Monday, February 23, 2009


Only the first step has to do with abstinence. The next eleven are much more difficult, and the hardest one so far was the 7th- to turn my character defects over to a higher power for removal.

Defects? Removal? I already posted about this.

Leaving the Roshi out of it, I asked the Shuso if I could have the Zendo for Saturday morning. I filled him in on my "confession/refuge" ceremony, one I'd learned at Green Gulch, and he said it was fine, as long as I wasn't chanting in Pali or English or anything else that was hippy-yoga Zen or what he called "fluffy." This was fine. I didn't see it coming, but it didn't surprise me.

My sponsor came over at 7am. The Shuso offered to help out, but I figured he just wanted to make sure the chants were correct, and this wasn't Zen business, but A.A business, and my relationship with my sponsor, who is a very sentimental, affectionate ,older man, would make him uncomfortable, so I said I was fine.

I placed a zafu off to the side for my sponsor. He'd only need to witness this whole thing. I struck the gong in an accelerando, which seemed appropriate to get started. We do a lot of accelerando work with our Zen pieces of wood and metal, and it's a good way to settle things down. I offered shoko, and did prostrations. In front of the altar, I went on my knees, just like when I took Jukai, and I did a short dedication to the first ten Buddhas. Then the confession sutra, three times, followed by taking refuge in the three treasures. I finished up with our general dedication, you know, the one to the ten directions, and did three more prostrations. I closed with an accelerando.

I did this a couple times by myself as homework after the 6th step, which entails discussing all the defects with my sponsor. Without a witness, it didn't really feel like much. Having my sponsor there brought a little energy. It wasn't like I was performing, but it did feel a little like a Buddhist mitzvah, with the solo chanting and all. I invited him to chant, but he wasn't into it.

Afterward, I went to a meeting. People were talking, telling my story. Whenever I'm in a meeting, I don't think of alcoholics, but I think of Gaki, the hungry ghosts. This insatiable urge to fill a perceived void seems so ubiquitous, I fear the term alcoholic deters many from a 12 step program that would probably help them. I think humans anonymous would be nice. Everyone needs fellowship. Everyone has hungry ghosts haunting them.

Not drinking is a great idea for me, as well as not doing anything too much, too quickly, and that's what A.A has done for me. But alcohol was just one substance, with the most visible effects. Being a dry drunk isn't being sober. I used to think that living in the moment meant doing whatever I wanted, when I wanted. I don't know what I think now, but I think more slowly, for sure.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Eat, Sit, March

I found a chaplaincy program at Upaya Zen Center. You don’t have to be a priest to participate. It’s a two year certificate program that may substitute for a master’s degree. I’m giving it Chaplain Candidate School serious thought.

As I write this, I’m looking at 4 new books I just ordered on pedagogy. I also taught a wonderful class to upward bound high school students on Saturday, which was refreshing and inspiring. And then, I’m studying for the GRE, with hopes of pursuing an MFA in creative writing. It's all going well. It's good to fly kites on breezey days.

Making decisions from a good place is a new thing for me. It's a new exercise. It's actually a challenge! It's much easier to react to a perceived disaster, to "save" myself and thrive on resentment. It's harder to love your job, you life, but also plan for the future, while not making any big changes to quickly. And I'm thinking about a big commitment.

If I decide to become a chaplain, it will take about 6 years of training, graduate school, and professional experience. I don't think this contradicts living in the moment. One needs to go to work, fulfill responsibilities, and one needs to plan, also. It's a necessary part of our life.

Zen teachers don't just show up to the airport and get on a plane the day of a scheduled dharma talk. They have to plan, too.

After zazen, I broke out Deshimaru’s The Way of True Zen. I treat this text like a bible. Not that I swear on it or anything, but it’s the Zen book I read over and over again, primarily because it teaches me the language my teacher uses. If you walk into a mundo with my teacher and ask about karma, he’ll not have much to say, and it may piss him off. But if you ask about Mu, Ku, Hishryo consciousness, or Mujo, it will provide a more teachable moment for everyone involved. And in reading Deshimaru, it’s hard to get away from his samurai-like upbringing, or even his own service in the Japanese army, and his teacher’s service. Robert also served in the Korean war.

And then there’s me, the son of a career Marine. There’s a lot about me that would strike some as militaristic. I don’t like a lot of junk on my bathroom sink and I make my bed as soon as I wake up. I slip and call the floor the deck pretty often, as it was always named in my childhood.

