30 June 2011

Commentary, Mumonkan 44

"It helps you cross the river when the bridge is broken down.  It accompanies you when you return to the village on a moonless night."
Mumon shouldn't have stopped there, and he shouldn't have mentioned that word, "staff," again, either:

It prompts me to shut up when words are unskillful.
It nudges me out of complacency when I'd rather not budge.
It invites me to go when staying put seems like a bright idea.
It whispers to me of the Unborn when all I see is birth-and-death.

29 June 2011

I Wouldn't Change a Thing

"It is like not wishing for more color or brightness when viewing flowers or the moon."
– Dōgen
Long ago I used to be taken with Marx's XIth Thesis on Feuerbach: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."  I, too, thought that the forward motion of humanity required strenuously bringing the real into compliance with the rational.  I, too, thought that progress was the order of the day, that death and disease and famine and flood were fixable problems.  I, too, thought that the status quo was not good enough.  I, too, had a list of things that needed elimination and a list of things that needed to be helped along.

Cracks me up now.

I open my eyes these days and realize, "I wouldn't change a single thing."

25 June 2011

I Almost Hate to Admit It

I know it's kind of cheesy, but I keep a laminated copy of the Metta Sutra in my wallet in that window slot that usually holds a drivers license or something like that. 

I first put it in there almost a decade ago when I was preparing laminated cards for the lead chanter.  I had room in a plastic sleeve, so I typed up and printed out a copy, then sent it through the hot machine with the rest of the batch.

It has outlived three wallets (and a trip through the washing machine) so far. 

Seeing it as I open my wallet has more than once kept me from doing something boneheaded, too.  The line, "Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove," was warning enough.  (Often, though, I was too busy getting out the cash or the debit card to notice, and the wise got a lot to shake their heads over....)

I've had occasion to pull out the card and read the Sutra aloud for a couple of different groups.  Both times I couldn't make it all the way through without choking up a little.  How straightforwardly elegant it is!

I'm particularly fond of the Metta Sutra.  It squarely locates the wellspring of lovingkindness in a life skillfully lived.  It doesn't just say, "practice lovingkindness."  It says, here's how one who would practice lovingkindness lives (able, upright, straightforward, gentle in speech, humble, unburdened, frugal…).  Start from that life, and lovingkindness will of its own accord flow upward and downward, outwards and unbounded.

It reminds me that lovingkindness isn't so much something I choose to practice but rather something that cannot be hindered, as long as I but step out of the way.

23 June 2011

The Whole of the Holy Life

In the Upaddha Sutta, it goes like this:
Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie."
     "Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.
     "And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where a monk develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops right resolve ... right speech ... right action ... right livelihood ... right effort ... right mindfulness ... right concentration dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.
     "And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life."
I was glad to have my attention directed to this account a few days ago.  Sometimes I cast about for a form to guide my relationship to others in the sangha, and "admirable friend" sets a high enough bar (I'm a decent enough guy, I think, but I don't know that I'm "admirable") without usurping anyone's seat. 

Then again, "admirable friend" sets the right note for anyone's relationship to the sangha – even the Buddha's, by his own account. 

Too bad the name's already taken, since an apt moniker for the sangha might well be The Religious Society of Friends!

21 June 2011

To Boldly Go

During a sesshin teisho recently we got to hear a bit from Zenkei Shibayama's A Flower Does Not Talk.  I had seen the title on the center library's shelf any number of times but never thought to take a look.  I'm grateful to have been introduced to it now.

