Thursday, December 7, 2017

receiving in the darkness

The Four Bodhisattva Vows, from the Boundless Way Zen liturgy:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

As the sun's transit across the sky gets shorter and shorter, I find myself touching into a deep sorrow about what it means to be human. 

Perhaps it's the darkness, or maybe just the accumulation of anniversaries of deaths and endings of all kinds from the past.  So much loss touches my heart, both personal and global.  Sorrow accompanies love and connection within the truth of impermanence.  If we could wall off our hearts from feeling love, perhaps things would be easier.  And there are so many of us who try to do just that.  When the going gets tough, some of us get going as fast as we can away from the pain of connection.   We run as far as we can from the truth of the transient nature of all phenomena.  We cut off connection to people, or we try to escape into fantasy and various distractions.  The internet can be very helpful in this regard.

I am saddled with a personality that, when faced with loss and the retreat of affection, impulsively moves me towards the people who have left me, trying to win them back.  As a coping strategy, it succeeds intermittently.  But more often, it makes the other person back away further.  And it exhausts me.  It's like grabbing the autumn leaves as they float to the ground, trying to paste them back on the trees.  Once something goes, it's gone.  Although the problem for me is, unlike the leaves, sometimes people come back.  And so I get positive feedback for continuing to reach out to those who have retreated.

Recently, I was inspired by a dear Dharma friend and student, Jeanie Erlbaum, to look into this matter in a new way.  She talks about reversing the order of the Four Bodhisattva Vows, which, when you really look into them, seem quite impossible.  How can I save all beings?  End all of my delusions?  Enter all the Dharma gates and be a Buddha?  For someone like me, the continued action towards unattainable goals feels very familiar.  But Jeanie suggests turning them all around.

What if all beings are actually working on freeing us?  Just thinking in this way, I feel a sense of relief through my whole body.  And gratitude for everyone, even the most difficult people.  And the endless passions, if we open to them fully, end up ending us -- our addiction to our limited ego identities.  Sadness, anger and fear burn us up, and all that is left is the awakened heart.  Everywhere we look, Dharma gates are getting ready to enter us.  We can receive the teachings of this boundless world, no matter what shape these gates take.  Some of them are quite beautiful, some painful, and everything else in between.

And then there's this Great Way of the Buddha.  In this reversal, we are already the embodiment of awakening.  Awakening looks like us. 

On this day when darkness comes early, I invite you to open to receiving -- the activity of all beings set upon freeing us, the passions which melt and transform the heart, and the gates of the teaching opening to us and taking us in.  And perhaps most of all, take a moment to look in the mirror and see the Buddha that greets you there.  As one Tibetan teacher once said, the world is "kindly bent to ease us."  Turn toward that kindness, and feel the ease filling your body, heart and mind.  It's a small turning, but a profound one. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

random thoughts on identity, no-self and suffering

I was recently speaking to a Dharma friend about all of the varieties of discrimination being highlighted in the world right now.  The tendency for human beings to feel a connection to a rigid self-definition, based on race, ethnicity, gender and/or religion, and to feel oppressed by  other people who define themselves based on race, ethnicity, gender and/or religion, is relentless.  And all of these categories do feel important and meaningful.  Black lives really do matter.  And the awakening these days to the pervasiveness of gender discrimination is something that I have found very useful in helping me to make sense of many of the previously puzzling encounters with men throughout my life.  Memory keeps delivering more and more experiences of small and large aggressions against me, like so many long-delayed pieces of mail, which had previously been felt as immediately painful and then quickly dropped below the level of consciousness.

And then, of course, there is the Buddhist teaching of no-self, which is so central to my practice.  My friend was wondering how to reconcile these two views -- of ourselves as belonging to a specific human being category, and at the same time being nobody.  I have been writing on this topic for months now, and thinking about it for most of my life.  I haven't come up with anything that seems to neatly solve the puzzle. 

I suspect that something that might be helpful here is to look at the self/no-self koan from another teaching viewpoint, that of suffering.  My understanding is that suffering is caused by a refusal or inability to accept reality.  We want things to be different, and so we suffer because things are not different.  Maybe they'll be different in a minute, or a week, or a century, but in this moment, fighting reality is always a losing proposition.  We can use our acceptance of reality to effect real change in the world, through the insight that arises when we stop fighting and running away from what is happening.  There is a lot of wasted energy in the refusal to be with things as they are, and that energy can be better used to bring wisdom and compassion to any situation.

And here is where recognizing that there is no self, really, and at the same time that we identify and are treated as a specific type of person within a certain category, is simply that -- a recognition.  It's in the dislike of these two types of view that our discomfort arises, sometimes as a minor irritation, sometimes as great grief and pain.  People are oppressed by other people, and treated by others as other.  We all do this, and we all are recipients of this.  The acceptance of this reality doesn't mean that we will be free of the consequences of it.  But if we can bear the discomfort, we can be free in the middle of the world as it actually is. I am free to feel whatever I feel in response to someone's offensive remark.  And I am free to receive feedback about my own blindness. 

And so the journey to being awakened human beings goes on.  We shout out "ouch" and then we bow. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

you are the awakened heart

The teaching I most resonate with in Zen is that we are all already Buddhas, but our delusions keep us from knowing this.  On one level, the practice of Zen helps us to see through these delusions.  But they are so persistent.  The ideas that we maintain and nourish, that we are not good enough, and that we need to change who we are to become Buddhas, are deeply painful.  I see evidence of the clinging to this delusion every day, in myself and in others.  When I see it arise in my own students, my response is almost always to point out the delusion in some way.  I look at people and see Buddhas.  It's both a gift and a curse.  Of course, when I look in the mirror, I don't always see a Buddha.  It's hard for us all to accept this teaching.

