Tag Archives: inquiry

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Losing the Story Line

dogen pilgrim

Photo from the film “Zen” c. 2009

Paul Haller, the former Abbot of City Center, once told me during a ceremony at Tassajara, “Enter the Way and let it undo you.” This was a profound admonition; one that felt completely in accord with the life I seemed to be living. For many people practice feels like this, undoing the sense of you and losing your way to take up a greater Way. It can seem like losing the story line of your life. The people, places and things that together comprise the whole don’t seem to hang together the way they used to. In fact, they don’t seem to hang together at all, becoming more of a random walk than a sprint to the finish line. At times painful and confusing, Dogen Zenji’s path of studying the self to forget the self requires a fair amount of courage. It requires the ability to remain present for all that arises in life and to respond, not from a place of well worn, fixed identity but from a place of real intimacy, honesty and compassion.

Using the “R” Word

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. IMG_0225 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.”indianworkers 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.

Practice in the modern world?

Lately the question of practice in the modern world has been on my mind. This is because, in six weeks, I will begin a new training program, working as a Chaplain Resident at a local hospital. I’ve had this role before, but as a volunteer. Each time I returned to City Center to continue the practice of zazen and ceremony together with the sangha (practitioners) here. Now all of that may change.

Within the monastery, life is simple. There are only a handful of activities that take place on a given day, and they are largely conducted in silence, except for the harmony of chanting in a group. In contrast, the modern world offers myriad things to do, the rise and fall of mechanical and human sounds, and the motion of technology which is much faster than the humble pace of walking. City Center, as an urban temple whose residents work within and outside the building, can be said to be midway between these two realms.

All of these activities and sensations can be thought of as forms of stimulation. So there can be a subtle, or not so subtle, sense of agitation that comes with modern life simply because of the amount of stimulation you experience. For that reason, it’s sometimes said that practice outside the monastery is an advanced form.

Yet Buddhist practice has flourished in every kind of civilization that human beings have developed. How? By pointing us again and again to our true selves, our fundamental nature.

There’s an old story that can give us a sense of this. In ancient India there was a great Teacher whose name was “Wisdom Jewel,” Prajñatara.

Prajñatara, thanks to Shoalindo

Prajñatara, thanks to Shoalindo

For many, many years Prajñatara was thought to be a man, but recent scholarship indicates that Prajñatara was a woman. It’s not clear to me whether this is simply a result of the confusion surrounding Bodhidharma, this Teacher’s disciple, or whether it’s a more accurate understanding than before. In any event, we know that Prajñatara was an extremely skillful practitioner whose teaching reverberates to this day. One conversation in particular is very revealing.

Prajñatara had been invited by a local King to dinner one evening. The King must have spent some time with the Teacher because it seems that, at this dinner, a question arose for him. He asked, “Why do you not study the Sutras?” This question demonstrates the King’s own practice, an awareness of Prajñatara’s forms and an inquiring mind about even something as fundamental as what practice might be. And it’s certainly a reasonable question. The Sutras are said to be the words of the Buddha, foundational instruction in the way to lead an awakened life. So how could Prajñatara be such a great Teacher without the benefit of that history?

Prajñatara replied, “This poor wayfarer does not dwell in body and mind when breathing in, does not get involved with myriad circumstances when breathing out; this way I recite the sutra hundreds, thousands, millions of times.” Ah ha! Here we see the Ancestor telling the student that practice is not some secret that resides in a musty, old book. It is this very life itself, unfolding breath by breath, yet not identified with the conditional world. This is practice that is available to us at any moment, in any place. In fact, it’s a practice which requires a presence that is sustained and intimate with the moment now, regardless of whether the moment now is standing at a street corner while the ambulance screams past you, or sitting on a cushion in a firelit cabin in the mountains.

So when living in the modern world, it’s helpful to foster the mind of inquiry, like the King, and it’s helpful to remember that practice always occurs right where you are, like Prajñatara. This is not to say that you shouldn’t study the Sutras. That musty, old wisdom can be inspiring, like a window into someone else’s insight. But you should know that an awakened life is not something that is attained through scholarship; it’s freedom and stillness within the very activity of the moment. And that’s not anything to write home about.