July 19, 2009

Practicing to Notice

Out working in the garden. We'll be at this during work period for the next seven days as we begin our Special Summer Retreat.
Shuso Ceremony for Meido Jikyo Wolfer will be at 2 p.m. on July 26th. Please come. It is open to everyone. It is a wonderful experience in the Dharma. Don't miss it.

This week in the Zendo I spoke about ignorance, one of the big poisons that the Buddha names related to suffering. We spend a great deal of time speaking about greed and anger, and we don't give so much concern to ignorance. Perhaps it's something we'd rather avoid talking about or looking into. Yet it's quite pervasive.

But ignorance is like a barge floating down the river carrying mounds of greed and anger. We don't notice the barge because the piles on top are quite visible and concerning. Nevertheless, ignorance is holding this stuff up.

The subject came up because I wanted to see Judge Sonja Sotomayor hearing before the Senate and I googled to find a live stream. Without carefully looking, I picked the first one up and saw the live stream on an extreme website with rather mean and very limited views of the Judge. Really, there were hateful messages being written about her. Naturally, these views were riddled with ignorance, however I too saw my own ignorance in that I imagined that everyone would celebrate the confirmation of a candidate more qualified than anyone in 50 years, and also a woman and a Latina. How much better could it get!!

We all suffer from some form of ignoring things. However, in Zen, our practice is one of "awareness." It isn't that we always succeed in being perfectly aware, but this is a primary matter in our practice: to be aware, to be mindful. There are various forms of ignorance that creep into our society and erode our confidence in one another. For instance, there is a rational ignorance that would prefer not to do certain things because the time involved in doing them would outweigh the benefit.

Another kind is a social or pluralistic ignorance. In this situation, no one takes action because no one takes action. Someone on the street may need help and no one goes to the person's aid. Everyone stands looking and no one moves because no one wants to be first, and because everyone thinks that because no one else is moving, not moving must be the right thing. This is a form of ignorance can put someone's life in jeopardy.

Yet another is willful blindness which is to intentionally ignore facts so that we won't be liable for something. If we take a package for someone on an airplane without checking what it is we are carrying, we are ignoring the law and the consequences to ourselves should we get stopped.

In the ignorance of criminal recklessness, perhaps a toy maker would ignore a defective part in something they manufactured that could cause a child to be killed. We have seen this with car makers who were found liable when they allowed autos to be sold with substandard parts in them. People may lose their lives before such reckless ignorance is found out.

Granted, for most of us our ignorance isn't so extreme, yet our practice calls us to be vigilant to our own resistances so that we don't contribute to suffering. Daniel Goleman has a fine quote that seems to say it all: "The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."

During this week of sesshin, we do our best to notice. For our own waking up and seeing the barge: please notice.

Going to Prison

Last Monday I spent at McNeil Island Corrections Center, a prison on an island in the southern part of Puget Sound. A ferry, operated by the Dept. of Corrections, leaves Steilacoom for the 15 minute ride to the facility. You must go through clearance at portside before you can board. The island is fairly large and is also inhabited by people not connected to the Corrections Center.

I travelled with Steve who is a regular volunteer at McNeil and has been going for years. He practices Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition and brings a Tibetan style liturgy to the religious service that he leads. As part of the service, everyone in attendance has an opportunity to remember someone they know, care about, are related to, or have in mind someway. The person's name is read out and everyone at the service sends goodwill on behalf of that person's welfare.

After the service, another volunteer mentioned how strong the room felt during that part of the liturgy. I commented that in my experience going into prisons, that incarcerated men seem to offer stronger prayer on behalf of others than I have felt anywhere else. An inmate smiled and said that all the men in prison were there because they were extremists. Some kind of extreme but negative action had brought them to prison in the first place. He added that when that negative attitude is turned to something positive, the power becomes remarkable.

It's wonderful to see some pretty tough guys open their hearts in these moments so wholeheartedly for the benefit of others and that they can direct pure love in powerful ways, praying for only good in the world. It's a side of prison life we don't often see or think about. As the inmate who spoke also said, prison can be a beautiful place sometimes.

July 12, 2009


Profound thunder this morning that reached to the roots of my teeth. This is rarely heard in the Pacific Northwest where we have relatively little of it. Not like the thrilling storms in the east in summer when people went dashing for cover with the thrashing rain that followed. It was always an extraordinary delight to huddle with strangers in doorways in the city in those moments of storm, rain spitting onto our ankles. Soon after, one by one, we would peel off and hug the sides of buildings rushing toward the subway or some dry island. Pennsylvania has even better storms than New York, and Switzerland, with all its lakes, can scare you to death. I cannot help but love the passion of thunder and lightening storms. The sound this morning was complete.

Now, a satisfying rain after such dryness as we haven't seen in a long time. With many trees in western Washington, we are leery about dryness, as you can imagine. It's surprising how quickly we can see the forest floor develop cracks in it. Deer, rabbit, raccoon, other small mammals have been shifting their habits looking for sources of water.

