Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Moth Koan

Catching a moth in my hand I release it out the window, such a delicate thing.
My friend asks, "How can they fly, they're nothing but snot and dust?"
I reply, "How can they not fly, they're nothing but snot and dust!"

Moth in Wax

Monday, November 14, 2011

Letting Go

It's been a long couple of months. Two deaths touched my life, several relationships drastically changed, two over-long visits, along with lots of little things added up to a lot of loss and stress compressed into just a few weeks.

Great is the Matter of Birth and Death

The Han at City Center

My paternal grandmother passed this last month after nearly a decade of suffering with Alzheimer's, as much as our entire family (she had seven children) will miss her we are all a bit relieved that her suffering has ended. Her mind was her greatest gift and watching her lose first her memory then her consciousness was heartbreaking and difficult for everyone. I only saw her a few times in that last ten years but every time it was progressively clearer that we were losing her synapse by synapse.

The last time, I was visiting with my daughter and the only response we got was when we asked the little one to sing her a song, having been a teacher for many years she still remembered enough to sing along. It was a bittersweet moment, watching a duet across there generations, knowing that we would not likely see her alive again.


Steve Jobs passed away the day after my Grandmother, and while the impact was very different it was also a great loss: a personal hero and one of the creators of the industry I have worked in for more than 15 years.

Death has a way of forcing you to let go, it becomes very clear that there is truly nothing to hang onto any longer, the person you knew and loved won't ever come back to you, holding on to them is beyond meaningless but we tend to to it anyway. Mourning is the fundamental process of letting go of someone who has died, it's the stepwise ordeal of finally coming to acceptance.

"How do you live your life if you know you're going to die"

Zenkei Blanche Hartman gave a wonderful talk on March 16 2011, just a few months afer her husband Lou Hartman died, titled "Exploring the Great Matter of Birth and Death"

Not Getting What You Want

My Grandmothers last words, recorded by her daughter as she had a brief moment of lucidity with her husband amounted to "Thank you, I Love You, I'm Sorry" and watching the video of the two of them sharing this exchange was really heartbreaking, especially since I was dealing with the loss of two relationships that I had hoped would last as long as theirs.

The first has been a long time coming, a previous girlfriend who I foolishly walked out on and held out hope for reconciliation with turned up with an engagement ring on. Loss is a weak word for what I've felt over the last year and a half since we separated, the obsessive attachment and regret for how I treated her in that relationship are what brought me to practice in the first place. I'd hoped that my attempts at self-improvement would be enough to re-kindle our relationship but, clearly, it's either not enough or the damage I've done is so bad that there's just no reconciling.

As hard as it was to see the ring on her finger it wasn't really unexpected, and I've been processing the loss over the last year. While it's still difficult to see that she's moved on, it puts an end to, or at least countervails, the hope that we would be able to work things out, the hope that she might forgive me. The hope that the past I deeply miss could be recreated in the present.

The other is harder, because it's fresher, because there is an element of deception, because I put a lot of time and energy into building a friendship to base a relationship on (one of my many many errors in the previous relationship), because I really wanted to move away from my obsession with my last relationship and into something new and promising. In this case the loss wasn't about what had been but what might be, instead of pining for the way things were I lost my dream of how things could be in the future.

Either case is a variant of not getting what you want, something that's worth paying attention to in practice.

White and Black Bunnies

bye bye bunny

The Mind Moves from the Present to the Past

All of these losses amount to attachment to the past or future, the loss of a relative or hero or a past relationship attaches me to my memory of the impact they had on my life. The loss of a potential relationship attaches me to the future I imagined and wanted. Letting go of the past and the future means moving back to the present moment, coming back to the reality of what is.

Even if the present doesn't include everyone I love anymore, even if the women I desire routinely rejected me, even if I struggle with feelings of worthlessness and the pain of loss. All these things are difficult, but they are all present right now, and at least I know that it's all really true: that there really is nothing to hold onto and nothing to hold on with. When I'm attached to what isn't, my mind is full of greed and delusion, unable to see what's right in front of me.

When I'm able to let go of these things (some day, maybe?) then lightness and joy can come in to take the place of loss and suffering, the present moment can arise and that can be sufficient, enough to be contented with, enough to sustain me until the next crisis, the next loss, the next moment.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I ⼼ Oryoki

Eating Oryoki has become one of my favorite parts of practice, so I got up early this morning and went down to City Center for the early morning sit, service and breakfast served in the Zendo. When I got there, just before the 6:30 AM sitting, there was a line of people doing slow walking meditation in the Gaitan and the Zendo looked crowded from what I could see looking down the hallway. I ended up in an awkward spot when the clackers signaling the end of Kinhin sounded, but managed to get a spot in the Zendo on the floor at the Ino's direction.
People were being particularly quiet after Zazen, we went upstairs for service in the Buddha Hall. The hall was almost full when I got in, and I picked a spot in the front row because I couldn't see another one on the tatami. The new Tanto came over and kindly pointed out I was in the spot that the priest would take when they arrived. Whoops. Coming out of service I noticed the seat assignment board and housing assignment sheet typical of a One Day Sitting, which means it's silent in the building for the day.
I was at the end of the Soji line and all the good jobs (meaning toilets) were taken so I helped setup the Buddha Hall for the public lecture, which mostly consists of moving chairs from the dining room to the hall and lining them up at the edge of the tatami and along the walls. During Soji there was a minor incursion, two men, separately, walked in the open front door and sat down on a bench in the hallway. I was walking into the dining room to get more chairs and the Guest Student Manager (that's the job title on the farm at least, it might be slightly different at City Center) asked me to go close the front door, on my way to go do that I noticed one of the residents taking up station at the door just across from the bench. The situation was clearly under control so I continued to help setup the Buddha Hall and went down for breakfast when the gong was struck to indicate the end of the cleaning period.
I hate to jump to conclusions but it wouldn't suppress me if one or both of the men who walked in were homeless, in any case they were sitting quietly and not being disruptive, and given the Zen Center's history of doing homeless outreach and general concern for the welfare of everyone I'm confident the situation was handled very gently and skillfully. Considering the potential for bit of a scene I'm glad it happened after everyone was down in the Zendo for breakfast.
The Oryoki Weight Loss Plan
Oryoki has been a great practice for me because I have some food issues. Like an alarming number of people I'm carrying around some extra pounds, which I'm looking to lose sooner than later. The very word 'Oryoki' (オリヨキ or 応量器) means something like "just enough in the bowl", so portion control is built into the program. Reading my initial post on the process you can see that I've been fascinated by the form for a while, it's the most complex of the Zendo forms, and the one in which a mistake can be dramatic: hot water being poured from bowl to bowl, the occasional setsu hitting the floor, ceramic bowls which shatter if dropped from the narrow edge of the ton. It turns breakfast, lunch and to a lesser extent dinner (which has an abbreviated, two bowl form) into a bit of a performance, and in that performance my relationship to food has profoundly changed.
First, Set the table. Before eating the bowls are set out and the implements prepared for eating. The unpacking process is a little complicated, to the point where I took a series of photographs depicting the process. Packing it back up is a simple matter of unpacking in reverse, and looking at the full priests set of five bowls (instead of the student set of three) and an additional bowl stand and placemat you start to get a feel for the care that can be taken in setting out your table:
Buddha was born in Kapilavastu,Enlightened in Magadha,Taught in Varanasi,Entered nirvana in Kushinagara.Now we set out Buddha's bowls.May we, with all beings,Realize the emptiness of the three wheels: Giver, receiver, and gift.
Second, Wait to eat. The food is served in succession, one item at a time. The Abbot is first in line, then their Jika, then so on along the ton, where people are typically seated in order of seniority. Only when everyone has been served all three dishes does the meal begin, as a result you have to sit with your food for some time before eating. I can smell the food, notice my body beginning to prepare for it: saliva starts to flow, the stomach starts to rumble, peristalsis starts up and my belly gurgles, a little insulin flows out of my pancreas immediately dropping my blood sugar to almost nothing, hunger intensifies. But I have to wait to eat, and just sit there and feel my body getting hungry for a few minutes, don't react, just feel the hunger and the desire to eat. Just sit with it for a few minutes, then, before eating we chant the Verse of Five Contemplations:
We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.We reflect on our virtue and practice, and whether we are worthy of this offeringWe regard it as essential to keep the mind free from excesses such as greed.We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.For the sake of enlightenment we now receive this food.
Third, Consider why I'm eating. "We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life", i.e. it's not entertainment, it's not pleasure, it's what we need to continue our lives, as much as possible we should make that just enough. The food that's served reflects that, simple, hearty and never spicy. Rice or porridge in the first bowl, which you may season with gamasho only. Soup, fruit or pudding in the second bowl, and something delightful in the third, often roasted nuts or a small salad. Once all the good medicine is served, we chant the bowl raising verse:
First, this is for the three treasures.
Next, for the four benefactors.
Finally, for the beings in the six realms.
May all be equally nourished.
Finally, I think of our visitors from earlier. They have wandered into this place looking for nourishment, I hope they got some, and in reflecting can only think of what a great gift it is in life to have more food that you need, and what a waste it is to over-eat when others are hungry and have no roof over their head. Oryoki gives me the time and permission to think about all these things, how and when I eat instead of unconsciously stuffing myself with whatever I can get my hands on.
An Oryoki Disaster
The silence of the One Day Sitting makes the Saturday public program a a little subdued, the Zendo gets crowded when people come in for the 9:25 period of Zazen, and they won't serve lunch today so I decided to leave after breakfast. I ran into a friend on the way out and had a lovely chat while I snacked on a rather large apricot with some less than perfect spots on it, they went in for the sit and I sat for a while finishing my fruit. It would have been nice to hear Paul's talk, but the smile I got when he came back in for Zazen was enough.
I headed home to do some soji around the house (finally, a toilet to clean!) After parking, walking back from the car with my hands full, the unthinkable happened:
IMG 0250
everything in impermanent
Time to get that fancy five bowl set, I guess…

