Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Just make up your mind to learn the Way and die today."

The quote for today's title is from a talk in Dogen's Shobogenzo-zuimonki, in which he implores his students to remember that death could come at any time, so you better get moving on letting go of worldly ideas and pursuits. I've been thinking a lot about death recently. My grandfather died about 6 weeks ago, so I was faced with the end of life in this body once again a little more personally.

But I'm not just talking about bodily death, but the small deaths we experience every day, every moment. Each breath is a death in a way. You can't go back to what you were before taking it.

Writing this blog, with honesty and a questioning spirit, could potentially kill the positive reputation I have with some people. Or maybe not, if few end up reading these posts :)

Even though there are threats of snow today and tomorrow, another winter is gone, past, finished.

There is probably at least one person in my life I will never see again, even though I don't know it right now.

Sitting in zazen, watching thoughts arise and die. Even the thoughts that are repetitive aren't completely the same each time around. You never step in the same river twice, as the old saying goes.

Reflecting on this line from Dogen, there is yet another death he is speaking of: the death of attachment to the things and people of this life. Even though Dogen is from a different time, speaking to a select group of monastics, his words are still of value to us living in the middle of the world today. "Just make up your mind to learn the way" is about setting down all the wild thoughts and games in your life, and truly aspiring to learn to be wholly, completely who you are. I don't think this has to be some awful task of sacrifice, although even in my not too many years of practice, I have surely given up some things. This isn't some call to dourness, joyless experience either. In fact, it's really a call to the deepest joy of all. And I don't believe it's about being Buddhist or not either. One can discover this deepest joy in their life in many ways, on many paths - but I think Dogen's words remind us that without deep aspiration and commitment, none of this will probably happen.

Personally, I still often have anxiety about death, not only the end of my bodily life, but also about some of these "smaller" deaths, which are everyday visitors. This is not unique. Most of us, even if we have years of devotion to a spiritual path, still experience these anxieties. And in a way, knowing this is a step towards letting go of it. Anxiety about death is a human condition, a shared bit of suffering that we need not each have to carry alone. Belief in a separate self not at all connected to life around it seems to begin in this view that we are carrying something alone.

Who is dying today in Dogen's quote? It could be the one that believes in carrying alone. That's a possibility for all of us, if we just aspire and make a commitment to, as Dogen put it, "learn the Way."

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Need for More Dialogue on Sexuality

Affairs between teachers and students in the United States zen community have been sadly too common over the past 30 years, and the resulting damage to those involved, including the sanghas,continues to be a legacy in need of deeper examination. I am part of such a sangha, and although other issues were at play in ours, there is still a lingering sense of relationship disharmony between teachers and students among those of us who were there at the time of the fallout from the affair.

However, this will not be a writing of condemnation. In fact, the longer I reflect upon what happened there, as well as the mistakes I have made in my own life when it comes to intimate, sexual relationships, the more questioning I do about it all.

A friend of mine at zen center said something mildly provocative: "I'm not sure I want a long term relationship ... but I'm not interested in casual sex either." There wasn't time to ask much more about this comment because he had to bow out and head to work, but it struck me as an interesting place to be.

Even as I continue to desire greatly a long-term, committed relationship, I have often wondered if, as a society, our expectations and prohibitions about romantic relationships have made it so that people do not even feel safe discussing things outside of the accepted norms. At least in public, or semi-private, open spaces.

It's clear with the proliferation of sex sites, porn and sex chat on the internet, that people are talking about sex and what are considered by most "illicit" relationships. But just like affairs, there is this issue of hiding, of covering up one's behavior out of shame, guilt, and/or a desire to get away with something. And it seems to me that it's this hiding, and the fallout that comes when the hidden are discovered, which causes the a lot of the suffering for all involved.

Buddha's path is, as much as anything, about working toward the cessation of suffering for all beings. What I wonder is how do we create relationships, and boundaries for those relationships, that respect the fact that life is constantly changing? How do we make a deep bond with another that also recognizes that those bonds might not be until death do us part? And can we develop safe spaces for people to discuss thoughts and desires that stray from their current relationship, without getting into shaming and condemning land?

