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. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Net Loss

We’ve said goodbye so many times recently – memorials for those who have died, departure ceremonies for students moving out of Zen Center, numerous work-meeting farewells by residents going on long retreats elsewhere.  And at least for the next couple of months, no one is arriving, nor being born in our community.  Net loss. 

Vimalakirti was able to feed and house (and find chairs for) 90 million beings.  Wish we knew his secret.  We are pressed to be endlessly welcoming with dwindled resources.  This is not a complaint of overwork; there is genuine heart-wrench at not being able to greet, feed, sit with and thoroughly welcome all beings, as we ache to do from the very depth of our vow.  “Stop” might be in our vocabulary; it isn’t in our body.

In such times, mistakes are made, despite our best intentions.  Tempers flare with mis(taken)communications – or no communication at all.  Arguments are perceived where, in more spacious times, a simple exchange of information or perspective would have prevailed. 

And yet … practice wins out.  The temple schedule happens, and pretty much everyone shows up.  The power of frazzled sangha triumphs over wound-licking solitude.  We may not be “bringing harmony to everyone” as our daily chant supposes, but we give it every opportunity to be true, if only for the space of a rushed bow in the hallway. 

In short, we come home to each other, moment after moment.  Vowing with our presence, if not our words: I will not abandon you.  Is there a better translation of “saving all beings?”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Long Road to Non-Duality

Various civil rights movements throughout history have called for non-discrimination, and today, San Francisco Zen Center joins the celebration of recent steps toward non-discrimination regarding whom consenting adults can love and marry. 

But non-discrimination is a very long way from the Buddhist concept of non-duality.  The former says I am equal to you.  The latter says I am you.  The former explains why Crash won Best Picture.  The latter explains why Brokeback Mountain didn’t.  The former asks us to examine our prejudices.  The latter asks us to give them up wholesale, no matter how cherished, advantageous and “true” they appear. 

Nagarjuna exhorts: If you don’t want the problems caused by discriminations, then stop making them.

Cohen warns: To label is to dismiss.

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra opines: Those who conceptualize difference … abide in conceit and are obscured. 

The bottom line in Buddhism is that there is no other, and all attempts to make other cause suffering.  This is why Right View is so important, and why without it true non-discrimination is sunk.  The ability to have perspective unfettered by fear and judgment is critical to being able to see other as self. 

In other words, discrimination is I.
Non-discrimination is we.
Non-duality is. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Well-Being for All Beings

At the moment, there are 76 names on our well-being list, an oft-updated roster that’s read every Tuesday morning in a service dedicated to the  “well-being, equanimity and recovery of our dear friends.”

Actually, there are 6 billion names on that list. 

Imagine what might happen if we started each day with the 15 seconds that it takes to say to them:

May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be free from fear.
May you be free from suffering.  

If we said that to the other drivers in traffic, to our fellow riders on public transportation, to the shoppers ahead of us in line -- they’d do their best to pretend we didn't exist.  So we’ll just say it silently, and offer a quarter-minute of peaceful abiding to whatever fraction of humanity happens to be in range.  They don’t have to know.  It can be our little secret that we wished them well.  They don’t have to know that we just saved all beings … from us.  From whatever less-benign thoughts we might have been tempted to cast upon the driver who cut us off, the oaf who spread out over several bus seats, the cad who cut in line.  For the length of an inhale, we’re not going to honk, glare, scold.  For the length of an inhale, we’re going to stop suffering. 

Now, shall we try it on the exhale, too?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Just a Mirror

As the head of the meditation hall, I am often asked for the meaning of the various forms.

They don’t mean anything.  They’re just a mirror.

We don’t generally come to spiritual places in order to do their (arcane) forms.  We come because a part of us – usually that part that’s been ignored or pushed down inside us – is tired of suffering and is ready to find its (our) voice.  We come because there is some dim, unarticulated sense that everything that is supposed to make us happy doesn’t.  And we suspect that the problem isn’t all “other people” or “out there. " In short, we come to spiritual practice looking for a mirror.  We’re ready for something that will show us in high relief both the kindness and meanness within us, that will allow their teaching to come forth, and that will sunder the veil of suffering that clouds our true nature.

A couple of mirrors (not unique to Buddhism):

Bowing shows us our reluctance to surrender, to be subservient, to not be able to see what’s ahead.  Americans don’t physically bow easily.  We do, of course, bow down (at least mentally) to electronic devices, self-improvement gurus, fund managers, 24/7 availability, and everything/everyone else we cede our power to.  Most of these things don’t help us be happy, kind and spacious.

