Monthly Archives: March 2010

15Mar

Giving in All Its Forms

It seems that so many of the people who I meet in the Zen community are “givers,” caretakers, providing direct service to others. At Saturday’s priest ordination, I heard about Julia’s work on behalf of abused children. I know there are so many others who work in hospice, or do body work, or act as therapists or counselors, or social workers, or activists.

As I am wont to do, I lapse into not-very-helpful comparisons. What do I do? How do I help? What offering have I made to the world? Not that the questions themselves are without merit; they’re not. But the “I’m not as good as others” accompanying emotional state is more destructive than proactive.

Last week at work, after wrestling with this question for a few days, I realized that although my days at the office may not, on the surface, look like a traditional helping field, there are many ways that I do help others.

I work as a community journalist for a small town weekly newspaper, The Calistoga Tribune. I am not dealing with earth-shattering exposes or breaking headlines most of the time; what I am doing, though, is building community, helping people in a small town to share their stories and to make connections.

Two weeks ago I went to spend the afternoon with a group of teen-agers and some adult leaders who have just started a new program providing home-cooked, nutritious meals for cancer patients. The teens meet once a week and prepare wholesome, organic, nutrient-dense, restorative, and delicious foods, which they then deliver to those who have just come home from the hospital after undergoing major cancer treatment. The fledgling group is an off-shoot of a Sonoma County organization. It was a good story; the teens were enjoying themselves, learning to cook, feeling positive about themselves. They were providing an important service. It was activism and community involvement at its most grassroots level. All the kinks weren’t worked out yet; they didn’t have a commercial kitchen to work in, they were hoping to line up area chefs as mentors, and they wanted to establish connections with local food producers. But they were making a start.

The next week, the woman in charge of the group came in to pick up extra copies of the newspaper. She said that because of the story, two different offers of kitchens had been made. Several chefs contacted them and said they wanted to help. Others had phoned and said they, too, wanted to be involved. I had nothing to do with starting the group – but because of my story, they are going to be able to take their project to the next level.

We have a seniors activity group that meets weekly called Creative Living. They come together for a simple lunch, bingo, arts and crafts projects, entertainment, and conversation. The group is staffed entirely by senior volunteers, and recently much of the work has fallen on one or two people, who were getting overwhelmed. They came to us and asked if we could put out a call for help in the newspaper. We obliged, running two short notices, free of charge, talking about the group and its need for help. Their organizer came in tickled pink the next week, saying she had received three calls offering assistance.

We keep citizens informed about planning commission decisions and school board deliberations, track the impact of the recession on local shopkeepers, warn people about a rash of vehicle break-ins, and just generally help everyone stay “in the know.”

My co-workers and I build awareness about fundraisers by the Soroptimists and the Rotarians and the Kiwanis and the Lions so that these service groups can then turn that money into scholarships and grants and support for essential community services like the Family Center, local schools, and Migrant Farmworker Housing.

Perhaps one of the most important things that we do is give people recognition for the efforts they make in the community. Whether it is a successful student at the high school, or a octogenarian with a fascinating life history, or the Latino owner of a thriving business, we take photos and write stories, weaving these people into the fabric of this small town.

It is on the days that people come into the office to buy extra copies that I am reminded of the value of what we do. And it is good for me to then translate that into an understanding that giving comes in many different forms, each with its own value.

How do you give?

13Mar

In the World

(The conclusion of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls.”)

10. In the World

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Comment: Inside my gate, a thousand sages do not know me. The beauty of my garden is invisible. Why should one search for the footprints of the patriarchs? I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return home with my staff. I visit the wineshop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.
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Here, at the conclusion of the Zen story, is the real lesson. We do not seek the bull or knowledge of self (enlightenment) for our own benefit; it is so we may bring that expansion of self awareness and compassion out into the world.

Looking once again at this story as a metaphor for a single period of zazen: After we have sought the bull, found him, tamed him, led him home, transcended him…then the bell sounds at the end of the period, we stand and stretch our legs, and we turn and bow to those in our sangha. We finish the morning or evening with a service and dharma talk, and a discussion with our fellow practitioners, supporting each other in our practice by sharing of ourselves. That support can be through direct service, acting as doan or kokyo or tea server, or it can be through asking questions following the talk, or listening to answers. It can even be through something as simple as smiling at others as they arrive at the zendo, creating a community, making everyone feel that they belong.

