Saturday, December 1, 2012

Zen Product Review: Lucky Buddah Beer

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Zen Product Review: Buddhist Torrents

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

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

Not Stealing

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

The Dharma Wants to be Free

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

A Test Case

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

Copying Sutras

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Into the Deep End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Nothing to Write About

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

The Language Thing

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

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

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

Being Time

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

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

Nothing to Say

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

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

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

"The path is the goal."

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

Mission Accomplished?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Four Truths of Sesshin

One: All of Sesshin is Suffering

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

Medicine Bowl might be the worst, though.

Two: There is a cause for Sesshin

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

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

Three: There is an end of Sesshin

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

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

OMFB a Cookie.

Four: There is a path to the end of Sesshin

The path has eight steps

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

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

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice Period Blues

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

Follow The Schedule Completely

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

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

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

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

The Inside and the Outside

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

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

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Playing Dress Up

When I first wandered into Zen Center a little more than a year ago, the robes really took me by surprise. It's not clear what I was expecting, maybe jeans and black shirts? It really was a bit of a shock, and while it's the most obvious example of emulating Japanese dress and culture around here it's only the tip of the iceberg.

Beside the surprise there was some mild aversion: surely the transmission of the subtle secret of Zen doesn't require us to play dress up! I mean really, aren't we passed that? What's wrong with some jeans and a nice button up shirt? Why are all these people wearing those funny looking bibs? And that was at City Center.

Dogen's Temple of Eternal Peace Miniature Play Set

If walking into City Center was a surprise, going up to Green Gulch for the first time was a bit of a shock. If City Center is the shallow end of the pool and Tassajara the deep end, Green Gulch is the middle end. There are a number of long term residents, mostly with families, and a fresh batch of farm and garden interns shows up every few months. Reb keeps his residence there and there are priests in training, making it a monastery as well as an organic farm and retreat center. Many more people wear robes more of the time, the buildings are fashioned in Japanese style, the landscaping is heavy on standing rocks and asian trees. It's basically a full time re-inactment of a Kamakura Period Zen monastery.

There's just one small difference: nearly everyone is caucasian. And while the robes annoyed me a little the paucity of Japanese teachers was genuinely difficult to accept. Surely the transmission of the subtle secret of Zen requires Japanese masters! I really had a hard time getting past it at first and not having done my research ahead of time it was a bit of a surprise.

Suzuki Roshi died in 1971, more than 30 years ago, Katagiri Roshi left to establish the Minnesota Zen Center 1972 and Kobun Chino had moved on to establish Haiku Zen Center in Los Altos in 1970, leaving San Francisco under the abbacy of Richard Baker. The inmates have been running the asylum for a while now.

Theatro Zendo

It was clear to me after my first one-day that what goes on in the zendo is a bit of a play. Ceremonies are scripted actions, the priests and students act out a piece called 'morning meditation' nearly every day of the year. With proscribed roles, scripts handed out for chanting, and some nice soliloquies from the teachers during the day it's hard not to see the place as a theater. The zendo is the stage, the liturgy is the script, ceremonies involve lots of blocking and practice beforehand, we are all just players in the great drama of dharma.

In this light, costuming is just part of setting the stage, no different than building the zendo on the pattern of a Japanese or Chinese meditation hall. It's perfectly natural to want to look the part, it helps to reinforce what is is you're up to, it's a constant reminder to stay in character as a bodhisattva. It shapes identity, one of the reasons we get so attached to the clothes we wear is that they are selected to reinforce and project our ideas of who we are.

Of course, the whole point of Zen is to come to the realization that there is no 'self' or 'other'. So how do we reconcile this? Why build the zendos and wear the robes if zen is about realizing the emptiness of forms? Dogen answers the question in the opening of the Fukanzazengi:
What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the whole body is far beyond the world's dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one, right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?