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sanga Visit: Kannon Do

This past Wednesday, the 12th of October I went to see a talk given by Les Kaye at Kannon Do in Mountain View, California. Kannon Do is the successor to Haiku Zendo which was founded in 1965 by some students of Suzuki Roshi when San Francisco Zen Center was still operating out of Sokoji on Bush street.

I first met Les Kay a couple of years ago when he offered a Meditation at Work class. The class ran for several weeks with regular meetings and sittings. It was a great re-introduction to sitting practice and Les's secular approach to teaching the class makes mindfulness practice more accessible to a business environment and really helped to get me back into sitting and eventually, to start practicing with the Zen Center on a regular basis.

When a friend who has some experience with Kannon Do forwarded me a note that the talk was going to be about Steve Jobs I knew I finally had to go down and visit. It took some doing but after arranging for a friend to hang out with the kid I drove down for the regular Wednesday night sit and Dharma Talk.

Getting In

I arrived a little late, and the parking lot was full, as I was turning around I saw a woman in robes and a rakusu, which seemed like a good sign. It took a few minutes to find a parking spot down the street and walk back to the temple. The Zendo at Kannon Do is the entire main building, there is a small building on the back of the property and all the usual Zen accessories are in evidence, a Han and a large bell hang outside and the expected neat lines of shoes outside the door.

Zazen had already started so I was faced with the prospect of walking into the period late, and having no idea what the correct forms are for entering this particular zendo (they are all different) I hesitated for a few moments outside before gathering my courage and opening the door as quietly as I could manage. Stepping over the threshold with the foot closest to the hinge turned out to be a challenge since I didn't want to open the door all the way but I got in. Three steps in I made the customary bow to the room and looked around for an empty spot. All the cushions were taken, but there was one empty chair, which I quietly walked over to and sat down in, then settled into the rest of the 40 minute sitting period.

After the talk we had a typical evening service, a lot of people came out for the talk and there wasn't enough room for full bows so we did standing 90° bows instead of full prostrations. There were some differences, the chant books aren't the same as Zen Center and a few of the smaller verses were slightly different translations which was a bit unexpected but following along wasn't hard.

The Talk

Les's talk wasn't so much a Dharma talk, it was a few stores and observations about Steve Jobs and his history with the Haiku Zendo sitting group and the relationship that he and Les had over the years. There were a couple of particularly illuminating stores and a few observations about Steve's product design style (remove all unnecessary parts) which Les felt were deeply influenced by Zen practice and philosophy.

Les and Steve met at Haiku Zendo in 1974 or 1975 where Les was a priest, having been ordained by Suzuki Roshi in 1971. Les was a 40 year old career man, working at IBM and concurrently working on becoming a transmitted Zen priest all while raising a family. Steve was freshly returned from India with a shaved head and some intense exposure to Buddhism, Les remembers him as being a deep thinker and recounted a few walks that the would take around Palo Alto, where Steve would ask questions like "What is Work?" A seemingly naive question, but one which shows that he took nothing for granted and was intensely curious about the nature of reality.

Some time in late 1975 or early 1976 Steve paid Les an unexpected visit at his home, he had an envelope in his hands and asked if Les would review the schematics inside. Les, having been trained as an electrical engineer but subsequently moving into marketing and management didn't feel like he could help, since his skills were 20 years out of date at that point. On asking Steve what the plans described, he got an answer that won't surprise anyone, "I can't tell you, it's secret." We may never know exactly what was in that envelope, but the timing suggests that it was the plans for the Apple I computer, which famously sold for $666.66 when it was released in 1976.

During Steve's tenure at Haiku Zendo, which lasted about a year, he developed a close relationship with Kobun Chino. A few articles have been written about them as well as Steve's marriage to Laurene Powell by Kobun in a Zen ceremony at the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite in 1991. The marriage being fully 16 years after Jobs and Kobun met gives you some idea of the depth of their relationship, which lasted until Kobun's tragic death in 2002. Les recalled getting a tearful phone call from Steve a few days later, when he learned of Kobun's passing.

The most recent story—and the most telling about Steve's long term interest in meditation practice—Les told revolves around his teaching a Mediation at Work class at Apple. One day after class he and Steve had lunch and discussed creating a permanent space for meditation at Apple (Google, for .e.g has at least one dedicated quiet room for this) they took a tour of campus for several hours, looking for a suitable spot, with Steve asking "how about this one?" all along the way.

Tea and Cookies

After the talk there was the usual Q&A session, which went on for a while and then we put the Zendo back in order and retired to the back house for tea and cookies. I took the opportunity to thank Les for his Meditation at Work classes and make a date to reconnect.

I'll be going back to Kannon Do for sure, Les is one of only four students of Suzuki Roshi who were given dharma transmission by his son, Hoitsu Suzuki, to complete the process that his father started before his death in 1971. There aren't a lot of Suzuki Roshi's students around any more, and none of them are getting any younger. At the end of the Q&A Les made a point of reminding the assembled Sanga that in a few years they would have to appoint a new abbot to carry on in his place.


Jean-Louis Gassée remembers hearing about Steve attending sittings at Kannon Do, which didn't come up during the Q&A after Les's talk.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Advice for Beginners

This past Friday and Saturday I went back to City Center after a long hiatus. How long? Well I was surprised to see that it's been almost three months since the last time I was there.

A Memorial

Friday I went to attend the memorial service for Steve Jobs. I've had the privilege of working for Steve for a few years now and have been a fan for a long time so the news was particularly difficult, and added to the loss of one of my grandmothers the day before it made for a somber week. Driving down to Cupertino on Friday was pretty emotional and as I offered incense in front of a small picture of Steve that evening it was hard not to break down and just start sobbing. I left immediately after the service, though, and didn't stay for dinner. So while I got back into the building my aversion is still in play.

