Friday, September 11, 2015

For no one can be a Sage in his own home.

I left Tassajara two day ago and I won't return for another two weeks. So far I've watched three movies, one episode of Game of Thrones, played about 20 games of Go (online) and ran about 20 miles. I also ate a chicken, a quiche, and some gnocci.

I'm not exactly sure what monks are supposed to do on vacation. I imagine other monks maybe don't get them. It's 3:30am and I'm wide awake. Funny, when I return to Tassajara, we'll start practice period and the wake up bell will becoming around in just 15 more minutes. The stillness is still pretty still here.

After tomorrow my wife and I will go to Northeastern Pennsylvania. I like to pretend that I'm not really from there. I like to say, oh, I'm a military brat and I'm not from anywhere and then talk all about New Orleans, where my Dad and Step Mom (and little brother) live. What's there to say about NEPA? What's there to say about where we're from?

Master Ma Tsu advised:

I advise you not to return to your native place
For no one can be a Sage in his own home.
This old woman by the side of the old brook
Still calls me the garbage man's son!

I was a Dungeons and Dragons dork. I was a C student and a mason's apprentice. I wanted to escape, enlisted in the Marines, but chickened out and didn't go to boot camp. I went to a commuter campus, bumbled around, got lots of tattoos and piercings, and really could never have imagined I'd be living in the middle of the wilderness, practicing Zen Buddhism.

And that "monks" could marry and have kids.

And they have to sew their own robe.

Usually, I wear samue everywhere. Not sure you know what a samue is? Well I'll spare you a picture- it's a karate outfit. Or a sushi chef's outfit. I brought one, but I'm not so into wearing monastic garb in a place where they accidently shoot things that aren't wearing blaze orange.

But I'm being dramatic. Truth is my lovely sister is picking me up and I'll stay at her house for awhile. My wife is pregnant and everyone will be interested our baby. People ask me how I'm feeling and I usually say hungry. Baby? I'm just not worried about baby! I wonder if she'll like to run, if she'll to be quiet, and want to stay at Tassajara forever, but no, I'm not worried about baby. I'm worried about me and what my family is thinking of me because I'm not worried about baby!

Ever sit in a conversation worrying about what people think of you? If not, you must not have inlaws. My inlaws are wonderful, so wonderful they make me nervous. They make me want to do something heroic, which is generally not a good idea.

So I'll refrain. I'll refrain from trying to explain what Doanryo is, too, when they ask me what my next job at Tassajara will be. Maybe I'll just say garbage man and leave it that.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Blood, Burgers, and Monsters

Blood test by the bay with my love. It's a general health check up, but also a genetics test for the baby. Mostly we consented because we'd like to have a "home" birth. "Home" in the macro sense for is simple: Zen Center. In the micro, it means we've moved about five times in the last four years to varying abodes around temple grounds. At the moment, we live in lower barn 5 and 7. Soon we'll live somewhere else, as Tassajara has refreshing tradition of moving its students around every 3 to 6 months.

We've been told no birthing babies in the valley, please. Too risky. It's slow hour climb over the mountains, so we need to find a place nearby to birth baby. We're not too active in searching this place out. Things at Zen Center have a habit of manifesting.

We're also doing the usual thing students do when they leave the valley: eat hamburgers, talk on the phone, get caught up on facebook and such. Oh, and buy stuff! I bought another pair of five fingers ( I love those things, in fact, because there isn't room in the truck for the way back, I'll be running that 14 mile road to tassajara. Really, it's no thing- I move at a steady trot, take in the sights, listen to everything from Justin Timberlake to Iron Maiden and just let my mind wonder). I also bought a new 5th edition monster manual for Dungeons and Dragons! I wanted to support the little game shop and I like to peruse the manual for writing inspiration. I still like to write fantasy fiction as my purely fun activity.

Well, back to tassajara!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Three Pounds of Zen, Please.

It's the end of the Tassajara summer and the gripes are ripe. There are a lot of apprentices who left months ago, and a few more who will also leave early. Complaints range from there are no enlightened Zen teachers here to we eat too many carbs to the obvious, like it's hot.

It's also just hard some times, though I rarely hear that. Apprentices, true apprentices, seem few. I have a theory that the apprentice faces extinction. Most of our apprentices have college degrees, if not a few. Even at this moment there are two people in our kitchen from the ivy league- one professor from Princeton, one Harvard Divinity school grad. They're great apprentices, though. The zen students I'm referring to are the ones who sign up for the apprenticeship and expect to be consulted, collaborated with. You could hear the Fukuten say, "Hey, can you make the rice?" And an apprentice answer, "I'd rather not." or "I made rice yesterday." Or the worst, "I don't want to do dishes, give me a real cooking job."

And nothing is safe from critique- teachers and visiting scholars face students who wish unseat them. Work practice is considered some means of exploitation, the little Zazen we do is considered too diffuse.

Everyone wants "real Zen." Maybe three pounds of it, just to get started. What's funny is that these conversations persist like carts on a Ferris wheel going round and round!

This critique of what we're doing at Tassajara seems as old as the conversation between Baso and Nangaku, you know, the polishing the tile folks. You know the one:

Baso replied, “Recently I have been doing the practice of seated meditation exclusively.”

Nangaku asked, “And what is the aim of your seated meditation?”

Baso replied, “The aim of my seated meditation is to achieve Buddhahood.”

Thereupon, Nangaku took a roof tile and began rubbing it on a rock near Baso’s hut.

Baso, upon seeing this, asked him, “Reverend monk, what are you doing?”

Nangaku replied, “I am polishing a roof tile.”

Baso then asked, “What are you going to make by polishing a roof tile?”

Nangaku replied, “I am polishing it to make a mirror.”

Baso said, “How can you possibly make a mirror by rubbing a tile?”

Nangaku replied, “How can you possibly make yourself into a Buddha by doing seated meditation?”

What's my point? Well, I just think we're not doing anything special, and that's our teaching. We're not at Tassajara doing some great thing while the rest of the world sleeps. We're trying to practice not-doing. I think that point is missed by these apprentices who show up wanting something special. 

I often do feel special that Zen center is a special place. But I wonder if it's just some placebo effect- I really thought leaving New Orleans behind would be some practice deepening experience, but if that's what I tell myself, maybe that's what I believe. My three pounds of zen is make believe, I think. I won't change a thing, but I think that's how it is. And I guess that's my point with critique- with so much pointing at the external there seems to be little energy left for self truths. I'd rather just hear an apprentice say, "I don't like this. I'm leaving" than the long winded stories about what's wrong with Zen Center. 

Yes, there's lots wrong with Zen center, but I hate to see it reduced to a scapegoat for everyone's existential ennui. 

In other news, I've heard our babies heart beat. Our midwife held a little sonar wand thing on Lulu's belly and it was like putting my ear to the floor of the universe. Was that Lauren's heart? Was that the sound of darkness? Was that a dolphin? Then a very fast ticking! So fast. I guessed 120 beats per minute. Our midwife said, "No, more like 160, 170."  Tears! And very little thought- it was just this amazing thumping thing. We both admitted that this really drove it home that we are expecting. You know, when I think of baby I see these illustrations from our books. Baby is the size of my watch face right now. 

In more news, I've been given permission to sew an Okesa for priest ordination. 27 yards of fabric, about as many stitches as a night sky. 

And in more news, I'll be attending a ten day wilderness first responder training in August. I hope to catch up on the blog, and do some other writing of the creative type while staying with my inlaws. 

Well, time to head back. 

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