Tilling the Field of Identity

When speaking with friends and reading the newspaper, I have the impression that the questions of identity are up for us as a nation. Whether it be a discussion of race relations, of feminism, of the widening rifts between classes, or of sexual orientation or gender, the question of identity is big right now. A lot of people are wondering how to be skillful with the aspects of identity that can be so different from person to person.

For Buddhists this can be a particularly vexing point because of the teaching of “no self.” Essentially, the teaching of no self means that there is no permanently abiding self, no self that arises independent of causes and results, no self that remains fixed for even an instant. Yet, to be clear, Buddhism does not teach that there is not a self. It doesn’t deny that a self appears to arise and dissipate, and that we experience that self as “me.”

This raises the question, “How can we honor the things that make each person unique – like their past, their preferences, their bodies, their expression – and still abide fully in the truth that all of those things don’t fully capture what it means to be a person?”

This is a question that deserves deep and sustained inquiry. For starters, I’d like to offer a brief Zen teaching, in the hopes that it might provide guidance for a skillful response. It begins with the story of an interaction between Kueishan, an 8th Century Chinese Ch’an teacher and his student Yangshan, who were the founders of the Igyo Zen tradition.

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Here’s the story:

Yangshan was digging on a hillside, in an effort to make a rice paddy. He said to Kueishan, “This place is so low; that place is so high.”

Kueishan replied, “Water makes things equal. Why don’t you level it with water?”

Yangshan replied, “Water is not reliable, teacher. A high place is high level, and a low place is low level.”

Kueishan agreed.

Hearing this story in modern times, it seems to me that Yangshan is commenting that he is in the lower position of student, in the lower position of worker, in the lower position monk. This contrasts with Kueishan who is in the higher position of teacher, the higher position of observer, the higher position of Abbot. So Yangshan is pointing out their differences.

In response, Kueishan effectively says, “Why don’t you just even things up with a little water?” In other words, you don’t have to see it that way. You could just gloss over it.

However, Yangshan doesn’t fall for this and responds by saying, “Water is not reliable.” That is, you can’t just gloss over differences. That is not a skillful way to practice with differences. He goes on, “A high place is high level; a low place is low level.” In other words, each of us takes our place. Each of us takes our dharma position in the moment. Kueishan agreed that this is the correct view.

The lesson of this story is that the skillful way to practice with difference is to acknowledge it because, until we acknowledge what’s present, we can’t possibly begin to work with it. Our differences help us to see our dharma position, help us to see the ways in which we are related. Teacher doesn’t arise without student. Low doesn’t arise without high. While we might want to make everything the same, that is unrealistic. It’s not a reliable way to interact with the world.

On a similar note, in the “Sutra of Eights,” the Buddha taught that we should not view ourselves as lower than another, as higher than another, or as equal to another. Where does that leave you? It means we must view ourselves as incomparable, unique beings that are interrelated in ways that are important to acknowledge.

Returning to the story, it is interesting to note that it is Yangshan who gives the teaching words. In doing so, he is demonstrating that, by truly acknowledging and working with their differences, he was able to change the dynamic and be in the “high” place. In effect, he leveled the differences by not glossing over them. So the skillful conversation of identity begins from a place of true acceptance of difference. From there, we can step into relationship and find the ways to connect.

 

 

 

 

Reflections of the Season

Today I have been reflecting on the anniversary of my priest ordination. Years ago, on a frosty day in Obama, Japan, I vowed to live at least the remainder of this lifetime in the service of the Buddhadharma. So each year at this time, I reflect on my vows, my life, and the literal and metaphorical arrival of spring. For me, it’s helpful to mark the time and to review the conditions that have arisen. It’s helpful to look back every March 22nd, returning again and again to those moments of intention made manifest.

And yet, I remind myself, I should not be fooled into thinking that time goes around in a circle like this. The Gregorian calendar is merely a convention, one way of seeing time that was devised less than 500 years ago to ensure the arrival of Easter during the spring. It is clearly a human invention, albeit a very useful one.

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Hosshinji in Obama, Japan

In contrast, Dogen taught that time is not cyclical like the calendar. He taught that our sense of the passage of time is really based on our experience of change from moment to moment. While we tend to think , “Spring is here and therefore the trees begin to grow leaves and the snow begins to melt.” Dogen taught, “Because the trees grow leaves and the snow begins to melt, this is spring.” That’s why we can call it spring. That is, spring is nothing other than the appearance of a collection of conditions that we associate with that word. In the same way, Zen priest is nothing other than appearance of the collection of conditions associated with that word. It is an identity that can only be found as it is passing.

