Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Back? Maybe.

A lot has happened since my last post and I'm sticking with the excuse that most of that is what has kept me from writing.

I will say that I now have a smart phone, giving me the ability to post from nearly anywhere even if it does involve typing on a tiny keyboard with my thumbs.

I was also surprised to learn that I'm done with school (it's a long story, but I now have an AA in culinary arts, go me!), so I now have little taking away from myrecrational computer use.

I also just finished Rohatsu sesshin with my nikyu test for aikido right in the middle. That's two ranks below black belt. I've also been giving lectures on how my zen practice has benefited my aikido and leading short meditations for a handful of students who decide to stick around once a week.

I haven't run out of stuff to say but I have been trying to live as the best teaching possible.

I hope to write more in the coming days as my practice has opened up so much in the past six months.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Back on Top

So the day after that last post, I got my crap together and found a couple places to try for employment, typed up some cover letters and printed out everything I needed to head out.  I was feeling pretty good and optimistic about the whole situation.  It didn't really matter where I ended up because I would make the best out of it no matter what, plus no preconceived notion I had about any where would match reality.

I was ready.  I'd learned my lesson about the whole situation and was about to implement it.  All that was left to do was get cleaned up and go.

Then my phone rang.  It was a surprise because while I'd saved the number, it was one I'd not expected to hear from.

The restaurant I'd mentioned in my previous post hadn't had an opening a month prior, but here was the chef calling to ask me if I was still looking for a job.  "Why, yes, yes I am," I told him.

An hour later I was down there for a second/review interview and the next morning I was at work.

I really like it, but my endurance has been slowed by being out of the game for so long, so I'm having to build back up.  My first day, everyone told me I was already doing better than my predecessor.  I hadn't gone to aikido for six weeks on top of that so it was tough at first and I went home exhausted.

I have a lot of thoughts about this new phase in my life but I also have so much to catch up on that's happened in the past month I've been away.

I met two great people from Tassajara, one of them the tenzo with whom I talked shop for several hours on what it means to be tenzo on a further level than I've discussed here before.  I got a tattoo as a constant reminder of my practice and turned 30 (in that order...)  There have also been many developments in my practice and in how I experience the world through them, so I hope to get back in the habit of writing now that I have a little more structure to lay habits on top of for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When You Hit Bottom, You Bounce

So I'm still struggling to find a job since my last one was so rudely taken from me.  It's not so much that I'm out there everyday getting rejected.  I've actually only made it to one place and they wanted to hire me but didn't have a position available.  The struggle is with myself, and until this morning (more like afternoon) when I was finally pulling myself together for the day, I realized what my big issue was.

I knew I'd been making excuses like I usually do.  I want to say that I've brought this up before but in scanning through my posts, nothing rings a bell.  The first big insight my practice brought me was how easy it is for me to fall for my own excuses, that I just accept them sometimes without even realizing I'm making them up.  I see them as reality and that that's just the way it is.

The problem is, until I find the root of these excuses, it doesn't really do me much good.  Sure I know that I shouldn't be falling for them, but I still do.

What I realized today is that I'm still upset over the loss of my job, even more so than I'd realized.  On a deeper level, the owners of that restaurant kicked me out of my home; not the one where I went to every night and slept, but the one where I spent my days.  My coworkers were in a sense a new family and I'd been cut off from them.  On the surface I'd just seen it as a job and another one would come along to take it's place.  I hadn't dealt with this aspect that lurked so far below.

So I was still angry and holding on to something I know intellectually was passing and impermanent.  It wasn't until today that that understanding went a bit deeper into realizing the impermanence.

What's causing me trouble now is that deep down, I'm scared of that happening again.  I mean, I really hate looking for a job.  I've stayed at places that were really bad for me longer than I should have because it seemed better than looking for a new place.  But this fear comes from an investment in a possible future that I know may not come true.  So instead I hold on to the dream rather than march in to a place and apply.

So many of us do this in so many different situations.  We let our attachment to how we want things (or think they should be) to turn out cripple us from taking the chance.  Looking for jobs, pursuing a romance, making a purchase or any other choice for that matter.

Is there some magic spell we can use to make this anxiety go away, some short cut around the suffering?  No, we just have to accept that this is what life is.  Our practice may help in that if we settle our minds enough, that iron grip on the dream may soften, but just because you have a light grip doesn't make that desire any less sticky.

A little after Christmas I was in a funk, didn't feel myself, slept too late, wasn't motivated to do anything.  It took me a while to realize that I was a little depressed.  It'd been a long time since I'd been to that place so it wasn't easily recognizable.  Once I'd identified it, it lost a lot of it's power, I'd slapped some boundaries on it and defined its previously ambiguous powers.

For a long time I'd been doing really well, riding the wheel to the top.  But once I hit bottom back then, I was able to recognize that it was a wheel and that I wouldn't be there forever.  It had been a nice ride up and the top felt great, but then I was at the bottom and knowing I'd be going back up eventually was kind of what turned it around.

So today I realized the same thing and it had the same effect.  I'm really bummed about not having a job and it should be enough motivation to go out and get one, but something has been in the way.  Now that I've identified it, given it some definition, I know its power's not infinite.  I'm still moving forward and looking up, not down.

It was a long fall down, and I know it's cliche, but before you can bounce back up, you have to hit the bottom.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I Survived Ango and All You Get Is This Crummy Post

45 calender days is a really long time. We had Fridays off, but most days started at 5:15 am with an officer's meeting and didn't end until 9 pm with chanting the Three Refuges. Half day sits changed the schedule for Saturday and the last five days finished it all off with a sesshin, but every other day was spent in zazen, kinhin, soji, oryoki, services, dharma talks, study, and class. Just about a tenth of the year, and it was interesting.

A lot happened over those six weeks that didn't really sink in until it was almost over and I didn't get a chance to write about hardly any of it.

I received the precepts the second weekend, which was a huge event on its own but it was quickly lost in the blur of the following weeks. We had two priests ordained by my teacher come visit for a while back to back, the second of whose ordination I attended late last year. I sat down with him for an hour and we chatted around the theme of ceremony which I'll get to writing about later. We also hosted Brad Warner for a Dharma Punx organized retreat which was fun to attend and cook for. I also got to go out for breakfast with him with two other people one day, so that was cool. Rereading Hardcore Zen after so long was interesting. It's a chicken-or-egg type deal but the book really matches my current attitudes and I read it at an influential time in developing my practice. I had thought all these views were my own but now I'm not so sure. It doesn't matter, they are mine and I don't have them because someone said that I should.

We had two other guests that same weekend so the buildup was something else. The second is the founder of the Dallas Meditation Center and practices in Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing. His style was quite different but I intend to get to know him better since his center is down the street from where my parents live in Dallas. (He was out of town when I was there for Father's Day)

As tenzo, my first practice period (and only third sesshin) had its own special challenges. Three meals were served nearly every day; oryoki breakfast and lunch with an informal dinner. During the week we ranged 6 to 10 participants with around 20 for Saturday breakfast.

I started out really organized, planning a week's worth of meals at a time with my own spreadsheet displaying which day, meal, and bowl's food, condiments, number of diners, and who would be preparing/helping prepare the meal. I made two shopping trips a week, one on our off day, Friday. Two dinners a week I was able to let someone else plan and prepare to give me a break.

All this time, I'd been re-reading sections of the Tenzo Kyokun for inspiration and insight and came across something funny. One part I'd always read without too much care is the section where Dogen outlines the day's activities for the tenzo. With my professional training and guidance from within the sangha it never really matched up with Dogen's instruction. As I settled into how I thought things should be done, I realized I was actually doing it the way Dogen suggests. Setting up and soaking the rice for breakfast at night, preparing lunch while breakfast cooks... it was nice.

Before my term in charge, meals were prepared a day in advance and the recipes were overly complicated. With my menu and experience I didn't have to do this. It made storage much easier and I had a greater degree of flexibility if something unexpected came up. Because of this the third week was almost entirely improvised off leftovers.

There were a couple points where the whole thing was getting old and I was ready for it all to be over with, but that's all part of practice. It's not all that different from sitting; once you're in it you have to see it though.

One thing that I really enjoyed about the practice period was it's intermediate nature between daily life and sesshin. Daily life (for me, especially while unemployed) is very dynamic with almost no structure. Sesshin is completely regimented with nearly every moment planned out. During Ango, each piece of the day was optional and we could come and go as our outside life needed. This allowed a daily blending of “lay” and “monastic” life whereas the two extremes usually exist pretty independently. Sesshin is also really short so as soon as you're really settled it's over. But as I said 6 weeks is a long time.

