Friday, December 21, 2012

"Throwing Away" the Oppressions of Old

In his commentary on Dogen's Genjokoan, Hakuun Yasutani writes:

What is essential is to throw away one's own views and oneself. To throw away all one's acquired affectations, which are the knowledge and experience accumulated since birth, to become a pure white sheet of paper, and to bring oneself in accord with the teachings of the buddhas and ancestors.

What is this business of "throwing away"? It's not about rejecting yourself, nor is it about getting rid of something, although maybe there will be a dissipation of certain things. Take the heaviness that accompanies everything that "I" hold on to, cling to as my own. You can't throw that away. When you've gotten tired of gripping tightly to whatever it is you're fixed to, the air will simply leak out, like from a tire, until it is empty and "gone."

Let's move into the garden for a moment. When a plant dies, it's body decays and goes back into the soil, providing nourishment for the next generation of plants - that is, if we allow it to do so. How often do we rip out "weeds," bag them up, and send them with the trash to wherever it is the trash is going? It's all a little too tidy right here for the time being, and yet the stuff has to go somewhere. This is not just about the garden; this is your life too! The words "throwing away" may not be the best translation, at least for us in the "West." Neither is the word "pure" maybe, which plays right into that desire to keep everything neat and clean at all costs, forgetting that the lotus blooms out of the mud, not out of sterile soil.

It's essential to let go of that which has passed, that which is, in the relative world, dead. If the tomato plant has birthed its fruit and withered, nothing I can do will bring it back. And if I try to hang on, I end up missing its current suchness, what it is right now: a decaying body ready to break back into the soil.

I'd like to apply all of this to our society. Today is December 21st, 2012. A day numerous people have claimed big things for. Apocalyptic things. Grand spiritual prophecy things. It's almost over, and nothing of the sort has clearly come to pass.

And yet, perhaps it's more like the tire of our old culture is draining. The grip on things like capitalism, colonialism, and various forms of oppression are slowly weakening. Slowly being "thrown away" by folks who spent lifetimes accumulating them.

May you all be well this Solstice day.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Sandy Hook and Grief

Friday evening, I did a bowing practice for those who lost their lives in the school shooting in Conn. And for all of us, really. Our collective suffering. Our muddled, often contradictory views around violence and conflict. The practice was as follows: chanting the Jizo mantra three times, and then doing a full bow. I did this sequence for 20 minutes, one minute for each of the children murdered. I've long had an affinity for Jizo, and seem to invoke his mantra under all sorts of conditions. Being that one of Jizo's roles is protector of children, it seemed even more apt to do so here. And so I offer this to anyone who is struggling to respond right now, or who wants to do a specific practice to offer support, and/or work with grief.

During the day, and ever since, I've been talking with people about the interconnectedness of killing, destruction, and suffering. And how we need to expand our grief pool. Expand our understanding beyond any particular situation to see how interlocked violence is in our society. And many others across the planet.

I wrote the following on my Facebook page after several posts, and some exchanges about the events at Sandy Hook. We can demand gun control laws, expanded mental health services, and the like. I support those efforts, but they really aren't getting at the roots. As far as I'm concerned, there's no way to get at the roots without grieving the past, and present conditions. Accepting fully what is here and how that came about.

"You want to help stop things like school shootings - expand your grief pool. It's not just about 20 children in CT. It's a whole history of violence and genocide. In the soil. In the very air we breathe. More and more, the past is unwilling to stay submerged. The stories of Native genocide. Of decades of police brutality towards people of color. Of the slaughter of animals to near or total extinction. Of disappearing medicine plants. Of destruction in whatever form in the name of profit, or religion, or racial superiority, or species superiority. It's all bubbling to the surface. Demanding to be dealt with now. We can collectively keep pushing it all down, or we can - each of us and together - learn to expand our grief pool, to mourn all that has happened. Give it the respect that it deserves. And in doing so, help break the cycles that have been built. I see no other way but straight through. And this school shooting can be a place to begin, if you haven't already. Those deaths are tied to some many others. Consciously expand the grief pool you are feeling. Even a little bit. It all counts."

