Category Archives: Dharma

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.

Hard Knocks Buddha

There are many wonderful representations of Buddha in this world. Among them paintings, statues, and mandalas. They appear in temples, homes, and monasteries. Their postures, noble bearing, and beautiful features instill inspiration and higher levels of possibility in us. Back in the early 70’s when the San Francisco Zen Center acquired Green Gulch Farm and turned it into the Green Dragon Zen Center, there were a lot of small buildings in the long green valley that extends to Muir Beach. Many of them were cow barns that little by little were converted to other uses. One of those buildings became the electric and auto shop. Being so close to the ocean, it was always a bit dark and somewhat grimy and damp. It is customary within Zen Center for most buildings to have an altar, and on each altar for there to sit a Buddha figure or some representation. The shop at Green Gulch is no exception. Every morning the shop crew meets at the altar and has a short service; three bows and a chant before going to work. I would like to describe the unique qualities of this particular shop Buddha, as I remember it. He was not very high, maybe ten inches or so and was made of clay. If I remember correctly, he had a white glaze. He seemed to be made by a talented artist but probably not a professional. He was no doubt originally a handsome figure. But for one reason or another he had fallen to the floor a couple of times and been put back together rather awkwardly. The head was a little off center. The nose was flattened and some of the limbs were chipped. He seemed to have the look of an old auto mechanic or a longshoreman, or maybe a carpenter or fisherman. He gave off a feeling of someone who had grown up on the street, in the school of hard knocks and had the scars to prove it. His slightly bent posture expressed the mature humility of someone who had seen through the veils and was not fooled by anything. He also seemed to have been adjusted by auto mechanics before they washed their hands. At the same time there was an unmistakable beauty that drew one to him as if the hardships he had endured only made him glow more brightly, lighting up that dark corner. I went looking for him recently but he didn’t seem to be around. No one knew where he was or even remembered. To me he was an archetype, the real thing, and I miss him.

Mindfulness Practice During Sesshin From a talk by Sojun Roshi, 1985

I want to say just a little bit about how I would like us to practice today.  When you walk, be conscious of how your feet touch the floor.  When you’re serving a meal, be careful when walking to not pound your heels on the floor. What does the floor feel like?  Am I creating a disturbance when I walk? When I carry the pot, is it up here, or down there? What does it feel like to carry this pot? When I serve someone, am I really bowing to that person, or am I just going through the motions because I’m supposed to?  If you and the other person are bowing at a different rhythm, it doesn’t make much sense; you’re missing each other.  The point is to meet each other at the bottom of the bow just for a moment.  When you open the zendo door, try to open it so that you make as little disturbance as possible.  How do you slide the bolt with your undivided attention, so that it slides easily this way and that way, opening and closing without a sound?

To be that attentive creates a mindful atmosphere.  When we use our eating bowls, we pick them up and put them down in such a way that we don’t make a sound.  We should keep the same concentration during work period, being careful not to start up a conversation with somebody.  Sometimes when we’re discussing a project, we get caught up in a conversation without thinking about it or without being aware of it, in the same way that thoughts come up in zazen.  Before we realize it, we’ve become involved in some fantasy.  So when we become aware that our conversation is getting out of bounds, we can just bow and return to silence.

When working in the kitchen, it’s good to figure out a systematic way to arrange your space in order to work efficiently.  Take care of the food and equipment so you don’t have things piling up around you while you’re working in a small crowded space.  Keep the whole thing moving so that you don’t find yourself cornered.  In order to do that, you have to clean up as you go, taking care of the ingredients and the tools, aware that you are also working in harmony with others.  Let go of anxiety, knowing that if you pay attention, everything will come out on time.

Having that kind of concentrated absorption, we can forget ourselves in our activity.  Let yourself immediately accept the total situation, adjusting to changes without judgment or regret; “This is good or bad.” “This is right or wrong.” “Why did that have to happen?” Just to do is how you drop yourself and merge with the activity in a selfless way.  Even if you’re doing something that you don’t like, you can still have freedom within it.  Keep returning to your deep, calm mind from moment to moment and abide in the samadhi of equanimity.

