30 November 2011

Operation Delete

I heard about something today on the radio I'd never heard of before: the right to oblivion (le droit à l'oubli).  In a nutshell, this is an idea being invoked to support arguments that one should be able to request (or have automatically triggered by law) the removal of data and images relating to oneself floating about in cyberspace. 

Let's say you got wild and crazy at the beach party last summer.  Pictures were taken, and you thought nothing of posting them to your Facebook page.  Now, however, you're in line for a sweet job, you don't want the prospective employer to find out about your, perhaps perfectly legal but nevertheless unseemly, behavior, and so you request google or Facebook or any other such entity to permanently delete and/or block these images.

I'm given to understand that there is movement in some European countries to have such measures kick in routinely after some years have passed.  At the age of 40, say, one can watch one's 20 year old and younger self just vanish, and when one turns 41, anything from one's 21st year will follow suit, and on and on.

The program I was listening to centered on the legal and constitutional issues surrounding privacy, unwarranted search, image and data ownership, etc.  What is fascinating to me, and what seemed to just pass by as unproblematic in the program, however, is the very idea that one should be able to be free of one's past at will.  As one commentator I heard put it, such a right speaks directly to the "American ideal of self-creation."  Self-creation, so it seems, requires self-erasure.

Now I'm not one to go in for a lot of karma talk, and I hold to the non-substantiality of the self as one of the marks of conditioned existence.  Still, I think it's simply a matter of a sane assessment of conditions to say that one just can't pretend one's past never happened, even if one is no longer the one that one once was. The person one is is – in a not insignificant sense – conditioned by what one was.

I'd propose a different solution, though I will admit, pushing the delete button would be a lot easier:

Let's just lighten up on each other some.  It's not the end of the world, nor does it necessarily speak poorly to one's professional qualifications, to have evidence that one's teen's and twenty's weren't the best-spent years of one's life.  Let's understand that we have all – every last one of us – made stupid decisions, or gotten entangled in bad relationships, or misspent money, or had too much to drink, or whatever.  Let's not hide our warts and nicks and bruises and cuts in order to pretend to some retrievable virginal purity.  Is it really too much to ask that people get to be exactly who they are, have been, and will yet become?

29 November 2011

Reading vs Doing Koans

The other week in teisho there was a reference to Bach's "Partita No. 2 in D minor."  When I looked up the article the teisho was making use of, up came a picture of the score to the piece.

I've had a little bit of musical training; I've sung in choirs and I play the guitar.  But I've never achieved the level of musical training that would make me competent to sit down, look at a piece of Bach, and begin to understand what I was looking at.  "There's a C#," I could offer, and I can tell the difference between an 8th and a 16th note in a measure.  If I were to have next to the Bach, say, a bit of Philip Glass, I could certainly see a difference in the structure of the two pieces and make note of Bach's abundance and Glass' paucity.  And that would be about it.

Now I could spend a lot of my free time doing this business of picking up pieces of sheet music and taking such forays into them.  Everyone has a hobby.  I might even tell my friends something about it, since I'm finding it to be such an agreeable thing to do, and I want them to share my joy.  If I did it long enough, I might even feel unembarrassed to invite strangers to listen to what I have to say about these pieces, and if I were at all entrepreneurial, I might even charge them for it.  If I were so stationed, I could include such an exercise as part of a college course called "Comparative Sheet Music" or "Explorations of Musical Expression."  I could dole out A's to people whose mastery of this skill begins to equal mine.

All this without even knowing how to play the pieces in question.  In truth, I may never have even listened to them being played!

Today I'm going to be giving some basic meditation instruction to a colleague's class.  I'm happy to do this, and I'm glad of the opportunity.  I'm a bit concerned, though, because as part of the readings for the course my colleague assigned The Blue Cliff Record.  I see on the syllabus that they were to have discussed the text a few weeks back.

