Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Year's End

My year as Ino will end on Saturday.  Deep gratitude to all of you who took a moment to read these posts.   Deep apologies for not writing as often as I should have to keep you apprised of temple life.   On too many days, exhaustion and grief silenced both creativity and voice, despite my joyous love for a job that maybe helped a few people to sit, settle and discover the inner heart-mind that’s better than any I. 

On Monday, I’ll depart for an autumn leave to continue closing out my father’s life and mourning his passing, and prepare for Dharma Transmission in December.

As our Full Moon Ceremony says:

No coming, no going.
No surplus, no lack.

Or, better yet:

Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Guest Students

Five guest students are with us this week -- people who have arranged their lives, and perhaps used their vacation, to try out temple life.   They are always such a delight, full of heartfelt questions, eager to get to the zendo, curious about what it means to sit and be quiet amidst the American dream of progress and acquisition.  You get the impression that they're no longer enamored with manifest destiny (or maybe never bought it in the first place).  One of them asked me about the role of ambition in Buddhism.  His face lit up at the possibility that he could have an ambition to be kind, compassionate and wise in whatever profession he chose.

We talked at length about she shin, Tibetan for the alert awareness that watches our mind.  It's that capacity within us that sees how the rest of us is doing -- the part that notices we're angry/sad/happy/vengeful/calm -- but is none of those itself.  It is, in a sense, the ultimate refuge to which we can return again and again, a capacity that sees keenly into our nature, that is obviously present, but is empty (in the Buddhist sense) of any defining characteristic except unconditional acceptance of what is.

And this is the trait that makes guest students such wonderful teachers.  They just accept the ways of the temple, so odd in so many ways from what they're used to.  They have questions, of course, but mostly they just do what we ask, follow the schedule, eat what's offered, and sit facing a wall.  Some of them come back.  Some of them move in.  Suzuki-roshi would be grinning and clapping at their whole-hearted leap into beginner's mind.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Yesterday we ended a one-week retreat that was just for the residents of Beginner’s Mind Temple.  That’s odd, you say.  You temple folks live the retreat that the rest of us go on for our vacations.  Yes, and running a place that others go for refuge is tiring.  Truth be told, we’re a bunch of exhausted introverts. 

But oddly enough, we weren’t itching to do something wild and crazy with our week off.  Guess what emerged as the most-wanted retreat activities?  Sitting zazen and having time to study Buddhism topped the list, along with (no surprise) getting more sleep.  We also wanted time to just get to know each other and feel more connected, even though we all live in one block, eat in one dining room, and sit in one zendo.

So lest our week sound a bit self-indulgent, we might recall Wu-men: 
If there is no harmony in the Buddhist temple, how can its residents bring harmony to the world and fulfill their vows?
Or Dōgen:
Pure intentions without energetic functions are not sufficient. 
The temple doors are open again now.  Thank you for your patience while we re-charged our energy.  Please don’t be shy about doing the same for yourself.  Retreat. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Welcome Home

Over the past couple of weeks, thirteen practitioners have sat tangaryo, 15 straight hours of zazen with just short breaks for meals.  They do this so they can become full-fledged residents of the temple.

But surely their initial application to live here, and their months in residence, prove they are worthy and reliable tenants and an asset to the neighborhood.  Since all 13 were already living in the building, why in the world would they need to do a zazen-athon to become what they already are?

Because filling out an application and having a room isn’t the core practice of Buddhism.  Tangaryo isn’t a test of the practitioners – no one watches them to make sure they’re sitting all day and not whipping out their iPhones as soon as the Ino leaves the zendo.  Tangaryo is a request – a silent, still, centered request – to become a resident not of a building but of a temple, in the only manner that fully embodies (literally) the core practice of any Buddhist temple anywhere: zazen.  Tangaryo is a re-enactment of the exact posture that a prince took thousands of years ago, with astonishing results.  The tangaryo sitters probably didn’t expect that outcome, nor were they looking for an address. 

They just wanted to come home to their heart.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Alive or Dead?

The temple has experienced a spate of dying in the past couple of weeks.  The Hayes Valley Farm trees, along with a rather high number of parents, siblings, children and friends of our residents have passed away.  We seem to be doing a memorial service almost every evening. 

Daowu and his student were making a condolence call.  The student rapped on the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?” Daowu responded, “Won’t say.”

