30 March 2011

Laying Down the Burden (Make You a DEAL)

I can be an incredibly slow study.  I can stare something head on, I can have all of the insight and wisdom of the ages at my disposal, I can feel in my gut what needs to be done, and I still don't budge until, exhausted and still not getting anywhere, I finally get around to the one thing necessary: dropping it and, with it, the ego that held so tightly on.

And then I remember the wise words of Ajahn Chah and how he so artfully describes what I'd been up to:
We human beings are constantly in combat, at war to escape the fact of being so limited, limited by so many circumstances we cannot control.  But instead of escaping, we continue to create suffering, waging war with good, waging war with evil, waging war with what is too small, waging war with what is too big, waging war with what is too short or too long, or right or wrong, courageously carrying on the battle.
Such a telling image: a self-appointed guardian of the universe doggedly wielding every weapon in the arsenal against nothing at all but the phantoms of his own dukkha.

When my kids were in grade school, they had periods during the school day when they had DEAR time: drop everything and read.

I'm going to go with a bigger version: drop everything and live.

27 March 2011

The End of the Innocence

There are times when I think I would like companions on the journey.  The road is long, the possibilities of making a wrong turn are always present, and there are times when a little (or a lot) of encouragement is helpful to keep one's chin up and to keep pressing on.

But here's the problem: the path is mine alone to follow.  Even when the path has a name attached to it that others use (Buddhism, Zen, priest), only the woefully naive would think that a shared name means a shared practice. 

I've had a monkey on my back for the last few months, and it is because I have been woefully naive.

Time to grow up, move on and get to work again.  Alone:

In woodlands, haunt of stag and bird,
Among the trees where no dissension jars,
It's there I would keep pleasant company!
When might I be off to make my dwelling there?

When shall I depart to make my home
In cave or empty shrine or under spreading tree,
With, in my breast, a free, unfettered heart,
Which never turns to cast a backward glance?

When might I abide in such a place,
A place unclaimed, by nature ownerless,
That's wide and unconfined, a place where I might stay
At liberty without attachment?

When might I be free of fear,
Without the need to hide from anyone,
With just a begging bowl and few belongings,
Dressed in garments coveted by none?
– Śāntideva

23 March 2011

Touching the Earth

Challenging the emergent Buddha on the height of his attainment, Māra asked, "Who bears witness for you?"  Siddhārtha, seated, reached out his hand, touched the ground, and the Earth itself cried out, "I bear witness!"  This gesture of touching the ground is called the bhūmisparśa mudrā and is frequently used in Buddhist iconography.

I find myself stopping in my tracks whenever I consider that incident and that posture: no argument, no throng of supporters, no treatise, no choir of heavenly beings, no retort.

Just silence.

And his hand touching the bare earth.

And that was enough.

21 March 2011

Getting Sectarian

A woman who called the Center today asked if we were Soto or Rinzai.  I've yet to come up with a happy, quick, accurate and – yes – appropriately inviting answer to that question.

It doesn't help that the name, Philip Kapleau, doesn't ring as many bells as perhaps it once did.  It doesn't help that his successors haven't exactly been cover story figures for Tricycle, Buddhadharma or Shambhala Sun.  It doesn't help that his successors haven't been burning up the Amazon.com sales charts with their steady stream of books, audio recordings and the like.

Of course, though, all of those things that don't help are exactly part of the reason why I find this such an attractive lineage.  At the end of the day, it's all about solid zen practice aimed at awakening, not fast media exposure and running around the talk or conference circuit.   In this line, we do the work without a lot of clap-trap.

So after a quick history of the Harada-Yasutani line, the establishment of Zen in America after WWII, and fast comparisons with each of the major schools (koans - yes, face wall - yes, do ōryōki - no, speak English - yes) I told the woman that we in the sangha are a pretty average-looking but highly dedicated bunch.  She found that appealing enough to be interested in coming by. 

Many feel the need to leave their mark on something.  I'm honored just to be able to pass on what I have received.  I think that's what was meant when I was told that ordination meant becoming a vessel of the tradition.

19 March 2011

Cold Reality

In our lineage, priests, when not in robes, wear blue, black or gray clothing with no regular shirt collars but only crew or band collars.  It's not a difficult dress code to maintain, and I find that for me it reinforces the idea that my life – my whole life – is now lived as a priest. 

So yesterday I saw a priest of our lineage in lay attire.  It's not the first time I've seen him dressed like a layman, either. 

