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:    www.worcesterzen.org.

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.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dust Has No Place to Land


The Sixth Ancestor's Rice Mill -- Ink Painting by Hakuin Ekaku
The following is a transcription of a Dharma Talk (Teisho), given by Michael Fieleke, Sensei and myself at our summer 2019 sesshin, transcribed by Joanne Hart and edited by Mike Sensei and me.  

Melissa Roshi:
This is the first of our series of dharma talks for this summer sesshin. The four teachers, David Roshi, Bob Sensei, Mike Sensei and I, will be sharing these talks each day. A different pair will present our understanding of the topic that we've chosen for the sesshin. And today Mike Sensei and I will be presenting our understanding of a koan that is a very fundamental story in our Zen tradition. It's found in at least three different places in Zen literature.

One is in our Gateless Gate koan collection where it's case number twenty-three. One is in a Japanese Rinzai collection called Entangling Vines where it's number two -- placed there I think because if its importance. And also, it appears in a text that is attributed to a 7th century Chinese teacher named Huineng called The Platform Sutra. We're not sure that Huineng actually wrote this sutra. It may have been written by some of his disciples, maybe even many years after he lived. But it’s written in the first person as if it was in his voice. And his voice is an important voice in the teachings of Zen that we've inherited, especially from our Chinese ancestors. Huineng was the first Chinese Zen teacher or Chan teacher who was not an educated elite member of the upper classes. He was someone who struggled early on in his life just to survive. According to legend he never learned to read.

I'm going to read you the version of the story that's in the Entangling Vines collection. And probably over the week we will read the version that's case 23 in the Gateless Gate. And maybe we’ll read a little bit from The Platform Sutra. But in this version the koan goes like this:

“The senior monk Huiming pursued Huineng, the sixth ancestor, to Dayu peak. Huineng, seeing him come, put the robe and bowl on a rock and said, ‘this robe represents faith. How can it be taken by force? You may have it.’ Huiming tried to pick it up but like a mountain it couldn't be moved. Shaken and frightened Huiming said, ‘I came in search of the Dharma, not for the sake of the robe. Lay brother, please instruct me.’  Huineng said, ‘Think not of good, think not of evil. At this very moment what is your original face before your father and mother were born?’” [A very loud siren from an emergency vehicle passes by the Temple.] Maybe it's the sound of that siren. “ ‘At this very moment, what is your original face before your father and mother were born?’ At that moment Huiming was deeply enlightened and his entire body flowed with sweat. With tears in his eyes he bowed and asked, ‘Is there any meaning still more profound than the hidden meaning and words you have just imparted to me?’ ‘There's nothing hidden about what I've revealed,’ replied Huineng. ‘If you turn your own life inward and illuminate your original face, what is hidden is within yourself.’ Huiming said, ‘although I practiced with the assembly under Hongren I had yet to realize my original face. Now you have shown the way in. I'm like the one who has tasted water and knows for himself whether it's cold or warm. You, lay brother, are now my teacher.’ Huineng replied, ‘If that's how it is with you then you and I are equally the disciples of Hongren. Take good care of yourself.’”

So that's the koan that we'll be exploring over the week. And I wanted to talk first about Huineng himself, and Huiming too a little bit – the two characters that we encounter in this story. When we study koans it's very important to let ourselves sink into them as if they were happening to us right now in this present moment. Every piece of the encounter is relevant to our lives as not just Zen practitioners but as human beings on this planet, in this universe, that's full of suffering.  It's really important to know that these people, although they lived almost 2000 years ago are just like us in so many ways.   In fact, one of the main teachings of Huineng is that no matter what our circumstances, no matter how we identify ourselves, no matter what our background is or the story of our life we have more in common than we have in difference. I was particularly happy to see that in the chant we read earlier which is one of my favorites, “The Harmony of Relative and Absolute” by another one of our Chinese ancestors Shitou, speaks about this directly. He's actually quoting Huineng. He says “among human beings are wise ones and fools. But in the way there is no northern or southern ancestor.”

So it's true that we are all unique, and it's also true that in the Great Way we're all the same. Huineng's primary teaching throughout his life, and throughout his writing of the Platform Sutra and other records that were kept of him, was that there is no such thing as becoming a Buddha. We are already Buddhas. We are already awakened ones. He used a word in Chinese that's been translated in various ways but one way that I like is that there is the potential for awakening in every human being. We don't need to bother with ants and sticks and grizzly bears and dogs and flowers because they're already fully awakened and they don't need to practice the Great Way. But we human beings interfere with our own sense of who we are. We think that we are lacking.

