Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pope Francis, closet bodhisattva

While I know well that Pope Francis and I would disagree about many things, (don't get me started on ordination of women, same-sex marriage, and, well...I'll just stop right now...), I found these words, quoted in the current New Yorker article by James Carroll, reassuringly inspiring.

From the apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel":

"We want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in  their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Murmuration of Starlings

Amazing video of starlings in flight....thanks Anne Grete!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Boundless Way Zen Rohatsu Sesshin

photo Kate Hartland
A week ago, we completed our 5 day Rohatsu Sesshin at Boundless Way Temple.  Please enjoy the talks at this link, on the topic of Sengtsan's "The Heart of True Entrusting" (Hsin Hsin Ming) given by our four guiding teachers and some of our senior dharma teachers:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Do Not Try This At Home

This video was posted on YouTube by Mercedes-Benz Japan, with the following note: 

"As Mercedes-Benz Japan demonstrates in their newest video, even the Buddhist monks well trained in the art of Zazen are shaken by the high-performance of the #A45AMG 4MATIC. Do you think you could keep your composure around the world’s most powerful 4-cylinder series production engine?" 

So, my question is, how bizarre is the modern world?  

My answer:  "Please see for yourself!"

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seeing the Face

Buddha with bodhisattvas, 5th century China, Worcester Art Museum

Last Wednesday I gave my first gallery talk at the Worcester Art Museum.  I sketched in the basics of Buddhism and Zen, and guided everyone in contemplation of the two stone carvings of the historical Buddha.  The photo at the left is of the first statue we contemplated, and below is the second.

Sitting in silence, with eyes closed...and then opening to receive the face of these carvings, done so many centuries ago in China by other human beings who had realized for themselves something that we can encounter today.  The group that had gathered for the talk all had interesting experiences, from feelings of resistance to a deep peacefulness, and everything in between.

Zen Master Wumen once said, "Seeing the face is better than hearing the name."  Of course, he also said, "Hearing the name is better than seeing the face."  To resolve this matter, I recommend reading the poem below by David Whyte.  (Suggested by Betty Spargo -- thanks Betty!)

The Faces at Braga
by David Whyte
Head of Buddha, 6th century China, Worcester Art Museum 

In monastery darkness
by the light of one flashlight
the old shrine room waits in silence.

While above the door
we see the terrible figure,
fierce eyes demanding.  “Will you step through?”

And the old monk leads us,
bent back nudging blackness
prayer beads in the hand that beckons.

We light the butter lamps
and bow, eyes blinking in the
pungent smoke, look up without a word,

see faces in meditation,
a hundred faces carved above,
eye lines wrinkled in the hand held light.

Such love in solid wood!
Taken from the hillsides and carved in silence
they have the vibrant stillness of those who made them.

Engulfed by the past
they have been neglected, but through
smoke and darkness they are like the flowers

we have seen growing
through the dust of eroded slopes,
their slowly opening faces turned toward the mountain.

Carved in devotion
their eyes have softened through the age
and their mouths curve through the delight of the carver’s hand.

If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.

If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,

we would smile too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.

When we fight with our failing
we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself
and wrestle with the guardian, fierce figure on the side of good.

And as we fight
our eyes are hooded with grief
and our mouths are dry with pain.

If only we could give ourselves
to the blows of the carver’s hands,
the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers

feeding the sea
where voices meet, praising the features
of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.

Our faces would fall away
until we, growing younger toward death
every day, would gather all our flaws in celebration

to merge with them perfectly,
impossibly, wedded to our essence,
full of silence from the carver’s hand.

from “Where Many Rivers Meet”
Many Rivers Press
Langley, Washington

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thoughts on Zendo Etiquette Forms

A koan asks, "The world is vast and wide.  Why do you put on your 7-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"  Why do we have guidelines for practice forms in Boundless Way Zen? 

One of the answers to this question lies in the nature of the heart-mind, which is like a fire, uncontained.  Practice and its forms help us to create a container for this fire, which then becomes a form of energy that helps us to see more clearly and act with compassion. 

Another answer lies in the way we encounter each other as a Sangha, a community of persons of the Great Way.  We are all meeting the world through our own particular, ego-centered viewpoint.  In following forms, we bow and surrender to something greater than our small view.  We allow ourselves to feel the support of others in the community, and learn to act as one body, for the sake of all beings, not just for our own selfish needs. 

Yet another view of surrendering to practice forms lies in the teachings of one of our ancestors, Eihei Dogen, who encourages us to see our life of practice and the forms of practice as one.  When we bow, our awakened nature is bowing.  When we walk, our awakened nature is walking. 

