Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Bowl Can't Hold A 401k

The urge to participate in capitalism arose one day; I think it was fall, dying leaves falling to the ground and all of us monks trying to corral them onto muddy paths. They make a nice mud stifling mat for our paths at Tassajara.

My inlaws have an aging parent who lives in a retirement facility and needs support from many of the kids. I thought of how hard that might be, and how it’s unlikely I’ll be able to help my parents in that way.

It brought two questions to the foreground: Who do I think will take care of me when I’m 90 and what will I offer my parents when they’re 90?

Cue up this image: Me in a dentist chair getting a twice root canaled tooth with a yearlong abscess finally extracted. The dentist worked up a sweat, as the tooth broke into 4 pieces. What could I do in that moment to help him? Well, I tried to be as still and “cool” as possible. I silently recited the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo for protecting life. And I tried to talk my tooth into letting go while it felt like he was hammering my skull. I also said goodbye to my tooth and expressed gratitude for how helpful it’s been, chomping up almonds and picking up the slack for the other side of the mouth which is also missing a molar.

I think, what I can do for my parents is lean in to their suffering. And what I can do for myself is lean in to my suffering. When my tooth was being pulled it wasn’t so bad. But when I went back to my life, back to the Zendo, back to fixing sinks, all of a sudden I had a different story. I thought the pain was over and wasn’t reciting some ancient chant for the sake of my life, just ready to move on. But pain was the flavor of the moment.

Maybe it really is a magic chant, or maybe chanting was just a way for me to engage the experience, who can say?

I think there’s all kinds of relevant premises here, like, who asks us to rake up the leaves anyway? I see piles of leaves and start raking but that’s me asking me. I don’t think I need to let the leaves go unraked, but I do need to acknowledge I’m projecting a story onto their “death.” I enter that story as the one who will take care of them. And it’s not really for the leaves sake.

So far, I’m pretty sure capitalism is a thing not to do, and am happy that I divested five years ago. I just can’t square pushing the cost of production down, the cost of the product up, while the producer can barely afford what they’re producing, and global “opportunities” turn the rust belt of America even rustier, while deforesting, de-culturing, and indebting a hopeful emerging “middle-class.” Why, so I can count on a check for the rest of my life?

Instead I aspire to rely on Buddha’s bowl and a thrifty sense of just enough. Also, I want to make the vow to trust the sangha, that they take good care of me now, and that’s where I really live. And despite being handy with my hands, I do know how to teach middle school and high school, and could probably do that until 85 if the sangha can't support me. Depends, I guess.


Milk Squirts Out of ShiShi Bodai and Beyonce Gets Up Dancing

I’ve a got a new lease on sesshin. Since we have a baby now, Lauren and Calliope leave Tassajara for the sesshins. My teacher suggested this, it’s what she did when she had children living here. It’s great for the three of us. Lauren doesn’t feel isolated out of the schedule, Calliope doesn’t have to interpret all our silent eyes cast down, and I’ve been getting to sit sesshin in whole hearted fashion. I feel young again!

We sat two sesshin this practice period, a 9 day and 7 day Rohatsu. Rohatsu is the celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment and most Zen temples sit from December 1st to December 8th. To think we’re taking our seats with thousands of others all over the world!

Our first 9 day was really “good” for me. It’s hard to talk about sesshin in conventional terms. I think they’re all good, eventually, when time has passed or I hold them as concept, like “Running is good for you” while acknowledging sometimes I have a good run and sometimes I have a bad run, get injured maybe. But the act as a practice always comes up “good.” Or as Suzuki Roshi would avoid the term, “A thing to do.”

Rohatsu was not quite a bad sesshin, but it was rough. The energy in the valley was quite charged. For many students, this was their last Tassajara sesshin and the emotions were raw around that. For some other students it’s a mandatory foray that they might not be up for. Moving into a Zen temple is like becoming a professional athlete; what you used to do for fun you now must do if want to continue sleeping and eating in your current abode. Football players most go through that, like, “Man, I just want to watch some football on Sunday.” I don’t really watch football, except for The Saints, because they need all the support they can get.

For senior staff, Rohatsu can get quite busy as we’re all headed out for vacation during the interim between practice periods. That came up for me. I’m sitting there thinking, “What if the pipes freeze while I’m gone, who will know how to turn off the propane if there’s a fire, and who will equalize the batteries for our solar array?” I had to sign out of zazen and go address those issues. A good storm blew through-a pine apple express- and we got 2.5” of rain or so. In our burn scarred terrain, flash flood warnings were in effect, so I spent a good 10 hours digging out culverts and making water bars. Afterward, cold and wet, I took a shower and passed out at 6pm, missing the last two periods of zazen. I stayed up the night before. That’s a tradition a lot of people observe during rohatsu to reenact Buddha’s night under the Bodhi tree. Usually, I’m just fine- the digging really whooped me.
But the hardest thing was the same hardest thing of my whole practice: What is shikantaza?