So I looked it up. Why not bring practice to the 3,500 hundred enlisted men and women? It’s not that I think I could be their teacher, but I can sew a zafu and ring a gong and sit up straight. I can maintain a zendo, recommend some books, and reference some teachers who can give precepts. I can also listen and give practical advice, and after the required training, provide council. All of this seems to fit. I think this would be good practice for a Bodhisattva. A lot of zen practitioners become yoga teachers, councilors, and teachers. And for the amount of suffering our enlisted and commissioned endure, there isn't a lot exposure to the buddha-dharma.

I know these are just ideas. I didn’t always know what an idea was though. I once listened to my teacher yelling, “Ideas, ideas! Don’t you know what an idea is?”

There was a time when I mistook an idea for certain reality. For example, I’d feel the urge to quit my job, or not show up, because I figured that was normal for metamorphosis. I’d start thinking terms of already being the idea, instead of experiencing the idea. Am I alone on this?

Not surprisingly, as I drank coffee after ceremony, I was moved to take the day off, and bask in the future. Read some, study some, and probably search the web for any shred of encouragement for my new idea. I didn’t encourage it for two long. Maybe I heard two or three requests from the brain. I didn’t entertain them, and I was only 5 minutes late for work. Not too shabby.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Big Band Zazen

St. Aug's band was marching toward the temple while I sat zazen on Friday evening. If you've never been to New Orleans for Mardi Grais, you've never seen New Orleans do something right. The efficiency of our police, our bands, and parade directors would make you wonder why we can't get anything else working around here. Perhaps most surprising is how quickly the streets are cleaned. The cleaning crew is its own parade.

I often think that New Orleans is a unique place to practice Zen. When it's not Mardi Grais, it's still insane. From 3rd world traffic patterns to the raging bohemian current, any routine is challenged. This may also account for our low number sangha; people may be to drunk to sit zazen.

When I was drinking, I came to the temple anyway- mostly hungover. My teacher knew and I can remember him saying that it didn't matter, that to sit zazen was most important, and that I needed to come. I'm thankful he didn't push me away, as I credit my sitting practice for leading me to sobriety.

So, big bands make me feel inspired. To see Mardi Grais come together makes me feel connected. The traditions- like Popeye's chicken and king cakes-give us spectators something to do. My father's house is a block away from a parade route, and there is always food and warmth waiting for family and friends.

On a randomly associated idea, I've been researching chaplaincy in the military. With a little research, I found one Theravadan Buddhist Chaplin in the Army. I think it's all the uniforms, marching big bands, and hanging out with my dad that makes me think of the military.

I'm years away from ordination, but afterward, I could see the a lot of good work to be done in the military. Seems to be fitting for a Bodhisattva, and I wouldn't have to carry a gun.

These are just Sunday morning thoughts. It's time to get ready for ceremony.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beings are Numberless

The Zen temple is on the 4th floor of an olive green building. Most people don’t know it’s there. The 1st floor is an art gallery, the 2nd is an advertising firm, and the 3rd is the temple’s storage, office, and resident space. The stairs wind upwards and leave most winded. It’s an urban space, the smallest building next to skyscrapers, the Mississippi river, and two doors down from a beautiful cathedral. Their bells chime every hour and lend to the ambiance of our temple. Whenever I’m leading, I try to harmonize, striking the gong, the metal, the han, or drum in between the ringing.

The central business district is not very “New Orleans.” It may be the only place in the city where people show up on time. It’s far from a neighborhood. The street is alive from 6:30 am until 6:00pm. Everything closes and it’s hard to find something to eat. Even the hotel bars are empty because the French quarter is so close. Most business people or convention people spend their nights there.

I shouldn't say that the streets are dead, though. The cathedral is appreciated, the Zen temple is hard to spot, but the rehabilitation center (where I go to meetings sometimes) and the homeless shelter are abjured by most of the suits and slacks that rule the CBD. Doctors, lawyers, Zennies, drunks, Zennie drunks, addicts, and homeless people share one small street. I won’t mention there is also a confederate museum, a WWII museum, and two art museums with their own factions.

Every once and a while, someone spots our subtle sign, which is tan and black, and hung at the 3rd floor level, that states simply, in bold letters, “ZEN TEMPLE.” Most of the time, “ZEN TEMPLE” attracts people who perceive the fraying fabric of the universe. And they come in hoping we can bind it up again.