And yet, every once in a while, our desperate clinging to a separate and inferior self drops away.  We don't get rid of it.  It just wears itself out, through the practice of sitting upright and facing everything.  And in those moments, the great kindness that fills the universe shows up and there's no way to deny it.  At these times, we scramble to go back to the familiarity of our incompetence and inferiority.  Eventually, after a few seconds or hours or days, we re-establish our sense of self and confirm our lack of Buddha nature.  But the world keeps picking at our cherished self-opinion. 

This practice is about surrendering to this wild possibility:  that we, as we are right now, with all of our faults and personality quirks and, yes, delusions -- this being showing up right now is the Buddha, a manifestation of the awakened heart. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Three Essentials of Gaofeng Yuanmiao

When I first began to study Zen, I was very inspired by Philip Kapleau's book The Three Pillars of Zen.  The three pillars that Kapleau and his teachers talk about are: great faith, great doubt and great determination.  I have made them the core of my own practice and teaching ever since encountering them.  I always loved that Zen practice appears to need all three qualities.  Without faith, doubt and determination make for a grim practice.  Without determination, faith and doubt keep see-sawing back and forth, and our practice endlessly circles around.  And without doubt, faith and determination can turn us into cheerful proselytizers, without ever touching the deepest roots of this great mystery of being human.  The quality of doubt especially seemed unique to Zen.  Doubt is considered to be one of the hindrances in early Buddhist teachings and modern Insight practice.  To value doubt, which has been so prevalent in my own life, seemed just right.

Recently two  Zen teacher friends recommended that I look into a book published in 1600 in China, which came to influence countless Zen practitioners in both China and Japan, and was a favorite of the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku.   Jeffrey Broughton, a translator and scholar I have admired for other works, has brought his insight into the Chinese and Japanese languages to this book, The Chan Whip Anthology, originally written and collected by Yunqi Zhuhong, a Chinese Chan master.  I was excited to discover that the three pillars of Zen are referred to in the Chan Whip as the three essentials, and that they were taught originally by Zhuhong's Dharma ancestor Gaofeng Yuanmiao, who lived in the 13th century. 

Broughton translates the original Chinese characters for the three essentials as "great confidence," "determination of great fury," and "the sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension."  Great confidence feels more accurate to me than great faith.  To have great confidence in this path of Zen is to know that you have come home, and that, no matter what happens, you will continue to align with this feeling of being in the tradition that feels so right.  And rather than simply talking about great determination, Broughton adds this feeling of fury -- a fire in the mind, heart and belly that keeps burning.  And then there is indecision-and-apprehension, a feeling that is hard to explain in English, but that is familiar to anyone who has practiced the way of Zen seriously.   We have a sense of things not being right,
similar to but not exactly a feeling of anxiety. 

It's easy to value confidence, but this new translation helps me also value anger and fear, which transform, through the alchemy of Zen practice, into passion and not-knowing.  Broughton's choice of English words for these three essentials also helps us to find the practice in our bodies, not just through the vehicle of thinking.  And that, happily, returns us to the basics of Zen practice:  sitting upright and unmoving, present to everything that arises. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A thousand mountains are covered in snow

One of our Boundless Way Zen miscellaneous koans is a two line verse:  

A thousand mountains are covered in snow.
Why is this one peak not white?

We work with this koan one line at a time.  And the first line is often a temporary stopping place in the koan journey for  many people.  The poet appears to be talking about something evocative and beautiful.  But how can those thousand mountains be demonstrated?

I often encourage people who are stuck here to avoid the trap of trying to think their way out of the problem, and practice simply pausing and looking around.  Where in our ordinary life do we meet those thousand mountains?   What is the awakened life?  How does it show up?  And what about that snow?  The discursive mind sticks fast to categories.  This koan, like so many,  invites us to see the world beyond our usual binary distinctions.  Keep looking!  The promise of  Zen practice is that eventually, the teachings will  reveal themselves. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Mountains Walking

Mountains at Lake Como, Italy

"Priest Daokai of Mt. Furong said to the assembly, "The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night." Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk. You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains walking. Mountains' walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains' walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The Buddha ancestors' words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding. You should penetrate these words."

excerpt from Eihei Dogen's Mountains and Rivers Sutra,
Translated by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi

Sometimes our beloved ancestor Dogen is hard to understand, but please don't try to understand him with your discursive mind.  Mountains walking?  It doesn't make sense.  But if we take this one phrase and let it sink into our sitting practice, carrying it along as we encounter all the many variations of external objects in our daily life, we begin to see something that is quite radical.  We realize that everything is alive, full of the energy of the Dharma.  Everything is completely itself, sometimes still and sometimes moving, separate from us and also part of us.  Everything is abiding in ease, just as itself.  And this, of course, includes you yourself.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Snow in a Silver Bowl

Last night we had our first dusting of snow at the Temple, which disappeared almost as soon as it fell to the ground.  The falling flakes reminded me of the koan "Snow in a Silver Bowl" which appears twice in our Boundless Way Zen koan collection, once in our miscellaneous  koans, and once in the Blue Cliff Record, case 19, where it appears with a pointer by Yuanwu.  In the Cleary brothers' translation, Yuanwu says:

Clouds are frozen over the great plains, but the whole world is not hidden.  When snow covers the white flowers, it's hard to distinguish the outlines.  Its coldness is as cold as snow and ice, its fineness is as fine as rice powder.  Its depths are hard for even a Buddha's eye to peer into; its secrets are impossible for demons and outsiders to fathom.  Leaving aside "understanding three when one is raised" for the moment, still he cuts off the tongues of everyone on earth.  Tell me, whose business is this?  To test I cite this: look!

