Category Archives: Dharma

Circle of Women Ancestors

At our Jukai ceremony last fall, I spoke briefly about the Women Ancestors document that Gerry Oliva and I gave to all the ordinees. This lovely document honors broadly the women ancestors—known and unknown—who have nurtured the Dharma from its earliest days down to the present. The document was created by members of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, based on considerable research and creativity.

After our Jukai, several BZC members expressed interest in receiving this document. I would like to offer this widely to all women and men who have received Jukai or priest ordination. The document, which centers on the elegant circle pictured below, will be personalized for you, with your birth and dharma names, signed and sealed. I hope that we can offer these in a ceremony and celebra­tion in the next few months.

If you would like to receive this document, please send a note, including your dharma name, to my new assistant Jonathan Koltz (jonkoltz@gmail.com). If you have any questions, please write me directly.

—Hozan

Practice Period

In Dogen Zenji’s Eihei Koroku this is recorded: “Dogen held up his whisk, and with it drew a circle in the air. He said, ‘Practice period goes beyond this.’ ”

For more than thirty years Berkeley Zen Center has offered a spring practice period. These were usually led by our founding teacher, Sojun Roshi. Now, as the new abbot of BZC, I am honored to lead this year’s practice period, as we emerge from strange days of pandemic.

In the Zen tradition, the word used for practice period is ango, which means “peaceful abiding.” In China and Japan this would be a three-month residential intensive, with its own root in the early Buddhist “rains retreat,” when wandering monks and nuns would gather in monasteries during monsoon season.

Our practice period, in the springtime when the circle of life turns in joyous renewal, is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the practice of living an enlightened life, to renew our beginner’s mind. Dogen Zenji speaks of “practice realization,” meaning that our Zen practice does not so much aim toward a goal of awakening, but rather that our practice expresses the enlighten­ment that is always within and available to us. Practice period includes sitting, walking, chanting, cooking, serving, eating, working, resting—all of this is enlightened activity, woven into whole cloth by zazen.

BZC is not a monastery, so our members have jobs, families, and responsibilities outside the gate. Our practice is as much in our homes and in the world as in the zendo. This is our ongoing Dharma experi­ment—dedicated lay practice, sitting with everything. During practice period we have recom­mended requirements, but as Sojun Roshi said, “within these requirements each person can create his or her own schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. Some will be able to do only the minimum, while others who have the opportunity will be able to extend or stretch themselves much more.”

We may wish to do it all, but each of us must be realistic about our capacity. The important thing for each of us—during practice period and throughout the year—is to clarify and set our practice intention, then do our best to keep to that intention. You don’t have to break your bones to do practice period. But don’t be slack with yourself either. With Right Effort our practice edge comes into view. What is the Middle Way? Whatever commitment and schedule one comes up with, we are all practicing together intimately.

Not everyone in the sangha will be able to clear the time and energy to participate in practice period. That is completely understandable, and everyone, of course, is welcome to come to the zendo when they can. All of us are supporting and being supported by the practice period—peaceful abiding. These weeks together can extend throughout the year. As Dogen says, “Practice period goes beyond this.”

—Hozan Alan Senauke

No Gaining Idea

Suzuki Roshi often said we shouldn’t have “a gaining idea” or any idea of attainment. A student once asked him why anybody would do zazen if they didn’t have a gaining idea. He said, “You still have one gaining idea.” “What is that?” the student wanted to know. He replied, “That’s a secret.”
Recently we completed a class series on the Three Doors of Liberation—Emptiness, Signlessness, and Wishlessness. These three practices appear in early Buddhist teachings, but are more commonly found in the Mahayana. In contemporary Buddhism, the late master Thich Nhat Hanh frequently taught on these. The third door—Wishlessness or Aimlessness—has a particular resonance in our Zen tradition. It is a rich vein of practice in Soto Zen, from Dogen through to Suzuki and Sojun Roshi. Scholar Edward Conze offers this gloss on Wishlessness (apranihita in Sanskrit):

The word apranihita means literally that one “places nothing in front,” and it designates someone who makes no plans for the future, has no hopes for it, who is aimless, not bent on anything, without predilection or desire for the objects of perception.

Late in his life, Sojun Roshi lectured on the Three Doors of Liberation, and said this about Wishlessness:

Wishlessness means letting go and appreciating. Letting go and being able to appreciate everything around us just as it is. To accept myself just as I am. This is called virtue. Everyone has their own virtue, which is not the same as value. Value is comparison. We stop comparing ourselves to others.

In our Soto Zen practice, wishlessness or aimlessness is expressed as “no gaining idea” (mushotoku in Japanese), hammered home by Suzuki Roshi and Sojun, who drew their wisdom from the ancestors and from their own life experience. In Shobogenzo-Zuimonki Dogen Zenji offers this advice, his approach to wishlessness, no gaining idea, and the heart of Buddhist practice:

Simply do good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind you have to awaken to impermanence.

“Awakening to impermanence” might sound like a gaining idea—the quest for enlightenment or attainment. Maybe this is even the “secret” Suzuki Roshi spoke of. But our teachers are clear that awakening is not a goal. Rather it is always right here, if only we can let go of our goals and aims. In fact, it is a “losing idea”—losing our self-centeredness and attachment to ego. This is such a simple shift, but maybe it is not so easy. This point is pivotal in the Heart Sutra when Avalokiteshvara says to Shariputra:

With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva depends on prajna paramita
And the mind is no hindrance.
Without any hindrance no fears exist;
Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in nirvana.

