Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Shame on you Old Man…

Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting the precedent of leaving home.

Did you think it was not there?

In your wife's lovely face?

In your baby's laughter?

Did you think you had to go elsewhere (simply) to find it?

- Judyth Collin "The Layman's Lament" from What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Zen Apostasy

"If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided [the Sangha]. Choose heresy every time."
- Apologies to Bishop Peter Lee
Buddhism is not well prepared to deal with apostasy. With a central tenant of "Not one, not two" Zen in particular rejects the cartesian dualism which seems to be required to have some one to turn away and some thing to turn away from. If the Buddha-Dharma is endless and all pervading in the ten directions; how can you turn away from literally everything!?  

While Buddhism has enjoyed the backing of the state at various times throughout history, the influence of the Dharma over government is generally seen as positive. Buddhist court record and law is not without instances of excommunication, and there was even an inquisition against Christians in Edo era Japan, apostasy is generally treated with a bit of dismissive contempt, following the Old Man's lead:
The Buddha's attitude to apostasy is epitomized by his encounter with a man named Sunakkhatta. He was a disciple of the Buddha, but after a while became dissatisfied with the Dhamma and decided to renounce the Teacher and the teaching. Sunakkhatta came to the Buddha and said: "Lord, I am leaving you. I am no longer living by your teachings." The Buddha responded to this declaration by asking Sunakkhatta some questions: "Did I ever say to you: 'Come, live by my teachings'?" "No Lord." "Then did you ever say to me that you wished to live by my teachings?" "No Lord." "That being the case, who are you and what are you giving up, you foolish man?" (D.III,2-3).
Buddhism A2Z
Righteous apostasy followed by schism is more of less the overall plot of religious history, creating the ramified tree of traditions practiced across the globe. Name a famous religious figure and you're likely to name an apostate, who successfully created a schism in the tradition they belonged to: Siddhartha, Jesus, Muhammed, Martin Luther (who's apostasy was so inspiring there are literally hundreds of splinter factions of the protestant church).

In the Christian tradition, formal accusations of heresy are considered "reformative" in that the charges allow the accused to come back into the fold by resolving them by confession at an inquisition. Of course, many inquisitors determined that there was no hope for the accused and the results can hardly be called unexpected. Most apostates and schismatics turn away from their traditions with similarly reformative intent: their church has become corrupt, and they must turn away from it to demonstrate the seriousness of their cause and provide them with a platform to outline their complaints.

Here, then, are some of my reasons for turning away from Zen Center, as a practitioner, volunteer, parent and member:

Uphold all Forms and Ceremonies

The perfect precepts of “Do All Good” has a corollary of “Uphold all Forms and Ceremonies”. The character for “ceremony” in hanzi contains the radicals for “correct” and “action” suggesting the ceremonial behavior is by definition good and should be maintained by those who follow the way.

This is the basis of the ceremonial practice of Zen, one of the most unfamiliar and challenging aspects for new participants, but one of the great strengths of the tradition: the ceremonial forms create a firm foundation and supporting framework for practice. They are the Dharma Gates we pass through most often, and they deserve the greatest care and maintenance as they have been carefully handed down to us from the deepest parts of human history.

I believe that Buddhas birthday is an important holiday and part of the traditional relationship of the temple to the community which supports it. The residents of Green Gulch has abandoned that relationship and the practice forms and ceremonies that support it. In the past three years that the Children’s program volunteer staff has maintained this important tradition (to the extent that we could given the literal bulldozing of the area previously used), I cannot recall a single resident of Green Gulch, or any of their children, to have attended.

I believe that with four priests who currently have young children living at Green Gulch, and one other who previously volunteered for children’s program there is sufficient resident staff to provide a family ministry. However none of them has come forward to help us and the one who was requested to lead a retreat last year did so and then “bowed out”, leaving us with no priests to help lead the program or engage with families.

No Selling the Dharma

The third precept is usually interpreted as prohibiting the selling of intoxicants (teetotalers will extend it to consumption). There is another interpretation relating to the way that the Dharma is dispensed: It is forbidden to sell the teaching of the Buddha as they are considered to have an intoxicating effect on the mind.
Sadly, selling the Dharma for profit has become the order of the day for the administration and priests of Zen Center. From a string of questionable fundraising events to a very intimate relationship with Google, there’s never been a better time to hire a priest to show you how to harness the mindfulness revolution, which has been carefully stripped of religious iconography and language to keep you in your corporate or secular comfort zone.

