December 29, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year one and all!
May we receive and share life blessings in 2010!
On New Year Day we ring the bells 108 times to remove our transgressions and to celebrate the New Year with clarity and resonant good will. There is much focus this year on Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion. I've spoken about it here and I emphasize it again as Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, "She Brings Light," the One Who Listens to the suffering of the world with compassion, is foremost in our practice. There is much in our daily happenings around the world that calls us to be aware of the condition of the suffering earth and its peoples. Hardly a day goes by without some heartrending news of environmental stress and cultural, racial, gender, religious, or territorial conflict. We are called to work within ourselves to see the presence of the Compassionate One in the midst of turmoil and pain.

I'm recalling a Psalm I wrote a number of years ago for the invocation for the opening of the meetings of Buddhism, Christianity, and Global Healing: The Nonviolent Struggle for Economic and Social Justice, held at Pacific Lutheran University. I'm inclined to reprint it here for New Year 2010. With blessings to all!


We have come in faith and good will, peace and
integrity, to answer the cries of suffering,
the mistaken voice of consumption,
greed, anger and delusion.

We have tasted the bitter water of pollution, of toxic
and hazardous waste and swallowed poisons
from the deep places of the earth.

We have heard the silence of children stitching
seams of the very garments we wear,
have seen the eyes of women taught
political lessons through sexual violence.

We have seen the broken untouchables denied a
place in the classroom, killed or abused
at the hands of force.

We have inhaled the industry of prisons,
the cold, racial walls of fear
that penalize by lethal injection.

We have touched the poor in the barrios,
gripped the ragged bones of economy
with the frayed hem of the mother's skirt.

We have been made to face ourselves in the great
long-standing suffering mirrors of humanity,
and we are bowed down at the altar of
repentance melted like wax
in the earth's cradle.

Let us come then to polish the mirror in the light of
grace, freeing ourselves from the rusty views
of despair and complacency.

Let the bright, divine reflection breathe a language
of truth and truthfulness, openness and
receptivity in all our proceedings.

Let us persevere in our personal practice, making
ourselves tabernacles of light that we may
teach with insight and clarity and we may
learn with gratitude and humility.

Let all beings in our interconnectedness signify their
original natural spiritual illumination
in a nonviolent unfolding
of peaceful repair and progress.

Let the mercy and light of global healing sing in the
reflective capacity of every heart.

O let us give thanks that we are lifted here to
begin this New Year of practice and peace.

Nine Bows
Eido Frances Carney
Ryoko-an, Olympia Zen Center

December 21, 2009

New Year Wishes, Resolutions, Effort

Each year at this time, I prepare a New Year package to send to my teacher, Niho Roshi. The package contains some gifts for the family, treats from Washington State, and perhaps chocolates. Then I assemble an offering of rice, wrapped in a traditional way, to express my wish for the health of my teacher. Later, the rice is cooked along with any other rice offerings from students and Niho Roshi consumes the sacred grain as a gesture of good will and support of his students to sustain him through the year.

New Year is also about bell ringing. We have adopted some of the celebratory traditions of Zen temples in Japan and we have our bell ringing too. Traditionally, bell ringing begins at midnight and lasts as long as there are people to ring the bell. The gesture of ringing the bell is a metaphor for clearing ourselves of any transgressions we might have committed during the past year. The sound of the bell clears the air and we are free to begin the New Year afresh. Some people ring the bell quite loudly making sure the bell captures any extra transgressions that may be stored in the heart.

In Olympia, we ring the bell on New Year Day after we've sat Zazen in the morning. We each take a turn allowing the resonance to complete itself and wash the air with the vibration. During our chanting of Hannya Shingyo, The Heart Sutra, we listen to the reading of the names of all those who have donated to Olympia Zen Center or who have come to sit Zazen during the year. The names and the Sutra completely merge. It seems as if the names ride on the healing wave of the music and burst forth into solace.

Thank goodness we have such a thing as the New Year to give us a fresh start. The matter of making resolutions is a good one even though most people don't keep them for very long. Resolutions give us a chance to recognize areas where we can do better in our lives and admit we are not perfect. They speak to the aspiration to unfold a new person within. It's best though if we don't disappoint ourselves by giving up too easily in making changes in habit and behavior. Any of this requires work, attention, and commitment. Yet there is nothing more fulfilling than to know we have the fortitude to truly carry out a resolution. If we make a resolution, we should put strong effort into whatever change we are making.

Today I was at my exercise place and I was the only one there. The trainer began to work out with me because she thought I might feel too lonely. We both laughed at the thought that next week, after New Year, the place will be packed with everyone having decided to turn over a new leaf and drop some of the weight accumulated over the holidays. Even a little effort for a short time is good. I'll be one of the ones resolving to do better; the rewards of making the effort are beyond calculation.