This way of seeing time means that looking back in time is just another activity in this moment. Is my ordination day actually here again? Well, no and yes. It is not here because it happened eight years ago, and this is a new moment, regardless of the date that appears on my cell phone. However, it is here in the sense that all of the ramifications of that day are present, including my memories of the ceremony, the fact that my head is shaved and that I am writing this blog. By embracing both of these aspects, here and not here, I can honor the past and future expression of myself without getting hung up on it. I can reflect on the past, yet not be defined by it. I can consider the future, but not be trapped by it.

This is what it means be fully present in the moment. In Genjokoan, Dogen’s chapter on life completely manifesting at the intersection of the absolute and the relative, he says things “abide in past and future…and are independent of past and future.”

And this way of seeing time means that, even though those elements of the past and the future are present, I cannot just consider it done. It means that I am a priest, but I must actually bring that vow and that activity into the present in order to be manifesting “priest.” I am only a practitioner because I practice.

Once, I was picking chamomile flowers in the garden at the monastery, and I asked a friend and fellow monk about which flowers to pick. I said, “Should I pick the ones whose petals haven’t opened? Should I pick the ones who petals have started to fall off?” My friend, Shodo, shook his head and growled, “Are you asking me when a flower becomes a flower?”

Chamomile bush, photo from Anniesfarm.com

Chamomile bush, photo from Anniesfarm.com

Therefore, in Zen, our moment to moment life is expressing the fullness of time. Putting words to this, Dogen wrote:

Rising, as the mountain

peaks and valleys deepen –

The twilight sound of the cicada

Singing of a day

Already gone by.

In the poem, Dogen subtly refers to the passage of time as the peaks and valleys deepening. As the sun is setting, the shadows of the valleys grow. He then points to the activity of the cicada, which is expressing the fact that the end of the day has arrived by singing.

Even more subtly, we might hear in this poem Dogen describing the awakening of discerning insight, reaching its full expression, which cannot help but include the wisdom of the past.

The great creative function of Buddhanature expresses itself in billions and billions of ways – as people, as things, as energy – and we are here for it. Yesterday, tomorrow and all of the states in between are here, in the present. It couldn’t possibly be any other way.

With a bow to my teacher, Zen Master Sekkei Harada, my American teacher Shosan Victoria Austin, the many teachers I’ve had during this life of practice and, ultimately, to Shakyamuni Buddha.

Actualizing the Fundamental Point

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen

A week from today, on February 28th at 10:00 am, I will be giving a Dharma talk at San Francisco Zen Center. The topic of the talk is, “Taking Care of Everyday Life,” and it will be based in the teachings of Dogen’s Genjokoan. Everyone is welcome to attend, whether in person or by viewing the Livestream video. Visit the City Center webpage to learn more.

Receiving the Sutra in a Subtle Way

fish brush painting

Receiving wisdom moment by moment, the student takes it in as the flow of brush over paper…

Shakyo or the practice of copying Buddhist sutras using brush and ink is a time honored tradition. It brings us into an encounter with the teachings without engaging the analytical mind. Slowing down, breath by breath, finding the subtle curves and sharp points of the characters, we concentrate for a few short hours on bringing a sutra into the world.

Konin will be offering a sutra copying workshop this coming Saturday at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center. See the Schedule on the right hand side of this page for more information, and a link to registration. It’s not too late to enroll.

The Sword That Cuts Through Violence

During a recent meeting of the Spanish study group “Dharma en Español,” several students asked me to address the topic of violence and the recent killings of four young men of color across the street from San Francisco Zen Center. I spoke about the events, how multiple shots rang out one Friday night as a stolen car was riddled with bullets. The four people inside were barely men, between the ages of 18 and 21. They were all killed nearly instantly, though the police officers who responded tried to resuscitate them, blood spilling out on the sidewalk. The incident has been called “gang-related” in the press. I spoke of attending the community meeting and the march, the tears and the pain and the anger of so many. I spoke of how great the sense of separation must be for the one could commit such an act, how fixed the view of self and other, how desperate and alienated, how angry.

HV March Scott Strazzante The SF Chronicle

Scott Strazzante/The SF Chronicle

 

It was this last part that seemed to touch something profoundly personal for them. One young, Mexican man began to talk about his experience growing up in Los Angeles. His neighborhood had been home to several houses where crack cocaine was manufactured, where fires and fights would often break out. He said that he has come to understand in recent years, having arrived at his late 30s, that immigrant people like those of his own family fled lives of desperation, poverty and violence, but often ended up recreating those very conditions all around them here in the States. This young man felt that it was the anger, misunderstood and often obscuring other feelings, that fueled the violence. Adult members of the community were willing to turn away because they too were part of the system that had been built up. They too had recreated lives of desperation and violence.

I asked the others in the room whether they felt similarly. They too shared stories of their reasons for coming to the US, and reflected on how remarkably easy it would have been to slip into a similar way of life. The chain of events, as these Latinos saw it, was a familiar one to me. I recognized that story of arriving and encountering the barriers of language and education. I remember how they lead to feelings of frustration, sadness, and fear that were expressed as anger and a strong drive to exert control. This story had also played itself out in my family. I was touched to know that this dynamic had a larger context.