Jeff and a laborer were working on the roof of the garage. We actually need sangha members so badly that we have to hire help! If there is sin in Zen, this must be it. I planned to go help, but first went into our foyer, where I lock my bike. I turned around and was startled by a woman staring through our large glass doors. She was pressing the intercom, and I figured I’d let her in. We don’t sit on Wednesday nights, so I figured she was on her way to the advertising firm. She was young and attractive, and I couldn’t imagine she wanted to go to the temple anyway, as we rarely attract women with our posted Kodo Sawaki quotes and macho-tough-guy Zen stuff. Women come and go, but it’s mostly a bunch of guys, half grumpy, half indifferent. She surprised me when she said, “I want to talk to someone from the Zen temple.”

I said, “I’m from the Zen temple, you can talk to me.”

Tourists from the French quarter want to smell some incense and see a Buddha statue and are usually satisfied with a tour. She was eerily reticent. On the 2nd floor stair well, she hummed a song. On the 4th floor stair well, I started to say that our orientation was tomorrow, and she answered, “Oh, I already did one.”

I knew this was trouble, but not until that point. I was alone with this woman and I didn’t know what she wanted. And now that we were standing in the reception area outside of the dojo, with her vapid gaze, I panicked. Just on the inside.

“I really needed a calm space.”

“This is pretty calm.” I said.
“Do you have any food?”
“Are you okay?”

She spun around like a child and groaned, “I’m hungry. Can I go to the bathroom?”
I lead her to the back and she walked behind me. “The bible says that a temple should admit everyone, no matter how shabbily dressed they are,” she whispered, “They may be angels in disguise.”

Having no idea what to say, and without thinking, and with GRE words floating around my head, all I could say was, “You look perfectly seraphic.” She went into the bathroom, and I went into the kitchen, ready to make her a peanut butter sandwich so I could send her on her way. I’d give her a piece of cake, my apple, soup, anything- the moon- just to get her going. I was afraid, and I’m not sure why.

She came back out and stood silently. I broke the silence, starting the orientation, “We sit Zazen here.”
“Oh, can I sit now?”
“Um, well, you can come back tomorrow morning at 6am or at 6pm tomorrow night.” I said.

There were some newspapers on the kitchen table, and she asked, “Do have the comics?”
I started looking, but she found them first, looked at particular picture, named the comic, and handed it to me, pointed at a heart, and smiled at me.

I looked at it, tried to find meaning, still afraid, I said, “cool.” and handed it back.

Somehow we started walking back downstairs. On the 1st stair well she sighed, and said, “I get kicked out of everywhere.”
“You feel like you’re getting kicked out?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t what to do. I’m not a priest, just a student.”

She walked toward the rehab and the shelter, but I’m not sure they were open to her.
I’m not sure what I could have done differently, but I felt like I had a perfect opportunity to help someone like I dream of helping them. Striving to practice for others, sit for others, sweep the steps for others, is hard to stomach, but when given this opportunity to help someone directly, I felt trapped in paradox.

People, westerners maybe, often look to Buddhism to solve their problems. Maybe they’re hungry, maybe they’re stressed, and I must admit I came to Buddhism looking for specific merit. I was quiet about it, though. Had I come to the practice saying, “I want power, like Jedi power, samurai power, ninja power.” I don't mean to sound childish. The power I really wanted was total self reliance. No interdependence, nothing, just me.

I might have been turned away. The more I strived for this power, the faster I wore myself out. Actually, there was no one to turn me away. Since I swore everyone was off base, I didn’t seek a teacher or a sangha. Buddha did it all with his head,heart and knees, why couldn’t I? Eventually, I came to some scary places through sitting, and I quit before it got too ugly. I came to my teacher and my temple with exhausted faith. Though wary, I was pretty easy to deal with.

But my point is, these personal goals, which are deterred in Zen practice, can lead someone to the path. They hardly need to be deterred, as the practice will let you know with time. People quit or people settle.

I’m wondering if I pushed her away. What tradition should I look to? Should I have offered her tangaryo? Should I have handed her a broom? They made Kodo Sawaki work in the kitchen for a couple months before they admitted him to zazen. Freshly shot in the mouth and out of the war, perhaps that was the best therapy around.

I know she wasn’t ready to jump into practice. I doubt she would have made it through 10 minutes of zazen without freaking out.

But maybe she could have called someone. Maybe I could have walked her somewhere. Maybe I could have seen my grandmother’s Buddha nature and force fed her the contents of our refrigerator. I was too afraid to see anything.

And I guess this is why not having at teacher around is dangerous. What did she get? Me. And I told her I wasn't a priest, like that means anything.

Monday, February 9, 2009

These are the days of our lives.

(Flying pig in the middle)

I hadn’t said a thing to Robert, not even hello when I saw my teacher talking with the shuso about the book I’m editing. It was a work day at the temple and I was tenzo again, and I really couldn’t get caught up in my recent feelings, and so I didn’t open my mouth, for fear of something escaping.

