Desire, Danger and Delight

Each time our sangha moves its place of practice, I like to pause for a moment and ask what it is exactly that we are doing here? You would think a teacher should know this, but it is better that a teacher ask and maybe not know for a while. I agree with many who have a felt sense that the energy of our practice becomes infused with the setting, with the woodwork of the flooring and the scent in the air.

What is a zendo really – this place of practice where we undertake a rather simple set of instructions and shine the light of dharma on the most intimate details of our life? Perhaps we can look closely at what exactly stirs our hearts and not take it for granted these things come with the building’s dimensions or are stuffed in the cushions. The real life of the practice arrives through the front door when you arrive.

It is easy to let our comparing and evaluating mind list all the differences between our numerous places of Zen practice and choose what we like and don’t like. One center appears very formal and wears robes, another sits in a circle and wears flip flops and shorts, and another chants in a sonorous style, another recites Ryokan and watches contemporary films on retreat. As Dogen’s words in Fukanzazengi suggest, none of these things are the point (albeit a small measure of group pride is human and healthy).

Although there are ten thousand distinctions, and a thousand variations, they just wholeheartedly engage the way in zazen. Why leave behind the seat in your own home…?

Why indeed?! Ten thousand distinctions even in medieval Japan – I’m guessing at least twice that by now. Of course, now we can add ten thousand distractions to that list. Aside from zazen, the obvious and only non-negotiable in Zen practice, what is it in a setting that creates the causes and conditions that support our practice? Why leave behind the seat in your own home? What is your experience? After 17 years in zendo’s large and small, formal and informal, traditional and modernized, these are the elements that I have found in common with our Zen ways.

Desire

Perhaps a curious beginning, given the perception that Buddhism is about extinguishing desires. But this is not about any small potatoes desire, but about identifying and following down our own most intimate longing for an authentic life, an awakened life, a life of meaning. What is your own way of saying this? Where does it reside in the body? This awakened being is something we have an intuition that exists, some part of us recognizes the truth of it, this inspiration that there’s something to clarify and know. Where is it in your life and how far back does it go? As a child wondering about the death of a grandparent? Or a college student reading what….Kierkegaard, Kurt Vonnegut, the Brother’s Karamazov? A light goes on and we feel compelled to follow that light.

Each and every place of practice has this energy fueling its activity. It is found in the way we engage a koan with energy, tears, and heart, the way we meet one another across the hall and bow, and the way we show up week after week to sit in deep silence. To cultivate this seeking and nourish growing tip in ourselves and others is what it means to establish a practice. Now I know why my teacher Kyogen was fond of calling attention to this teaching, “the mind that seeks the way is the mind of Buddha.”

Let us nourish a place of practice where this one desire is listened for and revered.

Danger

This element is not so obvious either, but it must be present. By danger, I mean the quality of an unknown perceived by our ego self when it senses that it cannot figure out this life on its own, cannot permanently satisfy the need for safety and accumulation, or perhaps realizes it may encounter something that will change the self forever. While most of us need lots of encouragement, welcome, support and appreciation, without this element of danger, no growth can take place. We must be willing to go outside of the known map of the world. We need just the right measure of danger or the journey is not a journey. We start by courting this in the deep silence of the zendo, putting aside our usual validating ways of being, and listen inward.

Little by little we learn to take risks through practice. To enter into the places that scare us, to show up and hang out with what we don’t know, helps us grow into a life based in wisdom and compassion. There is a concept in group psychology called “risky shift” which is this phenomena that happens in a group when we act in more daring ways because of the group than we do as single actors. While we can struggle with perceived pressure of group norms, this other element is what really happens. The sangha helps us face what we fear, and enter those dharma gates to find the real gem. This happens when someone new starts to serve as a chant leader and finds courage to put forth her voice in the room, or when we confess in front of another that we don’t know, or when we sit through a zazen period with our own self doubts, and pain and sadness with an open heart, steady  on this diamond seat of practice.

May we be present for one another and support the risky shift that liberates and enlightens.  

