30 April 2012

Feeling the Earth Again

Yesterday we had a sangha work day in the garden.  Now that we have visible signage in front of the building it's time to bring some unity to the front landscaping, and so yesterday we lifted bulbs and removed a goodly amount of the wild ginger and galium to better locations.  We also committed the scraggly bushes at the foot of the front porch to their rebirth as yard compost.

What a picture we were!  I managed to break the handles on two shovels in the space of about 10 minutes.  (The one had done meritorious duty lifting all the bamboo last year, so it was just a matter of time; I don't know what was up with the other.)   One of our oldest members forswore garden gloves and dug right in with his bare hands, making sure to get the bulbs out and not just end up pulling the leaves off.  Another member brought about 10 new plants for the beds, and still another brought black raspberry canes from her yard and two large containers of worm castings. 

I find it so singularly gratifying to work with plants and dirt and water and shovels and wheelbarrows and people.  There's life in the whole enterprise, from the life of the soil to the life of the plants and fungi to the life of the insects to the life of the birds now watching for worms to the life of the humans.

All together.  All intertwined.  This body of the earth, this body of ourselves, this body of Buddha.

26 April 2012

Barely Succeeding at Not Being Much of Anything at All

Every once in a while it kind of hits me that I'm not tops in my class at anything I happen to be involved in.   Not a single one.  No one seeks me out because of my expertise.  No one needs to get in good with me because I have a ready store of favors to bestow.  There will be no top billing at some event for me.  I'll never attract a crowd of hundreds or even dozens or fives.  I am neither at the top nor at the bottom of any chain of command.  I have no power to speak of, save the ability to direct my own personal affairs within the usual parameters most enjoy.

I'd have to say I'm a thoroughly middle of the pack kind of guy.

I used to fret about not having "made more of myself" by now, but I don't any more.  Instead, I find the middle of the pack to be a very congenial place to be.  I get to talk people at either end of whatever spectrum I'm on.  I have something to learn, and I have something to teach.  Those above me need not fear that I'm after their position, and those below me need not fear me stepping on their fingers as I climb some ladder.

I think it takes a certain amount of effort, patience, resolve and dedication to be unremarkable, though, and I won't say that I've been a smashing success at it.  The temptations to shine, to impress, to outwit and achieve are everywhere, and I find I have enough greed in me to entertain them from time to time (ok, rather frequently…).   Craving for becoming and craving for annihilation show up in wanting to either be totally in charge or completely out of the picture, but life is never that simple, now, is it?

I'm slowly learning how not to get involved with things beyond my ken and station, and I'd like to think I'm blending more and more into the fabric of an ever shifting tapestry. 

The story is told in the lineage how Philip Kapleau was taken to be the handyman by someone who came looking for him at the Rochester Zen Center and how happy he was for that.   May we all aspire to (and achieve) such attainment!

24 April 2012

Dharma Test

I recently heard a great test for whether I'm practicing in line with the Dharma or not: I simply have to ask whether what I'm doing is making myself a burden to anyone else, the world, myself, etc.:

     Do others have to dance around me?
     Do I require others to act a certain way for my well-being?
     Do I make others do things I could do myself?
     Do my actions force them to make accommodations in theirs?
     Does my presence weigh people down?
     Do they find me obnoxious, intrusive, inhospitable?
     Does my one issue lead to many more for others?
     Does what I'm doing hinder my practice?
     Does what I'm doing make it harder to keep the precepts?

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes," then I'm not practicing the Dharma.  I'd heard of aiming more and more at living without trace or remainder, but this really puts the whole thing in a more accessible, concrete frame of reference.

The Dharma is the gate to the kind of happiness that is not bought in the coin of others' unhappiness.  The practice of the Dharma is not a zero-sum game.  It is the path of great ease for myself and for others.

23 April 2012

Gratitude (Again...)

Just this morning my dharma brother texted me out of the blue: "Just so thankful for everything."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  I can't shake the conviction that the surest sign of someone's emerging insight is the continual welling-up of gratitude on their part.

I poked around and saw that the sutras record that the Buddha was of a similar mind:
"Monks, I will teach you the level of a person of no integrity and the level of a person of integrity. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak."

"As you say, lord," the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, "Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful & unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful & thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity."
That pretty much sums it up.

I know that my own failure to be grateful is directly proportional to my degree of self-centeredness.  Being demanding, being impatient, wanting things "my way" – these are all signs of rudeness and lack of gratitude on my part, and they show up far too often.  When that happens, the point isn't to force out a half-hearted "Thank You" and return to matters at hand.  Instead, when that happens, the point is to get back to my practice, to continue to let body and mind fall away, to settle back into the precepts and their sure guidance.  Whenever I manage to do that, in however small a measure, I always find myself more and more grateful. 