Alive or dead?  The epitome of dualistic thinking.  If those are the only two options available to us, then by that logic not only will we be dead in 100 years, but 100 years ago we were also dead.  Yet according to both Buddhism and quantum physics, nothing is ever created or destroyed, there is only energy endlessly changing.  The Abhidharma goes so far as to postulate that our thinking creates matter (form):
Matter cannot exist without a karmic consciousness desiring life in a material world … It’s the energy, not the things, that create continuity.
So instead of the all-or-nothing of alive or dead – a stance unsupported both spiritually and scientifically -- Buddhism invites us to explore the waves of energy than we reify to “I.”  The ocean wave arises, crests, breaks, and subsides.  We would think it silly to mourn its passing.  The Buddha said, “Rivers give up their former names and identities when they reach the great ocean.”  We would think it silly to say that the river dies at the ocean.

Why wouldn’t Daowu answer his student’s question? 
(Hint: The wave and the river are not a metaphor.) 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Nothing Whatever To Do

Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi (meditation instruction) says:
[Zazen] has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.
By that logic, the trees in the erstwhile Hayes Valley Farm are still doing zazen, even though they are now lying down, felled by saw and bulldozer late last week.  They have nothing to do but await their next existence – mulch for urban gardens.  Oh, happy thought, to know for certain that one’s purpose is to nourish!  No wonder they look so peaceful in their recumbent meditation. 

As Robert Aitken-roshi notes in his commentary on a life-and-death case in the Mumonkan:
“The test comes when everything starts to get dark, and you know it will not get light again.”

Is there anything more frightening than the prospect of unending darkness?  Well, yes:  Forgetting that we are the light. 

Wu-men concludes the case thusly:
“If you have not resolved this matter yet, the food you bolt down won’t sustain you.  Chew it well, and you won’t be hungry.”

The nourishment is only, and always, right here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

After Renunciation, Exploration

What does Buddhist practice help us renounce?  Greed, hate and delusion. 
What’s the payoff? Generosity, compassion and wisdom. 

It’s not so much that the first three are discarded and the second three are obtained.  It’s more like the first three are investigated so relentlessly that they (we) get tired and give up and reveal the second three, which just happen to be there all along.   And all it takes is a willingness to let go of our fixed ways of thinking and explore new perspectives (technically known as Right View).

Dōgen:  When we change how we think and act, we change the world.
Abhidharma: From a different perspective, it’s a different thing.
Suzuki-roshi: To let go is to find composure.

Prince Shakyamuni started this exploration for us in dramatic fashion – he said to Mara (the lord of death and suffering), “I know who you are.  You’re me” – and thus declared his willingness to explore the possibility that the cause of his suffering wasn’t outside himself.  Or as Thich Naht Hahn said two dozen centuries later, “Peace never depends on the other person.”

Exploration requires us to say, I don’t know or I was wrong.  It requires us to hold both that the world isn’t as we see it, nor is it otherwise.  It requires us to wear down the barriers that stand between us and kindness. 

To renounce is to leave the comforts of our home-mind and go exploring, not just finding, but creating new worlds.  How will we know what to do out there?  As Zhijian promised his student Rujing: 
If you would get out of your old nest, you would find a way.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Last week, the summer dharma class (“The Practice of Aging and the Aging of Practice”) took up the topic of connection and loss; this week, the topic is letting go and exploring what’s new.  Both of these suggest a rather unpalatable word – renunciation – which has the unfortunate modern connotation of denial and deprivation of what we most want and cherish.  One translation might be, “Teeth-gritting misery for the sake of spiritual nobility.”  (I’m going to suffer, but it’s going to be holy suffering, dammit!)

Lent is not a Buddhist practice, yet there is ample acknowledgement in Buddhist texts that as we age, we become more ready to give up certain habits, and the habits themselves become tired.  We’re ready to let go of them, and they are just as eager to be dropped (albeit sometimes not without a fight).  As Norman Fischer says, “Renunciation is giving up what you don’t need anyway.”

The Book of Serenity (Case 32) lists the fifth stage of practice as the stage of relinquishment.  Zen Master Dōgen noted that one of the five pre-conditions to awakening is cessation of worldly activities.  Elsewhere, he notes that when dharma practice fills our body and mind, we realize that something is missing.  That “something” is anything, anywhere to hold on to.  Scary.

If we let go (renounce), not only will the thing that was held disappear, we will disappear.  Because who are we, minus our stuff? 

The Abhidharma offers a clue that neatly avoids both an “I” and nihilism in one breath, and reveals the possibilities unleashed by renunciation:
The word does not imply the complete disappearance of all the components of the respective aggregation.  Some of them always survive – or more correctly recur – in the combination of the next moment, while others, conditioned by their previous occurrence, may reappear much later.  Thus the flux of the lifestream is preserved uninterrupted.