Monday, April 29, 2013

Sanga Visit: Mt. Cobb Sai Sho Zen-Ji

While staying at a Tendai temple in Lake County for a few days, I spent an evening visiting the Mt. Cobb Sai Sho Zen-Ji temple, just north of Cobb, CA, for their weekly public program. It was my first exposure to Rinzai Zen practice and an interesting introduction to the Rinzai sanga in California.

Sai Sho Zen-Ji is perhaps more of a retreat center than a temple. The resident community is very small, only four at the time of my visit, and two of them were out of town. I came with another Soto practitioner and we were the only visitors. The Zendo has seating for at least 32, and they hold sesshins here in the Rinzai tradition, when a teacher is available. The four of us had room to spare for the evenings program.

Rinzai Zen practice revolves around koans, the Zendo forms and meditation practice aren't wildly different than Soto as practiced at SFZC but the relationship with the teacher is almost completely focused on the student working on a koan and the master confirming their understanding in Sanzen, which is related to Dokusan. Soto emphasizes shinkantaza, or 'just sitting' while Rinzai practitioners spend much of their time in the Zendo working on a puzzle given to them in an effort to advance their progress towards enlightenment.

Both Soto and Rinzai place emphasis on samu, mindful work, or samu but the key difference is in the level of strictness and the marital aspect of Rinzai practice. The Japanese have a saying, "Rinzai for the Shogun, Soto for the peasants" which reflects the relationship between the two schools. The Samurai were chiefly patrons of Rinzai while the farmers supported Soto temples, and the two schools reflect this difference in their practice. Walking meditation is a slow and deliberate process in Soto, in the Rinzai Zendo we were in a tight formation, moving quickly and precisely, concentration focused on not running into the person in front of you or stalling the person behind.

A Dinner Koan

We arrived early and were invited to join the residents for dinner, a low carb meal featuring hamburger patties with no buns, and a smoked turkey soup. I was happy to have dinner (the Tendai temple observes the precept of not eating an evening meal, substituting a snack) but was surprised that it wasn't vegetarian as is typically the case in most Buddhist practice centers. Standing around the grill I made an observation about the first grave precept (not killing) being somewhat open to interpretation. Given the notorious violence of the samurai, who were required to wear two swords at all times which was necessary because any affront to their dignity was immediately punishable by death, a burger seems like a small thing.

Into the Zendo

On the drive over my companion gave me a brief introduction to the differences in form that I should be aware of: the mudras for gassho and shasho are diffrenent, one holds gassho while going to their seat, the forms for kinhin are much closer to the fast kinhin practice of Soto, and if you move there is an officer in the Zendo who's job it is to correct you and administer the encouragement stick if necessary.

I can imagine a full Sesshin feeling much more like boot camp than a Soto retreat of similar length. This is Zen for warriors, focused on delivering the sudden enlightenment of Kensho and tailored to an audience for whom stricture and obedience where critical to surviving day to day life. Sitting perfectly still for 25 minutes (vs. 40 in most Soto temples) is good practice for having to be perfectly composed in front of your lord, who could order you to commit ritual suicide at the slightest provocation.

A Singular Koan

In the months since my visit a scandalous story broke and has gotten the usual response in the small echo chamber of Zen in America: a flurry of blog posts and news articles and finally a set of statements issued by the larger organizations, including the Zen Center. I don't have anything to add to that debate but I do think that there's a more interesting story about the Rinzai School in America: there is no lineage.

Lineage is the blood line of the Buddhist tradition, we chant the succession of ancestors going back to Sidharta and the Buddhas before our great original teacher (they are given credit for achieving enlightenment but not for teaching, which is critical to the development of capital-b Buddhisim), during ordination we receive a document listing the lineage that carried the precepts to us. Within the relatively short history of the Zen Center the lineage has become complicated by the relationship between Baker Roshi and the Sanga, as he was the only student of Suzuki Roshi to receive transmission directly (a number of others were given transmission by Hoitsu Suzuku after his death).

