April 28, 2010

"...and what did you make of your life?"

It's April 28, my birthday. I'm 70. Seventy years ago today, my mother had already been in the hospital for two weeks suffering from exhaustion. In those days, medicine had a different attitude. A little after one o'clock in the morning she had one spontaneous labor pain, and I was born before they could get her to the delivery room. This sudden appearance saved her from the hard work of labor and from any further exhaustion. As was the practice following birth, she stayed in the hospital for another five days.

I wonder sometimes if that burst into life shaped how I am, or was it because I was already that way - sometimes impromptu, vigorous, direct, frank (my father's name) - that I pushed through so rapidly. The old chicken or the egg thing. Asking too many questions for my own good. Now at 70, there is looking back. It does feel like a bigger gate than 50 or 60. It feels like there's a weight of life behind me, a history that I can't quite comprehend because it's too much and too complex to hold, to remember, or imagine. Where have I been? What have I done?

The first bird this morning sang before 5 a.m. I woke wondering if the moon were still out. Last night on the way to sleep it was brilliant and tonight it will be full. It seemed auspicious. We'll celebrate Buddha's birthday tonight along with my own and the Full Moon. But, it remains to be seen whether the light of the moon will reach through the dark clouds.

So, I got up and fixed a coffee and went back to my room which as fung shui goes, is the room where the angels reside. A good sleeping place. I spent time writing before Zazen and fell into life questions. The big one that named the Stroud lecture, "...and what did you make of your life?" was at the top of the list. I thought about Zen practice and purpose, about the seriousness of life and the frivolity, lightheartedness and gravity, about life as an experiment, life as meaning, intention, fate, the body, the mind, the spirit. "What did you make of your life?"

How am I living my life? Am I caught by irrelevant matters? Who is standing in my shoes? Can I wholeheartedly take up the tasks I've been given?...the ones that I, myself, invented? Can I begin again for the first time? What endures? Have I the courage to live my life completely? Have I the courage not to fear death? What is there yet to do? Can I stand with who I am and who I've become? Is what I ask of myself too rigid? Can I continue to go to the zendo and sit with my questions? Can I allow the questions to continue? Life is questions and should be questions. This does not mean discontentedness. Cows are contented. Who could be contented in today's world with such suffering and turmoil. How can I turn that concern for suffering to good purpose?

Such roiling at 70! Mind you, I am not unhappy. I love life and love that I have the privilege of having gotten to this age. Lord knows I danced in dangerous pathways many times. When I think of all I've been given I'm overwhelmed by the grace and abundance.

This morning my grandchildren telephoned from Zurich. Esther, nearly 8, spoke first. I asked did she know how old I am? Yes, she said, 70. That's pretty old, I said. Oh, not so very old, she said. Ah, sweet child, sweet thought. Then Julian, nearly 10, came on the line. Happy Birthday he said. Do you know how old I am? Yes, he said, 70. That's pretty old, huh? Yes, he said, compared to my age you're very, very old. Well, I said, that's not what Esther said. Oh, he answered, she was just trying to be nice. !!!

When Julian is my age, I'll be 130. Who knows, I told my daughter when she came on the line, that science may find a way to a longevity that we can't imagine, which is all well and good so long as we don't have to live with 130 year old skin. She reminded me that the older Swiss people hang out at the lake and just let their skin be as old as they are. They bake in the sun and get deep tans and they look carefree. She says, Mom, you need to lie out in the sun and get a little sun on you. Yeah, I say as I look out at the pouring rain, yeah I'll be sure to do that, even when I'm 130.

It's just today. Another day. I've done this date 70 times. There are 6.5 billion people in the world which means that along with me, 17,808,219 other people are also celebrating this birthday. Not bad company. Happy Birthday all you 17,808,219 people all over the globe. May the year go well.

April 23, 2010

Cremation and Burial

The Sangha from Green Gulch Farm, a temple connected to San Francisco Zen Center, with Abbot Steve Stucky and Wendy Johnson performed the most beautiful Cremation Ceremony for Robert Elliot Weinberg. Cremation Ceremonies are often the part that the family doesn’t attend because it is a painful experience to feel the impact of the cremation chamber. The aloneness of it is haunting. The good bye in that way is quite difficult. So, Linda, Rob’s wife and I were steeling ourselves for the impact, but Linda insisted she wanted to be there and when it was done I was glad of her courage and determination because the ceremony helped to sustain us.

Wendy Johnson is the author of GARDENING AT THE DRAGON’S GATE, AT WORK IN THE WILD AND CULTIVATED WORLD, Bantam Dell, 2008. She knew Rob when he lived at Green Gulch and she remembered him well. Rob was one of those persons who never argued or questioned when he was asked to do something. A great Zen student, he would just say “yes” and go forward with the task doing it with complete focus and care. We don’t forget Zen practitioners like this. Wendy had developed the farm and gardens at Green Gulch, she’s the guru or farming and plants and she too is unforgettable as she looks like a blossom that can breathe and talk as a human.