Then, I went to see the movie “Selma.” In it there is a scene in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in jail, and he reflects on the value of the work he is doing on behalf of voting rights at a time when black Americans across the South were struggling with poverty and a lack of education. Again the barriers became visible for me, the ways in which language and education had kept so many oppressed, and the anger that arose as a result. Painful. When he renews his commitment to the cause, it is a poignant moment. Truly the role Dr. King played in the passage of the Voting Rights Act lead to an enormous improvement in the lives of blacks and many others. His leadership of the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights Movement were brilliant.

So there is no question in my mind that secular education is one key to dismantling the structures that enforce inequality. Yet my own experience showed that even the most prestigious education could not relieve the suffering of my Latina and basic human legacy. I needed another education – in the Buddhadharma. I needed to learn how to be aware of my body and mind, the bodies and minds of others, my environment. I needed to learn how to accept, to be able to acknowledge what is as it is, though not necessarily as okay. I needed to learn how to sit with it. I needed to learn how to respond, rather than react to the states in which I find myself.

This is what I learn on the cushion. This is what I learn from the ancient teachings. This is the most basic message of the Buddha. He taught that sitting encountering the basic stillness and activity of body and mind will show us that violence will not bring us the life that we want, the life of fulfillment and peace. He taught that skillful action can only arise from a skillful view of the world and our place in it. For that reason Zen teaching is called the sword of wisdom, cutting through our confusion about life, cutting through the idea that violence is necessary.

So today I offer my profound gratitude to Dr. King for the wisdom of reflection and of non-violence. His sword is still very sharp.

The Three Flavors

Dialogue with Master Changcha, as recorded in the Essentials of the United Lamps of our  [Zen] School  and featured in the Unfathomable Depths, a new Zen text on an ancient Chinese poem 

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K’s Introduction:

The Master speaks of the monk’s sword, but it is his own that cuts thoroughly. The monk reveals his inquiring mind, but ends with a thump. All the fog in the world couldn’t soak his robes, so it’s best that he follow the path. How about you? Can you taste all the flavors at once?

Encounter:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.

The monk asked, “What do you mean?

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.

K’s Brief Commentary:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

Is there ever a wrong opportunity? Get off your duff!

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

When caught by differences, you will find yourself up to your hips in mud.

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.”

What’s the use of a sharp tongue when you’ve already bared your backside?

The monk asked, “What do you mean?”

At least he hopes his breath isn’t wasted.

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.”

A hot hand won’t help you now. Another kind of rice cake isn’t any more tasty.

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

He’d better pack a spare pair of sandals.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.”

There are not two sides to this coin; this delicacy is lost on many.

K’s Prose Commentary:

Master Changcha’s student reveals his particular form of delusion in the opening question. It seems this fellow feels there is some magic moment that will arise from his practice. So he’s waiting around for something special, and in the meantime, he happens to encounter the teacher. At least he’s come to a clear one. Changcha tries to tell him not to get caught up in differences. That is, though there are people of varying colors and practices, the magic moment is every moment, since all things are expressions of the original function. Experiencing things in this way, just drinking tea is an awakening moment.

The awakened way doesn’t wait for an opportunity that seems right. Still, if it doesn’t feel right, you will always make faces when eating snails.

Still, it seems the monk is stuck and before he can continue Changcha does him a favor, telling him that he can see the monk’s confusion. In good faith the monk persists, asking about the Master’s teaching, but ends up walking out. It seems his magic moment hasn’t arrived when, in fact, it’s already here. That could be a long road for him. Yet Changcha goes the extra mile, leaving him with one last, skillful word. Three flavors in one, all discernable yet the eyes are closed. This is the flavor of enlightenment in the midst of the bland world, all the while infusing our delusions. with the freshest of scents. At the time of this dialogue I doubt that snails were a delicacy, but Changcha has now made it so.

Living Within Your Buddhanature

13th Century Zen Master Dogen taught that Buddhanature is the ground of all being, inherent in all people, places and things. He turned the ancient phrase, “All beings have Buddhanature” into the phrase, “All beings are Buddhanature.” This is quite a different way of experiencing life. Yet, I suspect that most of us don’t routinely experience life in that way. This is because we have a subtle misunderstanding about what or who we are.

Hosshinji.275

Below is a link to a recent dharma talk I gave to the group “Access to Zen,” which meets in San Francisco. The talk addresses the question of a human life and some ways that we can open up to its meaning.

* Please note the correction to this talk. The phrase “The Way is perfect and all pervading” is the first line of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, “A Universal Recommendation for Zazen,” not Genjokoan, “Absolute Questions of Everyday Life.”

http://www.accesstozen.org/variety-is-the-spice-of-life/