And the case itself is short:

A monk asked Baling, "What is the school of Kanadeva?  Baling said, "Snow n a silver bowl."

A couple of things to clarify before jumping into the koan quality of the case -- and by the way, my Dharma great-grandfather Robert Aitken, Roshi, claimed that there is no koan content here.  Be that as it may, if any part of the koan grabs at your heart and mind, leaving you in a state of wonder and confusion, it's most definitely a koan.  And that has been true for me whenever I have encountered it, first as a student and later as a teacher assigning it to my own students.

Kanadeva was one of our legendary Indian ancestors, the fifteenth counting from Shakyamuni Buddha.  It's said that when he first encountered his teacher, Nagarjuna, the teacher presented him with a bowl of water, and Kanadeva put a needle into the bowl.  If you've ever tried to find a needle in a bowl of water, you may begin to understand Kanadeva's demonstration.  And the school of Kanadeva may mean a number of things, but in one sense, all of us who practice Zen are part of that school, part of that transmission.

When I was first starting out in Zen, one of my new friends in the sangha invited me to her home.  Over her sofa was a beautiful painting of a silver bowl filled with snow.  I asked her about it, and she said, "why, it's snow in a silver bowl!" which was not so helpful.  When I looked confused, she explained that this was someone's demonstration of a koan.  I pretended to understand what she meant, but it wasn't until many years later, when I received the koan from my first teacher, that I began to understand.

Yuanwu's pointer is quite poetic, and full of pointers to some of the many meanings implicit in the case -- the strange paradox of identity and differentiation that is the subject of so many koan cases.  Snow is snow, a silver bowl is a silver bowl.  You are you, and you are also not-you.  We are all different from each other, and everything is unique in its manifestation in the world.  Sometimes we get fooled -- snow sure looks like a silver bowl.  We can mistakenly group together things that appear to be the same, and miss the vividness of their uniqueness.  All women are the same, all people of color are the same, all Republicans, Democrats, white people, gay people, men, non-binary gender people -- we stuff each other into categories.  And yet, if we focus on either the sameness or the differentiation, we miss the point, and the world becomes unavailable in its beauty and strangeness.  As Zen practitioners, we must find a way to avoid clinging to one side or the other.  We must learn to live in a world where equality and differentiation interpenetrate and shift.  Last night it snowed, and this morning there is not a trace left on the ground. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Study and Practice Retreat at Boundless Way Temple

Study and Practice Retreat, November 2017
Boundless Way Temple 
photo by Mark Brown

Boundless Way Temple had its first ever residential Study and Practice Retreat this weekend, and it was a deep and beautiful time.  Unlike our regular residential Boundless Way Zen sesshin, we went back and forth between practicing in silence and stillness, and group investigation of two koans from the life of the Chinese Zen master Deshan.  David Rynick, Roshi, James Cordova, Sensei, Diane Fitzgerald, Sensei and I created and led the retreat.  Thanks to everyone who attended (most of them pictured here) and for opening your hearts to the Great Way.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Dominik Hōzan Kulakowski receives Denkai transmission

On the night of 20 October, 2017, I gave the first step of Dharma transmission, denkai, to Dominik Hōzan Kulakowski, my beloved student of many years.  He is my fourth Dharma heir, and the first to choose to be an independent teacher, unaligned with Boundless Way Zen.   His title is Dharma Holder. 

Dominik began practicing Zen in 1992 with several teachers including Patricia Dai-En Bennage, Roshi and John Daido Loori, Roshi.  He then went on to study with Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi for over a decade at the Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado.  In 2007, Dominik moved to Massachusetts and began studying with me and other Boundless Way Zen teachers, devoting himself to the Way, and assisting in many projects at Boundless Way Temple and at Boundless Way Zen retreats. The other guiding teachers of Boundless Way Zen and I eventually gave him the title "senior dharma teacher" which confers the permission to give talks and Zen interviews.  As a senior dharma teacher, he regularly demonstrated his kindness and wisdom and his great love of the Way.  As a Dharma Holder, he can now take on private students in the rite of shoken, and give the precepts ("jukai.")  In the future, when he receives the second step of transmission, called denbo, he will be able to transmit the Dharma to his own students.  

Dominik works as a professor of geography and environmental science at Clark University.  He has authored numerous articles on ecology, especially the ecology of mountain forests.  He researches, teaches, leads workshops, and works with governmental and non-governmental organizations in the United States and in Europe to promote ecological understanding, conservation, and resilience.  He has led wilderness meditation retreats and has testified about environmental policy before the United States Congress.  He lives in Worcester with his wife, Anne McCauley Kulakowski, their daughter, Zosia,  and a bunch of bicycles.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


My father and me, 1954

Around this time of year, I start to think about my father, Leo Blacker, who died on November 9, 1969.  It's hard to believe that he's been gone for close to 50 years.  I was 15 years old when he died, and I'm lucky to have many happy memories of him.  He was a larger than life person, a powerful oldest brother to 5 siblings, a man who befriended people he liked, and had no use for people he didn't like. 

He and my mother had a standing date every Saturday night.  He'd come home from our family fruit and vegetable store in the afternoon, take a nap, and then they would go out to Storyville, a jazz club in Boston where my mother was a waitress for many years.  They would dress up in fancy clothes, smelling strongly of after shave and perfume, say good-bye to me and the babysitter, and go off into the night.  Whoever was playing at the club would end up back in our suburban home, partying until early in the morning.  I have many memories of waking up to the thumping sound of the stereo,  coming downstairs in my nightgown, the babysitter long dismissed, to encounter crowds of people drinking, eating and smoking, jazz musicians and their fans and friends.  And my father was often at the center of the action, hugging people and making them laugh, filling their plates and glasses.  Those Saturday nights were when I saw him at his happiest.