And yet, if there is the slightest discrepancy, the way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion.
For Dogen, concentrated effort was just sitting zazen, the rest of monastery operations were simply the norms of the time. Modern practitioners are committed to the task of recreating the environment of the founder as well as they can in the modern world. Both to help themselves better understand the mind of Dogen and to provide good conditions for the creation of Buddhas. It's not a reenactment, but part of a continuous daily performance of the exact same play, transmitted down through the Soto lineage and brought over by Suzuzki, Katagiri and Chino Roshis.

But the forms are emptiness, paying them out produces no merit on it's own. It's the wholehearted engagement that makes for a good play, you have to suspend belief for a moment to really get to the heart of the moment, forgetting yourself for a moment and engaging in the practice. Theater allows us to see ourselves in a completely different light, and Zen exploits that human trait to help guide people. Follow the schedule completely, and you'll find that over time, as you practice the role, it becomes easier and easier to play it out in everyday life.

A Cosplay Experiment

Remember back when I got Yoga Pants? There was some resistance, and as the year has stretched out since then the resistance became a sort of dismissive amusement; "Aren't they cute in their fancy robes." Clearly I had to do something… So I bought myself some tabi, which was a good start. Tabi aren't worn much around here except by the priests and in the tea house. Wearing them with those yoga pants and my usual button up shirt was a bit of a contrast, but you know what? My feet were much warmer when sitting, and I found them to very comfortable to wear around the house.

The same shopping trip was actually intended to get Kimono for my daughter and her friend, we organized a children's tea ceremony for a few of the kids and wanted to dress them up appropriately, but it was also my first step into the world of Zen dress up. The girls looked cute and the ceremony (we served cocoa instead of tea) was a lot of fun for them:

IMG 0273

A Tale of Three Contexts

Uniforms are a powerful thing, we associate them with authority and control. Judges wear black robes to project an air of authority, police, fire fighters, military personnel all have recognizable, distinct, uniform styles which quickly communicate their role both to outsiders as well as within the group via more subtle signals such as insignia. Sales of these items are often restricted and it's a crime in most jurisdictions to impersonate an officer.

Thankfully no such restrictions are applied to the traditional Japanese garments worn around casually by some residents. Turns out, you can just go over to Japan Town and pick them up, even in gaijin sizes. One day I finally buckled, Lilly and I were shopping for a new parasol and fan to replace the last two, which had been over-loved a little. There it was, hanging in a rack of various cotton Kimono and other Japanese style garments: the blue jacket and pants combo, in XL. It fit perfectly.

The next day was the first Sunday of the month, Children's Program. Naturally I wanted to show off my new outfit, join in on the re-enactment a little bit, Lilly in her kimono and me in my new Sunday best. I got about what I expected from the residents, more than a few knowing smiles, you can almost hear them thinking, "we got him." What I wasn't expecting was the reaction of outsiders, especially with the addition of the name badge we wear as Children's Program volunteers. Several times during the day people asked me for directions or had questions about Green Gulch, parents asked what we were doing with the kids today: I clearly looked like I knew what I was doing.

The following Saturday I got dressed up again and went to City Center early for Zazen, service, and breakfast. I haven't been around City Center for a few months and there were a number of new faces. I'd also forgotten that there are many fewer people wearing the traditional clothing, the priests are still in robes but I actually felt a bit out of place. Getting in and out of the Buddha hall for service has a very specific form that I've never completely understood, people expect that you know what your doing when you wear the uniform, so I got a couple of corrective glances getting in and out that I probably would have been spared if I was in my usual outfit.

Worse, I started to think I was an authority. During breakfast I started whispering a detail about the serving form to a neighbor, who quickly cut me off. You might think I would have known better but there it was, the impulse to correct someone, or help them, caused me to break the silence and disturb their breakfast.

The next day was a special event in Japan Town, kimono day. There were a number of events and a few people, mostly women, dressed in traditional Japanese dress, mostly kimono. Only a few of us gaijin were brave enough to go wandering around in consume. I got a few funny looks from the maiko in formal dress, chatted with my favorite antiques dealer, had some ramen and went home feeling a little silly but having enjoyed myself.

