Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Boundless Way Zen October Sesshin recordings

The Gang -- photo by D. Rynick
Audio recordings from our Boundless Way Zen October 2015 sesshin are now available online at:

The talks are by David Dae An Rynick, Roshi, Melissa Myozen Blacker, Roshi, Josh Munen Bartok, Sensei, Dharma Holder James Myosan Cordova, and Dharma Holder Diane Shoshin Fitzgerald.

Thanks to Senior Dharma Teacher Steve Wallace who, as always,  was the recording engineer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Everything is Waiting for You

late summer flowers at the Temple

Here in New England, the last day of summer is beautiful -- temperate weather, a mild breeze and clear blue skies.   Just as I was beginning to write this entry, a motorcycle on the road outside the Temple stopped at the traffic light, and blaring out from its speakers were the lines from the song, "Leaving on a Jet Plane."  "So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you'll wait for me, hold me like you'll never let me go..."

The poet David Whyte reminds us that we are not alone in the universe.  In the terrible suffering and tender joy of this burning world, the flowers at the Temple are blooming for you, and the motorcycles and tea kettles are singing for you.

Here is David Whyte's song (Thanks Anita for sending me this old favorite!):

Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone.
As if life were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions.
To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings.
Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice.
You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things to come,
the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.
The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink,
the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness
and seen the good in you at last.
All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves.

Everything is waiting for you.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Even one pillar

daffodil blooming by fence post, Boundless Way Temple

David and I have been away from the Temple for more than three weeks, teaching retreats in foreign lands, and I am about to leave for another retreat tomorrow.  Briefly being home here in this amazing place that we have created together with friends and students of the Way is deeply satisfying.  Although there is always something to attend to and keep alive here, the work feels fundamental to my deepest sense of what it means to be a human being.  Sometimes it takes the form of sitting, sometimes teaching, sometimes raising money for projects, creating a teaching schedule for all of our teachers and senior students, answering emails or phone calls.  Every day brings more to do, and it can feel a bit overwhelming.

Because I can get lost in this ongoing work of maintaining the Temple, I was delighted to come across some heartening words from our great Japanese ancestor Dogen, who writes, in his Shobogenzo-zuimonki (Record of Things Heard, translated by Thomas Cleary):

"The fact that I am now soliciting contributions and working as much as I can to establish a [meditation] hall, I do not necessarily consider to be the flourishing of Buddhism.  It is just that for the time being, while there is no one to study the Way and I pass the days and months without purpose, I think that it is better [to do this] than to be idle; it may provide an opportunity for the deluded [to awaken], and it will serve the purpose of a place to sit in meditation for the seekers of the Way in the present age.  Still there should be no regret even if a thing conceived and begun is not completed:  if even on pillar is set up, I do not care if in the future they shall see that someone had conceived of such an undertaking but could not complete it."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Recordings from our latest Zen party

We often say Zen retreats are parties for introverts.  Here is the link to our latest Boundless Way Zen Summer Sesshin Dharma talks -- thanks to Steve Wallace for engineering and posting.

Boundless Way Zen recordings

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!

young girl watching otters
"A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady—my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!"

I  just came across this amazing poem by Emily Dickinson.  It reminds me of the Zen koan about Ruiyan, who woke up every morning and called to himself, "Master!"  And then he would answer, "Yes!"  "Are you awake?"  "Yes!"  "Don't be fooled!"  "No! No!."  

The exclamation marks are important.  I myself awaken in many different mind/heart/body states.  What is it today?  Sometimes it's despair, sometimes great excitement, sometimes great fear.  Sometimes the body is just weary and in pain. And then there are those lovely mornings when simple contentment takes the reins of the first few moments of consciousness.   

What to do, where to go from these humble, sometimes distressing beginnings?  The challenge of this life is to wake up to whatever is here, and never to forget, as Dickinson says to herself (and to us), that this "common ball," this little individual bullet of being we shoot into the morning, is capable of anything.  She encourages herself, her soul,  to be steady -- who knows what will happen?  But it's not to be taken lightly -- it's important!  It warrants an exclamation!    Perhaps from this ordinary moment will issue a Victory!  We ask ourselves, am I awake?  And the heart that shouts "Help! Help!" ultimately exclaims " Yes! Yes!"

