Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Babies and Friends

Lauren and I are out in Monterey, a seaside town home to some big military installations. First stop: the aquarium. It was something we could wholeheartedly agree on. While Chinese food fights pizza cravings and movies vie for relevance, fish swimming in water made immediate sense. I remember one fish with a misshapen eye and jelly fish pumping like hearts with tendrils, florescence and dark browns tangled tanks that I couldn't find the beginning or end of, some of them looking like tread mills with thousands of silver scaled fish flowing like a river within a river.

Then off to the see midwives; we are working with three. The office was a living room with a faux fur rug. They served us tea as we all sat on the floor. All three are beautiful women, beautiful mothers. One of them is the daughter of our senior dharma teacher. She grew up at Tassajara. She showed us an amish birthing chair. A little different from the military hospital I was born in where my mother could reach out and touch the Filipino woman who was also birthing someone. I wonder where that someone is now.

The baby, just 8 weeks old, is a translucent skulled thing with webbed fingers and a heart that beats 150 times per minute. Its just 1/2'' tall. Its name will be Calliope Gail or Gaetano Raymond. Family names, except for Calliope, which is just a nice name of a muse who inspires heroic poetry. It's also a name of a street in New Orleans, pronounced Cal-lee-oh down there. Gaetano was the name of my grandfather.

So we got pregnant soon after Sioen died. He died on the steps of the Zendo, or the engawa if you know what I mean, after running the wake up bell. He was my guest cook partner and my cushion mate. That morning he wasn't at his seat and I could hear them trying to resuscitate someone. The Aed actually narrates in a robotic voice. We all sat zazen while listening to Sioen pass away. An abbot came in and said something terrible had happened and invited us to ring the Densho bell 108 times. Then we had a memorial. Then we sat with the body. In less than 10 hours there was a procession from where he lay covered in flowers into a hearse, which would climb the steep road out of Tassajara. Before that though I went to see Sioen alone. It was our day to cook dinner for 70 some guests. We always bowed in and hugged before a shift. I went in and told him he looked well garnished and that Lauren and I were trying to have a baby and if he wanted to experiment with transmigrating, now could be a good time. About 2 weeks later we were pregnant, right after our first round trying. Hey, I'm not asking any questions. We'll have to see if the baby reaches for a burning man costume or a spatula or has an affinity for middle eastern food (Sioen was Lebanese).

So the kitchen lost a lot when Sioen passed and we've had high turnover both before and after his passing. It's the Tenzo's last summer and it's not been without obstacles. All and all, we're in good shape. Speaking of shape, I'm feeling great. I'm running about 25 miles a week, half up hill of course, up to elevations of 4000ft. I'm swimming about 3 miles a week, 1/2 mile at a time. That's a huge challenge for me. It's also deeply settling in a way that running is not. And otherwise, the news about the baby had a strange relieving feeling. For those who don't know, to say I was ambivalent is an understatement. Yet to hear we we're on our way reset the compass. It's just, okay! Now what? And to watch Lauren transform is radically confirming that there is so much going on and so many causes and conditions that a guy has to practice patience with the inconceivable.

Which brings me to study: This summer it's Vimilakiriti and the Heart Sutra. I'm learning the kanji for the heart sutra, the stroke order and what not, and it's a new way to engage with this text I assume I'm familiar with. Unpacking it is like learning again and again the atom is not the smallest particle in the universe, which is just to say what I think is is not. Over and over. The trick is learning how to tread water in the sea of emptiness. Least that's what I want to start doing. Just gently tread that water.

Luckily, I got to meet Red Pine and hear Kaz Tanahashi give a talk on the heart sutra. That was lucky. Encouraging. When I asked Red Pine about the proposition put forth that Bodhidharma and the other patriarchs of Zen didn't actually sit Zazen, he exclaimed, "That's just not true!" And I countered but they didn't give Zazen instruction either.

He clarified, "Just because Zen masters don't talk about taking shits doesn't mean they didn't do it. Meditation was a given."

Actually, Dogen Zenji did talk about going to the bathroom.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A few pictures...









Folded and pressed, folded and pressed.

I arrived at Tassajara about 6 months ago. I had never visited our sister temple and the mountains rolled over me like waves on the 14 mile road that ends at our temple gate. It was a slow ride over a rough road. It took at least an hour. Half way in there was only a 360 degree view of mountains.

The first five days were eyes cast down. We had about two hours to unpack and shower, and then orientations until zazen. The next day we would wake up for our first day of tangaryo. From four am to nine pm, we would just sit in a way I'd never had the privilege to do. It was uninterrupted by bells or talks and we only left to use the bathroom.

