Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Buddha Nature Part III

Last night was the last Buddha Nature class with Jiryu. It was a brave approach to eat the painted rice cake. We started the class like we did 6 weeks ago, by sitting together and offering our understanding of Buddha nature.

Arising from our silent posture, some said,:

What's not Buddha nature


To transcend our mundane experience

Put a log on the fire

I've got a bicycle, I've got a bicycle, and it's got a bell and basket, the bell goes ring a ding a ding ding, you can ride it if you want to, but I can't give it to you, because I borrowed it

True intimacy.

I said:

Breathing quietly with the Sangha.

I wish I said:

Breathing quietly with the Sangha
Not breathing quietly with the Sangha

Jiryu pointed out, as we reviewed Dogen's Bussho, that reading Dogen is watching him write down a teaching from the ancestors, and hearing him say, well that's not true. Then seeing what he's written down and saying, well that's not true. It's this process of being stuck, getting unstuck, and getting stuck again.

Ironically, we chanted the closing of class at the beginning. This was a complete accident! In our tradition, we chant before class or lecture and after class or lecture. The first chant is about being be open to hear the true dharma, the closing chant is about our intention to benefit all beings. So, there we sit, and Jiryu proceeds in, and we start:

May our intention equally extend to every being and place
With the true merit of Buddha's way
Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
The Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

Right after we were done, a long time practitioner and layman said, "Well that was a quick class!" And Jiryu joked that what else could possibly be said? What could ever be said about Buddha Nature? But of course we stayed and entered the discourse.

I was there, but I was a little lost. My study of the Lankavatara is going well, but it's a bit challenging to have my inner voice say, "Yeah, but emptiness belongs to an imagined reality. Yeah, Buddha nature belongs to an imagined reality. My friend, and Shuso, Reirin, she belongs to an imagined reality. This is mind-only, conscious construction, and even that belongs to an imagined reality."

Sky castle, spinning fire, perception is deception.

But, it's important to show up. My mind was also thinking about Harry, and our discussion over at Wild Fox Zen, which is way beyond any linear progression at this point. We ended (or did we?) with Harry bring up the story of the painted rice cake and the real rice cake. We need that painted rice cake, too (on this we agree, I think).

The rice cake is the real thing, which we might taste or might not taste, by sitting, or some other dharma gate.

The painted rice cake is this blog, a class on Buddha nature, a discussion of painted rice cakes.

We need this all, even if this is an imagined reality. We also need to proceed with joy and enthusiasm, even in this imagined reality. Why?

Because there are numberless beings to be saved.

Like the Lankavatara says,

Samsara is an illusion
But karma is relentless.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Broken Beautiful Brush Strokes

Above: My Rakusu- Bottom, 2008 NOZT-black, Top 2010 Austin Zen Center, dark blue

I have the day off to pursue calligraphy with Kaz Tanahashi. This guy is amazing! Witty as he is talented, when asked how he gets around so well, he said, "Every time I pee, I drink one whole glass of water."

I've known Kaz through his translation work on Dogen. His translations are my favorite. I had some compensation time building up here at Green Gulch and admitted to the crew head my gaining idea: one day during the Kaz workshop.

He is a very thorough teacher. The handout he provided has some very helpful links to some east Asian calligraphy sources and class is about learning a few kanji and the way they appear in traditional, semi-cursive, and cursive forms. He also details the brush techniques, stroke order, and even makes time for each student to come up and let him "hold your hand" while he moves you through the character. If you ever have the chance to work with Kaz, jump at it- the pace is relaxed, and the teaching solid.

All of a sudden, I very much appreciate my teachers work on the back of my Rakusu- I had no idea!

Lovely day to be rained in. Great to hear the water table rise!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Celibacy: Spiritual training or spiritual trend?

Ishwari and Kogen: Sleep in separate beds, Room #6, Cloud Hall. They love to cuddle, too.

I was having dinner with a friend and we were talking about a Zen teacher we both study with and he said, “Yup, he sure seemed like he really wanted to get enlightened, but then he decided he needed a partner.”

Please suspend your disbelief that someone thinks they can get enlightened. I want to look at celibacy here, so let’s pretend that enlightenment exists without a doubt and it can come in any form you want it to.

