…at www.EkanZenStudyCenter.org you will find the latest posts by Konin, an updated teaching schedule, and many more resources.
Check it out!
Why not have a look?
…at www.EkanZenStudyCenter.org you will find the latest posts by Konin, an updated teaching schedule, and many more resources.
Check it out!
Why not have a look?
There is a global movement toward re-establishing the full ordination of women in the Theravada, and Aloka Vihara is part of that movement. These bhikkhunis and the people that support them are Theravadan practitioners who are willing to acknowledge the shared heritage of all Buddhist lineages, rather than emphasize their differences. However, there is also global resistance to change, and a powerful monastic and political hierarchy that enforces a centuries old form of oppression. Studying the history of the origins of Buddhist women’s ordinations, and the forms that came down through the centuries does not provide complete clarity. There seem to be doctrinal inconsistencies and the basis for arguments on both sides of this debate. It may take generations to arrive at a consensus and, in the meantime, sincere women practitioners leave home and follow the Way.
Read about these sincere practitioners in the attached article, “A Sima on Northern California Land,” by Abiding Practice Leader Konin Cardenas.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
I recently paid a visit to the nuns at Aloka Vihara. They are ordained women in the Thervadan Buddhist tradition who are starting a new monastery in the northern hills of California. While I was there they spoke about their home and so many unknowns in their future. So when I was asked to give a talk, I chose to speak about the unknown, and how to practice with the uneasiness that might arise in those circumstances. Deep bows to the nuns for their warm hospitality and sincere practice, and for being willing to be pioneers of the ancient Way.
The Zen Ritual class has been meeting at SFZC City Center, each time studying a short verse from one of the many ceremonies that are traditional in Western Zen. Delving into the words we use to express our understanding and our intention, we find our particular places of connection, our points of entry to the gates of practice. For me this study of ritual has also helped to breathe new life into the forms, brightening the realm in which these activities take place, providing a context that resounds with meaning.
Week two we spoke about the Bodhisattva vows. Here they are again:
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
Thus, we can take the Bodhisattva vows as an expression of our intention to awaken ourselves and others to the truths inherent in all things. We can take the vows with the intention to see through our mistaken ideas and meet the incomparable uniqueness of each person and thing.
This is a big commitment. You might have a motivation to become a better person and to have a positive impact on the world, but that can easily slip into just another goal for the striving ego. If you find yourself criticizing your own efforts to help, or those you are helping, you might ask yourself whether your good intentions have been channeled into striving for control. To really take up these vows skillfully you have to recognize that the inner world and the outer world are completely interpenetrating. That is, the world influences you, so you can influence the world. You don’t discount others’ ability to respond or your own ability to respond. You recognize that they work together.
I mentioned one of the stories of Lingzhao as an example of just this sort of view. Lingzhao was the daughter of a family of 9th Century Chinese lay practitioners who were deeply respected.
One day she and her father, Layman Pang, were walking along when he tripped and fell. Seeing this, Lingzhao threw herself on the ground next to him. When he asked what she was doing, she said, “I saw you fall down, so I’m helping.” This is truly Bodhisattva activity, meeting the one you are helping and seeing the world from their perspective. This is to literally level the playing field, eliminating any sense of hierarchy between helper and helped. In “the Hidden Lamp,” Joan Sutherland deftly refers to this as action “to help liberate the intimacy already inherent in any situation.” Once intimate with the moment, and the people and things in it, one can respond skillfully. Skillfulness arises as the result of not being blind to specific karmic conditions or to the vast interconnectedness they create.
Of course this does not mean that you have to become completely like the others in your life that need help. So, for example, you can’t help an alcoholic friend by becoming alcoholic yourself or enabling their alcoholism. Still, until you really make an effort to see their point of view and understand what makes them just as human as you, it’s not possible to offer a helpful response.
The story continues with Layman Pang’s reply to Lingzhao, which was, “It’s a good thing no one was looking.” Be careful not to fall into thinking that this is an expression of shame. The father is pointing toward the egolessness of his daughter’s response. The “no one” who is looking doesn’t get in the way of enlightened activity, doesn’t set up a separation, doesn’t need to be superior in order to offer aid. Feel free to get covered in dust! Then you can stand upright together.
Taking the Boddhisattva vows, we are promising to fall down and get up with everyone.
It is so easy these days to get caught up in thinking that you are busy. Maybe you feel there are lots of chores to do, or emails piling up in your inbox, or texts arriving on your phone. Maybe you feel that you simply don’t have time for everything, that you simply can’t keep up with all of the people who need or want something from you. When this happens, the thought, “I don’t have time for that” can arise even when “that” is something you want to do, like answer the phone when your loved one calls or clear a space on your desk. But the pressure you feel is too high, so you cannot connect to the positive in that moment. As Zen Master Dogen says:
You fail to experience the passage of being-time and hear the utterance of its truth, because you learn only that time is something that goes past.