If a question about koan practice comes up, I'm afraid I'm going to have to break them the bad news that they were engaged in a practice as questionable as my discussions about sheet music.  I'm going to want to tell them about koan practice using a variation on what the teisho article author's violin teacher told him about Bach:
This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.
“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.
Then again, maybe not.  After all, we're just talking about a class requirement in a 3-credit course offered at a small-to-medium sized church-related comprehensive university in the Midwest.  Right?

Instead, maybe someone in the room will catch a bit of the spark that will make them want to take up koans like one takes up the violin and Bach.  Maybe they'll let themselves be exposed day in and day out, year in and year out.  Maybe, one day, they'll actually play the fucking koan and know something of what it must be like to have Bach flowing in and among and through and across marrow, bone, flesh, skin, wood, gut string, and horsehair.

And oh how sweet that will be!

25 November 2011

Today is Not Black Friday

One of the things I like best about gardening is that it gives me a temporal bearing that is not tied to a calendar.  Plants don't care what day of the week or month it is.  The ground isn't on a schedule that gets at all thrown off by leap years or Daylight Savings Time.  As much as I would like in my head to have all the leaves up "before Thanksgiving," I realize that the leaves know nothing of Thanksgiving, and perhaps I shouldn't make that kind of deal about it, either.

Today they're calling for a high in the upper 50's, and there's talk of some snow on Sunday.  There's one more yard waste pick up day before they resume service again in April.  Today is my day to get as much of the leaf cleanup done as possible (I can't expect the last of the leaves to fall today just in time for me to get them up), to set out the salt buckets and shovels, and to make sure all the storm windows are down around the building.  I don't know how many more chances I'll have to get all this done under such favorable conditions; we're that far into the season now.

If anyone were to ask me right now what I've gotten out of Zen, I'd tell them, "I know when to rake leaves."

24 November 2011

Thanksgiving 8:46am

There's a fine enough form of gratitude that consists in ticking off all of the good things and close calls and successes large and small that have come one's way.

This is called thanking, and it's good to do every once in a while.

But there's another form of gratitude, one that can find no words and hence can enumerate no list.  This is the gratitude that swells up with the dawning realization that there's never been an "I" on the receiving end of things to begin with.  There has only ever been the endless burgeoning forth of all there is.  At this point there is only one thing to do: let the burgeoning forth continue by stepping out of the way and letting things move along.

This is called giving, and it has no time of its own; it has no end, either, just as it has no beginning. 

I am reminded of Bodhidharma's take on the matter:
The sutras say, "The Dharma includes no being because it's free from the impurity of being, and the Dharma includes no self, because it's free from the impurity of the self."  Those wise enough to believe and understand this truth are bound to practice according to the Dharma.  And since that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging, they give their body, life, and property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment.  […]  And as with charity, they also practice the other virtues.  But while practicing the six virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all.
May we all practice so very little!

21 November 2011

A Priest By No Other Name

Back in July I started seriously kicking around the idea of taking my ordained name as my legal name.  Today I filed the papers with the Cook County Circuit Court and paid my court fee.  The hearing is set for January 25, 2012, at which time it will become official.

I settled on this course of action mostly because it really does seem to be the case that service to the Dharma has, over the past three years or so (roughly novitiate through ordination until now), become the center around which my life revolves.   I find myself planning the next few weeks, the next few months, the next few years against the backdrop of being an ordained member of the sangha.  I've already decided against things because of my ordained status, and I'm choosing to do more and more things to deepen that commitment.  My life stream has found a new bed.

Even more importantly, though, the sangha – from the head of the lineage on down – has seen fit to affirm me as a priest in their midst.  If it weren't for their overwhelmingly generous acceptance of me as an ordained member of the sangha, anything I would happen to feel about how my life is unfolding would run the risk of being a personal head trip.  I wouldn't do this if I were getting even the slightest sense that sangha members were looking at me even now and saying, "Him?  That one thinks he's a priest?"