And here's Huineng who was the son of a pretty highfalutin’ guy, someone who was part of the government in China. It's possible that his mother was actually not an ethnic Chinese but came from the south where there are many kinds of tribes. He's called the barbarian when he first meets his teacher and this is a reference not only to his lack of training but also perhaps his ethnicity. His father had been thrown out of the ruling class and his father and mother went to live in the south away from the northern capital.  They struggled, and his father died when Huineng was three years old. He and his mother, impoverished, lived in a city in the south of China where they sold firewood. These were Huineng's humble beginnings. As one commentator says, he knew what it was like to not have a life of privilege. He knew what it was like to be hungry, to be cold, to struggle in his life. And somehow or other he wasn't beaten down by this. So much so that one day when he was out in the town square selling firewood and a monk walked by chanting the Diamond Sutra he heard a line from this sutra that so deeply penetrated him that his heart awakened, and he made arrangements to take care of his elderly mother and decided he had to go north to find the Great Way, to find the source. After he talked to this monk, he grabbed him and pulled him aside. He said,  “what is that that you've been chanting?” The monk explained a little bit about Zen.

After this, Huineng went off to seek the teachings, and his first teacher was a woman, a nun who he studied with for a while. Then he studied Zen with a couple of other teachers. He studied for three years learning about meditation and zazen. And then he found his way north to Hongren's place. Hongren was a teacher in the lineage of Bodhidharma, the original Indian teacher who brought Zen from India to China. He had inherited the robe and bowl of Bodhidharma from his own teacher, and intended to pass these symbols of the teachings to his own Dharma heir. 

Hongren had an interview with Huineng where he said,  “who do you think you are, you barbarian from the south, coming to me to learn about Zen?” and when he heard this challenging question Huineng did not become defensive. He did not quote something from a sutra to show how smart he was. He said, “In the way there are no northerners or southerners.” And this really struck Hongren who decided that this kid had some merit. And he sent him off for nine months to thresh rice.

And there's a wonderful story which we'll probably tell more in more detail later in the week about how Hongren ended up recognizing Huineng as his dharma successor, his dharma heir. He gave him the robe and bowl but he knew that Huineng as a barbarian from the south, an illiterate rice thresher and wood cutter would not be respected by the other people in the monastery and so he sent him away. There's one lovely, probably apocryphal story which isn’t in the original sutra of Huineng that he himself, the old teacher, rowed Huineng across the river that separated the south of China from the north of China. And then he sent him on his way. Huineng apparently went on a pilgrimage for two months with the robe and the bowl.  Hongren had advised him to wait three years before he started teaching.  He suggested that Huineng hold off until the experience had of awakening had penetrated him so thoroughly that he could be an exemplar to others.

Meanwhile, back at the monastery the other monks found out about Hongren giving the robe and bowl, giving dharma transmission, to this barbarian.  All of the people who Hongren thought would be upset were upset. They all started chasing after him, crossing the river themselves. For two months they chased him and one by one they dropped away, as you can imagine, except for this one guy Huiming who had originally been in the army. He had been a general. And he thought he knew what he wanted. He wanted to get the robe and bowl back from the impostor. The story in the koan begins at the point where Huiming finally catches up with Huineng after two months of running after him, two months of chasing up and down mountains and hills and dales to find this impostor.

And Huineng just says,  “take the robe and bowl,” and that has a transformative effect on the former general Huiming. This story has so many aspects to it that we thought for 7 days we could probably get something out of it. But what I want to encourage you to do with the stories that you're hearing before I hand the talk over to Mike Sensei is to notice if there were any parts of the story that touched your heart the way Huineng's heart was touched by hearing the Diamond Sutra chanted in the square in his town where he was selling firewood. Because this is what's important. You don't have to memorize everything. You don't have to know everything. Someone said to me recently, a new sitter here at the temple, “I'm beginning to get the idea that this is not about accumulating knowledge. I'm beginning to get the idea that this is about dropping knowledge and not knowing.” This is somebody that's just been sitting for maybe a couple of weeks. Beginner's mind, right? I said,  “yeah, yeah, that's right.” I had a  little bit of trepidation saying this.  Maybe I was affirming him too early,  but he was on to something.

