Category Archives: Dharma

In Gratitude Sojun's Reflection on Fifty Years of BZC

Excerpted from the BZC 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book.

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What comes to mind when I reflect on the past fifty years of practice at the Berkeley Zen Center is deep gratitude. First and foremost for my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His gentle but firm and nourishing example encouraged us, his disciples, to go beyond what we thought were our limitations. He once said to us, “I have nothing to offer you but my Zen spirit.” He always taught by example. He had thoroughly digested the essence of Dogen’s teaching and could express it in his own authentic way to make it accessible to our generation.

He was totally grounded in the Way. What he taught was selflessness, not acting from our ego, integrity, truthfulness, no arrogance, shikantaza (just doing), meeting each person right where they are with full attention: the world stops here. Living our life one moment at a time. He taught us the nature of determination and steadfastness: sit still and don’t give up. And the nature of compassion: if you need to change your position, you can do so without judgment. When we can accept ourselves just as we are, both good and bad, it makes it possible to identify with others and support them. One time I told Suzuki Roshi how bad I was, and he said that this was good, otherwise it is harder to help others.
He taught us what he knew, the Japanese style. His intention was not to turn us into Japanese, but to offer what he felt was the highest virtue of his culture. He didn’t have to tell us what it was. We could practice and find out for ourselves! He loved his American students because of our open-mindedness and willingness to adventure wholeheartedly into a totally foreign world. One of our virtues as Americans is our openness to accept the best that other cultures have to offer. That is what makes America great, again and again.

Suzuki was not attached to Buddhism or the Soto School. That doesn’t mean that he rejected it. His teaching of non-attachment was not based on rejection but on great respect for things in a world of constant transformation. To show respect for things and cling to nothing.

Back in the 60s, before his students were ordained, we recited the robe chant in the morning, but we didn’t know what it meant because it was in Japanese. So one day he and Katagiri Sensei were in his office, and I asked him about the meaning of the chant. Katagiri started shuffling through the desk to see what he could find, and Suzuki stopped him. Pointing to his heart, he said, “Love.”

I also wish to express my gratitude to the Japanese priests who were drawn to Suzuki and our practice. Katagiri Roshi, who came in ‘63, the year before me, and together with Suzuki modeled the practice. Then came Kobun Chino Roshi, the “mystic,” and then Yoshimura Sensei, the “friend.” Then when Suzuki was too ill to come to Tassajara in 1970, Tatsugami Roshi was invited to lead the practice period, and I was the shuso.

When we opened the zendo on Dwight Way, February 1, 1967, I had thought of our practice as a grassroots endeavor, served and maintained by the members. We had morning and evening zazen based on the SFZC model. Our first major work project was to refinish the splintery floor of the large, square attic to make a zendo. When we moved to Russell Street, the real work began. What is now the zendo was two apartments which we gutted and rebuilt as a sangha effort of both men and women, sangha members and carpenters. (When you need to build something interesting, the carpenters appear.) Then we raised the two-story house next to it where my office is and built the ground floor under it. To me it felt a bit like a community barn raising on a grand scale.

When I look back at all the dedicated work and contributions of our members that went into this entire building project over a two-year period, I am totally overwhelmed with gratitude. I doubt that we could do something like this today. All the conditions were in alignment, including my own naiveté.

And last but not least, I wish to extend my gratitude to all of you who have passed through this Buddha Hall and contributed time, effort, and financial support. And to everyone who has ever been a board member, a cook, a gardener, a resident, a president, a treasurer, a librarian, coordinator, Tenzo, dishwasher, bathroom cleaner, office manager, work leader, sesshin director, member of a committee, general labor, etc. There is so much more that can be said, but for now please know that I honor and respect you and all that you do, have done, and hopefully will do to make this practice place possible.

Like a Grinding Stone

Monks ought to behave like a grinding stone.
Chang-san comes to sharpen his knife. Li-tsu comes
to grind his ax. Everybody who wants to have their
metals improved in any way makes use of the stone.
Each time the stone is rubbed it wears out, but it
makes no complaint, nor does it boast of its usefulness.
Those who come, go home benefited; some of them
may not be quite appreciative of the stone,
but the stone remains ever content.