A Come to Buddha Moment

Saturday I went to attend the morning Zazen and lecture, though I missed the early sit, service and oryoki breakfast because I was up late the night before. After the talk Nancy, our Membership & Alumni Manager asked me to say a few words about why I signed up as a member. It was an emotional moment at the end of an emotional week and I didn't want to go on too long and ramble so I made just two brief points:

First, what goes on at Zen Center in the city and Green Gulch on Saturday and Sunday mornings are just the tip of the iceberg, there are so many diverse and interesting programs on offer around Zen Center that it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't find something of interest. If you're new to Zen Center there's a lot to learn and many opportunities to do so.

Secondly, the practice of sitting meditation is difficult. It's physically demanding and can be emotionally challenging. I struggled for years with my personal practice and only in the last ten months of being involved with the Zen Center have I been able to get beyond 20-30 minutes sits a few times a week. Zazen is a team sport, and having the support of a community is essential to making real progress. I have immense gratitude for the care and support of the community I've received.

To expand on what I said Saturday, here is specific advice to beginners at Zen Center, taken from my personal experience over the last ten months of involvement:

Advice for First Timers

Come back. I've seen a lot of people come and go from the weekly meditation introduction, this is to be expected, the practice of Zen isn't for everybody. But if you find that the introduction whets your appetite then come back and sit as much as you can, there's a lot more to Zen than sitting but everything revolves around that. Suzuki Roshi, when confronted with a new student full of questions and problems that they wanted solved by a Zen master would give the same advice in pretty much every instance: "Come back at 5AM and sit Zazen with us."

The advice seems odd, we have problems and want to find solutions, want to know what action to take to resolve them. Being told to sit down and do nothing, well, it's a real challenge to the way we've learned to deal with the world. Don't try to fix anything, just sit and accept it as it is. This is the heart of the practice, and for beginning students the most important thing is just to start the process, which means sitting as much as you can.

Advice for Returning Beginners

So, you came back, great, good to see you again. Now it's time to get to know the community a bit, this will be important for the next step, when you'll find that having a support network built up is pretty much essential. There are many opportunities to interact with the residents and members of Zen Center, volunteer, spend a week at Green Gulch as a guest retreatant (I don't recommend signing up as a guest student just yet), take a class or attend a workshop that looks interesting.

The idea here is to get to know some of the residents and regulars, build some relationships and prepare yourself for your first one-day or half-day sitting. I spend a lot of time volunteering for the children's program and hanging out with other Zen Center parents, for e.g. Showing up for early sittings, service and soji is another good way to meet people, though you may end up scrubbing a few toilets in the process.

To Join or Not to Join

Now comes the big moment, do you want to become a member? I joined on Buddha's Birthday this year, before my first One Day Sitting, and honestly I don't recommend it. Not that I regret it in any way but the full day of sitting is a good test to see if you're really into the practice. Some people have a very hard time with the forms, some people are really attracted to them, it pays to find out which camp you're in before signing up. If the forms aren't for you, there's a number of vipassana meditation centers around the Bay Area (I personally find that Vipassana is too secularized, but a lot of people like it for that reason).

If you find that the One Day sit is tolerable and if you notice that the world seems like a quieter place the  next day you might feel compelled to come back. If that's the case then signing up a a member makes a lot of sense, you'll be supporting an amazing community of dedicated people who will do everything they can to support you in our practice. You are basically supporting yourself by giving back to the community and I think you'll find the rewards are worth much, much more than the discounts and newsletters.

Zen Movie Review: Zen

Zen Movie Reviews is a new segment, apparently, that covers movies about Zen and Buddhism in general to help you make enlightened viewing decisions.

Zen  The Movie

The Amazon Product Page for Zen lists it as Zen Japanese Movie Drama DVD with English sub NTSC all region. I think it's safe to just call it Zen for our purposes, as that seems to the the title the director Banmei Takahashi intended when the film was released in 2009.

Zen  Kanji

The movie Zen opens with our hero Dogen, seven years old, talking with his dying mother about creating a paradise here one earth. It's the driving force that sends him to China to seek enlightenment from the Chan masters in the mountains. It then fades into the opening credits with panoramic shots and soaring music which indicate that we're watching a serious drama unfold. Grab some popcorn.

Dogen and the Tenzo

And drama we get, while Dogen is out way seeking he meets the Tenzo of a nearby temple, a pivotal character in Dogen's story and is the inspiration for the Tenzo Kyoukun. After many years of study with the Tenzo and sitting meditation in the Zendo Dogen experiences his enlightenment and we are treated to one of the more amusing CG sequences which seems to depict a scene from an ancient sutra.


Dogen's enlightenment is confirmed by the temple priest and he is given the lineage chart or 'blood line' document along with a brown okesa, which allows him to teach the way. Not long after he returns to Japan to establish the Soto school of Zen.

Achievement Unlocked

On returning to Japan, Dogen faces many trials and tribulations, is forced to move his temple twice before settling in Eihei-ji to found what we now consider the mail training temple of Soto Zen. There is a sub-plot revolving around the life of a prostitute, first saved by Dogen as a child then later reformed by Zazen, it's a compelling story but I can't find any historical basis for it, and at first blush it sounds suspiciously like a story from the Surigama sutra or the story of Mary Magdeline from the bible.

Despite some moments of CG silliness the movie does manage to provide good dramatic pacing considering the amount to time in the movie that's dedicated to Zazen (admittedly not the most compelling thing to watch), the major events of Dogen's life are all covered, up to his death. The movie portrays him dying in Zazen as the monks continue to sit the rest of the period out of dedication to his practice. This portrayal diverges from the historical account but it's emblematic of the way a Zen master is supposed to die: either standing or sitting in perfect samadhi.

Overall Zen is entertaining and contains enough of a historical outline of Dogen's life that it's a worthwhile movie. I give it four out of five enso's:

EnsoEnsoEnsoEnsoEnso grey


Friday, September 16, 2011

Zen Product Review: Zazen Sleep

This is our first installment of Zen Product Reviews, where we review Zen products to help you make enlightened buying decisions.

Today we're looking at Zazen Sleep Formula, which is a new product which promises to help put you to sleep, naturally.

You're not supposed to fall asleep during Zazen. In fact they have a stick in the Zendo just for waking you up if you do decide to have a nap in the middle of a session. It's not used much anymore but it's still sitting there on the altar. Just in case.


Frequently Asked Questions

Zazen Sleep formula has a FAQ on their site which gets a few things not quite right, here then are my answers to their questions:

What is Zazen?

Zazen is sitting meditation with no object. Essentially sitting and staring at the wall trying not to think of anything. Turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds.

How long does it take for Zazen to work?

Zazen typically lasts for 40 minutes when practiced in a Zendo. Personal Zazen times may be as short as five minutes or as long as a whole day if the sitter is tolerant to pain.

What is the active ingredient in Zazen that will help me sleep?

Boredom. There's not a lot of excitement in the Zendo, except for the beginning and ending bells it's slient, the wall is painted plain white, the windows are above your line of sight so you can't look outside. It's just you and the 10,000 things in your head. Get tired of those and it's sleepy time.

Are there any side-effects?

Some people experience joy, crying, emotional release, feelings of samadi and an expanded, universal sense of self. Your mileage may vary.

Can I take Zazen even though I am taking medication?

Experienced practitioners highly recommend avoiding intoxicating substances as they tend to interfere with the correct operation of Zazen.

Where can I buy Zazen?

The dharma is free, but you'll need to rent or borrow a quiet space in which to perform Zazen, contact your local Zen Temple for more information about attending sittings in the Zendo or attending other events to become familiar with Zazen.

What is the best time to take Zazen?

