangers to listen to what I have to say about these pieces, and if I were at all entrepreneurial, I might even charge them for it.  If I were so stationed, I could include such an exercise as part of a college course called "Comparative Sheet Music" or "Explorations of Musical Expression."  I could dole out A's to people whose mastery of this skill begins to equal mine.

All this without even knowing how to play the pieces in question.  In truth, I may never have even listened to them being played!

Today I'm going to be giving some basic meditation instruction to a colleague's class.  I'm happy to do this, and I'm glad of the opportunity.  I'm a bit concerned, though, because as part of the readings for the course my colleague assigned The Blue Cliff Record.  I see on the syllabus that they were to have discussed the text a few weeks back.

If a question about koan practice comes up, I'm afraid I'm going to have to break them the bad news that they were engaged in a practice as questionable as my discussions about sheet music.  I'm going to want to tell them about koan practice using a variation on what the teisho article author's violin teacher told him about Bach:
This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.
“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.
Then again, maybe not.  After all, we're just talking about a class requirement in a 3-credit course offered at a small-to-medium sized church-related comprehensive university in the Midwest.  Right?

Instead, maybe someone in the room will catch a bit of the spark that will make them want to take up koans like one takes up the violin and Bach.  Maybe they'll let themselves be exposed day in and day out, year in and year out.  Maybe, one day, they'll actually play the fucking koan and know something of what it must be like to have Bach flowing in and among and through and across marrow, bone, flesh, skin, wood, gut string, and horsehair.

And oh how sweet that will be!

25 November 2011

Today is Not Black Friday

One of the things I like best about gardening is that it gives me a temporal bearing that is not tied to a calendar.  Plants don't care what day of the week or month it is.  The ground isn't on a schedule that gets at all thrown off by leap years or Daylight Savings Time.  As much as I would like in my head to have all the leaves up "before Thanksgiving," I realize that the leaves know nothing of Thanksgiving, and perhaps I shouldn't make that kind of deal about it, either.

Today they're calling for a high in the upper 50's, and there's talk of some snow on Sunday.  There's one more yard waste pick up day before they resume service again in April.  Today is my day to get as much of the leaf cleanup done as possible (I can't expect the last of the leaves to fall today just in time for me to get them up), to set out the salt buckets and shovels, and to make sure all the storm windows are down around the building.  I don't know how many more chances I'll have to get all this done under such favorable conditions; we're that far into the season now.

If anyone were to ask me right now what I've gotten out of Zen, I'd tell them, "I know when to rake leaves."

24 November 2011

Thanksgiving 8:46am

There's a fine enough form of gratitude that consists in ticking off all of the good things and close calls and successes large and small that have come one's way.

This is called thanking, and it's good to do every once in a while.

But there's another form of gratitude, one that can find no words and hence can enumerate no list.  This is the gratitude that swells up with the dawning realization that there's never been an "I" on the receiving end of things to begin with.  There has only ever been the endless burgeoning forth of all there is.  At this point there is only one thing to do: let the burgeoning forth continue by stepping out of the way and letting things move along.

This is called giving, and it has no time of its own; it has no end, either, just as it has no beginning. 

I am reminded of Bodhidharma's take on the matter:
The sutras say, "The Dharma includes no being because it's free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self, because it's free from the impurity of the self."  Those wise enough to believe and understand this truth are bound to practice according to the Dharma.  And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment.  […]  And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues.  But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all.
May we all practice so very little!

21 November 2011

A Priest By No Other Name

Back in July I started seriously kicking around the idea of taking my ordained name as my legal name.  Today I filed the papers with the Cook County Circuit Court and paid my court fee.  The hearing is set for January 25, 2012, at which time it will become official.

I settled on this course of action mostly because it really does seem to be the case that service to the Dharma has, over the past three years or so (roughly novitiate through ordination until now), become the center around which my life revolves.   I find myself planning the next few weeks, the next few months, the next few years against the backdrop of being an ordained member of the sangha.  I've already decided against things because of my ordained status, and I'm choosing to do more and more things to deepen that commitment.  My life stream has found a new bed.

Even more importantly, though, the sangha – from the head of the lineage on down – has seen fit to affirm me as a priest in their midst.  If it weren't for their overwhelmingly generous acceptance of me as an ordained member of the sangha, anything I would happen to feel about how my life is unfolding would run the risk of being a personal head trip.  I wouldn't do this if I were getting even the slightest sense that sangha members were looking at me even now and saying, "Him?  That one thinks he's a priest?"

As with all things in life, this is a kind of experiment.  Maybe it'll bear fruit, as I hope, but maybe it'll prove to have been a rather boneheaded thing to do.  Who knows?  I see this as just one more opportunity to go even more deeply into the Dharma, to paint more and more aspects of my life with the colors of practice and service.  My preceptor concluded the ordination ceremony with the words, "You have now entered the Way as a Buddhist priest."  Now I will get to pass through one dharma gate after another with just that one name attached. 

20 November 2011

Verse of the Kesa

As we were shutting things down after Temple Night Friday evening, my teacher and I were reflecting on just how good it is that there are opportunities throughout the year to wear the kesa (in many lineages, ordaineds wear the kesa most every day for sittings; in ours, it's reserved for formal occasions and ceremonies).  For starters, it keeps one from forgetting completely the kesa protocols.  Beyond that, though, it tutors the wearer in humility and patience by squelching the impulse to just get up and get on with things by introducing details of care and reverence to attend to.  Seeing the kesa wearer attend to these things cannot but remind any and all onlookers of the nature and aim of our practice: just this.

