Sunday, August 9, 2020

Darkness is Asking to Be Loved

 The other day I was in the grip of a difficult mood: politics, the pandemic, global warming and racism, sexism and anti-semitism were all mixed together into a toxic mess.  And I felt oppressed and beaten down.  I tried to find some solace in Buddhist writings from the magazine Lion's Roar, but all of the articles were either full of blame or cheerfully upbeat...well-written and I'm sure helpful for people, but there was nothing that even began to touch my own mood.  Until I came across the following prose poem by the Black Zen woman teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.  "This is it!"  my heart shouted out... the Zen approach to suffering.  We must face what we experience directly -- learn to bear the unbearable.  This is why we sit still and upright in the midst of everything.  We can even face our anger and hopelessness, and the parts of us that are trying to be cheerful.  Here are the words of Zenju Sensei:

Darkness Is Asking To Be Loved

By now we have lost the tiny sense of peace we created for ourselves.  Our composure is an idea long gone, reflected in the grinding of our teeth and locked jaws.

If you are still holding up trying to meditate, I invite you to fall down.  Fall down on the earth.  Come down here and smell the sweat of terror on your skin, overpowering the scent of agarwood.  Come down on all fours and greet the darkness that reeks of death, reaches out its desperate hand, and asks to be loved as much as we love the light it gives.

Come down here on this earth and breathe for those gasping for air.  Hear each scream as a bell that never stops ringing.  Bury your face in the mud of this intimate place, in this shared disease and tragedy.  

If you have nothing to say, now is the time for the deeper silence that does not apologize or seek something kind to say.  And yet the deeper silence is not quiet.  It whispers in the dark and wakes you from the nightmare.

Come down here and be still on the earth.  Let loose shame, rage, guilt , grief, pain, and make a river of it.

Come down here.  Catch the love poems hidden in the shouting, watch the unfolding of the seasons from the ground, look up at the sky.  And when it hurts from being down here so long, roll over and see what you couldn't see from the other side.

Breathe out loud.  No particular posture needed.

Fall down onto the earth.  Fall off your soft cushions.  Come down here.  Come down here, where the only lullaby tonight will be the sound of your heart drumming the songs you were born with.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Sangha Treasure Sesshin

Here at Boundless Way Temple we just completed our three day online "Distant Temple Bell  Sesshin"  -- a time for intensive Zen practice.  This was our second online sesshin, and our tanto, or head of practice, Senior Assistant Teacher Alan Richardson, named it the Sangha Treasure Sesshin.  Alternating periods of formal Zen meditation and at-home informal Zen practice, we discovered how to blend all the elements of our lives into one seamless fabric.  Grateful bows to my fellow teachers, David Rynick, Roshi, Michael Fieleke, Sensei, and Bob Waldinger, Sensei, as well as to the "sesshin officers" who ran the practice periods and enabled the teachers to offer individual meetings (dokusan) and dharma talks (teisho):  Corwyn Miyagishima, Jenny Smith and Adam Monty.  And thanks to Senior Assistant Teacher Michael Herzog, who along with Alan, gave beautiful and inspiring evening encouragement talks.  And of course the sangha treasure itself:  41 dynamic people of the Way practicing together in our Zoom zendo.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Courage to Live

In 1994, Rwanda experienced a civil war in which close to a million people, many of them ethnic Tutsi,  were slaughtered.  Statistics vary, but whatever the exact number, of victims, the human mind can barely comprehend violent death on such a scale.  As we know, human beings continue to perpetrate murder upon each other.  This happens regularly, and it hasn't stopped.  All of us will die, but not everyone has to die through hatred.  And yet...

That year I was finishing up my career as a homicide bereavement counselor, working with loved ones of people who had been murdered.  It was a challenging job, and I found my heart breaking regularly.  I continued as a grief counselor in private practice, and had begun teaching mindfulness under the training of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  So I was able to experience some relief from the impossible grief of the people I worked with.  And yet...

In the grief training I had received in graduate school and at the Connecticut Hospice where I did my internship, we were taught to listen, and listen more, and then listen more, as our clients poured out their stories.  Ultimately, healing began when people began to find some ease in the love that remained, and some renewed purpose in their lives -- almost like the people who had died had found their way into the crack in our broken hearts.  And yet...