Our forms are meant to be guidelines, not rigid rules.   They are intended to contain, unify and express our practice.  Zen is not about right and wrong, but about learning the true meaning of being human. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Squandering Ourselves

Rev. Ray Ryudo Yushin Demers, Rev. Karen Ryudo Do'on Weik, Rev. Melissa Keido Myozen Blacker, Rev. Diane Ryudo Shoshin Fitzgerald, Rev. Robert Ryudo Tetsumu Waldinger and Rev. Michael Ryudo Shoryu Fieleke.  photo by Kate Hartland

Last week, during our Boundless Way Zen October sesshin, we held an ordination ceremony for Rev. Diane Ryudo Shoshin Fitzgerald, seen here with some of her fellow Boundless Way Zen priests  It was a joyous occasion.  I have had the privilege and pleasure to ordain everyone in the picture above, who received my priestly family name "Ryudo" which means "Dragon Hall."  

Boundless Way priests generally live in the world, and have jobs and families. In choosing to ordain, we demonstrate our commitment to the Great Way through our common knowledge that serving the Dharma lies at the core of our being.  We don't favor priests over laypeople in Boundless Way, and recognize that taking public, formal vows of service is not for everyone.  But for the few who decide that this makes sense on the deepest level, we offer this ceremony and path.  

Today, my daily calendar quotes John Mason Brown, an American critic and writer: "The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose."  It seems like a pretty accurate definition for this particular path of service.   

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Voice, Kindness and Grace

Adam Levine, CeeLo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton
One of my secret pleasures -- well, now that I'm writing about it on my blog, not so secret -- is watching the television show "The Voice."  My daughter, who is a professional singer, recommended it to me.  She was impressed with how the four singers who act as coaches to aspiring performers offer real wisdom about singing.

Even though it's a reality show, with all of the strange, scripted manipulative moments and hooey that this implies, there are moments that make me  genuinely laugh and cry.  The Voice is saturated with a sense of respect and appreciation -- for human beings who stand up on a stage and expose their hearts to criticism and judgment.  Unlike other singing competition shows I've seen (briefly, because they're so painful to me), there is no cruelty or mockery.  The coaches seem to go out of their way to say what's true, even if it's direct criticism, and always offer encouragement to the rejected competitors to keep on with their training and performing.  And the eliminated contestants themselves bow down with grace and humility as they leave the stage.

Kindness and grace are rare in the world these days.  Many people seem to make a regular practice of finding fault with others.  Although it's sometimes hard for me to understand why the climate of criticism in popular culture has become so pervasive,  I have come to realize that even cruel comments are simply a demonstration of the desire to connect, to be part of the conversation.   It's so easy to find fault, that making a practice of commenting and also being kind is a rare and valuable action.

As Torei Enji reminds us in his Bodhisattva's Vow: "Even though someone may be a fool, we can be compassionate.  When someone turns against us, speaking ill of us and treating us bitterly, it's best to bow down.  This is the Buddha appearing before us, finding ways to free us from our own attachments, the very ones that have made us suffer again and again and again."

Does this mean that the judges on "The Voice" are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas?  Sure -- and if Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, CeeLo Green and Blake Shelton can lean into being direct and  kind,  than so can we all.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wash your bowl and make your bed

The other night I was watching the quite amazing television show, "The Bridge,"  an adaptation of a Danish/Swedish show, set on the Mexican/Texas border.  The Bridge is fairly violent, but never shies away from the heart-crushing effects of violence on human beings.  Please be warned, the violence on the Bridge feels more real than in most television programs, and can be quite shocking to watch.  I am lucky enough to know, whenever I watch television or a movie, that the people doing the violence are actors, on sets, speaking lines, enacting stage directions.  Show me a news report about Syria, or Kenya, or a football game, and I have to look away...I have no capacity for watching real violence.

One of the heroes of The Bridge is an El Paso police detective, Sonya (played by Diane Kruger), a woman with difficulties relating to others, who may or may not be on the autism spectrum, still coping with the brutal death of her sister many years ago.  Her Mexican partner, Marco (played by Demian Bichir), is grieving his son's recent murder by a serial killer.   Sonya is barely capable of friendship or real relationship, but she and Marco have learned to function well as a team, and Sonya is also devoted to her boss, Hank, who treats her with respect and as much affection (very little) as she can tolerate.  Hank has encouraged her to reach out to Marco in his grief.

Marco has been holed up in his Juarez home for a month, deserted by his wife and other children, sleeping, drinking and growing a very admirable beard. After rescuing him from a bar the night before, putting him to bed, and then cooking him eggs for breakfast, Sonya asks him, "Did you make your bed?"  Marco responds, "What are you, my mother?" And Sonya says, "When my sister died I stayed with Hank and his wife for a while.  Carmen had one rule for me:  'Always get up and make your bed.'  No matter how bad I felt, I had to face the day."

Many people know the koan, case 7 in the Gateless Gate,  where a young monk comes to study with the great Chinese teacher Zhaozhou, who,  in response to his request for teaching, asks "have you eaten your rice gruel?"  When the monk says yes, Zhaozhou says, "Wash your bowl."

Life is full of difficulty and suffering, and the discursive mind loves to figure out what to do, to interfere and make theories.  But the life of the heart is deeply and simply connected to the life of everyday activities.  Fully engaged in moving along, no matter how we feel, facing the day -- this is what is required.  So simple.  So healing. So human.