It was hot. Flies made nose dives into our eye balls, climbed up our nostrils, and played on our lips. I ate one. I was beyond frustrated. It didn't deter them. But besides the heat and flies, I loved tangaryo. It was a gift. I couldn't believe we don't do tangaryo more often. It was relaxed in the way anyone who had lived in a Zen temple might realize-you know, when bells are no longer symbols of peace but actually mean you need to move your ass or you'll be late. There was absolutely no where to go. I walked the same 300 feet from my cabin to the zendo and no where else. Meals were brought to us. I wouldn't say I injured my knees during tangaryo, but it's true my full bows will never be the same.

Lauren and I had separate cabins. This too was a gift. For a few years at Green Gulch housing has been tight, so we've shared small spaces most of the time. Tassajara in the winter has less people and more housing and this meets that 360 degree sea of green and granite and sandstone mountains and it's a great spacious feeling. Yawning steam into the cold mornings tucked into my sleeping bag became luxurious when I figured out how to make coffee in bed with a french press and a thermos.

For the first three months we studied The Lotus Sutra with my teacher. She granted me permission to start interviewing the abbots about my ordination as a priest. She was more available as her cabin was just next door, and I could hear the shuso run the wake up bell, stop, and yell, "Good Morning Hojo-san!" and her upbeat response, "Good Morning!" everyday at 3:50am.

On a good hike after a nine day sesshin, Lauren came into my cabin. Her friend had just sent word that she was pregnant. This was friend number three, I believe, and Lauren is thirty two. I knew what was coming, and I knew I had to run away to Taiwan or say yes. I said yes. So, we are planning on having a baby. We'll do this at Tassajara, as this is where we see ourselves for the next two years almost. This has been my biggest challenge. I'm scared. It's true, we're not real monks in Soto Zen, but we still don't have any money or much room too spare in our rooms. Or time for that matter. Like my dad said once or twice, if marines were supposed to have babies, they would have issued them one. It's similar- we can have children, but in some ways it's not ideal. But in other ways, like I found having a marine corps father, it's the best. We were surrounded by surrogate uncles and aunts and cousins, and our baby will be too, but actually, they'll be more like surrogate grandmas and grandpas. I'm scared, of course, but I'll do this. I'll roll up my sleeves and do my best.

Tenshin roshi once told me that sometimes a monk need ironing out, like a piece of oragami being folded. And sometimes a monk just needs to be pressed, like one finger on the crease of an oragami. Folded and pressed, folded and pressed.

Tassajara has folded me a few times.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Goodbye Green Gulch Sama! Hello Tassajara!

About two years ago I left Mid City Zen in New Orleans. I feared I was leaving something, and now I'm about to leave Green Gulch and that same fear has arisen. I imagined there was wealth, a sort of freedom, and a lot to "renounce."  I had a car (a fast one!), a playstation 3, many books, many articles of clothing, and as I look around our little cabin, that same perception has arisen- I have too much stuff! And I like it!

My book collection that I sold or gave away in New Orleans has somehow manifested out here. And I have quite the collection of farm hats and farm boots. Rubber ones, Redwings, Ropers, Bogs to the ankle, Bogs to the knee, a navy seal Solomon for the wet spring weather. Most of them are fit to throw away, glued back together and stitched with fishing line, and just so smelly, so smelly my wife won't let me keep them in the cabin, so I hide them all around Green Gulch.

So I started packing, and while that fear of renunciation has arisen, it's not the same. I'm noticing I've been here before and thinking when you really leave home, you are home, and there is no home leaving. And at the same time I'm prone to fall in love with people, with land, with statues and the cats that play in their shadows. Coming home to a tradition, to a temple, poses a challenge to those who aspire to have no fixed abode. Maybe that's why it's required around the three year mark that we go to Tassajara. And maybe that's why I'll go abroad after Tassajara. I don't know where.

In my third season on the farm, as Jisha for my teacher, as cabin mate to three wonderful people, I have never, ever, ever, been so happy as a human. While it seems there was no reason to really come here, which would also mean no reason to really leave, I wouldn't trade the gifts of food, dharma, and no fear for all the enlightenment in the world. I wouldn't trade Sangha for anything. Living day in and day out, trying to be upright, trying to uphold the schedule, fold my legs into lotus, and just bury potatoes has been my profound awakening. Always feeling like my body and mind are about to blow away like leaves in the wind (Read: sore, injured, tired here), pushing fifteen hour days, and just meeting my peers, my elders, and the guests has been my real training. Keeping good friendships, approaching peace with those "fri-enemies" and being in relationship to others has been my training. Zazen and work and chanting are the details. The struggles the real food. And true dharma companionship, just continuing together, is my practice.

So, with one box of books and one pack, I'm off to our secluded retreat center for two years at least. We'll see. I told the farm I'd come back if they ever needed me, but it looks like some apprentices are going to step up and hold it down, and I'm thankful for that, because actually, I'm a little tired from the farm work-my right foot, my left hand, and lower back hide pain under muscle and activity. At night and in the morning, they scream. Then they get real and do what needs doing. So I'll be happy to just sit and be on general labor, washing dishes and such, for the first six months at Tassajara.