I paused, being married and all, and wanted to investigate how sex impacts practice. I don’t know if we can talk about celibacy without talking about renunciation, what that means for the world at large, what it means for Buddhists, what it means for Soto Zen Buddhists, American zen Buddhists, and maybe even what it looked like for the Buddha.

For now, let’s look at sex through the eyes of the Theravadan, which we (Soto Zen) call the first turning of the wheel of dharma.

A quick word search brought up 186 results about sex on Access to Insight, a Theravadan data base compiled by many monks and scholars. This post may be the first of many in this investigation of the Theravadan discourse alone.

O’C Walshe says, “The aim of all of these (227 vinya rules) is to enable him to conduct himself in such a way as is most conducive to the attaining of Enlightenment.”

“Him” is referring to a monk here. Sounds like Walshe eats dinner with my friend, too.

“Complete sexual continence is considered an essential feature of the monastic life.”

Okay. First thing that comes up is what does sexual incontinence look like? Second thing is the word “complete” (red flag).

“The same principle applies to the Mahayana schools and of course, to nuns in those schools where they exist. There is no such thing as a "married monk," though in certain schools, especially in Japan, a form of "quasi-monasticism" with married teachers who retain a form of ordination is permitted under certain conditions. But all this has no relevance to the Theravada Sangha.”

Ouch! Quasi is not a nice word! Nuns where they exist? More on this later.

And now for a explanation on why monks shouldn’t have sex; Karma:

“The Pali word kamma (Sanskrit karma) literally means "action" (i.e., volition: cetana), which can be either skilled (kusala) or unskilled (akusala). The results of action (kamma) accrue to the doer as vipaka, which is pleasant when the action was skilled, unpleasant when it was unskilled (if I look before I cross the road, I shall get across safely, which is pleasant; if I don't look I may get run down, which is unpleasant). The feelings we experience are in fact of the nature of vipaka — they are dependent on past kamma. And of course we are continually creating fresh kamma for a good part of our time. It should therefore be noted that the feeling of pleasure (sexual or otherwise) is not an action, but a result. There is, therefore, nothing either "skillful" or "unskillful" about experiencing such a feeling. We should therefore not regard it as either "virtuous" or "sinful." So far, so good. Such pleasant feelings can be enjoyed with a clear conscience and no guilt feeling. If this were all, there would be no problem. The puritans would be routed and the permissivists justified. Unfortunately, there is another side to the matter. We may recall that a few years ago there was a song "Money is the Root of all Evil" Some people pointed out that not money, but the love for money is the root of all evil (well, of a lot of evil, anyway). And here is the snag. Sexual pleasure (like money) is not "evil" (or unskilled), but attachment to sexual pleasure (like the love of money) is. If we can experience the pleasure without attachment we are all right; if we become attached to it, we are not "hitting the mark." Now of course it is rather difficult (to put it mildly) to experience pleasure of any sort without feeling attached to it. But attachment is kamma, and unskilled kamma at that. And the results of that will inevitably, according to Buddhism, be something unpleasant in the future.”

So, I read, sex is not bad, loving sex is bad. Any pleasure is hard to feel without feeling attached to it. Attachment to sexual pleasure brings unskilled karma and will bring something unpleasant in the future.

So, by abstaining from sex, I won’t be attached to it?

This has not been my experience.

And while I create Karma, there is a lot karma from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion (time) I bear witness to; I don’t think it’s helpful to track down who did what, but instead to watch Karma arise, burn to fruition, and do nothing about that except show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and be open to that Karma changing.

As for attachment, it comes and goes. I have had sexual experiences that did bring something unpleasant in the future, but I might argue that my intentions had more to do with greed and delusion than having sex. Attachment dropping off has never had anything to do with me and what I wanted. It happens or it doesn’t happen.

My teacher, who has been celibate for the last 20 years or so, said we choose our own suffering. Choose to get married, choose to be celibate, choose to date- always leaping into a limited form with electric parameters we bump against and get zapped by.

I’ve got many questions about this topic; I’m not for or against, as I admire my teacher and admire Bikkhus. Of course, my fur does ruffle at the mention of quasi-monasticism, as if there is a pure and liberated, true and real version out there (instead of in here <---).