Wash your bowl.  Make your bed.  Stay connected.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Inspiring words from Ramana Maharshi

My dear friend Amy Zoll sent me the following quote from Ramana Maharshi, the beloved 20th century Indian sage.  I've always believed that what we do in the world is not so much about the words we use or even what we actually do, but about how we are, and that our presence is a direct reflection of our sincere devotion to our meditation practice.

Annamalai Swami, in his book "Living by the Words of Bhagavan",  writes:

"Bhagavan taught that one should reform oneself rather than find fault with others.  In practical terms this means that one should find the source of one's own mind rather than make complaints about other people's minds and actions.  I can remember a typical reply that Bhagavan gave on this subject.

A devotee , who was quite intimate with Bhagavan, asked him, 'Some of the devotees who live with Bhagavan behave very strangely.  They seem to do many things that Bhagavan does not approve of.  Why does Bhagavan not correct them?'

Bhagavan replied, 'Correcting oneself is correcting the whole world.  The sun is simply bright.  It does not correct anyone.  Because it shines the whole world is full of light.  Transforming yourself is a means of giving light tot he whole world.'

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seeking and Finding

Young girl looking out at Helsinki Harbor
Philip Kapleau, Roshi's book Zen: Dawn in the West, is dedicated  "to those who wish not to seek but to find."  When I first read this, I remember feeling a bit put off.  I had thought of myself as a seeker, someone who was dedicated to finding the true meaning of life.  I had always been puzzled by the realities of death and suffering, even at a young age, and had a strong desire to know what life was about.  Following that longing, I found my first teacher, who  had studied with Kapleau, and hearing him speak about the very things I had been searching for, I settled into Zen practice and never left.  I knew in the core of my being that my days of seeking were over.  And when the Dharma treasure began to reveal itself to me, I felt even more sure that I had found something in which to take refuge.

I left that particular teacher for many reasons, but mainly because he relied heavily on emptiness as the foundation of Zen -- a key ingredient in the recipe for justification of all kinds of ethical misbehavior, much of which was quite wounding to me and many others.  But I never left Zen.  I loved the forms of it, the silent retreats, all the skillful means of practice, just sitting (shikantaza) and koan practice especially.  When I found my current teacher, James Ford, Roshi, who had a completely different personality than my first teacher, I saw that Zen practice could come through all kinds of human containers, and was both intimate with and independent of the personality of the teacher.  And James' teaching, while grounded in emptiness, was also rooted in form and ethics,  and the endless interconnections and appearances of form and emptiness.  I continue to be so grateful.

Over this past week, I have had a number of conversations with friends and students who identify themselves as seekers.  They have been telling me about all the different kinds of retreats they have been attending, all the teachers they are meeting, in what appears to be a continuing dance of seeking and not finding.  They dig holes for wells in so many places but stop when they don't reach the source of water,  and then continue their endless seeking. The catalogues from various yoga and meditation centers arrive at the Temple, and I flip through them, slightly disturbed by the promises made by all the teachers and methodologies -- a demonstration of  the vast spiritual supermarket of seeking.

If you're hungry, you have to go to the supermarket.  But eventually, you have to buy something, take it home, cook it and eat it.  I suppose this supermarket metaphor is limited -- physical hunger rises and falls and is never satisfied.  I wonder about spiritual hunger -- perhaps it's never totally satisfied, either.

For myself,  I know I will never stop seeking the truth about reality.  The more I know, the more I see how much there is to know, and so the more I find that I don't know.    But I have decided to stay put, and to dig down deep in the place I am.  The water that comes from this well is always new and refreshing. All the shallow holes spread far and wide that I have dug have never yielded anything to compare with the taste of this practice.

And every once in a while, I find friends who want to stay and sit with me at this well and dig down to the source of life.  When they arrive, we know each other.  And again, I'm so grateful.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

calm water

calm water, Lake Como, Italy
A visitor to the Temple today, someone who was new to Zen practice, asked the very reasonable question, "what do you do with your thoughts during meditation?"  She wondered if we spent our time in zazen cultivating thoughts about peace or love or tranquility, to replace the ordinary thoughts we all have about doing the laundry and catching up on emails.

It was hard, at first, for her to understand that we don't do anything with our thoughts -- we notice them coming and going, but we don't try to get rid of them and we don't replace them with other thoughts.  We let them be, and just sit still and upright, in silence.  At a certain point in our conversation, her eyes lit up with understanding, and she said, "how freeing!"

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, in our Boundless Way translation of the Heart Sutra,  sees "that all five skandhas are empty", what is being seen?  The Bodhisattva, known in Chinese as Guan Yin, has been "practicing deep prajna paramita" -- the practice or perfection of wisdom, of clear seeing to the very root of reality.   The Bodhisattva's clear seeing to the bottom is itself liberating, like the glimpse of freedom our visitor had today.  Everything comes and goes.  The five skandhas or "heaps" that constitute human beings and the world we inhabit (form, sensation, perception, mental reaction and consciousness) all come and go, all are impermanent and empty of a fixed self-nature.   This is not emptiness as some concept of nothing, but emptiness as a realization of everything.  Form is seen as emptiness, and emptiness itself is seen as form.  Nothing is fixed or static -- everything is in movement.