Shikantaza is the flagship of our Buddhist practice. Dogen wrote about it a bunch. Here are his instructions in Fukanzazengi, or his Universal Recommendation of Zazen.

But that’s not answering my question, which arises like a deep growl, what is shikantaza? WHAT is shikantaza!?

The night before sesshin I was reading Okamura’s Realizing Genjo Koan and he went on a little tirade, saying shikantaza is not this and not that, but the thing that stuck was, “Shikantaza is not counting our breaths.”

Suzuki Roshi taught both shikantaza and breath counting. Or you might say he didn’t distinguish between them, but I can’t say he said that. I do know he on occasion suggested that students count their breaths and admonished the students when they thought not counting the breaths was better. But I’m not mixed up like that. Here’s what I know: I love counting my breaths and I shudder at the thought of a whole sesshin of not counting my breaths. I also dabble heavily in Shamatha, which, whoa, IS LEARNING MEDITATION! So, inspired by Okamura, on I went determined not to count my breaths.

Mostly, I suffered more than usual. Thoughts that usually sound like distant waves were battering about. It was almost like a classroom where the teacher has left and someone cuts of ShiShiBodai’s head to see if milk will squirt out and Subu tears out her eye and many jeweled peaks start lazer beaming out of the middle of everyone’s forehead. But, there was at least 5 minutes where I thought okay:
Shikantaza
Is the self
Becoming
A student
Of the self
And fantasies
And cravings
Are not
Mistakes
Just
Expressions
It’s okay
It’s okay.
Then enter Beyonce.

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment, Y’all.


I offer what I have, I offer what I don't have

As soon as we stepped up to the Zendo I realized I was empty handed. No flowers to offer. I whispered to my teacher. Should I go back? She said let’s mime it. Okay I said and continued to follow her. She said, no, really mime it, raising her hands as if she had the bowl of flowers. So I brought my hands up ceremoniously, nothing but empty emptiness between my fingers.

As I walked in the ino smrked. Though half of me wanted to smile, a healthy sense of embarrassment kept me deported. At the altar my teacher reached into my empty hands and offered invisible flower petals to the Buddha.


 Dogen wrote about flowers of emptiness. I offer what I have and I offer what I don’t have. It’s all offered. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

SF Chronicle Features: Kogen the Dreg Slurper

Huangbo said to the assembly, "You people are all slurpers of dregs. If you travel like this, where will you have today? Do you know that in all of China there are no teachers of Chan?"
At that point a monk came forward and said, "What about those who guide followers and lead groups in various places?"
Huangbo said, "I don't say there's no Chan, just that there are no teachers."

I'm no teacher.

I was recently interviewed for the SF Chronicle and almost died upon reading it. I was quoted twice and what was quoted were the dregs of what I stole from teachers or one writer in particular, Colleen Morton Busch. 
She wrote on page 104 of her book Fire Monks something about non attachment and when interviewed I regurgitated some version of her metaphor and didn't cite her. Nor did I cite Suzuki Roshi or Seung Sahn when talking about Don't Know mind or Beginners Mind. This all passed for personal insight and was published. 
How did this happen? How did I become a slurper of Dregs? When did this over take my aspiration to be a person of true color?
I felt horrible, though it's passing. And I learned something: slow down when you feel the need to explain yourself. My teacher just the other day reminded me, when put to it, humans have the capacity to slaughter their own mothers. And that's a hyperbolic expression, but if you're a writer and you've misstepped like this I think you know what I mean. 
Granted, I wasn't writing, but having a conversation, trying to say something about non attachment and reaching for metaphors to do so.  I forgot I was being interviewed. This was my first interview. 
It seems Dogen forgot all his parenthetical references and I'm looking for scape goat. But I need to acknowledge my ambition to become a great teacher and how I think it's led to this incident. I've contacted Colleen and await a response. 
I may be over reacting here, which yet another form of self absorption. But the article is about our temple and I don't want people patting me on the back. 
As painful as it is, do feel the gravity of words, which has been ongoing as I write less and less here in search of something genuine to say. 
Well this the best I can do at this moment. 
(Written on town trip, bending the shingi to bend back what is crooked)