I remember well my first schooling in what it means to wear the kesa (as opposed to how to wear the kesa).  Before my ordination ceremony began I was waiting out of sight in the center office.  As the time for the start of the ceremony drew near, my teacher came into the office and without a word took off the rakusu he had been wearing, took his kesa out, went off to the side of the room, quietly knelt down on the floor towards the wall, carefully put the kesa on his head, placed his hands palm-to-palm, and silently recited the Verse of the Kesa.  I teared up.  "That's my teacher...," I thought to myself, "And that's how one puts on the Buddha's Robe...." 

Putting on the kesa throws Hakuin's "this very body, the body of Buddha" into a whole new light.  Now everyone has every right to look at me and come to their own conclusions as to what it means to be a son of Shakyamuni.  Even back in the day people looked at the early sangha members and thought, "So this is how Gotama's followers act!"  Sometimes they said it with approbation; sometimes they said it in contempt.  The burden lies on me to make the Dharma a lived, embodied reality in the 21st century.  Outside me, no Buddha.  It gets right down to that.

So I say again:

Wondrous is the robe of liberation (in all ten directions, all three worlds)
A treasure beyond form and emptiness (unspeakable boon given as rags)
Wearing it I will unfold Buddha's teaching (whether I intend to or not!)
For the benefit of all sentient beings (may I be but their admirable friend)

18 November 2011

Gratitude Pure and Simple

Yesterday a few of us were busy setting up and dressing altars for our semi-annual Temple Night to be held this evening. The sangha's Ceremony of Gratitude will follow close behind this coming Sunday morning, and we'll leave the place gussied up over the whole weekend.

This morning I woke up and took a look at what we had managed to get done.  The flowers still needed to be bought and arranged, and there were some last-minute items to take care of, too.  But before getting on with that, before we had even hit the zendo for morning sitting, I took a minute to soak in what all of this points to. 

In the living room area there's a sworded Mañjuśrī figure with attendant figures of Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa to either side.  The principal cloth on the altar is deep blue with gold, great colors to capture just how bright and transparent the moonlight of wisdom is.  There's a power there, a cosmic, all-pervasive clarity.

In the dokusan line area the colors are muted.  This is where pictures of our dead are placed in memory.  The figure at the center is Kannon, as one might well expect.  This Kannon is pouring out the medicine of compassion, and she is standing with a combination of ease and strength.  But the rest of the space is filled with Bodhisattvas as well.  Samantabhadra astride the elephant and Mañjuśrī astride the lion flank Kannon, and to their sides are two scrolls, each depicting some 18 bodhisattvas.  The main cloth is a brownish copper, and the cloth covers the whole bay window ledge.  The colors of the figures and the colors of the cloths and scrolls all blend in a deep earthiness, bringing to mind a groundedness that holds firm in everyday life and even through death.  Such is the strength and compassion of the Bodhisattvas!

The altar in the Buddha Hall celebrates the season, with oranges and greens as the backdrop for the fruits of the harvest that decorate the altar as well as the fruits of our practice that will fill the room.  Tonight before this altar we will once again affirm our place in the Buddha's family as we take the precepts together.  On Sunday before this altar we will once again offer our gratitude for all that sustains our lives, our practice, and this temple.

Bringing forth the key elements of our practice as things seen and touched and heard and tasted reminds me of just how much has been done by so many over countless ages to carry on the Dharma.  How absolutely unlikely it is that I should sit in robes in a zendo in Evanston, IL in 2011!  Nevertheless, here I sit thanks to the selfless work of men and women – bodhisattvas all – whose efforts made this opportunity even remotely possible.

Forget Sunday.  If I'm going to be at all serious about this, every breath, every movement and every thought will be a Ceremony of Gratitude.

16 November 2011

The Inexhaustibility of Everything

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. 
My tendency has been to read Dōgen's lines here as referring to something like a medium, the "that through which" something like a fish or a bird or me passes.   It's endless, right there with the critter in question, in fact pretty goshdarn near coextensive with the critter in question, too.  But it's BIG, like the ocean and the sky and life.  And even though I read that the bird is the air and the fish is the water, it's been hard to shake the feeling of vastness, since, let's face it, sky and ocean and life are just about as big as things get around here.

I think my tendency has been misguided, since it's not a size issue but an inexhaustibility issue.

It's as small but as inexhaustible as a 16th note, as I heard in a recent teisho.  It's as insignificant but as inexhaustible as Gutei's finger.  It's as minuscule but as inexhaustible as that smudge I missed on the window pane.  It's as trivial but as inexhaustible as a shake of the salt from the shaker.  It's as passing but as inexhaustible as that sip of coffee I just took. 

Here's the kicker: this inexhaustibility is not a function of the things in question, since 16th notes, fingers, smudges, shakes of salt or coffee sips are whole, complete and one in themselves.  Rather, t's a function of the fact that as close in as I get to any of them, as "one with them" as I can possibly become, there's still that whisper of a self that slips in as the very condition of my getting in good with them at all.  Seems there will always be a moment of divergence, however slight and hopefully diminishing, between me and every other thing, and that divergence is what keeps me coming back for more and more and more, going (seemingly) deeper and deeper and deeper.

At least, of course, until that self extinguishes and, with it, everything else as well. But that's another matter entirely.

12 November 2011

What to Pick?

This year our center rejoined the many faith/practice communities in the area that are part of Interfaith Action of Evanston.  On Thanksgiving Eve they have an interfaith service that members of the groups affiliated with IAE are invited to take part in.  About a month ago I was asked if I would participate in the opening part of the service in which a few of the traditions represented offer a short "blessing" drawn from (one of) their respective "sacred text(s)."

I don't know what to pick, and the clock is ticking...

Problem is, we don't really have a "sacred text." 

I'm toying with several options:
     1. The "whole of the holy life" account from the Uppadha Sutra
     2. Torei Zenji's Bodhisattva Vow
     3. The "may I be anything anyone needs" lines in the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

I'm inclining most to the Śāntideva, if for no other reason than that it brings together so nicely the connection between Awakening Mind and bodhisattvic service.  What could be more fitting for a celebration uniting men and women committed to keeping the homeless better fed and warmer than they might otherwise be?