I have been in two long term, committed relationships. I was faithful during both in the sense that I did not have intimate relations with another while with my partner. However, there were times when I felt strong desire for another, and didn't know what to do with such feelings. I never really considered cheating during either of these relationships, because I've always been someone that, once I make a commitment, I stick with it. Beyond those two relationships, however, there have been times when loneliness has gotten the best of me. Twice I have participated in very short affairs with women who were in breaking apart marriages. One lasted a few weeks, the other only a day, and both times I broke it off because my conscience couldn't take it. Should I have become involved with either of these women? No. And I'm aware of the reality that the driving force behind these decisions was the deep sense of separation Buddha so clearly points out to again and again in the teachings. But beyond that, I have never felt a sense that this kind of topic has a place in discussion most anywhere, even at zen centers or other spiritual organizations, beyond comments about it being wrong and to be avoided. This is not to exonerate me from my decisions, but to put up the question of how we might all work together at dealing with these issues as they come up in our lives, or in the lives of others we know.

When I think of the teachers who have crossed the line with students, I can imagine for some that there was a tremendous sense of isolation. What do you do with such desires, especially if you don't know if anyone would listen and work with you on them beyond simple declarations of wrongness. Maybe I'm being too generous here to these teachers, who have created a lot of misery through their actions. But sex scandals having to do with power figures, be they politicians or clergy, seem to continue to happen on an all too frequent basis. And I believe it is partly due to the lack of openness, honesty, and willingness on the part of us all to discuss and examine issues of intimacy, sexuality, and expectations of relationships.

When a marriage is crumbling, and another comes along that sparks a strong sense of desire, what then? When you fall for someone in a crumbling marriage, what then?

Prohibitions alone have never worked very well. Just ask any teenager or young adult who has gone through an abstinence only program. We need something more, at the very least a willingness to speak openly about our experiences, and to listen openly without rushing to condemn what is being said. Isn't this what spiritual communities are supposed to be about? Isn't shining a light on everything we've left in the dark one of our deep callings? I say yes!

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Slicing avocados for guacamole.

What's interesting is that a few hours ago, my sister had told me about an interview she heard from a woman who was assigned to cook at a restaurant connected with San Francisco Zen Center. She said what she remembered about the interview was chopping vegetables.

And for much of the winter, I studied Dogen's Tenzo Kyokun, or Instructions for the Cook. More chopping.

Peeling off the skin of a section, I notice a desire to be at the part where I am grinding pepper into the mix. As if there is worrying about forgetting, or that I'll never get there. Another slice, and a flash on a woman I am attracted to, followed by a short story about her, and I, as the movement of putting the piece in the bowl is entirely missed.

Mashing the pile with a fork: thoughts about the distance the avocados had traveled, and a bottle of water from New Zealand on my mother's table.

Splitting the garlic from the bulb, thoughts of a phone call never received, and stories telling why.

This is not a writing about punishing the self for thinking. It is a reminder to pay close attention to everything, even noticing when you are not paying attention at all.

In the Genjo Koan, Dogen said "flowers fall amid our longing and weeds spring up amid our antipathy."

Can you stay with that which you don't want to stay with, even for a little bit?

Grinding the pepper: concern that my avocado-covered hands were going to mess the container up.

Pouring in lemon juice and stirring it slowly, so as to make sure that everything will be well covered.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Squirrel Watching as Meditation

They are ubiquitous here in the city. On days when the sun splits through every tree branch, and the air has warmed sufficiently for the comfort of feet, it seems like every turn of the eye brings sight of one.

Squirrels: bane of gardeners, cranky homeowners, speeding drivers, and hungry winter birds.

You might be asking by now, what do squirrels have to do with meditation?

In the Genjo Koan, Dogen wrote, now famously, "To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things."

Have you ever stopped and watched a squirrel? I don't mean for a few seconds, nor do I mean having an "awe, cute" moment. I mean stop, fully, and be with the squirrel, and yourself.

Try sticking with it for a minute, two minutes. If you don't move much and your lucky, maybe you can even go five minutes with the same squirrel. All sorts of things arise in the mind, especially if you're in the city. Labels. It's fat, skinny, sick looking, grey, white, brown, black, bushy. Judgements. It's ugly, cute, anxious, crazy, goofy, stupid, smart, thieving. Opinions. I like this squirrel. I don't like this squirrel. I hate this squirrel. I have better things to do than watch this squirrel. I love watching squirrels. Paranoid thoughts. What if it leaps on me? What does the neighbor think of me standing still here in the middle of the sidewalk?

