Monday, January 27, 2014

Salt, Fat, Sugar, and Sex (with myself)

Sesshin is over! Don't ask how it went. We hate that question. But read my sesshin poem:

Branches bloom white plum blossoms
Five pins hold these fragile robes
Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! 

It's not like I wanted to write a poem like that. If there's a way to fail sesshin, I did. 

But it's more complicated than that, because it was also beautiful. Always beautiful to sit side by side, day after day. Counting the breaths is following the breaths is just sitting is the perfection of wisdom, that's the heart we go in with. Chanting in harmony while coyotes scream and laugh in the hills, and somewhere even closer a small animal dies loudly; what is it, what is it, what is it?

What is it, this craving? What is it, this discipline that won't allow me to steal a cookie? What is it, this ability to crash and steal peanut butter, to masturbate instead of watching the mind?

I've tried to watch the mind while practicing self gratification. I'm not sure that's possible. I'm sure someone is skillful enough to do with the support of 10,000 Buddhas facing the wall, but not this guy. 

So, I bring myself before the teacher and express my embarrassment, express my disappointment at my practice. She says, do you hear your practice working when you say embarrassment, when you say disappointment? She quotes the Eihei Koso Hatsugannmon: 

By revealing and disclosing our lack of faith and practice before the buddha, we melt 
away the root of transgressions by the power of our confession and repentance. This is 
the pure and simple color of true practice, of the true mind of faith, of the true body of 

How spacious! Seems like there's room for everyone. I say, I can hear Suzuki Roshi's "Just to continue practice is your practice." but admit I can't feel it. I just feel plain bad. 

She encourages me to just feel plain bad and rings the bell. Some how that makes me feel good. 

What is it?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Filling the Well With Snow

You've heard of some practitioners who take the Buddha's phrase "Be a light unto yourself" and run 10,000 miles to books and various states of mind, rejecting forms, rejecting teachers. I've also heard that phrase of the Buddha translated as "strive diligently." I'm going to run with that.

I've been training with my teacher Ejun Linda Ruth for about 2 years now. I think we've been training closely- I've served as her Anja for the last year. That means I make her tea every morning and I clean her bowls. I'll be leaving that job in February and I'll become her Jisha. That means I'll meet her every morning outside her house and follow her with incense as she "opens" the temple by offering at all of our alters. And I feel blessed to have been Anja- so many quiet conversations over cold mornings, so many laughs, and stretches of somber silence as we waited for Abbot Steve to pass. She'd come in sometimes and say, "You look subdued." and I'd say, "I'm sick." She'd say "Go back to bed." and often I'd say "Can't, it's a harvest day." or I would just sneak away to sleep. Some days she'd come in and drink her tea quickly and say, "Off we go to the old Zendo!"

 And I feel honored to be invited to be Jisha- completely fulfilled! I've always wanted to be "close." I always want to stay close. I'll be there, handing her incense, in front of the main alter.

But then one day I wanted to decline, I wanted to back out of my commitment. And it was pretty simple to see through; fear of intimacy, fear of rejection. In dokusan, she asked me, what is that you really want, and with some frustration, some anger, I said I wanted to sew an o'kesa already. She was silent; I'd asked her before to sew the robe of ordination. She'd heard a charged insistent tone in my voice, and took pause, and called me out on it.

I just cried, of course. This path to priesthood is nebulous and long. I first requested priest ordination in 2008, 3 teachers ago. I entered practice 11 years ago. I have no savings, I have no house, no car, and no exit plan. The gravity can be gripping. But she saw me only like my mother, sister, and wife has seen me- my voice dripping with greed, hate, and delusion, as I sort of demanded to be allowed to sew.

As I wept, my eyes clouded, and I couldn't see her so well. All I remember hearing her say was, "Kogen, you don't have to prove anything to me. I know you want to walk the path of the priest." She also added that she'd like me to stay at Tassajara for at least 3 practice periods. Well, actually, she said she wanted me to stay until I was on Doanryo, so that could be up to 4 or 5 practice periods.

Which means ordination is at least 2 years away, if not more. And who knows what happens between then and now? I can feel my heart searching for an abode.

  I used my break time to sew a new setsu tip for her bowls. I turned into a mass of doubt; why, why, why am I doing this? What is a teacher and what am I being taught?

Then, just 2 hours later, Tenshin Roshi, my teacher's teacher, taught a class that started like this:

One day, Ananda bowed before Shakyamuni Buddha, paying respects before taking his seat next to him. After a few hours of sitting, Ananda said,

"Admirable friendship, admirable camaraderie is half the holy life."

"Don't say that, Ananda! Don't Say that!" the Buddha scolded.

Kalyanamittata is the practice of the perfection of wisdom through meeting beneficial friends along the path. Tenshin Roshi told the story of how Suzuki Roshi sent him to Tassajara to learn how to chant. He really didn't want to go. He wanted to stay with Roshi. But he had to. So, he went and learned how to chant just like the old Japanese monk who was transmitting that skill. When he returned, Suzuki roshi heard him do it perfectly and said, "But that's how an old country monk from Japan chants- I want to hear how a young American monk will chant." Tenshin Roshi couldn't believe his ears and wanted out of that dokusan room! But Suzuki roshi had all the time in the world to keep correcting his intonation.