From Sojun…

Ever since the 70’s my wife and I have almost always had a dog and a cat. But for me the dog was far more important. The dog is a companion. You walk together, you train together, you share similar emotions, you have adventures. For me the cat has been mostly in the background. But this is the first time we have had a cat and no dog. I always liked our cats but I guess you could say that I was not particularly drawn to them.

Recently, my wife acquired a calico cat while I was at sesshin. She let me know by emailing me a photo of the new cat on the mantle! I have to admit that I was charmed, even though it had been our understanding not to bring home an animal without a prior agreement. I gave her a variance because during sesshin I was in a state far beyond right and wrong, form and emptiness.

Now that we are between dogs, I have this opportunity to study our cat. We are obligated to train dogs because they are responsible members of society. Dog people. Cats on the other hand train us. They weave in and out of society as they wish without any obligations and live according to some inner mysterious compass. Our cat mostly lives outside and comes in to eat and sometimes takes a long nap in the morning after prowling around all night. I have spotted her all over the neighborhood crossing streets.

But I have to say that she really loves us. She doesn’t like to be handled, but we always greet each other with affection, bumping heads and short strokes. She often makes a little statement when she comes in to announce her arrival. She also spends time in the backyard garden, and appears seemingly from nowhere when you think she is gone. When she is around outside, she seems to know everything that is going on in the house and has an unerring sense of time and timing. She prefers to be out all night and when I get up at 4:45 we meet at the back door at exactly the same time. I could go on about the virtues of this little creature, her intelligence, her agility, her perfect composure and so forth. She is so well coordinated, it seems like her whole being is her brain. But just one more thing. Animals are such great models for us, and have so much to teach us including silent communication, loyalty, love and communion. Sometime I will tell you about Doug’s chickens.

The Old Buddha Communes With the Pillar From the February 2004 BZC Newsletter

Master Ummon said, “The old Buddha communes with the pillar. What sort of mind is this?” He answered himself, “Clouds gather over the southern mountain. Rain falls on the northern mountain.” In the zendo the wooden Buddha on the altar is facing the back wall all day long without getting tired. Human beings are not wooden Buddhas, but nevertheless they are Buddhas, and commune with one thing or another all day long. What are they doing? What does it mean to commune with a pillar or with a human being or with an inanimate object? A pillar is a pillar, and a Buddha is a Buddha. Why do we sit zazen, why do we bow? Why do we eat the way we do in the zendo? Why do we maintain the various forms of practice that we do?

Today I want to talk about bowing. What is bowing? In our everyday practice we bow quite a lot. When I first came to Zen Center, the first thing that struck me—right away—was that everyone was bowing. At first I was a little hesitant to engage in something like bowing. Nobody I knew ever did, and it was something that I had seldom done. My gut feeling, though, was that I was drawn to it—but you know—who does it? Maybe I was getting caught by something, or engaging in something that made me feel some trepidation. But everyone around me was doing it. So I did it, and actually I liked it. It felt right to bow. Once I accepted it I felt grateful for the opportunity it afforded me to express myself with deep sincerity in such a simple direct way.

I remember my teacher bowing. He didn’t have any hesitation at all, and when he would bow to me, it would have felt funny not bowing to him. I felt very much at ease bowing to him. I began to realize that the act of bowing was as important as the act of sitting. That sitting and bowing are two expressions of the same thing. Zazen settles us in the deep fundamental stillness of the self, and bowing gives outward expression to that. I came to understand that sitting is just sitting and bowing is just bowing. Then I began to realize that the formal way of eating in the zendo is just eating, and it was very rarely that I had ever done that. Even though I had always just eaten, it didn’t have the same quality of attention and merging.

When working with my teacher in the practice environment, the work always had a different feeling. Zazen, bowing, eating, and working together felt like the ancient Buddha communing with the pillar, the stones, the creek and the garbage. To understand zazen is to understand bowing. We can have a problem sometimes when we see ourselves as the subject, over against the other as the object—whether it be a pillar or a person. It is said that the foolish person sees himself or herself as other, whereas the sage sees the other as the one body. But more often than not, we don’t see the water for the waves. We don’t see the forest for the trees. In zazen we allow the waves to subside so that we can be at one with the deep fundamental stillness that is water. When the waves are calm, we can see all the way to the bottom.

