Thursday, November 29, 2018

thinking of Bernie Glassman

I only met Bernie Glassman a couple of times, and briefly got to know his second wife Sandra Jishu Holmes when we took the same mindfulness training course with Jon Kabat-Zinn.  She was a delightful and quiet person, and before her untimely death she and Bernie Roshi founded Zen Peacemakers together. 

I've been an admirer of Bernie Roshi for many years, and I'm both sad at his passing, on November 4, and inspired by his life and teachings.  He was able to bring together sincere Zen practice rooted in awakening, a sense of humor and play, and a dedication to bringing Zen into all aspects of life.  His street retreats, where Zen students got a taste of homelessness, his retreats at Auschwitz, and his work with helping real street people find right livelihood through setting up a bakery in Yonkers, NY, are a few examples of his capacity to find the awakened heart everywhere.  Here are two very different obituaries on his life and death, one from Lion's Roar, and one from the New York Times.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sweet honey from old failures

From Eihei Dogen's "Gyobutsus Igi (Dignified Behavior of the Practice Buddha), translated by Shohaku Okamura: 


"Stepping forward is a mistake; stepping backward is also a mistake, taking one step is a mistake, taking two steps is also a mistake; therefore one mistake after another mistake. [Whatever we say is a mistake.]"

Some teachers refer to Dogen's guidance here as the teaching of "one continuous mistake."  The first time I saw a reference to it was in Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi's book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind."  I always felt affirmed by this teaching, since I am so often a victim of self-doubt and self-criticism -- feeling so terrible when, despite my best intentions, I realize that I have goofed in some major way with people I love and care about. 

Making mistakes is part of being human.  We can never know the consequences of our actions, even if we try really hard to be careful and respectful and kind.  There will always be something we miss, something that is hidden from us.  Sometimes we realize that we have been mistaken in our actions because we see the consequences for ourselves, and sometimes other people have to point out our mistakes.  No matter how we receive this feedback, our job as practitioners of the Way is to own our failures and perhaps, just perhaps, find a way to use this greater clarity in our future actions.  This is my practice, and sometimes it comes with great sorrow, and anger and fear.  But ultimately, it clarifies the path and the Way. 

I am also inspired by the teachings of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, in his poem "Last Night As I Was Sleeping,"  translated by Robert Bly.  He suggests that this dream-like life, with all its difficulties and opportunities for error, is ultimately pointing us all to transcendence, to finding our way to what Machado calls God, and what I might call the Awakened Heart.  Whatever you call it, know that we are all capable of making sweet honey from our old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

May you be surprised

Rondanini Pietá by Michelangelo

To the left is a photo of the heads of Jesus and Mary from an unfinished marble sculpture of the Pietá that Michelangelo was working on just before he died.  The full-length sculpture is on display in its own room at the Rondanini Museum in Milan, Italy.  Unlike a finished sculpture, it holds many possibilities in its rough, chiseled surface, and moves me with its clear depiction of love and grief.

This morning I was interviewed for a documentary about mastery, by students from Harvard Extension School.  The interviewer asked me what a master is, and while I don't remember exactly what I said, it was something like this:  A master is someone who never stops learning, who is continually amazed by life, and stays open to all possibilities.  This is a quality I encourage in all my students, and in myself.  The capacity to see life as fresh and new in each moment is the hallmark of artists and Zen practitioners.  As my first Zen teacher told me once, "may you be surprised."

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

a new version of the "basic friendliness" phrases

Last night I gave a talk at Boundless Way Temple, tracing my personal history with the practice of "metta" or "basic friendliness," more commonly translated as "loving-kindness."  This practice is a part of a much longer set of instructions on cultivating basic friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity:  the Four Heavenly Abodes.  I originally heard the phrases in English from Michelle McDonald, a Vipassana teacher, who taught a version that had a very affirmative quality.  ("May I be safe and protected from harm.")  My friend and fellow Buddhist teacher, also from the Vipassana tradition, Bob Stahl and I looked into the original Pali versions of these phrases, and found that they were more in keeping with our non-dual understanding of practice:  that it's possible to meet, or be in relationship with, whatever might be troubling us.  We changed the Pali phrase usually translated as  "May I be free from fear" into "May I be free in the midst of fear."  And then, just recently, based on the teachings of Lama Justin von Bujdoss and his Tibetan Buddhist ancestor Gampopa, I started using the word "rest."  Here is the latest version of the phrases that I've found most helpful recently:

May I find rest in my fear.
May I find rest in my mental distress.
May I find rest in my physical distress.
May I find rest and be at ease.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Door Itself Makes No Promises

Torii Gate at Boundless Way Temple

I was thinking this morning about the open-hearted invitation of Zen practice, at least as I understand it:  to truly know the heart-mind, without retreating into some fixed narrative or view.  It can be dangerous work, this facing everything.  The poet Adrienne Rich had some sense of this, as she writes in one of my favorite poems of all time:  "Prospective Immigrants Please Note."   I love how clear she is that entering and not entering the Great Way are both honorable options. 

Prospective Immigrants Please Note
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.