Wendy stayed at Olympia Zen Center when she was on her book tour of the Pacific Northwest just after her book came out. She gave a Wednesday night lecture for us and delivered wise and tender words that seemed to coil like a tendril emerging from the earth.

Abbot Steve arrived with two other priests in training and set up an altar at the foot of the coffin made of soft pine wood with rope handles. Rob loved to sail and he loved ropes. He loved doing sailing knots and deeply appreciated that a knot could be made quite complex and yet could unravel with a single pull at one end. A small Buddha statue almost the same as the one on Rob’s home altar sat against the beauty of the waterfall in the outside garden. In Zen, the waterfall represents Nirvana.

Wendy came with a gigantic basket full of herbs which she had gathered in the morning dew at Green Gulch. Small bunches of various herbs were tied in bouquets. It began to rain and Linda said that this was God weeping and indeed, it felt so.

The six of us stood beside the coffin and chanted The Heart Sutra. Then we said some words of remembrance. I offered the poem of Ryokan, “True all the seasons have moonlit nights...the moon and the earth are one and myself one with them.....my robes soaked in tears.” This is a long Chinese poem that was Rob’s favorite by Ryokan. Others said how they had known Rob. Linda expressed her gratitude for the people and the herbs and flowers.

Then we began to circumambulate the coffin chanting “Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo.” As we did, we picked bunches of herbs out of the basket and placed them on the coffin. By the time we were finished, the coffin was bedecked, festooned, heaped with fragrant herbs. Then we wheeled the coffin into the crematorium, placed lighted incense sticks in with the herbs and moved the coffin into the cremation chamber. All of it deeply sacred.

The funeral was held the next day in the same room and I officiated at this ceremony. The architecture of Fernwood is Frank Lloyd Wright-ish only with higher ceilings. The floors are dark stone and the art carefully selected. One piece is a large blue saucer incense bowl held up by Giacometti like figures. Another art piece is a three foot sculpture of the Buddha’s hand holding a mudra. Many asked me about the meaning of the mudra which is the thumb touching the fourth finger. All I could answer was that the fourth finger represents grief and the touching the thumb to the grief finger denotes healing.

The ceremony room has a floor to ceiling and wall to wall window with doors on either side opening to a large terrace. The garden at the back of the terrace is a sharp vertical natural planting with a waterfall cascading down its center. When the doors are opened, the room is filled with water music and cool, clean, marine air.

The altar, a high clean-lined rectangular table, held the ceremonial articles: the Buddha, a bowl for stick incense, an incense holder for powdered incense, two candles, a bowl of fruit offerings, a long string of prayer beads made by Rob out of manzanita seeds that appeared after the zendo fire at Tassajara in the 1980s. Also, there was a photograph of Rob with two bouquets of flowers. At the start of the ceremony, his ashes were carried in and placed on the altar by his nephew, accompanied by Linda.

The ceremony included a recitation of the Precepts which Rob renewed on March 21st at his home zendo and given the Buddha name KoYu "Great Cause." And, there was time for people to remember Rob. His older sister Pennie Weinberg spoke of childhood memories, others from his work days at Crissy Field, particularly those who had been his students, and work friends from UC Berkeley remembered Rob’s important contribution to education. Rob’s father, Elliiot Weinberg, had been a friend of Robert Frost, and Rob was named after the poet. I read, “The Road Not Taken” by Frost. The waterfall was the music throughout the ceremony.

A brief reception followed. The family and a few friends had lunch at a restaurant down the hill from the cemetery in Mill Valley. Rob’s ashes will be placed at Tassajara sometime in the future with clergy from Tassajara officiating. It’s still startling to think of Rob gone, but it certainly points toward a reminder of the brevity of life, the need to live well each day, and the importance of caring well for our family, friends and friendships. Rob will be greatly missed by his family and friends. If we each take a lesson from him, something particular that we each learned from him, and we remember to apply it, the qualities he lived will live on in us.

(In the next blog, in a few days, I’ll write about the Joe Stroud event.)

April 13, 2010

Rob Weinberg died peacefully early Sunday morning, April 11th, at home in Berkeley with his wife, Linda Barnett beside him. He had been cared for by Linda while a patient in hospice since leaving the hospital in February.

A Cremation Ceremony will be held at Fernwood in Mill Valley next Tuesday. A Funeral Service will be the following day at Fernwood at 10 a.m.. Rob's ashes will be scattered at Tassajara sometime in the future.