Olympia Zen Center is on a large pond, perhaps it could be called a small lake, and we also have a pond in our garden, so we have a nice population of wildlife. Song birds have been prevalent this summer and using the stream and pond like a small resort. This makes for great music during Zazen especially in mornings. We also enjoy bird music around dusk. The area is like an animal dance hall, practically a Disney happening, especially when the sun shines.

Underpinning all of this is the constancy of Practice, an extremely important rhythm to the day, to daily life, to establishing how we live. Having Zazen as part of our practice each day is not just something we do, it is how we live. It's the same natural practice as eating breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is simply natural life activity that Buddhas, matriarchs, patriarchs, and lay practitioners have done before us throughout the centuries. When we realize this and we engage in daily practice, we hold the heart of constancy, the heart of awakening in all our activities. Of course, we must practice in an aware way.

Buddha Nature as all of existence is before us constantly. Our question in Practice is how constant we are to this awareness. I have, at times, been asked by Christians whether there is any moment in the New Testament that could be a teaching for Zazen. With all kindness to the Apostle Peter, I point to the arrest of Jesus and Peter's sitting the night with him when Jesus asks, "Won't you spend an hour watching with me?" Jesus asks Peter three times, and three times poor Peter falls asleep. Of course, Peter is us, so overcome by our own weakness. However, our practice of Zazen is where we turn to stay awake and constant to the moments of life that will never return again. We will never be the age we are at this moment. We cannot relive our lives. We can only practice to stay awake, practice for the constancy of heart that would lead us to be human beings of integrity and realization. Constancy of Practice, moment by moment.

July 06, 2009

How We Practice

Our Summer Practice Period is underway and we are engaged in a more intense schedule. You can see in the picture, people working in the garden in front of Gogo-an, weeding after morning meditation and ceremony. The beauty and the silence during these summer days is as delicious and complete as the summer fruit.

A practice period is also a time of training, of polishing the way we do things. We pay closer attention to "how" we are doing things and not so much emphasis on "what" we are doing. We willingly take up each task that is asked of us, and focus closely on that activity and "how" that activity shows us the "how" of our attention to it.

For instance, if we don't pay attention to how we carry a glass of water, we can easily spill some as we walk across the room. If we walk carefully, notice how we carry the glass, resist walking too quickly, then the water will more likely arrive at its destination. Also, we will have had the opportunity to actually be with ourselves throughout the entire activity of carrying the glass from one place to another. We will notice our life, our breath, in every step, in every moment, in every action. It's interesting that in many walks of life, intensity usually means speeding up. But, in Zen practice we slow down for intensity.

Dogen Zenji emphasizes the "how" of practice when he says in "Bendowa" that when teacher and student are in agreement about how to practice that surely Buddha Nature is fully realized. He points out that Zazen is realized practice. Sitting Zazen (meditation) is the unspoken Reality through which the Self unfolds the Self. Each gesture thereafter is the great matter of realized Buddha Nature. The Self is completely expressed in each action. One who fully realizes Buddha Nature will treat each object with respect since each object and how we handle it is the expression of the Buddha. It is the Self made manifest.

Practice teaches us that each article of practice - our altar, the robe, rakusu, rakusu case, eating bowls, bells, bell ringers, Sutra book, Eko book, zafu, zabuton, tan, the han, the floor where we walk, kitchen pots and pans, dishes, knives, spoons, forks, coffee and tea cups - everything, everything is the expression of our awakened practice. Therefore, how we treat them is essential to realization and is realization. These articles belong to Buddha. These articles are the manifestation of Buddha Nature. "How" we hold them, "how" we treat them reveals awakening so that others can enter practice and realize.

This practice then extends to each activity we take up, each person we meet in the rest of our day. It extends to the market place, the work place, the office, the home kitchen, the gas station, the grocery store, the laundry room, when vacuuming, cooking, repairing the car, painting, paying bills, working on the computer, when we are alone and no one is looking, when we are with others and no one is looking. You know very well what I'm saying: Buddha Nature resides in every activity. We learn this in Practice. We polish ourselves in Practice. We take it into the world.

Most of us are haphazard in so many things. We are forgetful, unconscious, impatient, careless. So, we come to Zen Practice to see our condition and to learn the greater Reality of our True Nature and "how" this can be expressed. In order to learn this to see it truly, Practice offers itself to us and we slow down and learn "how" to do Practice. When we engage fully in earnest Practice there is no division, no divide, no distance between what we do and the Self. Thus, the "how" of doing things is the complete expression of Buddha Nature.

So: "how" to do things; "how" to slow down; "how" to engage fully with body and mind; "how" to hand something from one person to another; "how" to put something down on the table; "how" to pick something up; "how" to eat; "how" to wash our bowls; "how" to become Buddha. This is our Summer Practice Period. Each glorious moment of sunshine. And in Washington each blessed sprinkle of rain.