It's only recently that I've recognized the similarity between my parents' lives and my own.  It turns out that I am also at my happiest when I'm at a certain kind of party,  what I sometimes call a party for introverts.  At Boundless Way Temple, we sit together morning and evening, mostly in silence, learning on the deepest level who we truly are.  I have the good fortune and privilege to be in the role of teacher to many people wishing to encounter the Great Way.  At the Temple, I am one of the hosts, making sure that people are getting what they need to feel supported in seeking the Dharma.

Not everyone is always happy with my hosting, and, in the way of these things, people sometimes express their displeasure and leave the party.  But most of the time, people keep coming back, as they did to my parents' parties in the 1950's and 1960's, enjoying the silence and the stillness, and even more, the opportunity to see into their own hearts, and through that seeing, into the hearts of others. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Walking Straight on a Curvy Road

One of our Boundless Way Zen miscellaneous koans says:  "Go straight on a narrow mountain road with 99 curves."  When we take up this koan, it seems impossible.  How can we reconcile going straight when the road doesn't cooperate?  How can we lead a life from our compassion, balance and wisdom, when we are endlessly confronted with curves and barriers?

The koan reminds me of a long walk that I took over 40 years ago, when I was doing ethnomusicology fieldwork in Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, 12,000 feet up in the Andes mountains.  I was studying the local music of the Aymara Indians, which, to my surprise, wasn't the romantic flute music I had heard on Paul Simon's song "El Condor Pasa."  It was seriously out of tune brass band music, learned by the musicians during their required stint in the Peruvian military.  I spent weeks interviewing musicians who played in these bands.

One morning, at the convent where I was staying, I heard a brass band marching by my window.  I grabbed my portable Sony cassette recorder and ran out to follow the band, as they led a wedding party down the dirt road.  We danced and walked on the narrow mountain roads, which curved around and about, and all the time I was holding out my microphone to record the music.   And then, suddenly, we came to the end of the road, and everyone, the band, the couple, all of their guests got on small reed boats and floated away on the lake.

I waved good-bye to them, and turned around to walk back to the convent.  But I was completely lost -- we had been walking for hours according to my watch, but we had taken many twists and turns.  I didn't know how to get home.  So I only had one choice.  I started to walk back down the road that had ended at the lake.  I had many adventures that day, wandering around on the Capachica Peninsula, hungry, thirsty and exhausted from the altitude.  But I kept meeting people, who pointed the way back, now to the left, now to the right.  And in one small village, an old man gave me my first and only taste of coca, chased by strong, clear alcohol, which helped me finally get back to the convent, where lunch was just being served.

How do we get home when we're lost?  How do we survive when we have no resources left?  How do we walk straight on a narrow mountain road with 99 curves?  Here's one answer, from the Peruvian Indians of La Merced.

Monday, October 16, 2017

NAACP Prayer Event at Worcester City Hall, October 3, 2017

I was recently asked to speak at a prayer event sponsored by the local Worcester chapter of the NAACP.  My assignment was to speak about disappointment.  Here's a transcript of what I said:

My name is Rev. Melissa Myozen Blacker, and I am one of the resident priests and guiding teachers at the Boundless Way Zen Buddhist Temple on Pleasant Street.

This has been a difficult year for many of us, especially

in the realm of politics,
in immigration reform,
in the effort to repair our planet’s climate,
in the increase in hate crimes directed at women  
LGBTQ people and people of color
and the continued escalation of gun violence.  

The list is long. 

And maybe you have also had some hard times personally this year. 
Sorrow, sickness, aging and death touch us all at various times. 

Let us take a few moments, in silence, 
to acknowledge our grief and our pain, and any disappointments that we have experienced during this challenging year.


As we open our hearts and minds to what is difficult
let us turn towards what is possible. 
Let us find a way to turn our grief and pain into power,
into determination,
into a renewed energy to fight for justice in this burning world.

Let us lift our hearts up in community and solidarity. 

Let us heal any divisions in our hearts.

Let us be determined to make a difference.

May all beings heal and have peace.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Power for the Way: A talk on the day before the inauguration of Donald Trump

Irish doorway,
photo by Melissa Myozen Blacker
To commemorate one hundred days of the presidency of Donald Trump, here is a talk (followed by a dharma dialogue with the sangha and other teachers) that I gave the day before the inauguration.  

Power for the Way:  A talk on the day before the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States

Melissa Myozen Blacker, Roshi, Coming and Going Sesshin, Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, Massachusetts, January 19, 2017

During this sesshin we are reading and studying together the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi.  Today we’ll look into the section of Suzuki Roshi’s book called “Attachment, Non Attachment.”  Suzuki Roshi writes:

Zazen practice and everyday activity are one thing. We call zazen everyday life and everyday life zazen. But usually we think, “Now zazen is over, and we will go about our everyday activity.”  But this is not the right understanding. They are the same thing. We have nowhere to escape. So in activity there should be calmness, and in calmness there should be activity. Calmness and activity are not different.

Each existence depends on something else. Strictly speaking, there are no separate individual existences. There are just many names for one existence. Sometimes people put stress on oneness, but this is not our understanding. We do not emphasize any point in particular, even oneness. Oneness is valuable, but variety is also wonderful.   Ignoring variety, people emphasize the one absolute existence, but this is a one-sided understanding. In this understanding there is a gap between variety and oneness. But oneness and variety are the same thing, so oneness should be appreciated in each existence. That is why we emphasize everyday life rather than some particular state of mind. We should find the reality in each moment and in each phenomenon. This is a very important point.

So  -- I have something in my mind and heart today – and possibly the same is true for some of you as well.  Although it could be that you’ve been here so long that time and space have ceased to have any meaning for you. If so, my apologies for jerking you back into time and space. Today is January 19, 2017 and tomorrow is January 20, 2017 and tomorrow something will happen that will probably, but not certainly --  (I would say the chances are pretty high) change the way we live fundamentally and profoundly.

