29 July 2011

Clinging to the Shore

I can't exactly put words on it.  Maybe ache-urge-shame-wonder-awe comes close.  It's what wells up when I read something like these lines from Baisaō:
Pain and poverty
poverty and pain
life stripped to the bone
absolute nothingness
only one thing left
a bright cold moon
in the midnight window
illuminating a Zen mind
on its homeward way
Here's the thing, though:  I don't want just to read about it.  I want to see that very same moon with that very same mind.  I want know exactly what Baisaō knew (and, yes, I read the first two lines of the poem, too, and, yes, I realize just how überinflated, übercomfortable and überpadded my own life still is).

Is that so very much to ask?

I still feel like I'm looking at the water afraid to get wet.  I see Baisaō in the waves.  I see Ryōkan in the waves.   I see Saigyō in the waves.  I see Mahākāśyapa in the waves.  "Come in," they call, "the water's fine." 

"But what about my stuff?"  I call back.

"Just leave it. You won't miss it once you're in here."

And I both believe and don't believe them.  So I shout out, "I'll be in in a little bit," and I wait on the shore feeling that same ol' ache-urge-shame-wonder-awe for yet a while longer.

27 July 2011

A Case of Tourista

No, it wasn't because of the water, and it wasn't what one might expect.

It was me!

My enjoyment of the past week's sights and sounds and tastes and smells (and I did enjoy them thoroughly) couldn't overcome the growing uneasiness I felt at being a leisure traveler.  It gnawed at me the whole time.

I don't like finding myself counted among the pampered and the privileged.  I don't like the separation that comes when I stay in surroundings that are cleaned and tended to by those who couldn't begin to stay in them, when I eat food prepared and served by people who couldn't begin to eat it.  I would love to say to them, "I'm your brother, let me be what you need me to be," but my actions say, "I'm your master, and you're supposed to make my whims come true."  I would love for their well-being to be my highest concern.  Instead, my comfort becomes theirs. 

I will have occasion to need overnight lodging from time to time.  My kids' colleges are too far away for pick ups and drop offs to be single-day events.  When I make such trips, I stay one-star cheap.  Clean linens and a clean bathroom are more than enough.  Maybe in time I can do without even that much, staying with friends or relatives, perhaps, or camping if that's an option.

But leisure travel?  I think I'm ready to resolve not to engage in leisure travel again.  It just turns me into something I did not ordain to be.  And no sight or sound or taste or smell on earth can compensate for that.

17 July 2011

Going and Returning We Never Leave Home

A long time ago I was spending a couple of months with a friend in Hamburg, Germany before heading off to Frankfurt for a year of study.  At the time, the favorable exchange rate coupled with my still-qualifying-for youth-fare age meant travel was rather inexpensive.  So I got the bright idea to head to Assisi on a pilgrimage, spending a few days on the cheap where Francis had hung out so many centuries before.

I boarded a train and traveled through a day and a night and the better part of another day before finding myself at the station on the plain below Assisi.  When I got off the train I realized in an instant that there was nothing there for me that I didn't already have, nothing I would discover that I didn't already know, nothing I could take away that could avail me in any way, shape or form.  So rather than make my way up the hill to the city to stay for a few days, I boarded the next northbound train, and I traveled through the night and a day and part of another night before arriving back where I had started from some 60 hours earlier.

Tomorrow I fly across the ocean for a week abroad.  I'm getting the trip for free, and I'm grateful for the generosity that is making it possible, but to tell the truth I wouldn't be at all upset if the trip got canceled right now.   It's not that it won't be nice to get a change of scenery, and it's not that it won't be nice to get away from the center for a little bit.  It's just that I have come to know, from the one side, that no matter what I pack or don't pack, this bundle of stuff I take to be "me" always goes along for the ride, and it doesn't really matter at which latitude and longitude it happens to find itself, since it can (and does) pull its shenanigans anywhere at any time.   From the other side, whether it's borscht or Boca, Nevsky Prospekt or Mt. Prospect, it's all just this.  Travel an inch, travel 2500 miles, it's still just this.

That said, I really like flying in airplanes.  At this time of year that far north there will be hardly any night for me for a week, and if that isn't cool enough, I'm going to be all too happy to let someone else monitor the rogue bamboo in the garden for 8 days.  Off I go!