In a lot of ways, I felt like Judas. I went behind my teacher’s back and asked some questions I’m not brave enough to ask him. It felt wrong, felt too subjective, and I spoke about our temple as a whole. I didn’t say this is how I feel; I said this is how things are at our temple. There are always problems with I statements, but my issue is that “I” changes so rapidly.

Last week, I was sure I would never take ordination from Robert. I was so positive that he was not the teacher for me. I had plans to go west or to Japan, and it felt so good to dwell in certainty. Not so good, but euphoric, like I figured something out- like I was drunk.

Inebriation and chaos go hand in hand for me. Not only is not okay for me take that first drink, it’s also not okay for me to take the first action step in some manic or depressed plan. When times are good, I’m laying the first and last brick of the tower, and when times are bad, I’ll be the first to put my back behind a sledge hammer.

Feeling all of this, after deciding to leave the temple, I went to a meeting. There is a rehabilitation center two blocks away, but I had never gone to a meeting there. Only real drunks go there, and I usually go to the nice coffee shop meetings, where everyone smells good. After zazen on the Thursday night, I went to where the real drunks are.

There were two meetings, one NA, one AA, separated by a wall partition. In that cafeteria, I thought of sangha. Here was the eating place of all these people who woke up on the same beds and ate at 6:30, 12:30, and 4:30 (as the sign said). The serenity prayer was hanging above a silver steam table. Other posters hung and reminded, and all I had to do was glimpse at the “off the beam” list. Resentment. Again, amongst those who appear Godless, those who smell, those who crawled into the room, and those who snored or vibrated uncontrollably, I was slaked. To listen for a minute was to hear myself. Reality wedged pause between action and reaction.
The tower would stand or it would fall, but for now, my hands were at rest, and I just observed.
In Zen, there is always talk of forgetting the self.

“Self, forget you!”

What that’s about for me is that the self is limited. My self is limited. It’s carries no permanent attribute. The flying pig that wanted to fly away is the same pig that roots through shit. I hear my self, and I have to give pause, because it’s usually bat shit crazy.

Of course, mujo prevails; there will be changes, I will make changes in my life. But instead of giving into my every whim, my every objection, I’ve been practicing good parenting skills. I listed to the first couple of pleas with indifference, but if something comes up repeatedly, like the desire to pursue priesthood and writing, or education and fitness, then I listen.

In life, there is no one to ring a gong for you to know what to do and when to do it. There are no 2 strikes to begin kinhin. Instead, it’s that old horrible truth, that you must be your own teacher sometimes, that’s there. Living a temple life is easy. When the han is struck, I go into the dojo. If I’m leading, I make the breakfast. There is little deliberation in deciding whether or not I’ll let down my sangha and call in sick at 5 am. I wake up and act, and it’s good practice.

But life isn’t like that. I need to decide where the wiggle room is in my schedule. I need to decide when to change jobs, when to take a break. And I don’t think too much about the precepts, but I listen to myself, which usually has its limited grasp on the precepts.

Regardless, with a little or a lot to hold on to, I still need to follow the cosmic order. Get out there and stir up the karma.

Bodhisattva’s cannot hide.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What is a true student?

I can fixate easily on Zen lineages. I find the histories and biographies of lineages and teachers fascinating. I’m not sure I would have this affinity if I was at a big temple, or a temple that has many branches, like Suzuki’s line.

I’m at a Deshimaru temple, whose teacher was Kodo Sawaki. And when I dig up our past, our history- my teacher’s history, I’m afraid of digging too deep. Skimming the surface would give anyone one pause.

After the Sino-Japanese war, which Sawaki fought in when he was 16, “The monks, taking Kodo Sawaki for a beggar-tramp (his clothes were but rags) and a madman (the bullet wound he had received in the mouth impaired his speech and made it difficult for him to speak), refused to listen to him.” Of course, they eventually let him in. And in his later years, he refused to take a seat as Roshi, becoming known as an unsui, a wandering, homeless monk.

Deshimaru’s story is even better. During world war two, floating on a Japanese destroyer on the coast of Indonesia, the Americans attacked his convoy. As ships were sinking, and sailors were jumping over board, it’s written that Deshimaru took up the full lotus posture and sat zazen on a box of dynamite.

Is this Zen mythology?

Completely inline, Robert found Zen after the Korean war, when he fled America. He said the most fucked up thing he saw in Korea was how enthralled his fellow soldiers became with killing. He lost a lot of faith in humanity, and expresses little sympathy for those capable of helping themselves. This is why he loves cats and plants.