When our new president takes his oath of office, his hand on the bible facing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in that moment it’s hard to know how to meet an event of such profound implications.

There was a sweet and funny but also slightly devastating cartoon in the New Yorker recently showing our president-elect facing Chief Justice Roberts, and Chief Justice Roberts holding out a marshmallow. And the caption is: “I can give you this marshmallow now or if you wait 15 minutes I’ll give you two marshmallows and I’ll swear you in as the next president of the United States.”  The cartoon refers to a psychological study that was done with children to measure their attention spans, to see if they could develop the capacity to wait for something better than the one marshmallow they were offered in the present moment.   And many, many, many children below a certain age just couldn’t even conceive of waiting to get two marshmallows. So they would take the one marshmallow. I guess that also in my fantasy life it raised a little hope for me. Maybe Trump will take the marshmallow -- and then something else will happen.

But I’m pretty sure that Trump will indeed by sworn in as our next president.  So this is going to happen and some of us are looking ahead to a life where we need to step forward and take some action to prevent things that, or at least contribute to preventing things that might be devastating for many of us. Some of the promises that have been made about repealing certain laws that benefit hundreds and thousands and probably millions of people -- this will affect immigrants, Muslims, and people below the poverty line who depend on healthcare from the government. It will affect someone we know even if we don’t know that it affects us directly and because we are all one body it will of course affect us directly.

So since the election, in our sangha we’ve done a few things in response to this new world.   At the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, there’s been a forum to discuss people’s concerns and sangha members have continued to work at a local food pantry.   There has been a joint effort by people at Greater Boston and here at the Temple to work with the local system of jailing people and finding justice for people who are incarcerated.   David and I have been to many interfaith rallies, and on Saturday our Dharma Holder, Diane Fitzgerald will be going down to the Women’s March in Washington, DC,  and Joanne Hart will be going to the local Women’s March in Boston. And these are the things that we can do and there’s going to be more that we do to respond to the current and unfolding situation in our beloved country.

As Zen practitioners, it’s very important to take Suzuki Roshi’s guidance here, because there is protest and despair and difficulty. There is fear and sadness and there are the three poisons always active in us:  greed, anger, and delusive certainty. And if we act from those places our work in the world will be limited and bounce back against us, hostility against hostility. This is not our way. It is, however, the usual human way. But the way of Zen is to see that the practice we do here in the Temple, at the Zen Center, at our local practice groups, wherever we happen to be sitting, is the same identical practice that we bring out into the world.

One of our dharma ancestors in one of our Soto lines, Robert Aitken, Roshi, wrote a lovely book about the precepts. He wrote it quite a long time ago, in 1984 – almost 15 years after Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The book is called The Mind of Clover, and I just want to read you a little bit from Aitken Roshi’s writing.  I feel that it’s very relevant here, and it’s certainly relevant to me.

Something that I’ve noticed for myself during these weeks of sitting at the Coming and Going Sesshin with our wonderful inspiring friend, Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi, is that I miss talking about koans. Those of you who know me know that I often give dharma talks, teisho, about koans and I haven’t been doing that for the past few weeks. So like Aitken Roshi I’m going to start with a koan.

Aitken Roshi quotes case 25 from the Blue Cliff Record:

The Hermit of Lotus Peak held forth his staff before his assembly and asked, “When the ancient ones reached this, why didn’t they stay there?” The assembly was silent.

Answering for his listeners he said, “Because it has no power for the Way.”

And later in this koan the hermit continues and he holds out his staff and he says, “After all, what is it?” And again, everyone is silent. And he says, “Holding my staff across the back of my neck, going to the thousand, the ten thousand peaks.” And Aitken Roshi comments,  “The myriad peaks are not mountains of isolation, but the peaks and valleys of our lives.”

So we say that if we just sit here and think that zazen is it, we don’t see that zazen is our life, that everything we do and everything that happens is a form of the practice and a demonstration of the awakened heart that is the Buddha heart. The heart of a Buddha is one that has awakened. And what do we awaken to? We awaken to everything. That means we awaken to greed, anger and delusive certainty as well as joy and happiness and calmness. And Suzuki Roshi says all these things are the same. They’re all just different manifestations of the awakened heart. So we learn this here in the stillness and silence.  Sitting upright in the middle of everything we learn how to be in the middle of everything and to take steps to help to heal the world, because we’re bodhisattvas.

We are not, as David’s teacher, George Bowman says, “miserable arhats.” An arhat is someone, according to the original Buddhist teachings, who sits with a great devotion to awakening and then has an awakening and then continues to cultivate their awakening through all these different stages until they become done with the world.

And we in the Mahayana tradition and especially in the Zen tradition call those people miserable arhats because they are so limited. Everything is about the practice -- as limited to upright sitting practice, to study of the sutras, to chanting and bowing and walking -- without understanding that getting in a car and going to work is a version of chanting and bowing and walking. And going to a protest rally in Washington or in Boston or here in Worcester on the steps of City Hall is a way of chanting and bowing and walking. 

Bodhisattva means “ wisdom being.” This is the wisdom being of the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, which is our Way.  A bodhisattva is someone who is devoted to not stopping with our limited self as the be-all and the end-all of our practice. Instead we move forward, as Diane and Fran Ludwig and many other sangha members who have joined them, in becoming “ecosattvas.”   These are beings who are awake to the inter-being of the world. And at this time of crisis and shift in the culture of our country, and I believe, in the whole world -- we see this happening in many different countries, in many different religious institutions -- there is a tendency, probably born out of fear, to contract the heart, to no longer open to everything that is possible in this great human beingness that we all have. This contraction can cause blindness and is a source of the delusive certainty that I mentioned earlier.

