Saturday, June 29, 2013

How To Become A Zen Monk (or die trying)

"Now, if you have decided to become a monk because you think that life in this world is too hard and bitter for you and you would prefer to rather live off other people's donations while drinking your tea - if you want to become a monk just to make a living, then the following is not for you." -Kosho Uchiyama

So you want to be a Zen monk or priest? Unsui, which means clouds and water? Good on ya. Me too. 

Having googled that very aspiration for the first time in 2003, I was convinced it was impossible. I'll admit I am as thick headed as they come. I was also resistant to meet some figure in a robe. I heard my father's voice when I begged him to get my fortune read in Jackson Square, New Orleans, "I'm not paying some fat asshole in a bathrobe to tell you lies." Instead, for the first four years of my Zen practice, I committed as little as possible to my local sangha, left when they started chanting, and never talked to the teacher. I was so unapproachable, I sat in a painful full lotus, back hunched, no cushion, my knees kicking up in the air like butterfly wings as my pelvis painfully sucked me in like a Japanese ham sandwich. Good for me. 

I left that sangha as a "young man on a mission" and I'm lucky I didn't end up like Chistopher McCandless from Into the Wild. I was just across the inlet from Timothy Treadwell, from The Grizzly Maze. I did break my ribs and eat brown sugar sandwiches in the Caribou hills of Alaska. And I did sit in that -30 degree winter, no electricity, no water, but with northern lights illuminating my mind to this- you can't do this alone. Shortly after 5 months of seeing only about two to five people through my dog mushing gig, I got a ticket back home. Oh, I should mention I quit zen after a breakdown when I couldn't figure out why green lights were green lights in a traffic light. 

Having given up, I was hung over on my porch in New Orleans on a bright Sunday morning. Mardi Gras beads from last year melted and peeled their lead coated paint, decorating our fence. My neighbor was going to his car with a big black round cushion. I jumped in the car, wearing a pink t-shirt that said, "When I dance, I dance to the max. When I rock the mic, I charge hip hop tax." I might have been a little drunk. 

We climbed the stairs of New Orleans Zen Temple, and I sit on a zafu for the first time. I face the wall for the first time. I smell Japanese chip incense for the first time. I've landed in the rowdy temple of Deshimaru, where these words burn into my ears, "Head presses the sky. Knees press the earth. This is hishiryo consciousness." Hishiryo-thinking without thought. The bell rings, I turn around and see my first Zen monk, and decide I will one day wear the O'kesa, the Buddha's robe. 

I googled it again.  What came up were vague answers like, 

You don't need to do anything save follow the precepts.

Ordination can come later.

Or real "zen" answers like, 

I believe that enlightenment is available to all and that your current life can provide you with more than enough opportunities and lessons to make the 'journey' you desire. What you need is here and now. Why seek elsewhere?

I think when Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen about 800 years ago said stuff like that, his eyebrows said much more. And if you wanted to be a monk, you sat Tangaryo (a one to five day period of sitting to clarify your intention). 

But what if you're actually asking: How do I live in a temple, wear the robes of a monk, sit like a monk, chant like a monk, eat like a monk- how  do you do that?

No one has given a straight forward answer. Muho, abbot of Antaiji, is the best I can come by. It reads more of a critique of the Soto Shu, rather than a how-to. It's my intention to provide a basic how to. Currently, I'm living at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, in Marin California, and training with Linda Ruth, the residing Abbess of our temple. Technically, after 10 years of practice, a couple years of residency here and there at temples, I am at the beginning of the process of becoming a priest. I predict it will take me at least two more years, but most likely four or five. 

But that's my choice. It didn't have to take me this long. It doesn't have to take you that long. While I am most familiar with the San Fransisco Zen Center process of becoming a Zen Priest (we are careful with the word monk), I will take liberty to suggest what you could do in other Zen traditions. Here are the nuts and bolts about our tradition.

1). Come to one of our 3 main centers as a guest student for two weeks. 
2). Become a work practice apprentice for 6 months and build a relationship with a dharma transmitted teacher(they wear the brown robes).
3). Sit tangaryo, complete two practice periods (4-6 months for both) at one of our 3 main centers
4). Apply for staff. Perhaps solidify your commitment to a Zen teacher by taking the precepts.
5). Stay with that teacher for 2-3 years.
6). Go to Tassajara, our training monastery for two practice periods (6months flat- or maybe you did your 2nd practice period here, if so, do one more and skip to 7.)
7). Request permission to ordain.
8). Start sewing.
*9* Maybe request permission to ordain from all 3 abbots of Zen Center (unclear on this one)
10) Ordain and start your 3-5 year novice period.