 

(Selected by Sojun from a traditional Zen text)

Nothing Special

Today I was looking through a book for a spark to set off this talk and ran across an old note that said, ”The phrase ‘Nothing special’ keeps coming up for me. Could you please talk about its meaning?”

It is a good question, which is at the heart of our practice. Suzuki Roshi used this phrase a lot. At a time (the 60s) when young people were looking for profound experiences in psychedelics, some were investigating meditation. D.T. Suzuki was popularizing a side of Rinzai style that emphasized koan training leading up to kensho, or sudden awakening. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s training in the Soto school led him to understand that what brings us to practice is our inherently enlightened mind and that realization is like walking through a fog—unaware that through continuous daily zazen practice our clothes are becoming wet. Suzuki Roshi did not encourage attainment. He said that when we are always looking “over there” for something, it is harder to appreciate where we are right now. With this understanding, grasses, pebbles, and waters are always preaching the Dharma and teaching us how to act. So there is nothing special to achieve.

And yet, everything is special in its own unique form and way, and to be fully respected and appreciated as a form of Buddha nature.

Recently we were studying the Buddhist precepts of different schools. Some have 250, others have 16, and some have none. Suzuki Roshi respected them, but his understanding was that precepts are simply our way of navigating our life. When we pay attention to our surroundings and keep our senses and mind unassuming and open, everything we encounter brings us back to our compassionate, joyful, and harmonious practice. It is not that we ignore enlightening moments. But even when they are extraordinary, they are at the same time not more extraordinary than the ordinary sight of the divine light of a periwinkle by the side of the road.

The Year of the Fire Rooster

Dear folks,

According to the Asian calendar, 2017 will be the Year of the Fire Rooster. The prominent characteristic of the Rooster is announcing a new dawn, a wakeup call. What an appropriate symbol for this time! The previous year 2016 was the Year of the Monkey. Is this serendipity or what? The clever monkey. Monkey business on steroids!

Other qualities of the rooster (also known as the hen) are: Alertness — Readiness to take action —First to show up — Last to leave — Willingness to take a chance, but with precision — Awareness — Preparedness — Not easily giving up— Knowing when to wait — Knowing when to observe — Knowing when to act — Knowing when to rest.

All of these qualities will be necessary in order to confront and negotiate the topsy-turvy dismantling of our governmental agencies, which were originally meant to protect the environment and the Earth itself, for the sake of greed and wholesale unabashed exploitation. All of the public institutions that are the interdependently interwoven fabric of our lives are scheduled to be demolished. These are hard facts, not speculation. To our astonishment, they are being played out right in front of our eyes.

This presents us with a great challenge: to maintain our composure and our practice in the midst of difficult feelings, emotional pain, and mental strain.

On a positive note, I wish you, our sangha, your families, friends, and neighbors, and the entire world of suffering beings of which there are untold numbers, great happiness in this holy day, Whole Earth season and new 2017.

Accept Yourself and Stand on Your Two Feet

As I sit down to write this piece I am two days back from a remarkable two weeks in India, among Ambedkarite (“ex-untouchable”) Buddhist friends and communities. Admittedly, I feel as if part of me is still somewhere about 35,000 feet over the Pacific. The day after tomorrow we will begin our 16th annual Aspects of Practice period, which this year focuses on Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Suzuki Roshi’s practice. Reflecting on my journey to Buddhist India and our immersion in Zen at BZC brings to mind some words from Suzuki Roshi: “The most important point is to accept yourself and stand on your two feet.”

Actually, these are two points. Some years ago, Sojun Roshi pointedly offered me a version of this teaching. He said, “You should always know where your feet are.” Of course, I can usually find them at the end of my legs. But he meant: where are you standing? By extension I might ask: Can you accept yourself standing exactly in this place? Let’s switch the word “you” to “I.” Wherever I might be — in India, in Berkeley, in trouble, etc. — am I able to be right in that place, and can I step forward from there to meet the unknown without hesitation?

I have been going to India for the last seven or eight years. My home base there is Nagaloka, a Buddhist school and practice place in Nagpur, the geographic center of India. Nagaloka is a peaceful campus, a little outside the sprawling, dusty city. Its motto is “Reforming Mind and World.” At the center of the campus is a forty-foot golden Buddha in an unusual striding posture. His footsteps are sure and his direction is clear. At dusk local Buddhist families come out to Nagaloka to circum-ambulate and pay their respects. For the eighty or so young residential students, this Buddha is their guide.

