31 December 2011

So Small a Hinge

Soon we will breathe in 2011 and breathe out 2012.  So small is the hinge on which the world hangs.

It's easy to poo-poo the whole New Year business.  "It's just another tick on the clock," one might say.  But get this:

On so small a hinge I switched from umbilical cord to lung.
On so small a hinge I spoke my first word.
On so small a hinge I became a father.
On so small a hinge I ordained.
On so small a hinge I will die.

So yeah, I get making some kind of deal about one year ending and another beginning.  Between that in breath and that out breath all manner of things are possible.  In that silence between the in breath and the out breath whole worlds are renewed.  In that most barely perceptible of pauses all beings are at ease.

What's not remarkable in that?

29 December 2011

Home is Where the Temple Shows Up (Once in a While)

"What's this about you coming over to clean the house?" a relatively newish member asked.   I had sent out an email to the sangha offering to do home purification ceremonies during these weeks around New Year's, and she thought it had something to do with washing floors and dusting!  "No cleaning involved," I told her, "at least on my part," and we both had a good laugh when I explained what was involved.

The custom of doing home purifications had lapsed for quite some time in our sangha.  I don't know if it was teacher fatigue, undersubscription by the sangha or a combination of both.  This year I made the offer to do them again.  One member took up the offer.

So last night a visiting Dharma brother and I packed up a few ceremonial things and headed over to the home.  We started off with a short period of sitting.  I then said a few words to the effect that home is where it all stops and starts, and it is at home where we are most ourselves, warts and all.  When we do such a ceremony, I continued, it's not about performing some kind of magic on the woodwork but about renewing the commitment of those in the home to living more skillfully and to practicing with greater effort.  We then did a short chanting ceremony and then proceeded room by room chanting and gently ringing bells and shaking the shakujo, stopping at each altar to light incense and do a water purification, then continuing for a total of three circumambulations around the place.  We closed with a special return of merit and then chanted the Four Vows together.  Afterwards we had some food and spent a couple of hours socializing before the Dharma brother and I packed it up and headed back to the center.

I had never done such a ceremony before, and it hadn't worked out to have one done at my home back in the day (we were then living 70 miles from the center), so I had no idea what to expect. 

The thing that impressed me most was the sense of bringing something of temple life to the home.  All at once, ceremonial forms and chants and objects that belong under the temple roof came before the familial hearth.  Things said only in zendos and Buddha Halls were now being said in the living room and bedroom and outside the bathroom.

The home isn't the temple, the householder is not the homeleaver, the business of the workaday world is not the structured atmosphere of practice.  It's good that each has its own place, and that each does what it needs to do at its own pace and according to its own rules.

But that is precisely why it's a good thing to have each side make its presence known in each other's space, to infuse the other with an aspect of life that is not its own.  I don't follow those who would have children at regular sittings, but I do believe there have to be days when kids can run amok at the center, and parents can schlepp the diaper bag in and change the baby.  In the same way, the home should not be a mini-monastery, but I do believe there have to be days when the temple folk show up with  different objects and different clothing and different things to say. 

I found out that in Orthodoxy, the priests will do similar home purifications.  Rabbis visit and bless Jewish homes as well.  This clearly isn't exclusive to one form of religious practice; in fact, it's probably at the heart of all religious practice, such thin lines that connect home and temple.  I hope we can encourage it more in our sangha and that more folks will avail themselves of such an opportunity.

27 December 2011

Just Sitting

I found out recently that our lineage is one of the very few in the States that doesn't allow moving during formal rounds of sitting. 

When I first started sitting I was a basket of anxiety plated with armor.  The first time I tried to sit, I broke into a cold sweat and just about passed out.  No mat and cushion for me, the teacher said, and I was shown a chair.  Next time I came back I was bound and determined to get on the floor with everyone else.  I propped myself up with extra support cushions, but I can't say that the extra padding did anything to alleviate the pain.  Still not knowing the distinction between pain and suffering, I thought that the way out of the suffering was by eliminating the pain, so at each kinhin I grabbed another support cushion until I was seated atop a stack of now increasingly unstable cushions.  Toward the end of the evening rounds, the pain was more than I could bear, so I adjusted my leg a bit.  "No moving!" stated the monitor, in as clear and dispassionate a voice as possible, and I held the position until the end.

