Category Archives: Dharma

What Now?

When I think about the pandemic lately, Michael Corleone’s words in Godfather III come to mind: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

By late June, the whole country seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Between effective vaccination and approaching herd immunity, many of us thought that Covid 19 was playing itself out. Mask requirements were relaxed, restaurants and public venues were reopening. You could feel energy and joy in the streets again. At BZC we were strategizing a “soft opening” of the zendo—requiring verified vaccination and social-distanced sitting.

Simultaneously, in the spring, a Delta variant of Covid carried a second wave of infection across India. By July it had spread to 124 countries and was found to be much more infectious than earlier variants. Even vaccinated people were shown to be at risk of “breakthrough” infections, capable of transmitting the virus without being themselves symptomatic.

In the U.S. and in the Bay Area, businesses and institutions, including BZC, were rethinking their opening plans, and continue to do so. Meanwhile, other virus variants have taken root around the world, and first cases are beginning to show up in the U.S.

What now? What precautions should we be taking at BZC? Will there ever again be a time of relative safety here and in the wider society? If some version of Covid 19 or another pandemic is the new reality, what does this mean for the warm hand to warm hand Zen practice we love?

I don’t know.

Dizang’s “Not knowing” (Case 20 in the Book of Serenity) can be our guide. Actually, it has always been our guide. Here is the koan:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Not Knowing echoes though all the teachings. It is Bodhidharma’s response to Emperor Wu—No Knowing, Suzuki Roshi’s Beginner’s Mind, Bernie Glassman’s First Tenet, Master Seung Sahn’s Only Don’t Know.

In the face of a continuing pandemic, what now? I don’t know. Another translation of this case has Dizang saying: “Not knowing is nearest.” This question is very near to me and probably near to many of you. Fair to say, each of us may have a different response. One can see this from exchanges on the BZC listserv and conversations among sangha members. I feel grief for the loss of friends, family, teachers, and all those unknown to me. I feel anxiety about how we will sustain Zen traditions that have sustained us for so long. And, of course, I am stunned by natural disasters, wars, and oppression loosed upon the world.

I am keeping my mind open to multiple perspectives. Are we being overly cautious, not cautious enough, or just right? Are we allowing for personal responsibility, or do our protocols undermine such responsibility? How is it for people who live alone; or who live with others in small apartments; or who have to work and care for small children? Should BZC make significant investments in ventilation for the zendo and community room? And on and on.

But the abbot’s responsibility includes guarding the well-being of Dharma and Sangha. As an individual I may choose to take personal risks. As steward of our practice, the bar is set higher. So far, our collective caution has served us well, despite the fact that some members have had their fill of life on Zoom. As far as I know, there has been no spread of Covid-19 at BZC, and no members have died of the virus.

Going forward, let’s continue to practice Great Patience, the perfection of ksanti. Such patience is the motor of zazen. Practice means sitting with every arising thought and circumstance, even when we might want to jump out of our skin. It means creating new rituals in our homes and online. After all these months, patience is wearing thin for many of us. I’d like to join Fayan on pilgrimage, wandering aimlessly. These days, even driving to Marin County to run an errand feels like a great adventure.

Please be patient and compassionate to yourself and others. Let your mind travel freely on pilgrimage and honor others who follow their own paths and have their own views. Zazen will sustain us. Buddhas and ancestors will support us, even when the world is on fire.

 