Still, it's not a "sacred text," and I'm supposed to process in with the book in hand.  My copy is pretty well worn, so I'll probably have to rig up some kind of cover.  At least there'll be a book; how would I handle the Torei Zenji piece?

It's probably not the best time to drive home the point that the sacred text that frees us has no words at all, is it?

11 November 2011

The Undiscussables – Two: Sex

I will formulate a training rule for the bhikkhus with ten aims in mind: the excellence of the Community, the comfort of the Community, the curbing of the impudent, the comfort of well-behaved bhikkhus, the restraint of effluents related to the present life, the prevention of effluents related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase of the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma, and the fostering of discipline.
- The Buddha
We have Ven. Sudinna to thank for the first rule of the Vinaya.  Seems Sudinna had become a bhikkhu after he had married.  His parents tried getting him to return to lay life to no avail.  He had not fathered any children, so his mother, hoping at least to secure the family line through a grandson, asked him to impregnate the wife he had left.  He agreed.  The bhikkhus were scandalized and reported the incident to the Buddha.  Sudinna was upbraided ("worthless man"), and the Buddha laid down the first pārājika rule, one that entails defeat for the bhikkhu and his expulsion from the sangha: the injunction against sexual intercourse.

This rule, like the others concerning sexual matters that followed, is not meant simply to avoid scandal and insure harmony in the sangha but to help the bhikkhu on his path to attainment.  Contrary to some feminist readings, these rules are not straightforwardly misogynist, either, since sex with animals as well as the emission of semen through contact with a fellow bhikkhu, etc. are also addressed.  No, this has to do with the raw facts of sexual craving and the attempts at its satisfaction.

Enter the Mahāyāna.  At the forefront of the precepts now is the injunction against killing.  "Sexual impropriety" or "misuse of sexuality" replaces all talk of intercourse, masturbation, semen emission and genitals, and the precept comes in at number three on the list.  Bodhidharma and Dōgen aren't terribly clear here, either:
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the ungilded Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the Precept of Not Misusing Sex.
Dōgen Zenji: The Three Wheels are pure and clear. When you have nothing to desire, you follow the way of all Buddhas.
There has been a sea change, it would seem, but how is one to take one's bearings?

I'm going to be pretty honest.  There's a lot connected with sexuality that wouldn't constitute "misuse" by most prevailing standards but is still a significant stumbling-block on my path, and I know it.  Focusing on being "caring and respectful" doesn't really cut to the core of the number that greed, anger and ignorance play on my comportment and meditation and wisdom where sex is concerned, either.

I suppose if I were a Buddhist layman I wouldn't worry about this so much.  As an ordained, even as one ordained as a "priest" rather than a bhikkhu, I have not only my growth in wisdom to attend to but the wellbeing of the sangha and its individual members as well.

I have to wonder if passing up the specificity of the Vinaya for the expansive-mindedness of the Bodhisattva Precepts hasn't had the consequence of taking the nitty-gritty of the effect of sex on practice off the table.  If I'm a bhikkhu, I have to confess fortnightly whether I've broken any number of sex-related precepts, and, depending on which ones they are, the sangha will have something to say about it to me.  If I'm a Mahāyānist, I never have to own up to anything publicly; instead, I simply keep affirming my resolve to be "caring and respectful."

I've read all kinds of first-hand accounts of modern bhikkhus' struggles with sex; I've read of all kinds of contemporary Zen teachers who never talked about their issues with sex and practice, only to be caught in some impropriety or another.  Perhaps we don't want to read the Buddha telling Sudinna that it would have been better had he put his penis in the mouth of a venomous snake rather than having vaginal sex with the woman who had been his wife, but the rather carefully-maintained cloud of ambiguity that currently reigns in contemporary practice isn't particularly helpful, either.

08 November 2011

Reality Therapy

We're at the point in the semester when we read The Handbook of Epictetus.  I find it one of the most congenial texts I've ever read, a boatload of wisdom in a very short number of pages.  I also find it reminds me of lessons I have yet to learn well enough:
4. When you are about to undertake some action, remind yourself what sort of action it is.  If you are going out for a bath, put before your mind what happens at baths – there are people who splash, people who jostle, people who are insulting, people who steal.  And you will undertake the action more securely if from the start you say of it, "I want to take a bath and to keep my choices in accord with nature;" and likewise for each action.  For that way if something happens to interfere with your bathing, you will be ready to say, "Oh, well, I wanted no only this but to keep my choices in accord with nature, and I cannot do that if I am annoyed with things that happen."

8. Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.
The Stoic isn't the Buddhist, but the truth of the matter is the truth of the matter!

07 November 2011

No Wiggle Room

He must carry the holeless iron yoke,
And his descendants too can have no peace or rest.
If you want to support the gate and sustain the house
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.
– Verse, Mumonkan 17

When there's no hole there's no distance between the yoke and the neck, no opportunity to fudge, no wiggle room at all.  Every motion has the yoke as part of it.  The yoke makes certain movements impossible.   

There's the mountain of sharpened metal; here are my bare, all too soft, all too pink-soled, ticklish feet.  It's viande hachée time, folks!

When I was asked why I wanted to ordain, my answer was quick, unrehearsed and decisive: "Because I don't want this [the practice] to die out."  What's funny is that I did not know then, and still don't know completely, just what that would demand by way of readjustment to my life, my attitudes, my way of doing things, and the rest.  All I knew, and all I still know, was that I was agreeing to be tethered to the wagon and pushed up the hill.  

And that's enough.

It was only later I found out that the answer I gave was the only answer my preceptor would accept.  I've not been at this all that long, but from what I've seen so far, I can certainly understand why!