So, the Hermit of Lotus Peak holds up his staff and he asks his sangha a question. There are many places in our inherited koan literature where somebody asks a question, a teacher asks a question, and nobody says anything. One of the most famous stories is about the monks of the eastern and western hall arguing about a cat.  In this story, the teacher Nanchuan says, “Say something or I will kill this cat.” And no one says anything. And out of Nanchuan’s great loving heart, he sees that these are people who are stuck in the limited view, in the miserable arhat view.  Nobody says anything. Nobody does anything. It’s like a whole bunch of ostriches just turning away and burying their heads in the sand. A cat is about to be slaughtered and no one says anything. The silence of the sangha is profound and it’s not the good kind of silence, which we sometimes celebrate in other koans. It’s a miss. It’s a coming up to bat and putting your bat down and walking off the field. It’s giving in to despair.

Many years ago David and I did a workshop, probably 30 years ago, with the Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy, called “Despair and Empowerment.” The morning was spent opening up to our despair about the world, through our sitting practice. We think things are bad now – and of course we thought things were bad then. In those days we lived with the reality of the possibility of nuclear holocaust, of the ecosystem failing and falling apart, of all the things that have just become worse over the last 30 years. Despite everything that we’ve done, racial injustice continues, wars continue to be fought overseas and even in our own communities in smaller ways.

In the workshop we sank into the despair, and Joanna encouraged us to go there as deeply as possible. That was before lunch. And then after lunch she asked us to use the energy of our despair to really come together and see what could we do -- how could we move forward instead of just being silent and turning away. She said, “How will you move forward?”    We were very inspired at the time, and David actually ended up working with Joanna for a while, being her assistant in a few of these workshops.

And this became part of the style of the way we teach, this really teaching people to face what’s here, to not turn away, to not avoid it, to face anger when it arises, to face great fear, to face the suffering in the body, the suffering in the mind that keeps trying to figure out: what should I do? What should I do? What should I do?…the suffering that is so much at the core of how we understand Buddhism.

And not to stop there but to see that all this stuff that arises is energy. It’s trapped energy. It’s limited energy. It’s narrowed energy and we discover that there’s only one thing that we can possibly do with that energy, and that is to allow it to transform into action.   Of course, we could try to sit on it and not do anything; we could turn away and be silent. But we know if we study history that turning away is rarely effective.  The harm that comes from letting things just happen is such a common outcome.  It’s easy to understand why this happens – because we are afraid, or in despair, or angry or frustrated or hopeless. 

In these koans where there’s silence and nobody says anything -- nobody comes forward – then the teacher, out of great love, shows the consequences of that silence. And in this koan, the Hermit of Lotus Peak wonders aloud why the ancient ones, who were able to reach this awareness of the awakened heart, the fullness of being a human being in the world, didn’t stay there. Why wasn’t that enough for them? Why didn’t Shakyamuni Buddha when he woke up one morning from his long sitting and fighting the forces of Mara and discovering things and saw the morning star -- why didn’t he just stay there under the Bodhi tree? Why did he get up and cause this whole mess that we call Buddhism? Why did he do that? Why do people who realize something then move forward into their lives, and encourage others to do the work that they can do? Every single one of us is only capable of doing what we can do. We can’t be like Superman in the old Superman movie, changing the axis of the earth and turning everything back. I wish we could but we don’t have that kind of power.

What is the power for the Way? It’s what we are uniquely suited to do and every one of us here has something that we can do. What I can do is go to rallies and speak from the Zen perspective about not othering, not dividing our hearts from those we disagree with, and encouraging people to go forward and do whatever they can do. That’s what I can do. Maybe what you can do is go on a march or organize or maybe if you’re a politician you can actually fight valiantly in the minority to not let things get so bad. It always reminds me of the story of the Sleeping Beauty where the little baby Aurora has been born and all of the fairy godmothers are coming forward and giving the baby all these wonderful attributes, beauty and various things. And then the evil fairy comes and curses the baby.  But one fairy has waited, stepped back, so that she can possibly help to repair the curse. This is what we can do. We can move forward to possibly, in our own way, repair the curse.

And then the koan goes on and The Hermit of Lotus Peak talks about this. He says I can hold my staff, that is, the teachings that I’ve discovered here in my zazen and take them everywhere, going to the thousand, ten thousand peaks. And Aitken says the myriad peaks are not mountains of isolation but the peaks and valleys of our lives. If we think zazen is about sitting still on a cushion then we haven’t yet realized what zazen is. If we think our responsibility stops with being awakened then we are miserable arhats indeed. To be a bodhisattva means to walk forward into our lives.

At the end of the Ox-Herding pictures, an old Zen depiction of the journey of someone who realizes awakening, there’s one where everything has dropped away and there’s the beautiful Zen circle, the enso. But the sequence of pictures doesn’t end there. The final Ox- Herding picture is “returning to the market place with bliss-bestowing hands.” And this is a picture of the bodhisattva walking into life. This is a picture of us taking what we learn here and utilizing it… not just for our own happiness or the happiness of our friends and loved ones but for the sake of the burning world. This is our duty. This is our obligation as Zen practitioners, as people of the Way. “Why didn’t they stay here?” the teachers ask.  And we answer, “Because it has no power for the Way.” The Way needs engagement.

I just want to read you a little bit from the end of the essay that this comes from in The Mind of Clover from Robert Aitken. He says:
We must save the world, but we can only save it by saving little pieces of it, each of us using his or her own small, partial ability. The task is clear, and very difficult. First we must set about changing our self-centered attitudes as individuals and search out our self-nature under the guidance of a good teacher. Next (the day after we begin to practice, that is) we must set about applying our understanding in the world. This can be overtly a life of service, such as teaching or social work, and it can be service with no tag on it, parenting and working in a store. Finally (on the second day of practice), we need to put our heads and hearts together in synergistic energy to apply the Dharma as a sangha.