One of the many things I love about this practice is that this insight into form and emptiness continually interchanging is available to everyone, caught in glimpses or larger moments of realization.  And the instruction, to be still and to be silent and to sit upright, opens the door to this insight, which is truly one of the heart-mind, and not easily available to the intellect. "Right here, " the text says, "is nirvana."  Right here is the place we have been looking for -- the place we imagine as peaceful is in constant motion, and we can rest in the middle of the coming and going.   It's a bit like the experience of resting our eyes on the surface of a calm lake, and having the complex flux of motion revealed.  Nothing is happening, and everything is happening.  "How freeing!"

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Possessing the Moon

photo from Tom Pinkall
Sometimes we hear that Zen is about letting go, of the self and all thoughts, and finding a way to live a life that is completely empty.  This has always seemed like a partial and problematic desire to me.  My own entry into Zen practice was based on a different and equally problematic desire --  to rediscover the joy of endless possibilities, a joy I had glimpsed over and over in my life, but that I hadn't found a way to make permanent.  The big joke, after years of practice, was the discovery that nothing is permanent, even cultivating a capacity to live with joy in every moment.

Some teachers favor emptiness, and some favor form.  If I favor anything, it would probably be to find form in non-form, and non-form in form -- to be awake to the comings and goings of joy and sorrow, awake to all things.   I started out with a teacher who favored emptiness beyond everything.  He lived, as far as I could tell, in a world of complete relativity, and I heard that he died with the words, "no eye, no ear" on his lips.  A friend who also studied with him told me that, when she heard that news, she wondered about what was missing in his final words --  the other side of dying -- the moans of pain, the tears of separation.  Indeed.

Of course, with words, we can only express one side.  So perhaps this dying teacher had found some rest in emptiness in that moment.  And maybe the moment before and the moment after were full of other expressions that reflected a life fully lived.  I can, even now, vividly imagine his voice, criticizing me for not understanding his full meaning.  This was a familiar experience for me when I studied with him, especially when I started to question his ethics which were based on his view of extreme relativity. His behaviors, grounded in his reliance on the emptiness of the precepts, ultimately caused me to leave him.

Wuzu Fayan, a Chinese master from the 11th century, was quite critical of Zen teachers who favored emptiness exclusively.  His words, commenting on another teacher's apparent favoring of emptiness, inspire me and expand my view.  Wuzu says: "Hold the water in your hands and possess the moon. Brush against the flowers and the fragrance fills your clothes."

We are touched by all we encounter -- nothing is lacking, in anyone and any thing.   I bow to my old teacher with gratitude and respect, and a sense that he knew all about possessing the moon.  His teachings on emptiness gave me a good start, and led to a life based on receiving all the wonders of this amazing world of form and no-form, life and death, no eyes, no ears, and the capacity we all have to hold the moon in our hands and to be filled with the delicious smells, sights and sounds of this blooming world.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

the little death

In less than 22 hours, I'll be leaving the Temple, on my way to teach retreats in Finland and Austria, with some stop-overs in Germany and Switzerland.  While I'm gone, the Temple will continue to function as usual, held lovingly by the sangha and its leaders.

Preparing for a trip always means, for me, letting go of the endless to-do list.  There is never enough time to do everything I feel "should" be done before I go, and so the last day ends up being an avalanche of decisions -- this is important, this is not important.  By the time I am on my way to the airport, everything has moved into the "not important" column.

And what a relief this is.  It feels a little bit like preparing for death -- the slow, expected kind of death, not a sudden violence and final end.  There is no preparation for that quick good-bye, except to live a life where every moment is important, and there is nothing to do but be.

To travel is to enter the land of hurry up and wait.  Who knows what will happen?  The itenerary on my plane ticket is simply a map, and as we all know, the map is not the territory.  And so my plans include a little death, not the final one -- a death of what I think I should do.  Off I go to the land of being.  Au revoir!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

apres sesshin

How lovely -- the Temple radiates with the past presence of 38 intrepid Zen meditators.  Our summer sesshin ended yesterday, and yet, some feeling persists.  How lucky to be able to practice the Great Way together!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Foolishness as proof

I've been reading a book about "consciousness-only" Buddhism called "Living Yogacara" by Tagawa Shun'ei, and really enjoying getting to know more about this system of early Mahayana Buddhist thought that ultimately had a big influence on Zen.  Many of the ideas that I've come to take for granted in Zen, especially the system of consciousnesses that include the 5 senses, plus thinking as the 6th, and then the 7th (unconscious) consciousness where the concept of self lives, and the 8th storehouse consciousness, which is so similar to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, originate in the speculations of the Yogacarans.