A lot of war, a lot of samurai bullshit, and a lot of stuff that Deshimaru retained from Rinzai training, bother me. Looking at Brad Warner’s blog, someone claimed to know some dirt on the Deshimaru lineage and I had to inquire. I e-mailed a Deshimaru monk of 30 years and disclosed some things that happen around here for clarity’s sake. I wanted to know if I was dealing with bullshit, or zen master bullshit.

It's all bullshit, though, and I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know on a gut level anyway, that being, plain and simple, my teacher can be a cantankerous old asshole who doesn’t appear to be “Zen” on the outside. I mean, he wears designer black clothing, drives a Lexus, lives in a big house uptown, acts like his students are a nuisance, and is relatively unconcerned and unavailable. The best thing about my teacher is that he doesn’t come around much.

This monk told me that Robert is not actually a Roshi. That Robert was told to come to America to teach, but that Deshimaru did not intend for him to become a Roshi. Robert has done well to cut ties with all of our French, Japanese, and American connections. Unchecked, He answers to no one.

So before I burned down the temple, I tried to slow myself down. I don’t know anything about judging a true master, I don’t know anything about the politics of dharma transmission (but I suspect they’re there which is bad enough for me) and I’m not sure how this new scandal really changes anything. What, Roberts not a real teacher? Right, and not only that, he’s a bad fake one, and I learn a lot from him.

While I tried to figure out if he was a true teacher, I was acting like a false student. I started looking for apartments, considered moving to San Fransisco, Japan, Minnesota- anywhere, just to save myself from poisoned dharma. And I was getting so worked up, everything right in front me was neglected. Instead of editing the book, I surfed the web for temples, jobs, and apartments. I even skipped a period of zazen to satiate my anxiety.

I felt this overwhelming urge to do something. But finally, the things right in front of me demanded attention- my students, the spring performance of Romeo and Juliet, and the temple work weekend. I had made an appointment to see an apartment, but skipped it to make minestrone soup and bread for our sangha lunch on Saturday.

I have a history of “doing." I think I caught myself. I think I allowed some space between action and reaction, and I don’t know if it was a merit of zen or of the program, but I’m thankful. There’s an ego inside me that demands to be recognized, sometimes using the term “we." It must have a chipmunk in its pocket, because I know that things don’t have to be so chaotic.
I was ready to sit with the Tibetans across town, but was thankful to be sitting in a black robe this morning. I was thankful for the rice gruel breakfast. Right after we eat, there is one more chant before tea, and with full bellies, we always sound louder. Of course, Robert wasn’t there this morning, but that’s okay.

This place isn’t about Robert. He’s the teacher, and we deal with him, and I’ll find a new one when I’m ready to leave this lay life, but for now, I’m thankful for this sangha. It’s an opportunity for me to give. And even if what that monk said was true, Robert has never told me anything beyond offending. He teaches Zazen and work practice, and that’s good enough for me right now. He doesn’t know shit about the Tathagata, but he provides a place for us to practice.

Uchiyama, Deshimaru’s dharma brother:
"Right from the start you have to know clearly that no master is perfect: Any master is just a human being. What is important is your own practice, which has to consist of following the imperfect master as perfectly as possible. If you follow your master in this way, than this practice is the basis on which you can follow yourself."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

7th step work

After compiling a list of character defects, I am now bound to turn these over to my higher power for removal.

That’s complicated for a Zen Buddhist.

The simple part was identifying that as long as my higher power isn’t me, I’m nearer to conscious contact. And I do believe. I’m not sure what God looks like, but I think it’s manifested in the three treasures. When I think of God, I think of prostrations to all beings in the ten directions. When I feel conscious contact, it’s the opposite feeling of when I feel less than, feel damaged. I feel God when I feel loved out of the blue. Love has a lot to do with why I practice Zen. The ability to feel love has been a merit I hesitate to reveal, lest it vanish in my pursuit.

So there is an A.A prayer that doesn’t seem to work. And then I live in a temple and have a whole room that seems suitable for this task. But I guess I’m having a hard time in asking for something I don’t believe can happen. I can make the leap and believe in a “God” but to think that I can be rid of character defects? It feels sacrilegious. There is nothing to gain, so therefore nothing to pursue. But what about to lose?

Insides are outsides, outsides are insides. As much as I won’t be able to keep every minute of drama out of my life, I won’t be able to “remove” defects.

How about “observe” behaviors?

Dear God, please let me observe my behaviors. And…not fixate on them.