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Awareness is its own action

I've been really enjoying the quote in our new liturgy book from the non-dual teacher Joan Tollifson.  It's from her book "Nothing to Grasp."  Joan was a student of Toni Packer, and, like Toni, she doesn't identify as a Zen teacher, but receives her inspiration from many different paths.  In Joan's words:

"Part of waking up is becoming sensitive to how we become discouraged, how we close down, and where we go for false comfort.  To wake up is to become aware of the tendency to judge ourselves, to take our failures personally, to fall into despair, self-pity, depression, frustration, anger, or wherever we tend to go when we believe the story that we are a person who can't do it right.  Seeing all of this is enough.  Awareness is its own action.  We don't need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening.  Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening:  this is transformative.  We are simply awake here and now."

That's an amazing concept -- that  just seeing the patterns of our stories is enough, that awareness is its own action.  The Buddha was very clear throughout his teachings about the source of our suffering.  It's wanting what we don't have.  It's fighting reality.  When we fight reality, reality always wins.  I'm in the middle of a situation right now that is causing me all kinds of anxiety -- and it's something that's completely outside of my control.  (This is not an unfamiliar state for me -- although the circumstances change, the worry feels the same.)  Another source of inspiration in this matter comes from the I Ching, the Chinese "Book of Changes."  The fifth hexagram says, "By accepting things as they are and not making fruitless comparisons to the situations of others or some imagined ideal, one engages the power of the Creative."

The key here is in the word "fruitless."  There are some things we can do, and when we sit still and be with our life as it is, we can see a course of action that might bear fruit.  But more often, all of our worries and plans lead to more worries and plans.  We compare and judge and get lost in ancient patterns of thinking and feeling.

And the good news is that all of this suffering is self-liberating.  The "Creative" or the spirit of inspiration and flexibility that is available to us all, is waiting to be freed to function.  We get in its way with all our planning and plotting.  By learning to sit with what is, transformation happens.  Old wounds heal, and we taste a life of freedom.  We can't strategize this, but we can see for ourselves what happens when we allow life to unfold as it unfolds.  Awareness is powerful.  It is its own action.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Keeping going

Recently I read that the literal meaning of the word "samsara" -- the term for this burning world of suffering, is "keeping going."  Classically this refers to the endless cycles of rebirths among the six realms of existence.  "Keeping going" is nice -- it reflects our actual experience of being stuck in old patterns, despair, fear, greed, anger and ignorance.  This wonderful cartoon from New Yorker artist John Kane reminds us of what is possible when we stop for even a moment in our busy lives and take stock.  Maybe it's time to leave the hamster wheel of our ancient thoughts and behaviors, and strike out for new territory.  It's time to become refugees from our old lives and take refuge in the Buddha (our awakened nature), the Dharma (the teachings and the way things are) and the Sangha (the community of other way-seekers.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Don't be fooled

From Thomas Yuho Kirchner's translation of Case 11 in Entangling Vines (also Case 12 in the Gateless Gate:)

Every day Ruiyan Shiyan would call to himself, "Master!"
     "Yes!" he would answer himself.
     "Be wide awake!" he would say.
     "Whatever the time, whatever the day, never be misled by others!"
     "Yes! Yes!"

mural, Long Beach, CA
The second to last line of this koan is often translated as "Don't be fooled!"  Not much is known of the historical Ruiyan, but from the evidence of this dialogue I've always liked him a lot.  I imagine him waking up in the morning and calling out to himself, having this little private conversation. Ruiyan's humility and humor feels like the most accurate reflection of the Zen approach to life, at least, as I understand and practice it myself.  In this view there is no permanent state of enlightenment, no fantasy of perfection that is so much a part of the popular understanding of the fruits of meditation these days.  I just was referred to a website of someone who claims this kind of perfection -- once the great turning of the heart happens, you're all set for life.  Always open, always awake.  But my experience is different -- a continual opening and closing, like Rumi's hand in the poem "Birdwings."  We need constant reminders to not slip back into the dualistic greed that Chogyam Trungpa called "Spiritual materialism."    A life in Zen is not about attaining something.  It's about waking up to the full life of being human that is our birthright, but that is obscured by our thoughts and desires and resistance to what is right in front of us all the time.  Our little discursive brains think that enlightenment  looks like something else.  It's hard for it to believe that it looks just like this!

Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you are bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

From The Essential Rumi Coleman Barks with John Moyne

Monday, June 1, 2015

from Hongzhi's Guidepost for Silent Illumination

contemporary Japanese woodcut from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum

...Dew in the moonlight, a river of stars,
Snow-covered pines,
Clouds enveloping the peak.
In darkness it is most bright,
While hidden all the more manifest.
The crane dreams in the wintery mists...

Thinking of Hongzhi today, the day after James Ford's farewell party, as a group of Boundless Way Zen Teachers prepare to head off to the Western Dharma Teachers conference at the Omega Institute.  The rain continues to fall, and people come and go, heading in all directions.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

James Ford Bon Voyage party

James Ford and me at my ordination ceremony July 2004

Today the Temple is hosting a farewell party for my teacher, James Myo'un Ford, Roshi, as he prepares to move his life westward to Long Beach, California.  He'll be making the Temple his home base for the next two weeks, and today many sangha members will come for a pot-luck dinner at 5, followed by a ceremony of celebration, which should be sufficiently moving and embarrassing for him in turn.  Advice, roasting, and stories will all be invited from the crowd.  There will be gifts and even a song especially composed for the occasion by Nat Needle:    Why are James and Jan Going to the West?

As I sit and wait for the hordes of well-wishers to arrive, I am moved to reflect on my own good fortune to have encountered James.  We met in 2001, after I had left my first Zen teacher over disagreements about his ethical behavior.  It was a sad and confusing time for me, and then suddenly James appeared (from the West!) and adopted me as his student.  Later, he ordained me, and then made me his first Dharma heir.  His generous style of teaching has had a profound impact on me.  I regularly say that he saved my life.  It's not an exaggeration.

Together with my husband David Dae An Rynick, Roshi, and James' second Dharma heir, Josh Mu'nen Bartok, Sensei, we created Boundless Way Zen, a new American Zen school that emphasizes koan study and shikantaza in equal measure, and which promotes the practice of Zen in everyday life. James plans to remain in touch as he heads to Long Beach to start a west coast branch of Boundless Way Zen, and I look forward to many phone calls and skype visits, as well as his occasional return to the east coast when his life permits.  The Dharma bond exists outside of space and time, and for that I will be grateful forever.  Safe travels, James!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

coming and going we are never astray

I'm entering a period of a lot of travel and teaching.  I just returned from North Wales, England and Ireland, teaching retreats and workshops with my husband and teaching partner David Dae An Rynick, Roshi.   Later in the summer I'll be at Omega Institute teaching a Wellness course, and then a Zen retreat with David.  After that a sesshin here at the Temple with David and Josh Munen Bartok, Sensei, and then David and I travel to Finland and Denmark for more retreats.  And at the end of August, another retreat at Omega, sponsored by the Shambhala Sun Foundation,  with Sylvia Boorstein and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  Here's a video from the Sun's website Lion's Roar.  (My detailed teaching schedule and links for registration can be found on my website:  www.melissablacker.com.)

Doing this much traveling means truly living what I'm teaching -- every moment is an opportunity for awakening, no matter where we are.  And everyone we meet is important.  So far, even with the usual glitches in travel and difficulties coping with food and sleep, it appears that reality is still comprised of one moment after another.  Clouds and sun, mountains and valleys.... as Zen Master Hakuin said, "Coming and going we are never astray."  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Where's the Real Stuff in Life to Cling To?

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June – 
To an admiring Bog!

Recently these words of Emily Dickinson, (1830- 1886), our most reclusive of American poets, have been going through my mind.  This was one of the earliest poems I memorized, probably in elementary school, and I'm sure that I thought she was talking about being shy.  Which was something I could relate to very easily.  But through the lens of Zen practice this poem takes on a different meaning.  