The process of dharma transmission is an esoteric and a rarely bestowed gift which gives the receiver permission to teach and, in the case of a priest, to then ordain new members of the tradition. We have modified the form somewhat from the Japanese tradition at SFZC, only offering the rite to those with decades of experience in the community and a long track record of upholding the dharma, but nobody is perfect and there have been a number of scandals similar to the current one brewing with Sasaki Roshi.

The catch is that Sasaki Roshi is, at this writing, 106 years old. Withouth an appointed successor the lineage that he brought from Japan will not be transmitted through him. Given the current scandal and his reportedly failing health, transmission seems unlikely. Leaving the entire Rinzai-in Sanga with a critical and poignant koan to solve: 

What is the sound of one teacher passing into Nirvana?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Zen Product Review: Lucky Buddah Beer

An imported Cinese Lager, similar to Tsing-Tao. Served ice cold it's not bad.
The bottle is a little terrifying at the wrong angle.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Zen Product Review: Buddhist Torrents

Welcome to our next installment of Zen Product Reviews, where we review Zen products to help you make enlightened buying decisions.

Buddhist torrents is a web site which hosts links to many dharma texts online for free, check it out at:

Not Stealing

My first though, looking at the site, was more or less: holy 2nd precept Sariputra! isn't downloading off the internet taking whats not given?

The Dharma Wants to be Free

But there's also the 3rd precept, which—a little surprisingly—applies in this case as well:  no intoxication of self or other. We have a pretty good idea what this means in terms of drugs and alcohol: a good Buddhist is neither a drug dealer or liquor store owner and is moderate in their consumption so as not to carelessly violate other precepts due to lapsed judgement. But how does the dharma come into it? Some scholars think of the the dharma as a form of intoxicant, that it should be given freely and never sold, and that over zealous application of the sutras is a form of intoxication, this is part of buddhisim's internal defense against fundamentalism but how does it relate to modern copyright law?

A Test Case

I downloaded a pdf of Shobogenzo, Dogen's Spiritual Masterpiece, here's the copyright notice in the front matter:
First Edition—2007 © 2007 Shasta Abbey
This work is offered for free distribution only.
You may print and distribute copies of this work
as long as no changes are made to the original.
Otherwise, all rights reserved.
So there's one with a license to redistribute, but many other works don't carry such 'copyleft'  licenses, and many of the links have already been removed due to DMCA takedown request. Not every rights holder is willing to let their work be freely copied, most of these are large publishing houses who are accustomed to monitoring the Internet for leaked copies of their work as part of the cost of doing business in our information economy.

Copying Sutras

Further complicating matters is the traditional role of sutra copying in Buddhist practice. Hand copying of the sutras is considered a meritious activity and is practiced to this day, the original impetus for this is clearly to preserve the dharma in the ages before mechanical printing made copies cheap and readily available, the modern practice revolves around having a deeper connection to the text than simply reading it.

Sutra copying is a Buddhist practice and a special way of doing Japanese calligraphy. It is the art of copying a Buddhist sutra with awareness and it brings together the ideals of genuine shodo [japanese caligraphy]. Shakyo harmonizes body and mind and through their integration creativity flows freely.
- Sutra Copying by Nadja Van Ghelue

I have personally spent some time copying my favorite translation of the Dhammapada from print into a text file for online reading, and the experiance of closely reading each passage and double checking to assure accuracy is completely different than just kicking back and soaking up some Dharma. However, the translation is still protected by copyright so I can't legally distribute my copy.

The Bottom Line

While access to the Dharma is important support of Sanga is equally critical to maintaining a healthy community of teachers. To that end I purchase as much as I can, but it seems excusable to me to take copies if the cost is prohibitive or the source material is rare, especially if one has renounced and has limited funds. Which is a bit of an odd position to take: violating copyright protection to access the dharma is probably OK for monks and those less fortunate. However, it seems clear that if you have the means, supporting the teachers is part of your duty as a member of the sangha.

In either case it doesn't hurt to be mindful of the 2nd precept when downloading stuff off the Internet, people expend effort to create these works, and we should remember to honor their contribution to the spread of Buddhism.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Into the Deep End

San Francisco Zen Center maintains three practice centers: Tassajara, City Center and Green Gulch. I've been known to quip that they represent the 'deep end', 'shallow end' and 'middle end' of practice respectively: City Center is accessible and urban, Green Gulch is just remote enough to provide a refuge from the urban environment but Tassajara is way out there, distant and quiescent.