As with all things in life, this is a kind of experiment.  Maybe it'll bear fruit, as I hope, but maybe it'll prove to have been a rather boneheaded thing to do.  Who knows?  I see this as just one more opportunity to go even more deeply into the Dharma, to paint more and more aspects of my life with the colors of practice and service.  My preceptor concluded the ordination ceremony with the words, "You have now entered the Way as a Buddhist priest."  Now I will get to pass through one dharma gate after another with just that one name attached. 

20 November 2011

Verse of the Kesa

As we were shutting things down after Temple Night Friday evening, my teacher and I were reflecting on just how good it is that there are opportunities throughout the year to wear the kesa (in many lineages, ordaineds wear the kesa most every day for sittings; in ours, it's reserved for formal occasions and ceremonies).  For starters, it keeps one from forgetting completely the kesa protocols.  Beyond that, though, it tutors the wearer in humility and patience by squelching the impulse to just get up and get on with things by introducing details of care and reverence to attend to.  Seeing the kesa wearer attend to these things cannot but remind any and all onlookers of the nature and aim of our practice: just this.

I remember well my first schooling in what it means to wear the kesa (as opposed to how to wear the kesa).  Before my ordination ceremony began I was waiting out of sight in the center office.  As the time for the start of the ceremony drew near, my teacher came into the office and without a word took off the rakusu he had been wearing, took his kesa out, went off to the side of the room, quietly knelt down on the floor towards the wall, carefully put the kesa on his head, placed his hands palm-to-palm, and silently recited the Verse of the Kesa.  I teared up.  "That's my teacher...," I thought to myself, "And that's how one puts on the Buddha's Robe...." 

Putting on the kesa throws Hakuin's "this very body, the body of Buddha" into a whole new light.  Now everyone has every right to look at me and come to their own conclusions as to what it means to be a son of Shakyamuni.  Even back in the day people looked at the early sangha members and thought, "So this is how Gotama's followers act!"  Sometimes they said it with approbation; sometimes they said it in contempt.  The burden lies on me to make the Dharma a lived, embodied reality in the 21st century.  Outside me, no Buddha.  It gets right down to that.

So I say again:

Wondrous is the robe of liberation (in all ten directions, all three worlds)
A treasure beyond form and emptiness (unspeakable boon given as rags)
Wearing it I will unfold Buddha's teaching (whether I intend to or not!)
For the benefit of all sentient beings (may I be but their admirable friend)

18 November 2011

Gratitude Pure and Simple

Yesterday a few of us were busy setting up and dressing altars for our semi-annual Temple Night to be held this evening. The sangha's Ceremony of Gratitude will follow close behind this coming Sunday morning, and we'll leave the place gussied up over the whole weekend.

This morning I woke up and took a look at what we had managed to get done.  The flowers still needed to be bought and arranged, and there were some last-minute items to take care of, too.  But before getting on with that, before we had even hit the zendo for morning sitting, I took a minute to soak in what all of this points to. 

In the living room area there's a sworded Mañjuśrī figure with attendant figures of Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa to either side.  The principal cloth on the altar is deep blue with gold, great colors to capture just how bright and transparent the moonlight of wisdom is.  There's a power there, a cosmic, all-pervasive clarity.

In the dokusan line area the colors are muted.  This is where pictures of our dead are placed in memory.  The figure at the center is Kannon, as one might well expect.  This Kannon is pouring out the medicine of compassion, and she is standing with a combination of ease and strength.  But the rest of the space is filled with Bodhisattvas as well.  Samantabhadra astride the elephant and Mañjuśrī astride the lion flank Kannon, and to their sides are two scrolls, each depicting some 18 bodhisattvas.  The main cloth is a brownish copper, and the cloth covers the whole bay window ledge.  The colors of the figures and the colors of the cloths and scrolls all blend in a deep earthiness, bringing to mind a groundedness that holds firm in everyday life and even through death.  Such is the strength and compassion of the Bodhisattvas!

The altar in the Buddha Hall celebrates the season, with oranges and greens as the backdrop for the fruits of the harvest that decorate the altar as well as the fruits of our practice that will fill the room.  Tonight before this altar we will once again affirm our place in the Buddha's family as we take the precepts together.  On Sunday before this altar we will once again offer our gratitude for all that sustains our lives, our practice, and this temple.

