26 February 2011

Patient Attention to Detail

As part of a course for all 1st-year college students I once had to teach A River Runs Through It.  I had not read it before, and I had not seen the movie (still haven't).  I was totally captivated by the descriptions of the art of fly fishing in the book.  I'm not a fisherman, and I'm sure I would find other things to do were I in that part of the world, but the patient attention to detail Maclean evidenced was nothing short of astounding to me.  Most of the students lost patience with it after a few sentences.   I told them that I, for one, would have been just as enthralled with that kind of description of various concrete mixes, if the author could have pulled it off.

A few years back I was taking some naturalist classes, and I had gotten fairly good at identifying trees and birds, mastering both their scientific and common names, favored habitats, etc.  My (Zen) teacher at the time made some quip about losing sight of reality in the midst of all the detail and the terminology.  I came back that there is nothing anti-Zen in knowing the tanager as a tanager and a robin as a robin.  Just saying, "Bird," misses the mark, too.

And really, isn't that part of our training all along?  Both the light left on and the light turned off manifest absolute reality, but leaving it burning needlessly is inappropriate.  Both the straightened mat and cushion and the wrinkly mat and unfluffed cushion are Buddhanature, but one is the unskillful way to leave the zendo, and the other is not.  There is a proper, and an improper, way to play the han, and the teisho riff on the drum is not the sesshin riff. 

Giving oneself over to patient attention to detail seems to me a very fine way of coming to realize the non-dual nature of self-and-other.  Painting monochrome everything in the world that is not oneself strikes me as a very fine way of maintaining that insidious dualism that lies at the heart of our personal and collective suffering.

24 February 2011

What Am I Missing?

The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death.

So the other day the envelope with the invitation to join AARP showed up in my mailbox.  "At last!" I thought to myself, "Now a whole new world of senior discounts is beginning to open up to me!"  I really was excited.  I know someone else who received the same invitation recently, threw the thing in the trash, and announced that he didn't want to be reminded he was getting old.  No Modern Maturity for him!

When I was in my 20's I thought 40 was old.  Part of that view stemmed from the fact that my dad and mom are, respectively, only 23 and 21 years older than I am.  Part of that view stemmed from the fact that I was young, cocky and seemingly invincible.

Then I got cancer at 29, and my view of life, death, age and the rest morphed into something a bit more realistic.  At the time of my diagnosis, the cancer I had was comparatively easy to treat; most who got it thirty years before I did got a very early grave.  Knowing that, I started to think of the rest of my life as a kind of freebie, a gift, something that I wasn't entitled to and so was all the more grateful for.  Each day was a bonus, no matter how many or how few lay ahead.

So I really don't give a shit about getting older.  It's not that it doesn't have its issues: I've had three discs go in the last 10 years, for instance.  I just find I can't begin to grasp the anti-aging sentiment.  Not at all.  

Many, many others have it, though, so I do wonder: are they seeing something I'm not?  Maybe I'm the stupid one here.

22 February 2011

My Teacher, Myself

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sounds good, rather much like Luke Skywalker opening up his eyes and seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the desert wastelands of Tatooine.  For those who have had the ill fortune of having a bad teacher, however, saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears makes it sound more like a curse than a blessing.

I'm a really lucky guy.  I have a teacher I have confidence in.  I have seen enough of him in action to know that he is someone who can guide me in the Dharma.  I can be open and frank with him, and yet I know when I am being taught in ways subtle as well as obvious.

But best of all, I get the sense from him that we are attaining the Way together: he in his teacher form, I in my student form, both of us in our priest form, he in his abbot form, I in my head of zendo form, both of us in our dad form, etc. 

I bought the finial for my shakujo off my old teacher; my new teacher made the staff and affixed it to the finial.  When I carry it, I carry both of their teachings.  When I shake it, heaven and earth and all therein awaken to Buddhahood.

18 February 2011

Simple Gifts

Oh, the timeless wisdom (and just what I need to hear more often):
Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
T'will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and bend we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
Til by turning, turning we come round right.
Apologies to anyone who may have happened to read anything written on here over the last few days.  It wasn't my place to weigh in on any of that.