Delight

Despite the very serious face of Zen engaging VERY serious matters of the meaning of life, goodness, what a fun loving and zany crowd we really are. On the other side of these life questions, emerges the laughter when we let go of taking ourselves so seriously. There it is, delight in simply being present. It is found in the wonder at the setting sun coming into the zendo warming the body. There it is the exquisite taste of newly harvested tomatoes from the garden on a green salad. Delight is the gift of practice that keeps us fueled for the long haul. After we’ve exhausted the ins and out of our problems, the world’s problems, other people’s problems, what is left? There we are, a curious collection of folks, prone to joy at all times and ready to see the world through the eyes of beauty and appreciation, in this moment, where it’s happening. When our cup is full, we are encouraged by the whole universe to continue our journey, to sit, to engage the hard questions, and to love the blessings that arrive in our bowls.

May we practice with an eye for beauty, simplicity and appreciation welcoming delight when it arrives.

Perhaps you have your own additions to the zendo in three dimensions? Each one of us touches a place of practice and leaves our mark. The awakening emerges in the right season from that collective act. See you in the zendo.

In gassho,

Seido

Face to Face: Becoming a Student in Real Life

(transcribed from the first day’s talk at the 2016 Face to Face January retreat where we were studying Dogen’s chapter “Kajo” or “Everyday Activity”)

Homage to the Buddha, our original cook, Shakyamuni
Homage to the Dharma, everyday rice and tea
Homage to the Sangha, those awakened to rice and tea

How fitting that our founder’s altar should be arranged on a piano. Hundreds of years of teachers and students, the musical score of this Zen way. And as I look over at this altar and see my teacher’s picture there….that was taken at the Empty Field Zendo – there’s a hint of my elbow in his side as I’m to his left in front of the altar. How fitting – mercy, how he listened to my years of struggle! Fifteen years as his student, and still his student now even after his death. Face to face. Eye to eye. Nose to nose. Two human hearts, two flawed beings, two perfect buddhas, awakening together. Hundreds of years of this.

In this retreat, we are studying Dogen’s chapter called Kajo – everyday activity, about everyday life. Kajo means that which is habitual in one’s home life. Like many of Dogen’s talks to his students, I get the sense he wrote this from a place of deep love, right out of the experience of his own path. He wanted his students to stop chasing for enlightenment in the place where it did not exist. His own life was not easy. He could have chosen to assume a role in the aristocracy, like Shakyamuni Buddha, but instead, after seeing his mother’s death when he was quite young, decides to follow a more pressing call. There was much corruption in the religious circles at that time in medieval Japan, Buddhism intertwined with political power struggles having to do with whether this temple or that teacher was in favor with the various ruling elite family or not. Like us Dogen wanted something sincere, something genuine, something satisfying.

When Dogen finally went to China where he would meet Rujing, he encountered a tenzo, a senior in the temple on a boat who was doing manual labor as a cook in his old age. Dogen asks him, Can’t you get someone else to do this? The tenzo looks at him curiously and tells him he mustn’t know too much about Zen. A bit of a double take for someone practicing as long as he has. You don’t know to much do you? But Dogen listened. He asks the tenzo, What is practice? Everywhere, nothing is hidden, says the tenzo. So it is now, on January 28th, exactly 773 years later, in a home in Corvallis, that we study the words to his students on the transmission of the dharma as everyday tea and rice.

Just like Rujing’s koan Mushin talked about this morning, How can you purify something that is already pure? there’s a koan Dogen offers us here that we can carry around this weekend, keep company with. If drinking tea and eating rice have been transmitted for a long time and are present right now, what is drinking tea and eating rice? We should each find our own answer to this question.

What is your answer?

Don’t answer too soon. Don’t explain anything.
See what comes to you this retreat.

While on one hand it seems too obvious, on the other, we might balk a little and think, what could tea and rice possibly have to offer towards shedding light on my struggles in life? I do that kind of stuff everyday and still don’t feel enlightened! Certainly it can’t be as easy as that! Luckily, the priest Daokai is totally on board with this quandary and asks the question for us:

Priest Daokai, who would later become abbot of Mount Dayang, asked Touzi, “It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice. Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching?”