I'd heard of filling the well with snow as analogous to our path of practice, our path of no goal, our path of paradox. How could it be that I express that I want to ordain with my teacher and she'll send me away for up to two years? I don't care if it's tradition! It's ridiculous. What could the walls of Tassajara teach that our fields, our old barn Zendo can't? But it is tradition and it's way older than Zen Center. Possibly older than Zen.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the young boy Suddana visits 53 teachers, sent from one teacher to the next. He's looking to practice the Bodhisattva path and has his heart and mind set to it. He meets some teachers and loves them, joyfully accepting their directions. But sometimes their directions send them toward scary teachers of ill repute. However, he summons the courage to move toward them, relying on trust that his previous teacher wouldn't do him wrong.

And that's where I am today. I'm full of doubt, but actually not lacking in faith. I do trust Ejun Roshi; I do trust our temple; I do trust that even if I'm wrong, I'm okay, that this is more about meeting than who is meeting. In the mean time, why does chanting feel so good? Why does doing prostrations seem to warm me up? I don't know, but I'm grateful. I'm grateful for the camaraderie in the green dragon cave as we sit in the dark murky depths of consciousness.

So, the Buddha said:

"Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that! Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life."

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Zen and the Art of Not Snitching

I'm so sick of karmic consciousness squirting projecting phenomena like silk out of a worm's ass! Quickly, a cocoon encases reality with imagination and I'm left grasping at my reflection in the mirror like a kitten, milk warm on its breath.

I can understand why the ancestors turned their fingers into candles and let them burn as offerings to the Thus Come Ones. I can understand why they burned 3,6, and 9 circles into their scalps. What good is truth if it burns the mouth so quickly and thoroughly we're not sure we tasted it?

Triggered. My partner and I now live on a hill above the temple in a rustic, bare bones cabin. You have to shit in a hole, but the sunlight that pours through the pine and redwood trees is surreal. However, it's considered fertile temple grounds. And I saw someone rolling a joint there as I peed in the woods. Rage came up, I changed out of my robes, and into my running gear and climbed to our 1,000 foot ridge that over looks our valley of dharma and vegetables, our creek that opens up to salmon waiting out there in the sea. I ran through the rolling hills, the Golden Gate just peeking above before San Francisco. Triggered.

I ran. I ran. The problem is not the pot, not him, not the breaking of our temple shingi, our guidelines supporting practice, but the problem is this mind. This mind that accumulates karma, this mind that projects phenomena and attaches. Even better, this mind that never was separate from phenomena, from karma.

I could tell this man, please, you don't know how this triggers me, that I can't separate pot from coke from my uncle from grandma being stabbed in that family house tossed down the stairs milk poured down her throat with aspirins tumbling from her lips because they we were afraid grandpa had killed her for her protest. I could say, please and I'm sorry, sorry we hurt.

Just thoughts; abide there, and I'll get sick. So what?

Suzuki Roshi said give your cows a large field and observe what they do. I'm not a Roshi, nor do I have a field of cows. And this man I saw breaking the shingi is my senior dharma brother and I've never liked him because he doesn't come to the Zendo and I can't wait to help him pack up. But this is why I could never snitch, because I'd be too happy to see him go. And what do I know?

What's my dharma position? Anja. I make tea for the abbess, I clean her bowls, I sew her setsu. I'm a farmer. I just grow food. And I sit, bow, and chant. I never vowed to police this temple. But I did vow to study the self, this self righteous "look good" self endowed with bottomless karma. And this suffering didn't arise with me, him, or drugs, it started when I saw him.

So I left it alone.

The next morning, I saw the baker, who is a a quiet lay dharma heir, and who is calm, and wise, and warm. Before Zazen, I went into his bakery, got some raw dough on my hand and said I need to talk to you before I do something stupid and get people in trouble. He said go wash your hand. Then the han called us to Zazen.

After Zazen I checked in with him again and said it felt better but might still help to talk about it, but I didn't want to implicate him in having to report something that might get someone asked to leave. It was time for class, so away I went.

The next day I missed breakfast in the Zendo. I was busy working all morning and I was starving. The same person I saw up at our cabin found me and carried a heavy tray of food, filled my bowl and poured me some juice he had made that morning.

No trace of the trigger, I thought of Dogen-Zenji and how he once saw a monk stuffing his face with meat in the kitchen, but felt that it was okay because he wasn't really feeding himself, just the demons that were crawling all over his back. And that was that for me, this man fed demons that crawl all over my back.

Friday, January 10, 2014

How? YES!

If the question is how, the answer is yes.

At Green Gulch, we are in a cloistered retreat which will end with sesshin. Tenshin Roshi leads it every year.This year we talk about Zazen, M.O.N.A, and consciousness.

The premises are:

M.O.N.A is Chao-chou's Mind Of No Abode.

Consciousness is the dark forest which surrounds the clearing and that clearing is you.