This isn’t something Robert would want to talk about. He was an A.A for 7 years, met Deshimaru and started drinking again. No wonder I ended up in this temple.

I think I’ll try telepathy. I’ll stare at a church, a cross, or the alter in our zendo, and I’ll stare these things away.

I do love the pali refuge chant, preceded by confessing karma.
I think I’ll invent a ceremony. It will start with the confession chant, end with prostrations, and in-between will be incense and silent gut-spilling.

Monday, February 2, 2009

I am not this batch of mud.

Sho Myo.
Sho means “way of life,” and “the means of existence.” Right practice of the Way requires a regular, well-ordered, well-considered life and respect of duty…Concentrate on what you have to do with mushotoku mind, generous and altruistic.
-Deshimaru, on the eight fold path

The first job I ever had was cutting grass for an old Italian lady up the hill. I showed up once a week, headphones on, and sometimes I cut the grass and sometimes I cleaned out her basement. I remember cleaning her drainage ditches. At 11 years old, I made more money than I could spend on ice cream and movie rentals, so I spent some on Star Wars’ toys, models, and drawing supplies.

But I knew I only really needed the ice cream and the movie rentals. I bought the other stuff because I had no concept of saving. Save for what? The money was rolling in.
Eventually I quit. Ice cream and movies got boring. I just couldn’t think of anything to do with my money and I couldn’t think why anyone would want a job if they didn’t want money.
Around 15, I wanted money again. I wanted a car, I wanted tattoos, I wanted CDs, a girlfriend, and all of this meant I needed a job. After a 3 month stint in the fast food business, and another in a nursing home, I settled into a laborer position for a mason crew. In the beginning, I hated this job more than the previous two. You had to wake up early, it was an exhausting 12 hour day, and I worked with people who were toxic in a lot of ways. The worst part was how they were also nurturing me with swear words and beer cans, and they seemed impervious to the sun, the heavy concrete blocks, and to the beer. I really mean nurturing, too. There was much written on the wrinkled foreheads and marred hands of masons.

Whenever I failed on the job, I would revert to my resentments. It would start: They’re drunks. They’re red necks. They’re racist republicans. They don’t get me. I’m Buddhist. I’m a writer. I’ll be something. I’m not this fucking pail of mud.

On and on it went, for seven years. And I’d leave for college, swear never to be back. My parents bought me a beautiful Carhart for Christmas, which I took as an insult, and returned for a Navy issued pea coat; I figured that would lend some literary poise. I left this job in the spring of 2007, so I could go help the world and “use” my degree.

They were the crabs in the barrel.

I couldn’t see how laying stone or brick helped anyone. Listening to NPR about the teacher crisis in New Orleans, I reckoned I could really do some good there. I figured that right livelihood meant going into the places no one wanted to go.

As soon as I heard that term, right livelihood, my mind started slicing and dicing. Top three most altruistic choices were: Doctor, teacher, or priest. This was my top three. Therapist, social worker, and peace corps volunteer were next. But a mason? Spending one’s days laying brick in the sun while listening to the Knack’s My Shirona? Drinking beer and prattling on about guns, sex, and trucks? This could never, ever, be right livelihood.
Being a dogsled handler in Alaska couldn’t be it. Nor a writer. And eventually, after a year of teaching, that couldn’t be right livelihood either. Below the surface of everything was corruption, greed, and evil.

So work took a backseat to Zen practice. My relationship took a backseat too, right next to all the other delusions. Eventually, I moved into the temple to dwell in luminosity.

Then those black rakusu started looking so dark. And egos abounded. And everyone was way off, especially my teacher. I used to skip work to do samu at the temple. But where was I going to go when I skipped samu?

Uh, the bar. A girl’s house. My parents’ house.

I know, it all seems so clear, but I had to quit drinking to see anything at all.

A fellow blogger posted a story about Katagiri that really struck a chord. Really told my story. After reading civil disobedience, I wasn’t going to work hard ever again. But reading Dosho’s post really opened up a line of stirrings.

For one, I had actually skipped work on the day he posted. Secondly, I was preparing for my debut as tenzo. Thirdly, I am editing Deshimaru’s book on the Hannya Shingyo, where I found the epigraph to this post. The word “duty” stuck with me. Duty. Like my dad and the marines.
Deshimaru was an advocate of lay practice, and my teacher emphasizes this today. A real bodhisattva should have his feet in the mud of the world at all times. We’re not supposed to seek refuge in a hermitage or a monastery.

But who do I listen to? I still want to stay in a monastery.

