Saturday, December 26, 2015

Vows and Compass

Being in new Orleans reminds me that my way seeking mind ripened here. Maybe it was the level of maturity my father's recovery actualized. Maybe it was the Ben Wren book I found at Beaucoup Books on my lunch break. Maybe it was my step mom's copy of things fall apart by Pema Chodron sitting in the bathroom.

Later I would witness the host of suffering post-katrina offered to a young public school teacher. How could I help? I took my first set of vows not really knowing where they would lead, like the old black metal compass my dad put in my Christmas stocking when I was about ten. Beautiful to hold, difficult to understand.

Now, years later, I feel a bit subdued as form,sensation, perception, impulse, and thought tag everything, beckoning some purchase for the price of belief. I'm home, but a home leaver. People wonder when I'll move back and being a home leaver means being ready to leave home again and again, which could mean coming back.

How will I actually engage all this not knowing?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve

Going home for the holidays can bring up a lot about who we think we are, who our family thinks we are, and who we actually are or are not. And then there is who they wish we were. Do your parents wish you were a Zen monk? I don't think my in-laws do.

When they met me I was a vibrant middle school teacher, full of interesting stories from inner city living. For the last four years my wife and I have been living at Zen center, preceding each Christmas with a rousing Rohatsu sesshin. After seven days of silence it's into Johnny Mathis' winter wonderland.

I catch a sense of dubious suspicion about what it is I "do". My inlaws are power types- Dad was an officer in the Marines, then did a career with the fire department, Mom was a computer programmer, brother is an engineer, other brother a foreign service agent, and I feel quite irrelevant.

Feeling irrelevant can be a dangerous thing, if you're sensitive. I'm pretty sensitive. And I've witnessed a cycle around the holidays which goes something like, I don't feel important, how can I feel important, various actions to feel important, and obviously not really ever convincing myself that I'm important.

And I'm pretty sure this is all in my head. Also in my head is the ideal of being a monk of no rank. Taking the smallest cookie is easier in the monastery, as everyone aspires to take the smallest cookie. The competition of taking the smallest cookie might be the hardest part!

In a renunciation context giving things up can become a sort of game. You'll have people saying well I sleep on a zabouton, well I sleep on just the tatami and I sleep on just the floor. Coming home where everyone is sleeping in pretty cushy beds shines a light on the true heart of renunciation.

I think the true heart of renunciation means accepting what is offered, whether it's a rich meal or a poor meal and eating it with the same mind which thinks of the self as neither less than nor greater than.

At least that's what I'm telling myself. What I really want to say is that it is not easy feeling like a Zen weirdo.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Just Doing The Next Thing

I'm sitting in Berkeley drinking decaf, waiting to go do some work for a friend. I drink decaf now- my blood pressure was a consistent 130/80 and has dropped to 110/70 since I switched. I'm also doing side work on this vacation, as the baby is on the way and my mouth keeps abscessing. Shortly after the first abscess I got another, this time under a tooth that's already been root-canaled. So off to an oral surgeon. The bills on the first abcess haven't been paid, and off I go into another one.

I don't often think about how small my stipend is until something like this happens. Secluded in a valley with other people on small stipends, we share a sort of interdependant wealth. Great organic food, dry places to sleep ( I wouldn't say warm for everyone- the most novice monks don't have anything but a good sleeping bag and hot water bottle), and beautiful sky, beautiful mountains, beautiful waters (and some of them are thermal!). 

It's quite humbling. And it's the circumstance- there's not a lot of money in Soto Zen and I'd like to keep it that way actually. In Japan, it's a different story. And I think for christian pastors, it's a different story. But there's something to Kodo Sawaki's saying that a only a hungry dog hunts. My bank account is a real reality check that, yes, I am doing this because I love it, because I think it's best. I even think it's best for my future daughter. 

This isn't without pangs of anxiety. But when I think of Suzuki Roshi and his hard time in post Meji era Japan as a Buddhist priest and the hardship of WWII, I'm encouraged to continue and do a proverbial search for the crooked cucumbers falling off the back of a truck. 

