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!