*Image of Pakistani children, living under the threat of American drone strikes, offering their support to those suffering in CT.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Real Zen Practice

I seriously love this post by long time reader and blogger Jeanne of the Dalai Grandma blog. Among other things, it speaks to American Zen's obsession with form and "real" practice, and to our collective failure to live compassionately.

Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone. It is fed in this culture by the failures of the nuclear family, by the American craving to succeed, to be special. It is supported by teachers who write and talk about how important it is for you to have a special understanding born of mystical insight. They don't talk nearly as much about simple everyday kindness. They chant hymns to Kanzeon (Kuan Yin), but are not trained in compassion. Koan study throws fuel on the flame of striving. Robes, hitting with sticks, still worse.

I don't know whether the man who sat next to me so briefly the other night had ever attended that group before, or ever will again, or where he went when he left. I hope it wasn't to a bar. In the discussion of generosity afterward, no one talked about the generosity of heart that should mean you set up plenty of chairs so that every visitor can find a comfortable seat. The compassion that should mean you welcome every person who comes in the door.

In that other Zen group, whose karma lingers on, I overheard one of the regulars tell another about his visit to one of the big East Coast Zen Centers. I've visited there. There were a lot of Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot. This guy, who was married with children, said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there for a three-month retreat and "really practice?" I kept walking, thinking They don't get it.

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with one of our senior teachers, talking about vision for the Zen Center. As board president, I've been doing this kind of stuff for multiple years now, reflecting together with my dharma brothers and sisters upon what our sangha's values are, and how we might go about implementing those values into functions and structures in the future.

What is it that we are doing well, and what is it that we could improve or change completely? I asked those questions to this particular senior teacher yesterday, amongst several others. His responses were interesting. A blend of we're perfect just as we are, and we could use a little improvement, to echo Suzuki Roshi.

One thing I noticed though - and I've long admired this teacher's calm, wise, and reflective presence - is how there was a current of this "real practice" thing that Jeanne mentions in her post above. Namely, that what constitutes real Zen is found in retreats, periods of sutra study, and lots and lots of upright seated zazen. Now, the chair vs. cushion bit isn't an issue here. The teacher in question moved to sitting in a chair several years ago in response to his aging body. He, in fact, has even given time during dharma talks to speak about this move, and others. Like I said, I've long respected how he carries himself, and so it's important that I offer a more complete picture here.

When I read posts like Jeanne's, and consider my own, twisted and evolving practice, what I think we're getting at is the failure to really practice the relational. That Americans especially, steeped in individualism as we are, don't tend to do community well. Struggle sometimes with basic kindness. And sharing. Working together without lots of conflict. Feeling gratitude for each other. Embodying the relational qualities of Buddha's teachings, in other words.

For those of us who aren't living in monasteries, there's a lot of forgetting - or never knowing really - of all the ways in which Buddha's teachings were born of, and enhanced by, being in sangha together over the long haul. In a much different way than we lay folks are "in sangha." And yet, at the same time, Buddha's teachings were not exclusive to monks and nuns, and didn't emphasize one way of practice to awaken. He offered different forms and focuses for different folks. Those who came along later were the ones that decided certain forms and focuses were "the best" or "only true" ways to wake up in this life.

Even though I have rarely done formal retreat practice at zen center in recent years, I continue to have a love for its ability to support people to let go and see deeply. I wouldn't be the person I am today without the hours and hours of zazen and bowing and chanting and fumbling through oryoki I have done at zen center over the past decade. Nor do I think to myself "I'm done with all that." Not at all. It's more that I'm listening to the rhythm of my life and trying to be the reed for the current sound to come through. Which of late, has meant some unright zazen. And things like walking meditation with silent lovingkindness chanting in the skyways downtown during lunchtime. Or yoga nidra practice lying on my back. Or studying Dogen with dharma friends in their homes. Or simply offering a kind word, sense of gratitude, or a bit of humor for whomever I see when I'm at zen center.