04 November 2011

If the Terrain and the Map Do Not Agree...

...follow the terrain.  (Swedish Army Manual)

I consider it one of the best characteristics of Zen that it insists one work out one's own attainment for oneself.  There is no road map, no dharmic GPS.  There's the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end, and the path to its end, of course, but the distinctive thisness of my dukkha – the curiously particular way the kleśas operate on this bundle I call "me" – is not something I can just read or hear about.  I can only know it from this side of my interactions with the world and those around me.  My attachments grew out of a collection of experiences that is rather unique to me; the things I fear and run from are the flip side of the projections I alone make of my "self."  All is on fire, all right, but these particular flames are lapping at me alone.  

I can barely bring myself to read anything Buddhist-related any more.  I've already placed just about all of the Buddhist books I've ever owned on the shelves of the center's library, and although I admire Dōgen, I'm really really glad I don't practice at a center that has people reading and quoting him day and night!

I find myself at long last following the counsel I first received as far as listening to teisho goes, "Focus on your practice primarily and on the teisho secondarily."   I used to hope to catch some insight from the teacher; now I find that teishos help best by giving me a spur to greater insight of my own.

What can books or talk tell me I don't know by living through and looking hard at the flow of my life?  What can they save me from that my own inherent wisdom can't?  Can they capture at all the great ease I experience when, having set down a burden, I walk a freer man?  Shall they handle for me the mistakes I very much need to make along the way?

Of course, Zen isn't the only path that points one back to oneself.  In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers it is recounted that a young monk begged Abba Moses for a word.  The old man said, "Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."

Guess it's not surprising that so few went out to the desert and that so few stick with Zen!

02 November 2011

No Comprendo Business, or Zen, Inc.

I heard a great story this morning.  A dharma brother was telling me about this guy he knew who really got into all the Buddhist stuff, like fine robes, malas, oryoki sets, etc.  Couldn't make it past a day in sesshin, but he had a complete stock of Zen this and Zen that.  My dharma brother told me this guy had read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and liked it so much he went out and bought the boxed set of Trungpa's complete works!  Cracked up on the Purple Line for five minutes over that one.

A casual practitioner might be forgiven the tendency to want to shop his or her way to practice.  To anyone born in the last seventy-five years in the US, the sure sign of taking something "seriously" is to go out and buy all the paraphernalia associated with it.  Taking up yoga?  Better get your mat, outfit, supports, DVDs, lessons and subscription to Yoga Journal.  Going to start a running program?  Get the shoes (of course), but don't forget the special shorts and singlets, books and socks, pacing meters and heart rate monitors, not to mention the subscription to Runner's World.  Why should it be different with Zen?

What gets me most, though, are all the lineage heads, noted teachers, senseis and roshis of one kind or another hawking their books, their goods and their services on their sangha's website, their personal blogs, and the rest.  I'm given to understand there's a Zen(ish) joint in the area that was forced to relocate to commercially zoned property because all the business it was conducting had effectively meant it was in reality no longer a 501(c)3.  How much longer before other places and teachers have to face that kind of music?  Shouldn't we be helping to cure the disease rather than adding to its causes?

If adapting the Dharma to modern conditions translates into marketing commodities, I think we will be missing the point.

But what do I know?  I just don't understand.

31 October 2011

Filling a Much Needed (Non-Existent) Void

I had a prof in grad school who threw me one day with a line about some philosopher's writings.  He said, "Oh yeah, so-and-so.  His work fills a much needed void."  I cracked up on the spot, I chuckled the rest of the day, and I still think it's a great line.

Here's the thing: It's as true of my life as it may well have been of that philosopher's work.  As the years plod on I find myself letting go of this activity or that thing, not because there's a problem with it inherently, but because the void I'm trying to fill with it is just fine on its own.

Then again, maybe that's not the best way to put it.  Let's go with this:

There has never been a void.  I have never been separated from anything.  Any "void" I'm trying to fill is but a phantom, an illusion, a projection of a self that wants to set itself apart.  I can try to fill all I want, but in the end I'm just making the chasm deeper and wider.  When I stop, when I lay down the burden, the non-existent void "closes" of its own accord.  All I have to do is stop.  All I have to do is lay down the burden.

They say there are no articles of faith in Buddhism.  I'd say that there's one:  I believe that when I stop and lay down the burden of the self that all manner of things shall be well, just as they have always been from the very beginning.  Of course, now that I think about it, when you get right down to it that's nothing but the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end, isn't it?

Why Sesshin Is So Good

Here's why sesshin is so good:

Lost in a story line?  Ding  Time to get up and walk.  Replaying the drama?  Bong  Time to chant.  Feeling bad about your life?  Boom boom boom boom boom  Vacuum the floors and stairwells.  Feeling all comfy and snug?  Bok bok bok bok bok   Haul your rump out of bed and plop yourself on the cushion in the chilly early morning zendo.

And the best reason of all:

Thinking you'd like to spend the rest of your days in sesshin?  Ding [deadbeat]  It's over, so get on out and get on with your life.  

26 October 2011

Never-Failing Help

At the same time as I ordained and moved into the center in June 2010 there was some change in the membership going on as well.  In particular, several people who were trained at some key zendo jobs moved away, leaving most of the monitoring and timing to me for months on end. 

That's starting to change now, and last night I enjoyed a whole evening of wall time as a newly trained monitor and a newly trained timer took over.  They both did fine, and it was particularly nice after the rounds were over seeing the new monitor helping out the new timer with some pointers on bell strikes, pacing during the prostrations, etc.  I could walk away knowing that there are now others who care deeply enough for the forms of our common practice to challenge each other to maintain them.  I had a smile on my face all the way down the stairs.  Pleased as Punch.  Couldn't have been happier.