I am tired of hearing people say that the application of the teaching is an individual matter. This is the lazy position of someone who does not really take the Bodhisattva vows seriously. If we want to save all beings we can do it efficiently and effectively together, step by step, networking, Indra Networking.

And here are Suzuki Roshi’s words once again. Maybe you can hear the implication in them.

Zazen practice and everyday activity are one thing. We call zazen everyday life, and everyday life zazen. But usually we think, “Now zazen is over and we will go about our everyday activity.” But this is not the right understanding. They are the same thing. We have nowhere to escape. So in activity there should be calmness, and in calmness there should be activity. Calmness and activity are not different.

We have nowhere to escape. Thank you.

Dharma Dialogue:

Melissa:  So please make yourselves comfortable and this is the time for our dharma dialogue. And questions, observations, objections…

Student One: I just want to say I can’t even express how grateful I feel for this talk. I guess because I had a feeling of real genuine warmth and community in this sangha but in some ways I haven’t felt at home -- just out of having difficulty reconciling my identity as an activist and being engaged with activism in the anarchist community in Worcester. And the way that I’ve always approached my Zen practice is related to a lot of what you were talking about, that these statements aren’t an individual matter. I’m very grateful that I do feel that opening here.

M:  Yes.

David Dae An Rynick, Roshi:  Thank you for saying that -- and it is an edge for all of us. And you know, we so treasure the silence here and this work that goes on, on the cushion. And I think this bodhisattva path of really getting exactly what you’re saying -- that this is the dharma you already know, right? This is not an individual matter and I think some of us are waking up to that in ways we haven’t been before, or haven’t been for a while. So this great work ahead of all of us human beings not just sitting on the cushion but engaging in the world with great courage AND with this compassion to see that this is it.  It can appear as either/or. Are you going to cultivate yourself or are you going to work in the world? And of course it’s not just the self in the world.  It’s just easy to imagine we’re not connected, and that’s such a mistake.  So thank you.

Student Two:  Two things came together for me. Thank you so much for what you said. One way is being very sensitive to what’s been occurring. My first thought came when Trump won the election. What’s next is resistance. And from personal experience, when I was young in Greece and the Nazis occupied the country and the city I was in there was resistance. Some of the people went into the mountains and they fought the Germans that way. Others just stood idly by and others did what they could to help people in hiding. And what kind of collides for me about proceeding is the notion of what can we do, what can I do? And the answer comes back in this life spirit of what you spoke and that is to resist. Don’t take it for granted, what has happened, and wait for better days. Throw sand into the gears of this new machine wherever we can. And enroll others and be patient. One of my fatalistic kind of attitudes is that, well, what difference can I make, the world is so huge. And what comes back has been the focus you’ve given me this time around at this retreat -- to be in the moment.

M:  Thank you.

Student Three:  I also want to thank you. That was very inspirational and I’ve been struggling over the last few days with the decision to come to this retreat. It was an easy decision two months ago but as the terrible things happening in Washington and around the country piled up and as more and more mobilization takes place it was hard to say, “ wow! I could be in Boston.” So I feel very much the way you feel and I think that I’ve always felt that one of the strongest attractions I had to this as a formal practice was the activation of compassion. That compassion was not something preached from a pulpit -- it sort of flew over your head in metaphysical swirls, but it had to be brought into the world. And I very much look forward to being part of this community as it moves in that direction. Thank you.

M:  Thank you.

Dharma Holder Steve Wallace:  So, such a lovely point. This practice of touching into hearing the cries of the world and letting that touch us and fill us with compassion. And then moving out from that place and gathering energy from this oneness and this need to do what we can to act in the world in support of all beings. And this sense of so many beings are in peril right now and how do we meet this? And for me personally it’s quite a struggle. So I, you know, have not been as active as some of you in the world, and here is this very clear call to something needing to be done here. And how, how am I going to respond? It’s quite a koan but as you point out, only to rage against the machine without connecting with this, this deep oneness and compassion for the world doesn’t feel right to me either. There needs to be this balance of finding this sense of oneness and using that uprising of compassion as the power that we use to move into the world, as Melissa was saying.

Student one:  So there’s a book that I’m reading that feels like the most important book I’ve ever read, and it’s called Radical Dharma, which Melissa you said you’re familiar with. And prior to the talk about this divide between activist communities and spiritual communities or spaces of healing -- in activist communities there is an almost unhealthy focus on anger and coming from a place of anger and outrage, and that being the only place where resistance can come from.  And I’ve confronted that in my practice a lot because I’ve had a lot of anger at myself from belonging to so many dominant identities -- like as a white person, as a male.   I’ve had a hatred of myself for those things and this is something that they talk about in this book.   I felt like I don’t deserve to heal -- as someone who perpetuates violence in these different ways -- just by virtue of identity. And I realized that I don’t know how profound it is for me to realize that, as a white person I do need to heal and I do suffer from the violence that I participate in.  I think there’s such profound potential in the merging of these two communities. There’s a lot that people in activist communities have to learn from different spiritual practices -- especially Zen. That’s something I think about a lot and the other way around, too.

