Friday, February 26, 2010

Going Under, Going Down.

As I thought about leaving the office, a gas mask was strapped on to my face and I found myself completely inverted while they put Vaseline on my lips. I wanted to leave because I had waited an hour for my appointment to begin, the dentist is rude, and I could overhear him squabbling with patients about bills.

This was a new provider, up the street from my school, and basically in "the hood." Basically, I live in the hood. I've heard gun shots, I've seen a car set ablaze, and I've had to call the cops for unidentified visitors, banging on my door and demanding I come out. Why do I live here? It's where my students live and hoping to better serve them, I wanted to be trusted, and so I assimilated. It's actually worked pretty well and given me great insight as to why their homework isn't always complete.

Back to hood dentistry. No one spoke a word about the root canal. One minute I was thinking about taking off the bib, and the next minute I was thinking I bet it's hard to sue a doctor who uses laughing gas with malpractice. What could I possibly know?

At first, I couldn't really breath. And then I was drunk and thoughts were racing. And I was laughing.

I thought: and here it is, I bet you didn't know this hood dentist was going to teach you things about true Zen today, and that pain is nothing but up and down and impossible to get rid of, as you're drunk, numb, but pain still resides, and no, your lip did not tear, no they didn't just yank out the same tooth five times, as if mountains of molars existed deep in your gums, and pain is nothing but up and down, and if you can meet it where it is, up or down, you can be here and now.

Felt insane, but very present. Felt out of body, like the 12th hour of Zazen. Thought, why sit when I can pay for laughing gas?

It was scary, like driving 120 miles an hour and pushing on to see if the car will do 140. Realized that Zazen without a teacher, without dharma, might be like laughing gas- wreckless, convincing, dangerous.

I'm happy to know Zen is everywhere. I'm happy to feel my feet again.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just feeling good...

...But tired.

So, Jiryu's teaching on finding the practice in our life really struck a chord in me. Maybe because it started something like, "I know a lot of lay practitioners who trudge through life pining away for some other life, maybe another life at Green Gulch, where the practice will be better."

That's horribly elaborated and not really a quote as much as what I took away from his talk. But if your interested, it is on the SFZC website.

And then the next day I asked my teacher (I forgot, I actually have a Zen teacher who speaks living words every Sunday, even if they're not the words I want to hear, like "No, I will not ordain you") how we get a handle on our struggle to practice. That coming to the Zen temple once a week is hard enough and going every day was hard, and living there for 9 months was hard and...that's all he needed to hear.

He said "Just make sure you sit. It's best to sit with us, but if not with us, make sure it's the first thing you do, it's your greatest responsibility."

And that's horribly paraphrased, too. But it's what I heard.

I forgot that it's my responsibility to sit. That's I'm not wedging into full lotus so I keep my hips open, but that by sitting, I'm doing something for the world. I'm fulfilling my precepts and my vows.

And so I went yesterday for our regular Sunday extended Zazen/Mundo/Kusen and I went this morning for what I could- the first half hour.

I also went to yoga for the last five days.

This Flying Pig is flapping around, gettin' some air.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sweat in Yoga, Sit in Zazen

What's the big deal?

Why all the ideas and judgements?

Why the hesitation?

After 7 years of Zen practice, why do I expect anything different?

There it is: my practice. Just sit, just stretch the backbone, head presses the sky, knees to the earth. Why is it so hard to just do?

I've tried to save my practice for some other day for too long. I reach the Zafu more often than not, but sometimes I'm dreaming of some other Zafu, in some other temple, and seeing my practice perfect in some other life.

7 years is nothing. Today is everything. This moment, even more.

If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Gift of Desperation

After a long day of running around New Orleans in a spider man costume, dancing in the streets, standing under showers of purple, gold, and green confetti, we went home, sat Zazen, and met our friends for a late dinner at their place.

These friends are close; one is my dharma brother, though he has completely left the temple. He left for the same reason we all left, but that's another story, one I've told in this blog, one I'm just sick of thinking about, as I float around, semi-teacher-less.

We all talked about how great this Mardi Gras was, and how great Mardi Gras is, and we talked about the horrible parts of Mardi Gras, too. The horrible parts weren't so horrible for us, but maybe they were bad. No one was stabbed or shot, which does happen randomly, but sometimes a drunk participant would say something rude, maybe shove you, or as happened to us, gropes you. Grabs you where you shouldn't be grabbed.

This happened, and I had a very violent reaction. For a couple minutes, I didn't care, and I wanted to put everything aside. I wanted to hurt someone because they grabbed my fiance and I was confused in the dark of the warehouse party, lost in a very decadent Golden Buddha costume, and clumsy in my metallic gold platform shoes.

The universe had to be laughing!