And of course, my sense of strain exists in my thoughts. Don't I have a decaf coffee right now? Don't I have a day's work outside the temple? Don't I have senior monks and sangha members giving us gifts? I'm struck by how often this mind panics to the tune of a song that isn't even playing. 

There is abundance, it's just not so easy to see sometimes. And there's a lot of love, breath, and stillness available whenever I'd like, 

I was driving to Berkley on 580 east across at least five lanes of traffic. I didn't really know where I was going and only remembered to breath now and then. What a contrast! A week ago I'd be raising my Buddha bowl full of grain, today weaving through traffic. 

I wonder what tomorrow will be like. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Words About Things That Don't Actually Exist Anymore

Day 3, September 29th, 2015
I said on day one of my third practice period that I would keep this journal of practice. I thought about Ariel Pork, now Go Cloud, Run Water, and how when I began writing it, I didn’t think many people would read it. But readership saw a high of 1,000 people a day, with an average of about 400 reading each post. And greed developed. I started self advocating, trying to make an online presence, and I can’t remember where I got that idea. But I give up; classically, the attention I did get from Reddit or Facebook was the kind of attention I didn’t want. What I really wanted was people to know me, and in return I wanted to know other practioners. I wanted to know what practice looked like in different contexts- single mom practice, sailor on a boat practice, hermit in the mountain practice, and I saw some of that. And the more I saw their practice the more I saw my practice. Farmer practice, disciple practice, husband practice, do what the temple needs practice, and soon to be father practice.
So cheers to the Pigasis, that laboring soul with the wings of a pig, searching for the stars.
Day 4,  September 30th, 2015
It was my “day off.” Next to my name there was a “M/off.” That means my work for the day was moving and when I was done I was off. There was also an S by name on another sheet, which means you’re serving food in the Zendo for the tangaryo monks. Practice period “off days” can be like this. Usually, you’d only sit one period on the morning of your day off, so I signed out of Zazen and hit the library with a cup of coffee and read Aya Khema’s I Give You Myself. Up in the loft, laying on my belly, in my robes, reading along, then the Tanto’s head popped up and said “What’s up, butter cup?” I said, “Day off.” He said “No, no.”
So I got up and went to the Zendo. I was mad. Not at him. Actually, I was mad at my dharma brother. Mad at myself, too. My dharma brother and I had an unfortunate online chat that probably wouldn’t be worth mentioning had we discussed it over breakfast, or a beer, or just walking to the narrows. The last time I saw him he was visiting me at Tassajara. We had such a good time. He took a picture of me just before I jumped into the cold water of Tassajara creek. We talked like we always did.
But then I was too harsh, gave advice when I should have listened, talked rough when I should have just soothed him. This was about 20 days ago. We haven’t talked since. I apologized. I don’t think I should be the one to contact him first, since I apologized last and he said something like “just leave me alone” right around the time I asked if anyone had told him to go fuck himself lately. The details aren’t important. The truth is I really looked up to him- he’s my senior in many ways, wiser in many ways, but has let me down with a lack of virtue, a lack of discipline, and that’s good for me. How many times has this happened? Look up to someone with unrealistic expectations- hey, just expectations in general- and it can’t turn out well. Regardless, I don’t feel like talking to him. Too angry.
So I talked to my teacher about it and I think this is my next big practice project. My last big practice project was lust- it was the examining my open relationship with my wife, my bisexuality, and poly-fuckery, which gave way to a straight monogamy, with a side order of too many fantasies- well, after a lot of examination, I can’t really find that practice project. I mean that it’s not alive like it used to be. My teacher passed on some wisdom about renunciation. She said something like do you remember your teddy bear? Of course I do. And I there was a time when I wouldn’t leave the house without it. But when was the last time as an adult have I thought about that teddy bear? I can’t find the person that loved that teddy bear. And so she said this is true renunciation- not the white knuckling self-improvement approach, but the gentle dropping off, the subtle fraying of threads. So the old lust practice project is put to rest. Could come back.