Students at Nagaloka come from rural villages all over India. Coming from Dalit (untouchable) communities, poverty, oppression, and violence are common experiences. But Nagaloka is a “caste-free” zone. When students come to live there, they set aside their old identity and learn to accept their true selves, to stand on their own two feet. Practicing meditation for two or three hours each day, attending classes in Buddhism and social thought, working, serving, playing together they become bright, joyful, and dedicated to the awakening of Indian society, not just for their own community but for the sake of all. To stand on their two feet is to be on the Bodhisattva’s path.

It is no different for us. I believe this was Suzuki Roshi’s vision, which he tirelessly transmitted from his arrival in 1959 to his passing in 1971. “To accept yourself and stand on your two feet” means to loosen the grip we have on habits from which we concoct identity, and to wake up right where we are. When we sit zazen, when we do soji, when we carry Zen practice into our daily lives, then our feet are on the ground even as we hurry along on our appointed rounds.

The ground we stand on may be a pleasant green meadow. Often, however it is the muck and mire of our sorrows and conflicts. Or the difficulties of a world scarred by fear and degradation —personal, interpersonal, environmental. For my sisters and brothers in India it is the ground of poverty, caste, and gender discrimination. On such ground we must step carefully but firmly. The irony is that we begin by sitting down. That is accepting ourselves. Then we stand up. That is extending ourselves. Such is our way.

 

The Problems You Are Experiencing Now . . .

One morning during zazen, Suzuki Roshi gave a brief impromptu talk in which he said, “Each one of you is perfect as you are . . . and you can also use a little improvement.”

He had a nice way of putting things into perspective. This was the mid-sixties, when young people were breaking out of the old societal structures and experimenting with psychedelics and mind-expansion techniques related to self-improvement. One time around the fourth day of sesshin when there was enough pain and discomfort to go around, he began his talk by saying slowly, “The problems you are experiencing now . . .” (will go away, we were sure he was going to say) “. . . will continue for the rest of your life,” he concluded. The way he said it, everyone laughed. (Thank goodness for laughter!) This seems like the last thing a student wants to hear from a teacher: You are doomed to be who you are for the rest of your life. Suzuki Roshi’s radical statement turns our whole world back 10,000 miles. He grants us that improvement is okay. But if improvement is our goal of practice, it is easy to think that some future moment could or must be better that this present moment. After all, if we had an improved future we would have fewer problems. Wouldn’t we? He liked to say, be careful; that solving the problems you have now might give you a bigger problem. He wasn’t against solving problems, he was simply trying to help us understand that if we neglect to live fully in each moment, sacrificing this moment for a future time, we miss our life, which is only this moment with its joys and sorrows.

Our present problems are our equipment or tools for practice. Gifts of our karma. Because we don’t understand and appreciate what THIS is, we tend to think that there must be something better than this. Master Dogen begins his Genjo Koan, the koan of our daily life, with the statement, “When all dharmas are Buddha Dharma . . .” etc. When we can approach the world as a field of practice, responding to the ever-changing circumstances with a non-assuming, open-minded, and compassionate attitude, the way unfolds . . . one moment at a time.

The Tragedy in Orlando

When I was a boy I acted like a boy. I loved playing with guns. Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. It was the era of the cowboy movie, and cowboy movies had a great influence on our lives. The more realistic a toy gun, the more it promoted a boy’s romance with it; the weight of it, the feel of it in your hand. I remember taking it to bed with me when I went to sleep and laying it next to me on the pillow. We were always making up plays and scenarios to fit our love affair with the guns. The influence of our soldier-play in the thirties was the First World War. But there was a psychological barrier that kids understood and didn’t go beyond. I remember finding my dad’s 32 Smith and Wesson short barreled pistol in the closet and carefully putting it back and not touching it again. It was unheard of for a kid to bring a gun to school, much less shoot someone with it. Long before I grew up, I let go of that childish play and followed more mature pursuits. Too many never grow out of it.