Huineng is the first truly Chinese teacher. He's the person who pulled it all together. And we can feel the echoes of his teaching in the present version of Zen we teach here at Boundless Way Temple. Everyone has the Buddha nature.

So now Mike Sensei is going to take over the talk, and say a few more words to illuminate this great story that has been handed down to us over the centuries.

Mike Sensei:

So it's quite a remarkable story. This uncultured, uneducated, very poor person enters the monastery. He’s challenged right at the start by Hongren but is able to respond with a kind of faith in something that transcended his personal circumstance. There is no northern or southern ancestor in The Way. There's just human beings. We are all worthy.

It's amazing what moved him to make his journey to the monastery in the first place. He was just a young boy struggling to survive, gathering wood, when he heard a line from the Diamond Sutra. The specific words he heard are not recorded in the Platform Sutra, but according to Encounter Dialogues of Dajian Huineng, he overheard the following variously translated phrase: “Give rise to the mind that abides nowhere.” Where is this mind that abides nowhere?

Huineng was so moved that he asked his mother if she would support his seeking the dharma, and off he went. He was quite young to be moved by such an esoteric commandment.

After Huineng had been practicing for merely eight months at Hongren’s monastary, the fifth ancestor Hongran was looking for a successor to whom he could transmit the robe and bowl, this authority to teach Zen. And so he asked his monks to write poems to express their insight. Huineng wasn't really aware that this competition was happening. He was too busy preparing rice in the kitchen and found out after the fact. Being so new and illiterate, he wasn't even invited to participate in the contest.

Two poems were ultimately written, and the first was by the senior monk, Shenxiu. His poem went like this: “The body is a Bodhi tree, / The mind a standing mirror. / Always try to keep it clean / Don't let it gather dust.” Shenxiu was an experienced practitioner who went on to become a teacher himself. His poem offers a teaching that has a certain kind of value to it. Wu-men urges students studying Chao-chao’s mu to “cut off the mind road” or we will become “ghosts clinging to bushes and grasses.” In Zen practice, we are not chasing after thoughts. We are here to wake up.

But there is something a little off in this teaching as well. While the practice of not indulging thoughts is important, it can become oppressive rather than liberating. And Huineng realized this, so when he heard this poem, he decided to ask a fellow monk to transcribe and post his response in secret. His response went like this: “Bodhi doesn't have any trees / This mirror doesn't have a stand / Our Buddha nature is forever pure / Where do you get this dust?”  Then he composed a second verse: “The mind is the Bodhi tree / The body is the mirror's stand / The mirror itself is so clean / Dust has no place to land.”

Huineng’s poems were recognized by the fifth ancestor as a superior expression of the dharma. And Hongran knew that they were composed by Huineng. This is what led to Hongran offering Huineng transmission, then shooing him away from the monastery. As Huineng fled, he was chased. And that's where our koan begins.

I think it would be useful to spend some time with Huineng’s poem as a pointer for us as we practice here together. We might have the idea that we come here to change ourselves, that we come here to remove something that we don't like about ourselves or maybe about our lives. We might imagine we can wipe away the dust of our lives and become a pure mirror. We think, “if I can just remove this afflictive emotion of sadness or anger or shame, or if I can perfectly still my mind, then I will be enlightened, and I will suffer no more.” But in my experience, to practice this way is often a spiritual bypass. It is actually painful. And it is not necessary.

What arises is what arises. We are not trying to avoid what is present but to see what is present, to bear compassionate witness to whatever arises, and to look into each phenomenon as a dharma gate that reveals our true nature. That true nature, as Huineng suggests, is no fixed nature at all. So there is nothing we need to change. There's nobody else that we need to be. Our true nature is already present manifesting perfectly. It is in our tear drops. It is in our anger. It is in the dust.

And so when the monk finally catches Huineng, at first he thinks, I want the robe. But when he realizes that Huineng is unattached to the robe and bowl, he realizes how free Huineng is. He realizes that it is not the robe and bowl he desires most of all but liberation, and so he bows and asks to be taught.

This for me is a touching moment in the case. Where that monk says, help me. And it's so interesting that Huineng doesn't respond by saying, oh well let me lay forth some dharma for you. He says, who are you? 