21 April 2012

Ōryōki Time

In our lineage we eat with forks and plates, spoons and bowls for our formal meals.  We use paper napkins.  We sit at low tables; we do not sit at our places in the zendo.   Nested bowls, chopsticks, lap cloths, utensil pouches, and a setsu are not part of our practice environment at all.

When I heard that a Zen place in town was giving an ōryōki class as prep for one of their all-day sittings, I got the contact information and asked to take part.  For me, I thought it was something I needed to learn how to do.  I have this notion that I should, as an ordained, be able to move about in the wider Zen world with at least a passing familiarity with and competence at the forms that have come down through the tradition.

So today I had my first lesson.   My dharma brother, who had practiced for three months at a center that did ōryōki, texted me beforehand that it would be "soul crushing."  I expected to develop a strong headache as the lesson progressed.  To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the experience, though part of that, I'm sure, stems from the fun I had getting to know a couple other priests in town as they gave the demonstration.

I can see why some teachers might hold on to it, and I can see why some teachers might opt instead for the forks and plates.  It is quite East Asian (I'd say Japanese, but I'm given to understand that there is a form of this in China as well), and I wouldn't say one is losing out on the Dharma for not doing it; it is certainly not going on in the Southern Tradition, for example.  In the end, it's one of those things that's just "one of those things," and that's just fine with me.

16 April 2012

Making a Life-Saving Decision

I was recently listening to some talks by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and in the course of one of them I found myself cracking up.  He said that our tendency is just to run with any thought that pops up in our mind, going along for the ride, no matter how silly, or fictitious or whatever.  He said it was as if someone just pulled up in a car, said, "Hop in," and we just hopped on in without asking who the person was and where the person was going.  He continued that only once we're in the car do we find out that there's a monster at the wheel, and he's planning on driving over a cliff!  If we lived our lives like that, he added, we'd be dead.  We need to be choosy with our thought just as much as we are choosy with our rides.

I get it.  I've been entertained by thoughts for a few minutes or a few hours.  I've been burdened with thoughts for days and weeks on end.  And I've come to see, in perhaps all too small a measure, that I have within me the power to not go there.  Not that I exercise that power as frequently as I might like, or as often as might be skillful and prudent, but that power remains within my grasp all the same.

Yesterday we heard a teisho in which the whole of a speech by David Foster Wallace was read.  In it, Wallace pointed out that we can either run on our default, ego-centered – he would go on to say ego-worshiping – mindstate in which all others are somehow a burden to me and the universe is a gummed-up obstacle course, or we can make the decision to think differently.

He gave an example that hit so close to home for me, it actually wounded flesh.  Instead of thinking, for instance, about how pathetic it is that all kinds of people are out there driving gas-guzzling SUVs, taking up my space when I need to get somewhere, etc., he suggested the possibility of a new kind of thought:
The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.
And at that, I found myself crying.  Yep, I hop in that self-righteous, more-socially-conscious-than thou, self-satisfiedly pontificating mindstate all the time.  And yet, I know – I know – that that is exactly the monster driven car, and it's over the cliff I'm going as long as I'm riding in it.  The assumptions I make day in and day out are killers of one kind or another, and I'm never but a moment from violating the first precept (and not only the first precept) in the most self-congratulatory way possible.  Pathetic, really.  In the language of the vernacular, totally fucked up.

Later, over brunch, I found out that Wallace had committed suicide. 

I found myself fighting back tears again, as much for myself as for him.  If I keep on taking these rides with the monster-driver, maybe the day will come when I can't hop back out of the car, either.  How much longer, how many more times am I going to risk it?  And even if I manage to keep getting out of the car, how much collateral damage will I have caused along the way all the same?

Long, long ago I heard often enough the line from Deuteronomy 30:19: "Today […] I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."  With every breath, with every thought that arises, with every sensation that the body takes note of, I have a similar decision to make: the one way is death, the other way is life.  Such is the nature of our practice.

May I – may we all – choose wisely.  May we all – ourselves and our children and our children's children – simply live.

15 April 2012

The Pigeon and the Bee

This weekend I was one participant among many at a community-based (i.e., non-academic and not sponsored by a denomination) interfaith event.  During the course of my presentation I had occasion to use Shibayama's story about the pigeon who tries to douse a conflagration in a forest by flying to a lake, gathering a few drops of water in its wings, then flying back and dropping them on the fire below.  The bird dies of exhaustion without the blaze being diminished in the least.