Zazen is best practiced first thing in the morning. Before the sun is up and you have time to compose yourself. Well, you have time to brush your teeth and wash your face, but that's it, the Han's ringing.

How do I know Zazen is right for me?

You'll just have to try it and find out.

Has Zazen been approved by the FDA?

No, but it's approved of by Dogen.

What is the taste or flavor of Zazen?

Oh, a Koan, I'm gonna have to meditate on that!

Who should not take Zazen?

Those who are already perfectly enlightened should not require Zazen; but then, it never hurts…


Our Recommendation

Don't fall asleep during Zazen. That stick is pretty serious looking.

I bet the herbal supplement tastes awful, but I'm not trying it to find out.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I Suck at Sesshin

No really, I'm awful. This beginner was in no way prepared going into this, not physically, not emotionally, and it showed. Here's the play-by-play:

Sunday the 21st

Got stuck in traffic on the way in, needed to stop in to the office before they closed to reserve some rooms for an upcoming weekend with some other parents from the children's program. The Tanto made a point of giving me a stern look when the "no electronics" admonishment was read by the Ino, I'd say my reputation proceeds me but I was in the middle of typing out one last email on my phone at the time, so I had it coming.

After orientation some people stuck around for oriyoki instruction, I went to unpack my room and get ready for the week. After dinner in the dining room we had another rest period (which is traditional after eating) then a period of zazen or two and a brief service for chanting the three refuges, the Ino announced the start of sesshin and our week of silence had begun.

Monday the 22nd

I was late to the first morning sit, which was a real issue because not only did I miss the morning greeting, I didn't really know the form for getting into the zendo a little late. Like any other form you follow along as best you can and try not to dwell on it while settling onto the cushion.

We got our week long Soji assignments in the morning: mens bathroom in the residents hall. It's a Soji dream (lots of toilets and urinals) and there was a bit of a race to get to the soji sheet, read the instructions for the toilets, and grab the supplies before someone else. The first day we had too many on the crew, half were supposed to clean the outside men's room, so there were a few moments of "everyone is doing something, what should I clean." Once we had that sorted negotiating turns at toilet cleaning got easier (there were only two of us left) and the rest of the week went quite smoothly.

Some of the participants work in the kitchen during the week, some are on the Oryoki Serving crew, I was on a dish crew Monday, Wednesday, Friday and one shift on Sunday. After a week on the farm and occasionally doing drop-in shifts I know dishes pretty well so this was a welcome break from the sitting and I was able to help out some of the other participants with putting stuff away and other kitchen forms. So my one area of semi-competence durning the week was well outside the Zendo, but at least it's something.

Tuesday the 23rd

By Tuesday morning I was coming to grips with the schedule a bit and discovered a great gift: a noisy neighbor. Remember back at that last one day, when I was fidgeting all over the cushion? Well, it was that all over again except I was on the other side, thankfully I had Shundo's advice to follow: be compassionate, which wasn't hard considering my recent experience. I'd been there and knew how it felt to sit with my own suffering and to feel like I was disturbing the people next to me. In fact, as long as I had this suffering to be compassionate about, I was able to sit very quietly and focus on that. It was much easier than sitting with my own suffering.

After lunch I took a long hike on the break, up Middle Green Gulch trail to the ridge and then back down the fire road past Hope Cottage. I got back just in time to change out my shoes for sandals and get into the Zendo for the afternoon sit, sweaty and well exercised, feeling every breath.
After dinner I took another break for a sauna, the Jisha to the Tanto came in after me and left before me. I should have paid attention to this but I was enjoying the sauna after the hike at lunch break. When I finally did get out and shower off I was a bit alarmed to hear the Han sound out before I was quite dressed. The message of the Han is 'come to the zendo now', I'm sure nobody minded that I got dressed before I did.

Wednesday the 24th

Most guests who aren't working get a break after meals, the dish crew has to report to the kitchen to do the dishes, so we were excused from the sitting periods after breaks. Monday I didn't take all these breaks but Wednesday I did. Schedule fatigue sets in pretty deeply after three days of dawn to dark sitting, having those breaks was nice even if I did feel like I was missing out, or cheating, or something. Most of the break time I spent in the dining room working on my origami and drinking coffee.

During the week Reb would periodically walk around and give posture adjustments, by Wednesday I could at least get into a posture that didn't need much correction when he came around. Of course I went right back to slouching after that, but for a moment there: Passable Posture.

Thursday the 25th

Got up early, around 2AM, went down to the kitchen around 3 and made coffee then went to the zendo and did an hour of sitting in the dark. Wasn't too hard to be the first for the 5AM sit after that, even after taking time to go get a coffee after the wakeup bell started.

I had two practice discussions Thursday, which was a long time to wait to have a conversation with anyone. The character of the two discussions was pretty much the opposite of what I had expected going in, but I did get what I was looking for, even if I wasn't quite prepared for it that early in the morning.

Remember the ocean of suffering I went swimming in last month? Well it's still there and since my noisy neighbor got a doan job I was all out of distractions, compassionate or otherwise. Most of the rest of the day was spent with that ocean behind my eyes, leaking out slowly and quietly (I hope) as I sat on the cushion.

Friday the 26th

Friday morning came and went, I took a walk down to the beach after doing dishes and got back in time for the lecture. While at the beach I noticed a bag that had been there yesterday, I don't know for sure what was in it but judging from the weight I decided not to open it up. Sitting on the bench I noticed a number of cigarette buts on the ground in front of a bench overlooking the ocean. After a moment of disgust at having to clean up after these dirty litterbugs I picked everything up and walked it over to the garbage cans at the parking lot.

My little beach cleanup left me thinking: what an odd mix of intentions these people had, to come to the beach and try to find some peace and then to poison themselves (as an ex-smoker, I totally understand but I had to develop an aversion to help myself quit) and finally defile the beach by leaving their litter behind. By the time I got to the garbage can to drop off my little bag of shit I'd gotten over my disgust and saw that I'm really no different. We're all a mix of intentions and the trick, if you can call it that, is to stop yourself in the moment between though and action, evaluate the intentions that come up and try to pick the best one.

After listing to the lecture I actually worked up the courage to go up to the front and ask a question about my experience on the beach. You can hear the exchange between Reb and this beginner here (it's about eight minutes in total).

Saturday the 27th

While the break for a walk and doing the Q&A was good I spent most of the day Friday in tears again, twice I got up and a tissue that I'd tucked under my shirt fell out onto the Zendo floor. My neighbor was nice enough to point this out both times. During morning Soji I hit my head on a beam while getting my shoes and blurted out "Every God-Dammed Time!" which drew a few mute stares. It's one thing to break the silence while you're doing dishes but another to start swearing before Soji. Clearly I was starting to get worn down.

After cleaning the mens bathroom but before breakfast I asked the Ino if I could go lie down, my legs hurt, I was tired of crying all day long, I wasn't getting enough sleep or food (I'd been taking small portions at meals all week). Going back to my room I fell asleep immediately and had the most lurid dream I can recall having in years. It reminded me of a story about Ananda, from the roll-in to the Surangama Sutra (p.25 in that translation) where Ananda goes out begging and is tempted into a house of ill repute, he's about to loose his virtue when an agent of the Buddha intervenes at the last minute and 'saves' him from the clutches of a low woman.

Waking up from the dream I checked the schedule and clock, looked at myself in the mirror and quickly shaved then returned to the Zendo for lecture. Turns out you're not actually supposed to shave during Sesshin but I had forgotten to bring a hair brush as well and was starting to look like one of the Farm Crew. Sitting through the lecture was easy enough, and I stayed in the Zendo for fast kinhin, i think, and for lunch.