I am humbled by how many of my fellow practitioners provide direct service to the world in their daily work, as therapists and body workers and counselors, working with the mentally ill, the sick, the aging, and the hurting. I have done that kind of work in the past, as a volunteer, working with the homeless and the hungry, and providing service to survivors of domestic violence and rape. Currently I am not doing any direct work like that, and I miss it. There is something very grounding in such work, even though it is often difficult, because there is a strong sense of connection with the world of dukkha, or suffering. I hope to find a way to return to that type of involvement in the world.

But for now, it is good for me to be reminded that simply being part of the sangha, showing up and participating, provides service, a way of going out into the world. And, of course, there is always the possibility that as my own life is transformed, even those I come into contact with outside of the Buddhist world will be touched in some way for the better.

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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

12Mar

Reaching the Source


(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls.”)

9. Reaching the Source

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without —
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Comment: From the beginning, truth is clear. Poised in silence, I observe the forms of integration and disintegration. One who is not attached to “form” need not be “reformed.” The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo, and I see that which is creating and that which is destroying.
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From the beginning, truth is clear. All that stuff in the middle – the seeking, and the heartbreak, and the wrong paths, on one hand, and the joy, and the self-satisfaction and the answers on the other hand – those were just things taking us away from the truth that already resided within us.
At least, that’s how I interpret this passage. I think this is referring to our inherent Buddha nature, the fact that each one of us is already a Buddha, and we need only awaken to that truth.

I like here the statements about each thing being just itself: The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red. The water is emerald, the mountain is indigo. Professor Eckel of Boston University, the lecturer from the Buddhism course I mentioned yesterday, used the example of the Japanese tea ceremony to demonstrate this re-finding of the truth. He said when you first begin to practice tea, a bowl is a bowl, and tea is tea. Then, as you reach a deeper understanding of the ceremony and of the aesthetic surrounding it, the bowl is no longer a bowl, and the tea is no longer tea.

But it doesn’t stop there. As you continue to practice, he says that you once again come back to the original truth: the bowl is a bowl, and tea is tea.

The answer is here within us all along. But that doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that all the seeking and questioning along the way has been a waste of time. Because that final understanding of truth, of the bowl as a bowl and the tea as tea, is more intensely present, more potent, thanks to the journey.

Besides, this is all about no regrets. At least on my path. I work on embracing the fact that it is only through my life, in all its messiness, that I could have ended up here. Dwelling in one’s true abode.

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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

11Mar

Both Bull and Self Transcended

(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls.”)

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Comment: Mediocrity is gone. Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. Since I linger in neither condition, eyes cannot see me. If hundreds of birds strew my path with flowers, such praise would be meaningless.

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If yesterday’s message was that two is one, today’s message is that one is none. I love the drawing here – just a circle, no bull, no self.

I like to think of “emptiness” as the color black. We think of black metaphorically as the absence of all things, of nothingness. And yet, as any painter will tell you, black is actually the presence of all colors, of everything. It is both nothing and all things.

The lines in the comments that speak to me are these: Mind is clear of limitation. I seek no state of enlightenment. Neither do I remain where no enlightenment exists. I have been listening to a lecture series on Buddhism from The Teaching College, given by a professor from Boston College. In it, he quotes the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna: Everything is possible for one for whom Emptiness is possible.

If everything is delusion, the bull, the self, then there are no barriers left. There is no more attainment. I do not seek nirvana as an escape from samsara (the cycle of birth and death), because there is no difference between nirvana and samsara. They are one and the same.

The illustration for this phase is the enso, a Japanese circle which represents enlightenment, the universe, and the void. It is an artistic expression purely of this moment. I sit down with my calligraphy brush and draw a circle, the only circle that exists right now. It is not limited by anything, because it exists both completely within everything and absolutely beyond everything.

Here lies the paradox of Zen. The more you try to explain it, the more it becomes a riddle. But perhaps we need riddles in order to step outside of our differentiating mind, our overwhelming urge to categorize and solve and label.

This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Ah, not messages, but dissolving snowflakes. No teachers, but only footprints of teachers. There is no here here. Wrap your mind around that!

