31 January 2012

Signs and Wonders

As I was driving to work this morning I was listening to the traffic report.  When it was over, an insurance company commercial involving a talking Aussie gecko came on.  I only vaguely paid attention, but there was a reference in there to velvet ropes and bouncers.

And I paused.

Velvet ropes.  I thought, "You know, if someone said to me right now, 'Make velvet,' I wouldn't know where to begin."  How it gets its pile, how it is held together, how they can make ropes out of it for theater queues, all of that and more is complete terra incognita to me.

And that's just the start of it.

I live in a world pretty much completely not of my own making.   I don't know when to plant and harvest (a few tomato plants in the garden hardly count).  I don't know how to mine ore and extract metal.  I don't know how to grind glass into lenses.  I don't know how to make anything but the simplest of machines and tools, and even then I need some ready-made parts.  I don't know squat about electricity (again, turning off the breaker and putting in a new light fixture doesn't count for much) or plumbing for that matter.  

The chair I'm sitting on, the cup I'm drinking from, the phone I just took the call on, the plaster on the wall I'm looking at, the bound volumes on the shelves around me – all of these are so many wonders and marvels that boggle the mind and stagger the senses.  What an utterly fascinating, interesting world!  What astounding feats of mind and muscle and mechanics!

I remember when I was a kid riding in the back seat with my sister heading back to St. Louis from visiting the grandparents in Michigan.  As we were driving through SW Michigan, I saw the cows in the fields and started making the connection from cow to farmer to milk truck to processing plant to distributor to grocery store to family car to table.  (I'd list myself at the end, but I'm not too fond of milk products at all.)  I remember thinking how people at each step of the process, not really intending a particular outcome (they weren't aiming for our fridge), and each doing exactly their own thing, made possible a system that made life possible for all of us.   As I expressed all that, my father chimed in from the driver's seat, "What's the big deal?  They all got paid."

I made a mental note to look harder for those adoption papers when we got home….

I don't know if it's a fruit of practice or just my particular constitution, but I find myself day by day and year by year becoming more and more fascinated with this world, with us, with everything in it.  All of it together is so incredibly wondrous in its wholes and in its parts.

All of it together, in some way I can't begin to describe, is none other than myself.  In and among and through it all I am never lost, never alone, never ill at ease.  Through freeze and thaw, from seed to withered flower and rotting fruit, by what is called "good" and by what is called "evil," it's all nothing other than myself.

I don't know how to make velvet.  That's OK.  I don't know how to make me, either.

29 January 2012


There is the everyday "we" of "you and I," as in "We went to the grocery store."  There is the royal "we," which, when used by nobility, translates to "I."  I recently came across another "we," one I wasn't aware of before:
When I* study the Dharma (*thanks, Jacqueline, for pointing out in a recent comment the priestly arrogance of the word “we” – the temptation lingers, but I am working against the stream…) – when I study or even just bring “Dharma” to mind[…]
I didn't know there was a priestly "we," arrogant or not!

I'm not sure what to make of Jacqueline's critique, but I will say this much.  I have noticed that very, very frequently when reading Dharma materials, a teacher or bhikkhu or the like will oftentimes use "we."  Here's an example from Ajahn Chah:
We can use explosives to level a mountain and then to move the earth.  But the tight grasping of our self-conceit – oh man!  The wise can teach us to our dying day, but they can't get rid of it.  It remains hard and fast.  Our wrong ideas and bad tendencies remain so solid and unbudging, and we're not even aware of it.  So the wise have said that removing this self-conceit and turning wrong understanding into right understanding is about the  hardest thing to do.
There are a lot of we's and our's and us's in there, but nothing about their use strikes me as arrogant.  Far from it, actually.

Fact is, we – as in "every last one of us" – are all partners in a common state of affairs: dukkha.  My lot is no better than yours.  And because my lot is no better than yours, any "we" I use springs from an identification of myself with you, a willingness to lower the mast of my ego, an acknowledgment that whatever release I am to have from dukkha is going to presuppose your release as well.

This, then, is the bodhisattvic "we," and there's no need to be ashamed to use it, as long as it is for the purpose of drawing attention to dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end.

28 January 2012

Bodhisattva, DDS

Yesterday I had a very deep cavity cleaned out and a filling put in.  I'd been delaying getting seen, mostly because there's so much other work that I need to have done, and I couldn't even begin to imagine the cost.  But the discomfort of this tooth was beginning to get too much in the way of everyday life, so in I went.

The cavity had progressed to a point just shy of the pulp.  The dentist told me that he would do his best to drill without breaking into the pulp itself.  If he could do that, I would be spared a root canal; if not, it would be just a short time before I would need to head off to the endodontist and then come back for a crown.  He made no promises either way.  I said, "Go for it.  Aim well."

