All posts by Hozan Alan Senauke

Berkeley Zen Video—Consent & Privacy

Since the start of the pandemic this winter, Berkeley Zen Center has moved onto a digital platform for zazen, lectures, classes, and meetings. This platform utilizes Zoom technology, which allows us to record high-quality audio and video of our public teachings.

The audio recordings are easily found on the BZC website by clicking on “Dharma” at the top of the page, then clicking on the submenu “Talks.” Recordings stored there go back to 2008. The direct link to those audio talks is: https://berkeleyzencenter.org/talks-2/.

Video recordings, as they are created and posted, can be found on our new YouTube channel: “Berkeley Zen Video” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2UKL6vJNCB4c5DVkeK4C0w.

We recognize that some members have understandable concerns about online privacy. BZC has enabled a “recording consent disclaimer” which appears on participants’ screens any time the host is recording a session. If one does not wish to be recorded, this allows an option to leave the session. The language of the disclaimer is:

By continuing to be in the meeting, you are consenting to be recorded. Please understand that question-and-answer sessions following dharma talks are also recorded, and the questioner is highlighted. If you wish to ask an anonymous question, please “chat” to the Saturday director.

In addition to the onscreen message that appears on each participant’s screen, the Saturday Director will make a brief announcement that we are recording. Please note that only the speaker or the questioner appears on screen. Questioners on the video are not identified by name.

If you have further comments and concerns about privacy or about this new project, please contact Hozan Alan Senauke at berkeleyzenvideo@gmail.com.

In This Time of Crises

And I must say tonight, that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?

—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a time of pandemic, of racist violence, and social divisiveness, we call to mind Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “We should without fail arouse bodhicitta, ferrying others before ourselves.” Bodhicitta, enlightening mind, is the expression of our commitment to the awakening of all: Freedom from sickness, from suffering, from exploitation, from fear and discrimination, from poverty and want, and, ultimately, from delusion. This is true, but first things first: Black Lives Matter. Freedom from the policeman’s knee, from the bullet, freedom from the callous brutality of a president and a government furthering White Supremacy.

One of the early teachers in the West, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, expressed Zen practice succinctly in the titles of two books. The first book was Returning to Silence—this is zazen, the dynamic stillness that is refuge for all who seek it. The second book was titled You Have to Say Something. Truly, the peace of meditation expresses itself in enlightening words and actions.

Our Zen community walks hand in hand with numberless religious communities and people of conscience. We will not accept hatred and division between the races and among ourselves. Yes, all of American history is scarred by racism and violence. For generations, some of us have actually profited from the exploitation of less-privileged communities and peoples. Our nation itself has failed to hear the anguish of African-Americans and of many others. Now, painfully, all ears must be open to suffering sisters and brothers.

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, our ethical foundation, can be reduced to one essential vow: I vow not to live at the expense of other people and beings. Each of us must examine our lives, our words and actions. We must ground ourselves in equality—equal rights, equal justice, equal opportunity, equal access to resources. Materially and spiritually, we must help raise up those among us who have been downtrodden. Actually, we must support them to raise themselves. Though each person has distinct skills, capacities, and appearance, finally our lives are equally precious to ourselves and to those who love us.

Dr. King wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is beautiful…and incomplete. We need our complete effort to bend the moral universe towards justice. We must use our minds, our hearts, our voices, and our hands to accomplish the work of peace.

My Zazen

Recently, a fellow practitioner at Berkeley Zen Center sent me an email with this direct question: “I’m wondering what you do when you do zazen?”  Much as I have thought about it, and irrespective of the countless times I’ve given zazen instruction, I’ve never written out my way of zazen, step-by-step. So I will try to do that here, leaving out some of the detail and fine points of posture, although these details are all-important. The fine points have been beautifully articulated by Dogen Zenji in Fukanzazengi, in Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and by so many of our teachers. What I share of “my way” stands on the shoulders (or sits in the shadows) of giants.

***

From the moment I sit down in zazen—whether I sit cross-legged in half-lotus position or in a chair—from that moment everything is zazen. No preliminaries, no getting ready to sit. Zazen includes each activity. The first thing I do is to establish a stable upright posture, particularly making an effort to build my posture up from the small of my back, the base of the spine, lifting my sternum so that my upper body is open and relaxed. I like the expression “strong back, soft front.” Integral to zazen posture is the “cosmic mudra”—left hand on top of the right palm, thumb tips just barely touching. The mudra rests against my body or in my lap. It forms a half-circle that is capable of holding the universe.