What is real practice? How do you know?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Zen of Reacting and Responding

There has been a lot of dharma drama going on amongst members of the American Buddhist internet "sangha" over the past week. If you know about it, you know about it. If you don't, I'll spare you the details, other than that it involves sex, teachers, and students. Big surprise, eh?

Anyway, here's my humble offering to the pot today. Which doesn't require any awareness of the drama mentioned above.

There is a very big difference between responding and reacting .

When we respond to a situation, we are aware of the impersonal quality of what is occurring. Life is occurring, and we are part of that life occurring.

When we react to a situation, we view what is occurring as a personal threat, as an attack, or as a punishment. Life is happening ONLY because I did something, or I am something someone does not like, or I did something that deserves to be punished.

Now think about about, does the world really work that way? Is it really possible that things are occurring solely because of you, and the interplay between you and one other person? It's pretty damn unlikely. There are a myriad of factors that come into play in any given situation. The "you" and "I" are only part of the equation, and usually a tiny part at that.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes: "When we cannot communicate, we get sick, and as our sickness increases, we suffer and spill our suffering on other people."

A major part of communicating effectively involves coming from a place of non-reactiveness. Being calm enough to take in the jumbled, confused expressions around you without having to defend some territory called "I." It's really not an easy task, and most of us - me included - fall flat fairly often.

And sometimes, it's really best to be quiet. To go back into our meditation practice, and let go of needing to fix, or be right, or help, or whatever it is you want your words to do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Anger as Entertainment

I wrote this a few years back, but it seems like a good thing to re-post right now for some reason. The frantic holiday season? Too many Zen scandals? Anyway, here you go.

I have had one of those days where, for whatever reason, the longer the days goes, the less I want to interact with others. In fact, the past three or four hours, I've had waves of crankiness that haven't been so pleasant. Crossing a busy street, and getting cut off by cars in both crosswalks when the light was green didn't help. Nor the struggles I'm having with my second ESL class, which recently became a combined level class due to a colleague resigning. The old "leave the position empty" and "reallocate" game.

What's interesting about all this is that I work up early and did a longer period of zazen than I have been recently. Most mornings, I'm lucking to get 10 minutes and/or chant the refuges and bodhisattva vows before going out the door for the bus. Not only did I sit a half an hour, but also did a longer chanting service. I've always been more of a evening/night meditator, so whenever I can start a weekday morning doing both a morning sit and chanting service, it's always a plus.

Given this, the emotional contrast between this morning and this evening is vast.
Pema Chodron, writing about karmic momentum, has some interesting commentary to consider. She writes:

We entertain ourselves with anger, with fear, with grief —All kinds of thoughts are better than nothing— is our motto. The bodhichitta practices, and actually all meditation practices, are about learning to stay still and going through what I always refer to as the detox period of finally connecting. Sometimes it feels like stillness and peace, but if that happens it will also alternate with this restlessness and this unease.

Curious. I didn't feel like I was "entertaining" myself. However, if we broaden the definition a bit, it actually fits. With the class, the anger was really a diversion from experiencing disappointment, loss of my old, higher level class, and also just exhaustion with the seemingly endless rounds of change in the student body. In term of the cars in the crosswalk, the anger was a response to pedestrian unfriendly city planning, as well as a quick leap from the fear of getting hit.

I'm not one of those people who considers anger always an inappropriate response. The three poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance - but many translations have it as "anger' instead of "ignorance." There are times when a flash of anger might be the appropriate response, but it's far less than what most of us express on a daily basis.

The thing is that it's hard to stay with what's coming up when the world seems to be calling for some kind of action from you. In fact, even in situations like the street crossing, where you need to get to the other side, afterward it's terribly easy to get lost in stories about "those assholes" blocking the crosswalk. The opportunity to hang with what's coming up is there, and yet it gets lost pretty fast if you allow yourself to get hooked.