And he did!  When it was done he said that he didn't feel the need to recommend an endodontist since he was confident he'd managed to do what he had set out to do.  Good news indeed.

What an astounding thing!  Think about it.  It was on the aft face of an upper bicuspid with no molar behind it (that one was pulled some years ago).  He was aiming at this overhand, using a magnifier hung on his head and a dental mirror in the one hand while drilling with the other.   And as for the distance between the end of the decay and the beginning of the pulp chamber, we're talking, what, a millimeter or two?  The slightest muscle twitch in the wrong direction would have meant a very different outcome, indeed.

I bow in homage to all men and women who have taken the time and effort and personal cost to develop such skills. What an amazing universe, what amazing Mind, to issue forth in such dedication and ability!

27 January 2012

"Just This"™

Last weekend I had the pleasure of having coffee with the ino (I've heard conflicting reports on what that translates to, so I'll leave it as is) from another local Zen center.  It was the first time we had ever met, and we whiled away a couple of hours talking "Zen shop": membership demographics, ceremonies, forms of practice, teachers and sanctioning, koan work, our paths to practice, etc.  Fun times!

Somewhere in the course of the discussion, my confrere made some mildly snarky comment about Zen and psychology.  I perked up.  I'm inclined to the same level of snark myself when it comes to that!

Part of me thinks it's a generational thing.  Sixtysomethings tend to be those who go for, have developed, or find unproblematic the alliance of Zen and psychology.  I'm not a sixtysomething.

Part of me thinks it's reflective of a latent anti-religiosity among some who want to be associated with Zen but don't want to buy into the devotional, spiritual and – yeah, I'll say it – mystical dimension of the practice, so they focus on the mental talk instead.  I'm not anti-religious.

Most of me thinks it's a way for Zen teachers wanting income to turn a buck with their Zen.  (Why else the trademark, as in Psychodynamic Zen™, or Private Zen Counseling at the Zen Life & Meditation Center™?)  I'm not interested in turning a buck with Zen.

I don't have anything against psychology and its kindred disciplines.  I certainly don't have anything against Zen.  Putting the two together, though, seems to me not unlike advertising "Christian plumbing" or "Muslim dentistry;" the word combo doesn't of its own accord create something different (except, maybe, confusion).  Therapy is therapy; plumbing is plumbing, dentistry is dentistry.

The beauty of Zen is that is as close to something without an abiding self as anything of its kind can be.  How many koans slap us down as soon as we want to make it into something "special," "precious," or "distinct"?   Insight is utterly worthless in every sense of the word.  It adds no value to anything we might want to tack on to it.  

It is most assuredly not to be trademarked!

26 January 2012

Not So Fast...

After a pleasant enough morning yesterday visiting civil and financial institutions of one kind or another, I made my way to work and started breaking the news to colleagues.

"So how long does it take to become a 'shodhin?" the secretary across the hall asked.  I tried to explain that it wasn't a title, but a real name (I had to pull out the new drivers license to prove it!).

"I'm happy to learn a new name," my one departmental colleague emailed me after I suggested I wouldn't be offended if people forgot and used the old name instead, "but I need to know how to pronounce it.  I'm guessing the 'dh' might be 'puffy'."  I emailed back:
Sho- like show, as in "that was a very good show" (but not with an Ed Sullivan twist, for those of us who can remember such things); -dhin like din, as in "above the din of the engines a cry could be heard" (not at all puffy, though a Sanskritist might say otherwise...)
"That was easy," my chair replied (he'd been cc'd on the email because he had also asked in an earlier one for a pronunciation guide).

The woman at the HR desk said that she had done last name changes but not first name changes, and she was pleased to have something different to think about for once!

I feel like I'm coming out.  "We always knew he was ordained, but now he's in our face about it," I imagine someone saying.  "Why couldn't he have just kept this quiet?" I imagine a colleague whispering to another at the coffee pot. 

I'm anticipating a few more congratulatory remarks (a couple of people were quite expansive in their expression of delight).  I'm expecting many more questions.  I'm sure there'll be some gossiping.  Most of all, though, I'm actually hoping that some might find some degree of inquisitiveness about the Dharma arising within them.  And who knows what might become of that?

24 January 2012

S-H-O-D as in Dog-H-I-N

Yesterday I made a dental appointment for this coming Friday.  Knowing I would by then be on the other side of the name change court date (tomorrow!), I had the receptionist take down my name as "Shodhin."  I've found that the "d" gets lost on the phone (rhymes with "c," "e," "g," etc.), so I've gotten used to saying "d as in dog" when spelling it out.  That's fine.  I don't mind.