Chanting reflects not only our ability to find our voice, but also our willingness to harmonize.  It takes courage to do both, exposed and personal, without the blogosphere’s easy anonymity that makes “right speech” so quaint.

But the biggest, brightest mirror is sangha, the company of other practitioners who unflinchingly reflect back to us who we are, in excruciating detail.  We don't like those people who reflect too well a part of ourselves we'd rather not see; we fall in love with those who mirror the best parts of ourselves.  Somewhere in between is community, dharma friendship, and the willingness to not turn away both from what we ourselves reflect, and from what we see.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tree(People) Removal

Around 2:00 a.m. this morning, the police and fire departments arrived at the late Hayes Valley Farm to remove the humans who had taken up protest-residence in the doomed trees.  During the four-hour extraction, there were some cries and screams, and the occasional small-crowd cheer. (At what? A fleeting victory as a wily treesitter evaded the inevitable? We’ll probably never know.)  The official vehicles came and went without sirens, the officials without megaphones. 

The operation ended just as our sesshin, and the buzz-saws, began.  So many complicated precepts here:  To not take life (the woodcutters).  To not take what isn’t given (the occupiers).  To not speak ill of others, to not praise self at the expense of others (both sides). 

How to make sense of such a complicated, fraught scenario?  Nagarjuna’s Four Distortions don’t provide answers, but they do provide helpful paths of inquiry:

1.  Seeing the impermanent as permanent
“The trees should be left there forever.”
“Developers are always greedy.”

2.  Seeing the impure as pure
“The protesters have the moral high ground.”

3.  Seeing the selfless as having a self.
“I care about trees and you don’t.”

4. Seeing suffering as blissful.
“Sitting in this tree/arresting these people/developing condos makes me happy.”

(All quotes are hypothetical.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Can I Practice for Me?

Yesterday, fifteen people took nearly four hours out of their weekend to attend the Introductory Afternoon -- practicing sitting and walking meditation, learning a bit of the history of Buddhism, chanting metta, talking about how to take the practices into everyday life.  And time and again the concern came up, Is it selfish to take time for myself like this?  Is it OK to direct lovingkingness to me?  

History is full of examples of the one calm person who made a difference -- Father Kolbe, Otto Schindler, Sujata, Mohandis Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, Aung San Suu Kyi, the 4th person (the monk) whom Prince Shakyamuni observed walking placidly amid sickness, old age and death.  It's not so much that these people heroically saved lives (some of them did), but that they gave courage to others to live, or to face death with equanimity, knowing they were not alone.

We practice for all beings, yet we often forget that we are one of those, too.  Endless giving outward breeds resentment inward, and taints the giving.  There's a persistent, tenacious, covert belief that I am not metta-worthy, that I really don't deserve happiness and tranquility.

Get over it.  Deserving, worthiness has nothing to do with it.  We don't have happiness and tranquility, we are them.  We just forget that sometimes.  The purpose of zazen isn't to develop or get anything.  The purpose of zazen is to give us a chance to remember what we are in the first place, to come home to our true heart, and to see therein our original kind face.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Good Question

During last Saturday’s one-day sitting, we did shosan, a formal, dharmic Q&A with the Abbot.  Most of the questions were about how to practice with strong feelings – fear, anger, shame, self-doubt.  Most of the answers weren’t prescriptions for a fix, but an offering of courage and support to stay with the feeling, make room for it, listen to what it has to say without letting it highjack our life. 

This suggestion to stay with the question permeates Zen teachings.  Buddhism is not a practice of answers, as one quickly learns when studying those maddeningly obtuse koans.  Time after time, we are asked not What is the answer? but What is your experience?  Specifically:
  • Where is it in your body?  
  • Is the feeling pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? 
  • What story do you have about that feeling?  
  • Has that story solidified into an object, an “I”?
These four questions, these four foundations of mindfulness, ask us to thoroughly investigate our thinking as the (only) source of both our suffering and our liberation.  As Robert Aitken noted in his introduction to the Book of Serenity, the difference between illusion and enlightenment is mind itself.  The point is not to transcend the mind (good luck with that, Nagarjuna says), but to transform the mind.  To loosen up on the idea of a fixed anything, to relentlessly practice non-reification, to first let things be as they are.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Farewell to Trees

Noon service today was a farewell ceremony for the trees at Hayes Valley Farm.  Soon they will be gone, replaced by "market" (and some affordable) housing.  Lucky trees.  Their afterlife is already known and guaranteed -- mulch, distributed free to other urban gardens.