All of this makes for a powerful reminder that practice is all the time. The practice period really helps establish practice as a daily habit and six weeks provides a good amount of momentum.

I really enjoyed participating and intend to go into some more detail about some aspects of it soon.

Friday, June 3, 2011

True Compassion

My aunt has a big rock (it's a novelty rock, probably not even rock but it's big, gray, hard and cold...) that has two sides.  On the top it says "Please turn me over," and on the other "Thank you."

Now it used to bug me that people would keep turning it back over having "gotten the joke" since it obviously preferred to be on the "thank you" side.  But recently I've been thinking about it, wondering if it's not that it prefers a side, but that it enjoys being turned over.

Yes, it's a damn rock.  I know it doesn't have feelings, just what we project on to it.  But I have long felt a sort of animistic connection to many objects for a long time and these are things that I think about.  Animals have preferences that they express in different ways.  Plants express preferences in how they thrive.  Just because all life doesn't experience the world through the same sense gates as we do, doesn't mean that their experience is any less vibrant or real.  As all things are transient and interconnected, who is to say that a rock or any other form of inert existence isn't alive?  It was created, exists in this moment, and will pass into another form eventually.  Where do we draw the line of what life is?

Part of this viewpoint stems from an interesting source.  There's an anime I like a great deal for many reasons called Trigun.  There's an episode where a child version of the hero is having a conversation with the influence of his life and she tells him about how trees are just as active and full of life as we are, using all of their life's force and effort just to grow tall and be green, to reproduce and fulfill their function.

This perspective stuck hard and fast with me.  It also has a great deal on how I view life as a food source, but I promise I'll get around to that post eventually.

My point is, in our limited view, we think we know what's right for others and ourselves.  We think that the commonly held viewpoint of compassion as "a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it" (dictionary.com) is alleviated through being nice and forgiving and all those other positive things associated with compassion.

The truth of the matter is, sometimes we're wrong.  And we can be very wrong.  Sheltering and pampering can cause someone to become weak and unable to fend for themselves in the real world.  Just as a pet animal can never be released into the wild, the pampered will require that for survival.  Even if they don't they'll have to suffer a great deal in order to regain their instincts.

The world is full of frustrated little dogs treated like children instead of like dogs and a handful of people are making a living reminding their owners of that fact.

This doesn't mean we should kick people to the curb and shut down homeless shelters or food pantries.  This is not a call for an end to altruism, just a call to attempt to understand that what we think someone needs is not necessarily what they need.

I think we all need a certain amount of suffering to get us moving.  If we were perfectly comfortable during zazen it would be harder to stay in the moment.  Without suffering we wouldn't have the need to practice.  Isn't that the whole reason living in the realm of the devas isn't all it's cracked up to be?

Suffering, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, is the fuel of our practice.  It is the reason we seek to make ourselves better.  Sometimes being compassionate is allowing an individual to suffer just the right amount.  I'm sure I'll revisit this and refine my view, but I doubt it will wander far.

Let us be grateful to experience suffering so that we may seek to go beyond.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Waking Up from My Dream and Being Angry About It

So after a few short weeks, I woke up from my dream job.  I should remember to never get a job working for owners who either aren't silent or aren't restaurant people.  It doesn't matter how great your crew is or how wonderfully they're led by the management, if the owners won't let go their ego in favor of the success of the business, it's doomed to fail. 

So here I find myself with two paths.

1 - Be pissed off, and for good reason.  This really was a dream opportunity.  I was coming into a restaurant that needed my particular skills.  It was a delightful atmosphere, very casual yet mature enough that things still got done.  The management was sincerely invested in every employees success and saw the greater picture.  After just long enough to start making plans for the future, like committing to cook three meals a day for my sangha for 45 days, around my work schedule, the chef that doesn't even work there told me my next scheduled day, I wouldn't be on the kitchen schedule. 

Not "we have to let you go, sorry," but, some lame story about how business is slow and they want to keep me around because I'm a quality employee but due to loyalty to other (less skilled or motivated) employees who don't know they should have asked for a raise because they deserve it, that I should talk to the front of the house manager about serving or bartending.  Other gems concerning the owners and a whole mess of trouble arose after that, but that's what I had to deal with then.

== OR ==

2. I see it for how it's benefited me.  I did make some new friends and had some fun in a cool environment.  I learned some new skills and recipes since I'd never worked as a prep cook before.  My interest in returning to the kitchen was renewed, whereas before I was dreading it as an obstacle to my graduation.  I also rekindled that spark from my first job of "the people in charge are irresponsible and/or stupid, I can do this better. What's stopping me?"  After taking it easy for so long I feel that assertiveness again.  This time I can taste the ability to actually help a restaurant prosper and grow, not just survive.

It also held time for me in a way.  I was able to get at least 3 weeks into the practice period before really having to get another job.  I could have gotten a different one that wouldn't have afforded me that option.  Being tenzo for Ango is more valuable to me in experience than any job I've had so far.  I really am behaving and working as a chef, not like a chef, but as a chef.  I'm planning daily menus once a week, putting together shopping lists and purchasing ingredients.  I'm also learning to delegate responsibility to make sure things get done when I'm not around, and have had to deal with the consequences of it not getting done.  I'm actually cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday through Thursday with the exception of two dinners.  I've had to pay attention to dietary needs as I haven't before since what I cook is essentially the diet for 8+ people for nearly two months.

So take a guess at which path I've chosen.

Both actually, and it's been an interesting experience.  Being angry is just as legitimately a Buddhist experience as sending love to my tormentors and wishing all beings happiness.  The Ninth Grave Precept is a prohibition against harboring ill will, not ever feeling it.  Allowing myself to feel what I feel is in accord with the teachings.  I can feel angry all I want as long as I'm mindful of why I'm angry.  Harboring ill will is holding on to and giving it shelter.  Once the emotion has done what  it needs, it should be let go.

The anger still comes up about the whole thing, as well as the joy in what may most likely happen to the whole operation.  But that dream I had about what my future path would hold in that life really is just that, a dream.  There was never any guarantee that that's how my life would turn out, and it definitely wouldn't be everything I imagined, it never is.

So now I return to the moment, take the bad as bad and the good as good.  I have other hopes of employment lined up, ones that may be infinitely better and that wouldn't have been available to me in the same way two months ago.

How can anyone argue with that?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Right Here Between Two Worlds

Halfway into this third week of Ango, my fellow participants and I have made some interesting observations of the atmosphere of practice now that the excitement of receiving so many guests has passed.

While this is my first practice period, it is the third for Houston Zen Center and others have made some thought inspiring comments about how it feels.  Having only done two week long retreats and a handful of half day sittings, this hasn't quite had the same feeling.

With sesshin, you're there.  You're there to practice and that's it: sitting, eating, and working.  It's a full immersion experience for the week.  For most you only leave to sleep.  It's very different than daily life in that you don't have the distractions or responsibilities of the outside world to interfere with... well it's called a "retreat" for a reason.

In our daily life, practice is something we sometimes only do on the cushion.  It's easy to forget about it as the distractions of every day life get in the way.  Yeah, that's not how it's supposed to be, and even though I pride myself on how my practice is especially my everyday life, none of us is perfect and we all forget.

What's been interesting about the practice period is that it has us situated between those two extremes.  We're all participating in different ways, but there's always someone there practicing away.  There's the intensity of sesshin, but with each of us venturing out back into the world to conduct our affairs independently then returning in various capacities.

Normally a handful of us show up in the morning and get everything going for a little more than an hours worth of activities and then the place is cold until the evening when it happens again.  Four hours on Saturday we have activities but each time we have to get back in the mood.  During this practice period, someone has been there to keep the place warm by feeding the practice fire.

It's been an interesting experience in the kitchen for me as this practice blends my usual daily life with life at the Zen Center.  I spend a lot of time planning menus and preparing shopping lists if not shopping myself.  One of my first comments to my teacher upon completing my first sesshin was of how different it seemed from everyday life, to run away to Tassajara was especially exotic after living a taste of what it could be like for a week.  It troubled me how easy it was to assume the culture of monastic life and how much I would miss "normal life" if I spent a summer there.  She told me that when you're there, that is normal life, which didn't exactly ease my concerns.
But nearly a month into living a life between the two, the "practice" life has become my daily life.  I don't feel I have had to, or become, a different person to live it.  There's an extreme nature to monastic life that, while I can see the appeal, it still doesn't seem like the life for me.  In the Ox Herding series, "returning to the marketplace" is the last step and refers to coming returning to mundane life to live as an example of enlightened activity.  The tradition is that temples were up in mountains so returning to the market place was synonymous with leaving the monastery.  I've always said that I never want to leave the marketplace.  I'm not interested in an enlightenment that involves going somewhere else.  Even if it takes longer, I want it right here.