We truly are nobody.  
No matter how much we try to build a self that lasts and is unchanging and reliable, the truth is that we change from moment to moment.  The endless ego-building work of trying to be somebody is so dreary.  Like a frog wallowing in a bog, it's constricting and tight and messy.  The alternative has to be kept private, or we'll turn being nobody into being somebody (but someone advertised as nobody.)  And of course, writing about this is a form of advertising, so I'd better stop now, and let Jimmy Durante take over the real work.  As he says, fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.  Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?  And guess what the answer is?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Happy Birthday Buddha!

Baby Buddha awaits his bath, while his mother Maya and the Big Buddha look on.
Yesterday Boundless Way Temple had its first annual Buddha's Birthday celebration, followed by its third annual Buddhas Over Worcester sculpture exhibit opening.  Twenty-four artists have works on display in the Temple garden that represent "awakening," which is the literal translation of "Buddha" -- the Awakened One.   Over one hundred people wandered through the garden, contemplating the sculptures.  (The show will be open from sunrise to sunset through July 11.)

The birthday celebration gave around 25 people the opportunity to celebrate the birthday of the Buddha, 2600 years ago.  This event is celebrated on different dates in different Asian countries.  In Japan, which is where our ceremony comes from, the date is April 8.  But we wanted to have the Buddha's party coincide with the opening of Buddhas over Worcester.  Just by chance, yesterday was Buddha's birthday in Nepal.  We dedicated our ceremony to all the people affected by the tragic earthquake last week.  The biggest feature, besides chanting, parading around with percussion instruments and streamers, and having a silent walk through the garden, was getting to bathe the baby Buddha with fragrant tea.  Some lucky celebrants got cookies made by Erin Barbour, who was the coordinator of the event, along with David and me.

contemplating Buddhas Over Worcester

Happy Birthday Buddha!  In heaven above and earth below,  you (along with everyone) are the world-honored one!
more contemplating

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Playing with other kinds of Buddhists

Yangsi Rinpoche

Ouypom Khuankaew
I just returned from a three day conference at the Harvard Divinity School called "Education and Buddhist Ministry:  Whither and Why?"  It was a fascinating experience to be with Buddhists and religious educators of all kinds, intent on working together to find some way to offer service to the suffering world.

Some of the highlights for me included meeting people from other Buddhist traditions.  I was inspired by all the varying viewpoints.  A few of my favorite moments:  Listening to Yangsi Rinpoche, who is affiliated with Maitripa College, end his presentation, the last of a panel on "What does it take to be a Buddhist minister?" with the advice that one of the criteria could be the capacity to perform miracles, like Milarepa, the great Tibetan Buddhist sage.  Rinpoche bears a striking resemblance to Jimmy Smits (see photos above and below) but I was informed (much to my relief)  that they are in fact different people.

And my heart just lit up listening to Ouypom Khuankaew, the director of the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice in Thailand.  Many of the presenters had been calling for a return to our "Asian Buddhist roots" which presents a problem for me personally, since both of my lineage traditions are generations removed from Asia, and firmly established in American culture at this point.  Ms Khuankaew stated at the outset of her talk that it would be a mistake to connect to the traditional Asian Buddhist teachings where, for example, a woman could never become a Buddha. She encouraged everyone to find a way to practice a modern Buddhism that included feminism and social justice.   And she got a fervent round of applause for saying this.

On the last morning, we received the devastating news about the earthquake in Kathmandu, and representatives from each Buddhist tradition offered a prayer or chant from our various traditions.
The Zen folks did a rousing version of the Kannon Sutra.   I still have many questions from the conference, but I am heartened by the good will among many kinds of Buddhists, who might disagree about what Buddhism actually is, but who came together for three days in companionship and kindness.

Rev. Koshin Paley Ellison and moi
Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi
Jimmy Smits

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Work and Play at the Temple

Yesterday we had a work/play practice day at the Temple.  Around 20 members of the sangha came from 8 in the morning until around 1 pm, enjoying the beautiful spring weather and caring for the grounds of the Temple gardens.  Much mulch was lovingly placed around the flower beds, and a new bed was dug beside the torii gate, awaiting a new maple tree donated by a member.  A work crew put up a new fence along the front of the Temple grounds, and various other projects, including cleaning up around the Buddha, were accomplished in the warmth of sunshine and community.  Many thanks to all who participated!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Zhaozhou's Country Bumpkin

From the Blue Cliff Record, Case 57:  A monk asked Zhaozhou,  "The supreme way is not difficult, it simply dislikes choosing.  What is non-choosing?"  Zhaozhou said, "Above the heavens, beneath the heavens, I am alone and the honored one."  The monk persisted, "Isn't that still choosing?"  Zhaozhou said, "You country bumpkin!  Where is the choosing?"