Our process is the slowest one I've come across when it comes to Japanese Zen. It could be worse- I asked the teacher of New Orleans Zen Temple to ordain me for 3 years, and he never gave me a lick of hope. Good on him, I have very good posture now. 

I've heard at Shasta Abbey you spend a year as a postulant and then receive novice ordination. However, that's one year sleeping in a meditation hall, perhaps aside your cohort with no room, no stipend, and celibacy restrictions. 

I've gathered I could ask any Japanese zen teacher to ordain me and they'd send me to one of their training monasteries for 6 months, and bam, I'm a priest (usually before the training). I've also gathered that it will cost money in most cases. I also fear I would be in no way prepared to live my life as a priest. 

And then there is every which way the wind blows Zen teacher that lives outside of the temple who is empowered to ordain whoever they want whenever they want with whatever prerequisites or no requisites. Isn't that beautiful? Old wells and new wells bubbling with fresh dharma. 

Easy or hard doesn't seem clear with what I've wrote here. For that matter, here's a zen answer for you: Staying at home and attaining the way or leaving home and attaining the way has nothing to do with actualizing the fundamental point; in our bodhisattva hearts we are all renunciates, and we're renouncing our perception as anything more than deception, the permanence of anything, and any notion that we are not already and completely our original self. You know, Buddha. 

As Furyu Schroder says when you ask her about ordination, "Who will stop you?"

Have a Zen ordination story or how to in any lineage or sect? Please share for the benefit of all would be patch robed monks of true color and no rank! 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cup Stealers and the IRS

Having run up the hill 1000 feet and down the hill to the ocean and up the hill to reservoir, I jumped in and swam. I left when all the naked women showed up. I wasn't naked and I wasn't even swimming- just kicking around and looking at newts suspended in our farm's life blood.  I said hello and goodbye and honored the woman's hour. Boundaries. If it were Mom's ball in New Orleans, I never would have thought twice about getting naked- but half of the women had only seen me in my black robes or my farm gear.

Sitting on the table was a note from my wife. I could still taste the salt from my run. It was on an envelope from the IRS- it read, "Baby duck, I think this is for real."

They want 3,400 dollars for a retirement fund I cashed out when Lauren and I left New Orleans in 2011. I laughed and looked for our tax return. Turns out we didn't report it. I guess we thought since we lost 20% right off the bat, maybe that included tax? Turns out, no.

All this in an hour! The ocean of life is a big place and the waves come in many shapes. What makes one devastating? What makes one fun to ride?

Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

As I sat there just feeling light and happy, I thought, what nonsense! Last week so heavy and unhappy. How does this work?

There is this yogacara teaching of the 8 consciousnesses and the waves of karma, how all that works. I don't want to think about that today or maybe ever again. There is something about noticing and unnoticing  that helps when you're riding the waves of samsara.

In response to the bill from the IRS, I thought, there's no way I'm leaving Green Gulch. They'll be very disappointed with my tea bowls, robes, and books when they bust into room 14 of cloud hall to seize my assets. They'll also be disappointed to collect my monthly stipend of 280 dollars (which actually feels enormous for my needs- do you know how many cheeseburgers that is?).

We could probably not pay them. We probably qualify for the noncollectable status. But that's not so easy to carry. Interest accrues. Could double or triple. In ten years, it's forgiven. But if we leave the temple in 9 years? And who wants to create a situation you can't get out of? Not us.

So we love Green Gulch and love our life. My father-in-law recently visited for a week and said, with what I saw as misty eyes, "I don't think I can go back to the real world." He expressed how much his work crew bonded and how refreshing it was to be with people of like mind. I'm not sure how people go back. I know sometimes they have to. Someday I may have to. But not today!

So, we forfeit our stipends. It will take 6 months to pay off the IRS (or the IRA as I have been joking). I'll look for some weekend work.

But I will not leave my seat.

Pema Chodron talks about what Mel Brooks said. The big catastrophes wake us up in this practice. It's the little things that catch us off guard. I'm having that moment. I feel no stress about this debt. Our universe provides us with this stipend and there it goes to fill a gap and allow us to practice.

But let me catch a guest student with my Writer's Almanac mug and the dragon roars and I'm ready to leave this temple of...cup stealers!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Yaza ( or 34 hours in pursuit of zazen)

I was scrolling through the comments section of a popular blog and someone mentioned Antaiji's gnarly schedule of 14 periods of 50 minute zazen sessions. They said they didn't think they could do it.

For the first time during the last sesshin I sat through from 4:45am to the next day around 12:30pm. It was about 34 hours of pursuing zazen. I took two naps during that 34 hours, both within the first 12 hours- one after breakfast and one after lunch. The last scheduled period of zazen ended at 9pm. After chanting our refuges, I took a shower, drank a bowl of tea, and returned to our dimily lit Zendo- some others were already sitting.