But there I was, wanting to fight, like I used to, and not caring that we'd get thrown out, our night would end, and who knows, I might go to jail. And if you go to jail in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, they don't let you out until it's all over, so I could have sat in jail for three days because I wanted to punch some one out.

Luckily, you can't move so fast in a big fat Buddha suit, nor can you really find anyone at a Mardi Gras ball with maybe 2,000 people dancing. Not to mention, my fiance was holding me back.

She really didn't want to see this happen. At the time, I couldn't understand, and I spoke to her harshly, and I forgot myself, sober mind you. Sober, but completely intoxicated with ancient twisted karma, tangling me up into ideas of who I think I am and where I come from, and very silly shit like that.

We can get really technical with our definition of karma, but I'll just say it's action. I'll take a superstitious leap and say it's a little magic, too. I think I carry my fair share of both; my mother comes from a Sicilian mafia family and my dad escaped his upbringing by joining the Marines. Then my parents split and I "served myself" as my mother put it, meaning, she put frozen food in the fridge and I'd eat it. I moved out when I was 17, drank way too much, found Zen when I was 20, and things got much worse before they got better, I found a sangha, I found fellowship in the rooms, and I have a therapist.

Damn. And with all that, sometimes I feel like that beat truck on the block, the one that burns oil and leaks radiator fluid in a messy but sustainable way.

Then I found this job teaching kids who have eyes that cut right through any facade you had. I'll admit, Zen might have been one I put up that I thought looked nice, nicer than the others, and they tore that right down, too. They don't want tough guys, peaceful guys, or funny guys- they really want you to have your shit together, like their parent's don't. This has been a good practice for me.

My life has to be practice, and I have to surrender to that idea and accept my gift of desperation.

This gift brings me to the Zafu, brings me to the fellowship, and forces me to open my mouth and change my actions. It is not easy. I can sense the hard wiring in my mind, the hard wiring that is fear based and too quick in memory of my body brain. Sitting upright slows that body brain down, slows those hands down. It's kept me from running way.

Zen practice 7 years, New Orleans 3 years, A.A one year- There was a time when I couldn't stay anywhere for more than 5 months.

So I'm thankful for my gift of desperation. And I'll figure it out. Keep trying to find that middle path.

And I'll stay out of the newspapers and off of wikepedia; Dad was quoted in the New York Times for wanting to go and 'Kill em all' when he was a young man; Mom's uncle was the last man seen with Jimmy Hoffa.

So I'm not so bad, even if if the middle path at that party looked like this:

The fiance came back with 3 friends and turns out that the groper had thrown a drink on one, groped another, and insulted a boyfriend. Said boyfriend and I decided that his masquerade needed to end, and a RECON mission ensued.

I found "the groper" annoying yet another group of girls. I snuck up on tip toes (he was taller, even with my golden platforms) and reached around his face with both hands, and like the Golden Buddha who could, I snatched the mustache from his lip, and left with suchness.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Art of Zen V.S The Art of Life

Or, the art of true Zen.

Listened to Jiryu give a Dharma talk on the difference between The art of Zen and true Zen. He defined the art of Zen as our formal practice- the black robe, chanting, bowing, sitting practice- and true Zen as what we do with the rest of our day within our limitations of life- the going to the grocery store, teaching a test prep, sitting in traffic practice. The "make love, drive freeway" before and after enlightenment kind of true Zen.

He said that the surrender is what counts, that within surrender there is liberation. He warned that a lot of the time, we're planning the next life in which we will be here and now, trading one set of limitations for another set of limitations.

This was really tough for me to hear again. As soon as I stepped into a Zen temple, I wanted to become a priest. By that time, I was already an inner city school teacher, and I really didn't trust my intention because I figured I was trying to escape in any way possible. Three years later, I still plan to become a priest. But have I spent the last 3 years planning to be here and now in the next life?

I might have.

I remember when I first sat Zazen, 7 years ago. It was in a class with a professor who showed me the posture and that's all he had to do. I made an effort to sit every day since. I went through college thinking myself an intellectual who sat Zazen. I never thought of bells, robes, shaved heads, or levels or ordination. I did try to escape life through alcohol, writing, and trips to Colombia and Alaska, but I never thought of New Orleans Zen Temple, Antaiji, or Green Gulch, as I sometimes do now.

The question I'm pondering is if the art of Zen has become to big a distraction in my life and that I stare at the finger, missing the moon, day in and day out.

I have been boycotting the temple since I moved out and partly because of my tendency to live dual lives, each one an escape to the other, but that doesn't seem to be the answer either.

I do sit at home and that is without glory. I don't wear my rakusu or robe. I sit in my PJs mostly, and next to my fiance who has never been struck with a Kyosaku and who makes small conversation before we really settle in. And I like that.

At the same time I do long for the echo of the Hannya Shingyo. I do miss my rakusu, that piece of cloth I sewed well into the night.