(Sorry about the tardiness of the completion of this post. It was a 16 hour day at work yesterday, and although the spirit was willing, the body was weak…)
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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

10Mar

The Bull Transcended


(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls.”)

7. The Bull Transcended

Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Comment: All is one law, not two. We only make the bull a temporary subject. It is as the relation of rabbit and trap, of fish and net. It is as gold and dross, or the moon emerging from a cloud. One path of clear light travels on throughout endless time.
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We chanted the Shin Shin Ming tonight at sangha, The Mind of Absolute Trust. It is the oldest poem from Chinese Zen, that serves as a manifesto of sorts for the Zen path. Reading the comments today (all is one law, not two; of fish and net, one path) reminded me of this chant, because it is filled with seeming paradoxes, putting two disparate things next to each other and then stating that they are one and the same.

Examples from the chant include:
One instant is ten thousand years.
The tiny is as large as the vast…the vast is as small as the tiny.
There is no self, no non-self.
The best you can say is not two. In this not-two, nothing is separate and nothing in the world is excluded.

It seems to me that this is what has happened at this point in our story of the ten bulls. Up to now, there were two separate entities, the self and the bull. In seeing, catching, taming, riding the bull, there was always a sense of attainment, mastery, bending to one’s will, even using a whip and rope. Now, we have entered a new phase. The bull and the self are both resting. There is no need for the rope and whip. There is a merging, a changing of two into one, and in that paradox, which is called here “home,” there is time to rest.

When my zazen periods gift me with moments of grace, it is like this. Unbidden, I find myself at home on the cushion. I rest in a way that is active and alert while at the same time completely quiet and calm. And when I fall abruptly back into the world of differentiation, rather than berate myself for having an imperfect practice, I am attempting to train myself to smile. Good humor is nearly as restful as good zazen.

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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

9Mar

Riding the Bull Home


(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls.”)

6. Riding the Bull Home

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Comment: This struggle is over; gain and loss are assimilated. I sing the song of the village woodsman, and play the tunes of the children. Astride the bull, I observe the clouds above. Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.
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When I completed my first five-day sesshin, I was on top of the world. I believe those days last November were the closest I have come in my life to feeling that “this struggle is over.” Things change; about that time, I also began, once again, to experience depression and old discomforts. But they are not the same as they were in the past – having my Zen practice to support me and my sangha to fall back on, the load is lighter, even on the hardest days. Because, you see, I can still feel in my body the energy and lightness, the sense of being both planted in the earth and buoyant, that I discovered during that sesshin.

A couple of months ago, my boss Pat, who is a Presbyterian, was asking me about some of my Zen experiences. She shook her head in wonder and said, “Michelle, I think you are the most spiritual person that I know.” I was taken aback at first: Who? Me? Spiritual? But then I just let it sit, that observation, let it come in. And I knew that it was true. I have finally managed to find the touchstone of my own spiritual journey.

When I am struggling with my own burdens, it seems that I am completely self-obsessed, all of my energy directed inwards. And yet, every time I step into the zendo, something changes. I reach out towards others. I am able to give of myself, and allow others to come close. That zendo experience is spilling out into other areas of my life – to my work, to my outside friendships, to my family. I am greeting all with a different wholeness that was not present before – even in those times when I am most challenged with the ogres of old pains.

Onward I go, no matter who may wish to call me back.
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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

8Mar

Taming the Bull


(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls”)

5. Taming the Bull

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Comment: When one thought arises, another thought follows. When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true. Through delusion, one makes everything untrue. Delusion is not caused by objectivity; it is the result of subjectivity. Hold the nose-ring tight and do not allow even a doubt.
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I’m not sure how successfully I am training the bull. I would venture to guess that the most sure-fire way to do so is to sit regularly, on good days and bad, when it is easy and when it is hard. I still struggle with this. Because things have been difficult lately, I have wandered away from daily practice. And when I do sit, it frequently feels rather pointless and frustrating.

One positive note, though: my recent questioning and self-doubt have not led me to the bigger doubt of wondering whether or not Zen is my path. That remains sure and true. I have committed to this, in a way that I seldom am able to commit. I have retained the most important aspects of my practice, as much as I have been able. Last Sunday, I finished sewing my rakusu, after four months of weekly sessions with my fellow sangha members who will be going through jukai. Since much of that four-month period I have been plagued with depression, it truly felt like an accomplishment, a sign of discipline, to have shown up week after week to sew.