This little koan has stayed with me over the past few weeks.  It's been a time of difficulties and losses, deaths of unborn babies and  beloved old friends.  Expectations have been dashed in a variety of ways.   And how is this different from my usual life?   Perhaps the succession of events has revealed more clearly than usual the impossibility of maintaining the delusion that everything is just fine.  The bareness  of the distorted thinking behind wishing things were different has been exposed over and over.  Sometimes it's just like that.

The persistence of winter at Cook's Pond, Worcester
The third Chinese ancestor, Sengcan, wrote the poem quoted by the monk in this story,  the Xinxin Ming, usually translated as "Verses on the Faith Mind."    In Boundless Way Zen we call it "The Heart of True Entrusting."   The first line, quoted here, appears in a number of stories about Zhaozhou.  Another translation is, "The Great Way is easy.  Just avoid picking and choosing."

But how do we avoid picking and choosing?   What is non-choosing?  In some respects, it really is easy.  Just stop fighting reality.  Allow everything to unfold the way it will.  Change and death are inevitable, and our limited power to control the universe is revealed to us regularly.

Today it snowed again.  I want to point out that it is April 9. Worcester continues to be the American city with the most snowfall -- another dusting added today.  How can I non-choose the weather? How can I beat my own heart?  When I surrender to what is here, something is revealed.  Do ice-covered branches represent the spring? Today, yes.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

the hall of gratuitous praise

Here is a little boost for you today if you happen to be feeling unappreciated.  When my daughter was very young, we enjoyed watching the television show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and I've always remembered this episode, about a magical room.  In the room, there is a door which opens onto the Hall of Gratuitous Praise.  I believe everyone should have regular entry to this place -- a little ego-building on the road to seeing through the fixed nature of the self.  Enjoy!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

amor fati

snow pile at Boundless Way Temple
Many months ago, when I was posting on this blog more frequently, and when the winter was still a dream of the future, friend and Zen student Mike Herzog pointed me to this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, section 10:  "My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.  Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it -- all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary -- but love it."

Today, on the last Saturday in March, it is snowing again.  Worcester briefly held the record for the most snow in US cities of a certain size, but other snowier places have pushed us to third place or lower.  Still, today promises 1 to 3 more inches in a season of endless snow.  Do I truly love my fate?  Don't I want things to be different?  Honestly, the answer is, "yes, often."  And yet, there is something in the feeling of hope for spring itself.  I love my hopefulness, even if I no longer am in love with the snow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March Boundless Way Zen Sesshin talks

Please enjoy the talks from our recent Spring Sesshin at Boundless Way Temple:


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Coming and Going Sesshin talks

Audio recordings from our 2015 Coming and Going sesshin (formerly known as Ango) are now available online at:

Please come join us at the BWZ Temple in Worcester between now and March 5 if you can.  The schedule appears below.  Even if you can't join us physically you can still hear all the talks and discussions online. More talks are added each day as we proceed.  The inspiration for this year's talks comes from our wonderful new Liturgy Book.

·       Visit the Temple for any or all of the practice periods below:
o   6:00 AM - 8:00 AM Early morning practice period
§  Includes dokusan (individual meetings with a teacher or senior student)
o   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
o   2:30 PM - 5:30 PM Afternoon practice period
§  Includes dokusan
o   7:00 PM - 9:00 PM Evening practice period
§  Includes teisho, dharma dialogue and dokusan
Donations for any part of a practice period will be gratefully received in the collection bowl in the front hallway.

·       Participate in residential practice by staying at the Temple overnight for one or more nights

Advance registration is required for residential practice. Registration is now open.  Please register on-line at www.boundlesswayzen.org/cags

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Here's an amazing audio piece by Sherre Delys, an audio artist from Australia -- it may just brighten your day.  (It's 7 minutes long.)