This practice belongs to no one.  It's certainly not mine.  Being of service to it is not the same thing as owning it.  I do my part to bear it up when it's my turn, and I set it down when it's not my turn.  Any more, and I would be harming both it and myself. 

21 October 2011

Pinch Me

Last night in the course of a discussion group meeting at the center, one of the members said something that really hit home with me.

She was relating some of the changes she's noticed in herself as her practice has gone on, things she wouldn't have imagined possible a few years back.  Then she said that there's one question she keeps asking herself through all this: "Is this real (in the sense of authentic) or is this just another mind state?"

I ask myself a variation on the same theme all the time.  This life of mine, this ordained practice, this job I do in the sangha – is all this going as it should?  Am I kidding myself to think that I'm actually the kind of person to be in this kind of situation?  Am I being foolish thinking of centering my life more and more on the Dharma? 

I don't know how one answers such questions.  I'm guessing one just sticks to the continuing process of coming back to the moment.  Like now, when I'll get up after hitting "Publish Post" and go out and rake leaves!

19 October 2011

The Ancestral Line

As an in-point-of-fact chronicle of patriarchal descent over some 2500 years it's not exactly credible, to say the least.

As an expression of humble gratitude and most noble aspiration it is incomparable. 

Sometimes I pick it up and, without being in any hurry, just take my time pausing over each name.  When we chant the line together it's a bit too much like business to really savor the import of each life, each practice, each expression of the Buddhadharma.  Every one of them is unique; each is of one single continuing voice.

We're talking years here, folks.  Winters and summers.  Times of plenty and times of hardship.  We're talking moments of insight and lots of years of steel-nosed determination.  We're talking India and China and Japan and now the Americas.  (What an amazing thing that is in itself!)  We're talking men and women in every stage of life, in all forms of health and the lack thereof, in cities and in the mountains.  Some must have been quieter than others, and some might have been the life of the party.  Some left volumes, but some we only know by name. 

I hope one day to get to know many of them better by working through the Denkoroku.  Until then, I put my hands palm-to-palm in deepest gratitude and resolve to be worthy of the family name.

18 October 2011

Kathina Puja

Kathina Puja occurred with the full moon on 11 October in the Central Time Zone (GMT -6).  Various communities are celebrating it on either this past or this coming Sunday; it may be celebrated at any time within the four weeks after the full moon.

Historically Kathina Puja is the point in the year when the laity present the bhikkhus with cloth for new robes.  The rains retreat is now over, and the bhikkhus will once again be wandering about.  In modern times this has evolved into a day when any number of requisites are presented, from foodstuffs to tools to furnishings to personal care items.  These items will make possible the bhikkhus' practice over the coming months.

As is the case with all such offerings, the bhikkhus may not directly request particular items.  It is up to the layfolk to find out what the bhikkhus need.  They may inquire after the bhikkhu's needs, but they can't sit back and wait for the bhikkus to make the first move by sending out a list or teling them directly.   (Layfolk connected to the vihara will, however, prepare and send out such lists.)

This model of sangha support teaches patience to the bhikkhu.  The bhikkhu may or may not get what he needs, yet he doesn't go about pressing others to his ends. 

This model of sangha support teaches solicitude to the layfolk.  The health, well-being and – yes – even the life of the bhikkhu is something for a lay member of the sangha to be directly concerned about. 

Even now, when the bhikkhu doesn't just blow into town and go door-to-door, there is enough mendicancy involved to keep faithful to the original idea that taking ordination means placing oneself at the complete mercy of others. 

I have no illusions here.  Even though I still have an income, for instance, I'm able to do what I can financially because I've built staying at the center into my budget.  Since whatever favor I have in the eyes of the sangha is theirs to bestow or withdraw, if I am unworthy, they can tell me to hit the road at any time.  Significant hardship will ensue: either I'll be SROing it, or some kids won't be getting help with college, or the car won't get paid off, etc.  Things are that tight. 

This is a good thing.  The sangha helps keep me honest in my job of trying to live out the Dharma by holding some of my life in its hands.  Our sangha isn't set up in such a way that they could hold my whole life in their hands.  If they were, I think I'd be inclined to let them!

16 October 2011


Filled with wonder and awe at the truth of Buddha's Dharma I see at once my limitations and failings:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
I can't begin to count beings, yet it lies within me to liberate them all:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
I am what has existed from all time – twisting, turning, grasping, craving – making its way from one generation (in every sense of the word) to the next, yet I have the power to let this ceaseless blind urging go:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
There is no end to the doors that open up in front of me – so many ways to leave the self behind!  It's up to me to go through them all:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
When the Buddha's Way and Shodhin's way are not two, then all will be finished.  I am going to make it happen:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
I join my voice to all those who give voice to the tiratana.  Beneath the shadowless tree there is a community ferryboat; the river is clear and the sea is calm.

13 October 2011


I've had occasion recently to mull over what sangha does, can, or ought to look like in our present environment. 

For my part, I would start out with what the Buddha himself offered as the whole of the holy life: "admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie."  This implies engagement, and it speaks to me of genuine human interaction, appropriate concern, noble correction and encouragement.  On this model, my spiritual development is tied to the spiritual development of my brothers and sisters.  They are not at all ancillary to my practice.  Sangha is not a collection of discrete, isolated egos.

On this model, we take each other's lives and aspirations as being bound up with our own.  The practice center and its leadership is not a "resource" for "clientele," the way a grocery store has goods for consumption, and all one need do is stop in.  It drives me nuts when the checkout clerk feigns personal interest in me by trying to thank me by my name printed on the receipt; I'm just there for the groceries.  I would feel disappointed, however, knowing I could practice with a group of people for 10-15 years, and the main people involved with the center wouldn't know my place of employment and my general field of work, or how many kids I had and their approximate ages; I'm not just here for dokusan and teisho.   Sangha is not neutral or standoffish.