For now, the practice is my mouth. It’s like I pride myself on being blunt, even harsh. Why? You’ve heard the story- dad was a career Marine, mom was the Sicilian daughter of a mob associate (Provinzanos, if you’re curious).
But come on, that’s not me. Even though I spent 7 years as a mason’s apprentice, carrying block after block and stone after stone, I’m now this…black robed nice guy. Really, I am! I just need a little more practice bringing forth what’s timely, beneficial, true…what are the other ones?
I’ll look at the Brahmiviharas. I’ll look at the Paramitas.
Day 5, October 1st
Today the tangaryo monks get to bathe. For the last five days they’ve been in the Zendo and little else where, just their beds, just the bathroom. We bring them food right where they sit for five days, from 4:40 am until 8:40 pm. It’s unimaginable really. I loved it.
And I just went about my day. I found out that I’ll be on doanryo. This is a “promotion” or benchmark. Just like everyone sits tangaryo their first practice period, a lot of people are doans for their 3rd. It’s a temple job-I’ll ring bells, get some chanting solos, and basically be immersed in Zen ritual. My teacher thinks this is pretty important, but to be honest, I think I’d rather be working in the garden or shop, or be a tangaryo monk again.
Mostly I’m horribly bored today. And tired. We moved our two rooms into one big room. The big room is a sweet creek side cabin with a high ceiling and charming rafters. I’ve got a little nook to write in, right across from the wood stove. But it’s Lauren’s birthday and it’s hard for a husband monk- what can I do for her?
I should have made her a card. But we’ve been so busy moving and starting practice period. She cried a little because no one here knows it’s her birthday. She told me not to tell anyone. What a trick! I should have told people.
Tassajara. To be honest, I’m not feeling it right now. I’ve got quinoa and steamed zuchinni stuck in my teeth and I’d really like a burger. At the same time, I feel fat because I haven’t had any time to exercise and we eat too much grain. I’ve been waking up early, around 3am to go to the library and look for inspiration. Nothing there. Zazen? Nothing there.
Day off tomorrow, the whole community will wash their bowls and white under robes. We’ll eat cheese and chocolate and talk too much.
I have no idea what I want.
Day 6, October 2nd
“Get up, mother fucker!”
This is my internal monologue.  My internal monologue, no surprise, is a command voice my father would employ on occasion. I bet that would make him cringe, as he is a reformed spiritual man, but even so, he was gentle in many ways even in the hay day of his Semper Fi high. I don’t want him to cringe. Avalokitesvara has a few faces and one of them is wrathful. Along my journey of softening, I’ve been encouraged not to put the wrathful faces out to pasture. Someday I’ll need it. It will come in handy.
But as I prodded myself out of bed this morning with some unpleasant internal monologue it occurred to me that I talk to other people like this because I talk to myself like this. And here’s where I want to be careful with I shoulds; I shouldn’t talk like this to myself is the near enemy to actually talking to myself like that. The inner monologue goes from commanding drill sergeant to nagging teacher.
I think it’s important to say this out loud. That’s all.
We had our entering ceremony today. About thirty new monks introduced themselves, twenty of them fresh tangaryo monks. The Roshi is here. Ryushin Paul Haller. He’s an old Irish guy with a great accent. He’s a senior dharma teacher, the formal teacher of a few friends of mine, and I think I like him. I used to like him a lot more. But these days when I see him, I think, “give me a break.” What’s with me?
I think this practice period is going to be a challenge. Doanryo is a very public job. Out of the 60 people here, the 7 of us are the face of the Temple. I think people will be surprised. So far, Tassajara has not been hard for me and I’ve taken some tough jobs and made them look easy. Just causes and conditions, really. He’s a senior dharma teacher, the formal teacher of a few friends of mine, and I think I like him. I used to like him a lot more. But these days when I see him, I think, “give me a break.” What’s with me?
I think this practice period is going to be a challenge. Doanryo is a very public job. Out of the 60 people here, the 7 of us are the face of the Temple. I think people will be surprised. So far, Tassajara has not been hard for me and I’ve taken some tough jobs and made them look easy. Just causes and conditions, really. The no good reason that Tassajara has been easy for me the last year is the same no good reason it’s getting difficult; just karma.