December 13, 2009

Frosty Sunday Morning

I had a date with my grandchildren, Julian and Esther, for a Skype visit this frosty morning. It's dinner time in Zurich and they are already in their pajamas, bathed and relaxed for a quiet evening before the school week starts tomorrow. Earlier last week, my daughter Ellen and the children cleaned out their bedrooms to let go of toys and books they no longer relate to. I can see by their poise as we sit and talk face to face via this amazing, Star Trekian magic, how quickly they are growing and growing up, how well parented they are, how blessed in their living.

One of the wishes of today's skype chat was to read to them a poem Ellen sent to me for Christmas in Japan in 1990. It's a take off on The Night Before Christmas, but in it, we discover that Buddha and Santa are actually one and the same. The (fat) Buddha and Santa are about the same size and have never been seen together in the same room, so they are obviously the same person. Eventually, Santa/Buddha winks and admits this truth. It's a charming poem, completely made up as Ellen went along, hand written on beautiful cotton torn paper. A treasure to read to the grandchildren each year.

So the frost is still with us after a week of extreme cold, and now the sky is heavy enough that snow could begin any moment. The lake is frozen solid, a few birds are out and about, prayer flags toss in the wind. Inside is the luxury of warmth, the amazement of technology to see and speak to family in Switzerland. So grateful to have a shelter. There are many downtown as I write who are having to leave some of the shelters because they are only for night sleeping. The library is closed on Sundays, the mainstay of the homeless, as are many of the shops and restaurants. I wonder, when you have nothing, no place warm to set your things down, where do you go on a morning like this?

December 10, 2009

Wonderful Rohatsu Sesshin

(You cannot tell by the greenery in the photograph that it's 7 degrees Fahrenheit just after sunrise on December 7, 2009.)

There were many around the world who were practicing Rohatsu Sesshin together. Some sat by themselves and kept a modified daily schedule with us. We could feel you right beside us - New York, Germany, Australia, Japan. In presence there is no distance.

Here in Olympia, by the time the furiously cold weather arrived, we were in the tight warmth of our circle, trusting one another with the voice of practice. It was an excellent retreat with the key word, "willingness." From the very first moment, people stepped into the vessel of the tradition and we successfully navigated the waters moment by moment. There was no questioning the nature of the tradition, the origins of bowing, the ritual of Oryoki, the way of Dokusan. No, no. It was embracing all of it with willing joy and a sense of celebration.

At the same time, we each had our own "stuff" to deal with: facing the demands of the schedule, feeling tired at times, aching knees and backs, food that might not agree, being woken at night by the movement of others, and how these things impacted the emotional body and impinged on practice. Yes, we each had our life issues, our own body of work to deal with and yet, in this retreat, this too was taken up with willingness.

This tells us something about the questioning mind which is necessary to critical development in Zen practice. Critical development means the ability to see into the nature of practice, to see into our own entanglements, to bring wisdom to bear in our progress toward polishing our character, to learn to uncover the roots of Dharma in the texts. Critical development refers to things of this nature. Critical development is different from criticism. Criticism can be a destructive bent that questions the tradition in ways that can be negative. While questions of tradition and the way of practice may enter critical thinking, if criticism overtakes the questioning mind, the tradition and those practicing suffer because the underpinnings that hold us together are peeled away. Dogen Zenji reminds us again and again that practice itself is Awakening. So, if we begin to criticize the very practice itself in destructive ways, then we are tearing at the appearance of Buddha, the manifestation of Dharma, the expression of Sangha.

It's fair to say that Zen practice is not for everyone. If we find ourselves criticizing bowing, criticizing rituals, criticizing the tradition, then we have to consider whether we have fallen into criticism as a personal or cultural habit and we need to root it out, or whether deep down at that root level, Zen practice may not be for us. Perhaps the mind is too itchy when it isn't at home. And who are we to change a tradition of 2500 years when we've only been practicing one or two years? It's best not to destroy the beauty of the tradition for others and to step aside where we can observe and examine ourselves quietly in this regard.

This sesshin demonstrated the beauty of critical development in people's practice in the zendo and in their daily lives. Because we manifested this completely as a Sangha, we were able to feel ourselves move as a single body at times even when we were moving through different tasks. Noble silence was honored and the work of 'being solitude' itself within the Sangha was willingly practiced.

To unfold the sesshin for oneself and for one another with open willingness is a gift of generosity which is the first and most necessary virtue. I'm honored to have been among the fine people who gave up their lives for the period of this sesshin, and who together, step by step, showed the Way.