12 February 2011


At this moment I'm listening to the first cardinal call of the season in the back yard.  Phew......phew......wheet.wheet.wheet.wheet.wheet.

The snow isn't the only thing melting right now.

08 February 2011

Renunciation Day

On the 8th day of the 2nd month (technically, lunar, but we'll go with Gregorian) the Great Renunciation of Siddhartha Gautama is commemorated.

I lift from a piece by Pema Chödrön:
[R]enunciation is seeing clearly how we hold back, how we pull away, how we shut down, how we close off, and then learning how to open. It's about saying yes to whatever is put on your plate, whatever knocks on your door, whatever calls you up on your telephone. How we actually do that has to do with coming up against our edge, which is actually the moment when we learn what renunciation means. There is a story about a group of people climbing to the top of a mountain. It turns out it's pretty steep, and as soon as they get up to a certain height, a couple of people look down and see how far it is, and completely freeze; they had come up against their edge and they couldn't go beyond it. Their fear was so great, they couldn't move. Other people tripped on ahead, laughing and talking, but as the climb got steeper and more scary, more people began to get scared and freeze. All the way up this mountain there were places where people met their edge and just froze and couldn't go any further. The moral of the story is that it really doesn't make any difference where you meet your edge; just meeting it is the point. Life is a whole journey of meeting your edge again and again. That's where you're challenged; that's where, if you're a person who wants to live, you start to ask yourself questions like, "Now, why am I so scared? What is it that I don't want to see? Why can't I go any further than this?" The happy people who got to the top were not the heroes of the day. They just weren't afraid of heights; they are going to meet their edge somewhere else. The ones who froze at the bottom were not the losers. They simply stopped first and so their lesson came earlier than the others. However, sooner or later, everybody meets his or her own edge.
I find I am meeting one of my edges in figuring out my place in the local sangha, and today I ask myself those very same questions: "Now, why am I so scared?  What is it that I don't want to see?  Why can't I go any further than this?"

And I don't know the answers, but I do know the strategy: drop it all and just keep going.

05 February 2011

Solitude, Interrupted

Last weekend a member moved into the center as a resident.  Now I am no longer alone in the house.

I knew this time would come; there had always been talk of someone living on the 1st floor (I'm on the 2nd).  It doesn't really matter who it is, although I happen to be fond enough of this person.  We each have our own kitchen, bathroom, etc. space, so we won't be tripping over each other, and it really is easy enough to come and go without much contact.

Still, though, this is the first time in a long time I've shared an address with a non-family member, and the solitude I had come to cherish is not what it has been.

It's not over, though.  I just need to find more inventive ways of cultivating alonetime, that's all.

02 February 2011

Therapy or Dharma?

Buddhism is a psychologically astute practice.  It invites deep scrutiny of the vicissitudes of the ego-driven self, it acknowledges the strength of the forces that push and pull us, and it is not at all polyannish about the prospects for overcoming the defilements any time soon.  It is no surprise that many have found some common ground between Buddhism and this, that or the other psychological theory.

Still, practice is not therapy, being a teacher is not the same as being a therapist, and insight isn't something like maintaining mental health.

I've begun to wonder if there isn't a "near enemy" issue between the two, particularly when a) the teacher is a trained therapist and b) the student is in need of psychological/psychiatric counseling.  How hard it must be in those cases to keep things straight!  If the teacher is an electrician, it's a lot easier to keep one's day job out of the dokusan room or off the teisho tan.  If the teacher is an algebra instructor, there might be some issue of treating the assembled sangha like a class of students, but at least there won't be content confusion.  From the other side, if the student is not needing counseling, then one can be just that much more sure that one is really seeking spiritual direction and not just a free session.

Maybe I'm making much ado about nothing.  

Still, I've heard far too many teishos with a 10:1 psychological theory to Dharma ratio, and I've watched people get all twisted up in the psychology of their practice rather than just dealing with it as practice.  I know a couple of people who do Zen as a kind of self-help exercise along with their acupuncture, men's group weekends and empowerment classes.  In none of these cases is the admixture of psychology and the Dharma a good thing.