At the end of the day's proceedings, a Muslim participant who serves as president of an Islamic Center in the area offered that an ah-ha moment for him at the event was the pigeon story.  Turns out that there is a similar story in Islam.  Seems that when some polytheists were attempting to kill Ibrahim for his monotheism by burning him at the stake, a bee, seeing this, flew back and forth between the fire and some water in an attempt to douse the flames, likewise to no avail (though the prophet was spared in the end all the same).  Detractors of the bee and his "stupidity" were chastised with the reminder, "He gave all he could."

My Muslim friend and I hope to get together for coffee sometime soon.  Funny, the things that bring us together.

09 April 2012

Coming to Terms with Koan Work

I've been around Zen long enough to know that what one group or lineage or center means by "koan work" is not at all necessarily what another group or lineage or center means.  I've also been around Zen long enough to know that what our lineage calls "koan work" is pretty much in conformity with what is traditionally meant by the term:  Passing mu may take years.  One gets further koans one at a time.  One doesn't just chat about them, and one certainly doesn't do them in a discussion group.  Embodiment and demonstration is required, and, failing that, one may be held on a koan for a long, long time.

It didn't take me long to realize that, in and of itself, passing koans reflected nothing much about the depth of one's insight.  Clever and bright – or simply tenacious – people will soon enough sniff out a lot of the lingo, the recurring topoi, the steps in the dance.  That just means that they are clever or bright or tenacious.  I was told by my teacher that a patent asshole can make his or her way through the koan curriculum and emerge at the end every bit the patent asshole he or she was going in. 

It also didn't take me long to see what an incredibly transformative, ego-reducing process koan work could be for some people.  It can be a training tool par excellence, a furnace for ego-smelting, a fire for reducing attachments to a fine heap of ash to be blown away in the wind, a pond in which the claymation self loses its shape and levels out and blends effortlessly into the bed at the bottom.

I find myself in conversations now and then with people who are having difficulty finding their feet with the idea of koan work.  Our lineage, following Yasutani, has traditionally made a biggish to-do about koans, seeing in them better medicine than anything quietistic, "deadwood" Zen could offer.  Good medicine is disease-specific, however, and some people present with quite different symptoms from the rest of the lot.  Moreover, as the disease and the medicine "cure each other," if taken too long, the medicine can itself become toxic and lead to new diseases and pathologies.

I tell these folks a few things:
1. "Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment." (Dōgen)  Your take on what koan work is or isn't doing for you may be (no, probably is) rather beside the point.   I have found myself suddenly seeing more deeply into a koan years after I passed it.  Koans can be so many little seeds of insight that will leaf and bloom when you least expect them to.  Or not.

2. Koans may be the stuff of Zen, but don't forget to be a Buddhist along the way.  If a practice is not conducive to seeing into the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end; if a practice is not built on (or skirts) the foundation of the precepts; and if a practice does not from the very outset begin to give rise to the very first pāramitā, giving (dāna), it should be considered suspect, at least for that person and at least at this time.  If the heart does not soften, I don't care what anyone says: it's not what this is all about.  Period.

3. Finally, don't sweat it.  If you don't feel drawn to koan work, don't do it.  "The gateway to freedom is zazen samadhi," all right, but there are all kinds of ways to do one's zazen.  If in the future, koan work seems like something you could use, then pick it up again.

4. Don't listen to me.  Find yourself a solid teacher you can trust and who – above all else – actually embodies and lives the stuff in #2 above.  He or she will know what to tell you.

06 April 2012

Tozan's Challenge

Tozan said, "…let it kill you."

He didn't say, "…do the best you can with it."  He didn't say, "…work it into your self-identity and life plan."  He didn't say, "…schedule it in when it's convenient."

He said, "…let it kill you."

The "it" is everything/anything: cold and heat, of course, but also the smell of lilacs and the sound of the car alarm that won't quit in the middle of the night, not to mention the biggies like marriage, being a parent or living as an ordained.

When I want to pull back I need to remember: "…let it kill me."

04 April 2012

The Sloughing

A number of years back I remarked to my old teacher just how much I was noticing I had shed since I'd started practicing: a lot of ideas and concepts, to be sure, but also a lot of habits, possessions, demands on time, worries, etc.  It wasn't as though I'd been trying to get rid of them, either.  It just sort of happened.

He reassured me that such was one of the fruits of practice.  One comes to experience a contentedness and a sufficiency that isn't predicated on more and more and more but that also comes about without a specific focus on less and less and less.  Things, ideas, habits, etc. just fall away of their own accord.

My dharma brother mentioned to me yesterday that he noticed he just wasn't as into watching sports as before, even to the point of not even paying attention to the NCAA championship, even though it was on the TV in the restaurant where he worked.  He wasn't consciously not watching it; he just wasn't watching it.

I passed on to him what had been passed on to me, and I found myself grateful to have the honor of hanging around with people (he's not the only one around here) who seem to be shedding all over the place!