What Dogen is pointing at here is the fact that we live in each moment, and the moment is expressing the truth of interrelatedness, the truth that we are actors in our world. So your experience of time could be entirely different. You could turn that thought of not having time into your helper. You could see “not having time” as something of a tool for discerning what is skillful in your life. This is called “turning on the basis,” a practice of shifting perspective so that it aligns more closely with the Dharma. You could have a shift that enables you to live within the moment now, with all the results of the past and the possibilities of the future.
A shift in the view of not having time often happens to those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Suddenly a person comes to the realization that life is precious, and that they must be thoughtful about the way in which they live. Many times, for the people I visit, this creates a sense of sadness as well. If you have been postponing the things you really want to do for a long time, when you find out that you no longer have the time or the health to do them, it can be a big disappointment.
Yet you don’t have to wait for that moment to begin changing your perspective on “not having time.” You can simply take up a practice of acceptance, discernment and skillful response. Seeing clearly the moment as it is, you hold it up to the light of the Dharma, and then make a conscious choice about whether and how to respond.
For example, how would it be if you simply said, “I don’t have time for that worry” or “I don’t have time to watch violence for the sake of entertainment.” Or “I don’t have time to be angry with that person that just walked too close to me,” or “that person who took the parking place I had my eye on.”
So you can see that, with a bit of a twist, not having time can begin to open up new potential for presence, patience and for letting go of pettiness. It can help you stay focused on responding, rather than reacting. It can put things in perspective – which reminds me of a saying that a friend of mine who is a nun mentioned many years ago:
“In Zen three minutes is an eternity.”
Renunciation is a bad word in America. It carries many connotations, subtle meanings like denial, poverty and withdrawal from society. It is thought of as a hardship, even if it is willingly taken on. It is something that many people avoid doing and even avoid thinking about.
This is not a surprise, given that many people in America today hope for a better life. Some might think, “I am not going to give anything up. I came here with nothing, and now it’s my turn to have more.” Others feel, “Life is fine just as it is. Why give up anything?” Some might think, “I grew up here and I deserve at least as much as my parents had.” Others think, “I don’t have enough love in my life, so I can’t renounce any of it.”
However, this is not the kind of renunciation that is most helpful on the path. In Buddhism, the teaching is that there is really only one kind of renunciation that leads to liberation. This one thing that we are truly asked to renounce is our fixed view. That is, if you are willing to entertain some doubt, some skepticism, some inquiry about all the thoughts and feelings that you experience, then you have the opportunity to discover something completely different. You grant yourself the opportunity to experience things as they are, and relinquish things as you think they are, things as you want to force them to be, things as they might one day be if only everyone were to accept your understanding.
This mind of inquiry enables you to transform your fixed views of self and your fixed views of other. It sheds light on the dark shadows of your mind where the fiercest of the fixed views live. It loosens your grip on the things to which you have been clinging, preventing the “rope burn” that comes from holding tightly onto that which cannot remain the same. And if there is anything that is obvious, it’s that things cannot stay the same.
Then, with presence in the moment, having engaged the mind of inquiry, you will begin to experience your oneness with all things. You can begin to see the way in which you are actually interconnected, and not a separate entity governed completely by your own thoughts. Seeing this interconnectedness, you naturally begin to have compassion, for yourself as a changing being and for everything else, because it is also related to you. Just as described in the koan, wherein the monk asks another monk, “What is compassion?” The reply is, “It is like groping for the pillow in the dark while you are sleeping.” That is, it is something so natural you are not even conscious of it. However, this is true only when you are grounded in the truth of interconnectedness. Otherwise, you operate from the sense of scarcity, feeling that more for someone else means less for you, and less for you means you are less than them.
It reminds me of a nun who was the teacher of my dharma brother. She came for a visit to the monastery and, having heard what a wonderful teacher she was to him, I decided to give her a gift. It was tiny present, a glass monk less than 2 cm tall. I wrapped it in tissue paper and presented with a smile and a bow. The nun also smiled and bowed, and thanked me profusely. This is typical Japanese graciousness. The lesson came later. The following week I received a package from the nun, who had sent a beautiful tea cup and some candy. Then another month later, another package with sweets and cards. A few months later, a pretty handkerchief. And the gifts kept coming for many months to come. The lesson was quite clear. Even the smallest bit of generosity was returned many times over in this teacher’s form of renunciation. Truly this was a great teacher! Harada Roshi summed it up saying, “The person who gives a gift is practicing non-attachment.” Her renunciation was so profound that she could practice non-attachment over and over at the slightest prompting.
But how can we practice this in every day modern life, where we are dealing with plenty of people who are not on the same page? Really, it starts with questioning the ways we think and holding them up to the light of the Dharma. When we begin to relinquish the idea that we have to defend our thoughts, or even hang on to them, then a new, more peaceful way of being can begin to unfold. A friend of mine revealed his renunciation the other day, as we were sitting at the dinner table. He told me about his job in the technology industry, where he sits in front of computer most of the day and earns a pretty good living. “But,” he said, “one day I hope to give that up, and have a job where I can help people.” That would have been fine, but my friend had to chuckle at himself. Then with a wry smile he said, “It is a luxury for me even to be able to say that.” You see, he is from a place where most people will only ever have one job, and they have no choice about it. They will tolerate any conditions just to have the job, and they will do that job their whole life. So, for him, it was a luxury even to express the desire to change jobs. What a wide view he had!