I really feel that 45 days of this with an actual sesshin at the end will be very different and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.  The regime of sesshin helped my provide my own structure to life afterwards but wore off fairly quickly.  Maybe a little over a long time will build better habits and I'll continue to live right here, between the two worlds of mundane life and the monastic.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Silence Does Not Apply to Almonds

So Week 2 of Ango is underway and I'm really starting to get the feel for this tenzo thing.  I've made notes of some changes to menu items that need to be made and others items (especially some of my originals) have been wildly successful.

Monday, I inadvertently started the week off for everyone with a laugh during breakfast service.  I'd prepared quinoa, cottage cheese, and some frozen applesauce (care of Dale Kent, there's still more and it was tasty).  I figured we could use a little more texture so I toasted some almonds as well.

Now I've toasted almonds, cashews, and walnuts before but don't remember anything like this happening when I did.

So we're all sitting there at the table at 7:30 after two hours of meditation and a service.  My teacher, the ino, work leader, ino's assistant, jisha, visiting priest, a couple others and myself being all intense and focused for oryoki when we notice that the bowl of almonds are popping like rice crispies as they were cooling.  We each top our cottage cheese with a scoop and the bowl makes its way down the table.

Inside, I found this condiment's noisy irreverence, with all of us being so solemn, really funny and was trying not to smile about too much since my teacher was sitting to my right.  I thought I had it under control when the ino's assistant sitting right next to me on the left starts up with the giggles.  It was just too much and I had to snicker along with a few others.  I couldn't see my teacher's face but I'm sure she enjoyed it too.  They kept popping throughout the meal.

(I wish I could have been there for lunch when they ate the "So wonderfully mild gazpacho," as my teacher called it after dinner that night.  Two serrano chilies was one too many, it just got spicier as it sat in the fridge for three hours after I made it.  I said that I was glad "hot" was one of the Six Tastes and Three Virtues.)

What a way to start a Monday.

(I'm so lame...)

I'll have to write about my super exciting weekend receiving the precepts another time.  Plus I've gotta prepare for cooking a half day retreat for a bunch of Dharma Punx hosting Brad Warner.  It'll be cool to finally me him. Dunno how long he'll be in town though.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two Months of Fun (?/!)

Ango started today and I'm not too sure what to expect out of this summer practice period so I'm trying not to expect anything.  It marks my first official assignment as tenzo (as far as I'm concerned, all the other stuff was a warm up).  I have full control over the kitchen as well as all planning and purchasing.

Since I can't take two months off (my supercool and exciting) job, I'll only be able to prepare breakfasts and a couple dinners during the week.  I've planned out all of the meals with the exception of two dinners a week and will coordinate purchasing and prep for all of them.

My activities this week will be limited in the evenings by Aikido since I have a test Thursday, and this weekend because my dad will be coming into town for the weekend for a visit and to attend my jukai ceremony (which I'll write about later).

It's an odd feeling with so much to do and no real choice about doing it.  It has to get done and I'm best qualified to do it.  I feel some resistance at times, it comes and goes.  The meals don't have to be fancy, people just need to get fed.  It's definitely far easier to do what I need to do when I'm in charge.  I've always been more comfortable as a second in command, just making sure nothing slips through the cracks, but it's good to be calling the shots and being successful.

By the time the sesshin rolls around the last week of June, everything should be running super smooth and should be a very different experience than the last two sesshin I worked. The previous retreats have had a huge buildup right before the start as we go from normal life to retreat life with meal planning and coordinating to do, but all of that anticipation will have been burned off by then, it already feels like a relief just to have it started.  All the meals for the whole practice period are oryoki, so by the final week I will have run through most of my recipes a couple times leaving no questions about prep, leaving me more mental space to just relax and enjoy it.

Every meal I prepare for the sangha feels like a session of zazen and after so many it feels so much more comfortable to slip into tomai sanmai (rice-washing samadhi)*.   It should be interesting to see what happens after  I've prepared the next 80 something meals in the Zen kitchen.


*a new term I discovered that my girlfriend refers to as "cooking face."  Apparently I do a mean Bodhidharma impression while I'm cooking and have for years.  Virtual high-five to anyone who can find the kanji for "toumai sanmai"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Shaving Ice, One Hopper At a Time

My new job entails a lot of prep work, which I enjoy a great deal.  When you're a server there's side work to do that can be similar, but the biggest difference is that it's done on the side, as in while you're still waiting tables. 

In the kitchen, your attention is almost entirely on just what's in front of you.  In the dining room it's a little different. Waiting tables requires a lot more multitasking so the monotonous aspects of the side work require you to always keep your mind on your tables while you're doing it, forcing you to split your attention.  How un-Zen is that?

Now don't get me wrong, the way I did side work, at least in attitude, was altered by my practice, but it was still difficult to throw myself into cutting lemon wedges if I had to keep track of whether or not table 24's entree is up and if it was timed right that they're just finishing their appetizer so that I can use the same tray to bus those plates that I'm bringing the new food on.

In the kitchen there's a list.  It's always waiting, but nothing demands your attention more than the one item on that list you're doing now.  Everything else will be there for you when you're ready for it.  There's still a sense of urgency since you are getting paid by the hour and it's all got to be done before you can leave, but it's still just patiently awaiting its turn.

This is something I'd missed, fondly remembering assembling the collapsed boxes for chicken strips while watching the South Texas Sunset out a window at another job I held long ago.

I find myself peeling and deveining a lot of shrimp.  Today they were cooked first so I had to peel off their dorsal side and remove all the guts inside.  I noticed that as soon as I let my mind wander, what was supposed to go in the trash was going in with the shrimp, oops.  A split second was all that it took for me to make a mistake.

The restaurant I work at now serves oysters on the half shell, a lot of them.  So in anticipation for tonight's business I was asked to shave ice for their plating.  There's a sno-cone machine in the wonderfully brisk 32 degree walk in cooler where I stood for the better part of an hour cramming about a half gallon of ice at a time into the hopper and pushing down the frozen plunger.

I knew about how much I was going to need, but the cold was getting to me and my thinking mind kept going for ways of making the process go faster.  There was nothing I could do though as the hopper was only so big and it had to be loaded by hand each time.

Dishwasher and prep cook are usually the two entry level positions in a kitchen for a good reason.  The results of the work is usually taken for granted and almost always boring.  The skill level is relatively low and so is the pay.

But as I was grinding away, I wasn't reminded of the tenzo dutifully drying mushrooms in the hot sun because someone had to.  I was reminded instead of Huineng pounding away at rice for years until he realized the Truth.  I embraced it as an opportunity for enlightenment, not as just something that needed to get done.

After the first few minutes my arm and shoulder were getting tired from trying to push the plunger down from above my shoulders, so I relaxed and let my Aikido earn its keep by connecting with it and dropping my weight, letting the heaviness of my body do the work instead of my shoulder and upper arm.  This of course is connected with the breath and as I exhaled with each stroke, I saw each load as a breath and a moment in my life to be present in and enjoy.  So I did.

Every now and then that impatience popped up, prompted by the numbing cold in my fingers and diminishing amount left to do.  But I took a breath and enjoyed it, not only for the sake of enlightenment, but just because I could.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Avoidance, Pity, then Compassion

Last weekend, I went with my girlfriend to visit her parents north of San Antonio in the Hill Country for the first time in year.  Not having my parents there anymore has made getting there trickier.

For two and half years I worked on building my sail boat on their property and nearly every moment their outdoor cat was roaming somewhere just out of view.  He's very friendly and used to defend his wooded turf from other cats fiercely.

This last visit he weighed maybe two-thirds what he did last time I saw him as time is slowly wearing him down.  He's always sat outside the patio door waiting for someone to give him some food which he happily chows down on, sometimes not wanting to wait for it to get in the bowl.

I'd never really been all that affectionate with him, never seeking him out to pet, but if he came by for a stroke or two I was always happy to oblige him.  With his new condition, I was startled.  I've never had a pet die of old age and only really known of others' pets dying by accident so this was a new experience.

I wrote this in my notebook the evening after we arrived, exploring my feelings with how I felt about it:

At first I felt fear and aversion towards dealing with this poor sick and gradually dying animal.  Such a pale skeleton of the cat I remember from just a year ago.  I shrank from further divesting any emotion in something so obviously at the end of its life.  My very self hesitated to look into his tired eyes or stroke his bony body with its thinning hair.

