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.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Practice of Companionship

The spring practice period opened today with a peregrination to various altars, including one atop the roof, at sunrise, sans bees.  Standing in the cool breeze under a softly glowing, partly cloudy sky, forty-two participants – some residents, some commuters – agreed to spend the next six weeks exploring the theme of “Dharma Friendship.” 

The idea of the good friend, the path-partner, prevails in Buddhism.  Without it, sangha fizzles.  “Only a Buddha and a Buddha,” Dogen surmised, could understand reality – because only through others do we see reflected the reality we’ve made.  And only with others do we have a prayer of changing it.  No one goes it alone.  The self-made (wo)man is the epitome of delusion.  Nothing that’s you was made by you, not even your idea of who you are.  Tozan’s jeweled mirror isn’t a piece of glass, it’s other people – in truth they are you.

So, we’ll spend six weeks exploring we, muting I.  The metaphors are legion – front and back foot in walking, light and dark, boat and shore, inquiry and response.   The point is so profound and so astonishingly simple: Our life is an “and.”