I also have managed to continue with this blog, which has become part of my practice. Even though last month I wrote much less than the previous months – still, I wrote. I sat down in front of the computer and tried to find small truths that would help me get through each day.

On Saturday, I served as kokyo/doan (chant leader/time keeper) at Russian River Zendo for the two sitting periods and service that are held there weekly. I did not want to go; I had had an exhausting and physically challenging week. And my body was sore and uncooperative, making the periods of zazen difficult. But I did it; I showed up. Perhaps that is one way of “holding the nose-ring tight and not allowing even one doubt.” Because what this Zen story says proved correct; one thought arising from enlightenment led to other true thoughts. Showing up for my commitment helped me to reconnect to the sangha, and to push through my resistance towards sitting, and to find in-the-moment joy even in the midst of my difficulties.

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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

7Mar

Catching the Bull

(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls”)

4. Catching the Bull

I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Comment: He dwelt in the forest a long time, but I caught him today! Infatuation for scenery interferes with his direction. Longing for sweeter grass, he wanders away. His mind still is stubborn and unbridled. If I wish him to submit, I must raise my whip.
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When I first began to practice with Tony Patchell, he told me the Zen koan of the iron bull and the mosquito. At first I thought I was the mosquito, and Zen was the iron bull. I was flitting and buzzing about, trying to gain entry to an impenetrable path. I felt as powerless as a mosquito would feel, in such a predicament.

Later at home, I had an epiphany: I am the iron bull! It seemed that I was the one who was implacable and unwilling to change, tethered to my world view, and the mosquito, Zen, was relentlessly pursuing me, trying to get my attention, wanting to wake me up with its nipping bite.

I do not know if one or the other of these insights was correct. All I know is that having my understanding inverted, thrown from one thing into its opposite, split my world open. My life-long attachment to duality and good/bad, me/you, was tossed high into a stormy summer sky, and I was left fresh and new because of it, even if only temporarily.

So am I catching the bull? Or is the bull catching me? Do I raise my whip to subdue the bull? Is that what happens when I sit down to meditate, refusing to get up until the zazen period is done? Is the bull my wandering mind, seeking the pleasures of other pastures? If so, is it a whip that will pull it back? Or a gentle beckoning?

No answers – but many possibilities of answers. And in that wealth of opportunities, a widening of the world.
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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

6Mar

Perceiving the Bull

(A continuation of the Zen story, “Ten Bulls”)

3. Perceiving the Bull

I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Comment: When one hears the voice, one can sense its source. As soon as the six senses merge, the gate is entered. Wherever one enters one sees the head of the bull! This unity is like salt in water, like color in dyestuff. The slightest thing is not apart from self.
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The first time I was invited by friends to the Healdsburg sangha, and heard the dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and Tony Patchell, I knew that “the bull” was finally within reach. Not that I had an immediate sense of home; I did not. There were still more hurdles to leap across. But I felt that I was finally in a place where it was possible – I had finally found teachers, at a time when I was ready (or almost ready) to be taught.

It has occurred to me, over the past several days, that this story of the Zen bull can be taken rather literally, as I have been approaching it, as seeking out the path of Zen, sort of a “way-seeking mind” talk. But now that I am more firmly entrenched in my practice, another way of interpreting this tale has sprung to my consciousness.

The entire ten steps can be part of a single period of zazen. Every time I sit down to meditate, I go through the same seeking: lost, no trace of the bull, as I attempt to make my sitting posture stable and try to quiet my mind; sensing that I am approaching the bull, as I settle into my body; glimpsing that first sight of the bull, as the input to sight, hearing, feeling begin to merge into one experience…

Some days, I go through the early steps quickly, and find myself in a place of “emptiness” almost immediately. Those days are a gift. Other days, I am caught on the third, or the second, or even the first step, never getting beyond that.

But I have experienced a complete, utter one-ness, a non-duality, while sitting. I guess that is what gets me through all those other days when I feel as if I am starting from scratch.

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The text and drawings are excerpted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The story is by Kakuan, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki. (Comments in italics are part of the text.) Copyright Charles Tuttle and Co.

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