But something changed as I gave in and went to feed him.  It was slow and is still somewhat incomplete.  The eagerness and pleasure with which he consumed this gift touched me as if it was a demonstration of gratitude for my act of kindness.

As I sat with him he placed his paws on my thigh to jump into my lap, but failed, lacking the strength and agility so stereotypical of his kind.  So instead he resigned himself to purring and rubbing my legs, doing what he could.

While nearly every cat does these things whether out of affection of self-seeking attention, this had an odd urgency about it.  It was almost as if he knows his time is running out and has surrendered that feline aloofness, instead seeking affection and graciously returning it, not letting that particular sense of ego get in the way.

I felt compelled to pet him and change his water, stopping short of, though wanting to brush what hair he has left to remove the dirt and debris.  Anything to make him more comfortable.

It's not hard to imagine this scenario with another human being instead, but it is hard to understand and accept as something other than fantasy.  For those that do these things everyday, I think I understand why a little more.

This cat has lived a very long and hard life outdoors so different from not just my own cat, but myself as well.  I'm sure I won't ever see him again after this trip, but I hope he will live on in this memory and in who I treat my own cat as well as my myself and others; living fully in the moment enjoying it for what it is no matter how fleeting while manifesting gratitude for it the whole time.  This fate comes to us all and for those who have time to see it approach , many see the truth as it truly is, not just as an idea, too late.

This very second is all we have.  The past is gone and the future is never guaranteed, but joy can still be right here, right where we are.  This is life right here, right now.
                                                                                         - 4/15/11

Monday, April 18, 2011

On the Clock Again, Finally

After nearly a year, I finally clocked into work today.  For the last two weeks I've been working on nailing down this job that I was told was a sure thing halfway through my first interview.  It's been a little bit of a rollercoaster to get it finalized as the management has been super busy, but today it was official.

My varied experience in the several jobs that I've more or less suffered through over the last 12 years will serve me well as versatility in this small kitchen is desired.  I couldn't have imagined a better fit for me.  Just to begin with the schedule is perfect, weekdays 10a-3/4p.  I'll still have time for Aikido and weekends for any obligations or activities at the Zen Center as well as weekends to spend with my girlfriend.  I have the option of picking up other shifts, but this is what they hired me for.

What I'm most excited about is seeing what effect my practice will have on job performance.  I'd just barely begun my adventure in sitting when I'd quit my last job and I'd seen a difference in how I dealt with other people and different situations but now I've been practicing intensely without the backdrop of the professional setting save the few lab classes at school and my cooking as tenzo which are a little different than "real life" kitchen work.

I'm excited to learn new things at this job and the management is excited to teach me.  It will be different than school though since I'm used to knowing more than my fellow classmates and am usually ahead of the curve.  Here I'm the only student so the pace will be faster and much more hands on.  There will be no time to fall behind.

The management is interested in food in the same ways that I am.  Learning new cuisines, techniques and ingredients isn't about knowing more than others or being cutting edge, they want to absorb the information because it's there, they want to experiment because they can.  Their explorations of vegetarian and vegan cooking is not to exclude meat but to see the things that pop up out of necessity in meatless cooking to share it with people who would otherwise shrug away from vegetarian meals.

Cooking in the Zen setting is different than professionally cooking as everyone is at least trying to keep their egos in check.  In the professional kitchen, the ego serves to get you noticed and is how you advance.  From what I've learned of this kitchen, that shouldn't be an issue as the crew is small and the management is most interested in team building so this should be a friendlier work environment.

Another thing I noticed while cleaning today is how long it's been since I spoke freely while doing kitchen work.  Zen kitchens are like zendos in that right speech functions not in total silence, but only on what is at hand.  It should be interesting to at least have the option of idle chatter to pass the time.

It's so odd, after nine months of off and on job hunting to be getting settled, that pressure is no longer there but I'm still squished from it sitting on my shoulders for so long.

Let's see what happens.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dhamma Brothers Review and Other Stuff in My Life

Posted this review/preview of the documentary The Dhamma Brothers in preparation for the Prison Reform Film Festival this Sunday afternoon.  Read it here.

I've been asked to sit on a discussion panel after the film which will be an interesting experience.  I'll post something here about that eventually.

My plate's pretty full right now as I'm expecting to start what I hope is my dream job Monday.  I've also been making some custom meditation cushions for my Aikido teacher so that we can dive a little deeper into sharing my meditation experience with the school.

I'm also preparing menus for both a visit from Kaz Tanahashi at the end of this month and Brad Warner at the end May.  I'm hoping to spend some time with Kaz talking about his Aikido practice with O-Sensei so long ago.  Brad's visit will happen during our summer practice period when he'll conduct a 1-day sitting for the Houston Dharma Punx group.

Last weekend, I finished sewing my rakusu and presented to Vicki, our wonderful sewing teacher.  As far as I know jukai for me is scheduled along with several others May 21 during the practice period.  That'll be followed up at the end of June with our summer sesshin where I'm expecting that I'll have full control over the kitchen.

Now that some of the aspects of my life that have been drifting have anchors, I should be able to get back into my routine of posting more regularly.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Every Moment is Your Life

My last post got a comment that I wanted to respond to with a long explanation that, as I began writing it, I realized, "hey! this is my blog. I can just write a post in response."  To those of you who read but don't comment, oh what you could be missing out on. So I promised to do so and here it is:

The comment, or portion of the comment that spoke to me was this:
But in reality, look at today's world and the competition facing each person.... how many individuals would afford the time to truly enjoy his/her personal space? I would say not many. People who can afford to go leisure travelling, or birds watching or moon viewing are usually retired people or people who are very rich. They have taken care of the major financial part of their life and they can afford the time and money in hobbies making.
This has theme has been popping up in my life recently in so many aspects of my study.  The first place it really struck me was on the last page of chapter 4 of Uchiyama Roshi's How to Cook Your Life, a commentary on the Tenzo Kyokun.  The chapter's title is "Everything You Encounter Is Your Life." He says,

I wonder if there are not many people today who suffer because they feel themselves to be poor or misfortunate, or who have an inferiority complex because they think they belong to the lowest level of society.  To me, this is foolish, since they are only thinking in terms of their being but one member of society.  Living out the true Self means to put away these ideas of upper or lower, success or failure, and to learn to see that everything we encounter is our life, our true Self.  The expression "I alone am revered in heaven and earth," though generally referring to Shakyamuni Buddha, is not limited to him. It applies to every one of us.
... There is no need to compare ourselves with those around us, nor to put ourselves into awkward and painful situations.  Rather it is vital for us to take the utmost care of that world in which we live out our total Self.  This is the fundamental spirit running through the Tenzo Kyokun.    (emphasis mine)
 This concept is unbelievably profound yet we hear it all the time, "now is all that matters!", "stay in the moment!","there is no past or future."  But how many of us live that idea, really live it?

This seems to be the ox that I'm searching for right now, I've got a whole herd of them and they've all escaped, but this one in particular is on my list.  I've seen its tracks in that I see the practicality of holding this viewpoint as a lifestyle, maybe I've even glanced it as truth among the distractions of life a few times.  It has yet to present itself fully, though, so I continue to seek it.

I have a lot of things to distract me right now, and many of them are unpleasant.  But as I go about my day doing chores and running errands, there are times that I feel at peace and a little happy.  Every day is full of more and more of them. Walking to the car, I know there are problems waiting for me in the future, but that's okay.  When they become that moment, they will be dealt with, for now just walk to the car.  The sky is beautifully blue, the breeze is pleasant on my face, my belly is full and I'm easily walking on my own free will.  How can I compare these with other pleasures, especially those of they who have more money than I?

And isn't it constantly pointed out to us that money can't buy happiness?  How many of the rich and powerful are miserable every moment despite their wealth and leisure time?

Every moment is your life, not someone else's.  Every moment is charged with all of existence, there is nothing outside of it.  So help me take this advice and do your best to live it as well.

Thank you cicidabee, for reading and commenting. I appreciate the inspiration.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Floating World: an Anchor Would Be Nice

... Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; ... refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world...
                                                     - Asai Ryōi, from Ukiyo monogatari   

I lifted this quote from wikipedia concerning the philosophical aesthetic of  the Ukiyo-e, which as a style, has long appealed to me.  It sounds so very Bohemian and so desirable, like an endless vacation.

Lacking the daily structure of a job for almost a year now, I can say it's not all it's cracked up to be.

