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


Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Sila: Hell is Right Here

There's an old parable about the difference between heaven and hell that I've always liked, it goes something like this:

After passing away a man is given a tour of heaven and hell, in the first room is a long table, full of good food and drink, on both sides sit wicked people who cannot bend their arms. They can reach the food on the table but cannot bring it to their mouth. The chamber is full of the wailing of hungry souls continually tempted by a great feast they cannot eat.

Horrified by the scene the departed is taken to see heaven. He is guided to another room, with the same table, the same food and on both side of the table virtuous people who cannot bend their arms. Despite the identical situation they are happy and well-fed. The departed turns to the tour guide and says, "This is the exact same conditions as hell, but the situation could not be more different, what is the secret?"

The guide says simply, "They have learned to reach across the table, and feed each other."

Most people focus on the positive aspect of this story: we can all live in heaven if we learn to help each other. However, the corollary is equally important: being selfish and immoral leads to a world of hurt, for yourself and everyone in your life.

The sutras are full of lurid descriptions of the penalties for immoral behavior, many of them having to do with rebirth into hell realms or as a hungary ghost. In my personal experience no such punishment is necessary, karma works more quickly than that, and those things which I regret are clearly incised on my conscience. The Dhammapada, which contains the canonical moral code for Buddhists, makes the case that the suffering from misdeeds need not wait for the next life:

DHP 314. Better to do nothing than to do what it wrong, for wrongdoing brings burning sorrow. Do therefore what is right, for good deeds never bring pain.

In order to prevent this needless suffering we have the Eightfold Path and the Ten Essential Precepts to guide us. Together these are the core of Slia, or good conduct, in Buddhism. Following the path and keeping the precepts is essential to good practice because sitting in meditation is difficult when your mind is plagued by regret and remorse.

Not everything on the Eightfold path relates to morality but the first two steps include having a 'Right Understanding' of the moral law of karma along with the 'Right Intention' to rid ourselves of the ancient, twisted karma we have accumulated in our lives. Moving along the path the next three stops are are very much related to moral development: 'Right Speech', 'Right Action' and 'Right Livelihood' are all fundamental tenants to a moral life, the rest of the path is dedicated to concentration and mindfulness, but before any real progress can be made in that regard you'll want a clean conscience.

The details of what makes right speech, action and livelihood are outlined in the precepts, which I'll cover in another post. Right now I have to get packed for my first sesshin.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Saturday Morning Breakfast Service

I was clearly feeling ambitious Friday night when I set my alarm for first bell (4:30) Saturday morning. It's not the first time I've attempted to make it to City Center for the early Saturday service but it was the first time I didn't hit snooze and roll back into bed.

And it was totally worth it, after surviving a one day sit last month, Saturday morning services were a real treat. With just one sitting, a chanting and bowing service, temple cleaning and breakfast in the zendo there's enough to get the feel of a full day but without the physical strain of nine sitting periods. After breakfast you can either stay for the 9:30 sit and lecture or go about your day, which is what I ended up doing since I mostly wanted to get a feel for how services and breakfast are run at City Center before sitting the three day Sesshin this weekend.

A couple of important lessons learned:
- Shoes that slip on and off are a must have at City Center to get between the Zendo and the Buddha Hall for services.
- My elaborate plan to bribe the Ino with chocolate in order to get the toilet cleaning job was completely misguided and unnecessary; the Ino does not hand out work assignments, and I got toilets anyway. Also, I forgot the chocolate.
- There isn't a good place to stash your oroyki bowls after breakfast, which makes using the guest bowls very convenient.