Daokai is also doubtful that the deep meaning of the Buddha ancestors is the same as eating rice and drinking tea. Surely there must be some other means to awaken people, to teach people to wake up. How familiar to our modern sensibilities. It is the same way when we wonder, What am I missing? Is there some other practice I should be doing that will move me along? Some teacher that will reveal the truth? If so, please, could someone just let me know what that is? It’s important to Dokai and is not a frivolous question.

It’s with some irony I am recalling our recent lay teacher conference last week in Portland. We ask the same thing too. What new practices are you integrating into Zen? Bodywork, writing exercises, and so on. I must admit, I too get excited about our creativity in teaching. But I know from my 30 years as a farmer, after all the new names for approaches and fancy techniques have come and gone, growing good food is about something really simple, all about timing with water, sun and good earth. No shortcuts. My teacher Kyogen in his later years (how fortunate I should be his student in his later life) said much the same about Zen practice. He said, You know, after all we have done by way of innovation (and that’s quite a bit), it comes down to this – zazen and precepts. You just have to do the practice. Now there’s some everyday rice and tea. Plain words: Just do the practice. I don’t think that’s going to fly off the bookshelves. But there it is.

If we don’t know where to start with answering this koan, about the meaning of rice and tea we can start with the rice and tea that’s right here on retreat. What is this rice I am eating? What is this tea? We can completely let go of the idea of tea, listen to tea, drop you versus tea, forget inside and outside. Where are you when drinking tea? Who are you? What’s not tea?

Everyday activity. This Zen tradition is about living up close and personal. Young priest Daokai has some pressure on him to do some magic (as any new teacher I can identify with, ahem) as others are looking to him to enlighten them. He’s “got it” on one level, but faced with teaching others, goes back to looking for some power outside of what is right in front of him. Like me, he is refining his understanding but is not yet mature.

***

It is telling that, although Dogen could have just written his message more directly, that Kajo is chock full of stories of teachers and students, full of human stories. It reads like a play in many acts.

Here’s one answer to this koan: Most intimate. Tea and rice are most intimate. You know what I’ve come to realize is the hardest thing about Zen practice? Not the long hours of zazen, not the bizarre and frustrating Zen koan language, not this not that. No, it is the practice with others. Face to face. When I first came to practice with my home temple, Dharma Rain, they talked a lot about the need to be “willing to be seen.” I totally didn’t get it. What can they mean, I’m here aren’t I? Is there something more than just having my body show up to the zendo? I think the question made me feel even more inadequate at first. Now I realize there’s a big different between showing up and being willing to be seen. The willing comes when we can relax and allow ourselves to be received, to be part of the flow. It is hard to explain, but there is a noticeable difference. This is why it’s easy to have a distant teacher – someone who doesn’t see you in the morning with puffy eyes, doesn’t watch you interact with your child or argue with your partner, doesn’t encounter you when you’re confused or sick or angry. And vice versa. How easy to have a distant student who doesn’t see you, the teacher, mess up or get irritated or have conflicting human needs. Everyone’s on best behavior, but only for so long. Intimate. Up close and personal.

The opening scene of our play begins with Fuyo Dokai and his student Tosu Gisei. I do not know when this exchange happened, but because we do know their dates of birth, it’s possible that Tosu could be in his late 20’s, maybe 29, and Fuyo, 11 years his senior, could be about 40. Although Zen stories make it look like these brilliant masters pop out of nowhere, have a single conversation and then get enlightened, this is not the case. They have been at it for some time. And we can guess a little about their own karmic affinities by some of the stories about their lives. They had real struggles and concerns just like us, and engaged in many failed attempts to find the right path for them that would finally bring satisfaction and relief to their spiritual quest.

One account says that Fuyo started out on the Taoist path studying practices for immortality. It’s too bad he didn’t live in this modern era, because we’ve got tons of these kinds of devices! Just go into a store for special youthful creams, self help books and workout equipment. So I can only imagine that this naive hope we all secretly share to elude the ravages of time appeared one day to have its limits. A hope that often gets checked simply by looking in the mirror.