I'll write here when I can. I haven't written much here lately- maybe I'm tired or maybe I don't feel like what I have to say is an improvement on silence. Either way, no internet for me at Tassajara. If you want to write me a letter, I'll write you back. Goodbye internet sangha!

Send letters and snacks to:

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
39171 Tassajara Road
Carmel Valley , CA 93924 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Turning the Lettuce Wheel of Farma Dharma




 I'm in my third and last season on the farm. It's a waking life dream; lettuce the size of the truck tire, beets growing like underground apples, elder Bodhisattvas at 73 harvesting and teaching compassion and wisdom with two knifes on her belt for 40 some years.

The zendo is my sweet cave, and I'm surrounded by friends and family, ancestors watching. My legs fold together like a well ironed handkerchief, no complaints. It's quiet during the meditation, but I don't remember much more than candle light and the sound of my teacher breathing. My full bows, knees and head on the old barn floor of our temple, are cascading like water for thirsty vows.

Our cabin is warm on the hill. Behind the grey bones of eucalyptus the ocean whispers, you are here, you are here, you live at the beach! My wife, my best friend, we drink tea and read well into the night. The wake up bell comes early, but the warmth of embrace is carried in our robes, from cuddling to being swaddled, we are Buddha's babies, cooing and ready for breakfast.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Quiet.

For about 3 days,  neurotoxin from poison hemlock coursed through my veins. Indiscriminately grazing a fennel bed as I worked, I ate enough to get stuck in my teeth, as I flossed it out nightly. I sat on a zafu and stared out the window, unable to sleep, and watched the skeletal eucalyptus swallow and exhale fog.

Two minutes after eating it, I thought, "Don't tell anyone and how do you want to die?" A resounding silence- I went blank and continued to work for about 20 minutes as the poison coniine took hold. It occurred to me if I died there in the kitchen garden, everyone would know I ate poison hemlock. So I called poison control, and talked to Steve.

Steve said,

"Are you sure it's poison hemlock?- there's a lot of hemlock in the world."

"Yes, I'm sure- Our land Stewart has been working this water shed for about 20 years, she knows."

"Is your heart beat accelerated?"

"I just ran up to the office from the farm, so yeah."

"Is your vision blurry?"

"There's shit all over my glasses, wait a sec."

And Steve was really nice and called me back on the hour for three hours, trying to see how far the symptoms would go. What seemed apparent was the stimulant effect of the plant and that my prescription changed, my depth perception was altered, and I went on to make many mistakes (painful ones) with knives and drawers and hot cups of water.

Like all things, it passed.

Later in dokusan with my teacher, we wondered if this counts as a near death experience. My memory is devoid of emotion, as I marched about in a daze, and all I remember are the trees, and fondly so, like a good dream.

Return of from this dream has been met with really big hugs from the sangha, which make me think, "oh, maybe this was serious." Or jokes about Socrates, which bring levity (but got old pretty quick). I also sensed an undercurrent of concern- some seemed to think I might have done it intentionally, as there were some zen students in this valley who tried to take their life, quietly hiding in the woods or on a trail.

My body this morning feels good. No more headache, no more shakes. I went for a run yesterday, feel weak, but determined. I wrote a blog- who else will? I'm moving along in my studies, in awe of the depth and breadth of the Buddhist cannon and really challenged to say anything about it these days. I don't know how anyone does. My farm life is: plant, plant/sow,harvest, harvest, market. These last 3 months will fly by. Then this blog, as I go to Tassajara, will get really, really, quiet.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Blood Blister On A Callus

I have a blood blister on my callus on my hand! I don't know how it happened. I don't know how that even happens. Spring is here and the cover crop is nose high. We're scything it in and turning it under. We already have about 12 beds of baby lettuce planted. Nine new apprentices show up today. I start my third season on this farm, in this long valley that opens up to the big lagoon. The bobcats are out; I've seen two. The newts are hunkering down for a dry summer. Coyotes howl, owls call out in the morning. On our way to the Zendo, my teacher calls out to them, startling me with her young energy in the dark and misty 4am fog.

We closed the practice period yesterday after a seven day sesshin. We shouted OM HOMAGE SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA over and over and over as our sangha bathed the world honored one on his birthday. Precocious little statue of a boy in his underpants pointing to the heaven and to the earth after taking 6 silver steps. Or was it 7? Or did he just start scrubbing the 6 tusked white elephant after he fell cleanly out of his mother's side?

There was a lot of Zazen this winter. Period after period, letting the shoulder blades melt down my back, letting my face fall like a baby's face. Feeling the body hang like a coat on a hanger, feeling the mind undulate like a white sheet over a ghost. We emerge from our old barn zendo fresh faced, a little skinny, and ready to get our hands in the dirt. The days get longer and I can barely sleep with so much excitement.

And I don't know about reincarnation or rebirth, but I know if I have the choice when my time comes, I will choose this pivotal human form again and again. I'll pick up and carry the vows for as long as I can and weather the seasons of this saha world.