I kept coming back, and I kept feeling the pain, and every once in a while I would see if I could get away with a little bit of an unauthorized adjustment, and the voice came back, "No moving!"

At any point I could have said, "Fuck this shit," but I'm glad I didn't.   I could have said, "These people are attached to their forms; don't they understand about being beyond form and emptiness?" but, again, I'm glad I didn't.

And why?

Because dukkha is a teacher of the highest order, and whenever I seek to avoid dukkha, whether in day-to-day life or on the mat, I play hookie from school, fail to learn the lesson, and fall short of my aspiration. 

Eventually I stopped playing this game of trying to move on the mat.

Eventually, as a result, the "I" began to stop more and more.

I don't think it can be emphasized enough that the point of all this practice – the point of our ceremonial forms, the point of koan training, the point of sesshin, the point of dealing with sangha, the point of shikantaza – is to see into and live the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end, and the path to its end.  If we're not about ego-attrition, then what, pray tell, are we about?

Allowing moving on the mat is like, I don't know, allowing cigarettes at a smoking-cessation clinic.  If one says one wants to taste the liberation Buddhism has to offer, but instead keeps retreating into ego habit and comfort, then what's the point, exactly? If we can't manage to learn to let go of fidgeting while on the mat, then what are the chances we'll be ready to let go when the stakes are higher? 

I came to Zen because I saw in it a practice that could bring about what I had come to sense was true: that the fullness of life requires the death of the self.  I had heard that message preached for years, but I never knew how to begin to realize it.  In its utter simplicity, Zen gives us a tool by which to do that.  It's called zazen, seated focused meditation.  Like any tool, though, it has to be kept sharp and well-tended and – most of all – used properly.

24 December 2011

I Believe in Father Christmas

When I was a lot younger there was a song put out by Emerson, Lake and Palmer called "I Believe in Father Christmas."  It doesn't get a lot of (= any) play on the non-stop-holiday-programming stations, probably because it's not exactly all chock full of wonder and cheer:
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
Til I believed in the Israelite

And I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
Then I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him right through his disguise
Still, it isn't completely Grinchy, either, and it ends on a charitable, if rather sober, note:
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'd be peace on earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve
Well, for what it's worth, here's my take on the matter:
I believe in Father Christmas
I believe in the Israelite
I believe that Peace-Is-With-Us
I believe in that Silent Night

For I know that there lies within us
All the good there is yet to do
Let's start once again with a foe or a friend
And a new kind of dawn with break through

And I know that there's snow at Christmas
But also sun, sleet and wind and rain
The peace that we want for Christmas
Comes all the same in our joy and pain

No need for help from distant planets
No need to search near or far away
There's one thing to do, it's simple, it's true:
Wake up and know, "It's a good day"

22 December 2011

Dharma Rain

The Buddha said:
I look upon all things
as being universally equal,
I have no mind to favor this or that,
to love one or hate another.
I am without greed or attachment
and without limitation or hindrance.
At all times, for all things
I preach the Law equally;
as I would for a single person,
that same way I do for numerous persons.
Constantly I expound and preach the Law,
never have I done anything else,
coming, going, sitting, standing,
never to the end growing weary or disheartened.
I bring fullness and satisfaction to the world,
like a rain that spreads its moisture everywhere.
Eminent and lowly, superior and inferior,
observers of precepts, violators of precepts,
those fully endowed with proper demeanor,
those not fully endowed,
those of correct views, of erroneous views,
of keen capacity, of dull capacity –
I cause the Dharma rain to rain on all equally,
never lax or neglectful.
Lotus Sutra
The Dharma rain that falls of the Buddha's wisdom and compassion is of one flavor throughout: liberation.