And if this isn't enough, the odds are also fairly good that, during this period of watching, you have failed to "watch" some portion of the time. A car rolls by behind you. You turn away for a few seconds. The neighbor steps out of his door for a smoke. You turn away again. From somewhere unknown, a loud sound, and you turn away again. You become bored, and you turn away once more.

It's hard to stay fully with the same squirrel, the same old stories in your head, the life that you have at this moment. And to the extent that we can't stick with it, we miss an opportunity to dig in and really wake up to who we are. I miss a lot, you probably do too.

We are fortunate then, to have so many squirrels in the world to remind us to come back to ourselves. To come back to our lives right now, as they are. I bow to the squirrels for their teaching.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Killing's Many Forms

Everyday workday, the bus I take to my teaching job passes Regions Hospital here in St. Paul. This afternoon, on the way home, a familiar sight confronted me: the abortion protesters. They tend to be a tiny group, less than 5 usually, and they seem to appear fairly randomly during the first few months after the anniversary of Roe V. Wade.

It's been raining off and on all day, and I can imagine the three people huddled together behind their giant sign that says "Health Partners Kills Babies" on it are fairly cold and damp. Maybe bone-deep damp.

The sight of these people never fails to send a thunderbolt of anger through me, followed by an internal commentary on the self-righteousness of, excessively controlling nature of, and ten dozen other fill in the blank judgments of these protesters who pace the sidewalk in the front of the hospital. I have a similar reaction every time I see the "baby billboards" as I call them, the ones with the cute, usually caucasian babies with the pithy sayings about how early they have a heartbeat, or are able to feel pain, or some other such thing.

I have always considered myself pro-choice, although I have long found that label sloppy. The legacy of male-created reproduction laws and the historical medical mistreatment of women in this nation is a profound embarrassment which we have only recently begun to overturn. I've never felt it my place, or the place of men in general, to control or legislate in general terms about the events that take place within womens' bodies. And although I believe it is the individual right of men in a relationship to have a say in making decisions such as abortion, I ultimately believe that at best it's a shared decision, and in many cases, the woman should have the lion's share over the decision.

These are some the thoughts I've had over the years as a white, feminist man in the 21st century. However, I have found more recently that the waters are a bit cloudy for me on this whole issue, due to my zen practice.

If I vow to follow the precepts, even knowing that they are not black and white laws to obey, then what does it mean to be "Pro-choice" and also to uphold the first precept of not killing?

And what about my nearly instantaneous rejection of these people who stand in front of hospitals and clinics, speaking what they believe to be the truth about abortion? Isn't that, too, not also a form of killing, even if only in my own mind?

In his wonderful book exploring the Buddhist precepts, Reb Anderson writes of abortion "In considering how this bodhisattva precept of not killing life applies to the question of abortion, we need to open our hearts and consider what is most beneficial for all concerned: the embryo, the mother, the father, and all living beings." A big task for sure, but one that seems much more honest and caring than the wild ends of the spectrum on this issue.

It pains me to hear of women who have five, six, or even more abortions in a lifetime. I can't imagine the agony of having to face such a decision so often, and yet also sometimes wonder if there is a sense of callousness that has developed, whereby their own life has become not worthy of the care required to avoid excessive unwanted pregnancies. It is very true, though, that some of these women are in abusive situations, are controlled by husbands or family members or even entire societies - as has been seen with many Chinese women who become pregnant more than once. So, again, it's not a black and white issue.

On the other hand, I cannot for a moment accept the position that every woman that ever becomes pregnant must bring a baby in this world and either raise it or put it up for adoption. Actually, I have to say that its especially true of those who, for whatever reason, have a great desire to not have the baby in question. Hatred of one's child once it is born is such a great burden for that child, one that some grow stronger through perhaps, but also one that definitely creates extreme amounts of damage in this world, not only on a personal level, but also at a societal level. I think we cannot underestimate the amount of gut level pain and suffering for both a child and a mother that felt forced into having it. I won't go as far to say it's grounds for abortion, but definitely a consideration in the spirit of Reb Anderson Roshi.