The flip side of this carefree coin is one of constant unknown which is fine if you don't plan on being a productive member of society.  Sure you can benefit others if the opportunity arises, but living in the moment sometimes means making commitments and pre-planning.

Great Wave at Kanagawa*
Living in this floating world in reality, is being set adrift.  As a sailor, I can tell you that being adrift is about the slowest you can move and still be terrified that you're either unavoidably going to hit something or conversely never hit anything again.  Even when the helm responds, conditions may be such that that desire of direction is ineffectual in practice.

As I am currently seeking employment, I can't make future commitments and jot them down on a calender as I have no idea what my future holds.  At this time my role as tenzo has many requests for my services coming into view and as paying the bills rates higher on my priorities, I'm not able to make the commitment now even if I have the time when it is requested.

This is both frustrating and disappointing as I not only take my role and responsibility seriously, my pleasure and generosity associated with it come from a very deep and sincere place inside of me.  The sangha needs me and while things can happen without me, the greater burden placed on others will essentially be my fault if I'm not able to answer the call.

In my continuing exploration of non-duality, I see this relating to the polarity of form and emptiness.  I see lack of form, and thus a great deal of emptiness in my days.  I still get things done, even if it's not always what I should be doing, but moments come and go regardless.  To restore balance, I need more form as my current situation is unsettling, like tumbling in the dark, or to return to the above metaphor: floating adrift.

I see the need to recognize both form and emptiness as the world doesn't end if a form falls apart, but right now the world is difficult to start without forms.

Floating is nice, but it's good to have an anchor or two.

*This iconic Hokusai print, borrowed from Wikimedia Commons, is an ukiyo-e image depicting boats of fishermen struggling against the sea.  It shows a wonderful example of when it is appropriate to be flexible.  These fishermen are brave and skillful, as they must push through the breakers to reach their fishing grounds.  But there is a difference between being flexible and flaccid.  Without effort, they would capsize and be crushed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Words, What's the Point? or Stupid Non-Duality...

I'm sure it's just a stage, like those one passes through when dealing with grief.  If that's the case, I have no choice but to fully throw myself into it and wallow in the frustrating paradox that is coming to grips with non-duality.

A big issue with Zen teachings is their stereotypical "illogical" nature made famous by the promotions of D.T. Suzuki.*  I had pretty much wrapped my mind around the emptiness of words and how we shouldn't rely on them when practical experience is a better teacher, but having experienced directly a handful of things that, in the light (or should I say "darkness") of non-duality, are inexpressible in words; my heart has not been so pliant.

Remembering a post by Shundo at The Ino's Blog concerning the use of jargon at San Francisco's City Center, inspiration struck.

We're always told that only a realized teacher can confirm "enlightenment" experiences and I'd more or less just taken this on faith.  They see that you get "it" enough, so yeah, the experience is valid.  But when it comes to koans not having fixed answers, I just didn't understand how this could work.

Just as a visitor wouldn't really know what the "doshi door" was without experiencing it, we can't really know the true nature of anything without experiencing it.  People can give descriptions, even show you pictures, but until you actually experience it, your only reference of the door is secondary sources, shallow imitations of the real deal.

In having misunderstands/disagreements about the meaning of terms, or even whole and fundamental teachings, with people online and in person, I do and have realized that we really are talking about the same thing, but that our concepts of what the words we use mean, are different.

I've long felt that people are who they are because they are comprised of their experiences, built up as individuals by a lifetime of events and influences.**  All of these situations have determined how we see the world and how we define the things around us.

Words, being abstract representations of these experiences, only have meaning because we have all agreed up their meaning, this is how language develops.  Someone says, "This is a ball, from now on, you see one of these and call it a ball, I'll know what you're talking about." Everyone agrees and we have one idea of what a ball is.  Something else shaped the same way, the same size, color and everything pops up and we have a dilemma. Do we agree that this new object is a ball, too, or do we call it something else?  So now we have criteria for what a ball is.***

But abstract ideas add a new dimension to this because we can't point to them.  (I could write a whole book on this phenomena, but then I'd have wasted my time because that's what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about.)  I'm very fond of the idea of words as fingers pointing to the truth so this is a metaphor that pops up for me a lot.

Each moment of our existence is different from those around us, so the rules that we assign to our existence are different.  Most notably the difference between right and wrong is a good example.  Given an individual's upbringing the appropriate way to interact with authority figures can be drastically different, giving them a different sense of right and wrong.  I could go deeper into this, but I hope you get where I'm going.

When it comes to our experience of reality, this causes trouble until we have an experience in which we glimpse its true nature.  The words we use to communicate our experience to a teacher are direct references, and if we're lucky our words will point at the same thing our teacher's understanding looks towards.  Until we have that experience ourselves (like seeing the doshi door) our fingers just point at other fingers and our experience isn't direct.

(I hope you're still with me.)

Words, unfortunately will always just point, so all I can do is point and hope you understand, not what I'm pointing to, but that this sign I'm holding up is understood to even point.  So I'll just keep pointing, not expecting anyone to understand or even read this blog just like I did at the very beginning. 

Maybe the mountains are becoming mountains again, they sure seem to be trying.


 *I've more or less given up on his works as a practical reference as I don't think he really knew what he was talking about.  Sure in a talking "about" way, he did.  He was talking circles around the truth, but never pointing directly at it.  Scholarly analysis just doesn't do Zen justice and as a practitioner, this was one of the first gates I passed through finally after ten years of intellectual study.

**Later Buddhism gave me a framework for expressing this. Since these are the heaps/aggregates/skandhas, that are fundamentally empty, the "face we had before our parents were born" is like the blank canvas or empty vessel that all of this goes into.  This is not however, a belief of environment over genetics determining who we are since genetics have evolved as a response to the environment of our ancestors ("before our parents were born") as well as forms of life and even the planet, then stars, making the history of the entire universe influential in who we are in every moment of our lives.  Thus, that "face" is the self independent of phenomena, the absolute primordial inexpressible action/actor.

***When I took an intro to philosophy class in college, one of our discussions was an epistemological argument concerning whether or not it was possible to distinguish whether one of two objects, having identical properties, was removed a second time from a box or if it was the one left behind the first time.  Hating hypothetical questions for their assumptions, I questioned whether one of the identical properties was that it was really one object existing simultaneously in two places.  This blew the lid off the conversation, effectively ruining it, but it's a hypothesis that's stuck with me. Eventually, I mean to post about this. (if you have a comment about this, just encourage me to write the post and we'll discuss it then)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Shut Up!"

Living with the themes of non-duality has made writing very difficult for me right now.  This was the major theme of our retreat two weeks ago and its effect has been interesting.  A lot of the things I had queued up to write about don't mean what they used to in this new light and I now struggle to put into words what I really mean.

Almost two months ago, I started to dive into the Sandokai, well it's English translation actually, titled "The Harmony of Difference and Equality."  It's a poem about non-duality by eighth century teacher Shitou Xiqian (or Sekito Kisen in Japanese).  He wrote it around the time that the fallout from the division created when the Fifth Patriarch in China chose the uneducated Hui-neng as his successor leading to the difference of Northern and Southern Zen.  If you're not familiar with this story, it's in the Platform Sutra, check it out.

The Sandokai is an invitation to reconcile the differences between the Northern and Southern Schools at a time where there was a lot of dualistic talk distinguishing the validity of different perspectives on the same truth, the buddhadharma.

I'm making my way through Branching Streams Flow in the Dark, a collection of Suzuki Roshi's talks on this important poem in the Soto tradition.  When examined through my "practice eye" so much of it makes sense, but its meaning goes beyond words and even if I use my own words to describe my own understanding, it doesn't seem adequate to me, and I know exactly what I'm trying to say so you should be able to sense my frustration.

Instead of banging my head against the wall, I'll express a sentiment that Suzuki Roshi felt Sekito was trying to express and tell everyone, including myself to just "shut up!"
I am following Sekito's poem line by line, but actually it is necessary to read it straight through from beginning to end.  If you talk about it piece by piece it doesn't make much sense.  Sekito is very strict in his conclusion, very strict.  You cannot escape from him.  You cannot say anything or else you will feel his big stick.  In his time the Zen world was too noisy, so he became very angry.  "Shut up!" is what he said, actually.  So I shouldn't talk so long.  Maybe it's been too long.  Excuse me.
 So, I'm not giving up, I still have things to say.  But I think Suzuki Roshi's observation about eighth century China applies to the world today.  The Zen world is very noisy today.  Rather than losing my temper and becoming angry, I am trying to become comfortable with this issue.  But it's still a little frustrating.