So it is with this heart and mind of renunciation that I invite you to take up the path of relinquishing that which you do not need and cannot hold on to anyway. Maybe then you will find your pillow in the dark.
“It is not possible for the ego to intervene in the Dharma. This means that it is enough to become the Dharma. In order to become the Dharma, you must forget the ego. In order to forget the ego, you must sit. That is all there is to it.”
Commentary: Becoming that which you are already are, is like turning from old woman to young. The salty water pervades skin, flesh bones and marrow. Don’t think that forgetting is passivity; don’t think that forgetting is activity. Is there anyplace where this sitting cannot take place?
It is said that the Buddha did not immediately begin teaching after he awakened to ultimate wisdom. Several weeks passed before the Buddha arose from his seat, and it is believed to have been several months after that before he offered his first talk. Yet arise he did. And, in doing so, he again expressed his own unshakeable conviction that mankind is fully capable of transcendent compassion and inconceivable wisdom.
This is an important point to remember these days, when I often encounter people who worry about the state of the world and the people in it. They read the newspaper, watch television and talk to their neighbors and co-workers about unspeakable acts of violence and terrible natural disasters. They hear of murder and rape, and of theft on a scale so large that it becomes unimaginable. They talk of hurricanes, and earthquakes, and floods, and all manner of disease. They say to one another, “These things are wrong. The people who do these things are evil and the world is getting darker every day.”
Yet this is the same world that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of when he said, “I and all beings are fully awakened on this day,” a day that is now celebrated as Bodhi Day, December 8th. He was not speaking of some world outside of this one. The beings that the Buddha spoke of are all beings; those of the past, present and future; those with and without understanding; those male, female and something else; those who are good and those who are bad.
So how do we discover this teaching for ourselves, right in the midst of so much troubling news? How do we learn to see the Buddha in every face, no matter how contorted or stunningly beautiful? In the 13th Century Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Zen Master, said “Without exception everyone is a vessel. Do not ever think that you are not a vessel,” expressing the same understanding as the Buddha, but in a different way. That is, Dogen was pointing at each and every being as an expression of the great teachings of impermanence, emptiness and freedom from suffering. But you might say that you don’t feel free from this realm, that you are completely trapped in this world full of troubles and people with intent to kill. In one sense that is true; you are a function of millions and millions of conditions that happen in each instant, each dependent on the others. You exist only to the extent that you interact with the world around you, within you. Yet it is precisely because of this state of being caused and created by the myriad things that you are also completely free of them in each moment. That is, as an expression of the fully interconnected universe you are, in essence, stillness in the midst of motion. There is nothing you have to do to make this true. However, that truth explains why we sit zazen, the form of meditation which allows for transcendence of the moment through complete presence in the moment.
Now all of this may be starting to sound very theoretical. So I’ll offer an example. Take the example of spitting. Once I was walking along the street very early in the morning. It was dark, and I was in a town that I don’t live in, visiting a family member. I was wearing my work clothes, which to many people look like a karate outfit, and I had my hair shaved to something like 1/8th of an inch, what is referred to by folks in the armed forces as “high and tight.” A man was walking toward me in the opposite direction. I could tell that when he looked at me he didn’t like what he saw. I was a bit nervous as he approached, but decided that he didn’t look like he would get violent. Still, he came closer and yelled at me, “Go home, alien,” as he continued to walk past me on my left. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head toward me and spit. Thankfully it didn’t reach me. Yet it left a very strong impression. I have thought about that morning many, many times. And I’ve seen others spat upon. What is an appropriate response? Would it be different if it were a woman? Certainly, when someone spits at you, you might have thoughts of retaliating in some form. Certainly you can be expected to feel some “fight or flight” energy. But, actually, you express and experience the most freedom when you do not do anything. By not attacking the person or groveling to the person, you simply stand still and express your own powerful ability to be the skillful response. You allow that person who spit at you to completely receive their own consequences. You kill them with kindness.
This is not to say that the appropriate response is always to do nothing. Sometimes the most skillful thing is to do or say something. However, even then, you cannot relinquish your potential to express the stillness of the moment. Even then, you do not relinquish your authority to express the freedom that interconnectedness allows. Sometimes kindness expresses itself by not yelling at a spitter, and sometimes kindness expresses itself by stopping someone from shooting more innocent people. I’m reminded of an attack that took place at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee a number of years ago. The Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the church, said of the shooter who had been subdued by the churchgoers that day, “He was a victim of his own hatred.”
So, when you learn about people that are doing great harm in the world, you can ask yourself what kind of response you want to offer. You can ask yourself whether you want to respond by offering kindness, freedom and skillful means to everyone you encounter, or by offering worry, and a sense of further separation and judgement. You can ask yourself how to best express your interconnectedness to them and to those that they harm. Then, just be it, knowing that the Buddha has already said that you can, knowing that the Buddha has already said you are.