I don't know what to say, really.  It's sad on so many levels: for him, for me, for the local sangha, for the lineage, for the Dharma.  So very sad.

I don't know what to say.

18 March 2011

The Emptiness of All Five Skandhas

So by sheer force of circumstance I ended up being the person in the department who teaches the Asian Philosophy course.  I'm giving it again this semester, and this week we started in on Buddhism.

We're reading Gethin's Foundations of Buddhism, and I was pleased the students are taking to it as well as I first did.  It simply has to be the best, most straightforward, complete yet engaging primer on Buddhist basics I've ever read.  I've praised it to all who would listen.

Yesterday we were in the chapter on "No Self," and there Gethin takes up the point about the five skandhas.  Of course I've known about this bit of Buddhist teaching for many years now, but recently it hit me like a ton of bricks just how profound it is.  It's one thing to consider that we are each of us but a bundle of forces that just happen to be coming together in a relatively stable pattern for the time being.  It's another to realize how absolutely freeing that understanding is.

Of course I've been told so many, many times in the words of the Prajñā Pāramitā Hridaya:
The Bodhisattva of Compassion from the depths of prajña wisdom saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and sundered the bonds that cause all suffering. 

It's freeing because there is no "thick" ideal against which to measure oneself, no picture-perfect form of existence glaring down at our differences in personality, interests, quirks and tendencies, calling some higher or lower or better or worse.  At bottom, all of these – all of these – are empty.  That isn't to say that there isn't work to do, of course: greed, anger and delusion can twist us all into grotesqueries of thought and speech and action.  But the problem is not one of the root kind of person each one of us happens to be.

I used to fret that I wasn't calm like this one or more diligent like that one.  I used to be rather pleased that I was more on top of things than someone or more talented at something than someone else.  Comparing and ranking, I either punished myself or thought ill of others.  Suffering upon suffering, for no good reason whatsoever.

15 March 2011

The Day Job

I sometimes ponder the advantages and disadvantages of doing "Dharma work" full time.  On the one hand, there's less tug in another direction; on the other, anything – even temple work and Dharma-related things – can become another rut.  Some Zen training centers insist that staff or ordaineds not have regular outside employment; some places, for financial or other reasons, require it.

Today I'm back at work after a two week break, and I find myself grateful to have this other facet to my life.  The commute is long (I forgot after two weeks just how really long it is), and the politics of the place are the same (contracts came out while we were on break…), but I find I'm really excited to be back in the classroom, and I was on something of a roll during the first class of the day.  I like interacting with my colleagues and my students, and I like watching the students get into something they probably thought they wouldn't be all that interested in.

But best of all, on the job I'm just another guy.  And in my heart of hearts, I know that that is all that my Zen training is supposed to lead to: being completely just what I happen to be without the least trace or veneer (or stink) of "Zen".  How could I ever get there if I never left the temple?

13 March 2011

Reading Chōmei This Week

The flowing water never stops and yet the water never stays the same.  Foam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long.  So it is with man and all his dwelling places here on earth.
– Chōmei, Hōjōki
I found myself opening up the Hōjōki again this week in light of the disaster in Japan.  Another disaster to add to Chōmei's list.  Another good reason not to forget his response to such things and maybe follow his example.

11 March 2011

Branching Streams Flowing in Darkness

I was reminiscing recently with some sangha members about sesshin food from the past, thinking about people who used to practice here, how we used to do this or that a little bit differently – the usual trip down memory lane. 

Who stays?  Who goes?  What stays?  What goes?  What is this practice?  This temple?

I found some pictures from Vesak 1998.  The kids in the pictures (some of them mine) are now in their late teens and early twenties.  The adults in the pictures are now greyer, with more lines in the face, more years on the chassis.  The yard has changed.  A good chunk of lawn is now a parking pad.  Many of the bushes are long gone.  The wood fence was in much better shape then (we need to start thinking about replacing it in a couple of years).  The deck was in much better shape then, too (ditto for that as well).

But there are new people now, people with their own stories and kids and lives.  We have pictures of them and their families at last year's Vesak, and in a decade or so, perhaps someone will wonder where they have gone.  Perhaps they will be the ones wondering where the others have gone.  (Hopefully the fence and deck that go in in the meantime will still look good.)

So tonight I commend all those who practiced here and have since moved on to the watchful eyes of the bodhisattvas.  May they be at ease.  May whatever merit they accrued while practicing here make their path easier for them now.