There's a passage in the book that I found particularly butt-kicking:
Near the Monastery there was Bukai Roshi's private house, which had been rented out for some time.  When the house was vacated, I was told by Bukai Roshi, my teacher, to go and clean it.
     The house as evacuated by the residents was in a terrible condition.  Somehow I managed to clean the rooms, but when I came to the toilet, the condition was even worse.  Besides, it happened to be a very hot day in August, and I could not help hesitating.  Unknowingly, my attitude was as if about to touch something dreadful.
     I was not aware that Bukai Roshi, my teacher, was behind me.  Tucking up his clothes and bare footed, he pushed me away without a word, took the damp cloth from my hand and began to clean the dirty toilet.  I stood aghast for a second.  But the next moment I jumped at him, took back the damp cloth, and started to rub the toilet literally forgetting myself.  The Roshi, looking down at me for a little while, said in a quiet tone, "With a damp cloth in your hand, you are still unable to be one with it, being disturbed by the dirty and the clean.  Aren't you ashamed of your training?"  I shall never forget how shameful I was at his words.
How many times do I hesitate in ways that betray my own training?  What distinctions do I come up with to give myself an excuse for not diving right in?

20 June 2011

It's the Gratitude

No one's asking, but if someone were to ask, I would say that the one thing that marks off those who have dropped a good chunk of ego from those who are on a head trip is the welling up of gratitude on the part of the former. 

It shows up every time.

19 June 2011

Poster Child

I'm happy to monitor sesshins for one simple reason:  I'm more than willing to do what I can to help maintain an environment in which everyone's best efforts can have the best chance of fruition. 

But during this sesshin just ending it came to me that there's even more to it than that:  I have to be, to the best of my ability, both in sesshin and out, the kind of person Zen training is supposed to produce, so that when others who are practicing see me, they see something of their own best selves and thus become ever more resolved in their own practice.

My goodness, do I ever have work to do!

But I can also think of no better reason for doing it.

14 June 2011

Right Neighborly

With all the time I've been outside recently, it's not surprising that I've come into more frequent contact with the neighbors.  I use "neighbors" loosely, since on the one side of the place there's The Cradle, and the person I run into is their physical plant manager.  On the other side there's a private home with one person (a retired rabbi, I understand) living in it. 

It's funny, really.  The Cradle's property is meticulously kept.  In addition to the plant manager, there's a landscaping crew that comes once a week on Tuesdays.  There's not a weed in sight, every plant does what it's supposed to do, and the lawn is a suburban dream.

The guy next door's home is, well, not so well kept.  The weeds are knee high already, some kind of vine is taking over the deck off the back of his house, and his garage, which never has its door shut, is filled with several years' worth of leaves.   The front yard, or what's left of it, is a wreck.

But here's the thing: none of that matters.  The plant manager will shovel our walk with their snowblower when it's really, really deep.  He just keeps on going and doesn't stop until he at least gets to the point where the walk meets the way to the front steps.  Nice guy.  He doesn't need to do that.

Last fall, the guy next door came up to me as I was raking and offered me the use of his yard waste bin for the leaves.  As he put it, "I won't be using it, so you might as well."  Nice guy.  He didn't need to do that.

Now that spring's here, the plant manager and I have had a couple of nice chats about the property line, and whose green stuff is whose.  Today as he pulled in, he said our place was looking good.  He said he'd have their landscaping crew handle anything I couldn't reach over the fence.

And the guy next door, never saying much more than "hi," is pausing over that "hi" and smiling more broadly when we meet than I ever remember.  I'm using his yard waste bin again for bamboo roots and other such stuff.

The future of Buddhism in America is much discussed these days.  I'm just a temple priest, so what do I know, but I'd venture that digging bamboo and planting flowers and hanging outside getting to know the neighbors is better than that!

11 June 2011

Don't Call it Samu

This morning I woke up and continued clearing the ground for five new Miscanthus clumps to go in.  I'd been at it for the past couple of days, and I was in no particular rush, but since the plants were coming this morning, I figured it best to get the prep done before they arrived.  The Miscanthus are in now, and that side bed is looking better already.

After lunch I'll head back out and tackle some more of the gardening.  It's chilly, but at least it's not raining (again), so conditions are pleasant enough.  Sesshin starts on Wednesday, and I'd like to have at least the dug out areas cleaned up and the bamboo roots cleared out before then.