And so we begin sesshin with Huineng’s question. Who are you?

Thank you.

Dharma Dialogue

Mike Sensei:

So if you'd like to make yourself comfortable now is an opportunity for us to have a dharma dialogue. A chance for you to come forth with whatever arose for you in this. Whether it's a question or an objection. Whatever is here for you. What touched you or didn't touch you.

Melissa Roshi:

And just know that this talk is being recorded so if you don't want to be recorded when you offer your question, objection, insight also that's welcome, we will turn it off briefly and turn if back on after you speak.

Student:

Thank you both. That was really powerful. Seriously. I'm very moved. But could you both say something about enlightenment that even all these flaws and these emotions that keep arising how that also is enlightenment. Can you please reassure me that it is.

Melissa:

It is. [laughter]

Mike:

Next!! [laughter]

Melissa:

It's hard to believe, right?

Student:

Yes, it is very hard to believe.

Melissa:

Yeah, and this was the radical teaching of Chinese Zen that we inherited that was different from Indian Buddhism. Really really different. In Indian Buddhism you have to go through stages. Even modern teachers of original Buddhism talk about going through stages. Going through stages makes sense. And this is what Shinshu said, the head monk who was really respected in the monastery by everybody. His poem about the mirror, that makes sense. And Huineng's poem doesn't really make sense. What?? There's no mirror, they were all metaphors. But how could they...and he elucidates in his sutra, in his writings, he talks about it and then hundreds of years later Dogen talks about it. All the great Zen masters in the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty in China talked about it. It became part of the Great Vehicle teachings which were also inherited by the Tibetan Buddhists. Already accomplished. Actually the Tibetans had their own trajectory that was very similar and overlaps a lot. But this is just so unbelievable.

Student:

Yes

Mike:

You know I'd like to add that you know we have to meet ourselves where we are. So if what's arising for me is that I don't believe it, that's the dharma presenting perfectly. I don't believe it. This is not enlightenment. I am not it. Right? Okay, so this is what we meet and we look.

Second student:

So what's this whole thing about improvement? Do we try to improve our character or is that also part of it? To do it or not do it?

Melissa:

You know I was just telling these guys a childhood friend of mine just gave me a packet of letters that I wrote when I was in my 20's, forty years ago. I finally got up the nerve to read them. They were letters I had written to her. I couldn't see much difference between the person who was writing those letters and the 65-year-old woman who just gave you this dharma talk. And yet, and yet, I'm not that person anymore. Something's changed. I couldn't have given a dharma talk when I was in my twenties. David Roshi often talks about growth and compassion and wisdom. You know, there definitely is this ripening. The seed of the flower doesn't stay a seed forever. It can't help, and this is what Huineng says, you can't help but realize your enlightenment. But I really want to underline what Mike Sensei said. Don't believe any of this. Stay with the disbelief. That's the source of your own awakening.

Third student:  

So, a moment that’s coming up for me in the koan right now is that moment when the military athletic monk who is sometimes called monk Myo…

Melissa:

Myo is the Japanese version of the character that is pronounced as Ming in Chinese…

Third student:

So Ming catches up after two months of running, you know, swimming across that river, running up and down mountains and not giving up. He puts his hands on the robe and it's like trying to move a mountain. So we can take that if we want as some miraculous happening.  Because this is Bodhidharma's robe after all.   I don't think we want to do that. So the other place I go is so something has already happened to Ming. He hasn't heard a word yet. He's just you know present...so the question that's coming up for me is: “is there something about just the sheer presence of this lay brother or is it something about those two months?

David Rynick, Roshi:

Or is he so tired that he has totally exhausted himself and he would lift it up if he could but he has given everything away and nothing's left. Right? Wonderful questions. So these questions come up and they're all alive and true and what is it? What's going on in that moment? And for me it's only when he utterly fails that there's some opening. Usually we want to have success. We want to improve. We want to get what we started. “I came to retreat and I have some goals I want to achieve here.” And I just love how wrong Ming was the whole time, chasing the wrong thing and in the end he can't even pick it up and in his utter failure there's some freedom.

