Monthly Archives: March 2015

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.

 

 

 

 

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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.