All of this leads me back to the sign the protesters stood behind, and the labels we use to debate this very delicate, very complex issue.

The flamboyancy of their sign, which was complete with a tortured fetus picture, definitely got my attention. But what comes next? Do they really think that those who disagree with them, or who maybe aren't sure what to think, will be swayed by such dramatic displays? Maybe a few I suppose, but most I would guess will have various reactions that in one way or another will reject the message and the messenger.

The same is sometimes true when those who speak of being pro-choice then launch into comments degrading women who choose to stay at home and raise their kids, or who choose to have a baby and give it up for adoption, even though they were raped.

How do we determine what is most beneficial in a climate of fear, hate, and suspicion such as that which is the climate of abortion politics? It's tricky, and requires patience. I challenge all who read these words to be patient, and to find your answers in the heart of the present.

TV and Yoga

This is something I wrote a few months ago. The neighbor in the story has quieted down for the most part since then, and I'm thankful to her for it.

I've come to really dislike television. I haven't owned one for about 6 years now, and other than a few hours with friends or family, I simply don't have any interest. Given that, I've found it especially funny, and difficult at times, to have moved into a building with a neighbor that watches her television all day and often late into the night. And very loudly, so much so that I spoke in person with her a dozen times. When that failed, a few months ago, I asked the landlord to do something about it, which he did - but still maybe once a week or every two weeks, I end up pounding on ceiling to get her to turn it down. It once was driving me to look for a new apartment; now it's a small annoyance, and interesting experience as far as my practice goes.

This evening, I was doing an immunity sequence from the new Yoga Journal. There I was just beginning my warm up salutations, when the sound of - you guessed it, TV commercial dialogue and music - crept into my ears. Now I've practiced compassion meditation for this woman, have tried to be friendly when I see her, have even returned her mailbox key to her when she left it in the mailbox - yet, it's amazing how quickly my mind can return to nasty thoughts about her and waste of time all that TV is, etc, etc.

So, here I am in prasarita padottanasana (a yoga pose), feeling my legs stretching and having this dialogue/argument in my head about the sound of the TV. It's kind of embarassing, and yet fascinating because I remembered a basic teaching which goes something like if you can do something about it, do it and if you can't, let it go. And so, I went into the next pose, standing forward bend, and watched my mind and also listened as the TV seemed to creep up a little more (I sometimes wonder if I'm imagining it getting louder, or if it's really all about the volume fluctuation for the commercials). Anyway, at the end of the pose, I decided it had gotten too loud, and I hit the wall a single time. She turned it down, as she pretty much always does, but I then worked into the next pose, and watched as a rush of irritation and adrenaline filled me and then passed through.

It's amazing how much I crave silence sometimes, and struggle when I can't get it. I know partly this has to do with working at an overly cramped little school, where my attention in constantly challenged. And also living in the middle of the city, which I love, but sometimes probably need a break from. Maybe you, too, have similar cravings you struggle with?

Somehow, it seems so silly to have spent so much energy on thoughts about a TV, and yet I have. So be it, that too will be compost for the pile.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Because somehow one must begin

Let me begin with a quote from Dogen, a 13th century zen master, from his teaching "Tenzo Kyokun."

"Under no circumstances allow anyone who happens to be drifting through the kitchen to poke his fingers around or look into the pot."

Now, let's take yourself/myself. You and I, we probably enjoy entertainment, right? In fact, we probably are more than willing to let someone drift into our world if they will entertain us away from our problems, our suffering. And isn't it probably also true that, when faced with another who is suffering greatly and in need of someone who is willing to just listen, to bear witness to that suffering, and maybe make a pointed comment or two when necessary - we, well I anyway, is often more than willing to be that person that meddles with the situation by entertaining, or excessively agreeing with what is being said, or by simply "poking my fingers" into something that needs to stew awhile yet. And why? Because there is such a strong desire to be rid of the misery, to have a "happy" or at least "ok" friend, or lover, or co-worker, or even stranger. Maybe it's time we face up to this fact, our desire to turn away from life as it is. What do you think?

Continuing the "cooking" theme of Dogen, he said "A dish is not necessarily superior because you have prepared it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens." I ask you all this: if we cannot embrace the "ordinary greens" of our lives, then how can we be but ghosts chasing after something superior that never quite comes?