Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Language of Dragons

My teacher James Ishmael Ford, Roshi has just come out with his latest book, and it's a true treasure.  Called "Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons"  it is even more than what its title promises.  A comprehensive introduction to Zen practice, it establishes the context for koan practice within the history of Zen and the other great practices that accompany and deepen koan study:  breath and shikantaza (just sitting) practices.  James is a wonderful and down-to-earth guide to Zen, and especially to the style of Zen in which I apprenticed with him, both before and after he gave me Dharma transmission.  I owe him so much, and you owe it to yourself to read this wise and warm book.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Urs App and Yunmen

Back in the day, and I'm just talking about 1994, there were far fewer translations around of essential Zen texts.  Now there are many,  but I find myself returning again and again to some favorites from the last century.  One that has always kept me supported in my practice is the Swiss scholar Urs App's translation of the Sayings of Yunmen. 

Yunmen Wenyan is a familiar character to anyone who practices with koans.  He lived in China in the 9th and 10th centuries.   His most famous comment, which is the text for the first official Dharma talk from a newly transmitted teacher in my school of Zen, is "Every day is a good day." 

Shambhala Publications has recently reissued a revised and updated version of App's book, which had originally been published by Kodansha International:  Zen Master Yunmen; His Life and Essential Sayings. It's a beautiful production, and will, I have no doubt, be a wonderful companion to anyone who travels the Great Way.

Here is a quote from Yunmen's first talk in the Record. just to give you a taste:

"The knack of giving voice to the Dao is definitely difficult to figure out.  Even if every word matches it, there still are a multitude of other ways; how much more so when I rattle on and on?  So what's the point of talking to you right now?"


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Empty Vessel

Path to St. Elizabeth Church, Le Beguínage,
Bruges, Belgium

I just returned from a trip to Europe, where I taught some retreats and workshops, and also did some sight-seeing.  In the beautiful city of Bruges in Belgium we visited the Monasterium De Wijngaard, or the Beguínage, a peaceful refuge for Benedictine nuns.  In former days this cluster of small free-standing rooms surrounding a small wooded park was a retreat center for non-ordained women, the Beguínes,
who had left the world to be in direct contact with God. 

The nuns who now live in the monastery invite everyone to pray with them four times daily, and we were lucky enough to sit with them during vespers.  Just a few old women in their brown and black habits chanted in high melodic voices, absorbed in their devotions while tourists quietly came and went from the church of St. Elizabeth. 

The nuns provided little flyers for the tourists, full of prayers and devotions, for use during the services.  One that was unfamiliar to me, and that deeply touched me, was written by the English Christian writer Frances Nuttall (1892 - 1983) called the "Prayer of the Chalice."  You can easily google the original if you're interested.  I revised it for my own use and humbly offer this new, non-sectarian version below.  Perhaps it will give you a flavor of the experience we had in the lovely church, in the late afternoon, listening to the sweet voices chanting their devotions.

The Empty Vessel

To the Great Light I raise my whole being,
A vessel emptied of self.

Accept this my emptiness, and so fill me with your light, your love, your life,
That these precious gifts may radiate through me
And overflow the chalice of my heart
Into the hearts of all with whom
I come into contact this day.

Revealing unto them the beauty of joy and wholeness, and the serenity of peace which nothing can destroy.