Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Moon A’painting

As the darkness began to fall,

Emboldened by the hunter’s call,

I slipped into the cool of night,

Gratefully released from exterior walls,

Though not interior ones.

Walking to the water’s edge,

The stars above a great assemblage,

I found the moon a’painting,

It’s brilliance on the distant window ledge,

Or was it only imagined?

A trail of glitter, as though left behind,

The lovely way the water shined,

I was enthralled, yet somber, still,

Could this very moon be only mind?

Surely there were angels.

Surely they sprinkled their dust.

Surely there were fairies among the forest’s trees,

be there must!

But recognizing, in the end,

That the childish ways must always bend,

To the ever flowing dance of water light,

Which fantasies cannot upend.

And so, at last, I laid my head

On the sweet, sweet dew of grass’s bed,

Allowing, allowing the ancient way,

To which I had been gratefully led.

– KMC c. 2012

Do you have an image that would illustrate this poem? Would you like to share it? Please comment!

On the Spot

In Zen practice it’s very common to put people on the spot. For example, when a student is leaving the temple to go to practice somewhere else or to return to a lay life or simply to take an extended rest, there is a “Departing Student Ceremony.”

Scene from "Zen" depicting Dogen as a pilgrim

Typically, the Abbess, Abbott or teacher of the student will thank them for their contribution and ask them a single question. This takes place in the zendo, in front of the entire assembly, who stand at their seats and observe silently. It can be a very poignant exchange, and it’s made more significant by the fact that it takes place in public. Students often express some concern in the days leading up to it. They worry that they won’t find an answer, or that their answer won’t be insightful enough. And yet, this is an activity that is well known throughout the community, as anyone who happens to be in the zendo that morning will witness these events. It doesn’t come as a surprise to the students, and many of the people who have been in residence for years come to appreciate and look forward to these exchanges. It can be a pivotal moment, one which can inform practice for years to come.

In fact, in my own experience, it was during a departing monk ceremony that the seed of a koan was planted. I was leaving San Francisco Zen Center to practice in Japan. My Practice Leader Shosan Vicki Austin asked how I could “eliminate the separation” and I replied with “just this breath.” But, on reflection it occurred to me that there is more to meet than just the breath. So the koan arose, “what is this moment?” It is that which we must meet completely, eliminating the sense of one who breathes and one who observes breathing.

But why the stress? Why do people whose stated intention is to be at ease with their own bodies and minds put each other on the spot like this? I think of it like thumping a melon. You thump it and hear what sound it makes, rather than paying attention to its outward appearance. And when a student is presented with a situation in which they feel some pressure, they learn about how they practice with pressure. That is, they learn whether they’d rather shy away, or burst forth with something funny, or simply stand still when the moment is intense. They may even say something without considering the question or choosing their words, possibly expressing themselves with a minimum of conceptual thought. This is where something other than the ego-self can come forth.

So, in Zen, practice is to put yourself in situations where the immediacy of the moment might allow you to forget yourself, allowing the non-self to be expressed more clearly. At that moment being on the spot is the only place to be.

Is it a parade?

Today we walked over to the park carrying parasols festooned with paper streamers and bamboo poles decorated with colorful balloons. It was part of the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday, also known as Vesakha. One aspect of my job this week had been to prepare these decorations, in the way it’s been done for quite a few years here. I enjoyed it, feeling childlike when a tiny balloon wouldn’t fill with air or a streamer would wrap itself around my ankle.

But as we walked, sprinkling flowers on the ground and circling the small City park while chanting about emptiness, I thought that it could be a scene out of Bhutan, or Nepal, or India. So the question arose, what is this practice? What is it that makes this activity transformative? Is this an activity of awakening?

It could be as simple as showing gratitude that Prince Siddhartha was born 2575 years ago, chose to take up the life of a spiritual seeker, and sat in meditation until he discovered something truly new about life. Or it could be as simple as giving ordinary people the opportunity to find themselves involved in practice in a way that doesn’t require them to confront a blank wall, literally or figuratively. But it can also take on another dimension.

It takes a lot of people to pull off even something as simple as walking across the street, offering incense and a chant, and walking back. Studying the responses that arise: one person sweating and barking orders; one person with furrowed brow who irritably brushed off the flower petals that were gently placed on them; one person who stood still and smiled at the 100 or so people who walked and chanted and bathed the baby Buddha statue (as is the typical ritual); one person who directed people’s movements seemingly quite concerned with the efficiency of the proceedings. Afterward, working together to set up and take down the ritual items, and eating the birthday cake, we talked about what it was like.

Aha. Those who understood their viewpoints to be simply expressions of preference found there was less “stickiness” to their feelings. That is, if you are aware of your feeling about the procession ~~ irritated about the chaos or blissful but detached ~~ and aware that your feeling is a conditioned response, in the most fundamental sense of the phrase, then you don’t have to put a lot of stock in it. You don’t have to explore it and explain it and attach some judgement and some protagonist/antagonist story to it. It can simply be what it was and be done (or be done differently next time). But if you choose to take it up as truth, then it becomes another reinforcement of the conditioning, giving you the “I told you so” reaction. Which do you prefer?