Taking "admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie" as my cue, I understand my place as a more senior member to be one that both models that friendship, etc. and facilitates its happening among others.  This doesn't mean being chummy, though goodhearted joviality is not off the table.  Above all it means that I model and facilitate this boon of a practice that has been handed down to me.  People see me sitting, people see me working out the precepts in my life, people see me in possession of that joy and equanimity and the rest that are the fruits of practice.  That means in the first instance that they can actually see me; I do not hide but open up and reveal myself to them, warts and all.  Sangha is not a place for airs and postures.

And I am not above correction.  Friendship, companionship and camaraderie is the stuff of equals.  If someone feels they need to pussyfoot around me, then I'm not being a good friend.  If someone finds me inapproachable, then I'm not much of a companion.  If someone can't count on me in a common pursuit, then camaraderie is nonexistent.  Sangha is not a place for rump-kissing or fawning, denying problems or excusing defects, maintaining strict divisions of labor or standing on hierarchy.

I'm a lucky guy.  By and large, I've found any number of admirable friends, companions and comrades over the years.  Both of my teachers have been men in whose presence I've tasted the holy life, and they've prompted me to be more than I had ever thought possible.  I've found excellent spiritual kin in so many of the men and women who have practiced here over the years, and I only hope that I've been a fraction of the friend they've been to me.

I guess I'd wrap it up by saying that sangha is a place that leads to deepest gratitude and wondrous ease!

11 October 2011


Sometimes there's just darkness.

I've learned not to worry about it.  As frustrating as it is, as shitty as it makes me feel, I know that this, too, is just another passing state.

The trick is not to pin possible causes and conditions on it.  Maybe it has no obvious cause.  Maybe the fact that I think I know what's causing it is itself part of the problem.

Another trick is to draw no conclusions from it.  Darkness leads nowhere particular.  There is no path being suggested.  If there were, it wouldn't be darkness, would it?

Sometimes there's just darkness.  And this, too, is just fine.

05 October 2011

Bodhidharma, Honored One

He must have been a crazy mother, the way he's portrayed.  He certainly didn't stand on formality in front of the emperor.  The business about the eyelids, the sandal, and the reed is all over the top, too.

But when I read what he said of the four all-inclusive practices of suffering injustice, adapting to conditions, seeking nothing and practicing the Dharma, I know I've heard all I need to know, and I'm filled with gratitude that men and women such as this one have seen fit to do nothing much with their lives but take the Dharma on the road and to practice their rumps off for years on end.

You may have not known who you were, Old Man, but we can see right through you!

04 October 2011

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

On this particular day I remember the song of a man recovering from an illness – and not just a medical affliction but the very illness of which Vimalakirti spoke:
Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore,
Tue so le laude, la gloria e l'honore et onne benedictione.

Ad Te solo, Altissimo, se konfano,
et nullu homo ène dignu te mentouare.

Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le Tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole,
lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l'ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor'Acqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per quelli ke perdonano per lo Tuo           amore
et sostengono infirmitate et tribulatione.

Beati quelli ke 'l sosterranno in pace,
ka da Te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no 'l farrà male.

Laudate et benedicete mi Signore et rengratiate
e seruiteli cum grande humilitate.

02 October 2011

Why I Like My Job So Much

There are days when I think of what a miscegenation this "Buddhist priest" business is, but whatever else there is to say about it, I'm very happy that it's not coextensive with "Zen teacher."

I got to spend some time today with a Dharma sister and then have lunch with a Dharma brother that I don' t think would have gone the same way if I were the teacher in the room.  In fact, I've had a lot of really good conversations with a bunch of Dharma brothers and sisters over the past year or so that I know wouldn't have even gotten off the ground if I were a teacher.  I've walked away from all of them a richer man, and I thank all those people for their kindness in spending some of their day with me.

It has always been the task of any bhikkhu to make the Dharma available to those who request it, and I can take my place in that long noble line of homeleavers without having to get caught up in confirming people's insight or passing them through the koans.  I get to present, as skillfully as I am able, the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end, without the trappings of teisho seat, kotsu, hossu and the rest.  My props are iced tea and coffee, knives and forks and chopsticks, park benches and front porches.

All the same, I can welcome men and women into the family of the Buddha with the precepts, and I can invoke the aid of the bodhisattvas when those same men and women take the great leap with their last breath.  I can lead us all – myself first in the line – in repentance for myriad forms of unskillfulness and torpor. 

And I get to do the great grunt work that makes a place of practice possible, from stocking and cleaning and wiping and emptying and swishing and scrubbing to raking and shoveling and digging and hoeing and lugging and mowing. 

I bow in deepest gratitude to all Zen teachers here and elsewhere, but I have to say, I'm glad it's them and not me!

28 September 2011

Mea maxima culpa

Let the fool think whatever he will,
In cultivating the highest goal
Nothing compares to patience.
And the highest form of patience
Is to tolerate the weaknesses and shortcomings of others.
Samyutta Nikaya I.222
So easy to read.  So hard to do.

Nothing throws me back into self-other land faster than losing patience with someone doing or not doing something fast enough, well enough, properly enough, efficiently enough, etc.  Nothing.

Śāntideva was right: lose patience, and all attainment, all insight, all keeping of the precepts is lost in an instant.  

I should be better than that.  I really should.  It kills me that I'm not.  It's utterly shameful, when you get right down to it.

25 September 2011

Wanting to Name It

A few months ago I was en route to somewhere on the Ohio Turnpike and stopped for supper at one of those Service Plazas with a food court and all the rest.

As I was eating my meal and looking out over the central area of the food court, watching individuals and families, the old and the young, the very metallic and the very Mennonite, men and women and children of all manner of sizes, descriptions, races and ethnicities, I knew all at once in skin, flesh, bone and marrow that I was seeing nothing but – well, there are no good words for what I was seeing.

