28 April 2011

Precept IX

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I was busy playing the prosecuting attorney, laying out detailed, sound and flawless arguments concerning the unsatisfactoriness of a situation.  I left no holes open.  I approached it from every angle.  I mustered evidence.  I anticipated rebuttals.  I called witnesses.  I had a line of cross-examination ready for the defendant. 

After doing something else for a while, I came back to my task.  I rehearsed the arguments again.  Made some editorial corrections.  Packed a bigger punch.

More time went by with me totally engrossed in the matter at hand, working it over, and over, and over again.

And then, for the first time in my life, I said to myself (just as all of this had been said to myself), "Hold on.  Just who am I saying all this to?"

And just as immediately I realized, "Shit, I'd be embarrassed go on like this if there actually were someone listening!  Who would endure hearing all this?"

And then I stopped.

I looked around the room.  I looked out the window.  I heard the birds.  I came to my senses, and then I went on with my day like a sane man would, leaving all of that behind.

Even now I can't help laughing when I think about it: "Just who did I think I was talking to?"

Bodhidharma described the process perfectly:
Self-nature is subtle and mysterious.  In the realm of the selfless Dharma, not contriving reality for the self is called the Precept of Not Indulging in Anger.

27 April 2011

Reading Ryōkan on This Rainy, Rainy Night

The reason why I left my home –
Let it permeate my heart
Deeply as the color
That dyes the sleeves of my black robe
I could ask for nothing more – or less.

25 April 2011


I just came across a wonderful Japanese word, wabizumai, which loosely translates to "living a secluded, solitary life in a humble, wretched dwelling."

As the reference points out, it was the life chosen by many Buddhist monks and layfolk over the last 13 centuries.  Of course it goes back much further than that historically, and it's not limited geographically or culturally to Japan or even Asia.  It's the life of Ryōkan and Francis, of Confucius' student Hui and Diogenes, of Chōmei and Thoreau.  And it's not about the state of the dwelling itself, either.  It's about contentment in the absence of finery, wealth, connections, status, prestige and control. 

I sometimes laugh at myself for where I've ended up.  The kind generosity of the sangha grants me the use of a couple rooms in the center, but even that use isn't exclusive.  I'm almost fifty, but I own no property, and I'm just fortunate enough to be able to manage a small car.  I can feed my kids, but I can't take them on vacation.  I can list all of my possessions on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper with room to spare.

I wish I could say I chose this life, because that would make it sound quite noble and praiseworthy.  As it is, I basically tumbled into it, so there's nothing at all meritorious going on here, nothing at all.

I know the relatives talk and the friends are concerned, but I don't care.  I wouldn't trade this life for anything.

22 April 2011

Every Day is a Holy Day

In Zen we are told to die on the mat.

We are told to do that because by dying in mu, we come to live beyond birth and death.  In that one true samādhi, evils are extinguished, karma is purified, and obstructions are dissolved. 

It's not that Zen folk don't believe in redemption and resurrection and things like that.

It's just that, for us, every day is Good Friday, and every day is Easter.

19 April 2011

Hollywood Ave. & Sheridan Rd.

Coming off Lake Shore Drive from the south one hits the light at Sheridan.  At this point, LSD turns into Hollywood, which empties on to Ridge, which takes me home.

There's a man who begs at that light, and the other day as I was waiting on red, he was making his way past the stopped cars, cup in hand.  I gathered up a bunch of change, rolled down the window, and put the money in his cup.  He reached out, took my hand and squeezed it, thanked me and told me to take good care of myself.  I wished him well, too, and now with a green light in front of me and a line of traffic behind me, I drove on.

I don't know how or why, but I always come away from such an encounter knowing I received much more from him than he did from me.

Now let's hope the weather around here gets better soon.  There are a lot of people who would be happy for warmer hands and feet!

16 April 2011

Mumonkan 16

Last night was our semi-annual Temple Night & Jukai.  It was the 5th time I put on the kesa since ordaining almost a year ago.

As I was taking it off at the end of the evening, I realized that I still have no clue what being a priest means.  I could probably go further and say that I have even less of a clue now than I did then, if negative territory exists in matters like these.

So with hands palm-to-palm I say:

Wondrous is the robe of liberation (what lessons it teaches me!)
A treasure beyond form and emptiness (as I'm reminded all the time)
Wearing it I will unfold Buddha's teaching (with no-mind, at best)
For the benefit of all sentient beings (may all of us be at ease!)

15 April 2011

It's Not Supposed to Be Like Anything

There comes a point in the Diamond Sutra when, having hammered home the emptiness of everything including emptiness itself, the discussion with Subhūti turns to just how pants-shitting scary the realization of emptiness can be for one who is still attached to dharmas, attainment, etc.

Fearless bodhisattvas aren't thrown off by it.  Buddhas, of course, aren't either.  But the rest of us…?  Me…?

I do this all the time: "If I drop my idea about x, what will I be?" I feel-think to myself on a sliding scale from fret to despair.  I'm getting a little better at dropping, but I'm getting even better at seeing just how much I'm not yet dropping.  No fearless bodhisattva here.

I used to get a chuckle out of something my grandmother from Grand Rapids said after visiting the castle-ridden part of the Rhine valley in Germany: "It looks like Michigan!"

Isn't that the problem?  I can be staring right at the Dharmakāya in all of its wondrous emptiness and see nothing at all but the petty projections of my own ego.  But let go of them?  No way!  And so the wheel turns.

13 April 2011

That Wonderful, Awful Pit in the Gut

I know when I'm getting closer to a big fat chunk of ego-resistance.  I can feel it deep in the belly.  I find it leaves me somewhat weak in the limbs, small of appetite, riding the brink of tears.

