January 29, 2009

Living Doubt, Faith, and Courage

We were talking in the Zendo last night about doubt, faith, and courage, qualities that need to be cultivated in practice.  We spoke of doubt as the complex mechanism in ourselves that questions the process of thinking and the structure of the self, and that examines dependent origination.  Dependent origination is the teaching on cause and effect, the chain of causation, that one thing causes another.  Dogen Zenji defined the 12 fold dependent origination as ignorance, action, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, love, taking, coming into existence, birth, aging and death.  It is through this vehicle of causation, of investigation through practice that is awakening itself.

Faith we spoke of as faith in ourselves to be able to see ourselves through the difficulty of the examination of causation and to be able to arrive at an understanding of the complexity of it.  When we inquire about our own anger, for instance, we can see the chain of suffering that we engage in and see the links in dependent origination.  Faith in ourselves is also faith in our own maturity to hold fast to extracting ourselves from links that perpetuate suffering.  It is causation that the Buddha saw when he awakened.  He saw the chain of connections of suffering, and he had faith in himself to know he could see into it and to find a way to step beyond suffering.  He had faith in himself to find an answer.  

Courage we saw as the strength to commit to a life of examination, and the courage to sustain oneself through difficulties.  Doubt requires great courage because doubt is uncomfortable.  Suffering is even more uncomfortable.  Doubt is intertwined with awakening and is but a hair's breadth away.  Hold fast!  Hold fast!  Examine deeply and wait.  See into yourself the way the cool mind of the scientist examines a specimen.  Follow the links in the chain as honestly and courageously  as the pure heart of the Buddha.  Allow clarity to wash over you.  This is our practice and this is the turning of the wheel of Dharma.  

Dogen Zenji says, "...do not think that practice leads to the far shore.  Practice exists on the far shore; therefore, if we are practicing, the far shore has arrived - because this practice invariably is equipped with the power of realization of the entire Universe."

January 25, 2009

Lunar New Year of the Cow

Happy New Year of the Cow.  As we leave the Year of the Rat in 2008, I'm astounded at how many people I know who were visited by rats and field mice in their gardens, cars, kitchens and basements during the past year.  I dealt with a mouse nest in my car engine and it took a good while to get rid of the wonderful scent of mouse that filled my car if I turned on the heater.  It has at last disappeared, and now I wonder if we'll be visited by wandering cows and oxen in 2009?  Will we discover the huge creatures blocking the roadway as we approach Olympia Zen Center?  If they bring a bit of "Mu" I think we'll be okay.   

In any event, many of us seem glad to leave behind the old year and to begin afresh with a new dynamic and promise for the days ahead.  A sense of creativity is strong and the atmosphere is hopeful.  Still, we're not past the impenetrable grey ceiling that feels more like an ominous blanket than an actual sky.  Snow continues to sneak into the forecasts.  It's still a time of hibernation in this dark and silent period.

Thus, the creative is doing its subtle processes, mulling around and letting the seeds soak in the nutrients before they break through to the stage of sprouting.  This goes on in us in winter, the time to look into the dark places of ourselves and inquire as to how we are doing.  We do this at New Year and the lunar new year comes at a more brittle, weather-wise time even though we are moving toward more light.  It's a deep part of the night dream when we ought not awaken, but rather stay with the stillness before birth because something important is about to be realized.

This is a good time, entering the Year of the Cow, to do a bit of grazing, slowing down, recognizing the natural rhythms of the day, and finding ease in simple things.  When I travel for workshops to Switzerland, the land of cows, we must take a brief connecting train ride from the airplane to the Zurich airport.  Sound effects play out cow bells and mooing sounds that inevitably make everyone burst out laughing together.  I think of the comfort of the sound of the cow mooing and celebrate the animal that as Walt Whitman says, "preaches contentment."

January 23, 2009

Keeping Touch with the Solitary in Us

When I give talks and show slides at various places, as I did last Wednesday at Panorama City, people are forever interested in Gogo-an.  Gogo-an is the name of the meditation hut where Ryokan, a Japanese hermit priest/poet of the 18/19th Century, lived for more than two decades.  The Gogo-an at Olympia Zen Center is a replica built in the spirit of Ryokan for solitary retreats for members or visitors for any duration of time. 