I still miss my parents and other loved ones who died decades ago.  They visit in my dreams, and especially these days, with the deaths spreading throughout the world from the two pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, I feel a renewed grief for them, and for this world of love and hatred intertwined. 

This morning I read a short story in the June 22 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  It's about a woman who fled Rwanda just before the genocide.  Most of her family,  all of those who remained in her native country, were murdered.  She returns home seeking healing.  The story, called "Grief" is by Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan author who lives in Paris, and it's translated into English by Jordan Stump.  Towards the end of the story, overwhelmed by horror and heartbreak, she receives the following counsel from an old man who guards a church where many people had been massacred.  He says:

"...You won't find your dead in the graves or the bones.. That's not where they're waiting for you.  They're inside you.  They survive only in you and you survive only through them.  But from now on you'll find all your strength in them -- there's no other choice, and no one can take that strength away from you.  With that strength, you can do things you might not even imagine today.  Like it or not, the death of our loved ones has fueled us -- not with hate, not with vengefulness, with an energy that nothing can ever defeat.  That strength lives in you,  Don't let anyone try to tell you to get over your loss, not if that means saying goodbye to your dead.  You can't:  they'll never leave you, they'll stay by your side to give you the courage to live, to triumph over obstacles...They're always beside you, and you can always depend on them... "

In these times, as in all times in human history, we must cultivate the courage to live, the strength to persist.  May we never forget our dead, and may we stay in close touch with their example, finding the power to go forward and fight for justice in this wild world. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

BoWZ Guiding Teachers' Response to Institutional Racism

Dear Boundless Way Zen Sangha and friends,

We, the Guiding Teachers of Boundless Way Zen, grieve the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks. We also grieve the disproportionate suffering and death of people of color due to the coronavirus, which has exposed underlying inequities in our society. We recognize the deeply embedded and often violent ways systemic racism and white privilege deprive everyone of the justice, respect, and equal rights we have vowed to co-create with all beings.

We vow to practice the humility that is essential to listening deeply and that is the beginning of  real and lasting change. We vow to investigate and transform our deluded views and blindnesses that maintain overt and systemic racism. We commit to continually awaken and grow on this journey toward liberation for all.

We stand in solidarity with those who have suffered racial violence and injustice, with all oppressed peoples, and with those who work for racial and environmental justice. Understanding that statements of solidarity must be accompanied by action, we vow to challenge the many ways in which institutions, including Zen groups, perpetuate a culture of oppression, segregation, and inequitable outcomes.

Today is Juneteenth, marking the 155th anniversary of the day when it was announced in Texas that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years before. While this is a day of celebration, it also serves as a reminder that there remains much progress to be made. As we hear the cries of the world, we recall our Bodhisattva vows to be of service in this burning world. In collaboration with other sangha members, we will soon begin a social justice group focused on how to be an active anti-racist, and we invite everyone to participate. We also share this reading list to help us begin to educate ourselves. We are committed to this ongoing collective practice of awakening and taking action for the liberation of all beings.

With deep bows of appreciation and shared sorrow,

Melissa Blacker, Roshi
David Rynick, Roshi
Bob Waldinger, Sensei
Michael Fieleke, Sensei

The Guiding Teachers Council of Boundless Way Zen

Monday, May 18, 2020

Distant Temple Bell Sesshin

This weekend we had our first online sesshin.  A lot of work went into planning and running it, and the result was amazing.  Many people, including me, talked about the power of the weekend, and how it felt like a "real" sesshin.  We pointed out that in fact it was real, just not in person and not at the Temple.  We went back and forth between 90 minute or 2 hour formal practice periods of zazen and kinhin (sitting and walking practice), dokusan (individual meetings with the teachers), teisho (dharma talks) and dharma dialogues (group discussions.)  In between, we gave instructions for integrating practice into daily life as it is showing up during this pandemic:  alone or with pets, family, friends and room-mates.  Many of us reported a greater ease in going between formal and informal practice.  Zoom crashed world-wide Sunday morning, but some of our team found a work-around, and we were able to have our final practice period late Sunday morning.  We are now in the planning stages for our next virtual sesshin in July.  My gratitude to the team that made this possible is limitless:  David Rynick, Roshi, Rev. Paul Galvin, Corwyn Miyagishima, Jenny Smith and Chad Cook.  Deep bows to you and to everyone who participated!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mindfulness in Paradise -- pre-apocalypse edition