When we bow we don’t necessarily think, “I am now bowing to that Buddha,” or “I am now bowing to that pillar,” or “I am now bowing to that person.” We can bow with nothing at all in our mind. When we bow to the pillar, we are not bowing to an object. One day someone asked, “Do we have to bow to the gomasio?” Gomasio is the sesame salt that we use to season our cereal. We bow when we pick it up and when we put it down. Formal practice is to bow at the beginning and at the end of each activity.

Bowing is an act of merging, communion, gratitude, acknowledgement, respect, and letting go of discriminating mind so that we enter the deep ocean of complete being. So, when we bow, we may ask, “Who am I bowing to? What am I bowing to?” We can also say “Just this.” When we bow to a wooden Buddha we’re bowing to ourselves, and when I bow to you, I’m bowing to myself—an all-inclusive, selfless act.

Master Tung-Shan, after recognizing his true face in the stream, said “Everywhere I turn I meet myself.” Of course each being has its own individual existence. The waves rise and fall. When the wave that is me rises up I say, “This is me here, and over there is you.” But whether rising or sinking, we’re always merging with ourselves. We are rising and sinking like the animals on the merry-go-’round. And in this undulating whorl called samsara, while the band plays on, we can wave to each other and smile. Although waves can be a problem we can learn how to ride them. But at the same time, we should understand the source of the waves, and we should know who we are. The purpose of our practice is to settle on just this as the touchstone of our lives.

Acceptance

During our last sesshin the word acceptance came up. I didn’t think so much about it before I began practicing zazen. During my early years as a novice, there were times when zazen was excruciatingly painful.

Suzuki Roshi was always encouraging us to sit still and not move. Our zazen periods were forty minutes,  just like now. At that time, in the early 60s, his students were mostly novices. He had only been here for five years when I came. Sitting zazen once or twice a week was a significant experience for me until I came to my first Saturday morning.

After the first period and kinhin, everyone sat down again. I thought, “They are going to do this again?” I said to the fellow next to me that this was really painful. He said that yes, it always is.

But somehow I kept coming back. I knew that even so, there was something else that I was not able to explain. So coursing through a forty-minute period of zazen, when the pain would arise I would hope that the bell would ring and save me from my suffering. My whole life at that moment was waiting to be rescued. Saved by the bell! I simply could not be where I was. But in fact, I had no alternative because my intention was to stay through the forty minutes. Sometimes, just when we thought the bell would ring, Suzuki Roshi would say in his soft voice, “We will sit ten more minutes.” We’re bursting at the seams, how are we going to do this for ten more minutes? But we did. This was our basic training.

Suzuki Roshi taught us the meaning of acceptance: We must open our self to each sensation and become one with it. If you try to escape you will suffer. But it is not so easy to be one with the pain because of the embedded associations of our discriminating mind. Most of us have to go through the painful process before we can truly open up and be free from our conditioned responses. Instead of shutting down and resisting, we open up and accept whatever appears, and instead of narrowing our borders we allow them to expand and include whatever appears. It is counter-intuitive. Instead of gritting our teeth and clenching our fist, we relax our jaw and open our hand. Suzuki Roshi would encourage us by saying that those who have the most difficulty and see it through will have the most benefit.

As soon as an “uncomfortable” feeling arises and we don’t “like” it and don’t “want” it, we form an attachment and begin to suffer. Wanting to hold on to a “good” feeling, it is painful when it leaves. So in this sense, acceptance means letting go, or freedom from attachment, which is the bedrock of practice. There is no special state of mind to attach to and no special feeling to desire and no special self to hang on to. This can be called bliss.

Suzuki Roshi said he admired the frog sitting completely still on a rock. When a fly buzzes by, without hesitation the frog’s tongue darts out and catches it. If he likes it, gulp. If not, ptooi, he spits it out and just keeps sitting. Frogs are really dumb, but who are we to judge?