A few things have happened between filing the papers and now that make me confident this is a good thing for me to do, and the best one happened last night.  We had a couple of new visitors to the center, and as introductions were being made the teacher introduced himself to one of the guests.  "Is that your ordained name?" the guest asked.  "Yes, it's my ordained name," the teacher answered. 

It dawned on me then that I will have a different answer to that question now.  I'll be able to say, "It's just my name," and leave it at that.  And on some deep, unspeakable level, that just feels right as rain.

23 January 2012

Reports of My Importance are Greatly Exaggerated

Once again I find myself chewing on this past weekend's teisho.  This is a good thing, I think.  (Better for it to have some take-away value instead of just being a 40-60 minute excuse to "focus on the practice," that's for sure!)

The point was made that the end of defilements was as simple and as straightforward and as quick as the burning of kleśa papers made of flash paper.  Poof!  Gone!

Of course, this sounds too good to be true, but really, it's not.  Between thought arising and defilement latching on, there is a wide open opportunity to just let the thought go without clinging or aversion.  And just as it came out of nowhere, to nowhere it goes.  Just like that.  No sleight of hand required.  No great labor or exertion.  As we've heard time and again, "All's self-revealing, void, and clear without exerting power of mind."

So what am I chewing on?  

It's at that very moment when the thought arises and the defilement threatens to latch on that the watershed is found: latch on = affirm the (idea I have of my)self, let go = release the (idea I have of my)self.  The self disappears as fast as the flash paper, too, if only I let it.

I know the party line is that this is good news (and it is), but I have to admit, I also experience it as something of a punch to the gut.  This (idea of) self I get so enamored of has no lasting value, no abiding reality, no legacy or trace or remainder or influence or accomplishment or attainment or mastery or skill or – anything.  Without it, I am nobody, and, damn, if that realization doesn't smart a little!

But I'm grateful for the smarting, because it tells me where I still need to let go.  It tells me there's more to drop, more to let pass by, more to not run from, and more not to grab hold of.

There's another word for that smarting, the ancient word, perhaps one of the noblest words ever to cross human lips: dukkha

And that's why I'm still chewing on this past weekend's teisho – because I have yet to come to the end of dukkha.

19 January 2012

No Sweet and Simple Thing

So the other night, still in Hakuin mode, I picked up Yampolsky's The Zen Master Hakuin and browsed in it for a while.  On page 82, I found words I should like to live and die by:
I am an old monk who lives in a dilapidated building and knows nothing of the world, but I do not make the Buddhadharma into a sweet and simple thing.
It is no sweet and simple thing.  There are no easy gains here.  There is release to be had, but anyone who tells me that getting there is a walk in the park is not going to get a hearing from me.   I know better: Great Release only comes on the heels of what Hakuin called "Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Determination."

Anyone who tries to come in through any other gate is a thief and a miscreant.

18 January 2012

There is No Thing That Clings to Us

This one I chanced upon:
There is the case […] where a Tathagata appears in the world, worthy and rightly self-awakened. He teaches the Dhamma admirable in its beginning, admirable in its middle, admirable in its end. He proclaims the holy life both in its particulars and in its essence, entirely perfect, surpassingly pure.

A householder or householder's son, hearing the Dhamma, gains conviction in the Tathagata and reflects: 'Household life is confining, a dusty path. The life gone forth is like the open air. It is not easy living at home to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, like a polished shell. What if I were to shave off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robes, and go forth from the household life into homelessness?"

So after some time he abandons his mass of wealth, large or small; leaves his circle of relatives, large or small; shaves off his hair and beard, puts on the ochre robes, and goes forth from the household life into homelessness.

When he has thus gone forth, he lives restrained by the rules of the monastic code, seeing danger in the slightest faults. Consummate in his virtue, he guards the doors of his senses, is possessed of mindfulness and alertness, and is content.
Samaññaphala Sutta
I was chatting with my Dharma brother this morning after sitting, and I made an offhand reference to the "householder life is cramped" line.  He said that he thought "sticky" was a better word than "cramped."

I'm not one to revise the World-Honored One's words generally, but I have to give my Dharma brother the nod here, at least as far as my own life is concerned.  It's my attachments, those things that stick, that get in the way.  Sometimes prying loose the adhesive is a lot of work, met with resistance, oftentimes with as many failures as successes. Like when taking the wrapping off some product, and a bit of the clear stuff sticks to your fingers, and no matter how hard you shake them it won't seem to come off, coming to the end of attachments can be downright maddening.  Although we wouldn't say "polished shell" today (Teflon® would be more like it), the aspiration of being free of encumbrance continues to animate the pursuit of the holy life now as then.