Once I got home I didn't immediately change into my usual clothes. I stayed in costume, started cleaning up and getting ready for a week with Lilly. I was still playing dress up, not for an audience or to express authority, but to remind myself how I want to behave. To wrap myself in the teachings of Suzuki Roshi and of Dogen Sama and Bodhidharma and the Original Buddha.
Great robe of liberation
Field far beyond form and emptiness
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
Saving all beings.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just Another One Day

My favorite priest is leading the practice period at Green Gulch this spring so I've signed up for both one day sittings and the Sesshin at the beginning of April which marks the end of the period. I've found myself lamenting the fact that I won't be able to do a full Practice Period for more than ten years, since I have a seven year old and taking three months off from being a dad is basically unthinkable. So, I'll have to make do as a Zen Reservist: one weekend a month, two weeks a year.

Guest Bowls

I had a deadline Friday night at midnight, some work had to be completed and submitted. I also had an aunt visiting from out of town, a doctors appointment and a meeting which I needed to be prepared for. Busy day, lots going on, while I was getting packed for the one day I put my Oryoki set next to the door so I wouldn't forget it.

Around 10PM I finished up and finished getting ready, double checking my reservation I noticed that there wasn't the usual note about the guest house stay. Considering this for a second I packed up a small tent and brought it along, after doing some laundry I finally left the house around 11 PM. Guess what I forgot?

Camping Out

There wasn't an note on the door with my name on it, and I didn't want to bust in at 11:30 and see if there was a room unoccupied I could use for the night and settle up with the office in the morning, besides I hadn't slept out for a while, so I headed down to the beach. Walking through the farm at night with just a crescent moon and the glow of the city over the hills is an experience of sounds and smells (the compost heap is a particularly fragrant spot), the creek babbling along with you on it's way to the ocean, the wind rusting the trees and grasses, the howling of coyote up in the hills, the breath and chewing of the horses outside the bottom gate, the scurrying in the bushes on the path to the beach.

The tent I brought is a bivvy shelter, I can pack it with the mattress and sleeping bag already in and roll them up into a compact bundle that sets up in less than five minutes. The hike down to the beach is about fifteen minutes, so right around midnight I was tucked into bed on Muir Beach, with a great view of the sky and the surf in my ears. Despite that I didn't sleep much, and the first sitting is at five, I had to get up, break camp, hike back and get changed then stash everything back in the car. There was just enough time for coffee.

Wholehearted Sitting
There is a lot of talk about wholehearted practice around here, reminding us that the Way of Zen (and I think any other serious religious practice) demands complete dedication. It's like a marriage, unless you commit to working through the hard times together it's very difficult to make real progress. We see an aspect of this in the Christian tradition of Nuns becoming figuratively married to Christ and wearing bands on their hands.
When we sit on the cushion with the intent of giving ourselves wholly to our own Buddha nature for a day we give up our everyday thinking and engage in examining ourselves so that we can provide support for all brings. It seems like selfish navel gazing but everyone in the zendo is working as hard as they can to improve themselves and help the people around then. Sitting silent and still with that intention is both an welcome break from our daily accumulation of karma and an opportunity to discover how to keep from reacting without first considering the outcomes, which tends to improve the quality of the karma that we do create.

Confession and Repentance
I wasn't very wholehearted in sitting, especially not at Oryoki, which was a bit of a disaster, I neglected to ask the Ino for guest bowls, thinking that the form would the the same as the Saturday morning Oryoki breakfasts at City Center, so there wasn't a tray for whoever came in after me, since I took theirs. I didn't find out about that until after breakfast, which I felt pretty bad about.

There's no setsu, just a paper napkin; a metal spoon, which can be loud against the bowls if you aren't very, very careful; and the chopsticks are very polished lacquer and round, which makes them roll around on the tray and there was no way I could pick up the almonds with them. When we got to the wash cycle I tried to use the paper napkin on the end of the spook as a setsu, which almost works. When it came time to drink the ambrosia I was amused to find that it tasted a lot like paper napkin.

