Thursday, December 1, 2016

SF Chronicle Features: Kogen the Dreg Slurper

Huangbo said to the assembly, "You people are all slurpers of dregs. If you travel like this, where will you have today? Do you know that in all of China there are no teachers of Chan?"
At that point a monk came forward and said, "What about those who guide followers and lead groups in various places?"
Huangbo said, "I don't say there's no Chan, just that there are no teachers."

I'm no teacher.

I was recently interviewed for the SF Chronicle and almost died upon reading it. I was quoted twice and what was quoted were the dregs of what I stole from teachers or one writer in particular, Colleen Morton Busch. 
She wrote on page 104 of her book Fire Monks something about non attachment and when interviewed I regurgitated some version of her metaphor and didn't cite her. Nor did I cite Suzuki Roshi or Seung Sahn when talking about Don't Know mind or Beginners Mind. This all passed for personal insight and was published. 
How did this happen? How did I become a slurper of Dregs? When did this over take my aspiration to be a person of true color?
I felt horrible, though it's passing. And I learned something: slow down when you feel the need to explain yourself. My teacher just the other day reminded me, when put to it, humans have the capacity to slaughter their own mothers. And that's a hyperbolic expression, but if you're a writer and you've misstepped like this I think you know what I mean. 
Granted, I wasn't writing, but having a conversation, trying to say something about non attachment and reaching for metaphors to do so.  I forgot I was being interviewed. This was my first interview. 
It seems Dogen forgot all his parenthetical references and I'm looking for scape goat. But I need to acknowledge my ambition to become a great teacher and how I think it's led to this incident. I've contacted Colleen and await a response. 
I may be over reacting here, which yet another form of self absorption. But the article is about our temple and I don't want people patting me on the back. 
As painful as it is, do feel the gravity of words, which has been ongoing as I write less and less here in search of something genuine to say. 
Well this the best I can do at this moment. 
(Written on town trip, bending the shingi to bend back what is crooked)

Monday, October 3, 2016

"Team Work Makes The Dream Work"

That's what the Alpine Hotshots said.

The fire has lay down for now. It never came. Diego asked, "Are flames necessary for the fire to come?"

We spent 65 days preparing for fire. It's a blur. Night drills, pumps breaking down, at least 15,000 feet of hose strung through Tassjara from the suburbs to the flats, red alerts, stand downs, sleeping with walkie talkies, and now it's "over."

The fire still burns outside Tassajara, sometime just two miles away. I saw it up close on the road, beautiful, like my first trip to space mountain when I was 5 years old. But it's getting colder and the relative humidity keeps getting higher.

It was a great experience to live in a type 1 incident for over two months. We trained with various engine crews and the Alpine Hotshots from Colorado, a sweet bunch of idyllic fire fighters who were kind and helped cook, clean bathrooms, and wash dishes. We also watched movies together, all of them and all of us, camped out in the retreat hall like big slumber party. Also, they said I could go out and work with them next year to keep up my fire training and get more experience. I think that's a good idea- doesn't seem like Tassajara or fire are going anyplace anytime soon.

So, I'm trading my yellow nomex for my black robes again. It's not so easy. Life at zen center inspires a whole hearted effort over and over again- farmer, monk, cook, fire monk- and I always forget that there's the time to let it go. I say inspired, but personally, I feel it's required. I wouldn't make it through the various practice positions without throwing myself into them. But just like farming, doing the whole fire thing struck an affinity within that has me yearing for a Mcloud and some ash falling from the sky.

But Tassajara is moving on. Practice period starts in 12 days. My robes need mending and bowls need cleaning. My priest robe needs sewing. This mind needs some reminders- what am I doing with my life again? And my baby and wife are coming home after being away for a long time.

Fire season was great. I can feel my clinging. Time to let it go, just like in the spring, I'll have to let practice period go.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Fire Monks? Me?

We live in the Ventana. Ventana means window. So you could say we live in the window. Right now the window is open and fire is moving toward it. In someways it feels slow moving, like it's creeping, decimals of a mile on a map everyday. But the news and intel and rumors make it feel a little faster moving. Refraining from reactions becomes a challenge, while knowing what's appropriate and timely looms on your conscience.

 Big Sur Kate can tell you the details of the fire. Basically, it's a big a fire and it's fairly certain to come to Tassajara from the north west end of our temple grounds. It might arrive in 5 days, or 10 days, or even 2 weeks. In 2008 there was The Basin Fire, and a similarly placed head of fire took 2 weeks to descend on Tassajara. Back then, only 5 monks stayed to fight the fire, which was a bit more complicated. It had three heads approaching from different directions, and each head arrived on the same day. It passed in about 30 minutes. We lost one, or maybe two buildings and there were no injuries. You can read about that fire in this book: Fire Monks.

