Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Study Hall

This week's book is Stephen Batchelor's "Alone with Others", and I am finding myself not agreeing with all of it. This quote stopped me this morning: 'in fact, an inner experience only achieves true completeness when it has been spoken' (italics in the original). He goes on to qualify this with the understanding that language is limited, but that language is the signifier that humans are essentially 'being-with', rather than alone.
I have been thinking about the Bodhisattva Precept Ceremony aka the Full Moon Ceremony, which we are doing tonight. It is one of my favourite ceremonies, and one that I also often don't enjoy so much, not least because I always get caught up in my own ideas about how it should sound, the way the bells should be rung in the chants, and the way the kokyo manages to get through the long phrases, which means that when those things don't happen the way I think they should, I stop being completely present with the confession, repentance and vowing. Nevertheless, some of my favourite zen words occur during the ceremony, and the line 'to expound the dharma with this body is foremost' is something that I hold very closely. And I also take it fairly literally.
Thinking about the ino job, I am currently seeing it as three main areas of responsibility: organising things, showing up for all dharma activities and being available for people who need me. Now in this last part I have been falling down very badly, due to getting caught up in my own emotions and stories recently, and that is something I will be focusing on tonight in our small group discussions around the precepts, which we will do before the ceremony. The organising is mostly happening without too many problems, and I am still showing up. I have always been pretty good at showing up, and it has always felt like an important part of practice for me. Yesterday, bowing during evening service, I was wondering about the times recently when I have been showing up but not completely present, and how that may appear to others. Knowing that I am supposed to be modelling forms and behaviours for the sangha, I still have to play that role, even when I am not feeling like it, and that in itself is can be valuable; I still unfold my zagu and bow as mindfully as I can, because my body is used to doing that, and doing this can bring me back to being present even when my mind is caught up in its own swirl.
Coming back to Stephen Batchelor's point, the other end of this notion is what I have often heard or read about great zen teachers, and which I think was many people's experience of Suzuki Roshi, that their very presence was a complete expression of the dharma, that anything they said was secondary to their way of being and what that taught those around them.
So how do we express the dharma? I think I will leave Dogen the last word: 'Hundreds of things all manifest original practice from the original face; it is impossible to measure'. (Self-receiving and -employing Samadhi).

Monday, April 26, 2010


One of the things that always strikes me living at Zen Center is the fluid nature of sangha. Even in the winter at Tassajara, where a group of people stays together in the valley for three months at a time, at the end of the practice period there is always coming and going. Here in the city, people come and stay for a week, or maybe come to sit once, or hear a talk; others come every day for years. Each person contributes to the wholeness of the sangha, and to the vitality of the practice here at Zen Center. When people you care about leave, it is natural to feel sad, and yet I always have faith that they haven't completely disappeared from our lives, and when they come back, there is rejoicing. This has been happening recently with the influx of people from Tassajara: I notice that my first reaction when I see someone I have practised with in the past is always a joyful one, even if I don't feel especially close to that person. Often when we live together at Zen Center, our interactions are non-verbal, and this can give us a different sense of who someone is than you might get just from talking to them. I have mentioned before the different ways I see people entering the zendo, how they walk and how they bow, and how this says something about them. It speaks to the way practice connects us all, in ways that are not necessarily the same as our ordinary social connections, and I think even people who only visit Zen Center once get a sense of that.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Across the Golden Gate

Well, it took me a while to figure out how to do this, but the sharper-eyed among you will notice a link on the right to my sister Ino Connie Cummings' brand new blog:
I think it might be a while yet before we announce the arrival of the Tassajara Ino blog, but you never know. In the mean time you should just go and pay Kathy a visit down there.

Study Hall

This week I have been mostly reading Dogen. Apart from the Tenzo Kyokun and the Eihei Shingi I have not read much Dogen recently, and it seemed like it was time to pick him up again. I found a copy of 'Sounds of Valley Streams' in the book sale at City Center earlier this year, and I have now worked my way through it. I wouldn't claim to understand what he is talking about, but if I am paying attention, I often get a shiver down my spine reading the words, and this response gives me faith that something profound is being expressed, and that maybe one day it will be clearer to me. Or not.
Here is a passage from 'Ikka Myoju' ('One Bright Pearl'):
" 'One bright pearl' thoroughly expresses it even though it is not itself revealed in its name, and we can recognise it in its name. 'One bright pearl' directly transcends the eons, and because in the eternal past it never ceased to be, it reaches up to the eternal present. Though there is one's mind now and one's body now, they are just the one bright pearl. This grass or that tree are not grass and tree, nor are the mountains and rivers of the world mountains and rivers; they are one bright pearl".
It is often claimed that Dogen was a deep environmentalist, and I would agree with that, so these are good words for Earth Day. We will be celebrating that on Saturday here at City Center, at the morning service and with Robert Thomas' talk, so please come and join us.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shaving the Head and Again Shaving the Head

