Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!


young girl watching otters
"A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady—my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!"

I  just came across this amazing poem by Emily Dickinson.  It reminds me of the Zen koan about Ruiyan, who woke up every morning and called to himself, "Master!"  And then he would answer, "Yes!"  "Are you awake?"  "Yes!"  "Don't be fooled!"  "No! No!."  

The exclamation marks are important.  I myself awaken in many different mind/heart/body states.  What is it today?  Sometimes it's despair, sometimes great excitement, sometimes great fear.  Sometimes the body is just weary and in pain. And then there are those lovely mornings when simple contentment takes the reins of the first few moments of consciousness.   

What to do, where to go from these humble, sometimes distressing beginnings?  The challenge of this life is to wake up to whatever is here, and never to forget, as Dickinson says to herself (and to us), that this "common ball," this little individual bullet of being we shoot into the morning, is capable of anything.  She encourages herself, her soul,  to be steady -- who knows what will happen?  But it's not to be taken lightly -- it's important!  It warrants an exclamation!    Perhaps from this ordinary moment will issue a Victory!  We ask ourselves, am I awake?  And the heart that shouts "Help! Help!" ultimately exclaims " Yes! Yes!"

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Awareness is its own action


I've been really enjoying the quote in our new liturgy book from the non-dual teacher Joan Tollifson.  It's from her book "Nothing to Grasp."  Joan was a student of Toni Packer, and, like Toni, she doesn't identify as a Zen teacher, but receives her inspiration from many different paths.  In Joan's words:

"Part of waking up is becoming sensitive to how we become discouraged, how we close down, and where we go for false comfort.  To wake up is to become aware of the tendency to judge ourselves, to take our failures personally, to fall into despair, self-pity, depression, frustration, anger, or wherever we tend to go when we believe the story that we are a person who can't do it right.  Seeing all of this is enough.  Awareness is its own action.  We don't need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening.  Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening:  this is transformative.  We are simply awake here and now."

That's an amazing concept -- that  just seeing the patterns of our stories is enough, that awareness is its own action.  The Buddha was very clear throughout his teachings about the source of our suffering.  It's wanting what we don't have.  It's fighting reality.  When we fight reality, reality always wins.  I'm in the middle of a situation right now that is causing me all kinds of anxiety -- and it's something that's completely outside of my control.  (This is not an unfamiliar state for me -- although the circumstances change, the worry feels the same.)  Another source of inspiration in this matter comes from the I Ching, the Chinese "Book of Changes."  The fifth hexagram says, "By accepting things as they are and not making fruitless comparisons to the situations of others or some imagined ideal, one engages the power of the Creative."

The key here is in the word "fruitless."  There are some things we can do, and when we sit still and be with our life as it is, we can see a course of action that might bear fruit.  But more often, all of our worries and plans lead to more worries and plans.  We compare and judge and get lost in ancient patterns of thinking and feeling.

And the good news is that all of this suffering is self-liberating.  The "Creative" or the spirit of inspiration and flexibility that is available to us all, is waiting to be freed to function.  We get in its way with all our planning and plotting.  By learning to sit with what is, transformation happens.  Old wounds heal, and we taste a life of freedom.  We can't strategize this, but we can see for ourselves what happens when we allow life to unfold as it unfolds.  Awareness is powerful.  It is its own action.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Keeping going

Recently I read that the literal meaning of the word "samsara" -- the term for this burning world of suffering, is "keeping going."  Classically this refers to the endless cycles of rebirths among the six realms of existence.  "Keeping going" is nice -- it reflects our actual experience of being stuck in old patterns, despair, fear, greed, anger and ignorance.  This wonderful cartoon from New Yorker artist John Kane reminds us of what is possible when we stop for even a moment in our busy lives and take stock.  Maybe it's time to leave the hamster wheel of our ancient thoughts and behaviors, and strike out for new territory.  It's time to become refugees from our old lives and take refuge in the Buddha (our awakened nature), the Dharma (the teachings and the way things are) and the Sangha (the community of other way-seekers.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Don't be fooled


From Thomas Yuho Kirchner's translation of Case 11 in Entangling Vines (also Case 12 in the Gateless Gate:)

Every day Ruiyan Shiyan would call to himself, "Master!"
     "Yes!" he would answer himself.
     "Be wide awake!" he would say.
     "Yes!"
     "Whatever the time, whatever the day, never be misled by others!"
     "Yes! Yes!"