And then, towards the end of the book, my enthusiasm took a sharp dive.  It turns out that, unlike my style of Zen, where we rely on the understanding that practice is enlightenment, and that, like Universalists, everyone is already "saved" -- that is, already a Buddha, an awakened being whose true nature is hidden from us by our blindness to the real meaning of Buddha nature,  Yogacara says there are 5 kinds of categories of people, and one of them is incapable of awakening to Buddhahood.  Whoa nelly, I said to myself when I came to this part of the book (yes, my own 6th consciousness sometimes talks to itself in arcane ways.)  What's going on here?

Of course, this theory wasn't just a problem for me, and I was relieved to see all the twists and turns that other people took to reconcile this teaching with other Buddhist teachings about liberation.  My favorite twister and turner is Jokei, who came to realize that he must be one of those people in the 5th category who will never become a Buddha, and that, therefore, because he knows this about himself, the motivation to do everything he can to become a Buddha comes alive in him, and he is therefore really in the category of someone who can become a Buddha.

Twisted logic, but there's something sweet and human about all this.  It's really, really hard to believe, for most of this, that with all our greed, anger, ignorance and various foibles and failures, we are already Buddhas.  So Jokei's logic fits our secret belief that, while everyone else is a Buddha (or, in Buddhist schools where striving for enlightenment plays a role, as it does in Yogacara, capable of achieving Buddhahood), we are probably the one exception.

So, in Jokei's words, "by means of none other than my foolishness, I know my possession of the Great Vehicle could I possibly be lacking the buddha-nature?"

My hope for Jokei, and for myself, and for all of us, is that, by whatever means necessary, we all come to this realization.  When the filters that blind us drop from our eyes, we see that Buddhas are everywhere.
A few Buddhas of my acquaintance (back row from left: Jean Erlbaum, Derrick Matheiu, Jan Seymour-Ford, James Cordova. front row from left: James Ford, some big guy, moi.)
And they look like us!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Stories and The End: Dharma teachings from Canada (and Hollywood)

Sarah Polley
Seth Rogen
Over the last two days, I've seen two very different movies.  "Stories We Tell" is more or less a documentary, made by the Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley, about her discovery of the identity of her biological father.  Seth Rogen, also a Canadian actor and director, brings us "This is the End."   Rogen's film is more or less not a documentary, and follows the story of real, well-known actors, playing versions of themselves, as they face the Apocalypse.

Both movies were made by young artists who use the conventions of story-telling in wildly playful ways.  Any expectations we may be holding about reality, narrative, behavior and morality are all turned around, again and again.  The narrative structure of Polley's movie moves in spirals, as she interviews family and friends about the events of her late mother's life.  Three times at least, the movie takes some sharp turns as the reality she has presented to us is shown to be partial and, in some cases, incorrect.

In "This is the End" the narrative is more straight-forward, but also endlessly surprising.  In both films, we think we understand the personalities and behaviors of various characters, and then our understanding shifts.  In "Stories We Tell" I actually gasped at one point, and laughed a little at other points.   In Rogen's movie,  I laughed a lot.

I was impressed and moved by Polley's movie, but I didn't really enjoy it.  When I left the theater, I felt mentally and emotionally disoriented and a little bit nauseated.  And in the days that have followed, images of the people and events continue to play in my mind.  Her attempt to show us how we construct narrative and meaning is very similar to my understanding of the true nature of  memory -- endlessly re-creating itself.  It was a full meal, and I'm still digesting it.  In many ways, it's a great piece of art, skillfully put together, beautiful at times and disturbing in important ways.

I throughly enjoyed Rogen's movie, but it's not a great movie in the same way that Polley's is.   Even in its gory, shocking and violent moments, I was never disturbed.  I felt safe and delighted.   And, although "This is the End" does raise some questions about the nature of redemption, love and ethical behavior, any time spent in being philosophical is time wasted -- a distraction from the main point: simple entertainment.

Both directors manipulate us, one to make us question reality, the other to be unquestioningly amused.  I appreciate both intentions, and recognize these two styles as ways of teaching the Dharma -- disorientation and playfulness are tools in my own teaching repertoire.   My preference is some mixture of both styles, set on a base of compassion for all of us who tell stories, make memories and try to figure out the meaning of life.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Warning: Elderly People

My husband David Rynick in North Wales, UK

I was inspired to write a short reflection on aging by the lovely one posted today by my teacher James Ford on his Monkey Mind blog.  (If you don't know Monkey Mind, you're in for a treat...Plus, there's a video of Frank Sinatra.)

Being quite youthful myself -- only 59 -- I can feel myself tipping steadily -- or is it unsteadily? -- into my 60th year.  Younger people seem to project more mother-like attributes than sister-like ones onto me.  And my recovery from physical injuries and illnesses seems impossibly slower than I ever remember.  Death is clearly approaching, softening me up for the ultimate fall.