That said, all receive as they are able, and only as they are able.  The superior plants, as the sutra continues, receive in superior measure.  The middling plants receive in middling measure.  The inferior plants receive in inferior measure.  Those who observe the precepts receive as precept observers.  Those who violate the precepts receive as precept violators.  Those who hold to correct views receive as correct view holders.  Those who maintain erroneous views receive as maintainers of erroneous views.

This is not a problem.  The Buddha cannot be reproached for the fact that superior plants receive in superior measure, that precept holders receive in ways that precept violators do not.  It is not done out of love or hate.  It is not done to reward or punish.  It's just the way things are.

I really bristle when I hear that we are not to exercise sound judgment in distinguishing the superior from the middling from the inferior.  "All are Buddha; all are fully enlightened," I hear in some quarters.  "Don't pick and choose," gets tossed about as a maxim of skillful action.  Well, as soon as those folks and I live in the realm of the absolute, I'll be more than happy to entertain such propositions.

Until then, we do reality and ourselves a disservice by pretending things are more equal than they are.  When I give a C for a C-quality exam to one student and an A for an A-quality exam to another student, I am not doing it because I like the one student more than the other.  When I ask a person with decent pitch to start us off in a round of "Happy Birthday" at the party, I am not being mean to the tone-deaf among us. 

I don't think any of this is controversial.

I do, though, think there's a misunderstanding afoot that equates a judgment of distinction with an act of praising or blaming, affirming or rejecting.  To say that the one apple is ripe and ready and the other apple is wormy and rotten is not to praise the one and disparage the other.  It is to be absolutely one with reality.  And to put the wormy and rotten apple into the pie for the holiday dinner in the name of "not picking and choosing" is a stupidity of the highest order.   I can love the wormy and rotten apple thoroughly as a wormy and rotten apple.  I can love the ripe and ready apple thoroughly as a ripe and ready apple.  This is not a zero-sum game.

21 December 2011

One More Ingredient

This past Sunday the sangha heard a teisho on the qualities that a teacher looks for in a student when considering making that student a teacher.  There were no surprises, really.  The student should have come to some degree of awakening.  The student should adhere to the precepts generally and be exemplary in the practice of the first five.  The student should possess some ability to communicate well and work with others.  The student should have the respect and support of the sangha.

All of those points are important, but if that's all there is in the mix, then I'm not yet seeing a teacher; all I'm seeing is a decent senior student. 

I guess I take seriously (perhaps much too seriously, I don't know) the idea that the teacher should pour him or herself out in service to the Dharma.  Seems to me that there should be a palpable zeal in the mix, an eagerness to "support the gate and sustain the house" with everything one can muster.  One who would be a teacher should act as if the future of the Dharma rests on his or her shoulders alone while having at the same time the humility to realize that he or she could not even begin to do it alone.

Without that zeal, there is the risk that the prospective teacher will treat his or her teaching as a hobby, something on the side, a feather in one's cap, perhaps.   We don't need that kind of nonsense.  The world is on fire, burning with greed, anger and confusion.  A cup of even the purest water won't start to douse the flames; we need it by the hose and pumper and hydrant full!

20 December 2011

Bala Pāramitā

The ninth pārāmitā of the Mahāyāna, bala pārāmitā, is the perfection of spiritual power.  This pārāmitā, along with upāya, pranidhana andāna, are the pārāmitās that allow one to bring wisdom and compassion to bear on everyday life in truck with the world.  Absent them, one may be individually perfected, but one is not yet fully capable of bodhisattvic practice.

I've found myself in the presence of spiritually powerful men and women.  Without doing anything particular, just by being themselves, they were able to effect in me a movement toward greater practice and greater realization.  Unlike
upāya, which requires a bit of smarts and cleverness, bala simply proceeds without intent to accomplish anything at all, thereby accomplishing everything.  (I can't help but think of the 無為 [wu wei] of the Daoist sage in connection with bala.)