Weeds don't care that this is a Zen Center.  The bamboo doesn't surrender itself any more easily because I'm ordained.  The new plants won't grow any faster because the Dharma is practiced here.  My arms and shoulder are no less sore than those of someone who had never heard of Buddhism would be. 

So if you think that doing work around a temple is somehow more special than doing it at home, guess again!

09 June 2011

Precept II

The other day I was giving a presentation on Buddhism to a seniors group at an area church.  They were a wonderful audience, asked great questions and were genuinely engaged.  I wish I could have lingered longer with them over the lunch, but I had to high-tail it to another commitment.

I had introduced them to the precepts as part of what it means to "become a Buddhist," and over lunch talk turned to the second precept.  As we were exploring just how rich "not taking what is not given" is by comparison, say, to "don't steal," it struck me just how far this precept can go beyond material objects and the persons to whom they belong:

I may have an opinion on a matter, but if not asked, it is not mine to offer.

I may be able to do a job better, but it has not been given to me to do.

I might know the answer to a question, but I was not the one being asked.

I might deserve something, but it wasn't offered, so I don't insist on it.

I might think you should tell me something, but you won't, so that's that.

I may want your respect or trust, but I can't demand it of you.

There's a deadline, and it is not mine to extend.

Taking refuge in the Dharma means taking refuge in where the chips have fallen, seeking neither to skirt one's lot nor to tilt the board to one's advantage.

06 June 2011

Travel Light

I've been doing so much work around the yard and garden these past weeks that I've become rather familiar with just about every corner of the property.  I can tell you what's growing where, what's on its way out, where things will go in, how well drained different spots are, where the sunlight falls, etc.

I have secrets, too, like where the bulbs that bloomed in one spot this year will bloom next spring.

And I have plans as well, like which things I'll move once the season is over ("Why did I put that there?" I wonder), and what I'd like to do along the fence south of the deck.

Then I remember:  None of this is mine.  I do not belong here.  I will not stay here.

Of course, this has always been true for everything I've ever set about doing, and there is nothing in life (or in death, for that matter) that will change that.

None of this is mine.  I do not belong here.   I will not stay here.

At every turn, with everything I do, there is a corresponding invitation to let go, to move on.  Even as I say hello to the new plants in the yard I ready myself to say goodbye.  As they bloom, I anticipate their dying back.  As I do the work of putting them in, I know they will more than likely be pulled out by someone else before too very long.

None of this is mine.  I do not belong here.  I will not stay here.

In a way, none of this is my doing.  I no more chose to be here working the garden than I chose to have blue eyes.  I just happen to be in the right place at the right time with the right schedule and the right ability. 

None of this is mine.  I do not belong here.  I will not stay here.

Wittgenstein was one of the most resolutely silent and eremitical of thinkers.  The only advice he was known to give was "Travel light."

As we are all in the process of moving on, what better counsel could anyone offer?

05 June 2011

One Year

I ordained on this Sunday one year ago.

There is nothing else to say about it.

03 June 2011

The Grumpy Buddhist

The other day a friend of a friend, knowing I practiced Zen, said to me, "We had a service at my church that incorporated principles of the Buddhist faith."  When I asked him what that meant, since I didn't quite understand what that would look like, he looked confused.

He then said, "Well I go to a church that says all paths are valid."

I said, "That may be, but you still have to pick one and stick with it some to begin to get anywhere."

Later, when I was far out of earshot, he told my friend that he was surprised I was so "opinionated" for being a Buddhist, since Buddhists are supposed to be "open" and "accepting."

Poor guy, seems no one ever told him that Buddhism is about cutting through delusion and putting an end to defilement.

01 June 2011

This Fathom-High Body

I was born with everything I need to practice the Dharma.  I will have everything I need to practice the Dharma even as I am dying.

Some food, some shelter, some clothes and anything else to keep this body in good repair are the only extras required.

Cracks me up to think I ever thought I needed anything else!