With this upright posture set, I take four or five breaths through my mouth, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly and steadily, making the exhalation last as long as it can, pushing out the remaining air at the end of the breath. A deep inhalation, which naturally follows, refreshes me. After four or five breaths like this, I settle into a more “ordinary” breath, breathing through my nose, allowing the breath to reach down to my hara or belly in a relaxed manner.

Establishing posture and natural breathing, I take a few moments to set my intention, invoking bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment for and with all beings. This is is embodying Dogen Zenji’s admonition in Gakudo Jojin-shu: “You should arouse the thought of enlightenment.”  I have created a simple phrase for myself that I place silently on my breath, repeating it three times: “May I be awake that others may awaken.” It feels as if I am lightly dropping these words into the quieting pool of zazen, letting the ripples spread as they will.

Honestly, I cannot say what happens for the remainder of the zazen period. I make no effort to remember, and I don’t remember. That’s fine, because there is nothing I am trying to accomplish. The effort is to be awake and receptive to the flow of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts that arise and fall away as they will. But this is not drifting and dreaming. Rather, a kind of fluid alertness, capable of including each thing without being caught on it.

This alertness calls for an element of concentration, samadhi, which, of course, is a step on the Eightfold Path. Concentration arises from our posture, which is never slack. From time-to-time I give myself zazen instruction, checking my mudra and each point of posture, making an effort to re-align my body. Concentration also arises with breathing. Often, I do breath-counting, susokan in Japanese, lightly counting ten breaths, one at a time, giving each breath a silent count on the exhalation and contraction of my belly. I find that a whole world can arise in the space of a single breath—a world of sense receptivity, or a world of distracted thinking. If I lose count, I start over again at one, leaving behind all judgments and distractions.

Sometimes I do an alternative breath practice—”Just This.” Breathing in on the word “Just,” breathing out on “This.” In time, counting or words fall away and there is just the rhythmic rise and fall or breath, the unencumbered flow of mind. The bell rings, drawing me up from the depths and back into the world of so-called ordinary thoughts.

This approach to susokan, sliding into shikantaza—just sitting—is what I understand Dogen Zenji to means as “think not-thinking.” Mind fades but does not disappear. This is not sleep or trance, but a mind that is fresh as an autumn breeze. My senses are functioning, but not actively. That is, I am seeing, but not looking. Hearing, but not listening. Thoughts may arise, but I am not stringing them into stories.

My experience over the years is that the mind of zazen reaches far beyond the zendo and permeates my everyday activity. Sometimes no more than a single mindful breath is sufficient to enter the dharma gate of zazen. But, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.

A New Normal

The Covid-19 infection rate in Alameda County is still increasing, even as Berkeley officials plan to reopen retail businesses, outdoor dining, religious services, and more, while they urge continuing use of face masks, physical distancing, and limited contact with people outside one’s “social bubble.”
At Berkeley Zen Center we miss the intimacy of the zendo and other community activities. In March, responding to the pandemic, BZC acted quickly to move our practice onto a digital platform. More than three months later, we have an “online zendo,” with daily zazen, a Saturday program, lectures, classes, dharma groups, day-long sittings, practice discussions, and regular all-sangha meetings. Many members are working hard to keep all these new forms going as smoothly as they are. It would take the rest of this page to name everyone involved and delineate the responsibilities they have taken on, but we do want to give a shout-out to the tech team: Judy Fleischman, Gary Artim, Laurie Senauke, and Kelsey Chirlinn, for supporting all of us in this transition.
Meanwhile the Coordinating Team—Gerry Oliva, Mary Duryee, Sojun Roshi, and Hozan Sensei—along with the Practice   Committee and Senior Students group, have begun to discuss how to make a slow transition back to face-to-face practice. We are consulting closely with BZC’s Health and Safety team, which is tracking directives from the California Department of Public Health, translating the CDPH’s evolving policies into safety and sanitation protocols for our community.
BZC is planning a careful and gradual transition to a new normal. When we do choose to restart activities on Russell Street, attendance will be limited, social distancing will be in place, and thorough cleaning and sanitation will be integral to our practice. Meanwhile, we will certainly maintain the robust digital practice created on Zoom and other platforms. No one knows what normal will look like, but, having opened the digital door and seen what it offers, we will continue to explore that space. This may well be necessary, because we have no idea how long the pandemic will last. Chances are we’ll have to continue distancing and wearing masks for in-person encounters until a reliable vaccine emerges, and maybe beyond that.
So, we will sustain Suzuki Roshi’s Zen in ways he could not have imagined. We will do this together, with gratitude to all those, near and far, who work to keep us well and creative.