So the odds are in our favor this year. We have 25 monks who have had wildland fire fighting training. One of those monks is Joe, who is a retired Cal Fire Captain and he's been training us all summer on hose lays and fire theory. In addition to the fire brigade, we still have about 50 monks who are doing prep work. About 50 people were evacuated due to health, age (my baby girl!), or a "This is not what I signed up for" status.

I feel very alive. I was talking with my friend Aaron and said do you think our lack of fear means we might die first if it gets to dying? And he remarked that he wished we could always feel this sensitive to the beings and situations of our lives that need attention. Essentially, there are these opportunities everyday, all day. I could feel very alive all the time. Wouldn't that be nice?

After a long day in town buying pumps, chainsaws, and fuel, I'm heading home. Much love to everyone. Zazen in the morning. (We have kept the schedule completely. Bells and chanting can be heard, and the hammer striking emptiness resounds in ten directions.)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Boredom and Buddhism

To say I feel bored feels disrespectful. How could that be? I have a three month old daughter, I'm training for a demanding job in the temple, I'm a wilderness medic responding to incidents every 4 days or so, and I'm sewing my priest robes for ordination. And I have this sense of disinterest.

I have a few theories as to why I feel bored. One could be the natural come down from having the baby and becoming stable in our schedule. Another come down plays out in the adrenaline crash after responding to a medical emergency or the general up keep work I do at the temple when compared to fixing something crucial to operations. When I hear there's a fire in the area I'm pretty excited to be mobilized for stay and defend duty. I feel pretty guilty about that, too.

So I read Beyond Boredom and Depression by Ajahn Jagaro and I was reminded to be careful about looking outward by this passage:

So what is boredom? It is a subjective experience that occurs when the mind is not interested or stimulated, and doesn't like what the present contains. You want something else, you are bored. You say, "This is boring. This is not boring", but it would be more correct to say, "The mind is bored." The mind is bored because it doesn't want this situation, it wants something else, it wants to be somewhere else; it wants to have something else, to experience something else, someone else, somewhere else...

He goes on to say that concentration on something neutral, like the breath, is the antidote for boredom. I think that's a nice option, and actually, zazen doesn't feel boring for me, it's just that it's only an hour and forty minutes of my day. And actually, I'm more interested in being bored and placing my experience in the context of my life, within the context of other times I've been bored and what I'm doing differently now. Mostly I'm doing nothing but staying in relationship to the schedule and responding appropriately to my responsibilities and daily life, making sure to exercise and eat healthy, at least most of the time. 

As much as I'd like this boredom to pass, it would be harder to study if it wasn't present. And I'm pretty curious about it. Boredom can be such a driving force. I'm probably living the life I live right now because I was bored with some other life I lived. 

So i'll hang tight, sit still, and see what happens. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Reluctance, Birth, & Rebirth

Storms were headed to Tassajara and Lauren was nine months pregnant. Through out the last months whenever we drove over the zenith of 4,000 feet on Tassajara road I would need to bring a chainsaw, a toe rope and digging bar. It would be raining in the valleys but snowy up top.

When we heard it was going to get pretty rough and we were five days away from our due date everyone thought it would be a good idea to head out. After many months of not knowing where we would birth this baby, as we wanted to do it natural and "at home", finally through our network of zen practitioners an old Zen student who lived just at the bottom of the hill from Tassajara let us stay in her guest cottage. In fact, she bought the whole property from Zen Center back in the day when lots was liquidated to help with the leaving of Richard Baker.

It was perfect, a bed room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The neighbors were great and took us right in. They made dinner for us several times and invited us over to watch a movie. We didn't feel like we left the temple! Everyone was Buddhist and the sangha carried over.

For five days we enjoyed ourselves while strong storms tore down trees near our temple and on the road. The time we spent together before the birth was much appreciated, as during our monastic schedule, there's really not much time for anything but the schedule. We even took a day trip to Santa Cruz. She bought some clothes and I bought some old punk CDs. She also started having her first

Labor is an interesting process, not unlike Zazen. You hear stories about what can happen but your not quite sure what is what until you are, until you're quite sure. The next day her contractions were stronger but not disruptive. We went to Whole Foods and the coffee shop. We watched the movie Room, which added an interesting narrative to our experience.

The rest of the day was smooth. Lauren would feel a contraction and raise an eyebrow, not sure it even was a real contraction. She'd say it felt "tight." I said "like this?" and hugged myself. She nodded. I said, "What's another word for tightening, hmmm."

After dinner we decided to go to bed early, about 8pm. Lauren was shortly roused by a good contraction. She said, "God, if it's going to be like this for days, I can't imagine." I got up as she walked around. I got the tablet where I had been recording her contractions. After I kept asking about them she said don't ask me about them. I should have noted that this was the sign of a shift. Soon they were five minutes apart and Lauren couldn't speak through them. I remember her leaning in the threshold of the bathroom doorway pounding her heel on the tile floor.