I also imagine Fuyo may have also had an affinity for image of the Taoist lone sage and perhaps, like many of us (I include myself) wanted to just practice as the solitary being, not be bothered with others, rise above this dusty demanding world. Make a clean escape. Perhaps one day, he realized the loneliness of that was getting him nowhere. We can imagine this of our old friend Fuyo, many cul de sacs on the path of practice. Of course, he did live until 72, so perhaps a few of those Daoist practices gave him a boost. No harm done.

And then there’s his teacher, Touzi, Tosu Gisei. I imagine him more the intellectuial sort – literary minded, attracted to esoteric teaching and the more complicated the better. Someone seduced by intellectual intrigue. According to Keizan, he studied Yogachara (which is a system of thought you practically need a PhD in Sanskrit to understand) until one day he exclaimed, “This doctrine is obscure, what good is it?” How familiar to us modern seekers with access to so much information, so much written dharma. How complicated the thinking mind can get when looking for the truth of this moment. So instead of complicated doctrine, he starts to take up Zen and look directly into his own heart-mind without the props.

A later story about Tosu says that at one time his teacher sent him off to a monastery to learn from another teacher. When found absent in the meditation hall after he arrived and the Ino goes and finds him asleep in the corridor. When questioned about this rude behavior, he replies, “Fancy food doesn’t interest someone who’s sated.” Can you imagine? The word “cheeky” comes to mind. But true enough, he’s no longer engaged in chasing words and phrases to wake up to his own existence. He’s ready for the real thing.

So these monks, these seekers, like us, had many years of trial and error before this conversation. They were reenacting Shakyamuni’s path based on their own karmic affinity until they knew what drinking tea and eating rice was. Reaching the place of the unborn, the undying. The place of no doubt. And then they continued on, constantly refining. Once sated, the continued eating.

***

My teacher used to say that there’s only one constant between teachers and students. And this is that the teacher becomes a koan for the student. What we want in a teacher and what we need in a teacher may not be the same thing. What a paradox, to awaken in relationship to another, someone who cannot give you anything. Dogen says here awakening to the truth is not found in the exotic, does not belong in the past, is not in words or esoteric practices, does not belong to famous teachers. No, instead he says there’s no need to rely upon anything else than drinking tea and eating rice. Like Mushin’s nest she so beautifully described, we need to leave the nest of our imagined enlightenment, into which are woven postcards of awakening from the images of others. (Of course, if these postcards inspire us to leap out of the nest, that’s great. But usually they just make us dreamy.)

I want to use a story of my own early days as a new student. Since we often hear teachers talk about their own teachers in romanticized (ie. forgetful) ways, like when Dogen talks about his teacher Rujing as “The Old Buddha,” I’d like to offer a more realistic view. When I met Kyogen, I knew he had something I wanted that I couldn’t name but felt compelled to return to. It made no sense to my rational mind. Since we had almost nothing in common on a basic human interest level, I had the most difficult time relating to him. Early on I drew the shocking conclusion that he just plain didn’t like me. That I was an annoyance. Of course, the more I thought this, the more evidence piled up to support this embarrassing fact. I would try to make small talk and he would drift away or look blankly back at me. He didn’t seek me out or laugh at my jokes or offerings of conversation. He certainly wasn’t impressed by my Zen insights! It became useless, until finally, I just said to myself, fine, he doesn’t have to like me, but I am determined to see this path through regardless. I was not about to give up. This is my last stop! Of course in hindsight, I was trying to fit Kyogen into the map of my known world and feared the worst base on my own early trauma growing up. The question of liking and not liking isn’t even relevant. I find the reflection amusing now, because his love was always shining great and clear. He was waiting patiently for me to arrive.

One translation of this fascicle refers to the rice and tea phrase as “coarse tea and thin gruel.” It’s not an easy path to have a teacher. Sometimes it’s coarse tea and thin gruel. Something not easy to take in. A teaching that is disappointing, not the medicine we want. On sesshin I try to accept with a little sadness when the Tippy Cloud South is weak in the morning. Then I understand the diluted taste often brings out something stark and haunting. Hundreds of years of teachers and students – heartbreak, struggle, opening, release. No two alike. And the gratitude there is profound. We teachers are often guilty of telling a romantic story of our studenthood that’s only romantic in retrospect.