Abbot’s Letter

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

Our 34th Spring Practice Period ended Sunday, June 20, on the summer solstice, with a three-day hybrid sesshin. For the first time in sixteen months our sangha on Zoom was accompanied by BZC residents sitting in the zendo. This experiment taught us about the challenges of hybrid practice, which will serve us well as we move toward reopening in the coming months. Opening plans are explored here. The Practice Period was a remarkable experience, with more than sixty members participating, including members in India and elsewhere in the U.S. Our heart is very much in Berkeley and in our zendo, but our body now reaches more widely.
I would like to share some of the activities happening in our community. Very soon we will offer free online access to nearly 3000 talks, mostly by Sojun, dating back to 1980. This is an astonishing and rich body of wisdom. Great appreciation to Charlie Wilson of Engage Wisdom, who has been digitizing all of this. We will need your help in creating the metadata for these talks, which will make them searchable and accessible. More about this soon. In the future, I hope to share transcribed versions of dharma talks by BZC’s other teachers, as well as forty years of Sojun Roshi’s lectures.
Through the last year of his life, Sojun worked on completing two books. The first book is a combined memoir and selection of his talks. Ron Nestor assisted him with this work, along with Kika Hellein, Andrea Thach, and more recently Raghav Bandla. The second book is a new collection of Suzuki Roshi talks, which was shepherded by Sojun and Jiryu Rutschman-Byler at Green Gulch. Laurie Senauke is assisting Jiryu with this project.
Liz Horowitz has asked me to serve as Sojun Roshi’s literary executor to see these projects through to publication. She has also designated that royalties for these projects will come to BZC, which will be a wonderful, generous, ongoing gift. Several Buddhist publishing houses are interested in other collections of Sojun’s work. For now, the main thing is to keep these two projects moving forward toward completion.
In his last days, Sojun asked me to make the necessary arrangements for his “stuff”—papers, books, robes, and many items given to him over the years. For several months, Maria Winston and I have been going through all the papers in the Abbot’s office, sorting them into three categories: material to keep for future reference and use; material to pack for the Stanford archive; and duplicates, triplicates, and unneeded material to discard. I have begun to work from this office, and it is a wonderful, relaxed space for writing, studying, and meeting with people. Those of you who met with Sojun there will find the space familiar and essentially unchanged.
The vision of BZC as a lay sangha has always meant involvement with our Bay Area community and with the wider world, learning and giving, offering our practice where it may be of value in the work of spiritual and systemic liberation. I am encouraged to see the sangha’s dedicated work toward goals of deconstructing racism, which parallels efforts in many Buddhist communities across the country. We have an active BIPOC (Black‒Indigenous‒People of Color) group, and an open antiracism initiative in the sangha at large. Together, these groups allow for introspection, education, and action. In the context of Berkeley Zen Center itself, they help us strategize about how we might address BZC’s administrative and teaching structures, moving toward broader diversity and greater equity.
I am eager to find the time to teach and meet with sangha members for individual study. But presently, all of us are absorbed in the project of reopening the zendo while sustaining the rich online practice that has developed during the Covid pandemic.
I deeply appreciate the support of the Board, the senior students, the coordinator, the Practice Committee, and all our members. I think we share the priority of continuing and mindfully expanding Sojun Roshi’s and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen practice. I wish to support you in this practice, day by day. Please let me know your thoughts, questions, and views. My door is always open.
May we continue in wisdom and compassion,

—Hozan

Circular Sangha

Dear Sangha,

If someone were to ask me what would make me happy, I would say sitting together with a diverse group of people from all corners of the world, even though, because the world is more or less round, there are no real corners. We all belong to this great circular form whirling in space. Ever since I can remember I have been either thrilled or brought to tears experiencing people from diverse cultures or orientations working together in loving harmony.
When we opened the zendo in 1967, I thought of it as a grassroots endeavor where people from around here could find a zazen practice that they could devote themselves to for however long or short a time worked for them. Over time this vision has developed, and little by little a diverse group of members from all over the world have found their way here. We have folks from the deep midwest USA to Afghanistan and Japan.

I went through the BZC directory to verify all of this, and this is what I found. Our sangha includes members from both emigration and heritage, and here it is: Iranian, many Jews, French, Native American, African, English, Japanese, German, Korean, Norwegian, Irish, Chinese, Scottish, Finnish, Afghani, Italian, Mexican, Latino, East Indian, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Turkish, Filipino, diverse Europeans that are hard to classify, diverse Asians, multiple mixes, and many unknowns. ALL EQUAL AND EACH ONE UNIQUE.
A teacher’s meeting space is called the Hojo. It is Vimalakirti’s 6 x 6 room where multitudes of beings fit comfortably and there is always space for more. My teacher Suzuki Roshi’s Hojo was his vast compassionate mind, which could expand to encompass the entire universe with all its beings. This is what I wish for all of you. It’s not as hard as one might think.

I feel honored to have been able to practice with you all these years and to continue to practice with you in this wonderful inconvenient time, figuring it all out together and expressing our mutual support.
From this small corner of the circular world let us set an example for those around us. Please remember to make the best of this present situation and don’t get caught wondering when it will be over. The characteristic of our practice is to find our uprightness in our present topsy-turvy situation, moment by moment. If you find your balance in this moment, you can find it in the next. As Adam said to Buddha, “Here am I.”