After lunch I walked down to the beach, coming back my fatigue caught up with me, I felt immeasurably lonely walking back, didn't want to sit in the Zendo and cry any longer so I went straight back to my room to hide under the covers for a few hours. I neglected to tell the Ino where I was (this is part of the Sesshin protocol) and after a few missed sits she came up to check on me and ask what was wrong. I offered up some lame excuse about my legs hurting, and got some advice on stretching and taking a walk to the beach.

Good advice, but hardly pertinent to my situation. I guess it's what I get for lying about why I was missing in action. I promised to come back for the evening service, which was going to be a Bhodisatva initiation ceremony for one of Reb's students (the same one, it turns out, that helped me with the chant book way back at that one day sit).

Sunday the 28th

By Sunday I felt like my knees weren't going to make it the whole day, so I decided on skipping oroyki which has become my favorite part of the full day sits, but which is also the longest time you have to sit without a posture adjustment. I felt that the sitting was more important, though having done it getting in and out of the zendo before and after each meal was a bit awkward, so I'm going to either have to start doing yoga (which is popular around the Zen Center for what are quickly becoming obvious reasons) or give up my pride and sit at a table.

During the final Q&A session after the closing lecture we got a demo of Kyosaku technique after one of the other sitters asked for it. It was all I could do not to get up and ask to be next, but after seeing it once there was really no need to get up and reveal myself as a total Masochist.

After the conclusion of the last sitting period in the afternoon I cleaned up my cushion, and headed out to the kitchen for tea and cookies, on the way one of the senior teachers stopped me and asked a seemingly innocuous question, "would you like to know something about our Zendo forms?" Uh-oh.

"Of course!" I responded and was then told that wearing a mala in the Zendo is specifically forbidden, by Dogen himself. Fuck. It really left me wondering: what else am I doing wrong? I'm sure the list is a lot longer than I'd like to think it is.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Zen Lingo: Aversion

Every group has it's own idiomatic phrases and concepts that it uses to ease communication. Sometimes the meaning is immediately clear even if there are subtleties that take some time to grasp. Aversion, at Zen Center, is one of those words. It's used more or less in line with it's dictionary meaning but the subtext of any discussion of aversion around here is a little different than what you might be used to in everyday life. It's actually not unique to Zen Center, I've heard it used in a number of spiritual communities with roughly the same sense.

For starters, Aversion comes up much more often than you would hear in typical North American English, Aversion is a bit of a 50¢ word, people use it when they want to sound fancy. It's also typically considered perfectly normal to express aversion to a person place or thing, though we often use other constructs. So you might say, "I'm having some aversion to work today" in stead of "work sucks" and everyone would understand that you're bitching about work and showing off a little in the process.

Not so in the 'spiritual' sense, Aversion means just what it does in english, "I don't like it!" but the implication is much more serious. Hey, you're avoiding this, maybe you should, you know, look at it and figure out why maybe? There's a call to action included in the use of aversion that is intended to draw the subject's attention to the object and a request to further inquiry.

So when I say that I'd developed a bit of an aversion to sitting, to going into the Zendo even, after my last one day sit, well there was nothing to be done about it but to sign up for something more serious. In between the one day and seven day sittings I clocked exactly one session in the Zendo. Even going into the Zendo was a bit of a motivational challenge, I was helping with the children's program last month and Nancy had to give me a little head-waggle to get me to take off my shoes and go sit down with the kids for all of ten minutes before we headed down to the farm.

The only way to really deal with aversion is to face it and watch what comes up, see what the root of the disgust is and see if it's really something you want to hold on to. Typically the answer is no, though there are times when aversion is well founded, but most of the time you'll learn something important about yourself if you take the time to face it.

That said, I haven't been back to City Center for more than a month. Guess I'll have to face that sooner than later.

Two Peaches

Two peaches in the bowl in the Guest House

One is pure and perfect, ripe and ready to eat

The other is beginning to go, spots of decay and mold

I pick up the pure one, and consider what's left behind

Someone will have to eat that defiled one

Guess the good one is going back in the bowl…

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Great Faith and Great Courage

When I did my first one day sit, which seems like forever ago, the talk was something about having Great Faith and Great Something, can't quite remember what. I'm gonna go with Courage:


After having a rough day on Saturday I went up to the farm for the Sunday program and signed up for the Seven Day Sesshin with Reb Anderson. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Taking Refuge in the Sanga

I take refuge in the Buddha

I take refuge in the Dharma

I take refuge in the Sanga

I could write a whole article about the refuges, but here's the important thing: since coming back from Green Gulch for the week I've gotten up every morning and done at least three full prostrations while reciting them, usually nine. Even if I don't have time or won't make time to sit I do the bows every morning before leaving the house, religiously, if you will.

So, in light of my breakdown on Saturday and Shundo's very sweet response I wanted to write something about the critical importance of the Sanga to deepening practice.

Serious meditation practice is difficult, facing the wall you are left to face yourself, and that's hard practice on it's own. Sidhartha achieved enlightenment after sitting under a tree by himself for eight days, this after years of studying with various gurus and attempting different practices. But it's what he did afterwards that makes Buddhism what it is: he created a community of monks and dedicated the rest of his life to transmitting what he discovered and forming the sanga which carries on to this day, now diversified into myriad schools which vary in the details of their methods but all with a singular goal: to free humanity from suffering.

The first two refuges speak to the achievement and the compassion of the Buddha, the attainment of enlightenment and the desire to share it with the world. But the third is maybe the most important. Enlightenment is all well and good but the real challenge of human existence is maintaing that feeling of connectedness in the face of all the suffering that exists in the world and in relating to other people. You can't really learn about who you are without other people around to bump into, to come into conflict with, to challenge your equanimity and composure, to trigger your desires and obsessions, to get under your skin in ways you didn't know someone else could do.

At the same time, the practice is so challenging and at times difficult that it takes a singular person to achieve the goal on their own, which is why having the support of a community around you is critical. I practiced meditation for years on my own and have read all kinds of dharma but without the encouragement of a community that's also engaged n the same practice it's hard to make real progress, especially if you can't remove yourself from the world to sit and contemplate your life.

How is your meditation today?

So, Saturday when I said there was no Zazen for me I wasn't being quite accurate: there wasn't any Zazen until I went and sat in the hall. I had been floating all day at the surface of that ocean of suffering, bobbing about, uncomfortable, maybe a little seasick. As much as it stung in the moment to be asked to go sit outside it was a great gift to be thrown off the raft, to jump into the first noble truth and be immersed in it.

I couldn't do that in the Zendo, my concern for maintaing the form and my own composure wouldn't allow me to really be there with the suffering under the surface, my attachment to the forms had become a fetter and were holding me back from seeing the reality of myself: the insecurity, the loneliness, the feelings of inadequacy, the seemingly endless failures of everyday life, struggling with being a single parent, my obsessive attachments, feelings of rejection, worthlessness, embarrassment and remorse. All that's in there, and ignoring it doesn't make it go away, only facing it and learning to abide with it will bring it to an end, and to do that you need the compassion and kindness of your fellow travelers.

Most descriptions I've seen of the use of the Keisaku involve a sort of disclaimer: it doesn't really hurt and the administration of the stick is really an act of compassion for the meditator who's having trouble centering themselves. Sure it stings, but it releases the shoulder muscles and focuses the attention in a way that is hard to replicate with words. As much as it hurt me in the moment to be asked to leave it was in fact an act of great compassion, I was given permission to go out and really be with myself for a few minutes, a chance to cut through my own defenses and spend some time with feelings that I almost never allow myself to admit to, because it's uncomfortable to sit and face that kind of suffering.