Of course, the positive side of the approach to 60 years is that my recovery from emotional injuries is much more rapid.  This may have something to do with the seemingly endless hours spent in meditation over the decades, sitting still and coming to terms with all the nonsense produced by my mind and heart, but who knows?

All I really know is that I truly appreciate the helpful road signs posted by the good people of North Wales.  Consider yourself warned.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Dog! The Buddha Nature!

Here is a lovely video of my teacher, James Ford, talking about how to engage in koan practice.  I agree with every word and gesture!  Thanks James...

Sunday, June 30, 2013

old devil time

After spending some time with an old friend who was in a life crisis, I remembered this song -- it gave us both a lift:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Advice from a very young Zen teacher

A dear friend sent me this video today, ...a living embodiment of "there is nothing I don't love."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Instructions on emptying the mind

Short version:  drop the broom!

Longer version:  The 13th-century Zen master Keizan Jokin ends one of his many beautiful poems with  these lines:  "Most people want to have pure clarity, but sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind."  So many people come to me with a wish for an empty mind, and my response is generally the same.  No matter what we want, and no matter how much effort we put into it,  we can't make our mind empty of thoughts.  Thoughts naturally come and go, and, as we like to say, the mind secretes thoughts in the same way that the stomach secretes acid.

Most of us have had the experience, when we first begin to meditate, that our thoughts appear to increase.  Of course, this is only because before settling down into a still, quiet posture, and turning our attention on what is arising from moment to moment, we never noticed just how busy our little pea brains actually are, constantly filled with thinking -- pictures, words, combining into very convincing narratives that screen us from direct experience.

When we try to stop this endless stream,  or try to make our minds blank, we are only giving our thoughts more energy with our aggression against them or our attempts at avoidance. They may appear to stop for a moment or two, but then they begin anew, with more strength.  Instead, we can allow thoughts to come and go on their own, either focusing on some neutral object, like the breath, or sitting in spacious awareness, without any kind of agenda for our thoughts.  Coming and going, coming and going, none of our business...and so, thoughts appear to decrease, and the mind "quiets."

The other day, I was explaining this to someone who was having a hard time emptying her mind of thoughts.  She thought it was what she really wanted.  Her delighted response to the instruction to let her thoughts come and go was, "this is much easier than what I've been trying to do!"

Most pictures of Jittoku, the Japanese name for the Tang Dynasty Zen monk Shide, a close friend of the poet Hanshan, show him with a broom, sweeping.  In the picture below, which is also the picture that accompanies this blog, he has let the broom drop, so that he can delight in the moon.  And so, we realize the basic instruction:  drop the broom!  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

9 times fall down, 10 times get up

Little Buddha, Amsterdam
I gave a talk recently about two apparently contradictory teachings in Zen.  The first is that, even though we don't know it, we're already Buddhas.  That is, we're awakened ones -- the word "Buddha" coming from a root in Sanskrit that means "awake."  The second teaching is that we never have enough information to make fully informed choices about how to behave in ways that cause no harm, no matter how awake we are.  The information we need is way too big to comprehend with our limited neural equipment -- we're always missing something crucial.   So -- we're always screwing up.  And...(this is the part that's hard to comprehend)...this screwing up is Buddha activity.

As much as we'd like to make exceptions to this, because, really, we'd so much rather be kind, generous, loving and wise all the time -- not to mention calm and peaceful -- our major task as persons of the Way is to accept our human-ness...which includes greed, anger, ignorance and all the other emotions, thoughts and behaviors that we'd rather not feel, think or do.

How to cope with this paradox?

It's very simple, really, although not easy...we rely on the practice of vow and repentance.  We vow to do our best, and then, when we make our inevitable mistakes, we repent.  We recognize that we have done harm, and then we vow again to have as big a view as possible under the circumstances, so that maybe the next time....and on and on, endlessly, forever.

This practice is not something we can learn and's a lifetime's worth of, as we sometimes say, 9 times fall down, 10 times get up.  Or, an infinite number of times fall down, and an infinite number of times, plus one, get up.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

double rainbow

rainbow at dawn, St. Benedict's Monastery, Winnipeg, Canada
Lately I've been receiving mail from people in prison, who want to have someone to write to about their meditation practice.  I have to admit that I'm intrigued by these letters, hand-written on lined paper.  In these days of emails and instant messaging, it's remarkable to communicate in this old-fashioned way.

My first question to my correspondants has to do with what got them into prison in the first place.  I figure, if they'll tell me honestly about this, there's a smaller chance that they'll hide from who they are.  For me, becoming a student of the Way entails developing a ruthless honesty about all the parts of ourselves -- our shames and secrets as well as our more benign qualities.

The answers to these questions, when they eventually arrive, are sobering and heart-breaking.  Each person has a tale to tell, and each story is a mirrored reflection of the great suffering that fills the world.  Parental abuse, sexual trauma, drug and alcohol use, petty crimes escalating into major crimes -- theft, rape, violence of all kinds against all kinds of people.   Two of the letter-writers are serving life sentences for murder.