I think the concept of a "zen-a-thon" is probably a literal heresy and I'm ashamed to have participated in the event this past year, and find the very concept of “sponsored practice” to be frankly disgusting and crass. Asking friends to help support your religious practice and institution is strange and awkward, and the extension from sitting to other activities doesn’t really help.

While no priests can be found to support family practice, many priests at Zen Center are fully engaged with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. They are lining up to sell the intimate secrets of practice and perhaps dispense an indulgence or two to a company who’s track record touches the creepy line over and over again.

All of this would be just disappointing if we had not received a request to “quiet down” the children’s program on buddha’s birthday so that the paying customers from Google would not be disturbed in their inner search. Similarly, I head that there was a conflict between Buddha’s Birthday and zen-a-thon at City Center this past year, and the schedule for next year’s Children’s program (as of November 17, 2016) has the date for zen-a-thon set but not for Buddha’s Birthday.

Not Taking Upon Oneself the Burden of Riches

Part of the daily liturgy in the temple is the dedication of merit, this is intended to wipe out the merit accumulated by the assembly in it’s practice so that it does not become a burden. I like to say that “Karma’s not a Checkbook” but Merit sort of is; it’s the abstract representation of ones spiritual capital, and the dedication in the liturgy is a reminder that we should perform good deeds for their effects, not for our own gain.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this daily emptying of the purse, there is a bit of a merit rush going on, both at the administrative level and the individual priests.
When I last approached the Abbess to ask for help from the community, she said that she really wanted to reach out to the families of Marin City. Marin City is a small enclave of majority African American families, descended from the workers who build the Liberty Ships during Wold War II. Apparently the children who do come aren’t worth the time, but if we could find a way to recruit some of these less fortunate families, the merit payout would be more worthwhile.

The priest who bowed out of the Children’s program after helping with our retreat last year has been very involved with the the San Quentin Sangha project. You have to imagine that bringing the Dharma to these condemned is certainly earning the most merit possible, these are murderers, they can truly confess and repent in ways that the dozens of children and their parents who come very month just could not provide.

Not Lying and Not Despising any Being in any State

Zen Center has a long and complicated relationship with relationships in the Sangha. One clear policy which the sitting abbess of Green Gulch explained to me is that single parents of young children are not suitable candidates for priest training, due to the responsibilities of their karma. Which effectively prohibits single parents and couples with young children from entering residence at any of the Zen Center campuses.

I believe Zen Center’s policy of excluding single parents from priest training and therefore residency is discriminatory even if it has a basis in traditional buddhist practice. It also presents a difficult dilemma to any parents currently residing at Zen Center together: separate and be expelled from the community.

Birth and Death are Serious Business, Arise, Wake!

Finally, we come to the straw which has broken my relationship with the Zen Center: In an effort to help introduce the parents to some of the ceremonial aspects of Zen practice, and the traditional relationship of families to priests, I asked for a demonstration of the Baby Blessing ceremony during our summer Family Program retreat last year. I have been practicing with this community for five years and haven’t seen a baby blessing, or wedding. Just funerals, and the occasional Jukai.

Funerals for abbots, funerals for past abbots, funerals for long term practitioners, funerals for babies and the unborn (offered to all comers, no questions asked, on the public schedule). Death and Dying workshops, Caring for the Dying workshops, Managing with Stress and Anxiety About Dying workshops, a Hospice program, a Retirement Community, and so on into the dark night. Basically the community has one foot in the grave, and the population pyramid shows it: look around the room on a Sunday morning with no Children’s program at Green Gulch and you’ll see for yourself.

I asked for the community to acknowledge a child who was born to two long-term Children’s Program attendees, who met at Green Gulch. The priest I asked to help with the ceremony said, “I’m not sure who those people are” and another accused me of proselytizing, and said that the priests weren’t for sale (maybe they should tell Google that, there seems to be some confusion). In the end we didn’t have the ceremony, and it’s clear to me that whatever the residents of Green Gulch and City Center say about how much they want family practice, when it comes to actually engaging, they are nowhere to be found.

[Edit: a few typos have been corrected in the original, Greed Gulch wasn't intentional even if it is hilarious.]

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".