15 July 2011

Asalha Puja

Today is Asalha Puja, sometimes called Dharma Day, which commemorates the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma.  Vassa, the three-month Rains Retreat, begins tomorrow.

I get that in Mahāyāna practice there is not a lot of emphasis on the historical Buddha or on celebrations that surround key moments in the early development of Buddhism.  But what could better capture the Mahāyāna spirit than Asalha Puja?  Here we see the Buddha, having cleared the mind, now liberating all sentient beings with the Dharma.  What he did, we also aspire to do.

But reenactment is not the order of the day, and if by turning the Wheel we mean giving a lecture on the Four Noble Truths, we've missed the point, too:
The kid is cranky.  Now turn the Wheel.
You land the much needed job.  Now turn the Wheel.
The soup is spilled.  Now turn the Wheel.
A friend needs a hand.  Now turn the Wheel.
You inherit a fortune.  Now turn the Wheel.
The spouse dies.  Now turn the Wheel.
A most propitious Asalha Puja, sangha!

14 July 2011

Getting Dressed (Or Not) In The No Comprendo Zone

The other night I received a text message from my daughter who was riding a train en route to Washington, DC: "There are Tibetan monks on this train!"  She knew that because they were dressed like Tibetan monks.

A couple of years ago I was renewing my drivers license, and in line in front of me was an Eastern Orthodox priest.  I knew that because he was dressed like an Orthodox priest.

A couple of weeks ago when we bought the trees for the yard, we knew when we had spotted the Catholic nun selling baked goods when we were looking around for her stand.  We knew that because she was dressed like a Catholic nun.

At a clothing store recently I saw an Orthodox Jewish mom and her son shopping for the boy.  I knew that because he was wearing, and carrying to the register, a white shirt and black pants, and out of the pants and shirt he was wearing I saw his tzitzis.

I find these snapshots compelling.  I find them compelling because these men and women and children have no qualms about not fitting in with the prevailing culture.  I find them compelling because these men and women and children, by not fitting in with the prevailing culture, create within that cultural landscape something noticeably different, something that points – I'll say it – in a better direction.  I find them compelling because these men and women and children are willing to live with the realization that they cannot go just anywhere so dressed, that they will not be welcomed everywhere, and that others may well (and often do) look at them and shake their heads in contempt.  I also find them compelling, though, because others may well (and often do) look at them, see that another way is possible and begin to set themselves on that path.

I get that Zen came to America at the same time as the 60s hit.  I get that it showed up just when folks were seeing a benchmark of liberation in the shedding of such distinctive religious clothing (as if nuns trading in their habits for polyester pantsuits in the 70s was, in the end, a fashion coup!).  I get that one of the very important things about Zen in America is that it emphasizes lay practice.

Still, we fret about how to spread the Dharma.  We ponder ways of getting more folks interested in Zen practice.  We scratch our heads wondering why more people don't avail themselves of what Zen has to offer.

Maybe part of the problem is that we think first and almost exclusively in terms of media, without realizing that what moves people most is the example of another human being.  Siddhartha didn't set out on the path because someone told him about suffering or because he had read about it.  He set out on the path after seeing, in the flesh, a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a living, breathing, distinctively clad monk.

What's the worst that would happen were (at least some) ordained Zen folk to walk about the world, ride trains, deal with license lines, procure basic goods and the rest dressed in our robes?  Why is it good for the Tibetans, good for the Catholic nuns, good for the Orthodox priests, good for the Orthodox Jews, but not for us?  What are we most afraid of here – bothering somebody or being bothered and inconvenienced ourselves?

I don't understand the resistance to the idea of dressing according to station.  I just don't understand.

12 July 2011

Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

I find no stumbling-block in the robe of the Buddha.

So when I heard from a high-standing Zen priest that he doesn't wear the robe and kesa when officiating at weddings, opting instead for a well-tailored shirt and rakusu, I was kind of surprised.  He explained that he thought the robe and kesa might be confusing or off-putting to people in attendance who were not familiar with Buddhism or Zen.

I do not now know – and I may never know – what it means to wear the robe and kesa, but I do know that I will not apologize for it or keep it in the closet to avoid coming across as strange.  Were I ever forced to get rid of everything in my closet except one outfit, I think the robe and kesa would be the last things left. 