I hunker down, becoming familiar with its contours, the points of hardness, the depth of the knot.

And I know it's not real, I know it's not me, I know it's not abiding.

I can't just leave it to the side, though, because the only way out is through.

09 April 2011

On Māra, Hell and All That Other Crap We'd Rather Not Hear About

I'm starting to get more direct with folks who poo-poo the Māra and hell talk in Buddhism.  "Sounds like Catholicism," I heard someone say recently.  If that's so, I think it would only mean that Catholicism is on to something, along with every other tradition that recognizes what a life governed by greed, anger or ignorance looks like, and that acknowledges the tug of all those things that keep us from realizing and living our true nature.

It's not a matter of being "for" or "against" a particular teaching.  That's just an empty intellectual exercise that keeps one from the real work and reinforces the idea of an "I".  In this, as in everything, the point is to examine the life and times of this fathom-high body, the domain in which the rising and falling of the world is played out:

I've done wrong.  I continue to do wrong.  There are days when I get so stuck in my wrongdoing that I begin to wonder if there's a way out.  There have been days when I got so stuck I didn't even care about finding a way out.  I've had people pull me aside at a couple of stages in my life, put their hands on my shoulders, look me square in the eyes, and tell me that if I didn't get my act together it would not go at all well.  I didn't always listen.  And I spiraled down enough to get a sense of how bad it could get, and I turned around.  I have no trouble at all admitting to the reality of hellish existence, and if I haven't found a long-term spot there, it's not because I'm special.  I could well head back at any time.  I will always have work to do. 

Talk of hell and Māra is a reminder that I am not the center of the universe.  It's a reminder of my real weakness and my real ego-centeredness.  It is a deep realization that helps put an end to grandiosity and narcissism and helps open me up to the Dharma.

But I'll concede this much to the poo-pooers: it's one thing to acknowledge one's own defilements, and it's another thing to point out others'.  It's one thing to realize one's own propensity for hellish living, and it's another thing to assign others a choice spot there.  No one needs to hear the fire-and-brimstone guy getting all worked up in one's face.  The mirror will do, if we but care to look.

And I'll concede another point, too: even hell has within it an end and a way out.  There's nothing permanent about that aspect of existence any more than there is about any other aspect.  That it is most difficult and takes herculean effort to accomplish should still keep one sober, though. 

Śāntideva and Hakuin feared hell.  That's not such bad company to keep.  (And they knew nothing of Catholicism!)

08 April 2011

(No) Attributes

The Diamond Sutra says that the Tathāgata cannot be seen by means of the possession of attributes:

The Buddha doesn't need a halo.
The Buddha doesn't need an army of followers.
The Buddha doesn't need to work miracles.
The Buddha doesn't need to be a man.  Or a woman.
The Buddha doesn't even need to be a human.

The Diamond Sutra says that the Tathāgata can indeed be seen by the means of attributes that are not attributes:

The Buddha can be a flower.
Or a viper.
The Buddha can be an ambulance.
Or a cruise missile.

Or us!

05 April 2011

Dukkha Roshi

I was reminded the other day in teisho that dukkha is our teacher.  It's very, very good to have it said out loud every once in a while.  I know I can always stand to hear it.

Sometimes I lose sight of the distinction between avoiding dukkha and coming to the end of dukkha:
Avoiding dukkha means turning away from it; coming to the end of dukkha means facing it head on.

Avoiding dukkha means trying to alter circumstances; coming to the end of dukkha means discovering my own resistances and attachments in the midst of circumstances.

Avoiding dukkha means keeping up the conceit of a self; coming to the end of dukkha means realizing the self's utter emptiness.

Avoiding dukkha only results in more dukkha; coming to the end of dukkha is the only way to find release from dukkha.
Perhaps this is why I find Zen to be such an honest practice.  There is nothing about it that provides the least insulation from dukkha.  Nothing.  Of course, I can put up all the insulation I want, but, in the end, I also know it won't be practice.

I often wonder what it is I'm supposed to do to make priest practice different from lay practice.  Maybe it's a matter of being just that much more willing to open up to dukkha's tuition.

03 April 2011

Don't Linger!

As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightening
view all created things like this
- Diamond Sutra
Last night these words at the end of the Diamond Sutra hit home like they never had before.  It's not that on one level I didn't understand the ever-shifting, ephemeral, momentary and transient nature of phenomena.  What had been missing, though, was the realization that I should be moving along, too.  I had been holding on to the posture of the stable, enduring observer and recorder of the many unstable, passing phenomena. 

But enough even of that!  Next!

01 April 2011

Turning Up the Heat

We recently concluded a small discussion series at the center on Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra.  While working through his chapter on the vīriya (vigor) pāramitā, a couple of us found ourselves commenting how we don't hear as much of the "push hard," "don't waste this moment," "attain what is yours to attain," "die on the mat" talk around here as we used to.  Some other participants were quite surprised that there ever had been that much pushing and prodding and goading at this center.  

I still hold to the "die on the mat" line.  I find it expresses exactly what I need to do.  It was the phrase I kept repeating to myself as I was working on mu.  I remember coming to the point when I told myself, "Even if it kills me before this sesshin is over, and I never see the kids or anyone else again, it would be worth it for a glimpse into what I have been told is there to see."

And the Buddhas and bodhisattvas did not deceive: the Dharma is true.

I know there was a lot of backing down from the heady claims made on behalf of kensho and satori during the 60's and 70's.  Still, if practice is not about awakening, then we are truly wasting our time.

Maybe it's time to turn up the heat.