Perhaps it's the architecture that interests people, the thatched roof calling us back to nature, to the primal simplicity, and the compelling silence that seems to surround the hut.  The 12 x 12 building dedicated for solitary use is unusual to find in this age of hugeness.  We tend toward the comfortable with heat and hot water, full bathroom, hot food.  None of that, of course, is found at Gogo-an.

Last year, a man did a retreat at Gogo-an for the entire month of January.  He did not use heat, but he did use the Zendo kitchen for hot water each day and for some cooking.  He layered his clothing and slept in a good sleeping bag and said that the hot tea made the difference for him.  By the end of the month, the man's face was totally pure, filled with energy, smiling, contented, empowered.  He knew he was capable of not just surviving, but finding the way to live in the natural world again without amenities that can make us spiritually lazy.  Too much comfort can distance us from self-examination, exploration, and empathy.

Just to rest our eyes on Gogo-an is a reminder in the deep heart's core of that solitary place in us that cares for a truth in our being longing to be cared for and expressed.  It's a reminder to keep the balance of the solitary in us and restore the Dharma Treasure.


January 19, 2009

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've been sitting reading WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE: CHAOS OR COMMUNITY? by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day in which we honor his life.  Perhaps we won't have another day quite like this one as we also prepare for the Inauguration of our first African-American President Barak Obama.  Spirits are running awfully high in America right now.  It's amazing to be witness to this moment in history.

Perhaps Dr. King won't mind if I include a brief quote from his book without permission.  This passage seemed to speak to the times:
"We have been seared in the flames of suffering.  We have known the agony of being the underdog.  We have learned from our have-not status that it profits a nation little to gain the whole world of means and lose the end, its own soul.  We must have a passion for peace born out of wretchedness and the misery of war.  Giving our ultimate allegiance to the empire of justice, we must be that colony of dissenters seeking to imbue our nation with the ideals of a higher and nobler order.  So in dealing with our particular dilemma, we will challenge the nation to deal with its larger dilemma.
"This is the challenge.  If we will dare to meet it honestly, historians in future years will have to say there lived a great people - a black people - who bore their burdens of oppression in the heat of many days and who, through tenacity and creative commitment, injected new meaning in the veins of American life."

May Dr. King's spirit help us all to do well in the coming years, for, as our new president reminds us, we must all pitch in and do our bit to recover not only our economy, but our self respect, our ethics, and our integrity.  

January 16, 2009

Spirits and Trees

From my window, I look out at the 300 year old moss covered big leaf maple.  It's one of the largest of its kind in the area.  Our arborist has adopted it so that it will be cared for like an honorary elder.  As a matter of fact, we have designated it a sacred tree along with a 200 year old cedar.  Each of the trees is along the Path of the Ancestors, a trail within the temple grounds that marks the lineage of our matriarchs and patriarchs.  The big leaf maple marks Bodhidharma, and further along, the cedar tree marks Dogen Zenji on the historic link.

At times, the huge trees of the Pacific Northwest seem dark and ominous.  The sun we get can't reach the forest floor because the canopy is dense.  Lately, our soil is acidic so that moss has generated on the tree bark and on much of the ground surface.  It begins to look like a place where Hansel and Gretel got lost in the archetypal forest, and it makes the open areas seem like an old, venerable Chinese garden.

In all of this, the trees have a profound spirit and presence.  We have big leaf maple, cedar, spruce, fir, pine, alder, apple, plum, cherry, and bigger than some of the trees, a bamboo, which is not a tree.  Billions of seeds get thrown down every year with seedlings declaring their rights every spring.  What was once a dense evergreen forest is trying to stage a comeback, and we negotiate exactly where they get to launch their offspring with humans having the upper hand.  Too close to the house and we're in jeopardy.  And then we do want to save our view of the lake.  What a struggle.  Unattended, the land would revert fairly quickly to an evergreen forest because the big leaf maples cannot develop the same girth to support long life with the amount of wind and rain we get.  Except for the stately big leaf maple Bodhidharma tree!!