Looking at entries to this blog this morning, I found one that was never completed -- a draft from an earlier era.  It's amazing to think about our lives before the pandemic.  Personally, even though I enjoy science fictions books, television shows and movies that are set after some sort of planetary apocalypse, my imagination never fully encompassed what it might be like to actually live through the events that have unfolded since the this photo was taken.

The group pictured here has gone on to have a regular Zoom meditation session, and of course we at Boundless Way Temple have also been carrying on our Temple practice daily.  (You can find out more information about our Temple Zoom sessions here:

This weekend over 40 of us have been doing an experimental Zoom sesshin, an intensive meditation retreat.  Alas, Zoom appears to have crashed world-wide earlier this morning, so we are on hold until we can connect once again.  And so this opportunity to complete this post from the dream-world of the past:

Back in early February, I spent a week teaching mindfulness with my good friend and colleague Florence Meleo-Meyer, in Costa Rica.  We were at the Blue Spirit Resort on the Pacific Coast, founded by Stephan Rechtschaffen, who also founded the Omega Institute.  Florence and I have been teaching a week of mindfulness-based stress reduction, mostly to North Americans and Europeans, in Costa Rica for the past 16 years.  This year we had a particularly dedicated and wonderful group -- everyone was fully committed to attending the class, even though the beach, monkeys, surfing and massage therapists beckoned.  Here is a photo taken by a friend from another group at Blue Spirit, picturing our amazing group.  We shared deeply about our lives back home, and found ways to investigate all the ways we get caught in old stressful patterns.  Knowing what is present allows us to find freedom in every moment.  Even though we were in an unusually beautiful place, we all recognized that no matter where we go, here we are!  (As Jon Kabat-Zinn and Buckaroo Banzai both said in slightly different language. )

Friday, May 8, 2020

Everything is It

Everything is It

This talk was transcribed by Joanne Hart, from a teisho that I gave at the 2018 Rohatsu Sesshin.  While it may feel like December 2018 was a lifetime ago, I am amazed at how the teachings of the Great Way are relevant no matter what is happening.  Could the pandemic be yet another example of the awakened heart? 

The Record of Transmitting the Light: Case One

Shakyamuni Buddha saw the morning star and was enlightened,  and he said, “I and the great earth and beings simultaneously achieve the way.”

Keizan's verse: A splendid branch issues from the old plum tree. At the same time obstructing thorns flourish everywhere. 

Keizan, the collector of the koan collection “The Record of Transmitting the Light” says in his verse, praising Shakyamuni Buddha, “A splendid branch issues from the old plum tree.” The plum tree is such a beautiful image.  But Keizan doesn’t rest in that beauty.  He immediately says, “at the same time obstructing thorns flourish everywhere.”   And this leads to a question:  if Shakyamuni Buddha had perfect and complete enlightenment how can there be obstructions? How can there be thorns? It’s the mind of dualistic thinking that asks this question. We say to ourselves, “perfect and complete awakening must be free of anything that I don't like.”   But the teaching of this Mahayana way of ours, the teaching of Zen, is that everything without exception is already the awakened mind, the awakened heart. There are no exceptions.   How could that be? I know there are exceptions because look at me. I'm such an idiot. Look at me --  I just make mistakes all the time. Look at me -- and the mind fills in an endless list of faults and places we could be different, and better.  Because this is what we human beings do. And we think that if we can just sweep everything away and create some kind of perfect clarity in ourselves, that will be permanent and we'll be all set. As my first teacher used to say, then you can retire and move to Florida.  But really? Is that what anyone's experience is? Shakyamuni Buddha himself had a really hard time in his life. From our perspective, being a Buddha sounds really good. He was, after all, the Awakened One. So much light came off of him that everyone he met was impressed. But he too had to eat and pee and sleep and find clothing and shelter.  He was, more than anything, a human being like us. 