But it’s not without good scenery. I wish you could see us all wandering in the dark, black robes flowing, a candle here and a candle there, two bells singing to each other. I wish you could hear the sincerity in the voices of the monks who introduced themselves in so many accents, with so many dharma names, lined up in seniority, that fickle thing but really can be useful in picking people up and knocking people down when they need it. I wish you could see all the happy Zen students packing lunches and heading out into the wilderness for a day, or see them sitting around drinking tea, laughing.
I ran up the road about two miles. I looked out from my favorite perch, all this golden grass spilling out before me, all this ocean rock pushed up in ridges and caves, framed with green shrubs. Huge mountains sit in the south. Their green folds are intricate and soft. Their ridgelines are like angels in the ceiling of a cathedral and the sky is just like the sky.
Day 7, October 3rd
I dreamt my feces was passing through a cylindrical tube, a sort of medical duct attached to my colon. I was standing in the middle of a laboratory and doctors were nearby to tell me what I was viewing.  There would be huge chunks followed by strings followed by sick looking turds. I was watching in disbelief. I should drink more water, I thought, I should live a better life.
Then I left and set out for a big trip but I didn’t know where I was going or when I was going to leave. I spent time with friends and family who were advising me where to go. I never committed to any of their plans.
This was the first day I woke up at 3am.
Day 8, October 4, 2015
There’s a cold going around and I’m bummed to have it. One of my neighboring monks didn’t come to Zazen this morning and I felt my throat getting sore last night. It was my first day of tenken, which means in addition to playing a drum and calling everyone to each zendo event, I also check our tenken pad and track down anyone who is missing. By lunch time I had visited three sick people. By one pm, I was feeling pretty sick.
Being sick is where my ego really meets reality. I don’t want my seat left open, I don’t want someone else to do my job. But if I go tonight, chances are I get a few more people sick. Out of 60 monks I think we’re eight down in with just two days. I washed my hands so many times, too! Reminded myself not to touch my ears, noses, or eyes!
There was a time when I missed an embarrassing amount of work as a public school teacher. It was in New Orleans, post Katrina, and I was struggling to meet the students, the dysfunction of the city, and the corrupt and nepotistic school system. I was also young and culture shocked. Despite my father living in New Orleans since I was 12, I was pretty sheltered from the grittiness of the city. I thought being allowed to roam the French quarter, knowing how to nod off pan handlers who said “I bet you I know where you got those shoes at, give my five dollars” made me street smart. When I was 19 I even worked on Bourbon street, with friends from some of the most notorious neighborhoods in the city. A co-worker was mugged it seemed every week, and I had a few close encounters, too.
But nothing prepared me for what I would learn as a public school teacher in a middle school who’s graduation rate was 14%. I was one of two white teachers (there was one other white administrator). Our students were 99.9% black. I remember less than 5 white students passing through McDonogh. This is to say I was in a new world, which I thought was probably how black people feel a lot more often than white people in the U.S.
The learning curve was hard, the causes and conditions varied, harsh, and plentiful, and I lasted about five years and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done and something I may do again. But being sick brings up being “sick” which is what I was a lot of the time I called in.
That changed at Zen center. Was it a world I understood better? Well, for one, I was fairly certain on my way to the farm each morning no one was going to tell me to fuck off, I wasn’t going to hear gun shots from a pistol, and the odds of witnessing a violent crime were pretty slim. My spider sense was off the radar while living and teaching in New Orleans.
I also finally landed my archetype; monk. For years as an English major I dreamt of the archetype but didn’t know it as the word monk. I loved old books, I loved quiet early mornings, and I loved writing but I didn’t love the prospect of trying to do these things for a living, particularly because I wasn’t a very good writer and I wasn’t that enthusiastic to talk about literature. I just thought it was a nice life.
I don’t read and write as much I dreamt of back then, but it wasn’t until I was 20 that I discovered Zazen, which is a lot like writing for me; just sitting, watching a thought come up and saying nope, watching another and saying, oh that’s been done. In that sense, writing feels a lot like a Zazen, but Zazen is even better because no one ever wants you to “do a good a Zazen” and no one ever mistakenly congratulates you on a Zazen you’re pretty sure is bull shit.