Chanting this daily, week after week, year after year, still I hear the call of those gaining ideas. Sometimes they whisper in my ear, sometimes they roar like a diesel. I confess that I am only a foolish human. Like so many of us, I am just walking up and down in the world. Fortunately, there is a well-traveled path to follow. If one follows the path and the practice, it leads right through the wilderness of gaining ideas. In faith, it leads to freedom.

—Hozan Alan Senauke

 

Year of the Tiger
Year of the Tiger (Sumi-e painting by Kazumi Cranney)

The Dharma of Listening and Speaking (Part 2)

Who is the person who desires life, who seeks days of goodness?
Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech.
Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
(
from Psalm 34)

The meaning is not in the words,
yet it responds to the inquiring impulse.
(
from Master Tozan’s “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi”)

As I wrote last month, in such contentious times our public and private words can wound or heal. When we speak unskillfully our words can be like an arrow loosed. Once released, this arrow cannot be called back. Where it strikes, there is a wound. Even where there is healing between people, and even where the best of intentions are at play, there can also be scars. Intention and impact fit together “like front and back foot in walking.” We see this in our relationships, in society, and in sangha. Last month I addressed hearing and listening. This month I speak about speaking.

Buddhism has clear practices of Right Speech—samma vacca—the third step on the Eightfold Path. In the Pali Canon (SN 45.8), the Buddha mentions four qualities of Right Speech:

What is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

Three of the ten Bodhisattva Precepts warn about harmful speech—Precepts 4, 6, and 7:

I vow to refrain from false speech.
I vow not to slander.
I vow not to praise self at the expense of others.

Thich Nhat Hanh folds these into his Fourth Mindfulness Training: “Deep Listening and Loving Speech”:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Arising from the silence of zazen, inevitably we have to say something. We will say something, even if we write it in a note or speak with gestures. Again, the Buddha instructs us about what kind of words are appropriate. He says we should speak words that are true, useful, timely, and beneficial or motivated by lovingkindness.

Now, a Buddha, with powers of omniscience, would not have to guess about these qualities—his or her insight would be sufficient. But for those of us aspiring to the Buddha Way here in saṃsāra, these four conditions of speech can be elusive. If I know my friend well, I might be able to make a good guess about what she might receive as true, useful, timely, and beneficial. And I might guess wrong. If I am speaking with someone I don’t know or with whom I already haves conflict, it is likely we will disagree on one or more of these points.

So, is there ever a right time to speak? Are words ever completely true? When we speak, we take a leap into the unknown, and that is okay. It is no different from anything else we do. It is important to clarify our intentions as best we can. Still, we cannot know the impact of our words until they have been spoken and heard. Intention and impact are interdependent. Perhaps silence is better. But there is so much joy and connection in the play of words. I can’t easily give up such human pleasure.

I leave you with a recommendation. We can learn to ask questions before making assertions. Sometimes I might lose myself in the assertion of “my truth.” I’m not alone in that habit. Better to ask questions and create dialogue, remembering that the meaning “responds to the inquiring impulse.” Try it out.

—Hozan Alan Senauke
December 2021

(Part 1 is in a previous post.)

The Dharma of Listening and Speaking (Part 1)

In these contentious times, our words—public and private words—can wound or heal.

We see this in relationships, in society, and in the sangha. We also come to understand that what each of us hears is not necessarily what a speaker might have meant in speaking. This is the distinction of intention and impact, both of which are important.

In Buddhist traditions there is a wealth of teachings on Right Speech, which includes listening and speaking. But let’s begin from the space of zazen. The titles of Dainin Katagiri Roshi’s first two books bring us back to essentials. His first book is titled Returning to Silence. The second book is You Have to Say Something.

Returning to silence is hearing, listening; stepping into the receptive mind of zazen. Listening is the active component of hearing. Listen for a moment. I hear the refrigerator’s sound, a car going by, birds in the yard. Listening takes place against a background of silence. This is also Bodhisattva practice. Avalokitesvara, Kannon, or Kwan Yin is referred to as “one who sees the cries of the world.” In zazen, with all senses functioning, there is a kind of synesthesia—experiencing one sense through the workings of another. That is returning to silence, the all-inclusive experience of zazen.

But zazen mind is not a practice confined to the walls of the zendo, or to the frame of a Zoom screen. The full unfolding of zazen is in our life, where we are bound to have activities. We have to do something; we have to say something. We do zazen with our bodies as an activity. The active side of our practice completes the continuous circle of the way. We are always moving between returning to silence, listening, and having to say something.

I recently came across this excerpt from a 1967 lecture by Suzuki Roshi where he speaks about the practice of listening:

When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him or her, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.

Suzuki Roshi is suggesting that we ratchet back our habit of judging everything we listen to, of evaluating of right and wrong, good and bad. He is not suggesting that we ignore morality. But he is encouraging us to set aside self-centered views which subtly show up in many of our verbal exchanges. In the moment of listening to someone, try to see the cries of the world. Just see that person as he or she is right there. Whether you agree with them or not, make an effort to accept them. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering.

How we listen and how we speak is the heartbeat of a practical Zen Buddhism. Yes, the silence is deep and nourishing, but we inhabit that space just a small part of the time. Much more of our day is spent interacting with others. Even as we speak, we must always be listening and watching.

—Hozan Alan Senauke

(The Practice of Speaking will be Part 2, in the next newsletter.)

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.