But my fur started ruffled. Currently, Bikunni may not receive full ordination officially because the lineage of nuns is said to have “died” out. Recently, starting in 2007, there has been an attempt to repair this schism in the tradition. It only took 2,000 years. However, a fully ordained Bikhunni faces imprisonment if they go to Thailand. Further, they take more vows. And I think when my friend thinks of enlightened celibate masters, he’s not thinking of women at all (the trend in Japan is for nuns to be celibate, while monks marry and have families- although even this is not officially recognized by the Soto-Shu).

My friend is thinking men, men being celibate to women so men can become enlightened, and all of this celibacy envy strikes me as a subtle aggression toward self and women (as some of aren’t even sure which category we fall in).

Aren’t the trappings of celibacy equal to the trappings of marriage? My wife and I aren’t officially monks, as we have not sat tangaryo and completed a practice period. Monk is a very flexible word in our tradition- maybe you’re a monk during practice period, you’re defintely a monk as tassajara, but maybe not a monk when you’re at GGF or SFZC, but maybe so- and none of this has anything to do with any type of oridination.

Does it even make sense to try and look at this celibacy issue and what the different traditions make of it? I’m not sure it’s fair to compare Mahayanna thought with Theravadan thought. We acknowledge the purification practices as a wonderful Dharma gate, and if a practinor chooses that tradition because it supports her self-knowledge of being celibate, I think that’s wonderful.

But don’t call us quasi-monastics. The monastery does not exisit. We are numberless fingers pointing at the moon. Keep pointing at the moon and not at our brothers and sisters (SISTERS!) in the sangha.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"So what do you do for fun?"

I've heard this several times across the dinner table here at Green Gulch and I had to really let that sink in. What do I do for fun...

It seems at some point I did fun things- Jiu-jitsu, writing, Dungeons and Dragons, movies, video games, punk rock, go out dancing, go out-

Back then, Zen practice, running, reading- these were things I did, not for fun, but because I had a lot of time to do a lot of things.

But when I started teaching, my life was pared down. Pretty much everything except Zen practice was cut off. This wasn't hard and fast, but my compass always pointed to practice, as I think I was baring witness to great suffering in the inner city of New Orleans.

Inner city- what a term! Means so much, and seems so appropriate. My students were going without, their parents were a mess, one was shot, and in the witnessing I didn't feel quite valid in saying, "Hey, I'm suffering, too!" I was seeking the inner-city in the inner-city.

That edge is a scary one- when it's time to recognize, acknowledge, and touch your own suffering.

So, my vacations, my free time, everything went to practice. Now I live in the place I used to spend vacations in. So what do I do for fun!?

Well, I'm joining a fiction writer's work shop. I hike every weekend. I sit in the sauna and listen to dharma talks. I never miss a workout. I go on dates with my wife (which might mean going to her parents house and watching our secret The Mighty Boosh DVDs!).

I do cross fit with a friend, but that doesn't feel so fun, I'm pretty sure that's just taking care of this body. That might be more suffering, actually!

Right now, I'm pretty deep into my study of the Lankavatara, but when the class I'm taking is over, I think I'll get one of those old fantasy fiction novels I used to love so much and just read it.

Oh, and there's a Tai Chi class down at the beach, 3 times a week, only 21$ a month. I'm pretty sure I'm going to give that a try.

Fun is important. I have a new whole hearted approach to it. I'll keep you updated.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Baring Witness: Boundless Dharma Gates, Numberless Beings

Knots tied, knots untied, my teacher writes to me:

"Don't worry about the rope. Sometimes it is a snake. Just keep your heart and mind as open as you can, keep the schedule, keep your nose clean, and the Dharma that you are so surrounded with there soaks in gradually."

And at 5:15 AM , I heard the head teacher’s Jisha (personal assistant) walking behind me as I settled into my posture, glad to be breathing, stretching upward with the top of my head, and I thought Please, not today. But it was today and he whispered, not so gently, dokusan.