A group of farmers and Buddhists stood for the last time on the former freeway offramp that became our neighborhood farm.  The farmers thanked Zen Center for 1.2 tons of our kitchen compost donated over the short few years of the farm's existence.  The Buddhists thanked the farmers for planting a farm right smack in the middle of Wall Street West.  We read together The Earth is a Being who Deserves to be Loved (Daisy Aldan), then chanted for the well-being of the trees, invoking their presence and compassion as nourishment for our own.

In his dedication, Abbot Myōgen Steve Stücky noted:

Out of an empty field of broken freeways
through infinite compassion all phenomena appear.

Someone spied a hummingbird above the farm rubble, and I prayed that maybe one owner in the new housing would put up a feeder to continue the nourishment of all beings.  

Friday, May 24, 2013


A student in one of our programs asked me the other day how she was doing compared to where she should be at this point in her practice.

A Tassajara guest once asked Suzuki-roshi why he hadn’t enlightened her yet.

Our addiction to progress, to getting somewhere (something, someone), seems so reasonable. Working on ourselves has become a cultural imperative.  Doesn’t everyone want to get better, improve – in short, become lovable?  Yet, the goal is both unreachable (our self-improvement to-do list is endless) and a bit murky.  What exactly would I need to look like and be doing in order to be perceived as enlightened?  And if I do have an idea of what that looks like, what’s keeping me from acting that way right now? 

Good question.

How much progress do we have to make before we can act with compassion, tranquility and kindness?  We seem to need an enlightenment progress bar, and we can’t act until the bodhisattva program download is complete.  But as Uchiyama-roshi noted with his usual wake-up-already terseness:

            To sit with the idea that you are going to gain enlightenment is just ridiculous.

So let’s just pretend we’re already there.  (Instead of pretending we’re not.)  Let’s just go ahead and be helpful and caring and spacious even in the alleged absence of enlightenment.   Instead of being dragged around by the delusion that we’re not good enough to be good, let’s take the reins and drive compassionately, wisely to the best of our maybe-limited capability.  Lovingkindness isn’t a destination, it’s a state of heart available in every moment.  It steadfastly defies our excuse of self-inadequacy.  It doesn’t need to make any progress because it has already arrived.  And it’s not leaving – ever.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Just a Mirror

As the head of the meditation hall, I’m often asked, What do the forms mean? And my answer is always the same:  They don’t mean anything.  They’re just a mirror.

Despite rumors to the contrary, those arcane, exasperating forms aren’t designed to make us look stupid or incompetent.  They are designed to make us deal directly and viscerally with not knowing.  Our culture hinges on competence (or at least the appearance thereof).  And it is imperative in Buddhist practice to examine our habits around lookin’ good -- the careful crafting of appearance, and the equally-careful management of others’ perceptions of our appearance, is otherwise known as suffering.  It’s exhausting, it’s unsustainable, and it’s the opposite of Right View (though unfortunately the word “right” can make us think there is a correct appearance to strive for in meditation, as if enlightenment hinged on good make-up). 

Suzuki-roshi observed that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.  Expertise is an excellent boundary system.  Being right leaves no room to connect.  Our advice can simply be followed with no need for discussion.  To paraphrase Lung-tan’s summation: “If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in [to mess up your look-good].”

But there’s more to his quote:
“If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in … and you can’t get out.”

So, the forms of practice, endlessly byzantine, are actually nothing more (nor less) than the keys to the jail.  They help us crash headlong into our habits, moment after moment, until at some point we tire of the endless collision between our appearance and our true nature, one fixed, the other open to myriad possibilities. 

And at that point, we realize that we have a choice of what looks back at us from the mirrors of practice, especially the mirrors that are other people.  As with all mirrors, it is pointless to try to manage the reflection.  Instead of putting on our best face, we can reveal our original face, one that is willing to see and reflect everything around it as a witness, a companion, a friend.  

Or as the Buddha said, “I see who you are.  You’re me.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Zendo Dawn

Midway through the first period of zazen these days, the zendo shimmers softly with the rising sun.  A pink-yellow cast creeps upward along the west tan, setting aglow the robed figures in their silent stillness.  Inner and outer radiance mutely align, and it is possible, just for a moment, to see Buddha nature.  The 6th Ancestor, Huineng -- renowned, venerated, illiterate -- called such moments "the silent place of essential harmony."

Then dawn gives way to morning, brightness and glare ensue, and the day begins in earnest.  But something about that early sitting stays with us throughout the day, a residue of remembrance, maybe longing, for the one body that sat in the dawn's early light.