Some are in denial, of a sort -- they protest their innocence.  Some abuse meditation as they abused drugs and alcohol, as a way to hide from the reality of their remorse and their deep, almost unfathomable sorrow for the harm they've done, to others and to themselves.  But one prisoner, in particular, has impressed me with his devotion to meditation as a gate-way to waking up, to all that he's done and who he has been in the world.  He practices "just sitting" and recognizes that everything that he experiences, terrible thoughts and emotions, the reliability of the breath and the body, the utter despair that arises often, are all a part of the awakened mind.  He has, somehow or other, through other dharma correspondants and visitors, through books, and through the power of the practice itself, discovered something -- how to be awake even in hell.  I admire him and bow to him.  My own petty moods and disturbances seem so minor in comparison, and I feel so arbitrarily lucky for all the causes and conditions that have brought me to this current life as a person practicing being present to this surprising life.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Brittle Bowl

After being on retreat for three weeks, I'm catching up on medical appointments.  As I get closer to 60, I'm noticing all there is to do to maintain this human form.  Monday i saw my primary care physician, Tuesday my dental hygienist, and today I had my eyes examined, dilated, stained, and photographed and saw my ophthalmologist   According to all of these wonderful people who regularly examine parts of my body, I'm doing very well for my age -- as fit as can be expected.  But of course, this fitness comes and goes.  Cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels, weight and blood pressure rise and fall.  My father died at age 55 of a stroke after some heart attacks, so my physician is cautious with me.  My family history of gum disease always plays a role in my dentist's concerns about my gums receding, and my myopic, dry eyes need daily care -- glaucoma or a detached retina might be right around the corner.

According to a note to a koan in the collection Entangling Vines (recently translated by Thomas Kirchner in an elegant new Wisdom edition), the term "brittle bowl" is used by Xuefeng to describe the human body.  The Chinese word he uses literally refers to a "bowl that was fired from clay containing sand and that was therefore easily cracked or broken."  When Ying'an Tanhua asked Mian Xianjie of Tiantong, "What is the True Eye of the Dharma?"  (or, what is the eye of enlightenment that can discern the true nature of reality) Mian answered, "A brittle bowl."

Brittle indeed -- easily cracked, gone in a moment, in need of constant care.  And the only vehicle for coming to understand the true nature of this world -- capable of holding anything, nourishment of all kinds.  It doesn't always feel lucky to be born a human -- sometimes it feels like an intolerable burden.  But the promise of the brittle bowl is always present, ready to be filled and fulfilled.

Monday, May 6, 2013

You are Buddha

On Saturday the Temple hosted an art event called "Buddhas Over Worcester."  Fifteen local artists made sculptures that demonstrated their understanding of the spirit of awakening.  Over 100 Buddhas, disguised as visitors to the Temple garden, walked around throughout the afternoon to view these amazing works of art, which will be on display through July 5.  Here are a few scenes from the day, including one of my favorite examples of Buddha nature, not herself an official entry.  Her father is a refugee from Bhutan, and he contributed a carving, in marble, of the traditional Buddha.  While he is not a Buddhist himself, (he and his family practice a native Bhutanese religion), his actual name happens to be Buddha, much in the spirit of people from Spanish-speaking countries who are named Jesus.  Our true nature always shines through, whatever our name might be.  As the koan goes, when Huichao asked, "What is Buddha?"  his teacher replied, "you are Huichao!"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Talks from sesshin and the ango

All of the talks given in April at our ango and sesshin are now available on-line.  Enjoy!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Peaceful Dwelling Place

Our yearly "open house" retreat at Boundless Way Temple is in full swing.  This is a retreat where you can attend any or all of the practice periods, and if you want to stay overnight, there's that option, do have to register to reserve a bed for any number of nights.  It's based on the traditional three-month ango that is common in Zen communities, but ours only lasts for three weeks.

We have been studying Dogen's "Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance" during this retreat period, and enjoying talks by many of our Boundless Way Zen teachers -- guiding, senior dharma and dharma teachers.  You can listen to the talks by clicking on this link:

Below is the schedule and more information.  Please consider joining us, either in person, or by listening to the talks.  Many bows from Boundless Way Temple!

Boundless Way Zen Ango
(Peaceful Dwelling Place)
April 6 - April 25, 2013

The ango period is an "open house" meditation retreat.  You may join us for any or all of the practice periods listed below.

 You do not need to register for ango unless you plan to stay overnight.  For overnight registration:  (  Donations for any part of a practice period will be gratefully received in the collection bowl in the front hallway.

6:00 AM - 8:00 AM Early morning practice period
Includes dokusan (individual meetings with a teacher or senior student)

10:00 AM - 12:30 PM  Late morning practice period
Includes sutra service, teisho (dharma talk by a teacher or senior student) and dharma dialogue

2:30 PM- 5:30 PM Afternoon practice period
Includes dokusan

7:00 PM - 9:00 PM  Evening practice period
Includes teisho, dharma dialogue and dokusan

note: breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served buffet style, so there's no need to bring your own food unless you have special needs, and you won't need an oryoki set.