Fourth student:

I was thinking that same point when the last person said those things. I think of my personal experience when I'm so into trying to get something and then I finally get it and there's almost like this immediate bitter taste in my mouth. Almost like this disgust. And this contains a component of the koan but kind of this strange reality that I have when the thing I've been chasing for so long isn't fulfilling me and I finally get to it. And I wonder if you know what happens to me often is that I just swallow that and I just keep on. But I was wondering if in this story you have to clarify the great matter to see that fully and he continued to pursue that kind of grasping for this security.

Bob Waldinger, Sensei:

I like that you have a visceral reaction. The bitter taste in you mouth, right? And he starts to sweat, right? There is something embodied about this. Wait, this isn't it. This realization is in the body as well as mind.

David:

The Buddha called this kind of experience dukkha. There is this sense that we are lacking something and if I just get the next thing, the next electronic device or whatever, if I just have a really good experience, you know, if I get a little oneness -- that’s all I need. But the teaching is that since we aren't lacking to begin with anything we get doesn't make any difference.  There are those moments where we sort of get it. And I love what you're saying about the capacity to stay with the bitterness or the disillusionment. To stay long enough that we get melted or something happens to us that we can't contrive.

Melissa:

I've got to say that I just love this guy Huiming or Ming or Myo,  whatever we want to call him. When I first heard this koan, the very first time I heard it from my first teacher in a dharma talk like this, I think at one of my very first sesshins, I just thought,  “oh man that's me.”   I'm constantly running after stuff and then find out, with that bitter taste, that's not what I wanted. And there's something about his spirit, running for two months. I hadn't really put it together until I did some research that it was two months! That moment of not being able to lift the robe is one of the turning points of this koan. We've got to feel that for ourselves. What would it be like, this moment when we think we've accomplished something. I caught him! I'm going to get the robe and bowl! And then everything just explodes --  it's wiped away. Everything is wiped away.

Bob:

I want to just add one more thing, which you noticed, which is that a lot of times when this happens to you, you just kind of swallow it and you go on and you look for the next thing to grab onto. And so, how do we not ignore those moments? How do we not swallow them and just push on and do the same thing, try the same thing again and hope that this time it will satisfy us. Because that's such a familiar reaction to me.

Fifth student:

I think a lot of what I wanted to say has been said but the piece about it with me, although I really admire Ming's tenacity, is that my sense is he's not in charge. We're not in charge of this whole awakening process. We can't say it's going to happen and it can happen to the monk who stayed behind and just sat in his room.   And so it's like we think it's got to be something spectacular that gets us through. And yet it's the very ordinariness of our lives that, at least for me, is what's most easily accessible. And even if I chase for something, and I do chase after things, it may happen and it may not. I don't have any control over the process. All I have, control over is my intention to live the precepts. I think that that's for me the first part of what the first monk said. The precepts, the practice, this is what I do. This is what we do here, and in my daily life, is live the precepts. And maybe that makes possible something to arise. And hopefully we'll be able to see it. That's the training, to see it, because it's right here.

Mike:

Yeah, there is this effort, you know, living the precepts, showing up for sesshin, showing up to sit on time when the bell rings, not moving. There's actually a lot of effort in this effortless path involved in waking up. And there is a sense of surrender involved in it. And I think also seeing things that we may not want to see, that Chogyam Trungpa calls the path of disappointment. “I thought this was going to be a lot better than it is.” We spend a long time making friends with ourselves, making friends with that disappointment. And okay, so what's here? What's here now?

Melissa:

And you know the irony of all this is that this is Huineng's dharma heir telling a story about their teacher or their teacher's teacher. And from what we can glean from history, the guy who wrote the first poem, Shinshu, was the founder of the northern school of Zen in China. He was a big deal and in the story too, whoever is telling the story, says that he doubted himself. He's actually got a little bit of the Huiming thing. He presented the poem to Hongren, the teacher. He said I think this might be off and don't give me transmission if you agree with me. Which is really great! I think this may be off. That's so cool. He was a cool character, really a great character. Sometimes he’s made out to be a fool but he wasn't. He was actually the instructor of the new monks in the monastery. And then monk Ming himself became a teacher. And again in the historical record it looks like Hongren, the fifth ancestor, had a lot of dharma heirs and Huiming was just one of them. But all those lines died out. Only Huineng's line carried forward into the centuries. It could be that every single person in that monastery woke up to their true nature and were a blessing to the world. I think we have to think maybe yeah. And I think you're pointing that out.