And I felt this deep longing to address someone, something, some x, to tell him/her/it what I knew and how grateful I was – how humbled I was – to know what I knew.

The lines of the Magnificat came to mind, but without an angel to tell and a God to acknowledge, I knew the lines weren't mine to use.  (I have to say I do understand better now the drive toward theism.)

So I just let the tears fall as I finished my soup and sandwich, breathed deep of the evening air on my way back to the car, then got in and drove home.

And that was enough.

22 September 2011

Precept VIII

I'm still kicking around the question that came up for me the other week as to whether I serve enough.  The answer is still the same as before – "Not by a long shot.  Not even close." – but I'm finding more and more to chew on in the vast space between the question and the answer.

I'm not thinking about finding more and more activities to fill in the gap, because I'm not sure that's what "serving" is about.  That isn't to say that I'm not considering adding some volunteering to my weekly calendar; the weather's only going to get colder, and there are warming and overnight shelters that are going to need some extra hands in the months ahead.  It's just that busying myself more and more doesn't necessarily mean serving more and more.

I'm seeing that it's more about my – what's the word here? – attitude or approach to the serving that's most important, and I can't but think of Bodhidharma's formulation of the Eighth Precept:  "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious.  In the genuine, all-pervading Dharma, not being stingy about a single thing is called the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets."

Not being stingy about anything.  Not being the least reluctant to just throw myself and my stuff and my time in.  Not weighing and measuring and calculating cost-to-benefit ratios.   Not being stingy at all in everything from wiping up a coffee spill without holding back to spending time with someone who needs a sympathetic ear without looking at my watch.  (I don't even know that there's room for upāya considerations here, since we're talking overflowing, not calibrating!) 

I'm aiming at this from the other side of the equation Christians have in the Gospels: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Lk 6:38)  I've already been given more than I could ever possibly have merited.  I want for nothing, and there's plenty to share.

Time to remember that and to start pouring and pouring – and pouring and pouring – into others' laps and into every situation that comes up.  I don't have to worry about running out, that's for sure!

19 September 2011

Pleading No Contest

A sangha member was talking about her new iPhone yesterday, saying how thrilled she was with it, how much better it was than her Blackberry had been, etc.  Others chimed in, comparing features with the iPad, other tablet devices, etc.  I offered that I couldn't imagine typing on a flat surface, and left it at that.

I find that I have less and less to say about more and more as the days pass.  I might fear I was depressed, but I actually get a good amount of stuff done in a given day, and I have no trouble getting myself out of bed.  Just the other week I said to a colleague at work that I couldn't be more satisfied with my life, seeing as how I want for nothing, and I meant it.  It's not depression.

I think it's more a matter of coming to not have a horse in any race. 

I'd be tempted to worry about it, but I find that when I do have a horse in a race, it doesn't turn out all that well.  All at once, success and failure, better and worse, "me" and "not-me" all come into play.  It's hard to keep the precepts – let alone a modicum of equanimity – when I'm interested in seeing one side win and the side lose.  How many of my relationships get clouded over by preferences for this party or that candidate, this brand of laptop or that restaurant, this policy vs that one, etc.?

From the beginning, bhikkhus were prohibited from attending cockfights, wrestling matches, and the like.  I doubt that it was a matter of avoiding violence as much as a matter of not getting worked up about one's contestant of choice.

There's a lesson for everyone in that.

18 September 2011

Today's News

The Vogelherd Horse is estimated to be 34,000 years old.

The Lascaux cave paintings are estimated to be some 17,000 years old.

Both of these belong to what archaeologists and anthropologists call "behavioral modernity," which means that these are of distinctly human origin.  That means, among other things, that we can recognize something of ourselves in them.

Last night I watched a documentary on the practice at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California.  It's a monastery in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah.  The title of the documentary was Fearless Mountain (the English translation of Abhayagiri).

What impressed me most in the film was the way in which the bhikkhus were utterly unashamed to practice the 2500 year old tradition in 21st century America.  What's more, they can't build kutis fast enough for those who want to join them.  

As one of them put it, the things that afflict humans haven't changed in 2500 years.  Why should the remedy?

If the Vogelherd Horse belongs to our behavioral modernity, how much more so the Buddhadharma!

15 September 2011

A School Few Care to Learn In

In Some Fruits of Solitude, William Penn characterizes solitude as "a School few care to learn in, tho' None instructs us better."  Had he known of zazen – certainly one of the most solitary enterprises around – he might well have said the same about it.

Never are my defilements more obvious to me than when I'm on the mat.  Never do I touch my heart's peace more profoundly than when I'm on the mat.  Never is the path clearer to me than when I'm on the mat.  Better instruction is not to be had.

On the mat, it's just me: no circle of friends, no family, no profession, no story line, no personal past, no anticipated future.  On the mat, there's no Buddha, no Dharma, no Sangha. 

On the mat, it's so just me that even that "me" becomes too much, and an even deeper solitude occurs, selfless and empty, yet filled without remainder with the resplendent nature of all beings.  (I'm not sure whether Penn knew of that solitude, but if he had, he would certainly have sung its praises, too, perhaps even more loudly.)  Better practice is not to be found.

Back to the mat, then, back to the mat!  Back to that unsurpassed solitude, the wellspring of the supreme abiding, the gateway to dukkha's end.

12 September 2011

Praṇidhāna Pāramitā

When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.
– Dōgen
I don't know if dharma is filling my body and mind or not, but the "something is missing" part is getting clearer and clearer, bigger and bigger, all the time.

With each passing day I see more beings not liberated, more blind passions not uprooted, more dharma gates not gone through.  And the "Great Way of Buddha" – not much attainment there, either, I'm afraid.