mural, Long Beach, CA
The second to last line of this koan is often translated as "Don't be fooled!"  Not much is known of the historical Ruiyan, but from the evidence of this dialogue I've always liked him a lot.  I imagine him waking up in the morning and calling out to himself, having this little private conversation. Ruiyan's humility and humor feels like the most accurate reflection of the Zen approach to life, at least, as I understand and practice it myself.  In this view there is no permanent state of enlightenment, no fantasy of perfection that is so much a part of the popular understanding of the fruits of meditation these days.  I just was referred to a website of someone who claims this kind of perfection -- once the great turning of the heart happens, you're all set for life.  Always open, always awake.  But my experience is different -- a continual opening and closing, like Rumi's hand in the poem "Birdwings."  We need constant reminders to not slip back into the dualistic greed that Chogyam Trungpa called "Spiritual materialism."    A life in Zen is not about attaining something.  It's about waking up to the full life of being human that is our birthright, but that is obscured by our thoughts and desires and resistance to what is right in front of us all the time.  Our little discursive brains think that enlightenment  looks like something else.  It's hard for it to believe that it looks just like this!


Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you are bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

From The Essential Rumi Coleman Barks with John Moyne



Monday, June 1, 2015

from Hongzhi's Guidepost for Silent Illumination

contemporary Japanese woodcut from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum

...Dew in the moonlight, a river of stars,
Snow-covered pines,
Clouds enveloping the peak.
In darkness it is most bright,
While hidden all the more manifest.
The crane dreams in the wintery mists...


Thinking of Hongzhi today, the day after James Ford's farewell party, as a group of Boundless Way Zen Teachers prepare to head off to the Western Dharma Teachers conference at the Omega Institute.  The rain continues to fall, and people come and go, heading in all directions.




Sunday, May 31, 2015

James Ford Bon Voyage party

James Ford and me at my ordination ceremony July 2004

Today the Temple is hosting a farewell party for my teacher, James Myo'un Ford, Roshi, as he prepares to move his life westward to Long Beach, California.  He'll be making the Temple his home base for the next two weeks, and today many sangha members will come for a pot-luck dinner at 5, followed by a ceremony of celebration, which should be sufficiently moving and embarrassing for him in turn.  Advice, roasting, and stories will all be invited from the crowd.  There will be gifts and even a song especially composed for the occasion by Nat Needle:    Why are James and Jan Going to the West?

As I sit and wait for the hordes of well-wishers to arrive, I am moved to reflect on my own good fortune to have encountered James.  We met in 2001, after I had left my first Zen teacher over disagreements about his ethical behavior.  It was a sad and confusing time for me, and then suddenly James appeared (from the West!) and adopted me as his student.  Later, he ordained me, and then made me his first Dharma heir.  His generous style of teaching has had a profound impact on me.  I regularly say that he saved my life.  It's not an exaggeration.

Together with my husband David Dae An Rynick, Roshi, and James' second Dharma heir, Josh Mu'nen Bartok, Sensei, we created Boundless Way Zen, a new American Zen school that emphasizes koan study and shikantaza in equal measure, and which promotes the practice of Zen in everyday life. James plans to remain in touch as he heads to Long Beach to start a west coast branch of Boundless Way Zen, and I look forward to many phone calls and skype visits, as well as his occasional return to the east coast when his life permits.  The Dharma bond exists outside of space and time, and for that I will be grateful forever.  Safe travels, James!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

coming and going we are never astray



I'm entering a period of a lot of travel and teaching.  I just returned from North Wales, England and Ireland, teaching retreats and workshops with my husband and teaching partner David Dae An Rynick, Roshi.   Later in the summer I'll be at Omega Institute teaching a Wellness course, and then a Zen retreat with David.  After that a sesshin here at the Temple with David and Josh Munen Bartok, Sensei, and then David and I travel to Finland and Denmark for more retreats.  And at the end of August, another retreat at Omega, sponsored by the Shambhala Sun Foundation,  with Sylvia Boorstein and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  Here's a video from the Sun's website Lion's Roar.  (My detailed teaching schedule and links for registration can be found on my website:  www.melissablacker.com.)

Doing this much traveling means truly living what I'm teaching -- every moment is an opportunity for awakening, no matter where we are.  And everyone we meet is important.  So far, even with the usual glitches in travel and difficulties coping with food and sleep, it appears that reality is still comprised of one moment after another.  Clouds and sun, mountains and valleys.... as Zen Master Hakuin said, "Coming and going we are never astray."