I guess I listened to Dosho, and to Dogen, and to myself, when I really feel like I’m taking advantage of the system I work in. It’s real test to work in an indecent environment and remain upright. I have failed many times, and I see the marks of that failure on my students’ faces when they ask me where I’ve been.

Yeah, I have a drinking problem, but when I wasn’t drunk, I was skipping work because I didn’t care. I couldn’t see the point. I wanted to live in the problem, not the solution. Despite my efforts, it still happens.

I am trying to join my extended sangha in the work-a-day world. I drug myself today. I’m done trying to debate whether or not I am an English teacher; I am. I am those lesson plans. I am that chalk board. I am the failed lesson plans. I am the broken chalk board, or the chalk board that says, “Fuck Mr. Flyingpig.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I was a puddle on my mat. Ki-Ki prattled on about lifted knee caps and relaxed faces in a ceaseless stream of directions for each pose. Bikram always feels like swimming laps in a hot tub, and every once in a while becoming stuck in the filter. Ki-Ki’s directions are always very Zen like, urging us to focus, be in the moment, but I was thinking about our temple’s 25th anniversary and my Roshi’s 76th birthday.

As I rode to my father’s house, I thought about Robert and whether or not he’s a true teacher. You know, whether or not he’s a “master.” It takes courage for me to think about these things because I’ve dedicated the last two years to this temple and this teacher. And the facts are not reassuring. Sometimes I feel like I’ve fallen into a rogue lineage.

Kodo Sawaki did not give Deshimaru dharma transmission. Maybe he died before he could, but I’ve heard that’s not entirely the case. Deshimaru was a bit rough and tumble. By all accounts, I know that he drank, smoked, and did his fair share of womanizing. I’ve also heard that the Paris dojos could get a little out of control- lots of sex, lots of partying, and too much drama. Deshimaru went to the Soto-Shu to be formally recognized as a teacher.
And Deshimaru didn’t give Robert dharma transmission. Robert also went to the Soto-Shu, after studying with Deshimaru for 20 years.

Is the Soto-Shu a quik shop of Zen certification?

By the time I got to my Dad’s house, I didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, and settled that Robert is turning 76, has been practicing Zen for 36 years, and he hasn’t told me to jump off any bridges. He’s told me to eat my vegetables, sit up straight, and to ride one horse without looking back. He’s my teacher, and he needed a birthday cake, and I didn’t know what kind he wanted, and that’s what I should be thinking about.

Wedding cake. Chocolate cake. No, I like chocolate cake. Healthy cake? Carrot Cake! I know it’s not really healthy, but there is a pound of carrots in one double layer carrot cake. And about 3 cups of sugar when you count the cream cheese icing. What really made this carrot cake special was the lemon zest/juice in the icing. Its tangy taste produced a thirst for more and more of it.
The cakes were done by 1 am and I woke up at 7am to start the icing. By the time I was done garnishing, it was 11. By the time I got back to the temple and went over the grocery list with Jeff, it was 12. After visiting the farmer’s market, whole foods, and a Middle Eastern place, it was 1:40pm. Jeff was driving like a maniac and I was stricken stiff with the idea that if I could just keep myself from being jostled around, I could keep my brains from escaping if we crashed. I became the seat belt.

2:00PM, the party was at 4:00PM, and my helpers forgot to come. Here was my menu: Humus, Bruschetta, and 40 Vietnamese spring rolls. Jeff complained that there wasn’t any meat, so I put some Sangha members on that task, because I don’t cook meat. You know how it’s ironic that most meat eaters don’t hunt? Well, this one doesn’t even want to microwave a piece of flesh. However, if you offer me an oyster po-boy, sure enough, I’ll get down on that.
I started the spring rolls first. I had a punch bowl full of cabbage, green onions, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and carrots. Each roll would get a couple slices of avocado.

Roll. Roll is the operative word.

My first “roll” looked like a membrane with bright guts. It looked like a kombucha fetus. And it was 2:10. I had 39 to make.

After making a few “Spring Burritos” I had a great idea. Why don’t I follow some directions? Oh, it says 2 table spoons, not two handfulls of filling. This changed everything, and I was on my way.

Help arrived. Elliot first, who brought shrimp cocktail. Then Jeff, who brought Zen.
Elliot was making the brucshetta, toasting slices of baguettes in the oven. Jeff looked in and said, “Is someone watching these?”
“I just put them in.” Elliot said.
“How toasty do you want them?”
“Oh, lightly browned.”
“Flyingpig, how toasty do you want them?” Jeff said.
“Um, until you can hear them being poured into a bowl.” I said.
And that was an awkward exchange, as Jeff tried to assert that I was Tenzo. He kind of threw his hands up and asked what the Tenzo wanted. Both of these guys are older and have been practicing longer. I wanted to say, “The Tenzo wants you to touch your nose, then use your brain and do what needs to be done.” Instead, I told Jeff to make the humus. Then his wife volunteered, and I asked her to make the peanut sauce. I never moved from my spring roll assembly line- Dip the rice paper, a small hand full of filling, one slice of avocado, tuck-tuck, tighten, roll.