Aspiration doesn't move from a position of fullness; that's just greed based on arrogance.  Aspiration moves from an ever increasing sense of lack.  The vows get greater the more one perceives just how goshdarn far one is from their realization.  

I can remember one of the first times I joined in the Four Vows in the zendo.  What thoughts I had about what I could accomplish!

These days I'm just grateful I can bring the words to voice and have yet another day to keep at them.

09 September 2011

Radio Silence?

I sometimes mull over the policy we have around here of not following up on members who have lapsed. 

The underlying assumption, best I can make it out, seems to be this: At any given point in time, everyone is so completely at one with exactly what they're doing that it's not proper for anyone else – not even their teacher – to poke, pry or prod. They must know what they're doing.  No one need even bother to ask them about it.

I'm not going to question the policy, since it's not my temple to run.  I do wonder, though, if the assumption holds water, since I happen to have a ready counter-example:

I do not necessarily know what I'm doing at any given point in time.

And my guess is that no one else does, either.

06 September 2011

The Charnel Grounds

On Sunday I scooped some of our recently deceased sangha member's ashes out of an urn and dropped them into a hole in the ground.

There will be no marker, nothing but the flowerbed his remains now share with others whose ashes were also scooped out of urns and dropped into holes in the ground.

And I remember:

"This body of mine also has this nature, has this destiny, cannot escape it." 
Satipatthāna Sutta (MN 10)

01 September 2011

Unlashing the Moorings

I can only know more fully the utter nonsubstantiality of the self to the degree to which I keep cutting the tethers to all the things, ideas, concepts, projections, etc. that reinforce the idea I have of "my self." It's a smoke and mirrors game, this self business, and as long as I keep churning out the smoke and polishing the mirrors, it's hard to see how I can possibly come to know (and not just have an idea about) anatta.

In a class I'm teaching now, we're reading Gandhi's Autobiography.  The book chronicles, as Gandhi calls them, his "experiments in truth."

What a great description of practice – ongoing experiments in uncovering the nonsubstantiality of the self!  Zazen tops the list, of course, but there's so much more, like taking the liberation of all beings as my compass point, like opening up more and more to dukkha's tuition, like kicking away the props of this character in the storyline I call "me," like living a life of service.  It really is a rich practice.  I'm grateful beyond words that it has come down through the ages right into my lap.

So here's the thing:

I don't listen to a lot of music.  I don't have an iPod or anything like that.  I have, though, downloaded some songs recently that I was listening to at certain key transitional points in my life.  When I listen to them, I'm transported back to those days, to the ideas I had, to the story line of my "self" I was writing at the time.  But I'm seeing that in rehearsing that story line again, I'm turning it into a story line about now.  I find myself describing an arc of events and circumstances that link up that "me" back then to "me" now.  Since I selected these songs from among all kinds of others, I'm of course stacking the deck in the process, too, making this "me, now" also something of a carefully crafted fiction.

I don't have time for this shit.  I have better things to do.

The new experiment looks like this: drag those songs from iTunes into the trash can on the desktop and hit "Secure Empty Trash."  When I have a free moment I won't be able to crank up this particular smoke and mirrors machine again.  I will no longer have this set of props for the gripping saga of self I seem so intent on telling.

And I'll be just that much freer.

30 August 2011

No Comprendo Lingo: "_____ Buddhism"

What is the question the answer to which is "Liberal Buddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Engaged Buddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Ecobuddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Progressive Buddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Postmodern Buddhism"?

And how is it that "dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end" isn't already a sufficient answer?

I don't know.  I just don't understand.

29 August 2011

Do I Serve Enough?

Yesterday I was very happy to hear what I'd always hoped was really the case but had never actually heard stated out loud: "progress" in Zen is marked by ever deepening and expanding levels of service.  It's not that I hadn't seen live examples of that; I have, and to be honest, if I hadn't I wouldn't still be hanging around.  It's just that in between "insight" and "enlightenment" and "awakening" and "prajña" and all the rest, "service" doesn't come up explicitly very often.

But why shouldn't it?  Service is nothing other than ego-attrition manifest.

As was pointed out yesterday, the opportunities for service are limitless: simply by virtue of signing on as a sangha member, one is saying, "I place myself at the service of all beings."  To the extent to which one is saddled with more responsibility in the sangha, one is agreeing to open one's life up more and more and more to the service of all. 

I've never been much fond of "awakening" and "enlightenment" talk.  Now I have a better way to address the matter.  Rather than wondering how deep my insight is, I can simply ask, "Do I serve enough?"

And yeah, I know the answer: "Not by a long shot.  Not even close."

28 August 2011

Nirodha, the Extinguishing

Wherever a problem arises it must be settled right there. Where suffering lies is right where non-suffering will arise; it ceases at the place where it arises.
– Ajahn Man
I don't think I've ever really appreciated just how unexpected the Third Noble Truth is.  Not the end of suffering part, for there isn't a religion, major or minor, that doesn't promise an end to suffering.  Rather, it's the manner of the end of suffering that's so profound – it just ceases.  Suffering isn't replaced, deferred, taken on by someone else, mitigated, transformed or anything like that.  It just ceases.  One isn't transported to a special somewhere else; the suffering just ceases.

Where it was, there it is no longer.  And that's all. 

That's all!

The end of suffering is no more remarkable than realizing, "Where I had a toothache, there is no longer a toothache."  It sounds silly to say that.  Who talks like that?  Once the toothache is gone it's just as soon forgotten, and one doesn't go on for the rest of one's days saying, "I used to have a toothache here.  Now I have a toothache-free life."

How much more silly does it sound to say, "Where I had clinging and aversion because of ego-attachment, I no longer have clinging and aversion because of ego-attachment"?  Who talks like that, either?

There really is nothing to say about nirodha, nothing at all.