—Sojun Roshi

Circular Sangha

Dear Sangha,

If someone were to ask me what would make me happy, I would say sitting together with a diverse group of people from all corners of the world, even though, because the world is more or less round, there are no real corners. We all belong to this great circular form whirling in space. Ever since I can remember I have been either thrilled or brought to tears experiencing people from diverse cultures or orientations working together in loving harmony.
When we opened the zendo in 1967, I thought of it as a grassroots endeavor where people from around here could find a zazen practice that they could devote themselves to for however long or short a time worked for them. Over time this vision has developed, and little by little a diverse group of members from all over the world have found their way here. We have folks from the deep midwest USA to Afghanistan and Japan.
I went through the BZC directory to verify all of this, and this is what I found. Our sangha includes members from both emigration and heritage, and here it is: Iranian, many Jews, French, Native American, African, English, Japanese, German, Korean, Norwegian, Irish, Chinese, Scottish, Finnish, Afghani, Italian, Mexican, Latino, East Indian, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Turkish, Filipino, diverse Europeans that are hard to classify, diverse Asians, multiple mixes, and many unknowns. ALL EQUAL AND EACH ONE UNIQUE.
A teacher’s meeting space is called the Hojo. It is Vimalakirti’s 6 x 6 room where multitudes of beings fit comfortably and there is always space for more. My teacher Suzuki Roshi’s Hojo was his vast compassionate mind, which could expand to encompass the entire universe with all its beings. This is what I wish for all of you. It’s not as hard as one might think.
I feel honored to have been able to practice with you all these years and to continue to practice with you in this wonderful inconvenient time, figuring it all out together and expressing our mutual support.
From this small corner of the circular world let us set an example for those around us. Please remember to make the best of this present situation and don’t get caught wondering when it will be over. The characteristic of our practice is to find our uprightness in our present topsy-turvy situation, moment by moment. If you find your balance in this moment, you can find it in the next. As Adam said to Buddha, “Here am I.”

—Sojun Roshi

Sojun Roshi on “Think Not Thinking”

Often we read or hear that we should stop the activity of thinking in order to meditate properly. But that is almost impossible. The mechanism of thinking is going on constantly like a rushing torrent, and although you can stop it for a few moments, it always wins. It’s like the bubbles in a fish tank. When we sit, we think the thought of zazen. When we breath, we think the thought of breathing, when sitting up straight, we think the thought of balance, and when working, we think the thought of work. In other words, our thought and our activity become one. Thinking and that which is thought are not separate.

Master Dogen calls this (“Think not thinking”) the art of zazen. When there is no gap, there is no discrimination. When our thoughts wander, as they will because they are always hungry, we bring them home where they belong, and include them in some satisfying work. When our thoughts sit zazen, they become enlightened. So when you sit, think the thought of zazen.

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.

COVID-19 – A Message from Sojun Roshi

Message from Sojun Roshi

The persecutions of Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty in China forced
Zen monks to flee to the mountains where they thrived. Today we are
forced to find our monks’ life in semi-isolation. What a great
opportunity to practice zazen and various forms of contemplation. This
wonderful opportunity is bringing forth our creativity as a sangha,
setting up the guideposts for the future. This present situation,
dangerous and uncertain as it is, must be an inescapable field of
innovative practice for all of us. Let’s continue to make good use of
this opportunity.

Hopelessness—Reflections in the Viral Age

Hozan Alan Senauke

Plagues and natural disasters appear regularly throughout human history. No times, places, or people have been immune to these occurrences. During Japan’s Kamakura period a series of plagues and famines burned across the country. During the Kanki Famine in 1230-31 roughly a third of Japan’s population died—from 1.5 to 2 million people. In that year Dogen Zenji left the famine and sectarian strife of Kyoto to practice in an abandoned hermitage south of the city. I think of this as Dogen’s approach to social distancing in the 13th Century.

What did Dogen rely on during this terrible time? Zazen for sure, but we don’t exactly know more, except, that in the midst of crisis he moved away from the center of the turmoil. Did he cultivate hope or radical hopelessness? Are they different? Dogen turned inward for a time, surely digging into zazen. He turned inward, then opening his dharma eye he widened the field of enlightened action and stepped forward into his world.