Bringing forth the key elements of our practice as things seen and touched and heard and tasted reminds me of just how much has been done by so many over countless ages to carry on the Dharma.  How absolutely unlikely it is that I should sit in robes in a zendo in Evanston, IL in 2011!  Nevertheless, here I sit thanks to the selfless work of men and women – bodhisattvas all – whose efforts made this opportunity even remotely possible.

Forget Sunday.  If I'm going to be at all serious about this, every breath, every movement and every thought will be a Ceremony of Gratitude.

16 November 2011

The Inexhaustibility of Everything

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. 
My tendency has been to read Dōgen's lines here as referring to something like a medium, the "that through which" something like a fish or a bird or me passes.   It's endless, right there with the critter in question, in fact pretty goshdarn near coextensive with the critter in question, too.  But it's BIG, like the ocean and the sky and life.  And even though I read that the bird is the air and the fish is the water, it's been hard to shake the feeling of vastness, since, let's face it, sky and ocean and life are just about as big as things get around here.

I think my tendency has been misguided, since it's not a size issue but an inexhaustibility issue.

It's as small but as inexhaustible as a 16th note, as I heard in a recent teisho.  It's as insignificant but as inexhaustible as Gutei's finger.  It's as minuscule but as inexhaustible as that smudge I missed on the window pane.  It's as trivial but as inexhaustible as a shake of the salt from the shaker.  It's as passing but as inexhaustible as that sip of coffee I just took. 

Here's the kicker: this inexhaustibility is not a function of the things in question, since 16th notes, fingers, smudges, shakes of salt or coffee sips are whole, complete and one in themselves.  Rather, t's a function of the fact that as close in as I get to any of them, as "one with them" as I can possibly become, there's still that whisper of a self that slips in as the very condition of my getting in good with them at all.  Seems there will always be a moment of divergence, however slight and hopefully diminishing, between me and every other thing, and that divergence is what keeps me coming back for more and more and more, going (seemingly) deeper and deeper and deeper.

At least, of course, until that self extinguishes and, with it, everything else as well. But that's another matter entirely.

12 November 2011

What to Pick?

This year our center rejoined the many faith/practice communities in the area that are part of Interfaith Action of Evanston.  On Thanksgiving Eve they have an interfaith service that members of the groups affiliated with IAE are invited to take part in.  About a month ago I was asked if I would participate in the opening part of the service in which a few of the traditions represented offer a short "blessing" drawn from (one of) their respective "sacred text(s)."

I don't know what to pick, and the clock is ticking...

Problem is, we don't really have a "sacred text." 

I'm toying with several options:
     1. The "whole of the holy life" account from the Uppadha Sutra
     2. Torei Zenji's Bodhisattva Vow
     3. The "may I be anything anyone needs" lines in the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

I'm inclining most to the Śāntideva, if for no other reason than that it brings together so nicely the connection between Awakening Mind and bodhisattvic service.  What could be more fitting for a celebration uniting men and women committed to keeping the homeless better fed and warmer than they might otherwise be?

Still, it's not a "sacred text," and I'm supposed to process in with the book in hand.  My copy is pretty well worn, so I'll probably have to rig up some kind of cover.  At least there'll be a book; how would I handle the Torei Zenji piece?

It's probably not the best time to drive home the point that the sacred text that frees us has no words at all, is it?

11 November 2011

The Undiscussables – Two: Sex

I will formulate a training rule for the bhikkhus with ten aims in mind: the excellence of the Community, the comfort of the Community, the curbing of the impudent, the comfort of well-behaved bhikkhus, the restraint of effluents related to the present life, the prevention of effluents related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase of the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma, and the fostering of discipline.
- The Buddha
We have Ven. Sudinna to thank for the first rule of the Vinaya.  Seems Sudinna had become a bhikkhu after he had married.  His parents tried getting him to return to lay life to no avail.  He had not fathered any children, so his mother, hoping at least to secure the family line through a grandson, asked him to impregnate the wife he had left.  He agreed.  The bhikkhus were scandalized and reported the incident to the Buddha.  Sudinna was upbraided ("worthless man"), and the Buddha laid down the first pārājika rule, one that entails defeat for the bhikkhu and his expulsion from the sangha: the injunction against sexual intercourse.