I think there are sudden or gradual successes to sitting all night. I'm calling success the ability to walk the next day without pain and a mind clear of trauma so that you might want to sit again. I'd heard of our ancestors doing this Yaza, late night sitting practice, but it took me 10 years to approach it; others took it on in the first 3 months of practice. What was important to me was entering into this practice with a spirit of inquiry, self care, and diligence. All this to inspire myself.

What's interesting is that as I recall my night of Yaza, I didn't have any pain, I didn't have any boredom or frustration come up. I did laugh. I did cry. I was very cold, shaking at one point. I took a break once an hour to go sit by the fire and drink some tea for 10 minutes. Getting up once an hour is very important to me. Earlier that fall during my first day of Tangaryo I sat for 6 hours straight without changing my posture or refolding my legs. While it didn't hurt during the sitting (as most things were numb) when I tried to get up, I couldn't. When everyone sped off to lunch, I was stuck, leaning against a wall. It was pretty embarassing. From that day on, I switch my legs every hour and that seems to be just enough.

However, I can remember sitting sesshin at New Orleans Zen Temple and feeling sick to my stomach with pain. I remember screaming inside my head. And there only 9-12 periods of Zazen were expected each day. What changed? Did my body get "better?"

I think I stopped clenching. I've always sat in full lotus but how I sit in full lotus now is not how I sat in full lotus then. Now, I fold my legs and let them rest on each other; then, I use to grit my teeth trying to keep them from slipping. I worked from my head and my muscles. Now I don't have anything to prove- if my legs slip apart, who cares. Oddly, they don't slip apart anymore. I used to have all kinds of strange rituals to keep them from slipping, like not showering and licking my hands (quietly) and moistening my calves so maybe they'd stick together! I had this weird tick for years. My teacher must have seen, as he saw everything else, and was quick with the kyosaku if your back started to hunch.

My approach to sitting these days if very gentle. If one knee feels sore, I'll fold the other one first to give it a break. These breaks might not seem like breaks but I suspect that we set the parameters for what a break is and the mind will except any gesture if we assign that gesture the value of relief. Next relief is half lotus.

And what for? Absolutely nothing. If you go into Yaza or any period of Zazen looking for something- peace, enlightenment, or some magic power, what you'll find is an empty house full of moonlight and you'll be standing there like a silly thief. However, it's nice to find an empty house in the moonlight. I remember my night of Yaza fondly; those grueling approaches to Zazen in my earlier days still turn my stomach.

I don't think it takes 10 years to figure this out. I think you could do it right now. It's common sense! Don't push so hard or you might tear open. Just be patient and gentle with yourself. Don't be a hero. Just sit and watch the blue eye of dawn turn into the dark eye of night. It will feel like the whole Zendo is chest and lungs and breathes for you.

You just do it because it's your practice. I'm convinced that Zazen is what was really happening way back then when we were hunting and gathering. I'm convinced that you are Buddha and you're not learning how to become Buddha, but sitting as remembering who you really are.

Friday, June 21, 2013

We are One Buddha and one Ancestor

Hello dust! 
So many paths go up
from the foothills
but one moon grazes 
the peak.
It's logical;
if you're not going anywhere
any road is the right one.


Students, one Mexican, one Israeli, discuss Kant and whether there is an observer observing the observed, buttermilk pancakes between them. The farm rolls in with wet dirty knees. They smell like morning dew, dirt, and spinach. The guesthouse crew pulls their monthly dish duty, bow out and take a break. The baker recites a poem that ends like, "and from a mouse in the talons of a hawk, we transform with wings flapping into the great sky." 

I sit there thinking about all of the things I should do on my day off and then decide that I won't "should" today. Here I am, sitting under our skylight, legs outstretched on our tatami, drinking green tea with rice milk. 

Life on the farm is non-stop. This week, we planted about 12,000 little plants on about 2 acres. It's our sixth planting. Planting one, just three months old, was gleaned by the food bank and will be mowed under this week. Next week, planting 7 will take its place. 

What can I tell you about wading into waist high broccoli and using your finger tips to test the buds; too tight, not ready; too far gone, cut and drop into the furrow; just right, purple green, nutty in flavor, one for me, one for market. All you can hear is the ocean crashing against the hills. That's all that's happening on these clear days. 

The inner landscape has its own ocean. Waves crash there, too. We go into the zendo and weed before the self goes to seed. The selflessness of our ancestors is what made this valley what it is. For 40 years or so, people have dedicated their bodies and minds to the soil and to the schedule of introspection. Conversations about the self creating the self out of the self have been had at the breakfast table with different voices but similar intention for boundless kalpas.

We are just an echo. We are just remembering our memories. This is our vast inconceivable inheritance.