Tassajara was the first of the practice centers to be established, in 1966, is the first Soto Zen monastery outside of Asia. It's history goes back to pre-Colombian use by the Essilan Indians who referred to it as a "place where meat is hung out to dry," which suggests that in one sense, things haven't changed there in hundreds of years.

The Road
Just getting to Tassajara is an adventure. Located within the Ventana wilderness, about two and a half hours south of San Francisco the location defines remote. Nestled in a deep valley, only accessible via fourteen miles of rugged dirt road, it's more than an hour off the pavements. Four wheel drive is recommended, I managed in a front wheel drive station wagon but I'm not sure I'd do it again. There is a stage that runs a few times a day, which I'd recommend unless your driver is very comfortable on dirt roads.

The Gates of Hell
Once in the valley, with the car parked, the monistary gates are the next thing to see. Gateways are traditional in Japanse religious spaces, many Shinto temples have no structure besides a gate and a small altar stand, the gate leading to a particular grove or stone worshiped for the kami which inhabit them. On passing through the Tassajara gate I was immediately assaulted with the smell of sulphur dioxide in the air, wafting down the valley from the baths, acrid, smelling of rotten eggs or satan's hamper.

Commenting on this to the residents elicits a bit of a chuckle, "you don't really smell it after a few weeks." I'm sure that's true, but it was still fairly pungent even after a few days. I asked my teacher about it and she said, "that smell is how I know I'm home." In the bath house it can become overpowering, especially in the small steam room built over one of the vents, which I found nauseating. It was an exercise in non-discriminating consciousness to say the least.

The Narrows
At the opposite end of the valley, downstream from the monistary and the hot springs is the real treasure of Tassajara: the narrows. The dry summer left the water level a bit low but this spot on the stream is famous for good reason. Cool clear water, hot sun, bare rock and naked bodies (but note, the average age of the guests is well above 40) come together to make a paradise. I was accused of frolicking by one of the other retreat attendees, and I'm perfectly ok with that.

The Retreat
The retreat itself was informative and entertaining, both Fu and Larry did a wonderful job of bringing the strands of dharma represented by Zen and Vipasna together. There were only two or three of us in the Zen camp and we managed to get through all the guided meditations withouth anything worse than minor annoyance.

My goal for the week was to face my aversion to Vipasna, which borrows the meditation practice of Theravada monks from South East Asia and brings it to the West without the associated cultural context. In my mind this is thorwing out the baby with the bath water, the cultural context is extremely important to Zen practice as is the ritual which was transmitted along with the Dharma. Paradoxically, the strictures of Zen form allow for completely freedom in Zazen: once you are on the cushion the next 40 minutes are yours and yours alone to do with what you will. By contrast, the looser forms of Vipnasa include guided meditation which is much more proscriptive about the content of the meditation, the don't tell you how to sit (and the array of cushion arrangements was somewhat impressive in its variety) but you do have an agenda while you sit.

Somehow, I managed to get through the whole week withouth using the phrase "Hinayana Scum".

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Nothing to Write About

That last entry was a complete throwaway, it occurred to me to write out a sesshin blurb in that format, so I did, but my heart wasn't in it. The problem is I'm not sure how to write about what actually happened, or if I should, or if I want to share it with everyone. I'm not trying to be coy (well maybe a little) it's just a hard experience to sort out, the crucible of sesshin can have a dramatic effect on people, even experienced sitters.

The Language Thing

One of the hardest and most compelling parts of sesshin for me is the restrictions on reading and writing. Speech I don't have a problem with, but not being able to read and write was initially terrifying. I work in a world of words and conceptual constructions, formal and informal grammars, ontological structures, inheritance hierarchies, complex networks, directed graphs of nodes. For fun I mostly read, voraciously, online and off. It's not a recognized condition but it's probably fair to say I'm on the hyperlexic side of the curve.