In 1231 Dogen began composing Shobogenzo, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, and wrote Bendowa, the first expression of zazen in the Japanese language. Two years later he founded Kannondori Temple in Fukakusa, the locus of practice for his community over the next ten years, before he moved to Fukui Prefecture and built Eiheiji.

The way of our zazen practice is to turn inward, noticing and embracing everything that happens within us, which allows us to regulate and harmonize body and mind. Zazen enables us to put our mind in order. The purpose of our practice is, with a well-regulated mind, to take beings across to the shore of liberation. The form of our sangha practice is to create an island of sanity in a world of turmoil. We do this by offering material needs, dharma teachings, and fearlessness. We reflect on justice, a sense of proper balance among all people and beings.

In this pandemic moment we need all these offerings: inner reflection and work for justice. These are strange days. Streets are virtually empty but for people in masks, stores are shuttered, businesses are going broke, religious services have morphed into video conferences. We hardly dare to imagine the future. For the last month, as we practice social distancing to tamp down Covid-19’s impact, it is sometimes hard to know when we are turning inward and when we are moving in the wider world. Such provisional distinctions seem less clear with each passing day. It feels as if we are living in a dystopian novel, a bad dream. And we are writing that novel as we live it. But there is a lot of love out there. Warm greetings as strangers pass on the sidewalk.

At Berkeley Zen Center, where I live, we are sewing masks, offering food and funds to those in need, sweeping the temple grounds, and sustaining a daily zazen practice and Saturday dharma talks, cultivating fearlessness even as we learn of friends and family struck by the virus. Actually, we are sustaining Zen practice and it is sustaining us. Right now I am not much thinking about the future. There’s something fresh and creative about such “hopelessness.” Not to hope for things to return to some imagined normal, but to feel alive and full of questions right now, and now, and now.

We would never wish for a time like this, and we grieve for the thousands of lives lost from Coronavirus and from governmental irresponsibility. Still there is an opportunity here for each of us to stabilize our mind and be of service, as Dogen did in his own time of crisis.  What is that opportunity for you? How does practice teach us to love each other?

Practice Has No Gaps

Dear Sangha,

Being that we are so well informed, the state of our virus situation needs no more information from me. But what I do wish to talk about is how we manage, or practice as a Zen student in this trying time. We always talk about how in this Saha world (of suffering), facing our trials and difficulties is the ground where our personal dramas are played out. What we are dealing with now is no exception. This is a great test for our practice.

Every one of our lives has been altered. Some will not go back to the way it was and for them life will never be the same. Others will not be so affected. For many of us, both the present and future are tragic and unknown. For some, the shut-down is a kind of blessing; a relief from the day-to-day grind, and a chance to lay down the burden while the curtain is open.

Whatever the circumstances, at this time we all share the imposed condition of personal confinement. The Zen temple, the center of our shared practice with its AM and PM schedule, the talks, interviews, classes, and the immovable bedrock that we are sure is always there suddenly has exploded. The pieces have scattered, and a complete piece has landed in your lap and my lap. For now, each one of us is on our own, confined to our personal hermitage.

We are used to practicing all together in one space in the Japanese fashion. Now we need to adjust to the solo meditation way as is done in other countries. I suggest that you set up an altar where you sit if you don’t already have one, and offer flowers or incense before you sit. When you make a meal, do an offering. This is a good time to study one of those Buddhist books that has been taking up space on your shelf and flashing at you every time you walk by. The fundamental thing is to not dwell on when you are going to be released, but to completely live your life situation right here, one moment at a time.

This is a time to look at the tide pool of your environment and let those things that have always been there but you rarely see, reveal themselves. Everything is significant. This is how we do zazen continuously.

Instead of seeing this confinement as an imposition, it can be seen and be experienced as an opportunity. It’s great that we have Zoom and other forms of communication, and that our practice leadership is working hard to keep the ship afloat. Another suggestion is that we take advantage of the practice leaders’ offering of dokusan and practice instruction. So there are two sides; one is to keep the lines of communication flowing, and the other is to enjoy our solitude.

Blessings to all, and I am always open to your call.

Sojun Mel

from my cozy full service zendo