I see a lot of similarity between the things I have to say in observing divisive talk between different Buddhist factions online, as well as other religious discussions.  I see the dharma in each, why can't they just be alright knowing they're just on different paths up the same mountain?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

So Much Stuff: Post-retreat Thoughts from the Tenzo

Sunday I came back from the culmination of two weeks worth of effort for a five day retreat led by Tenshin Reb Anderson, Roshi.  This was different from Rohatsu Sesshin in that we were hosted by a another Zen Center in a rural area outside Houston.  They provided us with housing, a building to use as a zendo, and a wonderful kitchen.  We were just required to bring all the stuff necessary to make those facilities usable for our needs.

We basically brought everything from our own zendo that wasn't nailed down (with the exception of the altar and our statuary, using a wonderful Vairochana Buddha instead), nearly everything in our kitchen but the sink, as well as all of our personal stuff that we'd need throughout the five days.

Apparently it's official since everyone called me such and my place card in the zendo read "tenzo." I still don't quite feel I deserve the title tenzo, since I still had a great deal of help from both my teacher, Gaelyn, both before and during the retreat, as well as Dale Kent, co-author of Tassajara Dinners and Desserts, former tenzo himself with loads of experience in the kitchen at Tassajara.  Both were a tremendous help, but everyone was intent on giving me all of the credit.

So I mentioned two weeks worth of effort. The food at retreats doesn't just appear and a great deal of planning and purchasing happened before the retreat. 

A lot. 

One shopping list reads "38 large carrots, 40 onions, 7 doz eggs, 10# cornmeal.." going on for three pages and being just one of a couple lists.

As we were loading up the cars for the 45 minute drive will produce, dry and canned goods, and dairy along with pots, serving dishes, knives and utensils, it seemed overwhelming.  I would essentially be responsible for making sure that initially 26 and, as the weekend arrived, 45 people were fed three times a day for five days.  The sheer amount of stuff required for this task was daunting.

One thing Reb brought up a few times was how much stuff we brought with us to make this retreat happen and what a great feat this was, but as the week progressed, as tenzo I saw it as a metaphor.

We had brought with us a whole lot of stuff.  Essentially the only things we had were what we brought with us.  As the week progressed in the kitchen, as each meal came up, we examined the ingredients, processed them, then let them be with compassion, offering them to the community.  Slowly the piles of stuff got smaller and our burden was lessened. 

Yes we still had a lot of stuff in the form of implements and leftovers, but there was definitely less.  Upon returning there would be more stuff again, but we would remember what it was like to have so much and to let some of it go.

All of us at the retreat, brought with us a lot of emotional baggage.  Just like the food in the kitchen, as we sat, we examined our thoughts, processed them then let them be with compassion.  At the end of the week, there was still stuff floating around in our heads and hearts with lots more of it waiting for us upon returning, but we would know what it was like to let so much of it go and not only that it was possible, but how wonderful it could be.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Response to "Lineage Delusions: Eido Shimano Roshi, Dharma Transmission, and American Zen"

Before I run off to next week's retreat with Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi, I've got to loose these feelings about this highly recommended (and agreed with by those who have recommended it to me) essay/article by Erik Fraser Storlie on Sweeping Zen concerning the controversy surrounding Shimano Roshi as well as the validity of Dharma Transmission as an institution and its role in the future of American Zen.

I happen to strongly disagree with almost every argument in this piece and find it borderline offensive.

First of all, I'd like to address the statement that spiritual leaders of Eastern traditions in America engage in inappropriate behavior which is then explained away as a teaching is taken out of context.  This implies that these teachers willingly and intentionally engage in these behaviors for the express purpose of teaching us a lesson.  I find this as ridiculous as the author, but not for his reason.  These behaviors are referred to as teachings in an accidental way.  Happenstance has provided us with this series of events, and as good bodhisattvas, we see the dharma gate and walk right in.  These are not intentional lessons, they are examples of imperfect people doing imperfect things, which I'll get back to later.

I don't know the specifics of the situation's history or supposed cover up, but for my point, I don't think that matters.  I may not even have been in the know about this scene for very long, but what I do know is what I've been told and what I've experienced for myself.

Do I think it's a shame that unsuspecting individuals were hurt by teachers of the practice that I believe in and follow myself taking advantage of their authority? Yes, I do and it is tragic.

Do I think this is a one way street where an irresistible authority overwhelmed an individual, who even if not helpless and trusting, would have been seduced anyway?  No, I don't.  But that also doesn't mean that this wasn't a case of a vulnerable and trusting person being taken advantage of.

On this point, I'd have to agree with Brad Warner that authority figures only have the power that we agree to let them have.  This opinion is not coming from some sycophantic blogger that can't think on his own; this makes real sense and can't be argued against. 

I have been taught, and verified myself, that Zen is about discovering the illusionary quality of what we hold to be true.  That, like scientists, we should doubt what we observe (or are told) until we're able to confirm it through experimentation and thus experience the truth for ourselves.  It's not about dismissing the objects of the senses, but just not blindly trusting them.  Given these instructions, why would I wholeheartedly and blindly agree with anything a teacher told me without testing it myself?

I want to know where these "masters" are that are said to:

“dwell in the absolute,” or is a lineage holder in “crazy wisdom,” or can raise the kundalini energy, or read our chakras and past lives, or help “burn up” our karma, or is offering to share our wife, husband, girlfriend, or boyfriend so as to assist us in breaking our unfortunate attachments – all of this, of course, to stretch us beyond our parochial notions of right and wrong and bring us to the ultimate attainment enjoyed by the master himself (the master almost invariably being male)
  - cause I'd say "thanks, but I think samsara's a better deal."  Sure some people would fall for this, but surely not enough serious practitioners under him, and especially not his peers or superiors.  To what kind of ridiculously poisonous teachers has the author been exposed?

Sure, tradition expresses such poetic sentiments concerning Zen teachers as "dwelling in the absolute" or "realized masters," but this doesn't make them perfect.  Anyone who has spent any amount of time around a teacher with their minds open will have seen them make a mistake, this doesn't accord with perfection.

These individuals are recognized as having "realized" the true nature of the Dharma, not "actualized" it; they're not assumed to be Buddha.  They're still working on life.  Just because they know all the rules to the game now, doesn't mean they can win.  Because they're recognized by their teachers as knowing the rules, they're allowed to teach them to others, but enlightenment cannot be taught, you have to win it yourself.

We play the game against Mara, and the more we play the better we get.  The Buddha just got so good that Mara couldn't beat him anymore.

So the matter of authority and the legitimacy of Dharma Transmission comes down to one question: Do the rules this teacher is telling me sound like they'd help me win this game against suffering?  We must further explore and inform our answer to this question by asking if it looks like the teacher is, in fact playing by those rules and do they seem to be winning themselves.  Yes, this will take a serious investment of time and effort for us to find out for ourselves.

As the author states "the most important thing we can bring to these inquiries ... is our sincerity and selflessness."  There's where the sincerity comes into play.  If we're serious about getting to the root of it, we must be sincere in our practice.

But we must tie that in with selflessness, if things don't seem right, we should set aside our egocentric opinions and accept our losses, remembering the lessons we've learned and move on. This is where so many get caught up and look the other way, allowing abuse to happen.  If we are sincere about our practice, as in defining what I expect my teacher to teach me as Soto Zen in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi, we would question the teachings if they are not in accord with our ideal.  If the teacher's answer is unsatisfactory, we should go to others with our questions, or at worst, concerns.*

This presents a contradiction to the author's statement implying that American Zen is not democratic, contrasting it with the first pioneers seeking religious freedom.  "Their polity was congregational, where the minister served at the pleasure of the congregants."  We're not enslaved by our teachers.  If I didn't like a teacher, I'd leave, even if it means going without.  If enough people "vote with their feet," the powers that be will question the right for that teacher to be teaching unsupervised.

Are there individuals that have the authority to teach who still struggle with their own practice?  I challenge anyone to show me one who honestly believes that he or she doesn't.   Are there individuals who have the authority to teach who shouldn't?  Show me any organization with teacher student/relationships that doesn't.

To dismiss the tradition of Dharma Transmission for this reason is ridiculous.  In every game there are players who try to play by their own rules, sometimes they even win, but if I may reverse a popular saying, "Hate the player, not the game."  What makes individuals, and even organizations, believe that if they set stricter rules, these rule breakers will follow them, they'll just get sneakier about it.  Why do you think lawyers have such bad reputations?  It's because they know all the rules.