M:  The other day I talked about Martin Luther King on Martin Luther King Day.  And it’s the same kind of thing that to bring this love and compassion and wisdom to our activism seems essential and yet…I grew up in an activist family in the 50’s and there was so much anger you know…and fear, a lot of fear, too…and hopelessness in a way. My parents fought for racial justice and against the war in Vietnam. And my mother always tells me this story about being pregnant with me during another dark time in our country’s history -- during the McCarthy era. And she was terrified every time the doorbell rang that it would be the FBI to take her away. I feel like I bathed in utero in paranoia…(laughter)…that’s where my paranoia comes from. I never trusted the government. My parents made sure that I didn’t trust the government. And as I got older and grew up in the 60’s there was all this activism.  And I saw this divide.  And my mother was worried about me when I started practicing Zen. She thought I was turning away from this. So I think this coming together, which is happening now…and has happened…Aitken Roshi wrote this book in 1984.  It’s very dated in a lot of ways but Aitken was a big activist in bringing the two communities together in his day.  He started the Buddhist Peace Fellowship along with Thich Nhat Hanh and some other people. And I think recently we have gotten sort of lazy. And now we’re in crisis, so everybody’s coming forward and this book Radical Dharma just came out. It’s a very hopeful time in a way even though it seems very dark and like we’re stuck in something difficult. I think because we can use this energy in this way.

Student Four:  It’s good that some time passed because my heart was beating really fast and when it does that it’s when something’s really important to me. So, living in a completely different country and yet being part of this world I’m also thinking that I often think about this…disaster happens in this world and we wake up to all this suffering that’s been going on the whole time. You know people are starving in Africa every day…disasters everywhere. But something radical happens and we wake up. And so if we try to keep that large perspective  -- yes, we have the president-elect and this thing happening tomorrow but there’s so much already going on that requires that we wake up. Just to remind ourselves of this bigger view. And then the other thing that comes to my heart is that it we don’t always have to take the two together.   That through our practice we can find out what is my contribution… in a small or large way. For some people it is to demonstrate, to walk rallies. For other people it’s something different.

M:  That’s right.

Student Four:  And to really use the kind of skillful means or sensitivity in our practice to find out where is it that we can come forward. Because we can get into these ways of thinking that we have to be activists that way, and just find that where is it that we can work? What does our life allow for? And it can be very small ways I think, very small ways also.

M:  Oh, yes.

Student Four:  My daughter’s father is an animal welfare activist and he’s been one for many years. He started out with anger and then he moved into much more skillful means and reaching much further. Not creating distance but creating intimacy and connection with people. So sometimes we’ve had that argument about what is more important?  To get out and stand on the soapbox and yell, or work in subtle ways? And I don’t think it’s one or the other.

M:  No. And I feel like it has to be aligned with our hearts.   So there are many ways, some subtle, some more direct: writing, organizing, running a temple, going to the food pantry, or going to a march. It doesn’t matter what we do.  I was going to say that I think the only thing that wouldn’t be useful would be turning away, but actually turning away is also important. Because sometimes we have to turn away to allow ourselves to prepare for when we turn back. So, all of it is the awakened heart in action.

Dharma Holder Bob Waldinger:  I’m resonating with what everyone’s saying and thinking that when I’m most passionately aroused that’s when my mind goes to try to create dualities.  It’s either activism or it’s contemplation. I’m a white privileged guy who’s harming people just by existing, or I’m a decent Buddhist who’s trying his best. Or I’m reacting to those Trump supporters who we have to fight against and throw sand in their gears. And I think that for me it’s when I’m most passionately aroused that I want to make these separations and so the challenge I’m finding is how do I stay passionately aroused and come back to the place of oneness and compassion from which I can act. And I think all of us are struggling with this … as Melissa was saying it’s not either/or…it’s not contemplation or activism. It’s not privilege or being one of the people.  We are all messy beings and so we try our best to do what little we can. But we keep trying.

D:  And I think too about cultivating courage, to have confidence. It’s so easy to get sucked out into what I should be doing or what someone else is doing, or I don’t know, or if I do this what if…and I think in some very genuine way on the cushion we actually are cultivating the capacity to show up and do something. Because we can’t know what the outcome is going to be and we can get scared on the cushion…I’m confused…and again and again with this posture and with this willingness whatever it is -- that this is my life, and how to do that not just here on the cushion. Laura, as you gave your talk the other day, one of the things you chose to say was about when we find our true way it is the Buddha Way. And so whatever we choose it’s from this place of trusting what we know. Trusting that deepest heart of compassion and then stepping forward to meet our life in the way each one of us has something to do that only we can do. And if we hold back because who am I? Or, it doesn’t matter, you know, there is this trust that is required to step out in whatever way calls to us in the moment.

Senior Dharma Teacher Laura Wallace:  Just continuing the flow. Bob spoke about whenever you’re the most passionate, and someone else spoke about the two different worlds, or two different communities, activism and spiritual. So what I noticed for myself is that when anger arises and fear arises there’s a great deal of energy and a lot of power! You know especially with anger…a lot a lot of power. And I was thinking about compassion and how often for me it appears as a softening and what arose for me in the moment was the energy of the softening, you know, not the same kind of like (exploding sound) of the anger, but more like (a smaller exploding sound).  It’s still a very powerful and moving energy of the softening of my heart. And to watch my mind make these definitions and ideas of where the energy can come from thinking that oh, yeah but it’s just energy…look at all these people that’s such great energy…but they’re angry and they’re afraid … and realizing that energy can arise as any number of things, that that energy can come forth from the fear or the not knowing what to do to.  And that I am angry but I don’t want to act from anger. We have a precept of not indulging in anger, not harboring ill will, right? So how can we sense the energy however it arises because when it does it also tends to move in a direction, and if I align with that then amazing things happen. It’s when I decide that only this energy is good over here and I’ll do that. Or the other thing is when I ignore where the energy is or clamp it down.

D:  And on that note let’s return to our zazen, trusting these energies in whatever form they arise.

Transcribed by Joanne Hart, edited by Melissa Myozen Blacker