Rob recommitted himself to the Buddha's Precepts at a Jukai Ceremony at his home on March 21, 2010. He received the name KoYu, which means Great Cause.

After obtaining his master's degree at Berkeley, Rob worked for the past 20 years in the cause of education in ecology at Berkeley and at the education center at Crissy Field in San Francisco, establishing computer information regarding education in global warming and climate change. His volunteer work on a portal web site which he helped establish and maintain is regarded as one of the most important national educational tools for students and teachers on the subject of climate change. www.climatechangeeducation.org

Earlier in his life, after participating in Zen practice with Kobun Roshi at Haiku Zendo and Bodhi, Rob helped build the new zendo at Tassajara from April to September, 1978. He then lived and practiced at Green Gulch from 1978 until the Fall of 1981, when he entered Tassajara and stayed for six practice periods until the Fall of 1984. A few years later he and Linda Barnett were married at a sunrise ceremony on Mt. Tamalpais, one of their favorite places.

Rob had celebrated his 60th birthday on February 25. He was immensely grateful for the encouragement he received from the cards people sent or the well wishes and prayers sent his way during the time of illness. He never lost his humor and he stepped with incredible grace through his final days.

April 07, 2010

What we see where we are

Several weeks ago while in California, someone sent me a series of photographs of caves. The spelunkers had entered vast caverns and canyons underground with magnificent waterfalls and rivers. These scenes equalled the beauty of our great national parks, yet the caves are places most of us will never see.

The caves, for all they are underground, are still different from mines. This week we've had two major accidents in mines - one in China, one in the U.S. In both places, men are still trapped underground. About six months ago, a cave was closed when a young man was tragically wedged between stones while hanging upside down on climbing ropes. He died during the rescue and was left to be buried there. The cave was closed to other adventurers.

All this recalled the story of a member of our Sangha who moved to Idaho and took a well paying job with a mine company. I don't remember what Doug's tasks were in the mines. It was a specialty mineral perhaps. At any rate, Doug went on the first day and received instruction in how to enter the mine and how to work once he reached the floor of the shaft. he described the frightening event to me. The shaft was straight down into the earth and was approximately wide enough for one human plus a small amount of equipment - about five feet by four feet. The platform elevator fed downward into this black tomb. The elevator operated manually something like a dumbwaiter on a pulley system. Doug got onto the elevator and after going down quite a long stretch, made the mistake of looking up and realized the hole was so small and he had gone deeply enough that he could no longer see light above him. He panicked but decided to keep going. He was a good Zen student who wouldn't let a little thing like fear take over!!! He said when he finally got to the bottom, it was quite beautiful down there. He did the work he had agreed to do, brought back hours of work, pulled himself up to land and light, shook hands with the mine manager, thanked him for the work, said good by and never went back again.

Well all this leads me to think about "being trapped" and what this means in the mind of the Bodhisattva, in the mind of wisdom. It's true that the miners who are down there have been going into the mines for years and years and I can't apply my own thinking to their situation. In my mind, they are claustrophobic, as I would be just going ten feet below. They are in known territory, but they are not in a common daily situation. They are likely cold, perhaps injured, hungry. They are trapped.

There are many ways to go with a metaphor of "being trapped" but I'm interested at the moment of working with the mind of wisdom in the midst of the experience of being in a tight situation in which we cannot easily maneuver or extricate ourselves. What do we do? How do we handle ourselves? How are we present to a greater Reality that is the essence of true light and vision?

I heard Ryushin of Zen Mountain Monastery talking about a group of children who were asked to name the biggest thing in the whole word. Some mentioned whales, some mentioned dinosaurs, some mountains. Then a little girl said that the biggest thing in the world was her eyes. After all, her eyes could see even wider than the dinosaurs. Her eyes could see the whole mountain and even more space around it. So this little girl could see the whole world within her mind. Her eyes were opened to true space and light.

The spiritual notion on the other side of 'being trapped' is "release." On the one hand we have to completely understand and accept the situation. We can't run away. We are trapped. And on the other, we have to see that there is complete release within the situation itself. We are always released when we see with and through the Mind of Wisdom. Something that may be learned in such a situation could be far greater than the simple release of the body alone.

There is no doubt that there is tremendous suffering for the miners and their families. At the same time, the spiritual dimension can release them in the midst of great anguish.

Without the dimension of Wisdom and the penetrating light of Dharma to lead the way through the dark passages of life, we are stuck, trapped in our own tunnels. When we hear the news of miners trapped, we can see them within ourselves, opened to wisdom and light in the midst of circumstance. This way they are saved within us even if their bodies give way. And this is true of any situation in which we ourselves are trapped. The Light of Wisdom is a point of release.