February 26, 2009

Breathing Easier

Several newcomers were in the Zendo last evening for Zazen meditation and Dharma talk.  They brought a sincere response to the sacred and sat well in the spirit of silence.  It is not an easy thing to do, to walk in the door, receive instruction and sit unmoving for 40 minutes in silence.  I admire, appreciate, and learn from those who move through that entry gate to practice.

We were talking about the lifelong importance of breath and learning to breathe well.  This can be the most essential part of training for one's whole life and it behooves us to carefully attend to this as a beginner.  Even though we may get bored with counting breaths and think we are doing something that doesn't matter, as we continue, this will be the factor that teaches us and determines our ability to cope with daily life matters.  Working with the breath is the most essential lifelong practice.

How do we know if we are breathing correctly?  Lie down flat on the floor on your back.  Let your arms fall at your side.  Stay there for a few moments to stabilize and quiet your breath.  Now, after a few moments, place your hands gently on your abdomen and notice the rise and fall of the belly.  Notice internally, which muscles are involved in the action.  Connect with those muscles in the mind and ask your body to remember that this is the correct action of breathing.  Stay in the lying down posture for about 10 to 15 minutes breathing gently and smoothly asking your body to continue to breathe this way when you stand up and enter other activities.

If your breath is high up in the lungs and the belly isn't working then it is easier to become distressed, impatient, or fretful.  Continue to check the breath throughout the day to be sure you are breathing correctly from the belly.  Take a few moments every day to lie on the floor and notice the posture of the breath so that the body is retrained in the mechanics of breathing.  After awhile it will become natural and you will discover better oxygenation and stamina in all your activities.  This correct posture of breath will then be a guiding aspect of meditation and you can sit on the cushion with confidence and stability as you make deep experiential investigation into everyday life and the chain of causation.

As I mentioned earlier, this practice is lifelong and we who have been meditating for many years can renew ourselves in this beginning way at any time.  We can rediscover the beauty and importance of this training and enjoy the delicate presence it brings to being here in each moment.  Natural gratitude arises and appreciation of life deepens.  How fortunate this gift of life-giving breath and how fortunate to receive this practice.

February 22, 2009

No I Won't, Yes I Will

The wholehearted attitude "yes" has to be deeply rooted in Zen practice.  A willingness to pick up after one another, to do what is needed to be done without question is at the heart of practice.  Learning to say yes teaches us to see how the ego acts in us when we are asked to do something we may not like.  Learning to say yes teaches us to be selfless and to let go again and again to the endless resistances that hinder our progress in Zen practice and in life.  Nevertheless, there were numerous instances in the life of Ryokan in which Ryokan said that all important word "no."  These were important pivotal moments that helped to shape his life.

There's no doubt that there has to be the freedom to choose yes or no so that either one is not a rote response to life.  In that moment of decision however, both yes and no appear in a split second.  We say no, not that way, but yes, this way.  No and yes are present in every decision.  Ryokan knew very well that life is very much a matter of choice, and he was willing to live through the consequences of his choices no matter how difficult.

The first major "no and yes" occurred when he refused to follow in his father's footsteps as head man of his village.  His yes was to take vows as a monk.  A later "no and yes" occurred when he said no to being abbot of the temple following his teacher's death, and yes to a life as a mendicant.  He said no to living in his family home when he returned to his birthplace, and yes to remaining in a life of begging.  There were numerous other decisions such as these that clearly marked his life's Way.  He didn't waffle between these decisions, at least as we can see.  He may have taken a time of discernment before the decision, but when he made his choice, he made it with confidence, not only in his life, but in life itself. 

Many dear friends and family around me are struggling with yes and no, no and yes, right now.  It isn't easy, especially given the difficult times that appear in front of us.  Sometimes we are able to double back if we realize our decision was not wise.  Sometimes we cannot.  But, my grandmother's fireside wisdom transmitted to my mother and to me still holds up.  "What is for you cannot get away."  It has its karmic inference, of course.  It also has a simple wisdom that confirms a deeply positive matter of life.  The good we hope that will be there for everyone cannot simply disappear.  Life is bigger than we imagine.  "Yes and no" and "no and yes" are just life and one or the other makes all the difference. 

February 16, 2009

Always at Work

Last week there was a newspaper article about a job opening with the state for a minimum wage position.  There were 5,000 applications for the job.  It's a bit scary to think that that many people would be competing for a very low paying position.  Each day in the news, we see more and more people who are at home while they attempt to find work.  What are we to think, and how shall we keep a healthy, positive outlook?

From an absolute spiritual standpoint, wherever we go, we are always in the right place.  We cannot not be in the right place.  When we truly know this at the deepest level possible,  we can realize that wherever we are, we are engaged in the right livelihood of spiritual activity.  Right livelihood is one of the practices on the 8-fold Path taught by the Buddha and is an aspect of living ethical conduct in the world.  The word "livelihood" comes from the Old English "way of life" or "course of life."  Right livelihood is the means of securing the necessities of life.  What is more important than finding our balance in the spiritual aspects of everyday life?  Isn't a balanced spiritual life one of our great necessities?

