Monday, January 28, 2019

I have a “Zen job,” I am the Ino or the head of the meditation hall of the San Francisco Zen Center. My job is to take care that everything is in its place, so that the practice happens in harmony.

My day starts early, at 5:00, just after the wake up bell, I check the zendo (meditation room), the light must be soft, the window open to circulate the air. On the altar, the candle should be lit and with a correct size and the incenser centralized.

People start to arrive and I’m the one who welcome them and tells them where to sit. Three hits on the bell, zazen begins, after half an hour two hits to start the Kinhin (walking meditation). Another 3 hits and another zazen period. The taiko (Japanese drum) marks the time, the Han prepares us for the verse of Okesa. “Great robe of liberation, field far beyond form and emptiness, vearing the Tathagata’s teaching Saving all beings.”

At the end of Zazen we go to the Buddha Hall, I check the lights, if the candles are lid, the mat centralized. I confirm if the officiant (Doshi) and his assistant, (Jisha or jiko) are ready.
The ceremony begins. Every day in the morning we do the repentance, we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Shanga, after that the sutras. Eyes and ears alert. How is the sound of the mokugyo (instrument that sets the rhythm), how are the bells sounding? At the end of the ceremony I give feedback to the people who participated.

During the day I take care of what is coming, ceremonies, sesshin (retreats). At the end of the day, I sit zazen again, it is when people come from outside of Zen Center, who comes from the work to practice.

This is my day by day. Taking care of details and having the vision of the whole. Paying attention to each one and overall flow. All this for us to practice together.

What is it to be the the giver of joy to the assembly? That the heart of Sanga becomes my own heart? That the practice of all becomes my own practice?

In the Zendo, almost everyone sits facing the wall, Ino, Abbot, Tanto (practice supervisor) sit facing the center of the room, is part of my zazen to pay attention in what is happening.

But more than that, to pay attention that the practice happens smoothly and to encourage people to practice. Knowing that I have presence like a host, caring with love for my guests. Zen love is a subtle care, it is to take care of the silence.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Deep End

Steve Weintraub had us all laughing during his dharma talk on Saturday when he likened Zen practice to being thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool  and calling it a swim lesson. I laughed especially hard, as I have had this very image in my mind these past few weeks. Only my version includes former City Center Inos and supportive others shouting all sorts of mostly encouraging things from the pool deck as I'm flailing. They must have learned the same way. While this whole Zen "learning process" appears (and even often feels) totally insane, I hope I wouldn't keep taking the bait into the deep end if I didn't also have some sense of this being the wisest thing I could possibly do to restore myself to sanity.

In my experience, being in the deep end hasn't become any easier. The flailing feels mostly the same  terrifying. I can't stand it. But I stay, because I know there is nowhere else to go. And the more I stay, the more I trust this wild place. I think of the depiction of Aslan as "not safe, but good" in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The ego isn't safe here, and it knows this. But what about our freedom? 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Who is this urban Ino?

I have been asking myself this question. And perhaps some of you have also been wondering about this new Ino. I look forward to getting to know her with you.

It has been a wild ride for me these past couple weeks at city center. And not only because there have been at least 7 special ceremonies, a one-day sit, and a half-new doanryo since I was thrown in the deep end of Inohood. The last time I set foot in the city center zendo was 5 years ago during my first zen center practice period. Two years prior, I took my first step into the zendo as a guest student, receiving my first zazen instructions from the work leader. As I move about the building now, wearing this new, not yet worn in Ino hat, I catch glimpses of these former selves everywhere. I see her praying for the bell to ring to end zazen in the zendo, crying in the Ino's office during her first sesshin, and swearing she can't stand the pain of sitting one more period in the zendo. I also see her happy and at ease, grateful that she's found a community and spiritual practice that finally feels like home. And then I see her gliding down the back staircase and slipping out the lily alley door, curious about meeting the wider world again and again as soon as she steps out of the temple and onto the city streets. 
During my first practice discussion while I was a guest student, a teacher explained to me the concept of one's life as a spiral. I might feel like I'm in the same place I've been before, he said, but in fact I have circled back around and am now at a different point on the spiral. So here I am again some years later, after spending 3 of them in the monastery, experiencing what it is to be this me again at 300 Page St. 
Thank you for inviting me back into this home to practice with you. I feel an incredible amount of gratitude for everyone who sets foot in this mysterious building. May we continue to do this totally weird, beautiful, made-up thing together, supporting each other in each moment to keep waking up. 

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.)