The services felt good to do twice in a day, but I was completely relieved when i was on the morning dish shift. Lunch in the Zendo went better than breakfast, I figured out how to clean with the napkin so that it doesn't end up disintegrating into the cleaning water, made a nice stack of bowls and dropped them off in the kitchen. Took a walk down the farm road for a bit then back for a coffee or two before the afternoon sits started.

Exit Strategy
After tea, there is a short break, I stopped by the office and signed up for the sesshin at the end of the practice period and at that point, already in my jacket, with my car key in my hand, that I knew it was time to go home. My legs were complaining louder and louder as the day progressed, my lack of sleep catching up with me, I pulled a sheet of paper out of my pocket and penciled in a quick note to the Ino, who wasn't at her post in Cloud Hall, stopped to tell the Doshi's Jika just to make sure and got in the car.

I drove across the bridge and into the city, not to my house but directly to Macy's. I needed to buy some sheets and new pillows for the house, having thrown out the old ones the night before. After taking them home and putting them in the washer I called up a friend who had been wanting to talk and went out to dinner. So, in the end, I skipped out on the last three sittings to go shopping, eat fancy food and have drinks with a buddy.

Looks like I'm going to need a little more practice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zen Lingo: Intimacy

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.


The word 'intimacy' gets throw around a lot at the Zen Center, and at first it's a bit of a surprise. Intimacy has long been relegated to a euphemism for sexual intimacy; but, for the most part, that's not what we're talking about. Nope, it's just good old fashioned closeness, deep familiarity, the feeling of family.

A lot of time when we use the word intimacy in colloquial speech we're using it to highlight the lack of intimacy implicit in a brief or sudden relationship: "Those two used to be intimate, now they don't get along so well." Or, "I heard Sam and Max had an intimate encounter after leaving the bar." Usually these are followed with chuckles, maybe a little eye rolling and preparations are made for dealing with the fallout of the two parties actually developing some intimacy only to find out that they really don't want it.

Decades Together

When relationships start to stretch out longer than a few hours, the intimacy that develops starts to really highlight the delicate nature of our connection to each other. Those first few days and weeks set the tone for the months and years to follow, the first steps should be careful and mindful if we intend to build something that lasts. And as the years add up the depth of the connection grows, and we can see the strength of it as well. This is easy to understand when thinking about the intimacy that can develop between bonded partners over time, which, I hear, can be really nice.

Now, look at the issue in the context of developing stable relationships with an entire community, and we have a real challenge on our hands. All human communities deal with this one way or another, and spiritual communities have the even greater challenge of integrating people who show up looking for refuge from their lives and sometimes themselves. Nobody signs up for this because their life is going great (or maybe they do, but I haven't run into any of them yet), people come to spiritual community because they want to make themselves better, and they realize that it takes committed long term relationships to do that.

San Francisco Zen Center has had a regular residential population since before the monastery at Tassajara opened in 1967. Some dedicated students rented apartments across the street from Sokoji before the group moved into City Center in 1969. That's more than 45 years living together as a community, which creates a level of intimacy that it's hard to understand from the outside. A year in I'm only beginning to see the vague outlines of what it means to practice with a group of people for that long. Maintaing a stable community over that length of time also requires a lot of stewardship, and thankfully the annals of Zen are full of accounts of monks being ejected from the temple, so there is ample precedent for doing so. Even the Abbots aren't immune.

They Come and They Go

The first hurdle to clear is just showing up more than a few times, a lot of people come and go: Lay practitioners will drop in for a practice period, Green Gulch hosts farm and garden interns for part of the year, there is a guest student program running at Green Gulch and City Center for people who are interested in engaging in the practice for a week or longer. Many come for the experience in organic farming and gardening, stay for the duration of their internship and are never heard from again.

I introduced myself to one of the Priests In Training at the farm, who I'd seen on and off for more than six months but had never talked to, and had my suspicion confirmed in the following chat: for the long term residents, building relationships with new arrivals who'll be gone in six months is a bit of a loosing proposition. They come, they sit, they leave. Not all of them, a few stick around, either for extended internships, the following practice period or possibly a work apprentice post.