So, if we get laid off, if we lose our employment due to the economic times, it can be terribly frightening and uncomfortable and we may feel a sense of panic or who knows what other physical response.  After all, we have children to feed, a spouse, a home to take care of.  These are not idle matters.  But, it is the moment to remain calm and confident in our spiritual lives.  That's the moment to see that Buddha Nature is always at work.  This is our source of reliance in the most dreadful of circumstances. In the Lotus Sutra we can find this point of reliance in the most daunting situations and we can know that we will find our Way.  Most important, we can keep our poise and presence of mind by rooting ourselves firmly in practice.  Ultimately, we're all in this together and we're all finding our Way.

The Three Treasures, Buddha-Dharma-Sangha are always at work.  When times such as these are so difficult, we can call on Sangha for help.  It's a Treasure beyond compare.  We may be giving the opportunity of extraordinary merit to a Sangha member to help us.  A number of years ago, some friends of mine were about to lose their home to foreclosure.  At a meditation meeting, their need was reported to the Sangha.  Several days later, someone who had heard the story and did not even know them, walked up and handed them the money, about $5,000, to cover back installments on the mortgage.  This is a true story, and this is the true Sangha always at work.

February 13, 2009


Last year, students from our local college's world religions class were visiting Olympia Zen Center on a field trip.  On that evening, I happened to speak about Dogen Zenji's chapter on "Space."  I mentioned that spaciousness was one of the great qualities of the Buddha and that my first Zen master was notable for having this quality.  People would say that no matter the kind of place they were in, whether it was small and enclosed, they always experienced a great spaciousness around him and in being around him.  He opened them to the nature of space.  We could say that the Buddha himself dwelled completely in Space.

I was speaking about the reality of the Dharma being connected with Space and that to speak about the Dharma is to abide in Space and to speak in Space.  Becoming a Buddha is to reside in Space.  These are the kinds of things I was speaking of.  During the question and answer period, one of the students said that he thought young people would understand this kind of thing very well because they were related to space in their communications in ways that the older generations were not.  He was thinking of "My Space" and the internet, of course.  He said that young people understand communicating in different ways and in the nature of holding space as their realm of relatedness in the internet.

This notion was quite interesting to me and I could agree about the nature of communications, but Space beyond space and the many kinds and notions of space in the Buddhist teachings were a little different.  It was only after the young students left that one of the Zen students asked, "But what happens to this communication when the power goes out?"

Today, I was working with an elderly woman who is tormented by grief.  She can find no way to deal with the swells of tears that constantly afflict her.  When she and I discussed the notion of space and how she could, in a very practical way, work with creating space around her emotions and physical pain, she could abide in equanimity, but, I told her, she had to choose to do so.  She had to actually practice doing so.  We can dwell in life in our emotional and thought-filled enclosures within ourselves, or we can dwell in the expanded space which is available to us at all times.  Dogen Zenji reminds us that our learned intelligence and our developed wisdom take place in Space.  Space itself is the Mind of Buddha; Space itself is the Dharma.  

February 09, 2009

Needing and Where the Need Is

There is a Zen priest I know who is living in a city in the U.S. and practicing Zen with mostly white, middle-class people.  He told me recently that he feels he cannot continue because the people he practices with are not in touch with real suffering that he sees on the street.  He wants to work with people who are in need and not people who just think they need something and take up Zen practice as a hobby.

My first Zen teacher came to a similar place.  When he saw the middle-class people take up Zen practice fairly casually without the deep, gut-level commitment that keeps Zen practice authentic, he became discouraged with what he was doing and lost faith in the Sangha he was serving.  He began to hang out with people who were very sick and dying, people on the fringe, and those who were lost and depressed.  These seemed to him to present a real need and not an imagined need.  He told his Sangha, you don't need me, you already have everything.  It was his way of pointing the Sangha to look at their acquisition of comfort that had caused them to ignore the work of helping people and to selfishly cling to their own goods and habitats.

How do we keep Zen practice vital and not sell out to the warm, comfortable bed?  How do we stay in touch with the first intuitive insistence that took us to the cushion, the first honest view of our suffering that made us weep for our own sorrowful condition?  The difficulty is that we often  practice to a certain point where we've brought our suffering to a manageable level and we don't want to do quite what it takes to push further to deeper insight, to live a life of true giving with real insight into ourselves.  The urge to practice deeply may come up every now and then and each time we don't answer the call, we sink a little deeper into the satin pillows of comfort.  

Yesterday I visited the website of Amnesty International, an organization to which I contribute, and came away aghast having been reminded of the needs around the world.  How can we possibly address the massive injustices that lay at our feet; how can we possibly ignore them?  I'm afraid that I, like my first teacher, have come to question the relevance of sweet little zendos in the suburbs.  I'm 68 and may have 15 more good years in me.  I don't know what I will do, but I'm forced to examine whether I can respond to my own form of 'salt march'.  I have to confess that Bernie Glassman's street work gets closer all the time.