ImagePhoto: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Right Speech: Turning Your Back

Yesterday I stepped out into a sunny afternoon, intent on finding some respite. I was aware that this is a bit of a funny thing to do for someone who lives in a sanctuary. Nonetheless, I was on my way to a local coffee shop in hopes of sitting behind my sunglasses, sipping a very large espresso drink, and waiting for delicious boredom to set in.

Then it happened. As I sat with my beverage, a woman in a short red sweater and those narrow jeans that are so popular these days walked in, breezing by me with her eyes on the pastry cases. I know her. She is someone who has been a regular at the temple for many months, or maybe much longer, and she had been taking a class in which I was involved. I was pretty sure she hadn’t seen me – yet.

Slouching down into the big leather chair, I picked up the newspaper and considered the situation. I realized that I had just made a split second decision not to raise my hand and call her attention as she entered. And, now having retained my anonymity, I wasn’t quite sure what might happen next. Surely it was inevitable that she’d see me. After all, it wasn’t that big a place. I had no intention of leaving, but no intention of conversing either. So I sat there reading the paper and not looking up.

Still, out of the edge of my field of vision I saw her walk past me again, this time with her coffee. I thought that I sensed a moment of hesitation but I studiously peered at the paper. A flicker of a question – did she recognize me? It didn’t matter so much to be seen, as to be polite, for if she had identified me I couldn’t avoid her altogether. This I recognize as a trait from my upbringing, the impossibility of being rude.

But I had my answer right away, without so much as a word exchanged. She sat down across the room at a small table with her back to me. This might seem coincidental but, actually, she had to face a wall rather than a brightly lit room full of wooden furniture in order to do it. And she was directly at the wall, not turning even a little to one side or the other. She was ignoring me.

A moment of relief came over me and then the thought that she was doing this to be polite, having interpreted my intense interest in the newspaper as a sign that I would prefer not to be social. Or maybe she had a preference not to have to make small talk with me, and chose the polite wall gazing over a polite conversation. Either way, I was struck by the fact that two adults could wordlessly decide that it was a kindness not to speak to someone they know. Fascinating.

The Buddha taught to that there five things to consider when speaking, so as to ensure that you will be offering kind speech. He advised that one consider whether the thing that one wants to say is: timely, truthful, helpful, polite and compassionate. So in this situation timeliness was not present, and both of us clued into that fact before it was too late. Kindness was not present, and we agreed on that.

Have you ever done that? Ignored someone in a public place because you thought it was kinder or more appropriate than having a conversation? Fill in the poll and let us all know!


The Other Side

It began for me when I came home the night of the Dharma Inquiry Ceremony (Saturday, March 31st). I’d been out with a few friends but, glancing at my watch on my way up the stairs, still found that it was not even 9:00 pm. Even more surprising, however, was the thing I found at my doorstep – a note from the Ino (Head of the Meditation Hall) reminding me *not* to ring the wake up bell on Monday morning.

Of course, I thought. I’m no longer leading the life of the Shuso (Head Student or, more literally, Head Seat). I’m no longer the person who gets up before the required time to help everyone else by eliminating their need for an alarm clock and, thereby also eliminating their excuse for not being in the zendo (meditation hall) by 5:20 am. I didn’t need to be home early. And when I did get to the zendo, I would no longer seated facing into the room, toward the other sitters, the better for them to study my mudra (hand position) or facial expression while sitting in zazen (roughly, zen meditation). Strange.

I feel a bit like Alice after she fell into the rabbit hole. These days there seem to be some references to my previous life, but mostly it’s a curiously new world that I now inhabit. I suspect that this is really only my own perspective shifting to accommodate a lot of new experience crammed into the past 10 weeks, with a big bang at the end. But a few other people seem to be in on the trip too.

Funny, this sense of being spun around, especially since I had been forewarned by other shuso (the singular and plural are the same). One woman friend said, “Watch out. It’s not easy coming down off the mountain.” At the time I thought that it wouldn’t be so hard for me, as the one who is a bit wary of being put on a pedestal. And that part is more or less true.

But…now I am starting to see how comparing mind arises and wants to scrutinize each day to see how different it is than it was before. It wants to look for clues in words and phrases, and put together a picture of how the world will be now. The mind wants to find some security, building a framework so that all the new pieces will fit together in a tidy and orderly way. A brick here, a window there, and a roof, and soon enough I’ll have a house.

The only problem is that this is not reality. What really happens is that things change constantly, so constantly that I can’t even put my finger on one instant and say that it stays the same. So building a house, while a common and fairly normal thing to do, is actually making it harder to live. It blunts my senses. It reduces my ability to respond completely to the momentary arising.

So, if I’m smart, I’ll sit outside tonight and marvel at the clouds and the stars, and allow the simplicity of it to put my mind at ease.