I'm guessing that most folks are probably somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of spiritual power because they confuse it with spiritual authority.  Spiritual power is not spiritual authority.  Authority is bestowed from another; power springs forth from within.  Authority can be withdrawn; power may diminish, but it cannot be taken away.  Authority holds fast to the distinction between higher and lower; power calls all to the same level of attainment.  Authority forces obedience; power elicits growth.  Authority fosters fear; power brings all to ease and joy.

I suspect that those who possess spiritual power are afraid to show it (unlike their counterparts, those with spiritual authority, who tend to flaunt what they have).  Times being what they are, we can do without the reticence!

19 December 2011

Home Alone

The semester is now officially over.  The center goes on autopilot for the next couple of weeks as we have sittings without teachers around.  Friends and kin are headed out of town for Christmas.  I have time on my hands and quiet in my ears, stillness before my eyes and rest in my body.

It's solitude time.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't like these days of relative aloneness.  To tell the truth, I can't speak of them highly enough.  I've come to welcome them as I do few other times of the year.  All support structures are removed.  I can't hide behind schedule and role and task.  I have to take ownership for everything I do.

And what a revealing state of affairs that is!  Issues I thought were over and done with bubble up.  Character traits I thought I'd managed to clean up show up as mucked up as ever.  Points of equanimity I thought I could come to rely on evaporate without a trace.  Habits I thought had long since died send out their tugs on my thought and action.

It's the honesty of all that that I love.  So stands this state of affairs I label "myself," and I can't deny it!  Once seen again, though, I can set about the real work I need to do with greater skillfulness and more appropriate measure, and for that I am most grateful.

16 December 2011

Circus Time

I'm gearing up for a weekend of hustle and bustle around the center as we receive a special visitor, the head of the lineage.  The soup for tomorrow's lunch is on the stove, and bedding and towels are in the washing machine.  I'll start the banana bread for the one-on-one meetings this afternoon, and in between I'll vacuum and do the second floor bathroom and kitchen.   Yesterday was given over first to hosting about 40 high school students in the zendo, only to turn around and get the zendo and Buddha Hall ready for 30 each for Sunday sitting and teisho.  I'll pick up a carry-out menu today to order tonight's dinner from, and some time tomorrow I'll give a thought or two to what I'll make for the Sunday potluck.

This is nothing at all to deal with compared to the seemingly infinite variety of hopes, expectations, fears, suspicions, adorations (my goodness, some of the fawning going on!) and fascinations I've heard expressed concerning the visit.  I'm really glad that my only job description for the entire weekend is to attend to the material conditions of the event.

Today I reminded those at morning sitting that in Zen we do not, like our Vajrayāna kin, take refuge in a teacher.  Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, we commit to stick to our practice through all the ups and downs, carnival sideshows and pageants, machinations and intrigue of such occasions.

"Only mu, bro," I reminded my Dharma brother and fellow resident yesterday when he offered he was dreading this weekend, "Only mu."  He texted back, "One finger."

I almost replied, "Make sure it's not the middle one," but I think he knew that already!

15 December 2011

Precept X

I do not know what the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha are, but I have vowed to treasure and uphold them.

Buddha is enlightened Mind and our true nature, too.  Buddha is also the figure on the altar, the lint under the chair, and the price of tea in China or of gas in Poughkeepsie. 

Dharma is the 2500 year old teaching of Gotama Buddha, as remembered by Ananda, accepted by the First Council and carried on backs across mountains and in luggage holds across oceans.  The 10,000 things, no less, are Dharma, too, with their connections, causes and ceasings.

Sangha is the current roster of the Chicago Zen Center and those who stop by.  It is the kindred houses of the lineage.  It is the venerable community of home-leavers.  It is the noble community of householders.  It is men and women of every race and tongue and people and nation.  It is the teeming mass of sentient beings, whether born of egg, womb, water or air. 

The Three Treasures must increase.  I must decrease. 