After having a couple of days to think it over, to feel it out, I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn something critically important about myself: that I can sit in the midst of my pain and come out the other side in one piece. It's gifts like these that make the Sanga such a critical component of awakening, they are there to guide you, to support you and to push you forward even when it's not immediately apparent thats what's really going on.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Go Sit in the Hall

"Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lesions from God"

- Kurt Vonnegut

So, there I was Thursday at work, killing some time reading the Ino's Blog and I notice that there's a one-day sitting on Saturday. Well, I was planning on going for the early sit and service before the lecture anyway so why not make a day of it? Registration deadline was Wednesday, but I figured it was worth a quick call to the office to see if they had space, and I lucked out.

I Suck at Soji

I had the day off work Friday for a couple of appointments, so I got up at first bell and drove down to City Center for the Full Moon Ceremony. It was my first and I'm going to write up a longer article with some details but I got there just before the ceremony, sat for a few minutes in the Gaitan, which is the hallway leading into the Zendo where you sit if you arrive after the Zendo is closed or if you have to leave a sitting early, so your coming and going won't interrupt the meditation in progress.

After Service there's Soji, temple cleaning, I lucked out and got to help setup the Zendo for the sit the next day. We had to take some straw mats and zabutans from the Ino's Closet (I always wondered what was in there…) and lay out the temporarily middle row of seats for a busy Saturday. But my head wasn't in it and I made a few mistakes: walking out the priest's entrance to the zendo, in only my socks into a 'shoes on' zone to get cushions and when i came back i walked right past the altar without even thinking about it. I've done the altar thing once before when returning a zafu but nobody saw me that time.

Defining Dokusan

Turns out that there's two types of teacher interview at Zen Center; you can have practice discussion with any number of senior sanga members, many of whom have received transmission or you can have a formal Dokusan with an Abbot or Senior Dharma Teacher, who I believe were all Abbots at one time. The forms for getting in and out of the room differ a bit, but they're different between Green Gulch and City Center in the first place: there's a full bow before the Abbot before and after the interview instead of the standing gassho bow for a practice discussion.

As I said in my last article, the contents of Dokusan are private, but I will share that I felt like I totally failed the interview. Paul kept asking one simple question: How is your Zazen today? For the life of me I simply couldn't answer, I was so caught up in various anxieties and memories that there really wasn't any Zazen for me that day, I just sat on the cushion and let my run away while I waited for the next service or work period so that I could get off that damn cushion and go do something.

Sitting and doing nothing wasn't happening, no backwards step, no clear mind, I couldn't even sit still. My legs ached all day long and I was constantly adjusting my position. It was by far the hardest day in the Zendo so far, and it was shorter than several days I've put in the the past.

Last Sit

Sitting was so hard, and I was so fidgety that after the kinhin break and before settling into the last sitting session of the day one of my neighbors leaned over and whispered "excuse me", I don't remember exactly how he phrased it but the message was pretty clear: You're being disruptive, go sit in the Gaitan for this session.

So, I grabbed my cushion and headed out of the Zendo the bell, sat seza on my cushion and just started crying and kept going for basically the entire last sitting period. I felt like I'd failed at being a good student, that I wasn't good at anything, a lot of stuff came out, and a lot of it ended up on my sleeve. It was sort of the exact opposite of my Oryoki Incident from last month, instead of having an ecstatic emotional release I was dropped into the ocean of suffering and had to just tread water until the bell for the last service.

The last service was hard, there were still tears streaming down my face, my nose was congested and a couple of times I felt like falling over or fainting when getting back up from a bow, my voice was rough in the chanting and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to dinner afterwards or just go home and feel sorry for myself.

I ended up staying for dinner, and had a nice chat with a relative newcomer who had come over from a Rinzai temple, I told her about my experience and she related the form at her pervious temple: they yell "Second Zendo" at you in front of everyone and you have to leave. That's after they've hit you with the Keisaku. I'm really not sure which would have been more painful.

Update: Please read the follow-up if you make it all the way down here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Friday

Friday: Home for a Day

I started this series nearly six months ago and I'm itching to wrap it up. So here's what I remember most about Friday: Swearing at people in traffic.

Yup, before I even got to the Golden Gate Bridge, I clearly remember having a few choice words for someone who wasn't driving quite fast enough for me. One whole week off the road and it took all of five minutes to get right back into rage mode.


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Friday, July 15, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Thursday

Thursday: Back in the Kitchen

By Thursday the daily rhythm of life on the farm starts to settle in. You get up with the wake up bell, sit for two sessions, have morning service, do soji, break for breakfast, and after breakfast is work meeting. At work meeting the Guest Student Manager goes around the circle and checks in with arrivals and departures, senior staff makes announcements, any exceptions to the daily schedule are announced, and there is some time at the end for general announcements.

A Riot at Work Meeting

One morning (to be honest I'm not sure it was Thursday) there was an outbreak of unrest. Durning the general announcement someone mentioned that the internet hadn't been working the last day or two. There was a murmur of agreement around the circle, a low group chorus of disappointment and anxiety over being cut off from the outside world.

Now, even when the Internet is working at the farm there is very little bandwidth available. More than 100 people share a single link that would be embarrassingly slow just five miles away. There are signs all over about restrictions: no downloading movies, no streaming video, strict bandwidth limits are enforced. It's a precious resource here, just over the hill from the bustling heart of silicon valley a small farm and the community of Muir Beach rely on a single commercial backhaul connection which tops out at ~ 3Mb/s.

The lack of bandwidth is one of the reasons I go to the farm, besides the slow internet it's also just outside of the various cellular networks. A hike to the ridge or beach puts you back on the grid but within the confines of the valley you're in an RF free zone (except for the Wi-Fi mesh network used to distribute the meager uplink). For someone who spends their working days on the edge of info-shock, constantly consuming and synthesizing large amounts of information from across the global internet and regurgitating parts of it onto social networks (and blogs!) and gleaning the best bits for personal or professional development, having a quiet space is important, probably necessary, to long term sanity.

But for the residents, especially the children who didn't really decide to live here, having a link to the outside world is probably just as important if not more, than my refuge. I come here to get out of the world for a minute, to turn down the volume on the information cascade I spend my days immersed in. I may have only really realized it but the silence is a gift, and seeing the other side of that makes it clear how profound our relationship with communication is. And for people who've chosen to remove themselves from the world, but who don't live in Tassajara where electronics are strongly discouraged (there's very little power, it's a harsh environment, and aren't you there to get away from that), the thin thread of connection back to family, friends, other practitioners around the world is a critical lifeline.

So, despite sort of enjoying the blackout I offered to help out, but didn't get called into service. Maybe next time… The internet came back later that day and things got back to normal. In the mean time I continue to keep up with current and former residents on Facebook, they're all over it (even the Tanto ;).


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Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Wednesday

Wednesday: Pond Cleaning

When they got pond cleaning for their work assignment on Wednesday one of the Guest Students was a little apprehensive about going out on a boat so we swapped she went to help out in the kitchen while I went with the rest of the gang down to the pond to pull up some weeds. To accomplish this we used a small aluminum boat, a raft and some rakes that we borrowed from the Farm Crew. I remembered that there was rain gear in my car (where was that yesterday?) and went to grab it even though the weather was much better and it really wasn't necessary.

Pretty quickly we had a bit of an informal competition going between boats, to see who could rake in more weeds. The recommended technique is to put the rake down in the water and swirl it around, like you're trying to pickup a fork full of spaghetti. After comparing our respective loads at lunch time we were all determined to do better in the afternoon and out harvest the other team. As a Guest Practice Retreatant, I wasn't on the hook to go back and work in the afternoon but they would have been one short to crew the boats and the teams would have been split so there really wasn't much choice, it was for the benefit of all beings, except maybe the weeds.

Rake Overboard

My partner and I were in the small boat, besides the rakes we had oars for getting around, the raft used a bamboo punt stick to navigate and hold it's position. Over the course of the afternoon we drifted apart a bit and worked on different parts of the pond, going where the weeding looked most productive. At one point one of our rakes stuck in the mud and was sticking up out of the muck, we had to paddle over to it to get it back into the boat, bit of a close call.