It is not hard to see how grown men are easily seduced by the gun industry and its front, the NRA, to cherish such ugly and beautiful weapons. The beauty of ugliness. The trademark, Glock, brings forth an image of someone whose throat is filled with blood, taking their last breath. The mystique can be fascinating; holding in your hand the power over life and death. The arms industry since the end of World War Two has swelled to enormous proportions and its insidious and corrupting influence on our society is hardly questioned. Both children and adults are subject to continuous ‘round the clock free advertising for mayhem on television, not to mention the obscene brutal video games. How could this not influence behavior?

Sometime between the 70’s and the 80’s the line between playing with toy guns and real gun-play on our streets was crossed, and continues to escalate at the alarming rate we see today. There is an old saying that when the rulers are kind, generous, and benevolent, the populace follows this role model and there is peace in the land. When the opposite is true, there is untold suffering. One significant result of our offensive mistake in violently upsetting the Middle East has been the emergence of the suicide bomber. If you hit a hornet’s nest with a stick, watch out. Just as we called forth Ben Laden through our careless aggression, we have been a contributing cause to the new phenomenon known as the suicide bomber. Pushed up against the wall, in a seemingly helpless situation, you sacrifice your life with honor. The suicide bomber does not simply kill people. The suicide bomber must also kill him/herself as well.

I don’t think we should underestimate the influence of the suicide bomber on those in our society who perpetrate mass murder/suicides. Suicide bombings happen every day and are so common that it is now the norm in some parts of the world. There are of course different reasons for mass murder, but this pattern of suicidal behavior could be a kind of self-justification or twisted atonement or an escape. For some this can be a kind of role model. The leadership of government should provide a role model for the populace. The mayhem in the streets is a reflection of what goes on at the top. The stranglehold of the NRA on the Congress and its influence on our children must be addressed. This is a difficult time we are in right now. People kill people with guns, which are an extension of our hand, and a bullet is a messenger of our intentions. Our emotions must be under the control of our reasoning.

Alienation, criticism without compassion, feelings of ostracism and marginalization are a basis for destabilizing people to indiscriminately take it out on the public by getting even. (Now you know how I feel!)

In addressing this situation I realize how overwhelmed we all are given the latest tragic event of the murder of twenty children and six teachers in a public school. Given our collective and personal feelings of helplessness and frustration, what can be done? A not-crazy person when provoked can, in an unguarded emotional moment, reach for the most convenient response: a nearby gun. Gun control can be addressed. Emotional control is more difficult. It is not an either- or- situation, but making firearms unavailable and out of reach is a good and possible beginning. When one wheel is addressed the other wheel will also be turning.

At this time as our world is being turned upside down, we are feeling what is hard to feel and must bear the unbearable and the uncertainty for what is next. Let us find and maintain our composure so that we can remain open and compassionate while helping to stabilize our surroundings.

Some Thoughts from Sojun This Practice Period

The other  day I spoke with someone who told me what they were going to be working on during this practice period. The student then asked me what I was going to be working on. That took me aback for a moment and after a pause I said, “Just staying alive.” I wasn’t sure what I meant by that. But it led me to think about the millions of displaced wandering refugees in the Middle East and Europe just surviving from one meal to the next at the mercy of their hosts, devoid of all the security of a home and the familiar conveniences and necessities that we all take for granted. And added to that the missing and dead family members and friends.

When I was a kid in the 30’s it was common for mothers to tell their children to eat all their porridge while thinking of the poor starving Chinese. In those days China was on the other side of the world and flying there was only a dream. So that admonition was not taken too seriously. Now the whole world is right in our face and we are confronted with the horrific explosion/implosion of the Middle East, unleashing the demonic insanity and barbarity of the sleeping giant of conflicting ideologies lying dormant there. Throughout the history of the world this has always been going on in various locales, but now, everywhere is our neighborhood. Like it or not we can’t leave it. And now from a different side comes our very own contribution — the presidential election. I will not presume to tell you how to vote. I will only urge everyone to do it. With the internet we have the convenience of being able to sign petitions online, which gives us the opportunity to express our concerns and contribute. We are not helpless.