May we who remain also be at ease.  May we hold true to our resolve and to the maintenance of the precepts.

And may this temple continue to flourish as a place of solid practice, a home to the Dharma.

09 March 2011

It's Kind of Like This, Too

Joshu says that it's like a mute person who has had a dream – you know it for yourself alone.

Still, even mute people can smile:
Master Si, Master Yu, Master Li and Master Lai were all four talking together.  "Who can look upon nonbeing as his head, on life as his back, and on death as his rump?" they said.  "What knows that life and death, existence and annihilation, are all a single body?  I will be his friend!"
     The four men looked at each other and smiled.  There was no disagreement in their hearts, and so the four of them became friends.
- Zhuangzi
With friends like these, who could possibly be an enemy?

03 March 2011

Because This Life Is All Too Short...

Sometimes after getting rung out more than several times on just a small part of a single koan, I'll joke with my teacher, "Kalpas.  I have kalpas to see into this one."  It has never taken that long, of course, but it just might.  And if it does, I will know that I'm pretty goshdarn stuck.  No rushing the Dharma here.  Kalpas...

All the same, I know that my good fortune in being able to practice the Dharma in this life is a rarity.  I honor that good fortune best by not wasting the time and resources I have.  Kalpas?  Days, maybe.  I'm already over halfway to the end of this time around, and I don't know how it goes from here!

I've been thinking about Dharma time-wasters, things that aren't necessarily wrong, just – how to put it – beside the point, at least as far as my own practice goes; others may well have a different list, one that doesn't include things on mine. 

Here we go:
1.  Taking time and energy figuring out how aspects of the Dharma square or don't square, converge or don't converge with insights of other religions and practices.  That work can be done by others.  I don't have time enough to plunge the depths of the Dharma in its own right.

2. Trying to figure out why a Dharma brother or sister doesn't see things like I do.  Who could begin to know?

3. Trying to get a Dharma brother or sister to see things like I do.  Blind leading the blind.

4. Trying to find good reasons why so-and-so got authorized to teach the Dharma.  Again, who could begin to know the minds of others?  If I find someone's teaching helpful, that's fine.  If I don't, maybe they're being of help to someone with hindrances or issues different from the ones I have.

5. Figuring out how and why I got to this point.  I had to give a "Coming to the Path" talk once.  Lies and more lies.  Once was more than enough. 

6. Wondering where it goes from here.  Twist my nose, please, if I ever breathe the slightest view on that matter.

7. Fretting about the state of the Dharma in town, in the lineage, in America, in the world.  I'm just going to assume it's mappō time, and work like the dickens not to make it worse.

8. Wishing greedy, power-thirsty, or delusional teachers would be exposed for what they are and sent packing  Again, not my job.  There's a sucker born every minute, and it's not up to me to save them from themselves.
Do I stick to my principles here? Not as often as I would like, and not as often as would be helpful.  Still, it's good for me to have some point of reference to get back to when I don't.

01 March 2011

"I Don't Have To"

We have a member who, having completed koan work, no longer comes to sit with us.  "I don't have to any longer," she says.

I know that next week there will be Protestants who will be asked about their Lenten practices.  "We don't have to do any," they'll say.

In two Fridays someone will ask a Roman Catholic about the fasting.  "Oh, we don't have to do that fasting thing on Fridays any more," they'll say.

I had an undergraduate who self-identified as a Daoist.  "Do you have a temple or a practice community?" I asked.  "I don't have to have one," he replied.

I was surprised when a Jewish friend ordered a bacon cheeseburger.  "Can you do that?" I asked.  "In our congregation we don't have to follow the traditional dietary rules," she said.

I suppose I'm ready to hear "Yeah, you go guys!  You don't have to do any of that nonsense.  No one's in a position to dictate a practice to you.  It's your decision whether you want to do any of this.  Whatever you decide is fine."

I'm ready to hear it, because I hear it often enough.

I have a quite different reaction to such statements, though.  I don't know why I do, and I don't know whether it's a skillful thing or not. 

I just find I'm going down a dead-end street whenever I personally turn in the direction of "I don't have to."  For me, the arrival of that phrase in consciousness signals a slackening on my part, an attempt to excuse myself for whatever reason.

And few things reinforce the sense of self more than letting oneself off the hook.  What largesse is received at one's very own hand!   What power is felt in being able to issue the dispensation!