Friday, June 24, 2016

Beginners Mind: Ukelele Version

My new Kana and my old Silvertone

I've been playing the piano and singing most of my life.  When I was 3 years old, I had a little toy piano, like Schroeder's piano in the Peanuts cartoons, and figured out how to play songs from my parent's jazz records on it, so they bought me a Wurlitzer spinet piano and got me a piano teacher.  On my own I figured out how to play chords and read jazz charts.  I was serious enough about "being a musician" to major in music and anthropology at my university. I sang in a Javanese gamelan, and later in my life I played in a bossa nova band with friends and Zen students.  And all this time I've been playing for my own pleasure.  (For 10 years in my 20's I even made a living playing for dance classes and teaching piano and voice.)  It came easy to me, so I didn't practice much.  I was never good enough to have a real career, but I love playing music.

And now, 60 years after figuring out Harry Belafonte's song "Come Back Liza" on the toy piano, I've decided to take up the ukelele.  I'm not alone in this.   There are ukelele clubs and bands springing up all over the place.  My daughter, who actually is a conservatory-trained professional musician, in the middle of making her second CD of original alt-rock songs, taught me the basics, and I fell in love with the portability and the cuteness of the instrument.  A Zen student sent me a rehabbed vintage Silvertone soprano, and yesterday I bought myself a late birthday gift of a Kana baritone.  And the strange thing is, I've been practicing the heck out them.  My fingers are developing callouses in the right places.  Things are starting to sound a little bit musical.  But I'm a rank beginner, and so the music isn't quite as satisfying to play as I'm used to when I accompany myself singing at the piano.

As a Zen student, and now a Zen teacher, I value the concept of "beginners mind" -- the quality that is so prized in Zen and in mindfulness -- the capacity to meet the moment just as it is, with freshness.  But I had forgotten that it's also quite hard to be a beginner.  Zen students who are just starting out feel lost and confused, not just fresh and mindful.  It's quite challenging to not know.  

I'm grateful to my ukeleles for reminding me that being a beginner is awkward and difficult before it feels fun.   And it's important to practice, to strum and pluck and make mistakes.  That's where the learning happens.  We Zen folks sit on the cushion and learn to face everything, what we like and what we dislike.  We show up in dokusan, our individual meetings between teacher and student, and we practice showing up just as we are.  It's all in the service of being able to live a life that has meaning, that is useful for the world.  We practice to make music, and we practice to be bodhisattvas.   As Gary Snyder says, in another context, "There is no other life."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Answer to Dorothy

From the time I was very young, I felt a strong connection to the longing in Judy Garland's voice, when, as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz,  she begged for "a place where there isn't any trouble."  And as we know, there was just as much trouble, if not more, in the land over the rainbow.

In case 43 from the Blue Cliff Record, I hear something similar in the monk's question, "Where is the place where there is no heat and cold?"  Dongshan's challenge to the monk is to ask, "Why not go to the place where there is no heat or cold?"  When the monk asks where that place is, Dongshan says, "When its cold, cold finishes the monk.  When it is hot, heat demolishes the monk."  In other words, when we meet the heat and cold, meet the trouble, just as it is, the separate self is seen through. When we and the extreme states we are trying to avoid are recognized as completely intimate, suffering changes its nature.  The resistance to reality disappears, and we can be surprised at how much we can bear.

It's already been a week since the shootings at Pulse in Orlando, and we may find our hearts turning away, trying to avoid the pain of the reality of how humans can so easily be destroyed by other humans.  It's happening every day -- the destroying and the avoiding.   Our task is to notice when we turn away, and then practice the intimate art of meeting whatever is here.  We learn how to stay with pain when pain arises. We may find ourselves sobbing or shouting out in protest.  And then we can find a way to use our sorrow and our anger to actually do something, using our particular talents to help heal the burning world.   And we can also learn, by meeting the reality of our tears and rage, how to meet the arising of joy when it appears.

Here is an opportunity to experience joy and sorrow mixed, in the lovely version of "Over the Rainbow" by the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Beech Tree in the Garden

a tree branch floats through the empty sky
the tree before its removal

A monk asked Zhaozhou, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?"  (Or...why are things the way they are?)  Zhaozhou replied, "The cypress tree in the garden."

An old beech tree has stood at the entryway to Boundless Way Temple since this property was built in 1908, along with a companion tree on the other side of the driveway.  The tree has been dropping branches for the last couple of years -- dangerous to humans.  We had thought about trimming it down and keeping part of the trunk to carve into a statue, perhaps of Bodhidharma.  But our tree expert told us it was rotted from the inside, which happens to these trees when they get old.  (Sounds familiar!)  So, sadly, it  is getting cut down today, all the way to the ground.  A crew of ten tiny human beings (compared to the huge tree) has spent hours carefully taking pieces of the tree from the top, lowering them with a crane, and chopping them up into wood chips.

pieces too big to hold
The tree existed, and now it no longer exists.  This is the fate of all living beings.  We bow in gratitude to the 100 plus years that this tree shaded and welcomed all who came here, and all who passed by.  We will miss you!

Thursday, June 16, 2016


 In the face of the tragic shootings in Orlando, there are no words.  And yet, we have to say something.  As a member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, I am touched by and stand behind this statement from our president, Hozan Alan Senauke.  May it contribute to the awakening of our government to the necessity of passing effective gun control legislation.  Too many lives have already been lost.

Soto Zen Buddhist Association Statement on the Orlando Tragedy

As members of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association — along with communities and practitioners of all faiths — we stand in solidarity with those who seek to live in peace and nonviolence, and grieve for the loss of life in Orlando. In particular we extend our heartfelt compassion to Orlando’s Latino and LBGTQ communities, their friends and families.

In the Dhammapada Shakyamuni Buddha, says: “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time. Hatred ceases by love. This is an eternal law.” While we cannot untangle the thoughts and emotions of the shooter, quite aside from political dimensions, this is a crime motivated by delusion. Our world will never be free from conflict, but we yearn for a human culture in which one person’s views will not lead to another’s death.

We reflect, too, that mass shootings in Orlando, Paris, San Bernardino, Aurora, Newtown, and throughout the world are facilitated by the ready availability of assault-style automatic weapons. These weapons, designed for military application not for sport, do not belong on our streets.
In the name of those below, and all victims of gender violence, hatred, racism, and homophobia — our sisters and brothers — we call for people and our elected leaders to wake from delusion and vow to resolve our differences with the strength of nonviolence. In this spirit we call the names of the dead in Orlando:

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Cory James Connell, 21
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 
Kimberly Morris, 37
Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
Omar Mateen, 29

With palms together,
Hozan Alan Senauke President, Soto Zen Buddhist Association

To see photos and read brief stories of those who died at Pulse: about-the-orlando-shooting-victims