February 06, 2009

Speaking for Equality, Holding One's Place

At yesterday's lecture on "Women in Religious History" about 100 people attended:  10 or 12 were men and the rest women.  The mean age was about 80, except for a scattering of about 8 or 10 young women in their 20's who may have accompanied their grand or great-grandparents.  Someone saw an elevator full of women alight on the auditorium level and commented:  "An elevator load of feminists!"  Simply looking at the group, you would not think this, as they appeared quite conservative.  I trembled slightly to think of what I was about to say by way of patriarchy and self-authorization, but as the talk went on, heads began to nod in agreement and the way was quite smooth and receptive.  It was very clear in the lecture that patriarchy is a system we have learned but is a system that causes suffering.  Men and women need one another and we need equality.

At one point, I commented that I had seen the acclaimed "John Adams" docudrama and mentioned how strongly Abigail Adams had supported her husband, researching and writing for him when needed, along with keeping the household and raising the children.  At one point in their story but not in the video, John Adams is called away, yet again, to participate in writing important legislation and he and Abigail maintain their correspondence.  The legislators are taking up the matter of slavery, and Adams, who was an abolitionist, tries to find language in support of the humanity of slaves.  Abigail writes back to him saying that she knows he will find the right language, but she also hopes he will find a way to speak on behalf of the rights of women, particularly because of the gross mistreatment of women by their tyrannical husbands.  Adams finds this terribly amusing and dismisses her entirely saying, "Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our Masculine system."  So, another 100 years goes by before the Woman's Suffrage Movement finds its voice.

At another talk recently, I said that I thought the current writing of the John Adams script missed a great chance to bring Abigail Adam's feminist attitudes into focus by including this incident in the video.  It would have taken only a few moments to do so in the script and it would have served to point out issues of oppression that extended beyond the obvious.  Afterward, a young woman came up to me and said that she had not heard anyone talk about women's rights in such a long time, she thought perhaps the public discussion was finished.  It reminded that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that matters of oppression must be addressed by every generation.  We cannot hide from them, nor forget them, ever.  

I say that each one must be willing to stand for equality on her or his own ground and save that much of the world from the tyranny of privilege, power and oppression.  If we speak for just the space under our own feet, we speak for the whole world.  Rosa Parks spoke quietly but firmly for only one seat on the bus and she brought the nation to change.  Look out today for one small, gentle, life-changing opportunity.

February 02, 2009

Women and Sacred Texts

On Thursday, I'll give a talk at Panorama City on Women and Religious History.  This is about how women have been viewed throughout the history of religion rather than about particular women in the various traditions.  I owe gratitude to Serinity Young for her text SACRED TEXTS BY AND ABOUT WOMEN, a 1999 anthology that compiles and articulates women's contribution to sacred literature, such as we have it.  I used her text when I taught a course by this name in the classroom.  Most history has focused on the religious activities of men which is not representative of all human experience.  Recent research by women scholars attempts to unveil, as it were, the presence of women in the development of religious practice and traditions.

As a former higher education teacher of world religions, I have to say that it's a rarified moment to find any text book in world religions that mentions women at all and how they are viewed within the traditions.  Checking an index in a text on the history of the world's religions for instance, I see brief token mentions of attitudes toward women.  In a 650 page text, a token 8 column inches is devoted to the matter of feminist theology.  The feminist movement is one of the most important in world history for it continues to seek ways to address oppression against more than half of the world's population.  Further, the feminist movement liberated us to be able to ask important questions about our society in the 20th century that we had heretofore been afraid to ask and address.  

I can't speak about women and the world's religions without some discussion of patriarchy.  Allen Johnson writes in THE GENDER KNOT, "A society is patriarchal to the degree that it is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered.  It also involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.  Patriarchy is male-dominated in that positions of authority - political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, domestic - are generally reserved for men....Male dominance also promotes the idea that men are superior to women."  It amuses me when some young whippersnapper in the classroom tries to demonstrate his Bible expertise to show male superiority in Genesis saying that since God created women second, women therefore must be inferior to men.  I point out that if it were just a matter of order, then animals would be superior to men since God created animals first and not men.  That quiets them for only a moment, for the social milieu in which we live perpetuates the dynamic of superiority, and it takes continued effort to address the oppressive system in which we live.  As African-Americans will quickly point out, we aren't beyond racism just because we have a Black president.  Oppression in any shape or form must be contended with, again and again by every generation.

So today, we can look into our own lives and ask in what ways patriarchy persists in our daily lives.  How do we contribute to it?  Can we dare to speak to something that we feel is not balanced?  Can we find the capacity to make a crack in the entrenched, habitual patterns we find ourselves in?  Make a humble start by just looking.