Zen Master Wu-tsu couldn't name it, but knew its power:  "There is something that does not come or go, something that does not move.  Make your greetings there."

Good morning.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Week End

The practice period week ends with a ceremony called Nenju.  It’s not TGIF, not an expression of relief that another week is over and now we can do what we want.  It is an expression of gratitude for everything and everyone who helped us throughout the week.  Basically, we all bow to each other.  The ceremony lasts 10 minutes.   

One of the hardest days of a practice period is the day off.  After a week of firmly structured time and arcane forms (all of which are craftily designed to bring our habits and preferences into high relief), we’re confronted with a day of … nothing.  An empty, unscheduled, unstructured day.   And, oh my, how the habits and preferences come roaring back from exile. 

“This practice,” Dogen said, “is the dharma gate of repose and bliss.  The manifestation of totally culminated enlightenment.”  That’s a tall order when our knees hurt, when the chant is unintelligible (even when it’s in English), and when the wake-up bell comes shortly after we’ve gone to bed.  Yet ironically, when we get a day off, the to-do list is a mile long, the friends clamor to be seen, and at the end of the day there is a real danger of feeling more exhausted than after 6 days of practice.  So we might be forgiven for asking:

Where’s the repose and bliss? 

It’s a relief to know that Dogen spent most of his life wrestling with the same question.  And what he finally realized is that precisely within the to-do list and the overbooked calendar is the repose and bliss.  That realization is not separate from daily life.  That awakening is not a weekend destination. 

The purpose of practice is to develop the capacity for repose and bliss in any situation.  Even on the most difficult day of the week – the day off. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Night Zazen

Unusual for a City Center practice period, we are having night zazen for the next few weeks.  You can count the participants on one hand most nights, which begs the question, Why bother?

Fortunately, a certain bodhi tree in Magada didn't ask that same question when a solitary man in his mid-thirties decided one night to sit under the tree and not get up until he found the solution to suffering.  Eventually, the answer did show up, aided by the morning star.

A few days ago, I watched a conference speaker, backed by the requisite (if somewhat tangential) PowerPoint slides, explain that he was engaged in research to help speed up the enlightenment process so that more people could be compassionate quicker.  I wanted to yell at his image on my laptop screen.  You can't speed that up! (I shouted mutely.)  There's no bodhisattva fast-track.  As the Buddha once remarked to an assailant who was trying in vain to reach him, "You can't catch me because I have stopped.  Now you stop."  The assailant did -- and woke up to the truth of his own suffering on the spot.

So we sit, sometimes at odd hours, in homage not so much to the man under the tree, but to the power of stopping that he so ably demonstrated.  Patience and tranquility, the necessary prerequisites to compassion, are found at the stop sign.  We don't need to go get them; they're right here if we just stop and look ... inside.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Committed to Doing Nothing

A zendoful of practitioners spent today sitting, facing a wall, doing nothing.   There were the usual breaks to walk and rest and eat. But no talking, no eye contact, and no electronics.  What a silly waste of time, when we could have been out saving the world. 

Well, maybe we were.  Maybe we were saving the world … from us.   Suzuki-roshi opined that when we sit zazen, we aren’t breaking any precepts, perhaps for the only time all day.  There were 280 minutes of zazen today, or 4 ½ hours of brokenless precepts.  That actually sounds pretty good.  It may not be progress or accomplishment, but it sets the stage for moving and doing in resonance with each other and with our inmost request.  It’s amazing how much connection happens when we’re not communicating, when we must attend carefully to movement and breath, light and shadow, posture and form, to understand what’s going on.

Settling the “inside” is a necessary prerequisite to settling the “outside.”  Or to put it more bluntly, it’s never noisy out there. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Empty or Spacious?

There's nothing on the City Center calendar today.   Zazen and service happen, of course, but otherwise the day is empty.  Panic.  Although our practice purports to cultivate tranquility and spaciousness, when confronted by an empty calendar, even monastics succumb to the compulsion to fill up the chasms of blank space.  Because, of course,  we measure our self-worth (and, covertly, the worth of those around us) by how much we get done and how busy we are.  We talk about sustainability, but that usually means trying to figure out clever ways to do even more.  Sitting and doing nothing is a luxury reserved for the zendo.

Unfortunately, there seems to be some support for this busy-ness in the Buddha's final words:  "All conditioned things are of a nature to decay.  Strive on untiringly."  We have taken that last sentence to heart with amazing -- and misguided -- fervor.  The sentence doesn't say, "Strive on tiredly."  It actually says the opposite: Figure out how to live in a way that isn't tiring.  Figure out the level of sustained effort you can make amid constantly changing conditions.  In short, figure out what you can stop doing so you can rest.