I never regret Zazen; I can’t say the same for writing; I can’t say the same for a semi-colon.
Day 9, October 6, 2015 (Missed Day 8)
The sick toll grows: the tanto, the director, the work leader, the fuketen, tangaryo students named Greg and Kristen and more. At rough glance it’s at least a quarter of the students.
But I’m feeling much better. My energy has returned and my spirits have lifted. Perhaps the ennui I was experiencing was nothing more than growing bacteria.
Day 10, October 7, 2015
Another day off; I slept in. I was still feeling a bit sick. Slept restlessly.
Listened to three way seeking mind talks last night. WSM talks are good for peeling the layer of self and other off.  Come to think of it, this blog is kind of a way seeking mind blog. While disclosing my practice and the causes and conditions of my conventional designation of “Kogen” I try and rouse the way seeking mind for the ultimate of self discovery, the discovery of no self.
When I hear about what has brought this person to Zen training, my perceptions around that person wear thin. For example, one person who spoke last night I felt was a know it all who loved to recite the rules for everyone. Turns out he has Asperger’s. Turns out, as signified by his rakusu, he too took the vow to save all beings. In this microcosm, it becomes easy to forget that people came here for good reasons.
But that doesn’t help me to remember why we’re here. Sometimes that question is deep gnawing, sometimes just a buzzing gnat.
Today it appears as the iron bull. I’ve bit this iron bull time and time again and what happens? No blood comes from this bull. To ask out loud why I’m here is the same as asking who am I? There is no self is as unsatisfying as getting the answer to some math problem without showing the work. There is no self is not enough for this monk.
Thomas Merton opined that:
Zen is not theology and it makes no claim to deal with theological truth in any form whatsoever. Nor is it abstract metaphysics. It is, so to speak, a concrete and lived ontology which explains itself not in theoretical propositions but in acts emerging out of a certain quality of consciousness and of awareness. Only by these act and by this quality of consciousness can Zen be judged, The paradoxes and seemingly absurd propositions it makes have no point except in relation to an awareness that is unspoken and unspeakable.
( Quote found on Pg. 4 Trust in Mind, Mu Soeng)
I think that’s true and I think the gifts of a monastic life have nothing to do with insight. Instead, you’re almost guaranteed humility, fortitude, and gratitude. So with that I can shine the iron bull, have the patience to sit with the iron bull.
What give the gift of insight? There’s a lot to sell and little to buy. I’ve heard a lot about that practice and this practice and yadda yadda, but I don’t buy it.
If I did buy it, I’d leave the monastery in a second. I’d even leave my wife and future baby. I’d commit suicide if I was assured there was some answer in that. But I am unconvinced by all the promises of some mountain top over there or some Guru in L.A. I fairly certain that if I killed myself there is something that would continue.
So I continue.
Day 10, October 8 2015
Lauren and I were lying in bed listing all the foods we missed.
Day 11, October 9 2015
It’s been so hot and I’ve been sick. Between the snot and the sweat and the flies I thought I’d kill my self. Wrapped in my 4 layers of robes, folded in full lotus, eating hot soup, when I unfolded my legs I thought I’d given birth to red swollen ankles.
No wonder my thoughts have not been so positive. I’m suffering on a about a 6 out of 10. I know, I know. Not too bad. My 10 out of 10 experience would be dog mushing in Alaska or teaching in New Orleans. So maybe that brings it down to a 4, but although it doesn’t seem like we “work” our schedule is just relentless. From 3:45am until 9:10pm you are pretty much on the move with 45 min break after lunch, a 2 hour break after work, and ½ hour break after dinner. And don’t think breakfast, lunch and dinners even come close to breaks- you are sitting in the zendo, legs crossed, involved in an intricate ritual which is 30 minutes of chanting and mudras, about 7 minutes of actual eating.
So one remembers those days when work was over at 5 and you went home, drank a beer, ate a burger, and watched a movie.
Instead of a burger there is medicine bowl- leftovers mixed in one bowl. Instead of beer, there is a the water you washed your bowls with- you drink that. Instead of a movie…yeah, there’s the sound of the bell calling you to your next scheduled event.
When things are good, when your robes are clean, and you’re not exhausted, this life is a dream. But if your sick, or lacking in faith, or just wanting to be left alone, well, it gets tough.
I’m going up hill, that’s all.
Never make decisions while going up hill.
Day 12, October 10th

