Tu Viên An Lac is a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple on the East side of Ventura California. It was established around 2002 on the site of a ninety-year-old Baptist church. The church grounds include a garden with a large Deodar Cedar as its center piece but as the years went by it became apparent that the old flagstone paths were a tripping hazard, the plantings in disarray, and the patio and parking lot in ruins. It was time to do something.

I lived about four blocks away and had been attending the twice weekly meditation sessions for English speakers. These sessions are still being led by a monk from Sri Lanka who lives at the temple with the Vietnamese clergy. His name is Sutadhara Tapovanaye but everyone knows him as Bhante.

meditators-under-BodhiAt some point before I started attending, a Theravada temple gave An Lac a Bodhi tree seedling which they planted near the properties east fence line. By the time of the garden renovation in 2012 the tree had been in the ground for several years and was about 5 feet tall. It’s east side having been too close to the fence was looking scraggly though the rest was nicely filled out. Although I had only been a Sangha member for a few months I was asked to help with the planning of the new garden. One of the requirements was to have a concrete path poured around the perimeter of the space suitable for wheelchairs and walking meditation. This meant the precious Bodhi tree would have to be moved and, on my advice, it was agreed to spin it 180° (to let western sun fill in the sparse side). Then – I was asked to oversee the tree moving operation.

It is said that the Buddha was enlightened while sheltering beneath a pipal tree. A type of fig the pipal or ficus religiosa has come to be called the Bo or Bodhi tree and is held sacred by many Buddhists. The most famous of these trees is in Bodh Gaya, India. Tradition has it that not so much as a leaf should be harmed; though if a leaf should fall one can keep it as a souvenir. At the time this Bodhi tree was one of two in Ventura County. The second one is on the grounds of the Krishnamurthi Foundation in Ojai.

Excavation or Execration

An Lac Garden SketchAnd so we began with the goal to have the major work completed by the May 2013 celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, Vesak or Lễ Phật Đản, depending on the country you choose. I sketched examples of the finished project for fundraising and even designed a t-shirt, that didn’t get made, and met with some of the contractors and volunteers. We skimmed off the broken flagstones, moved several large statues, laid out the forms to hold five cement trucks worth of concrete, and lastly, moved the Bodhi tree. Four feet west and spun 180 degrees. The tree was too heavy to move by hand so after hours of hard work – there it hung, debased and suspended by multiple webbed belts from the blade of a small bulldozer. To enhance the scene of desecration, a couple of branches were cracked and hanging at its sides. Awhile later it was planted in its new carefully excavated hole, sized and filled to provide better drainage in the dreadful Southern California adobe soil – its broken branches pruned and buried in the compost.

Over the next few days we finished the massive cement pour, installed a sprinkler system, and brought in one and a half truckloads of topsoil. Everything was going well. But then everything goes well until it doesn’t.

t-shirtsI expected the Bodhi tree to show some stress after the transplant. It seemed natural that after losing root and limb any tree would experience stress. Over the next few days the tree began dropping leaves at first it was just a few but as time went by more and more began to drop. We were keeping the soil moist. I had fertilized, mulched, and chanted but nothing was working. Bhante returned from having been away during the work and while he remained positive about the eventual outcome his attitude did not rub off on me – I saw only an increasingly bleak prognosis. Fearing the worst I took some cuttings and tried to get them to send out roots in a mixture of water, rooting hormone, and vermiculite. The tree was down to a few leafy survivors but mere weeks before Vesak the last leaves withered and dropped. The tree was naked.

The paths and large event patio were in, the sprinkler system was watering the newly laid sod, even some of the new plants were in place. Vesak came and went and the tree stayed naked. Bhante continued to be cheerful. He noted that all that the branches were still supple and was sure the tree would recover though he did ask about the cuttings on a couple of occasions.

In late May, we had a heat wave, the Santa Anna’s blew and in one evening and by morning the cuttings had dried up and died. I was devastated, I could not bring myself to admit to Bhante that the worst had happened. I had lost the tree and now the cuttings which though they had never rooted had at least kept their leaves. How could I ever bare my guilt and pain to him. The days went by.