Given the personal trials and tribulations that occupy our attention daily, and our limitations of time, it may feel annoying to have to face these larger concerns that we all share and often feel powerless to control. I am reminded of that saying “Think globally-act locally.” I also like the saying to “light up your own corner of the world.” To illuminate our corner of the world through zazen, both sitting and moving, regardless of our shortcomings is to find our own ground. The far reaching effects of our practice are not measurable, but each one of us has an effect on our surroundings. It is like the question: does my vote count?

I see the practice period as an annual tune-up/spring cleaning-resetting the balance and appreciating how your practice gives encouragement to my practice, and mine to yours. So after all is said and done, my work of just staying alive is to truly appreciate the opportunity to practice moment by moment with everyone. It is truly a great gift to experience the peace and freedom we have here at this point in time with our self as the only real obstacle.               

                                                                                    

Tensions and Tenseness Freeing Our Self from Ourself

When I give zazen instruction I encourage people to release or let go of the tenseness in various parts of their body. Easier said than done. There is tension that holds the structure of the body/mind together allowing for a free flow of unhindered energy. And then there is tenseness that causes knots that hinder that flow. The tenseness is extra. An important aspect of our practice both on and off the cushion is to be aware of how we hold our well-balanced unconditioned posture, as well as waking up to the corners and and crannies of our body where we hold our unresolved anger, resentments, fears, frustrations, anxieties, loss and gain, and much, much more that determines our conditioned postures.

In a world where there is so much to be angry, resentful, fearful, frustrated, jealous, and self-critical about, it’s a wonder that we have any freedom from ourselves at all. It is well known that our back from top to bottom is a storage compartment for anger and resentment. After all, if we can’t resolve it, it has to go somewhere. The other parts of our body also hold this mental and emotional baggage. When I adjust posture in the zendo, it becomes clear that we bring our conditioned postures to the cushion.

Zazen is to resume our original unconditioned posture that harbors nothing while embracing whatever appears without attachment. Although angry, not harboring anger, although resentful, not harboring resentment, although self-critical not harboring criticism. Meeting the trials and tribulations as well as savoring the sweetness and love of our everyday activity we follow the natural order of Mind in this way. Suzuki Roshi once said that everything is falling out of balance and finding its balance moment by moment. This takes continuous awareness. Responding allows us the opportunity to stay centered, while reaction usually pulls us off center. Staying centered and balanced and in touch with the profound stillness at the center of our activity is our practice.

Some notes from Sojun about the 2016 Spring Practice Period

Dear Sangha,

It seems a little early to talk about the Spring Practice Period, but due to new bi-monthly newsletter schedule, the next issue will be too late. So here is some news about this year’s practice period.

After seeking suggestions from the Senior Student group, there emerged a number of peers who would be qualified to be Shuso. Given that, I have asked long time practicing member Walter Kieser, Kosan Shinshi, (Tall Mountain, Deep Stillness) to take the position. This will be Walter’s only opportunity, as he will be retiring to his newly developed homestead north of the Bay Area at the end of this year.

The practice period will begin with a one -day sitting on April 30th, and end with the five-day sesshin from June 8th to the 12th. As I mention above, Walter Kieser will be our Shuso, and he will make his best effort to set an example and encourage our practice.

As the fundamental ground for practice period, committing to a zazen schedule that harmonizes with our other activities and following it, is what makes the whole thing work. For our mature practitioners we understand it as refreshing our practice and pruning the unnecessary growth that has accumulated over the previous year. It is setting a tone of lightness, agility, pliancy, tranquility, workability, proficiency, and uprightness to carry us through the year.

The other morning, stepping out of the zendo, we were awed upon seeing the trees in the patio blooming all at once in a magnificent announcement of spring, bringing forth in us a deep appreciation for the nourishing rain refreshing our body and mind. Numberless animate objects seemed to be proclaiming the Dharma, inviting us to awaken.

Our practice has three sides. The first side is turning away from the world and facing the infinite. The second is turning toward the world to face the numberless circumstances. And the third side is the matrix, the side that has no sides, but within which all sides are included.

I invite all of us to come together for this period of renewal and connection with each other, our surroundings, and the deep mystery of embracing and letting go. I have some ideas for our study, but am open to suggestions. If anyone does have suggestions, please contact me. Also if you are new or have questions feel free to contact me, or Vice-Abbot Hozan.

Finally, we will send out more details about the practice period sometime in April.