I have no special place here.  No matter what insight I might come to, it does not trump the living Buddha, the living Dharma and the living Sangha.  As soon as I set myself apart from anything – particularly if that setting apart is based on some kind of practice, or training, or Buddhist or Zen attribute or quality – the precept is violated:
Bodhidharma said, "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the One, not holding dualistic concepts of ordinary beings and sages is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures." 

13 December 2011

Calling on the Dharmapālas

According to lore, the dharmapālas are wrathful deities who protect and defend the Dharma.  They are bodhisattvas appearing as grotesqueries of one kind or another.  Their fearsomeness is, at times, exactly what is required for the sake of sentient beings.  Sometimes, more nice-nice and reservedness and self-effacing is the most unskillful thing one can do. 

I'm coming to appreciate their inclusion in the Buddhist world-view.  Let me amplify that some:  I'm coming to hope that they really do exist!
With folded hands I beseech all Dharma-defenders
To rouse their compassion and stand firm.
Emptiness manifest in fang and claw,
We shall repay your benevolence!

11 December 2011

New Blood

Today two more people signed on as members.  In the last year we've added some seven or eight people to the membership list.  That's a growth rate of well over 10%.  From what I understand about the current landscape, that's a quite impressive figure, seeing as how many churches and temples and the like are losing membership.  That said, I have been around long enough to know that there are many who sign on as members only to evaporate in a year or two or ten, so who knows what this means for the long haul.

I do know that it's exciting for me to be able to answer newbie questions, to help get them off and running with practice in a sangha, and to draw on their enthusiasm.  Most of all, though, I am reminded that when the new people show up, they'll be looking to see what the blue-robed ones are doing and taking their cue from them.  The newcomers will be setting their own bar, in part, with reference to how high I set mine.  Old hands are likely to be much more forgiving of my weaknesses and stupidities than the newcomers. 

At this rate, think of how much more my practice will improve if we get another eight new members in 2012! 

07 December 2011

Admirable Companionship And Then Some

I wish I could begin to convey the overwhelming sense of pride and gratitude I feel when I consider the members of my sangha.

We just finished up five days of sesshin.  Everyone there did his or her level best.  They all took time out of their schedules and money out of their pockets to open themselves up to a schooling in the Dharma, whether the schooling came as a sore rump, stiff legs, drowsiness or a seemingly incessant parade of thoughts and emotions, or whether it came as a poignant dokusan encounter, an insight embedded in a teisho, a deep samadhi in the middle of the night, or a line in a chant taking up residence in the body-mind in a new way.  Round after round, I watched them settle back onto their cushions and mats to do what they needed to do.  Day in and day out, they threw themselves into practice as best they could.

These are everyday people.  They aren't some trippy "Zen-types." They have relationships, kids, the stresses of aging and job loss, mortgages and car payments.  They ranged in age from 23 to 73.  To see them on the street you would have no clue that they practiced Zen, and, to my mind, that's just how it should be.  I couldn't imagine a group of practitioners with less Zen stink about them.

I can honestly say that my practice is richer because of them.   I can honestly say that my practice is better because of them.  They have absolutely no idea just how much they give me without knowing they're giving me anything at all.  If I were to approach them and thank them personally for that, I'm not sure they would know how to respond (I know I don't know how to respond when they thank me for my "work" in helping their practice along; what are they talking about?).

"Sesshin" sometimes gets translated as "touching" or "unifying the heart-mind," but I refuse to believe that this refers to a personal, private heart-mind or something along those lines.  There is but one heart-mind that beats and breathes and moves through all of us.

I once told someone that while I kind of grasped the idea all along, I never experienced communion until my first sesshin.  Would that all could taste and see just how good it truly is!

02 December 2011

House-Builder, You Will Be Seen

It's Rohatsu sesshin time again.  Time to face what needs to be faced, to let go of what needs to be let go of, to know what there is to know. 

May all who practice extra hard over the next week or so find the house destroyed, never to be built again.