There's a way to keep both the art of Zen and true zen alive in my life. That way may be a constant seeking of the middle path, but I know that's okay, too.

The instructions are so simple! Do good, avoid evil, save all beings! or Chop wood, carry water!

Simple, but difficult, too. I actually know what it's like to chop wood and carry water. I know so well, I remember exactly what I needed to survive for just a day; one blue child's sled full of wood, two 6 gallon containers from the open aquifer.
I'd haul these things every day while dogs barked, an actual wolf snarled (she was a neighbors, chained to a tree) and ravens laughed as I slipped up hill. And I used to curse, looking out at the dogs and say this is all for you.

Did I know that was a metaphor for practice? That waking up to sit, chanting, keeping my emotional sobriety in tact isn't really for me? I didn't know that, and I didn't know that the Bodhisattva path was going to be so difficult to negotiate. But I am pleased to know that I'm locked in. Once you learn the art of Zen, I don't think you can abandon it. It's become my perspective and I couldn't get rid of it if I wanted to.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Um...Who Dat!?

Dad graciously hosted the superbowl. Very interesting to see my parents so fervant about sports. Fervant about food, too, but that's not new. The fiance and I came with about four loads of laundry.

The first half of the game was quiet. We didn't say much as we ate hot wings and jambalaya. Step-mom was on the floor while fiance applied accupressure for her pregnant growing pains. In 3 months, I'll have another baby brother.

I was out back in the laundry room when I heard my dad screaming his head off. The Saints had just intercepted and turned the game around. In a way I was more relieved than excited.When I came in with our fresh load, I found our Who Dat shirts and we put them on. Dad already had his Reggie Bush jersey on.

I like being a football fan, but I don't really like football. It takes me awhile to get into a game. Being a Saints fan in New Orleans is like becoming part of a Sangha...and on game, there's not a place in town where you don't have a friend. This team spirit trancends race, class, religion- all for a bunch of grown men chasing each other around.

Even Zen teacher's aren't immune. At the end of our mundo session on Sunday, Robert (who has been known to disaper from temple functions in search of a TV for the Saints) intructed us to press our heads to the sky, our feet to the ground, and deep in our hara, root for 'dem saints.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Into the Dark Box

Dad used to go into confession while I'd wait in the kid's room. It wasn't weird for us to go on self-effacing excursions with Dad. He'd take us to meetings,too. My sister and I would play Monopoly while adults disclosed their character defects in detail. He never really talked about his Catholic faith or his program, but he was steady with his practice. He still is.

I never understood the idea of confession and my notion of the past complicated my view of it. I have a very simple Zen teacher who prescribes more Zazen on a daily basis and treats questions about karma and confession with overt annoyance. He's just not into talking about Zen. There are some things he loves to repeat and I'll be mumbling in my grave, but he doesn't want to talk about precepts, the 8 fold path, or anything "Buddhist." I don't think he's hiding his understanding. I think he's old(77)and cranky.

Although he's old and cranky, he's also well disciplined, and forms, chants, ceremonies, and samu is where I find my teacher. 90% watching, 5% listening to his rants, 5% feeling the Kyosaku. It's just his way. But in being well disciplined, he couldn't skip the confession part of our Jukai ceremony. And so, we all said, in Japanese:

All my ancient twisted Karma
From beginingless greed, hate, and delusion
born through body, speech, and mind
I now fully avow.

And I still failed to see the purpose. If all we have is now, what am I confessing? Who am I confessing for?

It took 20 days at Green Gulch, waking up each morning, and chanting the confession sutra in unison every morning to feel what confessing is. Hearing all those vibrating voices, all with a simple intention, brought confession into my body. I felt it. Can't explain it. Can't intellectualize it with Who am I? context.

What I felt at Green Gulch was an emerging resolve. It was just a start, but it gave me courage to pursue the way.

I think I'd like to explain what pursuit of the way is for me right now: Pursuing the way isn't easy and it's not glamorous either, like Dharma Bums. Pursuing the way has been the most difficult task of my life. It meant true confrontation. I was no stranger to confrontation, no stranger to resentment either. But I had to identify the true demons or enemies, and that's a daily process. Often times, it's not big business or status qua society, like my punk rock sentimentality suggested. First it was drinking. Then it was accepting things as they are. Some where in there was letting go of the idea that I'm so different from everyone else.

That's the big picture of my pursuit of the way. The small picture is even more boring: Sit in the morning, even though your tired. Stop judging your Zen teacher. Sit in the evening, even though your tired. Chanting matters, so do it. Put your head to the floor 3 times for Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Above all, do your best and stop thinking so much.