We had a lovely tokudo on Saturday,with a full Buddha Hall witnessing Lucy's ordination.
There was plenty of laughter - even during the ceremony, as the wisdom water that Paul brushed on Lucy's scalp ran down and dripped off her nose. It was a long and busy day for the ino, from zazen at 6:30, service, oryoki, zazen at 9:25, lecture, helping set up the Buddha Hall, rehearsing the ceremony, printing and reprinting the scripts and programs, and then the big event itself, and the photographs and reception afterwards. It being a warm day, and wearing four layers of robes for most of it, I felt like I was sweating for the best part of eleven hours, but everything went very smoothly, so I had nothing really to worry about. As Paul was giving the lecture, I remembered that it was my Dharma birthday, which brought back some happy memories, and reminded me to keep my vows uppermost in my thoughts.
Here are a couple of pictures from Saturday. As you can see, everyone is offering Lucy some hair to replace her newly bald look, although if you are familiar enough with the Zen Center website, you will recognise the recreation of a photo from a few years ago...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Just us

This week has largely been taken up with preparations for Saturday's Shukke Tokudo with Lucy Xiao, who will become my dharma sister. There have been other things happening too, of course, like getting back into the schedule after a week of interim, which always has a certain feeling of refreshed reconnection. Also there has been a steady stream of people coming up from the Tassajara Practice Period, which gives us an opportunity to catch up on news and see how people are doing.
Ceremonies and rituals are a central part of our practice here at Zen Center, and since my job is to organise them, I have a very particular perspective on them right now. I know, having heard it from any number of people, that they can be an obstacle for some, something that can be off-putting, or look too esoteric, particularly if you are new, or you are mainly interested in just sitting.
I remember at Tassajara, at the end of my first summer, on the first evening of the Practice Period, suddenly everyone who was there showed up for the evening service wearing their robes, as is the form for Practice Period. I was amazed at the difference in mood, and I was thinking "but it's just us". It was the same people I had been seeing working and larking around for many months, now looking very formal and serious. I sometimes think the same thing now, in the middle of a ceremony, for instance doing a food offering to Suzuki Roshi, or to Bodhidharma or Mahapajapati. Everything is very formal and solemn, and yet, as I pass the tray to the Abbot or the Tanto, it is also "just us", and this is just what we do. Tomorrow, Lucy will have her head shaved and put on new robes and become a home-leaving 'child of Buddha', but she will still be Lucy, and I'm sure her wonderful laugh will ring out just as often.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Buddha's Birthday

We celebrated Buddha's birthday last Saturday, and it is one of the most festive occasions in the year for Zen Center. This year the weather didn't fully co-operate, as it was grey and a little chilly, but seeing as we had rain the day before and the day after, we can't complain. Blanche Hartman gave the talk beforehand, wearing her 'party dress', as she announced at the beginning - meaning her ceremonial okesa - and giving people, especially the large group of children who had come for the monthly children's program, a taste of what was coming up. Which was a procession across the street to Koshland Park, and then a circumambulation of the altar and the flower house of the baby Buddha, at which people stopped to bathe the statue ceremonially with sweet tea, all the while chanting the Heart Sutra. As ino I don't necessarily get to enjoy these occasions as much as other people, as I have to be sure that everything is in place, all the elements have been taken care of, that people are more or less doing the right thing, that the chanting stays together and so on. The bright side was that I was also the kokyo and thus led the dedication and the vigourous 'homage to Shakyamuni Buddha' at the end.
I have to confess that I have been pretty tired since sesshin, and so I am glad that we are having an interim week this week, when zazen becomes optional for the residents, and that there is nothing looming on the horizon until Lucy's tokudo on the 17th. I can start planning seriously for that next week. This week I am on a mission of spring cleaning in the ino's office...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Study Hall

I usually try to get some studying in after breakfast. At Tassajara there is an hour of study scheduled every day at this time, and I have found a nice habit to keep up - the mind is not necessarily distracted too much by the day ahead, and is still feeling the benefits of the morning sitting, and I often find myself rested and alert at the same time.
Most recently I have been reading a book by the late Chan master Sheng Yen, Song of Mind, which is a series of talks given on retreat. Had I had a little more time and energy, I would have quoted from the book before sesshin, as a lot of this book has to do with how to approach a sesshin. He can be quite fierce with his students, but also refreshingly funny.
Here is one of my favourite quotes:

'When some older people find out I became a monk at thirteen, they become discouraged, thinking they won't have time to reach enlightenment. Nonsense. Remember, enlightenment can come in an instant. Is there a queue at the gate of Chan? Are you only allowed in one at a time? You don't have to take a number and wait in line to achieve buddhahood. Do buddhas have seniority over others? Do buddhas compare notes on when and how they got enlightened? Funny as it sounds, some people go through similar mental maneuvers. "That person over there sits like a rock; she must nearly be enlightened. I've been on twenty retreats, so I must be closer to enlightenment than that guy, who is on his first one." Do these thoughts sound familiar?
It is never too late to start practicing. If you missed the first bus to buddhahood, the next one will be by soon. The important thing is to get on the bus and stay on.'