Ordaining is certainly one way to do this.  But if by "householder life" we don't focus as much on the sociology (job, family, social station) as on as the dynamics at play (freedom to act according to desire and impulse and whim and fancy) then abandoning "householder life" is something for everyone, whether lay or home-leaver.  It's the restraint of the freedom to act according to desire, etc. that opens wide the vistas of emancipation.  A follower of the precepts, then, whether they be 10 or 16 or 48 or 250 in number, renounces "business as usual" in the world and, in so doing, begins to dissolve the bonds that cause suffering.

Maybe others have an easier time aligning their lives with the Dharma, but I just can't imagine walking this path without the guideposts the precepts provide.  Does this mean I don't fall short?  Of course not.  But when I do, I don't need to scratch my head for very long to figure out where my suffering is coming from!

17 January 2012

Hakuin on the Mind

I've had Hakuin on the mind these past few days, since two teishos in sesshin were dedicated to looking at his Zazen Wasan, the "Chant in Praise of Zazen."

I find him absolutely admirable.  He was relentless in his personal determination to see into the Great Matter, yet he knew when he was making a mistake and took pains to correct it.  He was gentle and accommodating with folks who needed him to be gentle and accommodating.  He was ruthless with those who slandered or diminished or mocked or undervalued the Dharma, even if they were in robes – no, particularly if they were in robes!  He was single-handedly able to breathe new life into a Zen grown stale.

What manner of man can do that?  What zeal, what ardor, what unabashed love for the Dharma! 

Practice as I have come to know it wouldn't exist without him, and for that alone, I owe him the deepest debt of gratitude.

13 January 2012

For a New Sesshin Monitor, About to Begin

Tonight you'll take the monitor's seat for the first time in sesshin.  For the next few days, the kyosaku is yours to use, the announcements are yours to make, the encouragements and corrections are yours to offer.  It is now your job to make sure the lights are set, the place is kept in order, the folks are kept in line, and the newcomer in the crowd gets off on the best possible foot.

You will serve the teacher and the sangha, and, except to the extent to which "everything is practice," your personal practice will get attended to last.  You will see what needs to be done, and you will do it.  You will hear what is to be heard, and you will respond.

Take a good look at the multi-armed Kannon figure in the front room once in a while during sesshin and know deep in your heart, "So must I be."

08 January 2012

For Shame

The Third Cardinal Discourse of the Buddha, the third delivered after his awakening, is the Fire Sermon, the Ādittapariyāya Sutta.  I have every reason to believe that, given its status as one of the very first three teachings of the Buddha, the Fire Sermon is considered almost übercanonical, a sine qua non of the essence of the Buddhadharma.

The Buddha tells me it's all on fire – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind – burning with the fire of "lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion, […] burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs."

The Buddha tells me that when I find estrangement in it all – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind – then "…passion fades out. With the fading of passion, [I am] liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that [I am] liberated. [I then] understand: 'Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.'"

Here's the thing:

I get it, to a degree.  I've felt some of the fire, and I've found some estrangement.  But I have to say that most of the time, as far as commitment to practice and depth of insight goes, I'm not so very much different from the alcoholic who sees his problem, goes 10 minutes without a drink, and then congratulates himself on his sobriety by ordering another round.  The fire's still burning, and I'm still bringing in fuel.

Pretty pathetic, really.  Such a sorry state of affairs.

07 January 2012

A Broken Record

The other week, during dinner after the home purification, the member whose home we were at asked the most awkward of questions, namely what I envisioned my "next step" in Zen to be.  Specifically, she was fishing for whether I had aspirations of being a teacher.

I explained that one doesn't "career-track" in Zen and that such decisions aren't at all up to the individual but come from upper-ups.  She asked, "But don't you want to be a teacher, give teishos, offer dokusan?"

At that point I told her, "Not really."  She was surprised. 

So I got expansive.  I told her that, first of all, I'm really, really happy doing what I'm doing and that I get to do things teachers can't, precisely because I'm not a teacher.  Beyond that, I continued, I'm much more interested in pursuing some kind of monastic/mendicant form of Zen practice, maybe even starting up something within the lineage. 

Now she was rather shocked.

I told her that I really see a need in my life for a more committed form of practice, becoming a full-timer in every sense of the word.  What's more, I offered, I think others might be looking for something like this, too.  There are people I know of already who want to go further than a "drop in the center for an evening sitting with dokusan" or "sit on Sunday and hear a teisho" kind of thing, as very important as those might be for many.  I added that, given all of the sex- and money-related scandals in American Zen the last 50 years, maybe it's time to give the old ways another shot and have members at the heart of the sangha who give a loud, clear, and public "no, thanks" to these potential stumbling-blocks.