The author also seems to believe that Dharma Transmission is also holding American Zen back, preventing it from speaking to people, or becoming "more than an odd, idiosyncratic subculture."  It speaks to me!  It speaks to countless numbers of American, as well as European and even African practitioners!

What keeps it the way the author views it is that it's misunderstood.  How can you blame the phenomena of Dharma Transmission on this when the average American has no idea what that is and when asked what they think about Zen, they're likely reply is "Isn't that some form of Buddhism... like from Japan?"   What does Dharma Transmission have to do with that?

Yes, it's from Japan.  Yes, we do dress weird and chant funny things in Japanese and sometimes Pali.  We bow to statues have other weird rituals.  But these are forms, and what does the Heart Sutra say about forms?

They're all empty!

The average American is not aware of this beautiful and subtle teaching.  They live in a world where people that do those types of things often take offense when they're told how ridiculous that kind of behavior is and has no basis in reality, while our tradition celebrates that fact and still takes it seriously!

One interpretation of the first Pure Precept, usually read a vow against doing evil, is to embrace and sustain all forms and ceremonies.  I find these two related because evil can be equated with chaos.  While we recognize the emptiness of these forms and ceremonies, to act formlessly would be chaotic, and dissrespective of nature which is both chaotic and harmonious.  We practice these specific forms out of tradition, knowing that it's their purpose of practice that matters not their content.

These traditions include Dharma Transmission which is a form as well.

 Does it really matter if Shakyamuni attained a mind of absolute perfection?  Does it really?  Right here in the moment where we're told to live?

And how could Mahakasyapa have "attained this perfect mind" if there's nothing to attain?

The rationale behind celebrating a "an unbroken chain of such 'mind to mind' transmissions has descended, generation after generation, in a known lineage, down to today’s living dharma heirs" isn't to show how important and pure the teachings have been throughout the ages, it's to show us today how importantly we should consider the business of involving ourselves in that legacy ourselves.  Sure, it's a romantic notion that adds depth and meaning to the tradition, but do I need to debate whether or not some person who lived halfway around the planet 1500 years ago with a name I can't even pronounce, living in a world I can never understand not only realized his own Buddha nature under the guidance of a realized teacher, but was successful in pointing a successor to the same realization?  Does it really impact the veracity and effectiveness of the teaching?

Even if the lineage existed historically and somewhere along the line there are a few spots where Dharma Transmission was incorrectly issued, if someone learns enough of the rules to win, they may figure out some of the others on their own.  What really matters is winning against delusion.

One thing I do agree on, is that author was correct in refusing Dharma Transmission, not for the reasons that would immediately come to mind, though.  I respect him, and he probably deserves it.  I still accept his teachings as valid, and as an experienced Zen practitioner in the same general lineage as myself see it as Zen.

Why do I think it  was the right decision, then?  Because to him it's a prize to be won in an ass-kissing contest, a piece of paper to be held up declaring "listen to me, what I say is true and unquestionable!"  If that's how I viewed it, I wouldn't want it either.  Accepting lineage papers in that mindset, they would be good for nothing more than wiping the Truth of the buddhadharma off the ass that is the ego.

*To preserve the good name of our ideal, actions to defend it must take place.  If someone says what they're teaching is Zen or Buddhism, and it's not or they're admitting to trying to make it less esoteric or more accessible, then it's not Zen or Buddhism.  I have no problem with the majority of people doing this, they just shouldn't call it what it's not.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Television, DVRs, and Getting What We Want

During dokusan this week , this idea came to mind about not always getting what we want. 

Now, I'm a grown up so while I may not live it all the time, I do know that I can't always get what I want.  Yes, it's a seductive fantasy, but realistically it has its drawbacks.

In trying to communicate my comfort with this position on the matter, I equated it as like watching tv with no commercials.

Traditionally, you turn on the tv and flip through the channels looking for something to watch.  If you don't find something that interests you, too bad, deal with it or turn it off.  This is life: you're born, you wander through life and you either deal with it, or (as the comparison implies) you off yourself.

There are programs we don't like and commercials for things we'll never buy.  These are like the hard times in life.

The good times are our favorite programs, we just can't get enough of them.  Sometimes we even tape them so we can watch them again and again.

The widespread use of the DVR has changed all of that.  In our household, we watch our favorite shows off of the DVR so much that we don't even know when they normally come on.  Even though we have dozens upon dozens of channels, after scanning the few we normally watch and finding nothing we go straight to the DVR to catch up on what we've missed.  While we watch, we have the ability to fast forward through commercials, skipping over the obnoxious part of watching television, the part that pays the bills so that our favorite shows can even be made!

We can search to find when our shows will be on so that we can record that new series we've been hearing so much about.  Some shows and movies are even available instantly on demand.

In our constant struggle with handling life as it is now, our entertainment has led to this.  How many of us would like so much for life to be this way: summoning our favorite parts of life and skipping through all of the bad.

This is the fertile field of context where my thought sprouted.

There are two types of commercials, those that sell products and those that promote other shows.  Skipping through the commercials, we lose out on both. 

Yes, we've all seen that one commercial a million times and blow it off each time, thinking "who would want that?" or in the case of car commercials, "who can afford that?!"  So we become cynical about these types of commercials and ignore them.  But every once in a while something does appeal: a sale here, a new product there.  Look what we would have missed out on if we hadn't seen the commercial?

There are commercials of the other type, promoting shows, that just anger me in how mindless the product they are promoting is, reinforcing this feeling, "that show's still on? who the hell enjoys that?"  I'd love to be rid of these.  But what about that commercial for that show I've not heard of?  "Hey, that sounds appealing. I should watch that."  Once again, I would have missed out on what may become my new favorite show.

This is what life is like.  There are things we want to watch and sometimes the things we need to watch are mixed in with what we don't want.  Sometimes life can even go the other way and get unbalanced like suffering through the Super Bowl just to see that commercial everyone will be talking about on Monday.

Some good examples of how this shows up in life... hmm.   Well how many of us are happy and in good relationships (or even happy and single)?  This can't possible be the first relationship you've been in, or at least the first person you've liked.  How many times have you been rejected?  But now look at you, would you have found that perfect someone if you were still stuck in that one sided abusive relationship with that narcissist you dated a few years back? (If they're reading this with you, just smile and nod, exclaiming "of course not!" if you're a little confused at this point.  Trust me, that's the right answer)

Or what about that job that didn't work out?  Nobody wants a crumby job where they perform so poorly out of displeasure that they get fired.  Even getting rejected from several job interviews has it's upside in that you have the opportunity to improve.

I myself, have dealt with these things.  So many unpleasant occurrences that have shaped me into the well rounded and grounded person that I am today.  I have so many interests that I wouldn't have even dreamt of if one thing or another had gone the way I wanted them to.

Now's the point where you expect me to tell you to get rid of the DVR and stop wanting things to go your way, right?

Well that's the funny thing about Buddhism.  The DVR, and desires, are alright if we remain aware of what exactly they are and what we may be missing out on by indulging them.  We have every right to want things, even those that we don't need.  When they cause trouble is when we begin to feel entitled to them, when they get in the way of enjoying what we have now.  If it helps to consider what others have to do without, then go for it.  Maybe give up using the DVR so much and suffer through a few commercials?  It couldn't hurt, might even learn something.  But neither of these things are asked of you.

So many Buddhists talk about extinction of desire or craving, but that's not truly possible.  Even that itself is a desire.  What the truth of the matter is, the way to satisfaction and shaking the grip suffering has on your life is the extinction of the hold desire has on you. 

Take control back.

I find irony in this coming holiday.  Society tells us to give candy to those society tells to be skinny.  With this in mind, is it alright to desire another piece of chocolate? Yes.  Accept it as natural, but don't think the world revolves around you eating or not eating it.  If you eat it, eat it; if you don't move on.

This is Zen, accept the obstacle, make a decision and move on.  This is the key to happiness.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

De-Sire Is Not a River in Egypt

There's a lot of talk about desire, wanting, and detachment in Buddhism that's often misunderstood.  Desire is considered the cause of suffering so a lot of people think we're supposed to get rid of it.

But what makes it so bad?  We're not ascetics so getting rid of it is a little extreme.

I've recently been finding a lot of interesting dualities, the kind that exist as opposite sides of the same coin.  Desire and denial are two that have popped up.  Desire is usually associated with wanting, you give in to it and end up wallowing in excess.  Give in to denial and you go the other way, living with nothing.

In the whole mix of mindfulness and living in the moment, denial and desire are very much related. 