We had read a lot of books about the labor process, but some of it contradictory, and none of them were written exclusively for home birthing, so we were weighing it all against what our midwives advised. We got it into our head that not only do contractions need to be three minutes apart, but they need to be 40 to 60 seconds long in duration. Some how it all sped up. But Lauren was still adamant that it was going to be a while. When she saw me pouring hot water on the white cloths we had set aside for the birth, she glared at me and said, "It is far too early for that." That was 11pm.

For the most part Lauren wanted to be left alone. I sat at a table and pretended to read, silently chanting the Shosaimyo Kichijo Darani for removing hindrance, marking when I thought her contraction started with a deep hum, or growl, and when they ended as she would sigh. I found myself  smiling uncontrollably! I thought my smiling might be offensive but her humming was so strong and forceful, I was in awe with sympathetic joy! I was amazed. At 12pm she wanted to lay down. Mostly she had been pacing from bathroom to bedroom and I was sitting on this yoga ball we bought, one that was supposed to open her hips. She groaned with a strong contraction, "You better call the midwife! I think I have to push!"

The midwife arrived around 12:40 and Lauren's water had already broken. She wanted me to be silent, but squeeze her hand as hard as I could. I was using two hands! She was afraid to push but involuntarily it was happening. The midwife arrived and began to set up her equipment without any conversation, leaving Lauren to labor. At this point we're crammed in the bathroom where Lauren wanted to be. I'm behind her holding a warm cloth on her perineum and the midwife asks if I see the head yet. I can't see so I put out my hand and I can feel the baby's head bobbing. I muse have lingered in awe, as Lauren snapped, "You know, you don't need to touch my vagina!" She got up and went to the living room. She was an iron Buddha. She never even asked for an asprin.

She wanted to stand and leaned on me as I knelt. She pushed once and the head came out and stayed out! I was surprised to see the back of the baby's head and felt her little mouth before I saw it. On the next push the entire baby girl slid into my arms. I was covered in blood and afterbirth. Lauren said, "That's it, that's it?" as I watched Calliope reach for the sky and look around with  big dark blue eyes.

We had a healthy baby girl. Lauren fed her and we all feel asleep around 4am and didn't wake until 8am. Five days later she's sleeping on my chest as I write and Lauren sleeps in the living room. 
My wider audience of Zen readers might wonder what the heck this all has to do with Zen. I don't know where to begin, but for me it started by saying yes to the training that was offered. When I sought out the path of becoming a monk I had no idea that Soto Zen priests married and had children. They look very much like other Buddhist monks and actually for better or worse their families blend in with the sangha, at least in America. My teacher has three children. It wasn't really my idea to have kids. I was a bit dismayed to hear these monks married some 13 years ago, but I also heard that they rode one horse, did one practice, so I stuck with it. 

But my reluctance to have children was another thing. I think maybe I was terrified I would lose myself but Lauren and I were coming to a point where she couldn't live without kids and I didn't think I wanted to do that to her. So I said start an OK Cupid profile, find someone else, lay it out for them- we don't have to break up, I'll be with you until you find someone else. She thought about it and said she would regret it for the rest of her life because she wanted to have kids with me. When we were married I was ambivalent about kids and she knew that, but wasn't sure it was a big deal. Well, when the thirties hit it was a big deal. Our biggest deal. 

I met with many teachers. Many of them said, "Just do it, you'll love it and you'll be great at it." I thought are these people insane? So after another tear stained night of difficult conversation with Lauren I called my teacher unawares and said, "Is it okay to do something you don't want to do just because you love them? " She said, "Of course. That's how you make things sacred, you sacrifice." 

And I felt free to make the sacrifice. I felt off the hook from myself. There was some old idea of punk rock Austin, doing what he wants when he wants, and staying true to myself. But that's not my teacher's way or advice. She says examine that self that wants more for itself. So I took a leap and we conceived. 

After years of reluctance, once I found out we were pregnant, something shifted and I never regretted it. And as I hold my baby at this moment I really want to find out who she is and she reminds me to be who I am. When I my in laws came to visit I really felt like I stood on my own two feet, shameless about who I was and the life I have chosen. 

And in a way I have lost "myself" or at least my agenda. For the first 3 days we woke every 2 hours to feed Calliope. I have changed 99.9% of the diapers as Lauren heals and made 100% of the meals, done 100% of the laundry and still had energy to hold Calliope, take her for a hike in her back pack and sing songs to her with my ukulele. I'm assured it's like this for a few years. One one hand I have a headache and on the other I love being so useful. That is to say I love how what's coming up in this moment is crystal clear, so there's not much hesitation.