Managing this influx and out flux of people is tricky, and intimacy issues crop up quickly. In a community of more than 55 people there are bound to be people you don't see eye to eye with, people that are attractive, people that trigger aversion, and on and on. There are some interesting guidelines, guest students in particular agree to the following:

"guest students are asked to refrain from drug or alcohol use and from initiating new sexual relationships during their guest student stay"

This might seem a bit heavy handed at first, but having had some experience with community when I was younger, I have to say that it's not a bad idea at all. And if you dig into the Ten Essential Precepts you'll notice something interesting, the 3rd get's more coverage than any of the others. Clearly there are still Shoes Outside the Door in many people's minds around here.

So intimacy is a big deal, both the euphemistic kind and the day to day living with over decades kind. Just a year in and I'm starting to feel like part of the community, getting to know some of the quirks, personalities and stories that come with even just occasionally intersecting with the residents once or twice a week.

Face to Face Transmission

Getting back to the Sandokai, there is another form of intimacy around here that's critically important. The transmission of the lineage requires deep intimacy between teacher and student, it's a level of face to face engagement that we seldom get in life. Some people have it with their therapist but that relationship is focused on the patient, but what goes on in dokusan is (or should be) very different.

The goal of the teacher is to push the student towards their awakening, and to give confirmation when they reach it. This process of transmission requires that the teacher and student are able to see into each other in a way that is impossible without decades of intimacy. Understanding is only part of the process, there must also be decades of practice and devotion to the process of pouring oneself into the behavioral mold of the Buddha. The conventional wisdom is that it takes a decade to get it, and another to figure out how to teach it.

This is the true intimacy at the heart of practice, it's what we get up at 4:30 in the morning to experience. Sitting and breathing together, in silence, then chanting and bowing together, is it's own intimacy. Learning about each other and ourselves as we go through the forms, each deviating in their own way, the community coming together to show us our rough edges. It's this intimacy that allows us to get beyond the facades we present, to see ourselves reflected in the community, to get feedback from people who are trying their best to simply be helpful. For the benefit of all beings.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Religious Question

Zen isn't really a religion, it's more of a philosophy…
- radom co-worker

Is Zen a religion? Or is it more of a philosophy? I've heard this question asked a few times, it's sometimes generalized to Buddhism in general but Zen has attained a particular mystical quality in the Western consciousness since it's introduction. When seen from outside, it has all the trappings of religion but there is no supernatural power to worship, as we find in most other religions.

Sakyamuni Buddha was a bit of an agnostic—though that term didn't exist until Thomas Huxley coined it 1869—when asked if there was a god or supernatural powers his answer boiled down to, "I don't know, it's not important to your enlightenment. don't worry about it." Zen continues this tradition of relying on direct experience, you can imagine a Zen Master responding to the same question in much the same way the founder did, though they might make you do a Koan or two first.

So the open question is how do you define religion, there are plenty of definitions that either imply or require a God to fit the bill, here's the first definition from the dictionary that I have handy:

religionnoun, the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods

Zen, and Buddhism in general, with their emphasis on direct experience and the present moment, don't so much say that there is or isn't God or a life after death, but that it's not really possible for us to know and thinking about it is just another mental formation which comes and goes and has no reality. Another way of looking at it is that the question itself separates the asker from God; the idea that you have a self individual from the universe and that there is another, separate entity which is more or less than you is what prevents you from directly seeing the answer to the question. In essence, Zen refuses to answer the question when posed in this way: it's best answer is, mu.

Enter Avalokitesvara

Buddhism is at first glance polytheistic, as there are many different statues of various Buddha and Bodhisattva incarnations all over the temple, altars to the myriad various forms taken by the Buddha over the two and a half millennia of development and transmission across Asia. D.T. Suzuki describes Kannon or Avalokitesvara in Manual of Zen Buddhism:

Kannon is exclusively the Bodhisattva of compassion. In this respect he resembles Fugen (Samantabhadra), … He is one of the most popular Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism.