It takes persistence in the spirit of a tree to find its way to light.  Like ourselves, finding our way to a deep consciousness takes as long as a tree to root and simmer and develop.  The consciousness of the tree is deep in the ground and we receive the mercy of its flowering crown above the ground.  Perhaps it's not different with humans.  We take root, struggle to find the sky, and continually throw down the seeds of our lives.  An elder from the Nisqualli Native American tribe came to visit recently.  We stood together looking at a stand of evergreen and he said with a bit of a laugh, oh you've got lots of the tall ones here.  He didn't mean the trees.  He meant the tall people spirits who dwell among trees.  Can't you see them, he said, they're standing right there in front of you and they're looking straight at you.

January 15, 2009

Writing Assignment

I've been reading THE WRITINGS OF ROBERT MOTHERWELL, one of the great (and to my mind the greatest) of the New York School of painters.  He was also a philosopher and art critic and lectured on various topics of modern art.  When he became too lonely in his painting studio, he took up printmaking because it involved collaboration with others.  His prints are stunningly wonderful.

Anyway, what I've been doing is having a conversation with him in my journal.  It's quite an entertaining and useful exercise and I suggest it for a writing assignment if you are looking for something to grease the wheels.  Open the book of whatever you happen to be reading and find a phrase, sentence, paragraph that speaks to you or nudges you in some way.  You can agree or disagree with it, it doesn't matter.  Next, open your journal, copy out the writing, and then begin to have a conversation with the author as though you were writing a letter, or sending a note to her or him about the subject.  It's a good exploration.

To push myself a little further, I wrote on the same passage for two weeks, to see how I could open it out and explore all the facets of this one idea.  Of course, not every passage from every writer will get get you that much gold.  If you can't go further, find a new passage from the same author to keep the conversation going.  It's a quite nice way to be with an author.  I begin to feel more intimate with his ideas and appreciate him more deeply.  And, I do wish I'd known him.  He managed a sanity in the midst of other troubled souls in the New York School.  He was born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1915, and he died in 1991.

January 14, 2009

Slowly the light...

All through the dark winter in the Pacific Northwest, we just keep making effort.  We begin to notice this when the days, slowly, get longer and longer.  We notice that we kept our practice going forward even when there was darkness driving up to Olympia Zen Center for evening or morning Zazen.  We especially notice the light in morning Zazen when, for many months, we begin in darkness and end in darkness.  Then one morning, as if by some stroke of magic, the day creeps forward through the fog before the finish of Zazen.  The heart sings.

The important point is to just continue to make effort no matter the condition of light or dark, no matter the temperature, or whether it rains or shines.  Inoue Kando Roshi spoke at Entsuji about how we disappoint ourselves.  He said we should notice if we disappoint ourselves and we should practice in a way such that we don't.  If we mean to sit Zazen and don't respond to the intuitive urge, disappointment with ourselves sets up a condition that can keep us from truly actualizing our lives in practice.  How do we know if Zen practice is the best Way for our lives if we don't actually do it?

Very small steps, a little at a time, much like the arrival of morning light, that moves us out of self disappointment and into lighthearted effort can mean enormous change in our lives.  It's the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it.  They are worlds apart.  It does take effort to let go of resistance, but then when we shake ourselves loose it  becomes natural like the progress of sunrise.  We discover ourselves moving forward and that very activity brings about change.  Slowly the light...

January 12, 2009

Mindfulness in Eating

Today we received word that Keido Les Kaye Roshi has made his book ORYOKI free and available for printing at his website  Click on books and you can copy this excellent teaching on how to use monk's eating bowls.  This practice is one of the beautiful ceremonies in Soto Zen, and this handbook helps us continue this formal way of eating.  The link to Kannon-do will also be posted on the Olympia Zen Center website.

This book comes at a time when so many people are dieting as a New Year resolution.  We've stuffed ourselves over the holidays, eaten chocolate and goodies without thinking, and now we wear the results on our hips.  Taking time to consider what goes in our mouths is wise.  I'm thinking of Ryokan who relied only on begging.  Who knows what he'd receive or whether he would receive anything at all on a day's begging rounds?  Not a lot of chance for him to do New Year Day stuffing unless he were invited to someone's home.  We don't have much evidence that this happened.

