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?”