For those outside of formal Soto-zen practice, dokusan means one on one time with a teacher, usually in a little room, like a cave, except given the Zen aesthetic treatment; scroll on the wall, two or three alters, clean tatami mats, a teacher sitting and waiting, a place for you to do prostrations, a cushion for you take your seat. This varies, of course. There are sometimes bells to ring twice, sometimes three times, and sometimes not at all-depends on the temple, the amount of teachers and dokusan rooms, the level of formality. Sometimes you enter with a question, sometimes you enter to see what arises.

My questions were gone. I requested dokusan with Tenshin Reb Anderson because I had some pressing questions about Mind-only and the yogacara school, but they seemed to have vanished or settled in a month, so I had nothing pressing to ask, nothing pressing to express. This can be slightly dreadful- not so much with my own teacher, with whom there seems endless things to talk about, or comfortable silence to enjoy-but with someone who you don’t know, even if you’ve ate dinner with them many times, it can feel like a blind date.

Further, dokusan is translated as “ to go alone to a high one” and the contents, especially in the Rinzai sect, are secret. They’re secret because answers tend to differ student to student. However, there are a lot of recorded conversations illustrating this wonderful tradition, like the teacher Zhaozhou who told one monk a dog does have Buddha nature and another monk a dog does not have Buddha nature.

In my experience, dokusan ranges from seriously detailed practice discussion to therapy. It must be just as scary for the teacher, to open up and meet the student where ever they are.

I was feeling a bit torn open, as I had my first trip to the hungry ghost realm (Whole foods, Walgreens, and this hungry ghost ate a cheeseburger, rare) and I had spent sometime with in-laws, who are lovely, but where I find my own vulnerability; they don’t have to love me. So this morning, I repeated what I said to my own teacher a couple of weeks ago, because that’s what came up:

I feel knotted and unknotted. Worn and fraying. This path is as wide as it is long. I thought Mind-only was my gate. Then, back to the 4 noble truths and 8 fold path. Then, opening up to the disorganization of Zen Buddhist dharma, and meeting fully what comes up, even the poison oak I ignored for a whole week, because it was going to disrupt my schedule. Then,letting go, not because it’s the Buddhist thing to do, but because you just can’t grasp every grain of sand on the beach, but it is possible grain of sand to drift through your open hands. It is possible to attend, show up, pay attention seek the truth, and be open to whatever is revealing itself.

And what reveals itself is hardly ever what I want to see. I want to taste the fruit of sutras, I want body and mind to drop off our upright posture, but I don’t want to take care of my poison oak, acknowledge, recognize, and touch the painful truth that this body is breakable, and bare witness to impermanence and suffering, like I felt the kid in Walgreens was open to, like I couldn’t be, as he followed his mother who was not so nice to him, his eyes wide open and present.

12 hours later, I’m nestled in my little room, writing, studying, thankful for the rain our farm and garden need. I might feel a little guilty for this luxury, while others can’t fathom how I put up with the forms and schedule, waking at 3:50am everyday. I wonder if I am privileged, or if this way of life is accessible to every being in every place. Two answers come, yes and no.

We’re not doing anything special, but then, this feels very special.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Father

Master Sergeant Keith and Baby Brother Charlie Byrd

This morning I ate breakfast with Jiryu and his son Franky. Hot tomato drink, Tempe Cabbage, and brown rice cream; Franky ate his with salt and sesame seeds, I had sugar and milk.

Breakfast is silent during the practice period. Franky, at almost 2yrs old, has developed his own forms, which include a lot of forehead to forehead, big bright eyes, and a huge smile. As he fed his father little chunks of tempe and played, I saw some of my own father in Jiryu's shaved head, black clothing, salty look.

My Dad was very salty, but not with Zen temple gomasio, but salt from the sea, as he put in 21 years a Marine. I remember very early mornings when he would be shining in his cook whites, his mat black metal sergeant chevrons on his collar, and same playful demeanor, while holding something very heavy up- the tradition of the Marine Corps, the long work day ahead of him, his worry of being deployed or sent to float again.

I also remember floating with him, out in the pacific ocean while we were at Camp Pendelton, snuggled on his chest on a raft in the middle of it all and tracing with my little fingers the sparrows tattooed on his chest. He earned those sparrows when he floated across the equator without the family, while we floated on base without him.