I walk my dog every morning and in those days, it was my habit to sit in the garden and talk to my best friend Dave. It was now a week or more into June and the heatwave had not let up.  As we approached Dave noticed it first. There on the beleaguered gray brown tree we saw them, first a couple, then dozens, beautiful little green tipped dark brown bud spurs had appeared all over the tree. It seemed like a miracle. Moments later I found Bhante and Thầy Chuc Hien in the dining room talking excitedly about the tree’s sudden recovery. It was a beautiful moment.

closing-prayer-7

Several Vesak celebrations have come and gone since that fateful year and each year the Bodhi tree in the garden at An Lac Mission celebrates the birth of the Lord Buddha by losing most of its leaves.

I am sure the Buddha must have said, instant gratification is not part of the deal. Or as least he should have.

Postscript:
Bodhi trees are deciduous in much the same way that Laurel trees are. They lose leaves throughout the year but in the Northern Hemisphere they tend to drop them in far greater number in late winter-early spring.

Bodhi trees are almost impossible to grow from cuttings. To start a new tree, you should start a new cutting by a process called layering. See: http://buddhaspace.org/bodhitree/en/cultivation/layering.html

I have learned much from Bhante’s example and on this occasion he taught me the true value of accepting the cards that life deals me, to be patient, to not get dragged into a cloud of awfulizing and to stick to what I observe to be the truth.

The last photo shows Thầy Chuc Hien and Bhante on the right – the Bodhi tree in the background on the left.

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In the last post I looked at the ritual of tea both in my daily life (kaijō) and in my Buddhist practice. This time I am considering another ritual; one that I have always associated with medit atom practice and not my daily life; though this may change up for awhile as Sensei An has suggested that, as long as I am looking at bowing (as ritual and practice) I should practice bowing in my everyday activities. So, as she often signs “bowing warmly,” allow me to proceed.

Almost all the meditation communities I have attended include some sort of bowing rItaly as part of their practice. Some bow fully to the floor, some do small bows from the waist, and others bring their hands together and simply nod. You may see someone bow upon entering the temple/zendo, bow to the Buddha, bow to the monks and nuns, bow to their cushion, and bow to their fellow practitioners. A regular bowing bonanza! So what is the meaning of all this bowing and how is it appropriate?

Chihiro and No-name bowing to a lantern in Spirited Away

from Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

In its truest sense bowing is a fundamental expression of Buddhism through motion. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “It is easy to have calmness in inactivity. It is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness, so bowing is a practice of calmness.” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not separate; therefore, the communication between them is inexpressibly perfect.” True bowing is a humble gesture but should not be seen as humiliating, as Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni notes, “When we bow down before a Buddha image it means we are able to let go of the importance of the self. We bring our head below our heart. We bow with body, heart and mind and by so doing we gain merit.” So if bowing is a humble merit gaining, calming practice that is a source of perfect communication where is my hangup? Why are my bows self-conscious and often half-hearted?

The practice of bowing can be difficult for Westerners to appreciate. Some may see it as a violation of a personal injunction against idol worship, associate it with kow-towing, acceptance of undemocratic status differentials, submission to power, or self-abasement. These connotations may prevent one from experiencing the true meaning of bowing practice. I suggest that if you feel that bowing is inappropriate please note that in every Sangha I have attended bowing was strictly optional. That said, I believe it the proper courtesy  would be to speak to someone in charge and let them know your conviction that you prefer not to bow. As for myself, I am going to follow Sensei’s advice and take a long look at what is keeping me from crossing my 30° “tipping point.”

Bow and Ghassō

Bow and Ghassō

In the Zen tradition bowing down till one’s knees and forehead are on the floor is generally saved for formal ceremonies. More typically the “respect” bow (futsuu or saikei rei) with a gasshō (palms flat together, fingers straight, fingertips at nose level) is appropriate. Keeping your back straight, bend at the waist until your torso is bent to between a 30 and 40 degree angle.

Bows during meditation (or chanting) are often done in groups of three. Traditionally this has meant one bow for each of the aspects of the “Triple Gem” (triratna) – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, To paraphrase an old Japanese verse, we bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and the return to the boundless truth. Even in or little Zen community here in Oregon we bow once as we enter the sitting space (Buddha), once to the cushion we will sit on (Dharma), and once to then rest of the community (Sangha).

Why Do I Bow

Several years ago I had a small insite into the nature dharma transmission as being very much like the act of bowing. This is what I wrote down at that time. I hope it is not too abstract.