Over the course of the last year or so as I've sat through more than twenty full days of meditation the experience has been varied, but as each new experience has come up I've learned to recognize it and label it and let go. In the classic texts there are 10,000 things that come up durning meditation and the practice is to meet those things, recognize them for what they are and let go of them. Just sit there and process what comes up, be still and simply endure your own inner chaos and learn what it is that drives you to distraction.

It's a slow process, picking apart the sensations, perceptions and conscious formations that arise in our minds and figuring out how not to become attached to them. Thus we relieve all suffering one moment at a time, sitting there on the cushion, soaking it in for a little while. Each new sit has brought me a new piece of knowledge about myself, a way to stop for a moment and recognize particular formation for what it is: delusion. So when I realized that I spend most of my time in mediation, and in life, thinking about what to say, well, it might not sound like much but it made a big difference.

Being Time

I haven't started in on the original writings of Dogen just yet, but there is one phrase that has stuck in my mind since I first heard it: "the mind moves from the present to the past". That is, even though we understand time to be a linear phenomenon, with the clock ticking inexorably forward away from the past and into the future, our experience of it is distinctly non-linear. We visit the past every time we remember a pleasant memory or a regret or a loss, and we travel into the future every time we compose, practice and rehearse what we are going to say or write to someone.

Sitting there, one day it came to me, I'm almost always in the past or the future. Either swimming in an ocean of regret and loss or hanging from a cliff of anxiety, fearful of falling into the uncertain future, grasping at the vines. So I had my moment, my sudden realization that I'd been sitting here out of time most of my life. Living in my own forest of delusion about what may have happened and what might happen. That's when it finally got quiet, the monkey sat down in my lap, right there in my cupped hands, curled up a went to sleep.

Nothing to Say

It's what happened next that I'm not sure what to say about, or if there is anything to say about it. Because what it is required the suspension of language, and how can you describe an experience that is inherently outside of the bounds of language? This is the fundamental koan of Zen, how do you show what cannot be described in words? Many have tried, but the answers tend to frustrate beginners:

"How do you think of not thinking? Think of non-thinking."

"The way that can be told is not the true way."

"The path is the goal."

There are moments that I could describe, but they're just memories, just the worlds I use to remind myself about a past that has already dissolved into emptiness. And there are things I might want to say about the future which doesn't exist outside of my own prognostication. The past and future are products of the persistent delusion we all carry around with us, that we are separate from the rest of the universe, that what we think and experience in day to day life is reality. The truth is far more profound than words can describe and it's highly resistant to being recorded or explained, you have to go looking for it yourself, and you can't stop looking until you find it.

Mission Accomplished?

Going back to the beginning of this blog, a little more than a year ago, I laid out my goals for practice:

"What I hope to learn [is] how to be in the moment with myself and the world. How to let go of my delusions and see clearly, how to step away from my habits and into a spontaneous life."

Even at the time I knew that these gaining ideas weren't quite in line with the teachings, but sometimes you have to go with the best you have. Having a specific goal in practice misses the point of exploring yourself and looking for the present moment. Believing for a second that anything has or can be accomplished in seating meditation is a trap, we don't improve by sitting, we create space in the rest of our lives so that we can improve ourself. It's a subtle distinction but critical to keeping close to the way, which is what is required to actualize the enlightenment that can be touched in Zazen.

Practice, therefore, is just that: practice. The real work of becoming a Buddha—something I never intended to pursue—happens outside of the Zendo, away from the cushion. Practice prepares the ground of awakening, but the seed is already beneath the soil, richly fertilized with our karma and delusions, ready to come up through the ground and grow if we can just let the light in and make room in the garden of our minds.

"Dirt farming and cloud farming, it's all the same."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Four Truths of Sesshin

One: All of Sesshin is Suffering

From forgetting my Oryoki bowls, to being late to take the refuges, to wake up bell, into hours and hours of sitting, through twenty services and oryoki meals, hundreds of prostrations, soji, dishes… Following the schedule completely is suffering, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Medicine Bowl might be the worst, though.

Two: There is a cause for Sesshin

We chant about it in morning service: all my ancient twisted karma; born from beginning-less greed, hate and delusion. Sitting is first and for most an exercise is not generating karma. What karma can accumulate when speech, movement and even thoughts are restrained?