Everyone here has had a moment when everything drops away.   This is a common experience that we humans have, even if it’s very tiny and forgotten almost immediately.  In the middle of the endless narrative that we tell ourselves about right and wrong and good and bad, every once in a while it just drops away. And this dropping away is what we call awakening. Dogen said,  “body and mind dropped away; dropped away are body and mind” and his teacher, to affirm him, said, “body and mind dropped away; dropped away body and mind”  because what else can you say? Whatever you say can't describe it and yet we do come up with these words and natter on. But that moment when everything drops away, suddenly it's only the color of the wood floor with no words attached,  or the taste of soup or the sunlight coming through the window. It could be so many things. And then immediately the mind comes in with the endless narrative and says.  “oh great!  I had that experience. I can't wait to get to dokusan and tell one of the teachers about it! I've made it!  I can now retire and move to Florida!”   But we can’t stay in that place --  the reality is we have to keep coming back.

As Keizan says in another place, the waves and the ocean are two different iterations of the self. And the ocean is the awakened mind with everything clear. The dharmakaya. But the waves keep forming because waves keep forming. The self keeps forming. It's the way we are somehow functioning as human beings.   In another place Keizan says it's not just human beings. It's everything, everything, everything. And so if it's a problem to be a wave then what good is being the ocean? In one place in Keizan's commentary he quotes from “The Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage”  --  that ultimately if you wish to know the undying person in the hut how could it be something separate from this present skin bag? This is the teaching, how could it be anything but this? How could we keep that little precious moment of clarity safe from harm? Well we can't. Because the safety and the harm are both examples of the awakened heart.

In Case 40 in the Blue Cliff Record, a public official who's a Zen student comes to Nanchuan.  And he tells Nanchuan, quoting an old priest, that everything is one body. Everything is just this, just this, and isn't that wonderful!  And Nanchuan doesn't respond to him with words. He simply takes him out to the garden and points to a flower and says people these days see this flower as if they were in a dream. When we talk about awakening this is what we're talking about. Awakening from the dream of the separate self or the self that's somehow separate  --  there's a mind and there's a body. Awakening from the delusion that the parts of ourselves that we don't like are not the awakened parts. And I'm here to tell you once again -- everything is it.

So that means that my fear that I felt pulsing through my body before I started talking this morning is an example of the heart of awakening. I don't like it. I used to have a thought that someday I would no longer be afraid when I gave a dharma talk. When I was younger I was so afraid when James Ford started having me give talks that I couldn't sleep the night before and I would always get a migraine and then I would give a talk. And I don't think anybody knew except the people I told because the talk talked itself. And yet my mind kept saying, “someday you're going to be free of this. Someday you will be awakened completely and nothing will get in your way.” And over the years what I've discovered is being afraid before giving a talk is not a problem. It's just being afraid before giving a talk. That's it. Whatever happens, maybe a migraine,  maybe sleeplessness,  maybe shakiness,  maybe forgetting what I was going to say and getting lost, that's the talk. No matter what we plan to say the talk talks itself. And ultimately we have to get out of our own way. Not through splitting the self into pieces but through being one body arising now as fear, now as sadness, now as anger, now as joy, now as clarity, now as compassion, now as happiness. It doesn't matter what form the self takes because it's just waves coming up from this vast ocean. The waves take these forms and when we actually wake up we begin to see this truth that Keizan is pointing to, that Nanchuan is pointing to. That all masters of the past and present and hopefully the masters of the future will point to. That this is it and whenever we make an exception, and here's the weird tricky thing, even making the exception, even being deluded, even thinking “someday I will not be nervous any more” is it, too. There are no loopholes. None whatsoever, and the loopholes are it, too. Everything is it.

If we actually can honor this in our lives then this is the awakened life. It doesn't look any different from the unawakened life and yet there's a little bit of a hairsbreadth difference that makes everything, everything different. So no matter what's happening for us, no matter where we get caught, to recognize being caught is happening. Being lost, being confused is happening. Being in the dream of our endless narratives and stories about the way things are, this is it, too. And then we wake up and the world is waiting to offer itself to us in the form of that flower of Nanchuan's. In the form of our wildly beating heart. In the form of the stories we get lost in. This is the promise of this practice.