People are tired, people are sick, again. We have about 70 people in the Zendo, sitting and chanting, coughing and crying, elbow to elbow, raising their Buddha bowls for rice. Some are salty old monks with rusted okesas and some are beginners in sweat pants. Some are priests, and some are black robe, blue rakusu home leavers. We all wake up, go to the zendo, and work with our imaginative projections from our inevitable internal perspective. 4 days on, 1 day off. 1 day off means just two periods of Zazen. Would you believe we miss the Zendo anyway?

And if the question is how, the answer has to be yes. What is this wall? yes. What is this life? yes. How do we get the pond weeds out of the pond? YES! Why do I want to be a priest? YES! 

Seung Sahn said only go straight. 

And how do we see a wall, not a wall, not a "not-wall," and not even abide there, not abide in any seeing at all? Of course, yes. 

When the head, hot and giddy with karmic consciousness, starts to rattle, we breath deep into our haras. Consciousness is a frivolous thing, but Zazen makes us tender. "Each moment of Zazen is equally wholeness of practice, equally wholeness of realization. This is not only practice while sitting, it is like a hammer striking emptiness: before and after, its exquisite peal permeates everywhere."

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Buddhist Practice We Don't Want: Zazen With Our Dead

There's practice that I want and practice that I don't want. The robes, the bows, the chanting, the ringing of bells-some say I'm an enthusiastic example, that maybe I even stink of zen. But with the passing of our Abbot Myogen Steve Stucky, I was offered a practice I really didn't want; keeping a vigil with a dead body.

Why? Who knows, but we could say it was just plain aversion. The first time I was offered this practice, my teacher Ejun Roshi asked the assembly if we wanted to go and sit with Steve, we should go with robes and car pool. She was also looking for volunteers to sit with the body all night.

There were second and third and fourth offerings to go and do this practice that I knew nothing about. As per usual for Zen, the directions were: Black Robe, Zazen. No context was offered, really. I checked Reb's book Being Upright for his story of sitting with the corpse he found in the park with a bullet wound in its head. I did some google searches and found all this:

What I gathered is that it's common in our tradition to sit with the body of a Buddhist practitioner for about 3 days after death. It's esoteric, but not uncommon, for monks to speak to the "dead" as if they are alive, even shaking hands with them. And the last one, shava-sadhana, is the practice, maybe hindu, maybe tantric, that means "sitting meditation on a corpse" and it's suppose to arouse terror and fear for the practitioner. In my experience with sitting with Abbot Steve, there were threads of all these practices alive and well, and even more challenging and intimate practices, like his attendants and students replacing dry ice under his body as we sat Zazen at his Zendo in Rhonert Park. 

His legacy had already started to make stories: Some say in his last hours he would smile and give a thumbs up. Some say he was seen shaking hands and possibly speaking a different language, and looked as though he was being welcomed. 

In Tibetian Buddhism, there is a tradition of navigating the bardo state for 40 days. I'm not sure what the point is, but I bet Abbot Steve would opt for a quicker Bodhisattva rebirth, making sure he didn't go to the other shore, like during the Tassajara fires in 2008, turning back and heading toward the flames of living and dying barefoot. 

So, after our Hatsugama- a new year's tea ceremony- a senior priest named Cathy invited anyone who wanted to come with her that evening to sit with Abbot Steve. It ended up being me and her in the car. She told stories about their time at Tassajara, about a scorpion she found in her room she wished she'd shown him, and about a great owl they watched together. She addressed him in the car as if he were way in the back of the van, telling him things she forgot to say, thanking him for his teachings. I've seen this done many times at our temple- speaking to our ancestors, to our trees, to our valley, to all hungry ghosts. 

We arrived to a small neighborhood to a small house that looked like the house of a Zen master. Traditional roji style fences enclosed his koi pond. A small bridge was decorated with candles and rosemary. And Abbot Steve lay in what might have been a Zendo or Dokusan room. 

The room smelled of incense and was the epitome of stillness. Zen teachers with brown robes already sat. I bowed to Steve's body, wrapped in his Okesa, sprinkled with flowers, a mala in his hands and a smile on his face. In the most respectful way, he shined like an arhat, dying on a new moon, compassionately on New Year's eve, before Zazen, as if to give us that form to embrace us and keep us warm. The auspicious passing gave me reason to believe that maybe it's true what they say about Zen masters; they choose when to die. We started the day with 108 bells and ended the day with 108 bells in a valley he helped plow and plant and thrive almost 30 years ago. 

As I sat, I thought, this is it. Now I make tea for my teacher, someday maybe I'll have to place dry ice beneath her, the teaching of compassion through service continuing beyond her last breath. I was struck at how at ease we all seemed and how I felt; I was upset back at Green Gulch, emotional and weepy- but looking at Abbot Steve so at ease, I thought, he's not upset, and his words for a funeral I saw him officiate echoed: 

"What's still a mystery for us is no longer a mystery for you." 

We sat for about an hour, read his Death Poem, and bowed one last time, at least for this lifetime.

And it was a good start to a new year, the year of the horse. A pussy willow tree in Steve's garden reminded me of the bright green tangled whip of willow in the tokonoma, back at the tea house. The loops are supposed to hold the good luck in. And it's the year of the horse.