When we desire something, it's usually because we're unhappy with the way things are.  We want something we don't have, or want something to be different in the past, present or future.  In this way, desire is a denial of what really is.  We deny the reality of the moment.

Getting rid of desire is like taking medicine to control the symptoms rather than the disease.  Sometimes a headache is just a headache, just as wanting that flashy phone or juicy cheeseburger is just a want.  But other times a headache is something more.

Families or loved ones are often considered one such "headache" by some.  They find distress in loving their families when being told to give up attachments and desires.

In this situation what is it that desire denies?  Our desire to care and protect those we love is a good thing, giving us reason to be balanced and productive in life.  Any denial involved in doing so is healthy, usually considered compassionate. 

Where desire causes problems is when they're not met.  All desires are are preconceived notions of what we want life to be.  Just like all preconceived ideas, they're usually not founded in reality.  Even if we get what we believe our desires to be fulfilled, they almost never match up with what expected and even if they do, the thrill dissipates over time.

This is the type of desire we're warned against.  It'll still happen, there's no way to get rid of it.  We're hardwired to want more because our bodies can never be permanently satisfied.

This is where attachment comes into play.  If we get hooked on the dissatisfaction with not having out desires met, we continue to deny reality.  This is the root of suffering.  Having desires is okay, it's not letting go of them when they don't measure up.

Taking families as an example, no one's family is perfect.  The one's that are happy with their families are the ones that accept this.  Letting go of that standard prevents dissatisfaction.

Standards are relative and mostly arbitrary so it's not the desires that cause the issues so much as our unwillingness to realize the nature of our standards and holding on to them.

Reality is as it is, our actions have brought us to where we are.  Denying reality puts us at odds with truth, making us unhappy.

Only through being aware of this gives us the perspective to correct our views and behaviors.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Right Effort with Open Hands

Since my illness over the holidays, I haven't been able to resume my more normal, recent sleep schedule and slipped back into my late nights and late mornings.  Part of this is because, without a job or school, I haven't had all that much a reason to get up early leading to insomnia.

With little to do and my frustrations in organizing my internship for school, this has snowballed into a mild depression.

There's nothing novel about depression for me, it's just been a while.  What's odd about this time around is I now have the tools of my practice as a lens to view it through.  In a way this makes it easier since I am aware of what's causing me to feel this way and what needs to happen for it to go away. On the other hand, I'm aware of what's causing it and what needs to happen for it to go away and the ridiculous nature of my inability to make it go away is rather frustrating.

A big part of it is, as I stated above, sleeping in.  In Being Upright, Reb Anderson Roshi relates Suzuki Roshi's answer as to what constitutes Right Effort: getting up as soon as the alarm goes off.  Now, it's just too easy to hit the snooze button and get that extra few minutes of sleep that usually turns into a few hours.  With nothing all that pressing to do, at the moment any sort of effort seems necessary.  So I fall into my old habit of making excuses.

Not getting up is causing my inability to go to sleep when I need to and staying up is making getting up at a decent time harder.  So the cycle continues with my old excuses getting in my way.  All it would take is a couple days and I could probably fix it.  So simple, but it's a hump I just can't get myself over.  The end of last week I made progress in rising early enough to cook my girlfriend breakfast to go.

I don't think that this on its own would be that much of an issue, but part of what set this off is the fact that the internship I've been chasing after the past month hasn't come together and a lot of it has been a waiting game that I just had to ride out.  As the time is running out, I'm getting myself together and exploring other options, but this will cause big problems in my life if I don't get it set up.

So Right Effort slips in again.  In true form, it's one step in the Eightfold Path that, if pursued, would help end my suffering.

In doing my best to accept this series of situations with open hands, I see that I had been getting lazy in how easygoing life had been for a while.  I knew that things were bound to get hard again sooner or later.  I was enjoying life at the top of the Wheel of Samsara, but knowing it was bound to go back down and actually riding it down are two completely different things.

I understand the concepts of purification by fire, burning off delusion or making for a stronger character.  This definitely helps me accept the situation intellectually, but in the moment there is still clinging and aversion.  Until I'm able to just relax and do what needs to be done and let go what needs to go, the best I can do is just keep trying knowing it won't happen if I don't put forth the effort.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What Is It About Ignorance in Others That Bugs Us?

Listening to someone speak of their troubles relating to a coworker the other night, specifically with the coworker's intractable ignorant bigotry, got me wondering what it is that prevents us from just accepting these "flaws" in others.

First of all we have to realize that there is a reason they feel the way they do and why it's different than how we feel.  The events of their lives have resulted in circumstances that have led them to believe what they do.  From their perspective we're the ones with flawed views.  Accepting this, is it really fair to say they're "wrong"?  All that we try to cultivate in ourselves as Buddhists says no.  After all, we're full of ignorance ourselves.

I think it's that we see another's opinion and we see difference, a difference that we don't like.  We see it as separate from ourselves and it's just the fact that something is apart from ourselves that we find fundamentally upsetting; the content of that difference doesn't matter.  When our efforts to make our opinions theirs fails, we get frustrated.

But it's just one person, what's the big deal?  Surely other people see how ignorant their views are, right?  Well, those views came from somewhere and usually it's from another person.  It's this contagious nature of hurtful ideas that lies at the root of our need to correct the problem and we try so urgently to correct the problem at its source.  We don't want that which is different to spread, further isolating ourselves from the universe around us.

What we have to remember is that people who hold strong opinions hold them strongly, they're not open to new ideas.  We end up hitting an immovable object with our preaching/educating, furthering the antagonistic nature of the relationship.

It's not that they're a lost cause, but it's in those around both of you that you stand the greatest chance of making an impact.  But preaching is often met with resistance, even if those that hear are likely to agree with the ideals being spoken of.  Words are not only easy to ignore, they're also easy to fake and there are plenty of examples of people preaching but not practicing.

So forget the preaching, we can only change ourselves and be a good example.  The message of Buddhism is not to spread Buddhism, but to realize our own true potential.

By doing our best to do this, by being accepting of others, taking responsibility for our own actions, and living in the moment, others may see us as positive role models.

What this all really boils down to is accepting the choices of others, knowing that we can only control ourselves.  We can't force anyone to change their minds, but by being good people they may take our examples.  Without uttering a singe word to try to convince them, we lead by example.  In this way we are able to fulfill our vow to save all beings.

This doesn't only apply to Buddhists, but to not only anyone practicing any faith based on love, but also those who hold no faith at all. 

When you try to force something on someone, or even just convince them of something, you give them something to resist.  Keep this in mind.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Last of the Old Candles, Snuffed Out

I've written about the traumatic experience of moving away from St. Louis before, but what I haven't touched on is the slow death of the sense of home I get on visits back.

At first it started as a disconnection from friends and familiar places that were no longer visited since we spent most of our time 4o minutes away at my grandparents' house or near there at my aunt's. Over the years, the city itself changed; new development here, a new highway there, an old familiar business closed.

It didn't even really have all that much to do with establishing new roots somewhere else because those old places existed as memories in who I am. But I still felt it slowly slipping away.

I know that it's the people that matter, but places provide context and can be just as important.

That being said, before this last trip to St. Louis for the holidays, I learned that my mom's parents would be moving out of their home of many many years. It's the only home my dad has known them to live in. I spent a lot of my childhood there growing up. It was one of the first places I drove to unsupervised when I got my driver's license without needing directions.

Needless to say, this weighed heavily on my mind before, during and after this trip. It would be the last time I would be walking through that familiar door that sticks, leaving my shoes at the bottom of the stairs with my coat and heading up into the house. It would be the last time I'd smell that familiar smell, so many last times with no real closure.

Everyone else lives in homes that I remember them moving into, places I remember as being a new experience. This was the last of Old Places that existed in my memories before they were mine and it would never be mine in the same way again.

I remember feeling this way when we moved out of our first house at the age of twelve. I was too young to remember living anywhere else. With the house dark and empty, being there for the last time was sad but I remember that there was nothing I could do about it. Each move was easier and my parents no longer live in our San Antonio home. I'm not sure if I've gotten better with coping or if my roots don't dig in as far.

I know loss is part of life and I'll get over it, but that doesn't make it any less painful in the moment. For now I just have to be happy that all of my family is healthy and that I have no reason to fear any other loss for quite a while.

Sorry for the unintended hiatus. I'd intended to write a post before my travels comparing zazen to travel but after putting it off this hit me. Without time to write while in St. Louis I lost out on the opportunity. My health turned while in Dallas and prevented my intended return, so another week later I've found time and have returned.