Dogen’s chapter Kajo is a nourishing meal for the dis-ease we suffer from in our own skin. Such compassion for his sangha. When he recalls the words, the “everyday rice and tea” of his teacher, the old buddha Rujing, he remembers him saying in the hall:

Right at this moment, put down the burden you are carrying.

So, please, come back to your own seat and ponder this koan, What is drinking tea and eating rice? Sit with this question and don’t answer it too soon. Put down the burden you are carrying.

What is Intimacy in Zen?

This spring welcome is dedicated to my teacher Kyogen Carlson, whose intimate presence whispered of home right from the start.

In a conversation with a visiting teacher this weekend about the importance of intimacy in practice, he said, “If you don’t have intimacy in Zen, then what have you got?” I appreciated this seasoned reply that leapt beyond the idea that we “add” intimacy to our life or not. It was a kind of intimacy with intimacy. As a lay teacher, training psychotherapist, and a human being who knows the landscape from isolation to embrace, this question about intimacy is endlessly intriguing and nuanced and one I feel is a magnificent bridge in which the understandings of each of these practices can inform one another. What is it? When do we know it? How do we get there?

Intimacy is a common term in our Western culture that connotes qualities engendered by a sense of closeness, warmth, and holding dear. It is something we desire yet often avoid and fear. Our closest intimate relationships are built on time and trust, fostering mutual enrichment, appreciation and increased ability to risk. To feel like you really know someone’s heart is to rest in this intimacy. To be open and impacted by the other is to know this intimacy. Fear, control and judgment preclude the experience and leave us frustrated and wanting. Often our “attempted solutions” to become closer and more intimate with others when we feel separate paradoxically produce the opposite effect, sending us through another round of grasping for something outside ourselves. This is why we need Zen.

Zen intimacy does not exclude any of these understandings and insights. It is a vital gate of practice to become aware of those moments we guard and distance ourselves from others, speak falsely, avoiding being hurt, and shrink from the invitation to authentic participation. Much of the work in psychotherapy has to do with a failure of intimacy characterized by conditioned estrangement from inner and outer experience. Like religious practice, the mode of healing rests on reconnection. However, Zen takes this intimacy to a whole new level that does not exclude any state, even that of estrangement. Even though we can label one moment intimate and another not, intimacy in Zen is a facet of the fundamental state in which we actually live and waking up to that truth is the goal of our practice from which compassion and wisdom flow. Zen intimacy rests on the clarification of delusion, the conceptual ideas concerned with I am and I am not. When these dominate the landscape, the you who is a mystery unfolding before me disappears, and we miss the opportunity to experience the vitality and creative fullness of the moment. We stop listening and our patterned responses to life take hold.

If we want to understand this intimacy, we need to take a step outside our comfort zone. We learn how to do this in zazen. Exactly because we don’t “know” how to “do” zazen, we are already intimate in that very act.

When you know yourself, you know intimate action. Thus, Buddha ancestors can thoroughly actualize this intimate heart and intimate language. “Intimate” means close and inseparable. There is no gap. Intimacy embraces Buddha ancestors. It embraces you. It embraces the self. It embraces action. It embraces generations. It embraces merit. It embraces intimacy.
Enlightenment Unfolds, Dogen Zenji trans. Kaz Tanahashi

When we meet in the absence of the idea of each another, there is intimacy. When there is just the bird’s song, there is intimacy. When I am afraid and separate, yet still, there is also intimacy. With trust, creativity and curiosity, the information we need to proceed in the world is found in the entirety of these moments. This kind of intimacy far surpasses what Western psychology understands as intimacy. Yet, over the years, I find that our Western standards of intimacy are exhibited as qualities in seasoned practitioners. The cushion is not a substitute for the risk that is taken when we look deeply into the eyes of another being. Both practices of Zen and psychotherapy inform one another and the nourishing life giving aspect of intimacy becomes one of the greatest fruits of practice. Although our patterns are often deeply ingrained, we do not need years of either to let go of that which separates us. The cherry blossoms are already in full bloom.

In gassho,
Seido