Ryokan says that we should not fill our mouths with food until we are desperately hungry.  In other words, we should be aware of food as a medicine to keep us alive and healthy and not eat with compulsion or mere habit.  No doubt more people in the US are going to learn this lesson as we are forced to rely on food stamps, or we stick to necessities.  My grocery store has seen a shift in peoples' purchases with fewer pies and cakes landing in the shopping cart.  I like the way the first part of our meal chant sets up this profound practice of awareness:

First, innumerable labors brought us our food, we should know how it comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order to mind, to be free from clinging we must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our lives we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our Way we take this food.

Meditating on any one of these aspects of food and eating is helpful as we deepen our appreciation of the benefits of food and as we learn and practice restraint in daily life.  

January 11, 2009

Restoring the Treasure House, Shobo Practice

It's hard not to appreciate Sundays.  It happens to be our day off from the schedule and the usual doings.  Calling it Sabbath for Zen Buddhists doesn't exactly work because of its meanings for Jews and Christians.  But the intention to stop work, to pause, to reflect, to restore oneself is what it's all about, and I have always loved the meaning and intention of Sabbath.  

So, I call this day of rest, Shobo Practice.  The word "Shobo" in Japanese Zen, means "Restoring the True Treasure House of the Dharma."  Taking a step back from the usual workload and recognizing what we are doing in the activity of rest and restoration, lifts the day into a religious observation that keeps us mindful of practice but permits the body and mind to have a holiday.  We are better for the rest we take.  We can truly relax in the Dharma.

In our case, it just happens to be Sunday, but it could be any day of the week that we keep Shobo Practice.  I completely encourage it for everyone.  Some are old enough to remember that we used to take it easy on Sundays.  The stores were closed and the streets were quiet.  Some countries in Europe continue this.  In our city of Olympia, most Jews that I know follow the observation of Shabat, the Sabbath, from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown.  The saying is that, "it isn't that the Jews preserved the Sabbath, but rather it is that the Sabbath preserved the Jews."  Rest and restoration give us long life.

Let us learn from this.  Shobo Practice preserves us for more joyful spiritual expression.  Go forth with a free mind and heart, and play.

January 10, 2009

Emptiness cares...

Saturday morning's study circle continued with our reading of Hee-Jin Kim's, DOGEN ON MEDITATION AND THINKING: A REFLECTION ON HIS VIEW OF ZEN.  This is strenuous reading that requires deep focus and listening,  but it is very rewarding for the hearty ones who stick with Kim's discourse.  It is a particularly good exercise for those (older?) ones in the group who need to make effort to maintain brain stamina. 

One appreciative student this morning expressed gratitude for Kim's observations of Dogen's teachings which point out that the realization of Emptiness is a yeasty movement in our lives and not a static, fixed state.  In order to find balance, we have to weigh and negotiate each moment through myriad daily life transactions and confusions.  In this living process, Emptiness cares about the things of the world and how those things differ so that we can use the truth of every situation in order to bring about fairness and equilibrium.  Our own existential dilemmas are part of a fully engaged life and require us to be vigorous in our critical understanding and analysis.

This discussion came after a period of Zazen during which a song bird, perched in a nearby tree, let forth the hope that maybe....maybe, maybe.....spring is on the way, albeit the month of January.  How wonderfully the heart leapt out at the song just as light came over the lake.  But, oh, winter keeps its grip on us and the urge to hibernate is strong in these dark, ominous woods.  The bears are sensible because they know enough to sleep through winter.  There is nothing more lonely than to see a forlorn and solitary coyote make its way on a deer trail through the snow.

The weekend comes and we pray, and we also send out bits and pieces of household goods to the ones who have lost so much in the floods.  Emptiness cares about the things of the world.

January 09, 2009

The Sun Came Out

For a few moments yesterday, the sun came out and there was a sense of relief.  Still, the rivers continued to swell and people rushed for higher ground.  The mercy is that it has stopped raining and this will bring some drying to the saturated ground.