So this emerging resolve took me on a path I never thought I'd travel-a path of confession- into the rooms of A.A, into psychotherapy, and with constant strain of having students who need your support. And although my body's been in revolt, it's been communicating with me. For the last 4 days I experienced panic attacks, which started at 3 or 6am, while in bed. There was no cause that I could see, besides not going to A.A for a month, not sitting regularly, not exercising, but working for 12-15 hours a day in a high stress environment. No cause is an understatment, but what I mean is that work is hard, but work is good.

For the first three days, confusion ensued and I took refuge in every thing but the 3 treasures. On the 4th, after getting back on the zafu, the fog cleared. And just like Dogen wrote, suchness was there for the taking. As soon as it was, I called for help. I confessed. I asked my Co-teachers to call me the next day at 6am, I called my therapist (who I avoided for 2 weeks) and went back to work.

You know, I learned a lot. First that the way isn't self help for me, but that it's self perseverance. I don't feel like I need self help, or A.A, or a therapist. That's how I feel when things are good. Give me a month of no self-care, and I'll be a mess again. So A.A, therapista, and Zazen really aren't for me, but for everyone else. Self perseverance is for the whole world, especially my little world with a fiance, a school, and a community.

And confession is there to identify the defects in a non judgemental way. To be honest and in honesty find strength.

So this my not-so-glamorous-Bodhisattva-lay-life. Without a robe, I feel naked. Without living at the temple, I feel a little weak. But I just kinda gotta put one foot at a time into the muddy path to happy destiny.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


It just occurred to me that there might not be anything wrong with me, but perhaps something wrong with the way I try to fit into the world. I've been struggling the past couple of days.

I work a lot, and I work a tough 7 class a day schedule, and some of those classes I'm not qualified to teach, but I teach them anyway. A lot of what I do is about picking up one foot at a time. But sometimes I can't pick a foot up. Sometimes the muscles in my rib cage contract and tighten and I can't breathe or move. I've actually had this happen at work and I've had to leave. I've been doing this for three years in one of the worst school districts in the country.

Immediately, I believe I'm flawed. That's not something new- I've always felt that way. Immediately, I believe I have depression or anxiety or alcoholism. And this perception urges me to cover it up- cover it up with more work, or recently, perhaps joining the Army.

My ego is out of control. It thinks strength looks a certain way, like volunteering for the hardest jobs. But maybe strength is looking at the self and finding where it belongs. Maybe it's to stop trying to be something that I'm not.

My Dad has this great quote- he can't remember where it came from: "What someone says about you is none your business." Don't I know that this is my life? That there's this chance to be human and that I shouldn't pass it up?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Always Want to Say Something...

...should be listening, watching.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I didn't go to work today. Didn't sleep well- the fiance is sick and I was a bit riled up.

The obsession with the military didn't go away. So I researched and I researched and I sent my e-mails and I'm supposed to take a test this Friday to see what I can do.

And then there was the banging on the door, the car honking outside, the unidentified people on my porch yelling back at me as I yell at them, wondering just who the hell they are and if they're connected to the man who approached my fiance earlier that night.

I called in. My head's spinning. What the hell am I doing?

Living in this city, seeing so much need, I really wanted all of Avalokitesvara's arms. I wanted whatever tool or weapon to work my frustration out.

Reading the news for the first time ever. Just started by asking questions: What is the mission in Afghanistan? I couldn't find any military objectives but plenty of political ones, which must be so frustrating for our service men and women.

I'm feeling torn between what looks like needs doing and what I feel like doing. It looks like our public schools need teachers, so I do that, and have been doing it for three years now, reaping reward and accomplishment. And it looked like the military needed help, too. I really thought that. But help with what?

And so my question extends to the rest of my life: But help with what?

It's dangerous to get philosophical. A lot of my Zen training has been about getting away from the intellectual pursuit of what's right, what's wrong, and just doing. My arena of doing is the New Orleans Public Schools.

I wanted to quit from day one. I wanted to quit on day 365. I wanted to quit half way through last year and almost did. But this year I've really felt successful. Same kids, same school, but some how I'm effective this year. I'm moving along just the way my principal wants me to, but I'm starting to ask, for what?

I hate questioning the mission because I still need to finish it, no matter what. But I think this is the mission at my school- get these kids passing a state test, no matter what it takes, no matter how simple and binary we must become, no matter how much of your life (mine and my students) is sacrificed.

Can't be that simple. We do alot within our parameters. But I'm feeling that I've ignored my heart for the sake of sticking it out. And that this mission might not be the one for me.

My mind returns to Zen and to writing.

You have to be the change you want to see, not the change that is easiest to calculate.

You know, we want to make people proud. But then I ask, who's life am I living today?

This must sound like drippy existential crisis. I think it is, too. But I've had these before. Riding them out is best...actions should occur after the settling. That's something different about me I can recognize.

I used to buy plane tickets the morning of.