This rule, like the others concerning sexual matters that followed, is not meant simply to avoid scandal and insure harmony in the sangha but to help the bhikkhu on his path to attainment.  Contrary to some feminist readings, these rules are not straightforwardly misogynist, either, since sex with animals as well as the emission of semen through contact with a fellow bhikkhu, etc. are also addressed.  No, this has to do with the raw facts of sexual craving and the attempts at its satisfaction.

Enter the Mahāyāna.  At the forefront of the precepts now is the injunction against killing.  "Sexual impropriety" or "misuse of sexuality" replaces all talk of intercourse, masturbation, semen emission and genitals, and the precept comes in at number three on the list.  Bodhidharma and Dōgen aren't terribly clear here, either:
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the ungilded Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the Precept of Not Misusing Sex.
Dōgen Zenji: The Three Wheels are pure and clear. When you have nothing to desire, you follow the way of all Buddhas.
There has been a sea change, it would seem, but how is one to take one's bearings?

I'm going to be pretty honest.  There's a lot connected with sexuality that wouldn't constitute "misuse" by most prevailing standards but is still a significant stumbling-block on my path, and I know it.  Focusing on being "caring and respectful" doesn't really cut to the core of the number that greed, anger and ignorance play on my comportment and meditation and wisdom where sex is concerned, either.

I suppose if I were a Buddhist layman I wouldn't worry about this so much.  As an ordained, even as one ordained as a "priest" rather than a bhikkhu, I have not only my growth in wisdom to attend to but the wellbeing of the sangha and its individual members as well.

I have to wonder if passing up the specificity of the Vinaya for the expansive-mindedness of the Bodhisattva Precepts hasn't had the consequence of taking the nitty-gritty of the effect of sex on practice off the table.  If I'm a bhikkhu, I have to confess fortnightly whether I've broken any number of sex-related precepts, and, depending on which ones they are, the sangha will have something to say about it to me.  If I'm a Mahāyānist, I never have to own up to anything publicly; instead, I simply keep affirming my resolve to be "caring and respectful."

I've read all kinds of first-hand accounts of modern bhikkhus' struggles with sex; I've read of all kinds of contemporary Zen teachers who never talked about their issues with sex and practice, only to be caught in some impropriety or another.  Perhaps we don't want to read the Buddha telling Sudinna that it would have been better had he put his penis in the mouth of a venomous snake rather than having vaginal sex with the woman who had been his wife, but the rather carefully-maintained cloud of ambiguity that currently reigns in contemporary practice isn't particularly helpful, either.

08 November 2011

Reality Therapy

We're at the point in the semester when we read The Handbook of Epictetus.  I find it one of the most congenial texts I've ever read, a boatload of wisdom in a very short number of pages.  I also find it reminds me of lessons I have yet to learn well enough:
4. When you are about to undertake some action, remind yourself what sort of action it is.  If you are going out for a bath, put before your mind what happens at baths – there are people who splash, people who jostle, people who are insulting, people who steal.  And you will undertake the action more securely if from the start you say of it, "I want to take a bath and to keep my choices in accord with nature;" and likewise for each action.  For that way if something happens to interfere with your bathing, you will be ready to say, "Oh, well, I wanted no only this but to keep my choices in accord with nature, and I cannot do that if I am annoyed with things that happen."

8. Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.
The Stoic isn't the Buddhist, but the truth of the matter is the truth of the matter!

07 November 2011

No Wiggle Room

He must carry the holeless iron yoke,
And his descendants too can have no peace or rest.
If you want to support the gate and sustain the house
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.
– Verse, Mumonkan 17

When there's no hole there's no distance between the yoke and the neck, no opportunity to fudge, no wiggle room at all.  Every motion has the yoke as part of it.  The yoke makes certain movements impossible.   

