Thursday, November 29, 2012

500 Lifetimes

On Saturday night, we will enter Rohatsu Sesshin, the seven-day sitting that celebrates Shakyamuni’s enlightenment.  It is said that on that penultimate night, Mara the Evil One threw at our hero (as tricksters do in most religions) all manner of temptations.  And in my favorite version of that story, the thirtysomething prince finally says to Mara, “I know who you are … you’re me.”
Exeunt delusions.
Fast forward a dozen centuries.  The old man-fox confesses to Baizhang that he guessed wrongly about how a Buddha relates to cause and effect.  Correct answer: An enlightened one is not blind to cause and effect. 
So, how long will it take us to understand that we are the cause and the effect?  That everything we put out comes back, not sent by a wrathful Judge, but simply the natural consequence of interconnectedness.  (If you doubt that concept, consider for a moment that the iron atoms in your body were made in an exploding supernova so long ago you can’t even comprehend the timeline.  You’ve had more than 500 lifetimes, by a factor inconceivable.)
The celebration of Rohatsu, then, isn’t about someone else, a long time ago in a land far, far away.  The iron atoms of enlightenment – acceptance of things just the way they are – have been available to us for … ever.  And because of that, we know in our hearts who Shakyamuni Buddha was.  He’s us. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hold-Music Practice

My father died suddenly this week.  There's nothing like a heart-wrenching change in our personal universe to test our practice.  The next morning, I had made a dozen calls by 9:00 a.m.  I spent almost an hour on hold with various agencies.  Kinda hard to muster up loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and (especially) patience while those utterly annoying hold tunes are repeating for the umpteenth time, loudly.  (I'll never understand why the funeral home's hold music was heavy metal.)

But at the end of each hold, the person who took my call was, without exception, kind, compassionate, sympathetic (sans joy, of course) and patient.  And in their practice, I found my own.  They were generous - the foremost perfection (paramita) - in the way that is most helpful: they gave me courage not to soldier on, but to feel what I was feeling.  They met me there, every one of them.

The Catholic priest who happened to be the only chaplain on duty at the hospital when I arrived, fresh off the plane with my luggage still in tow, looked me in the eyes not as we normally do in conversation, but in a way that reached all the way to my heart.  I told him I was a Zen priest.  He responded just above a whisper, "Then you know how to do this."

Ours is an all-the-time practice.  Not just for when things are hard, or easy.  Not just for those times when we can find our breath.  I've forgotten how to breathe many times in the past few days, mostly because my heart can't stand to have anything going on around it right now.  I'm not capable of zazen at the moment.  But that's OK.  I don't have to do the practice, because I've discovered that the practice is doing me.  It's right here.  It doesn't leave.  It doesn't judge.  It doesn't fix.  It just holds me.  And if I've learned nothing else in 20 years of practice, I now know that I've learned to surrender fully to that embrace, and therein find the generosity to look death in the face and see it for what it is. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Last Wednesday evening, we fed the hungry ghosts in a ceremony called Sejiki.  We invited them in.  The Abbess made food for them.  We tried to make the Buddha Hall safe so they could come forth and eat without fear.  We put up images they could relate to.  We covered up the usual spiritual icons.  We chanted continuously for half an hour, calling them to feast.  We read their names.  All for the sake of a fairy tale, befitting Halloween.  They aren't really here, these hungry ghosts.  You can't prove their existence by anything approaching the scientific method, so they must not exist.

And yet ... have you ever felt that hole, somewhere in your chest, that seems bottomless and unfillable?  Ever had your heart cry out for solace, understanding, companionship, answers?  Ever wondered why your worth is measured not by how nourished you are, but by how much is on your plate?

Can we truly say we're not hungry?  Can we truly say that we recognize and acknowledge with deep gratitude the nourishment that surrounds us all the time?  Ironically (as many sutras point out), the root cause of spiritual hunger is stinginess -- clinging to I and mine, protecting what's ours, and clearly delineating it from what's theirs.  Fortunately, the sutras also offer a remedy: the antidote to greed is generosity, which usually connotes giving.  But there is also a generosity in receiving, in accepting the nourishment in every moment, in remembering to say Thank You, in eating what's offered. 

In his Pure Standards for the Zen Community, Dōgen wrote:
If you do not have a limited heart, you will have boundless fortune.
In 2012, we might say:
Let's stop trying to put everything on our tray, and instead sit down and eat.