A few minutes later we heard a commotion from across the pond, so we paddled over to discover that the raft crew had lost a rake in deeper water, and it was nowhere to be found. Remember, these are the farms rakes and we were working with a member of the garden crew, so loosing one was a bit of a big deal, the farmers weren't going to let us forget it if we lost one of their rakes. There was a lot of searching, we pulled up all the weeds in the general area and tried to locate the submerged rake, after about ten minutes the raft crew decided to head back so that one of them could change into something more suitable for swimming.

While they were over at the bank my partner in the boat and I continued to search around, and finally I hit it! Leaning over the front of the boat and probing around with my rake I found the submerged one, it's wooden handle floating off the bottom and the iron rake head keeping it on the pond floor. I tried to reach over, almost flooding the boat in the process, after a few minutes of poking at it the course of action was pretty clear. I stripped out of my rain gear and handed my glasses over to my co-pilot, and with a quick "Shikata ga nai" was over the side and into the pond.

The pond is cold and the water is a bit murky, especially after having been stirred up by all the weed pulling. I hopped in and it was way over my head, after coming back up for air I held onto the boat and searched around with my feet until I had the rake between them and could pull it up. Rake retrieved we paddled back over to the cheering raft crew, not only did we save them a swim the farm crew wouldn't have anything to hold over our heads afterwords.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Tuesday

Tuesday: Composting

As much as I enjoyed working in the kitchen, one of my goals for the week was to get out and do some physical work on the farm. So when we heard that we were going to help with composting on Tuesday I was pretty excited. Even if it was raining a little, and all I had on was my jeans and a light windbreaker.

The task, is to build a layer cake of organic material that will be hot-composted down to organic fertilizer for the farm. The recipe has an adorable mnemonic "Farm Girls Must Sing", each of the letters is an ingredient: Food Waste, Green Waste, Manure and Something else I can't recall. The food waste comes out of buckets, the same we'd been putting our trimmings into during yesterday's kitchen work. Green waste was some cleared brush from a field, which was pitchforked onto the pile. Manure, thankfully, is handled entirely by the tractor, which works from a larger pile and scoops up enough for a layer. The paper towels from the kitchen and bathrooms are composted as well. Durning the composting process the pile is turned several times and heats up high enough to sterilize the pathogens in the manure.

Once the buckets of food waste have been emptied they need to be rinsed, then scrubbed with a brush, and the rinsed again. There were a lot of buckets, and they still had plenty of organic matter in them. Near then end I was so tired that I carelessly dropped the hose. The nozzle landed on the handle and sent an arc of water into the air and directly onto my head. I'd already turned my back and was just thinking, "wow, the rain really picked up, hope it's not long before we head back!" when the farm intern I was working with came over and turned off the rain.

By the time we were finished I was soaking wet, cold, tired and covered with rotten vegetables. The buckets had all been cleaned stacked and loaded into the truck. It was a relief to be excused for lunch and start the hike back up the hill. At the end of the morning, there was a sense of both connection to the kitchen work on Monday and accomplishment at what we had achieved together. The compost pile was taller than any of us and bigger than all of us together.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our emotional pain, anxiety and other problematic mental formations that we forget about good old fashioned physical discomfort. Composting in the rain with inadequate gear really clears that up. You get wet, the work is messy and physically demanding, I started out chatty and conversational and ended up quiet and focused on just the task at hand.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Monday

Monday: Kitchen Work

The kitchen is the center of comunity life at Green Gulch, as is the case in pretty much every religious community I've seen. Meals are shared and after the first ten minutes of silence you can start getting to know some of the residents as well as other guests that are staying for various lengths of time. After my last two retreats which were silent, this was a huge difference and a bit of a relief. I've been coming up to green gulch for about six months, and there are pleunty of people I recognize but haven't had an opporunity to talk to. Over the course of the week I made a lot of connections with people in the community over various meals, it's a wonderful moment when you hear the clackers that signal the end of the silent portion of the meal and everyone says good morning to each other all at once.

At any Soto temple the office of head cook is called the Tenzo, and it's a little more than just the executive chef, there is a text dedicated to the work of the Tenzo written by Dogen himself, the Tenzo Kyokun, also meal preperation starts with a small service in the Tenzo's office, with an inscence offering and a few bows by the Tenzo or Fukiten (the Tenzo's deputy, this term may only be used at Zen Center because there is literally one other web page with the words Tenzo and Fukiten on them). Once everyone has bowed in it's off to work, my first day I did some dishes and prepped some lettuce for salad later in the week. We were extra careful to be gentle to the slugs that we found in the lettuce, though they did end up in the compost.

One of the treats of working in the kitchen is that you end up seeing the results of your labour on the dinner table over the course of the week, more than one salad contained ingredients I prepped on Monday. As a beginner you will typically get some rather simple food prep or cleanup work, work periods are fairly quiet times with most communication in the kitchen consisting of the type of warnings you hear in working kitchens everywhere: "right behind you", "open oven", or more often just a quick "knife" as you walk by with any sharp implement. The instructions are to pay close attention to the task at hand, be slow and careful, ask questions if you're not sure where something goes or what the correct way is and most of all, enjoy it.

Stay tuned for the next existing installment: Compost

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Week on the Farm

Or, What I did on my Summer Vacation.

It was time for a vacation. I totally could have booked a week in Hawaii and sat out on the beach sipping drinks out of a pineapple and pretending to surf, instead I signed up for a week at Green Gulch: getting up at 4:30 in the morning, scrubbing toilets, building compost piles and cleaning out the pond. Basically, I paid to do work that you can't pay americans to do any more and I had a great time.

If you're planning on staying at Green Gulch there are three choices: You can treat the Guest House or Wheelwright Center as a hotel and rent rooms by the night, or you can sign up as a Guest Student, or a Guest Retreatant. Guest Student and Guest Retreatant both participate in the sitting schedule, staring at 5 in the morning, and both have work assignments. Retreatants are given the afternoon off and get a private room. I signed up for the week as a retreatant and stayed in the Guest House as well as a couple of nights in the Wheelwright Center with my daughter over the weekend.

Sunday night I packed up and drove over the bridge, got in around eight in the evening and took a walk down to the beach just after sunset:

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The morning schedule is the same every day: up before dawn, Zazen, Kinhin, more Zazen, Service, Soji then Breakfast in the dining room. After Breakfast there's a work meeting and as a Guest Retreatant you get your work assignment for the day from the Guest Student Manager and spend the morning helping with various aspects of running the farm.

The work assignments sort of make the day, and for each day of the week I'm writing up a seperate self contained entries. Here's the list, which I'll update with links as they're posted:

Monday: Kitchen Work

Tuesday: Composting

Wednesday: Pond Cleaning

Tursday: Back in the Kitchen

Friday: Home for a Day

Reading List

For me, getting involved in Zen practice has involved a lot of reading to help myself get up to speed reasonably quickly. Here's my suggested reading list, in recommended order (which is not necessarily the order I read them in):

Suzuki Roshi

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (kindle)

The Classic. Required reading if you're planning to practice at Zen Center. Seriously, if you're reading this blog and haven't read this stop right now, got get a copy and come back when you're done.

Zen is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki (kindle)

A collection of short, easily digestible, quotes and anecdotes of Suzuki Roshi. A good one to have handy for idle browsing or if you want a quick something to ponder.

Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (kindle)

Not by Suzuki Rosh, but an account of his life and the early years of SFZC. Full of stories that really help to make sense of some of the particularities of life and practice at Zen Center. My favorite is about how the first rule at Tassajara is that brooms should be stored with their bristles up, and every time I've opened a broom closet (which turns out to be a lot) I've found them stored just so.

Not Always So: Practicing the true Spirit of Zen

Another collection of Suzuki Roshi's talks. It's only available in print right now so it might take me a while to get around to finishing.

Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (kindle)

Some of Suzuki Roshi's last lectures, discussing the Sandokai which is chanted on a regular basis in services, and particularly during memorials. I'm about half way through so that the first half of the chant is filled with meaning and the second half is still a bit of a mystery.

Reb Anderson

Reb is the most senior teacher at Zen Center and lives at Green Gulch. His two books cover the precepts (which you'll want to read before asking to take the precepts and getting permission to start sewing a Rakusu) as well as a collection of Dharma Talks he's given over the years.

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisatva Precepts (kindle)

Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains: Dharma Talks on Zen Meditation (kindle)

D.T. Suzuki

D.T. Suzuki is a well regarded Buddhist scholar who wrote some of the first english texts on Zen. He's primarily concerned with Rinzai but these texts are what brought a lot of people to Zen Center in the 60s and 70s so they're helpful in understanding the early history of the lineage and some of the details of practice.

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (kindle)

Manual of Zen Buddhism (kindle)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Rotten Cherry

Not so far gone that you'd notice, maybe a little too soft,

popped into my mouth and then spit in to the compost.

Reconsidering, I dig it out, chew till it's gone.

It still tastes mostly like cherry.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Dinner With the Ino

I've been up at the farm all week on summer vacation, but I really wanted to catch up with Shundo after all the back and forth on our respective blogs after attending Sesshin last week so I drove down to City Center for the evening sit, dinner and an interesting discussion.

We talked about a lot, including our practice histories, some of the details of Zendo management, even a little about our aspirations with respect to Zen. One interesting thing I brought up is the rather odd contrast between the two defining characteristics of Suzuki Roshi's lineage: orthodoxy and reformation.

The practice of Soto Zen at Zen Center is impressively orthodox, the forms are maintained with as much fidelity to the japanese practice as possible and the establishment of the first Zen monastery and training temple was a major accomplishment. Suzuki Roshi is in a very real sense as important a figure as Bodhidarma or Dogen in the history of Buddhism. Some things have changed, to be sure, but we chant in japanese at services, the monks wear traditional robes and if there are differences it's certainly not from a lack of earnest effort on the part of the residents and staff. As Shundo pointed out, Zen Center is 'the Vatican' of western Zen.

The degree to which the Japanese forms are emulated was, to be honest, a little strange at first. I would occasionally shake my head at something I didn't understand or recognize and write it off as an attempt to be 'more zen than the zen masters'. Sometimes it struck me as a little silly or maybe just foreign, which it is, and I've found the forms to be both challenging and comforting as I'm learning them.

However, this experience of strangeness points directly to the second important legacy of Suzuki Roshi; something I think it's fair to call the Soto Reformation. Suzuki Roshi didn't just bring Zen practice to the West, he also brought it to anyone who was willing to come and sit. In Japan, Zazen is almost entirely a monastic practice, lay members of the Sanga might come to see and participate in services and listen to dharma talks but they don't typically sit in meditation. Zen Center, by contrast, was started by lay practitioners who wanted to engage in Zen but who would not or could not retire from the world and enter the monastic life.

Zen Center provides a truly unique opportunity to learn and practice alongside of some wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to intimately transmitting the dharma from West to East, for the benefit of all beings. Being able to sit down and share a meal with one of them is more than a treat, it's a great privilege and I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity and for the continuous effort of everyone who makes it possible.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Fly Koan

The Zen Master asked the beginner, "How does a fly navigate in the wind."

The beginner, thinking he is clever, answers with another question, "How does a person navigate the sea of life and death."

The master replies, "It is helpful to know which way is North."

After some time and consideration the beginner writes to the master, "The fly is one with the air, it knows no more of wind that you or I know of the earth's roation"

Surviving Sesshin

The first I heard about Sesshin was one Saturday lunch at the beginners table, Shundo was outlining the basics: sitting all day, no talking, and when he got the the part about no reading or writing I remember saying something along the lines of “Are you kidding? That’s just crazy.” I wasn’t sure that I could handle it, and clearly I was right, but for the most part I was able to keep to the schedule and follow along. There was a lot of discomfort on many levels but the experience was deeply rewarding and I’m grateful for all the hard work that the residents and staff at the zen center put into making the weekend happen.

The Oryoki Incident

Over the course of the three days I felt like I was gaining competency in the forms, by the third day the routine of the Zendo was becoming second nature, there wasn’t much worry about making mistakes, when I was out of form i would simply adjust and that was that. I started to feel real comfort in the services. I even felt like I was getting good at Oryoki, until breakfast on Sunday.

We had finished eating and moved on to the wash cycle, I had cleaned my Buddha bowl and was working on the second or third when the unthinkable happened: I dumped about half my wash water along with my spatula onto the floor of the Zendo making a racket and a mess. Mortified, I had no idea what to do, I really couldn’t get up because my bowls where still on the meal board in front of me, I froze for a second until the attendant to the Tanto who was sitting next to me leaned over and gave me instructions “put your hands in gassho and someone will come around to clean up.”

Soon enough, a sponge appeared, the mess was mopped up, the dropped spatula was taken to the alter to be purified then returned to me, and I put my bowls back together and wrapped them up with shaking hands. After the meal when we got up to leave the Zendo I tried to brush the remaining water off the meal board and was shaking my head feeling embarrassed and clumsy when I heard the words, “don’t worry about it.”

In Zen there is the concept of sudden enlightenment, that all the effort you put into meditation and study and practice only lay the groundwork for awakening, there’s a leap that you have to make on your own from the mundane to the profound. It comes as suddenly as a flash of lightening when it comes but there’s no anticipating it or planning for it. It just happens when it happens.

I had spent two days sitting, composing letters in my head, struggling with my karma and generally worrying myself into a bit of a state. Those four words, right at that moment, were like opening a dump valve, suddenly all my worry fell away and it was all I could do not to laugh out loud with the joy of relief. That feeling dissipated over the next few hours but every now and again when I would catch myself getting back into the worried and anxious mind i would repeat it back to myself, “don’t worry about it.” Works like a charm.


As we were leaving the Zendo at the end of the last sit, Jordan said a few words in conclusion and asked Blanche if she had anything to add, her reply which i’m paraphrasing was wonderful “we’ve been breathing together for three days, we’re conspirators now.”

Even without talking or trying not to make eye contact, there’s a feeling that developed over the three days of real connection to everyone else in the group, especially the few of us that were left on the third day after many of the residents dropped out (this is pretty understandable, it’s pretty easy to just walk next door and get back to your regular routine). A few people I knew from Saturday service in particular felt much closer and familiar.

There’s a lot more I could say, but in closing I think the most important thing I took away was that while being serious about practice is important, you can’t be too serious, especially if you're just a beginner.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

No Blogging During Sesshin

Sesshin is a time to collect the mind, to that end there are admonitions against talking, touching, making eye contact, reading, writing, and as Shundo was kind enough to remind me Friday night, blogging.

Well, here we are, it's Saturday night, after fire watch, with one day to go and I couldn't quite resist writing a little something. Mostly because the lack of entertainment is driving me a a little crazy. The rest periods after meals have been challenging, here are a few things I've found to do to during the down time:

- explore the building, the roof is lovely, and discovering all the bathrooms is entertaining
- maintain excellent dental hygiene, the breaks are all after meals so this works out well, I'm bringing floss next time
- have some tea or water, staying hydrated is important and there is fruit set out in the dining room to snack on
- wonder where all the residents disappear to between sittings. Seriously, they seem to magically disappear after leaving the zendo and then appear just as mysteriously for the next sit period. I suspect that most of the long-term residents live in the building next door but I can't exactly ask anyone.
- leave chocolate on the Ino's desk test his strength of will
- fold origami bunnies:

Okay, I feel a bit better now that I've scratched that itch. Time for bed.

Location:Page St,San Francisco,United States