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:

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