Mike:

I'll say one more thing -- I also really like a theme that's coming up about the ordinariness. Where we encounter the possibility of awakening is in the ordinary life. You know, wash your bowl. And I think that this can lead to: “aw, there's no such thing as waking up.”  And I don't think that's true. I think we can wake up but it won't be what we expect it to be, ever.

Melissa:

Right. That really comes back to the first person's question. How could it look like this?

Mike:

Yeah, yeah.

David: 

And so on that note let's come back to our Zen posture. 

Huineng's Realization: Dust has No Place to LandHui Neng:  Dust Has No Place to Land

What follows is a  teisho, or Zen dharma talk, transcribed by Joanne Hart and lightly edited by Michael Fieleke, Sensei and me.  We had offered it during 2019's Summer Sesshin at the Boundless Way Temple. It's followed by a dharma dialogue, which includes sangha members and Guiding Teachers Bob Waldinger, Sensei and David Rynick, Roshi. This is the first in a series of talks on the Gateless Gate's Case 23, "Think Neither Good Nor Evil," and on Huineng's Platform Sutra. This talk set the scene for the talks that followed and launched our sesshin.


Monday, February 10, 2020

Santiago by David Whyte

Path to the Sea, Nova Scotia 2019
I recently saw a video of David Whyte reading this amazing poem about the journey that all of us who have committed ourselves to liberation share.   As the poet sings, "no matter that it had to break your heart along the way...so that one day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago." 

Santiago

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward always in the end
the way that you followed, the way that carried you
into your future, that brought you to this place,
no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:
the sense of having walked from far inside yourself
out into the revelation, to have risked yourself
for something that seemed to stand both inside you
and far beyond you, that called you back
to the only road in the end you could follow, walking
as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice
that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,
so that one day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you on and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on.

David Whyte

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Thursday Shuso Hossen Shiki and Coming and Going Sesshin Talks


We're in the last week of our three-week open house retreat, the Boundless Way Temple Coming and Going Sesshin.  On Thursday night, we will have the Shuso Hossen (Dharma Combat) Ceremony for our retreat leader (shuso) Esther Sorgenfrei Blom, at 7:30 pm.  All are invited for this special evening, where Esther will offer a brief talk and offer responses to questions from the sangha.

Meanwhile, our sesshin talks, all of which focus on koan practice, are available for your listening pleasure.  Enjoy!

https://worcesterzen.org/sesshin-audio-recordings/

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Coming of Coming and Going


Tomorrow night our annual Coming and Going Sesshin begins at the Temple with an opening ceremony at 7:30 pm.  Here is a link for more information, and to register for overnight stays:  coming and going sesshin information

This intensive meditation retreat is unique -- it's an opportunity to dip into practice at Boundless Way Temple in any way that suits your needs.  Practice begins every morning at 6 am, and ends every evening at 9 pm.  You're welcome to attend at any time, before or after work, or during a moment of freedom from childcare or any kind of daily tasks.   The best part is that you can discover Zen retreat practice even if you are relatively new to it, or completely immerse yourself in many days of silence and stillness.  The first few years we held this unusual sesshin, I was working full time, and attended practice in the mornings and evenings.  When I retired, I was lucky enough to stay all day whenever I could manage it. 

When you arrive, enter the Temple in silence, and join in whatever we're doing:  sitting, walking, listening to a talk, participating in group dialogue, coming to meet with a teacher, having a meal or resting during informal periods.  And you can also register to stay overnight, for anywhere from 1 to 20 nights.  People are heading to Worcester from all over the country and the world to join us.  I never know how the three weeks will unfold, but I'm looking forward to it with wonder and curiosity.  As Hakuin Zenji says, "Coming and going, we are never astray."  May it be so.

The full schedule is here: 

6:00 am            Early morning practice period -- includes dokusan (individual meetings                                                  with a teacher or senior students)

8:00 am            Breakfast followed by samu (caretaking practice)

10:00 am          Sutra service and late morning practice period -- includes teisho (dharma 
                           talk by a teacher or senior student) and dharma dialogue (group 
                           discussion)

12:30 pm          Lunch followed by afternoon rest period

2:30 pm            Afternoon practice period -- includes dokusan

5:30 pm            Dinner followed by evening rest period

7:00 - 9 pm       Evening practice period -- includes teisho and dokusan