Right behind the bed where we sleep my okesa rests in high place in pieces, looking unstitched, but I am stitching it, just this is stitching it. And I could have never have never, no, I just would never have done this without the support of my sangha and teacher and practice leaders. 

And I am the happiest dad ever. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Tassajara In Sepia Tones

I've been dreaming of Tassajara in sepia tones. Last night I swam in the ocean with all my Zen Center friends. We were having fun and moving fast. Eventually I rode a wave into shore which drove me into the sand. I stood up with my back against the bottom of rocky cliff and wave after wave pounded me. I was safe, but each towering wave made my heart kick like a mule. Then I woke up.

We all go back tomorrow. My days of sleeping in and eating pastries will return to a 3:50am wake up bell and an oryoki breakfast, which I'm ready for. After 14 days of being gone I'm ready for just a bowl of rice and an audience with that cold morning star filled sky and the sound of monks in black robes rustling through the leaves on their way to meditation.

I had a very nice time out, though. Visiting New Orleans rekindled my love for that city, which is sort of my home because I came of age there. My dad has lived there since I was 12 and it's always been a foil to northeastern Pennsylvania, my other home with its dirt roads and dark forests. Seeing my dad and step mother and feeling their support for my path to priesthood refreshed my resolve to practice with great doubt and great diligence.

And to receive everyone's help has been humbling and I've had to remind myself gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. To be able to really say thank you I have to let go of the indulgent self loathing that comes with not being able to pay for your own tickets, not being able to buy new tires for your 18 year old car, or to afford all the things a little baby girl will need. And this brings up the realization that my path to ordination is a shared a path. I chose it, but actually my family is coming along with me.

There is that old idea that if one person in your family ordains there will be good karma for the rest of them. My family doesn't have that memory, but I like what Suzuki Roshi said to the man who was complaining about his wife sleeping in while he sat zazen, which was basically when we sit zazen everyone sits zazen. So get over yourself.

Sometimes the urge to apologize overcomes the sense of gratitude. But I really cant apologize for my choice to pursue the Buddha way as I need to pursue it. It's true I could have just stayed home and attained the way, but that wasn't available to me. Some of us are the worst horse that needs to feel the lash into our marrow. Some of us will do better in a cage. We shouldn't try and make a good horse go out or a worst horse go out. Suzuki Roshi said we need to give everyone large pastures, ourselves large pastures and just watch what we do.

But I feel like this path can be really rough on our families and I'm sensitive to it because they didn't volunteer for this. But I do feel like I'm volunteering for them, with and for all beings, and I think they see me happier on this path than any other. I don't want to apologize, but I do want to express my gratitude for their support and admit how hard it would be to do this without it and how I may have quit long ago without it.

So I leave you with my new years poem, that a zen teacher passed on to me:

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved

Nazim Hikmet1902 - 1963

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train 
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain 
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it 
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
                         and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before 
                         and will be said after me

I didn’t know I loved the sky 
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish 
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard 
the guards are beating someone again
I didn’t know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest 
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish 
“the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
                         lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high”
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief 
                                        to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads 
even the asphalt kind
Vera’s behind the wheel we’re driving from Moscow to the Crimea 
                               formerly “Goktepé ili” in Turkish 
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute 
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
                                        when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn’t have anything in the wagon they could take 
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I’ve written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I’m going to the shadow play 
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
                                       going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather’s hand 
   his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
      with a sable collar over his robe
   and there’s a lantern in the servant’s hand
   and I can’t contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason 
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika 
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky 
I didn’t know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars 
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below 
or whether I’m flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts 
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
                             or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don’t 
   be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract 
   well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to 
   say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them 
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad 
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind 
I didn’t know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors 
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
                             except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn’t know I loved clouds
whether I’m under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois 
strikes me
I like it

I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my 
   heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop 
   and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved 
   rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting 
   by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette 
one alone could kill me
is it because I’m half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty 
   to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train 
   watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Vows and Compass

Being in new Orleans reminds me that my way seeking mind ripened here. Maybe it was the level of maturity my father's recovery actualized. Maybe it was the Ben Wren book I found at Beaucoup Books on my lunch break. Maybe it was my step mom's copy of things fall apart by Pema Chodron sitting in the bathroom.

Later I would witness the host of suffering post-katrina offered to a young public school teacher. How could I help? I took my first set of vows not really knowing where they would lead, like the old black metal compass my dad put in my Christmas stocking when I was about ten. Beautiful to hold, difficult to understand.

Now, years later, I feel a bit subdued as form,sensation, perception, impulse, and thought tag everything, beckoning some purchase for the price of belief. I'm home, but a home leaver. People wonder when I'll move back and being a home leaver means being ready to leave home again and again, which could mean coming back.

How will I actually engage all this not knowing?