Except, if you clicked the link to Kannon, the Japanese name for the god, you'll notice that the figure depicted is the earlier feminine form Guanyin, which came from China. Some scholars argue for an origin in Tamil or Hindu traditions suggesting that Bodhidarma brought the idea of the Bodhisattva across with the Dharma and welded it onto an existing popular figure.

What's going on here is called syncretism, it's the combination of previously unrelated religions traditions after they are exposed to each other. Buddhism, as it's made it's way across Asia and eventually to the shores of America has synthesized with established religious order and modified itself to adapt to local tradition, the Bodhisattva ideal being used to explain the actions of the existing local deity. It happened in Tibet with Bon, in China with Confucianism, in Japan with Shinto and here in America with Church Culture (which is why we have Saturday and Sunday programs with a talk for lay practitioners, for e.g.).

At each stop along the way Buddhism adapts itself to the local religious environment, never trying to displace and freely adapting it's symbolic language to match the local idiom. The concept of a Bodhisattva, one who surrenders their own enlightenment for the sake of others is an easy match in most religions. Jesus Christo Bodhisattva, already exists in peoples minds, I think.

This provides us with a tantalizing clue about what we're looking at; the symbols in our altars are just that, symbols. The priesthood understands this and allows the symbols to change with context while maintaing their meaning within the dharma. The dharma is modular and adaptable to different religious environments, it's also able to coexist with other traditions in relative harmony because of this, but is that enough to make it a religion on it's own?

If It Walks Like a Monk…

Here's where it's hard to look at Zen and not see religion: monks, monasteries, chants, prayers, ceremonies, candles, incense, bowing, retreats, study, sutras and the congregation of lay followers all scream organized religion (the kind that makes the new age, 'spiritual but not religious' crowd recoil a bit). If all the external trappings of religion are there, isn't it a religion? If it walks like a monk and chants like a monk, isn't it a monk?

And yet without one or more deity we question it, we wonder if it isn't all just a complicated pacifier for the human need for structure and ritual, evolved over the centuries as a way to give our natural desires for religious experience an outlet while preserving and perpetuating the dharma. The priests like to say that "emptiness is form" which implies that even the absence of something can make something else a reality.

The First Science of Mind

Buddhism is arguably the first psychological science since it relies and insists on direct experience of the practitioner to develop an enlightened mind. Buddhism developed and evolved during a period of great religious and philosophical diversity in Asia, to survive and perpetuate it needed a freely relatable set of symbols which could be mapped to other religious systems, creating a bridge from one system to another.

By venerating the local gods and idols for their most noble traits, no sense of competition is created and the ideas in the dharma can be introduced. By having a strictly agnostic stance on the existence of any sort of god or gods prevents conflict by essentially avoiding the sort of questions which lead to religious wars.

These features of Buddhism have allowed it to survive alongside one or more religions with relatively little cultural cost. When engaged in theological discussion there's very little firm ground in Buddhism to defend, so it's hard to win or loose an argument about any religious topic when the opponent openly professes to not knowing the answer and isn't interested in fighting at all.

What is This Thing Called Zen?

So if, Buddhism itself isn't a religion, but a system of psychology and practice that uses the religious nature of humanity to perpetuate itself and maintains a parasitic or viral or symbiotic relationship with one or more 'traditional' religions, what then in Zen? Has the vast silent emptiness of sitting meditation taken early indian, Himalayan, Confucian, Shinto and finally American traditions and given us something that is the ultimate subversion of religious thinking (is there a soul? how can there be when there isn't even a self!) but which could not have come down to us through the ages without it's close alignment and coexistence with several different religions.