By 4:30pm, the food was on the table and people were showing up. There was a pile of dishes. I jumped in. Jeff took me aside and said, “You’re the Tenzo, let others do that. Survey the scene. What needs to be done?”

I turned on the track lights and arranged some food and watched people wash dishes I wanted to wash. At this dojo, people treat the residents like golden children. For many who come to practice here, we’re some kind of symbol, though we mostly keep the lights on, the floor swept, and the gongs going. I feel uncomfortable because of conversations like this:

A guy pulled me aside and whispered about Robert:
“So Robert’s…” And he wanted to say something about enlightenment, but instead made all kinds of strange gestures with his eyebrows.
“The teacher. The Roshi.”
“And how do you become that?”
“Another teacher recognizes you as ready to teach.”
“And your position here?”
“I’m a student.”

At that, he looked kind of confused. Because he’s a student. And I’m a student. Anyway, aside from some others that really know me, and have been here longer, most people who come in here won’t really interact with me. You know, I’m allowed to date now, but I doubt if that’s ever going to happen, because as soon as people see where I live, they take a step back. I figure they think one of two things: I’m too pious, or I’m in a cult.

So I wanted to hide in those dishes, but Jeff had a lot to teach me, if I would let him. Next lesson: How to sing happy birthday to a Roshi who upon finding out that we were calling a birthday party for him diverted the attention to the founding of our temple. And I knew, knew, knew, with every last scintilla of force in the universe, he didn’t want a friggin’ song and some candles. But Jeff prompted me.

I recruited some other core members that Robert would recognize to sing back up in the second line. I cut the cake, lit the candles, and started singing. He was trapped on the couch, talking about some photos with some newcomers. He blew the candle out, said thanks, and handed the cake back. Turns out, he doesn’t like cake at all. His wife liked it though.

John Coltrane, Robert’s favorite, played in the background. People were starting to filter out. I sat at the coffee table, tired and relieved. There were picture Albums that started in the 70s, pictures of Deshimaru dedicating bells, dedicating temples, kissing pretty girls on the cheek. Robert sat down and Jeff joined us. Robert started pointing out his shadows, and naming people we might know in the pictures. Bucolic and bohemian, it was nothing like our temple. There were fields and horses, naked monks and nuns (we still use that term) bathing in streams, pictures of talent shows where everyone looked a little like David Bowie- a little bit like a man, a little bit like a woman.

And then there was this one picture of a beautiful woman, and I saw Robert pause, and then he explained. “Great gal, she could sing, could dance, but you know what she did? After that sesshin, she went back to Paris and got all dressed up. She went sat in this apartment, next to the dojo, where monks lived, poured gasoline all over herself and set herself on fire.”
And then we got into Robert’s students.

He kept pointing- “He’s dead, bone cancer. He jumped off a bridge. This guy went to Brooklyn, where they didn’t think much of him, and he jumped. This one had aids, died. This guy shot himself. I’ve got a great influence on these guys, huh?”

Again, he’s never asked me to jump off a bridge.

And then he paused on his “puddy cat.”

“Oh, this poor guy, he ate morning glories. Really horrible. Paralyzed, and man, he suffered.”
That was the end. He gave us hugs, said thank you, and left. A couple people hung around and drank. Jeff and I relaxed, he with a glass of wine, me with a cup of chamomile tea. We joked about the friction, about Robert.

Robert. I think he carries a lot of regret about becoming a teacher. He says Deshimaru asked him to teach, and he’s just following orders now. He’d rather teach cats and plants.
Jeff said, “He treats us like plants. Sprinkles a little here, and a little there. He’s not trying to get immediate results.”

I thought about all the monks he used to live here, who have scattered. I thought about how there are only five of us who keep this place running. And I thought about why I always want to leave.

Robert is never going to give intellectual candy. He doesn’t say things to sound eloquent or Zen. Instead of considering what his words look like, he considers what effect they’ll have on his students. He can seem erratic. I see him treat other students so gently, while I feel he is tough on me.

I don’t trust him exactly, and maybe I am a little afraid of him. I think that’s what keeps me poking around. And I don’t mind the effect; I stand up straighter and strive.