During the ango, dokusan and dharma talks will be and have been offered by our Boundless Way Guiding Teachers (Melissa Blacker, David Rynick, James Ford and Josh Bartok), by Boundless Way senior dharma teachers (Ken Walkama, Kate Hartland, James Cordova, Michael Fieleke, Robert Waldinger, Diane Fitzgerald, Dominik Kulakowski and Jeanie Erlbaum) and by guest teacher George Bowman.  Dharma talks will be and have been offered by Boundless Way senior dharma teacher Jan Seymour-Ford and by Boundless Way dharma teachers (Ed Oberholtzer, Steve Wallace, Harold Stevens, Jeff Seul, Julie Nelson and Alan Richardson.)  David, Melissa, Diane Fitzgerald, Steve Wallace and Fran Ludwig are in residence for the entire ango.

Boundless Way Temple/Worcester Zen Center

1030 Pleasant Street Worcester, MA 01602 508-792-5189

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Zen Precepts

There are three ways of working with the Zen precepts:  as guideposts left us by our ancestors, as mirrors for our behavior, and as paradoxes or koans for deepening our Dharma practice.

photo courtesy James Cordova
When we first begin working with the precepts, many of us approach them as rules of behavior, similar to what we learned as children in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Ten Commandments.  While this may have some validity, the effect of using the precepts in this way can be quite constricting to our practice.  We become victims of the mind of right and wrong, and put ourselves into the wrong column on the great list of do’s and don’ts leftover from early religious training.

To understand that the precepts were developed to meet actual conditions in the lives of our ancestors in the Dharma allows us to see them in a different light.  Each time someone did something or said something that created difficulties in the community, the Buddha and his followers and descendants created a precept to help future students.

Each time we encounter a situation that produces suffering in others, or in ourselves, we may try to trace back all the causes and conditions that created the situation.  At a certain point in our practice, we begin to understand that tracing all of the causes and conditions is impossible.  We may be able to discern a few, or even many, but not all of the events that occurred in the past that have lead to this moment.  This is one helpful way to understand the workings of karma in our lives – that there is definitely a law of cause and effect, but one cause does not create one effect.  Numberless causes contribute to each effect.  And numberless effects stem from each cause.

This is where the precepts become helpful.  Someone else, not necessarily wiser than we are, but with the benefit of long experience of life and the mind, has seen patterns of cause and effect that are consistent.  Certain thoughts, words and behaviors seem to lead to certain effects that are damaging and cause suffering.  Avoiding these simply makes sense.

Of course, in order to do this, we have to have faith in the perceptions of our ancestors.  In Zen we value the path of self-discovery, so one way to develop faith in the precepts is not to follow them, and see what the consequences are.  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” as William Blake advises.  Wisdom develops in some of us through this stubborn path of trial and error.

A short-cut might be to simply follow the precepts.

In working with the precepts as koans, we begin by considering them as described above:  first as literal guideposts, handed down as gifts from our ancestors.

After that, we look at the precepts with the eyes of limitless compassion, recognizing that all beings create suffering, mostly through ignorance, and rarely or never on purpose.  Everyone kills, lies, steals, and on and on.  We see ourselves and others "breaking" the precepts on a regular basis, and we meet this human activity with a spacious, never-ending  and somewhat sorrowful understanding.

And then finally we look at the precepts through the lens of emptiness, thusness, shunyata, in which there can never be any right or wrong.  

We discover that we may have a preference for one of these three views, in which case, it is important that we cultivate the other two, until all three ways of understanding human behavior through the precepts become one, and we learn to live in an ever-shifting reality of human aspiration, error and the all-encompassing dharmakaya that surrounds and is everything.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Surprise of the heart

Lake Como between cypresses

In case 47 of the koan collection the Book of Equanimity, a monk asks Great Master Zhaozhou, "What is the living meaning of Chan Buddhism?"  And he replies, "The cypress tree in the garden."  Another master,  Zhenru Fang, when still a student, once woke from a dream with this story in his mind.  He went to his teacher who asked him how he understood Zhaozhou's meaning, and Zhenru replied, "All night the bed mat's warm -- as soon as you awaken, dawn has come."

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a holy teaching is "an occasion when the heart surprises the mind."  The stories and sayings of our Zen ancestors can seem remote and strange.  But when we pause, just for a moment, and simply see what is here, bypassing the filter of the discursive mind, things become clear.  Trees declare it, and the warmth of the bed and the light of dawn speak of it.  When there is nothing in the way of this clarity, life reveals itself.

Wansong comments on this case: "The cypress tree in the garden, the wind-blown flag on the pole -- it's like one flower bespeaking a boundless spring, like one drop telling of the water of the ocean."    

The tree, the bed, the dawn light -- let your heart be surprised by what is right here, and the words of the ancient masters come alive, personally and immediately.