Day 13, October 11
Last night was the annual board meeting. There are 18 members on the board, and 3 of them are the abbots of Zen Center, my teacher as one of them. I also feel close to three other members- a very senior dharma brother of mine, my first practice period Shuso, and the abbot of city center. I actually love these four people.
Regardless, when I go into these meetings, I do feel some estrangement from this decision making body. Money is one boundary- it seems most of the members have decent amount of money. It makes me uncomfortable when I hear them talk about creating a surplus of financial health. And when they talk about capitalism as a route to that health.

It’s quite complicated really. The money invested for zen center is just that: money invested by private parties and corporations for the sake of Zen center. Their vows are not the vows of this patch robe monk, their views are not my views.
This is to say I think I regret speaking last night. I told myself I was going to be quiet, but my hand shot up, passion overwhelming reason.
Ever since I found out what capitalism was, I hated it. It took a long time for me to figure it out- 26 years actually.  Since then, I have withdrawn any investments (mostly from teaching public school) and didn’t invest in any “green capitalism” which might be the only thing more disgusting than capitalism, as it sacrifices honesty for profit.
I have written about that else where, but shit, I’ll write it again: There is no such thing as a green investment. Green means good for the soil, good for the air, good for water, and good for the people. Capitalism means good for the wallet, bad for the back. Captialism is good for the wallet because it drives cost of production down by any means necessary and increases cost of the product. It pushes those two lines to the limit of insanity. It’s unchecked. If a company says hey, we can make these solar panels, but we need quartz from China, we need crucibles and power to melt that quartz, and we need coal for that power, because solar power would never create enough solar panels to make a profit.
Anyway, I’m still in the hate phase, which means I’m trapped in the fate phase- I can’t talk about it from the seat of wisdom, so I wonder if I should talk about it at all. I can’t see its impermanence, its emptiness- I just see deluded human beings, lying to themselves, and that doesn’t seem helpful.
On a brighter note, my dharma tide rolled in. It was brought about by finding my seat in the zendo- that solid, stable, restful, imperturbable seat- and by beginning to serve as soku. A soku is a monastic position of leading a serving crew through the intricate ceremony of oriyoki. I actually don’t like all the fuss of doanryo, but what I like about soku is meeting people. These are the people I live with everyday, but I take a knee for them and give them soup, I bow to them, and let them clean their hands on the kentan towels. It’s a sweet transaction. I also love leading people, like I love teaching. I love getting out of the way and transmitting whatever it is that needs to be transmitted. I love the challenge of practicing economic speech- not mincing words, not saying to much just hear myself talk, but making space for the people to step forward, and alternately setting the boundary for when people need to step back, and together we strive for harmony.
On a final note, my history reading phase is in full roar. I almost didn’t write to night because I just want to keep reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
October 31st, Half way through.
I don’t know what day it is.
There have been a string of events which have made this practice period quite a challenge:
1.       A cold during the first week.
2.       A bulging disk in my back during the first sesshin
3.       Unexpected bleeding and a trip to the midwife and hospital during sesshin
4.       Show stopping pain in my face in head, the result of a back molar abscess.

As I write, my mouth throbs. It’s a good one. Almost as bad as when I had a tooth crumble and break back in 2010, but not that bad. The pain is 10 level, but only intermittently, triggered by chewing or hot or cold. Unfornately, I didn’t know it was a tooth thing for the first 36 hours and I was just chomping way at my food. Eventually I’d have a fit of pain. At one point, while I was writhing and clawing at my face, I snapped at Lauren, stop looking at me! She had been gazing with a hand over her mouth for some time.

The bulging disk happened like they do; nonchalantly reaching for a little drink stand right before a dharma talk. I fell and fellow monks tried to help, but I couldn’t get up for a while. This has happened before- 7 years of masonry, 2 years of odd construction, 3 seasons on a farm-but I won’t say it’s a bad back. It’s a very good back. It’s done many good things.