Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Bowl Can't Hold A 401k

The urge to participate in capitalism arose one day; I think it was fall, dying leaves falling to the ground and all of us monks trying to corral them onto muddy paths. They make a nice mud stifling mat for our paths at Tassajara.

My inlaws have an aging parent who lives in a retirement facility and needs support from many of the kids. I thought of how hard that might be, and how it’s unlikely I’ll be able to help my parents in that way.

It brought two questions to the foreground: Who do I think will take care of me when I’m 90 and what will I offer my parents when they’re 90?

Cue up this image: Me in a dentist chair getting a twice root canaled tooth with a yearlong abscess finally extracted. The dentist worked up a sweat, as the tooth broke into 4 pieces. What could I do in that moment to help him? Well, I tried to be as still and “cool” as possible. I silently recited the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo for protecting life. And I tried to talk my tooth into letting go while it felt like he was hammering my skull. I also said goodbye to my tooth and expressed gratitude for how helpful it’s been, chomping up almonds and picking up the slack for the other side of the mouth which is also missing a molar.

I think, what I can do for my parents is lean in to their suffering. And what I can do for myself is lean in to my suffering. When my tooth was being pulled it wasn’t so bad. But when I went back to my life, back to the Zendo, back to fixing sinks, all of a sudden I had a different story. I thought the pain was over and wasn’t reciting some ancient chant for the sake of my life, just ready to move on. But pain was the flavor of the moment.

Maybe it really is a magic chant, or maybe chanting was just a way for me to engage the experience, who can say?

I think there’s all kinds of relevant premises here, like, who asks us to rake up the leaves anyway? I see piles of leaves and start raking but that’s me asking me. I don’t think I need to let the leaves go unraked, but I do need to acknowledge I’m projecting a story onto their “death.” I enter that story as the one who will take care of them. And it’s not really for the leaves sake.

So far, I’m pretty sure capitalism is a thing not to do, and am happy that I divested five years ago. I just can’t square pushing the cost of production down, the cost of the product up, while the producer can barely afford what they’re producing, and global “opportunities” turn the rust belt of America even rustier, while deforesting, de-culturing, and indebting a hopeful emerging “middle-class.” Why, so I can count on a check for the rest of my life?

Instead I aspire to rely on Buddha’s bowl and a thrifty sense of just enough. Also, I want to make the vow to trust the sangha, that they take good care of me now, and that’s where I really live. And despite being handy with my hands, I do know how to teach middle school and high school, and could probably do that until 85 if the sangha can't support me. Depends, I guess.


Milk Squirts Out of ShiShi Bodai and Beyonce Gets Up Dancing

I’ve a got a new lease on sesshin. Since we have a baby now, Lauren and Calliope leave Tassajara for the sesshins. My teacher suggested this, it’s what she did when she had children living here. It’s great for the three of us. Lauren doesn’t feel isolated out of the schedule, Calliope doesn’t have to interpret all our silent eyes cast down, and I’ve been getting to sit sesshin in whole hearted fashion. I feel young again!

We sat two sesshin this practice period, a 9 day and 7 day Rohatsu. Rohatsu is the celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment and most Zen temples sit from December 1st to December 8th. To think we’re taking our seats with thousands of others all over the world!

Our first 9 day was really “good” for me. It’s hard to talk about sesshin in conventional terms. I think they’re all good, eventually, when time has passed or I hold them as concept, like “Running is good for you” while acknowledging sometimes I have a good run and sometimes I have a bad run, get injured maybe. But the act as a practice always comes up “good.” Or as Suzuki Roshi would avoid the term, “A thing to do.”

Rohatsu was not quite a bad sesshin, but it was rough. The energy in the valley was quite charged. For many students, this was their last Tassajara sesshin and the emotions were raw around that. For some other students it’s a mandatory foray that they might not be up for. Moving into a Zen temple is like becoming a professional athlete; what you used to do for fun you now must do if want to continue sleeping and eating in your current abode. Football players most go through that, like, “Man, I just want to watch some football on Sunday.” I don’t really watch football, except for The Saints, because they need all the support they can get.

For senior staff, Rohatsu can get quite busy as we’re all headed out for vacation during the interim between practice periods. That came up for me. I’m sitting there thinking, “What if the pipes freeze while I’m gone, who will know how to turn off the propane if there’s a fire, and who will equalize the batteries for our solar array?” I had to sign out of zazen and go address those issues. A good storm blew through-a pine apple express- and we got 2.5” of rain or so. In our burn scarred terrain, flash flood warnings were in effect, so I spent a good 10 hours digging out culverts and making water bars. Afterward, cold and wet, I took a shower and passed out at 6pm, missing the last two periods of zazen. I stayed up the night before. That’s a tradition a lot of people observe during rohatsu to reenact Buddha’s night under the Bodhi tree. Usually, I’m just fine- the digging really whooped me.
But the hardest thing was the same hardest thing of my whole practice: What is shikantaza?

Shikantaza is the flagship of our Buddhist practice. Dogen wrote about it a bunch. Here are his instructions in Fukanzazengi, or his Universal Recommendation of Zazen.

But that’s not answering my question, which arises like a deep growl, what is shikantaza? WHAT is shikantaza!?

The night before sesshin I was reading Okamura’s Realizing Genjo Koan and he went on a little tirade, saying shikantaza is not this and not that, but the thing that stuck was, “Shikantaza is not counting our breaths.”

Suzuki Roshi taught both shikantaza and breath counting. Or you might say he didn’t distinguish between them, but I can’t say he said that. I do know he on occasion suggested that students count their breaths and admonished the students when they thought not counting the breaths was better. But I’m not mixed up like that. Here’s what I know: I love counting my breaths and I shudder at the thought of a whole sesshin of not counting my breaths. I also dabble heavily in Shamatha, which, whoa, IS LEARNING MEDITATION! So, inspired by Okamura, on I went determined not to count my breaths.

Mostly, I suffered more than usual. Thoughts that usually sound like distant waves were battering about. It was almost like a classroom where the teacher has left and someone cuts of ShiShiBodai’s head to see if milk will squirt out and Subu tears out her eye and many jeweled peaks start lazer beaming out of the middle of everyone’s forehead. But, there was at least 5 minutes where I thought okay:
Shikantaza
Is the self
Becoming
A student
Of the self
And fantasies
And cravings
Are not
Mistakes
Just
Expressions
It’s okay
It’s okay.
Then enter Beyonce.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment, Y’all.


I offer what I have, I offer what I don't have

As soon as we stepped up to the Zendo I realized I was empty handed. No flowers to offer. I whispered to my teacher. Should I go back? She said let’s mime it. Okay I said and continued to follow her. She said, no, really mime it, raising her hands as if she had the bowl of flowers. So I brought my hands up ceremoniously, nothing but empty emptiness between my fingers.

As I walked in the ino smrked. Though half of me wanted to smile, a healthy sense of embarrassment kept me deported. At the altar my teacher reached into my empty hands and offered invisible flower petals to the Buddha.


 Dogen wrote about flowers of emptiness. I offer what I have and I offer what I don’t have. It’s all offered. 

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.