Warm salty tears. Boundless love.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dharma Gates are Boundless, I Vow to Enter Them

In addition to keeping this blog, I also keep a composition note book (modgepodged with neat pictures). I’m 2 pages from filling my current note book. In one month at Green Gulch, I’ve written half of it full. During my 4 year teaching career, I filled a composition once a year. This means I’ve written more in one month than I did with 6 months in my old life. I don’t know what this points to, but it’s interesting, and I must admit, it feels just plain good.

It might have filled up so fast because I do about 4 things in the same notebook now: Chart my moods with a line graph, write a haiku everyday, confess ancient twisted karma, investigate kensho or satori (delusion?), and take copious amounts of cornell notes on what I am studying.

Please let me express my elation at having time and teachers for formal sutra study. It is slow and tedious work. For the last week, I’ve read the same three pages of the Lankavatara sutra and it’s not getting old. I pop out of bed at 3:50am so I can get 40 minutes of study in; it is a wonderful life! I think this may be my dharma gate.

Just to let any non-zennies know, this is a completely optional, perhaps even discouraged practice. In the Zen tradition, you don’t have to read a lick if you don’t want to, and I really take refuge in that. This path is open to anyone who has the will to pick em’ up and puttem’ down (the feet), follow the schedule, open their hearts, let go, and radically accept.

But before and after I do all that, I like, I love, I lurve, to read the old instructions, the old stories. Hearing that Shi-Shi Bodai got his head cut off and milk squirted to the sky and the old King’s axe wrapped around his hand, which fell off, brings me opening. Unpacking the the 5th skhanda and its 8 levels inspires me. It speaks to me; it tells me there is more than I am seeing, it tells me that the story may not be “true” but it the story is truly being told, maybe a thousand years later, by us, and that’s the warm hand to warm hand warming my heart.

Some others, before and after, practice the way of tea. Poetry for the other others, and onward to calligraphy, flower arranging, archery, sauntering in the mountains (which I dabble in) and countless, boundless, dharma gates.

So...what is your dharma gate?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dragons Taking to the Water

With clouds and water

Dragons take the zendo

There, they sing like whales.

I had this notion that maybe people would like to read about what it’s like to be neither lay person nor priest. Suzuki Roshi said it like this: “ I understand it this way: That you are not priests is an easy matter, but that you are not exactly laymen is more difficult.” With that, he’s speaking to the ordained and the lay-ordained, or the non-ordained, or the ordained wearing clown noses. He’s not the first to say it. In the Parinirvana Sutra, the Buddha addresses the fact that his disciples are not lay, not ordained.

So, there’s old time Zen priests here, beautiful purple Okesas, humble brown Okesas, even shiny mustard Okesas from Japan. There are also old time lay practioners with fraying lay robes and dark blue, bright blue, and dark green rakusu. There's even a lay practitioner who has received dharma entrustment who wears a green Okesa. Some of them are married, some aren’t. And then there’s a steady flow of youngish people (from to 20-50) who come and stay from anywhere between 3 months and 5 years. Some of them take lay ordination (Jukai) and some don’t. Some don’t believe in it. Some lay-ordained don’t believe in full ordination. It’s really a vast, vast phenomena.

Sometimes a monk, sometimes a priest, sometimes a lay person- where do my wife and I fit in? We have a little room in Cloud Hall. We sleep in separate single beds. We wake up around 4 am. We meditate, we chant, we work, we go to class. I want to ordain, she’s very open to not interested in ordination. What do we look like to the outside? That were not priests is simple; that were not exactly lay people, harder for those outside our tradition to see.

I started this post with a Haiku. I wrote that after hearing Dogen’s “ With clouds, water, and cooperation, dragons take to the water.” The singing of the whales is the sweet range of voices that come together every morning when we begin to chant:

Great robe of liberation

Field far beyond form and emptiness

Wearing the Tathagata’s teachings

Saving all beings

I hear so much from our ancestors; we are not lay people, we are not priests, we are dragons, we are elephants, we wear the the tathagata’s teachings...

What do you think? To ordain or not to ordain? What’s all this robe culture about?