Sesshin is the process of cutting the Gordian knot that we create in our lives, through our actions, speech and thoughts. Just sitting there the past and the future unwind into the present moment, past misdeeds are confronted and desires for the future examined in detail. Sitting puts our karmic life under the microscope and asks us to look at it, to classify it and understand the roots of our suffering.

Three: There is an end of Sesshin

The schedule loops day after day, it becomes a steady rhythm and you move from place to place, ceremony to ceremony, sit to kinhin, back to the cushion, setup for talk, eat lunch, take a break, afternoon sitting, service… The clock ticks through every moment of the week, keeping an eye on the schedules posted around is pretty much mandatory. It's also the only reading you get to do. Savor it.

Six full days of living in a darkened room, staring at a blank wall. But then, on the seventh day, it ends. You have breakfast, a closing talk, lunch and then the sesshin is over. You can talk again. Read. Have a cookie.

OMFB a Cookie.

Four: There is a path to the end of Sesshin

The path has eight steps

    1. Right View - Sure it's painful and exhausting but remember that you're here to have fun.
    2. Right Intention - Just to make it through to the end seems like enough of an intention.
    3. Right Speech - None. Well, as little as possible. Dish shifts are a good place to sneak in a word or two.
    4. Right Action - Do whatever is needed of you in the moment, you might luck out and get to serve tea.
    5. Right Livelihood - Do your soji job well, make it your personal mission to keep your area perfect for the week.
    6. Right Effort - Try not to miss sittings. Try. I signed out for one evening sit on the tenkin pad: "in room crying".
    7. Right Mindfulness - Remember that everyone else around you is going through the same process, give them space.
    8. Right Concentration - Enjoy your zazen. It is the dharma gate of bliss and repose, after all.

Keep these four truths in mind of and follow the eight steps and you might do a little better than just Surviving Sesshin.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice Period Blues

I only have a day to get this written, the sesshin at the end of the spring practice period at Green Gulch starts Sunday evening. We'll take the refuges after dinner and then it's no talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact for seven days. After the experience last time I'm not sure exactly how this one will go, but since I can sit all seven days I will.

Follow The Schedule Completely

One of the attractions of monastic life, and therefor of participating fully in a practice period, is that you don't have to waste any time thinking about what to do next. There's a schedule, structure, the meals and services run on time, tea is served at a particular hour, bedtime is announced with clackers, the wake up bell is rung each morning by the shousso. There is a correct way to do everything, and a place and time for every ceremony, even just the ceremony of zazen.

Householders do not enjoy such luxury, we are always juggling multiple schedules, constantly adjusting priorities depending on both necessity and preference. Having kids throws in a level of imperative that makes trade offs that were once unthinkable a practical reality: someone may be likable but flawed, and do I have time for that? In that environment, dedicating time to practice and meet regularly with a teacher means cutting more and more discretionary activity out of your life. When I hear people talk about this as a matter of necessity, not preference, I understand what they mean.

These two worlds come into collision when your teacher leads a practice period. Both residents and visitors who have applied to spend a number of weeks on the farm without leaving, and to sit each morning and through two one day sittings and finally a seven day sesshin at the end. This puts immense demands on the teachers time especially having regular practice discussions with everyone who signed up.

It becomes basically impossible to schedule practice discussion, making your best option to sign up for the one-day and seven-day sits. If a practice period is a tour of duty, i'm a reservist: one weekend a month, seven days a year. While is hard to have a regular schedule interrupted, it's important to consider what a rare thing it is to have access to this level of practice as lay practitioners.

The Inside and the Outside

As a lay practitioner, no matter how serious, there will always be a line between being inside the community and being outside. As much as I try to walk across that line on a regular basis, at the end of the day I can go home, have a beer and a burger and there's no Tenzo to tell me different, no Ino to check in with if I want to skip meditation, no Tanto to keep me from using my iPad at the dinner table.

The support system that makes monastic life possible stays right where it is when we go home.
Being at Green Gulch for a day of sitting, or a week of Sheehin, is a step out of day to day living. But it's not a complete step into monastic living, it's something between, a Zen twilight where the people in the outside world don't quite understand what you're up to, but to a certain extent neither do the people inside.