Of course, I said, I still need to get the last kid through college, so there are no immediate plans.  At this point, though, the Dharma brother who was with me chimed in, "He talks about this all the time, so you know he's going to do it!"

I never knew I was such a Johnny One Note.  My goodness, how insufferable I must be becoming!

06 January 2012

Winter Ango

The holidays are now ending (I'm a big fan of the "leave the decorations up through the 6th" tradition), the new semester is about to begin, we're about to add some sittings to our weekly schedule, I'm feeling the need for some personal renewal, and I know what a mess the winter months can make of my state of mind (when I think back to last February and March, I just shudder in horror and shame). 

Sounds like it's ango time.

Traditionally there are two ango periods in the year.  The one, in the summer, corresponds to Vassa, the ancient Rains Retreat.  The other, in the winter, seems to be of northern provenance, probably introduced as a way of keeping some focus in the bleak of the year in China and then Japan.  I see new names showing up for the practice; in one center it's called "Training Intensive," but that sounds overly contrived to me, so I'll stick with ango, even though it's not at all an English word.

Because there is no lunar or solar guidepost for the winter ango, the time frame isn't crucial.  I'm going to mark off mine in conjunction with the center's calendar and start with sesshin next Friday and end with Temple Night/Jukai on April 20.  That's a bit over three months, it includes two sesshins and two zazenkais, and it ends with a statement of renewed resolve to live the precepts.  Perfect timing.

The plan is pretty simple: increase daily sitting and take steps to eliminate one particularly strong focus of habit energy that I've identified as a trouble spot in my practice.  I'm not looking for a "new and improved" me at the end of all this, just a bit of the release from dukkha I know comes when the Dharma is pursued with vigor and determination. 

What more can one ever hope for?

05 January 2012

Mudita in a World of One-Percenters

Mudita, or sympathetic joy in the happiness and success of others, is one of the four brahmavihāras. Its far enemy is envy; its near enemy is exhilaration or selfish joy.  It is said to be the most difficult of the four to cultivate.

This summer I got to know a new colleague at work who said that he had recently been at a wedding attended by some very wealthy people.  In the course of a conversation, he had found out that one of the guests had just received something on the order of a $179,000,000 bonus for the year above and beyond his multimillion dollar salary (and yes, the zeros are all in the right place).

When I note the mix of thoughts and feelings that arise in me when I hear something like that, I have to agree: mudita is immensely difficult to cultivate!

03 January 2012

Presenting the Unpresentable

There are some things that cannot be described, pictured or storied; they can only be presented in live time in living flesh.

If the Dharma is to make its way in the world, I have to be the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end.  All should be able, seeing me, to understand that right thought puts an end to dukkha.  People should be able to see me and get that right speech puts an end to dukkha.  Anyone should be able to watch me in any context and see that right action puts an end to dukkha.  If anyone sees me and doesn't perceive the ending of dukkha in what I do, say and think, then I will have failed in more ways than I can count. 

I suppose if I were to make a New Year's resolution (there's still time for that, isn't there?) it would be to work like the dickens to bring my life more and more into conformity with the Dharma.  If I don't live it, what could anyone else begin to see in it? 

02 January 2012

Filial Piety Practice

My goodness what a weird thing it is visiting the relatives! 

Every year for the last six I've brought my kids to visit my parents at New Year's.  They live about five and a half hours away, and this is our once-a-year pilgrimage to the ancestral grounds. 

Here, most of what I identify as part and parcel of my everyday life scores a big zilch on their meter.  Here, among these people, in this place, I am again their kid.  Here, for 48 hours, they and I return to conversations long since started and never quite ended.  Here, they being who they are, and I being who I am, some things don't get mentioned, some questions don't get asked, some names never come up. 

It's sufficiently pleasant, though, and there are laughs enough to go around.  We all like one another on some indescribable level.  Venture past five or ten sentences on a topic, however, and it's clear there's not much more to say.  Our respective places in the demographic pie chart are showing through.  They're in their 70's and in good enough health, but they are enough out of the bustle of the workaday world to not know about many things going on.  I've got my own mid-life quirks to me, of course, and the kids, now poised to be fully on their own, are establishing their own adult relationship with their grandparents.

In the end, I think the best thing about all this is that I have no chart, no bag of tricks, no quick maneuvers up my sleeve to rely on in navigating these days.  It really is a unique form of practice, even if practice seems like something foreign to this place, and I'm grateful for it in ways I can't begin to describe.