I simply find no stumbling-block in the robe of the Buddha.

11 July 2011

Really Helping

I heard it said recently that one shouldn't give money to panhandlers on the street, because giving them money isn't helping them with what they "really" need.  The assumption is that their use of the money for another bottle or another hit is only perpetuating their suffering, and one shouldn't contribute to that at all.

I kind of get it, but I kind of don't.

My guess is that the person who said that, along with most everyone else who tends to that view, isn't about to put his life on hold to stay with the addict while he goes through the violent and ugly process of detoxing, and that's assuming the addict in question is even ready to go in.

Let's face it: excusing oneself from giving the pocket change by appealing to some standard of "real" help is a smokescreen;  one walks away without offering any help – real or sham – whatsoever.  When we measure help by standards of success or failure, we're implicitly creating a line that divides so as to protect the ego, to keep the ego from wasting its precious energies and resources.

But maybe that's not the point of the exercise at all.  Consider this:
A delicate little pigeon once happened to notice a mountain fire which was burning up so many square miles of forest.  The pigeon wished somehow to extinguish the terrible conflagration, but there was nothing that a little delicate bird could do.  Well knowing that he could do nothing to help the situation, the bird still could not remain quiet. With irrepressible compassion, he started to fly between the mountain on fire and a far away lake, carrying a few drops of water soaked in his wings each time.
    Before long all the energies of the pigeon were exhausted, and he fell dead on the ground, achieving no result at all.
Shibayama continues, "This most impressive story gives us a picture of the "Great Compassion" which exhausts its life with the Four Great Buddhist Vows."

"What rot!" I hear the crowd say, "Stupid frippin' bird."

But the majority voice is not the ruling one here.  Shibayama goes on:
If we were to call what the pigeon did foolish, nothing could be more foolish and useless.  But there are saints who would testify that nothing but such a holy, meritless life is the real life worth living; and it is these saints who, in spite of many difficulties, give harmony to the human world and direct it to peace and happiness, however little by little. […] Yet there is no other way but this for us to follow, and for which we should strive even at the cost of our own lives.*
It's one thing not to give to the panhandler, but it's another thing to elevate that choice to a voiced principle.   If we feel the need to excuse ourselves from offering aid, it's probably best to do so quietly and with lowered head.

* Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk, 201-02.

10 July 2011

I'm Just a Buddhist

I sometimes am taken aback when I hear lines such as "X is important in other branches of Buddhism, but not in Zen," to be statements of principle rather than statements of mere fact.   To be sure, every branch of Buddhism brings to the table its own particular emphases, its own particular bag of upāya, and its own particular list of things to fret about.  But I would hesitate to follow that observation up with something like "And thus should it be."

The Dharma is one, of a continuous flavor throughout, and that flavor is liberation.

I may practice Zen, but, in the end, I'm just another Buddhist, doing his level best to live up to the reality of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end.

07 July 2011

Pass It On

In the West, broadly speaking, we tend to contrast form and meaning, as if the one were just another superfluity and the other the real deal. "Why bother with ceremony?" I've often heard, "It's what's in your heart that counts," or, put from a different perspective, "If I don't feel like it, why should I do it?  I wouldn't be sincere."

Seems to me we really don't have reason to speak like that in Zen.  We don't contrast form and meaning; we recognize instead the unity of form and emptiness.  In the end, there's no sincere vs insincere bowing.  There's just bowing.  There's no self "expressing" itself through the bowing, either.  Just the bow.

I'm spending a few days at the mother temple learning ceremonial forms I don't know and refining the ones I do.  For me, it's a "vessel of the tradition" issue.  If I don't know it, I can't pass it on.  And if I can't pass it on, then it dies.

And as far as I can, I won't let that happen.

04 July 2011

Getting Patriotic

When I get patriotic, I think of those who sang of the wonders of this continent, like Muir and Leopold and Thoreau. 

When I get patriotic, I think of those who went out of their way to serve those the land of opportunity wasn't so generous to, like Tubman and Day and Addams.

When I get patriotic, I think of those who bid us stand on our own two wonderfully unique feet, like Whitman and Dickinson and Snyder (each in their own way).