This morning I'll be at a local retirement center where 15 or so people, mostly women, gather each month for meditation and discussion on Buddhist topics.  I've been going there for about 8 or 9  years.  Almost all are over 85 years old and still they pursue inquiry into the mind and its workings.  They continue to learn and open their eyes and hearts to the world with no consideration of age.  Foremost in their effort is the heart of prayer for the condition of the world.  All would agree that they just want to leave the world in a little better situation than when they found it.

So then, consider this brief mantra from Hymn to the Perfection of Wisdom which can be recited on each prayer bead, "She brings Light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion." 

January 08, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

January 8, 2009

Rivers in Western Washington continue to swell.  A photograph of a rushing stream swallowing everything in its path makes us realize the power of water.  I'm thinking of the very poor whose modest homes are flooded.  They have so little and yet they lose so much.  In today's practice we keep in mind all those who are challenged by the flooding waters; we remember to claim their essential Buddha Nature even as they grapple with the severity of loss.  Constant mindfulness of Sound Observer, the Compassionate One, is always in our midst.

We read poems of practice last evening at Olympia Zen Center and had a brilliant time.  Some who could not be here sent poems coming from as far away as New Zealand.  Sorry that I did not collect them, but I'll offer my own today.  Here it is.

Buddha's Enlightenment Day

A bodhisattva knows the hour of failure and loss
knows to pray with a heart intent on the moment
the body trembling with a weight
that almost cannot be lifted.

Across the trail a pile of branches
as if a pyre had formed of itself
out of the fallen arms of trees
waiting to turn into fire.

Beside the solitary hut, a black crow
poised in shadow
its yellow eyes intent on all
that moves from sleep.

Through the long, hard night
toil of witness undoes the day's labor
dark into light, light into dark
one done, another undone.

Here, with all its rubble and confusion
querencia, the peaceful abode,
despite the castle turrets and flags
that build in the day's pronouncements.

There is nothing perfect here
nothing disturbed by hurry or reason
no obstacle to sight and sound
in the miracle of the empty hand.

Each being throbs and moves in this
existence in its own time and pace
absolved by an incurable with-ness
that yearns to open the collective song.

This is Buddha's promise
this is Buddha's peace -
waiting in faith in silence
the wish to pray already prayer.

January 07, 2009

Reading Our Poems of Practice Together

January 7, 2009

Not long after we began Zen practice in Olympia, the sangha took up the practice of writing a poem in the new year.  We read our newly composed poems together on the first gathering night after January 1.  Sometimes this date fell on the anniversary of Ryokan's death day, so it was a  nice gesture to offer to his memory.  It always gave each one a chance to speak in a different way, by heightening our language of practice and giving the opportunity to articulate our understanding of Dharma in poetic form.  After all, Dogen Zenji and Ryokan both used poetry for the deep heart of awakened expression.
On this evening then in 2009, we come together and bring our poems rolled up and tucked into the shirt pockets and sleeves.  Slowly, one by one, we unravel the words and allow them to hang in the silence.  It is one of our treasured practices.
So, perhaps you'll take a moment to write a few lines that express your spiritual life.  Straightforward, simple, honest language is best.  Perhaps one sentence a day.   The Dharma singing out of "Emptiness, like the mouth , open, hanging in space." (Dogen)
Eido Frances

The Anniversary of Ryokan's Death Day, January 6, 2009

January 6, 2009
The Anniversary of Ryokan's Death Day

Today is the anniversary of Ryokan's death day.  He died quietly on a snowy morning in 1831 with friends at his bedside.  Hundreds and hundreds of people attended his funeral several days later to pay honor to the beloved hermit priest/poet/artist-calligrapher.  
He comes alive in this age,  his poems translated far and wide into many languages.  What would we do without him, without his simple teachings that wind deeper and deeper into the heart the more we recite them!
At Olympia Zen Center, we recite one of Ryokan's poems every morning as part of our liturgy.  It's a simple practice, but each time we chant those words, we create a resonance around the space that moves the teachings of Ryokan into the bones.  It's the simple act of every day doing that helps teach us about the abiding spirit that resides within and without.
What is your simple everyday practice?  Is it the simple, conscious, aware act of washing your face?  Is it the offering of a fresh cup of water on your home altar?  Now, in this New Year it is a fine time to renew that daily aware sacred action.  It is a fine time to begin.
Eido Frances