There's the mountain of sharpened metal; here are my bare, all too soft, all too pink-soled, ticklish feet.  It's viande hachée time, folks!

When I was asked why I wanted to ordain, my answer was quick, unrehearsed and decisive: "Because I don't want this [the practice] to die out."  What's funny is that I did not know then, and still don't know completely, just what that would demand by way of readjustment to my life, my attitudes, my way of doing things, and the rest.  All I knew, and all I still know, was that I was agreeing to be tethered to the wagon and pushed up the hill.  

And that's enough.

It was only later I found out that the answer I gave was the only answer my preceptor would accept.  I've not been at this all that long, but from what I've seen so far, I can certainly understand why!

04 November 2011

If the Terrain and the Map Do Not Agree...

...follow the terrain.  (Swedish Army Manual)

I consider it one of the best characteristics of Zen that it insists one work out one's own attainment for oneself.  There is no road map, no dharmic GPS.  There's the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end, and the path to its end, of course, but the distinctive thisness of my dukkha – the curiously particular way the kleśas operate on this bundle I call "me" – is not something I can just read or hear about.  I can only know it from this side of my interactions with the world and those around me.  My attachments grew out of a collection of experiences that is rather unique to me; the things I fear and run from are the flip side of the projections I alone make of my "self."  All is on fire, all right, but these particular flames are lapping at me alone.  

I can barely bring myself to read anything Buddhist-related any more.  I've already placed just about all of the Buddhist books I've ever owned on the shelves of the center's library, and although I admire Dōgen, I'm really really glad I don't practice at a center that has people reading and quoting him day and night!

I find myself at long last following the counsel I first received as far as listening to teisho goes, "Focus on your practice primarily and on the teisho secondarily."   I used to hope to catch some insight from the teacher; now I find that teishos help best by giving me a spur to greater insight of my own.

What can books or talk tell me I don't know by living through and looking hard at the flow of my life?  What can they save me from that my own inherent wisdom can't?  Can they capture at all the great ease I experience when, having set down a burden, I walk a freer man?  Shall they handle for me the mistakes I very much need to make along the way?

Of course, Zen isn't the only path that points one back to oneself.  In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers it is recounted that a young monk begged Abba Moses for a word.  The old man said, "Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."

Guess it's not surprising that so few went out to the desert and that so few stick with Zen!

02 November 2011

No Comprendo Business, or Zen, Inc.

I heard a great story this morning.  A dharma brother was telling me about this guy he knew who really got into all the Buddhist stuff, like fine robes, malas, oryoki sets, etc.  Couldn't make it past a day in sesshin, but he had a complete stock of Zen this and Zen that.  My dharma brother told me this guy had read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and liked it so much he went out and bought the boxed set of Trungpa's complete works!  Cracked up on the Purple Line for five minutes over that one.

A casual practitioner might be forgiven the tendency to want to shop his or her way to practice.  To anyone born in the last seventy-five years in the US, the sure sign of taking something "seriously" is to go out and buy all the paraphernalia associated with it.  Taking up yoga?  Better get your mat, outfit, supports, DVDs, lessons and subscription to Yoga Journal.  Going to start a running program?  Get the shoes (of course), but don't forget the special shorts and singlets, books and socks, pacing meters and heart rate monitors, not to mention the subscription to Runner's World.  Why should it be different with Zen?

What gets me most, though, are all the lineage heads, noted teachers, senseis and roshis of one kind or another hawking their books, their goods and their services on their sangha's website, their personal blogs, and the rest.  I'm given to understand there's a Zen(ish) joint in the area that was forced to relocate to commercially zoned property because all the business it was conducting had effectively meant it was in reality no longer a 501(c)3.  How much longer before other places and teachers have to face that kind of music?  Shouldn't we be helping to cure the disease rather than adding to its causes?

If adapting the Dharma to modern conditions translates into marketing commodities, I think we will be missing the point.

But what do I know?  I just don't understand.