Zen then is the syncretic product of the original Buddha Dharma and a number of religious and philosophical traditions, the rituals, robes and forms carried forward and absorbed from various contacts over the millennia. Leaving us with a rich history of literature, ceremonies and artwork depicting the development and transmission of the way (an idea borrowed from the Tao). Buddhism may not, in itself, be a traditional religion because of it's lack of any recognizable god, but everywhere that it is practiced it has adopted and preserved the rites and icons of some other religious institution, along with the seed of the dharma itself.

There is another definition of religion in the dictionary, one which I think fits Zen much better than the first:

a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance: consumerism is the new religion

Zen sees the transmission of the Buddha Dharma as being of supreme importance, it is pursued with religious fervor by the priests as they spend each day trying to make themselves into a Buddha for the benefit of all of us. I can't think of any greater act of devotion or worship or faith. If that's not religious I'm not sure what is.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Silence is a Gift

IMG 1162

It's Winter Intensive season at Green Gulch, the staff are getting a break from running retreats, hosting guests and dealing with the lay members coming and going during the week (we try not to get in the way but let's face it, it's their kitchen, we're just visiting). I've missed a couple of Dokusan and Monday night dinner and dishes dates in the last two months and the absence of these regular points of contact is really noticeable. When I went up yesterday for the regular Sunday program, which they are still hosting but without lunch or muffins, the farm was subdued. Residents have been keeping silence for the last few weeks and it's a little like walking in on the middle of a Sesshin, you really don't want to disturb the water.

It made me notice a couple of things; the great gift that silence can be, and the amount of the outside world I tend to carry with me up to the farm.

The Gift of Silence

I've heard people say that the silence at Zen Center makes it difficult to get involved in the community. For a lot of people I'd say that's true, if communicating by voice is all you are comfortable with then the silence can be downright oppressive. There's no way to express yourself, there's no way to find out what people are thinking or intending with their actions. All our normal day to day social rituals break down and you're left with just a few gestures. Basic interactions like getting food are highly ritualized and silent.

I know there have been times during retreats that I've felt like a tiger in a cage, pacing back and forth along the bars thinking about all the things I would love to say if I could just get out there and get my claws into some nice juicy conversation. Not doing so requires restraint, patience with yourself, the willingness to try again after you blurt something out. It's a constant challenge, and what you learn in the process is that we're always communicating with each other in a thousand way other than speech.

A lot of relationships I've had have dissolved around the issue of silence. There are a lot of people who aren't comfortable in quiet, they have to have a TV or radio running, or be talking with someone, or more likely at someone. I have a hard time with those kind of people, I start to feel worn out, exhausted from processing the constant stream of stimulus. Getting back to inner quiet in that kind of environment means constantly swimming up stream against the flow.

Accordingly the people I miss the most are the ones I could be quiet with. Sitting together working for an afternoon, on the beach just staring at the sunset, lying under the stars on a warm night. There are so few moments I can remember where the quiet just roared in my ears, I could hear my heart beating and my breath coming and going, the wind whispers and I know that there's someone else here, hearing that and themselves as well.

The silence isn't always easy, but it's a great gift. Silence is the space we all need in order to see ourselves, it's the antidote to the constant appetite for experience and sensation which is at the bottom of all suffering. Silence is the most fundamental form of restraint, since communication is the fundamental tool of social animals.

Bringing the Outside In

When I walk into this kind of silence it's hard not to notice the noise in my head. In fact a lot of the time I'm at the Farm I catch myself actively trying to stay busy. Working on projects, organizing events, volunteering to help out on Sundays, coming up for dinner and dishes, staying over for Dokusan. There's always an agenda, something to do. Some gaining idea. A distraction.

So, after Reb's talk I stopped to say a few words to a couple of people, decided that a walk to the beach would be nice and spent the rest of the morning on the farm road and the beach, picking up the occasional rock, guiding the occasional Sunday visitor, chatting with someone on the beach. All the while enjoying the sun the sky and the clouds but still somewhere in the outside world most of the time, over the hill, into the future, back to the past, over to an alternate future, down into a dark fantasy, sideways back into the wind and chill of the day.


here I am,

a leaf on the farm road,

dancing in the wind,

under the bright white clouds.