Tag Archives: monk

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Breaking with Tradition to Uphold Tradition

cave buddhas

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.

A Sima on Nor Cal Land

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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 

snail-md

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.

Turning Toward Radiance

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.

http://av.dharmaseed.org/talks/

cave buddhas

In the Service of Wisdom

Though “zen” is a word that is used for many things, including MP3 players and beauty salons, the tradition of Zen is known for a variety of practices and arts. What can we learn from these practices that is applicable to life in the West?

Redwood zendo trioZazen

Zen is known to many for its meditation, a form of sitting that involves facing the wall. Although there are as many kinds of meditation as there are minds, zazen can be described as a form of meditation that is at once single-mindedly concentrated and open to a wide field of experience. That is, zazen is sitting that fully meets all aspects of our experience of the moment.

Shodo, Shakyo, and Sumi-e

Shodo is the art of Japanese calligraphy. Shakyo is the art of sutra copying. Sumi-e is the art of ink drawing. These arts, using a brush and black sumi ink, are forms of expression that require focus and years of practice to master.

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

In this age, when it’s possible to simply scan the most beautiful copy of an ancient text, upload it to your favorite copy center, and have 1000 copies made at 0.6 cents each, why would anyone want to write out a text by hand, much less using a brush? Or what is the value of painting yet another stalk of bamboo? Yet the beauty and uniqueness of each of these expressions is renowned.

Shojin Ryori

Shojin ryori literally translates as “devotion cooking” and means Zen temple cooking. It was the topic of a famous teaching by Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen. In the piece, entitled Instructions to the Cook, Dogen explains the way in which cooking is a practice on a par with meditation and the study of the Buddhist teachings. His audience of practitioners would have consisted mostly of men who likely viewed cooking as, at best, a daily necessity or, at worst, an undignified chore. Yet Dogen taught,

Take one stalk of vegetable to make the six-foot body [of buddha]; invite the six-foot body to make one stalk of vegetable. This is the divine power that causes transformations and the buddha work that benefits beings.

– translation by Taigen Dan Leighton

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Japanese gardens

Looking at a Japanese garden your first thought might be, “What kind of garden is this? It hardly has any plants.” The monastery in which I lived had moss gardens in its interior courtyards, a vegetable garden where we grew quite a bit of our food, and a flower garden on the street along the exterior wall. Much of the daily life of the residents involved tending the gardens. Imagine spending an hour weeding a patch of moss the size of one square meter. Kneeling on the coolness of it, with weeding fork in hand, a monk bends closer to look for the tiniest of grasses. Or a person sweeps the trail in the forest with a broom made of bamboo twigs, lifting the leaves into small piles, even as they continue falling from the trees.

Common Denominator

So what is it that can be distilled from this odd collection of practices? What do these arts have in common, and what can we learn from them?

Each of these traditional Zen arts is taking an everyday activity and turning it into a practice. It is taking the mundane activity of life, such as writing or weeding, and doing it in the service of wisdom. This turning toward wisdom takes place through the intention, the awareness, and the Mind that is applied, and it transforms the way we experience the activity. It’s not that it makes the activity into something magical. The cooking is still the cooking, chopping vegetables and boiling water. Yet the experience of cooking is met in an entirely different way, a way that connects to cooking as enlightened activity.

By Andy Serrano

By Andy Serrano

This way of meeting our everyday life as enlightenment is the inheritance of the practice of the Zen ancestors.  Start by understanding that every moment is a moment of enlightenment, ripe with the opportunity for realization. Because this is so, then sweeping must be enlightenment when it is fully engaged. This full engagement takes time, and it demands our full attention. That is why the Zen way is often the slow way. Doing even mundane things is the activity of a Buddha, and it is up to us to encounter how this can be so, whether you are sweeping in Kyoto or in Kansas.

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.