When I get patriotic, I think of those whose minds and work brought an end to suffering of one kind or another, like Salk and King and Muddy Waters.

When I get patriotic, I think of every unknown and unremembered miner, migrant worker, day laborer and busboy that ever did the dirty and hidden work of an often shiny and grandiose society.

When I get patriotic, I think of the faces I see day in and day out, faces from every place on the planet, all of whom are now, irreducibly, American.

When I get patriotic, I remember that, for better or for worse, in good times and in bad, no matter where on this planet I've ever ventured to, this land, this country, these people are home and kin like no other.

And I find that I am grateful in ways I can't begin to describe.

03 July 2011

Work. Stop.

From what I understand, most pre-industrial peoples spent at most a few hours a day securing their livelihood.  Simple dwellings don't require much complicated upkeep, subsistence agriculture isn't in itself that time-consuming, and when clothes and utensils are kept closer to necessity than to opulence, they don't require that much time to make or repair, either.

So when it comes to understanding the place of work in Zen practice, I have to wonder if contemporary takes on the matter don't cloud the issue with a sense of industriousness that is more a 19th century European/American invention than anything intrinsically related to Zen.

Today we bought a couple of trees for the yard.  After a very pleasant shopping experience (we got a nice discount, the store was a wonder to behold, and the baked goods sold by the French nun that we got for the trip back were delicious), another resident and I dug the holes and planted the trees, then he took off, and I went and picked up a few more plants for that area and put them in.  Once the sprinkler was on, I was done, too.

We didn't punch a clock, and we didn't keep working to fill up a set time allotted for working.  We just did the job and left it at that.  Last Sunday when sangha members washed windows, the same format held sway; we did the work, and then we stopped.  Whenever I was working in the yard or painting rooms or shoveling snow or raking leaves I did the job just fine without anyone making sure I was keeping properly busy.

I've come into contact with large training centers that have (a lot of) allotted hours for work, with precise start and stop times, break times, etc.  If one finishes one's job, one is to go to the work supervisor and get some more to do.  My guess is that there are days when some busy work is created just to keep hands from becoming idle.  From the other side, once the bell sounds, work stops, no matter what stage it's in, and that's it for the day.

I don't know.  Something about that just seems unnecessarily contrived.  Who works like that? 

I will be the first to agree that the model of practice should not be one where hired hands do all the work so the "spiritual elite" don't have to bother.  I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of everyone getting their hands dirty, their arms sore, their patience tested in getting the common work done.  No one will ever hear an argument against work from me. 

I guess I'm just glad to be in a smaller kind of place, were people can see and tackle the jobs that need doing in a much more, I don't know, adult manner.  Tasks are blended into an otherwise full life, and no one is lording it over the others with a clock.  When there's work to do, we do it.  Some days there's more, and some days there's less.  When the work is done, it's done, and we turn to other matters.  

No one would ever notice the difference.

Or maybe they would.  Last year a resident from another center stayed here for a few days.  He was wondering how many we had on staff.  At the time, it was just me in the house, and maybe on a Sunday a few hands would help straighten up the zendo or rake leaves.  When I told him that such was the extent of our "staff" he was astounded. "But we have x people," he said, "We have soji every day, and our place doesn't look anywhere near as nice as this!"

01 July 2011


I knew my left eye was getting pretty bad, but I didn't know just how bad until I got my eyes examined today.  

It's a big 'ol cataract causing the problem.  "You're a bit young for this; you must be out in the sun a lot," the friendly optometrist said, and I am.  "Better start wearing sunglasses."  "We can correct the vision with glasses up to a point, but you'll probably be needing surgery before too long," she continued.  I explained that I had been cut open many times before, but the thought of lying awake watching someone remove the lens from my eye was exactly the kind of thing that gave me the squirms.  "It's outpatient, so it's not that bad," she said, not knowing just how uncomforting she was being despite her best efforts.

I know it might sound like bullshit, but I find it utterly fascinating watching this life unfold, with everything it brings and everything it takes away, with all of its benestrophes and catastrophes, its close calls and its full-on assaults.  Every moment of every day some new something-or-other shows up that speaks to me of the Dharma, of the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end. 

Cataract surgery.  Who'd have thought?  Bring it on!  What's next?