Sustainability isn't about having smart to-do lists (or smart devices that manage your to-do lists). Sustainability is about creating space by stopping, or allowing space without rushing to fill it. Instead of figuring out how to be sustainable, we need to figure out what makes us unsustainable -- and stop doing it.

In his Bloodstream Sermon, Bodhidharma wrote:
Motion is basically mindless.
The mind is basically motionless.
When your mind doesn't stir inside, the world doesn't stir outside.
He's saying we have a choice:  To be mindlessly busy, or to embrace spaciousness and motionlessness so that we can, in fact, have a chance to strive on untiringly.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Way Seeking Mind

During the practice period, various students are invited to give a Way-Seeking Mind talk – an explanation of how they came to be sitting on a cushion in a semi-dark room, facing a wall in imitation of a long-dead prince.  These talks are occasionally funny, but rarely pretty.  People don’t usually end up on the cushion because their life is going swimmingly.  They end up there because they’re drowning in suffering.  And they’ve somehow found the courage and the willingness to learn how to drain the swamp.

So the students talk about how, by bits and pieces, fits and starts, their mind searched for a way to understand how suffering is made, and how it might be alleviated.  They talk about how they realized certain truths of their own role in suffering, how they took up various practices to soften the tyranny of the inner discursive/critical chatter, how they broadened their perspective to dilute the arrogance of knowing the one right answer.

In short, these talks are always from the perspective of someone’s mind seeking a more helpful and peaceful way to live.  Nothing wrong with that. 

But I’ve long harbored a suspicion that the hyphen in “way-seeking mind” is a typo.  That it’s not the mind that’s doing the seeking.  What if the true meaning of that phrase is a plea from Buddha’s way for a mind to partner with? Imagine the want-ad:
Way seeks mind for long-term relationship
filled with compassion, lovingkindness,
joy and tranquility. 
Maybe that’s what Dogen really meant. (Only a Buddha and a Buddha...)
Maybe Rumi was right.  (This longing you feel is the return message.
Maybe we come to practice because our minds, rather than seeking, are simply responding to a request.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


The Shuso (head student) for our Spring 2013 practice period was officially installed today.  For the next six weeks, he will share the Abbot’s seat (figuratively – they still get their own cushions).  Literally, they share responsibility for leading the practice period, nourishing and teaching the participants and the sangha with their decades of dharmic experience and wisdom.  Between them, they have over a century of commitment to Buddha’s way. 

It’s interesting that where we sit looms so large in our conceptions of status.  This first week of the practice period has seen the usual handful of seat-change requests, some for physical reasons, but several for perceived status slights: upper platform, “senior” platform, the dreaded floor cushions, and the usual complaint about practice period participants getting all the good seats.

Even as a culture, we can’t decide on the best place to sit.  The expensively remote sky box– all the way up in the back, farthest from the field of play – or the theater box, hovering above the stage.  No wonder we have trouble finding a seat that matches our self-image.

Dogen reminds us that realization “has nothing to do with sitting or lying down.”  And the Lovingkindness Meditation gently chides us to remember that there’s something more important to do than worry about our seat:  “Standing or walking sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours, let one practice the way with gratitude.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Not Disappear

This morning we said goodbye to a resident who is going back to the “real world.”  You don’t get to just turn in your keys and drive away once you’ve entered the temple.  There’s a ritual of farewell, a bow made to everyone, while they all bow back.  A public acknowledgement that you opened your mind and heart to the way, that you practiced and worked here.  In short, that you were seen, and that you mattered. 

When someone leaves the temple abruptly, it’s like an amputation.  The part is gone, but the pain remains.  Abandonment issues fester in the unsaid goodbye, in the belief that someone (either the leaver or the stayer, or both) wasn’t good enough to deserve attention and commitment. Resentment and anger flare unexpectedly, long after the parting. 

The Surangama Sutra asks us to “resolve never to abandon anyone.”  So, a leaving is serious business.   The one leaving is reminded that they “return to the marketplace with gift-bestowing hands,” the capacity to be generous in the face of breathtaking greed.  They also “go with the deep gratitude and best wishes of us all.”  Both of these are, of course, just sneaky ways of saying, “You take us with you, and we stay with you.” 

Eijun-roshi, the abiding abbess of Green Gulch Farm, says that a friend is someone who doesn’t turn away.  To leave and yet not turn away is an act of inclusion, a willingness to expand our heart beyond our address, a realization that sangha is not a place.