As I begin my bow, that which I am passes its wisdom on to a newly created that which is now and in so doing becomes that which has passed. Rising from my bow the newly created receives the wisdom of the one that was and in so doing becomes the one that is reborn. Nothing is taken from or lost by the one that passes, nothing is acquired by the one that is, yet all is forever changed. This is the transmission of dharma, untroubled by the transience of existence, the essential reincarnation, I pause but a moment and begin another bow. First penned in September 2012 when at a temple whose practice it was to bow three times all the way to the floor.

 

Bowing for Peace

Called a three steps, one bow pilgrimage, Rev. Heng Sure and his companion Heng Chau (Dr. Martin Verhoeven), bowed from South Pasadena to Ukiah, California, a distance of 800 miles, seeking for world peace. (1977-1979)

Some additional quotations about bowing.

“We are individual waves on the water, but we are also the entirety of water. When we bow down we acknowledge our essential nature as water, surrendering to whatever form the water wants us to take. For me it is a way of touching that which is universal in me, and putting aside that which is individual.” – Shunryu Suzuki

“Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature. The bodies of one’s self and others are not two. I bow with all beings to attain liberation, to manifest the unsurpassed mind and return to boundless truth.” – Japanese verse translated by Dainin Katagiri Roshi

“When a student bows before a teacher, it is the student who gains merit because she/he is able to let go of the self; the teacher gains nothing at all.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

There was once a famous Chinese master named Zhao Zhou. He was so famous that he had visitors all the time who would come seeking the meaning of enlightenment. One day two young seekers knocked on his door begging for words of wisdom. Zhao Zhou welcomed them into his small hut and told them to sit down at a table where an old monk was already sitting. “Please tell me the meaning of Buddha,” the first student asked. Zhao Zhou replied, “Drink some tea!” The second student then asked, “What is truth?” and Zhao Zhou excitedly replied, “Drink some tea!” The old monk sitting there was quite perplexed about this interaction and wondered to himself, “Why does he tell them to both drink tea instead of answering their questions?” Zhao Zhou, being a great Zen master, read the monk’s mind and said to him, “You drink tea too!”

Kaijō: those things we do habitually in our daily life.

Japanese Tea Garden by Dong Kingman painted in 1967Everything I know about and expect from a proper tea service was imprinted on me as a child going to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Neat little round bowls were filled with slightly bitter, overly brewed jasmine green tea and presented on small wooden trays with a few rice crackers to be ceremoniously consumed with great solemnity while enjoying a quiet moment with family. Of course if you have been to the Tea Garden recently you know this kind of quiet interlude can only happen weekdays on a foggy afternoon in the middle of winter.

Years later my Tai Chi teacher always served Red Zinger® tea after the weekly class. Tea in her living room with my fellow students was an event I always looked forward to. Later when I was attending college I sat for a time at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. At SMZC there were regularly scheduled work practice days (samu) and in exchange for our labors the center served breakfast in traditional three bowl oryoki style. I believe, for I was never sure, the large bowl contained a porridge of corn meal and a few raisins, the middle size bowl contained green tea, and the small bowl held a salty pickle slice that, along with a splash of tea, was used to clean the bowls prior to being consumed with the tea and bits of porridge that remained after eating. It was all very formal, filled with tradition, practiced in silence, and satisfied my love of ritual perhaps born of a childhood informed by Catholicism.

So my early tea service experiences were generally formal affairs with lots of value as centering rituals in my life. But how does this tie into my experience of partaking of tea in the 21st century? For that answer, please, join me for tea.

Chaios (CHī•äs): Tea taken with a dollop of chaos

Over the last several years I have visited a number of meditation groups and these Sangha’s all handled their tea service in the same way as the group I attended regularly in Ventura California. There the custom was to set up the tea and cookies in a sort of buffet style and people would pick the kind of tea they wanted and a treat to go with it, then sit and listen to the dharma talk, and or take part in the open discussion.

Tea drinking at the Salem Zen Center seems to be inclusive of both styles. Here the tea ceremony has a formal side in that it is taken in silence at our individual seats and it also has an informal side. As Sensei writes in her teacher’s blog (fourth post down), “Each week we have tea. Each week different folks jump up to serve. At SZC we have no one formally assigned to serve the tea. It’s just dependent on someone standing up. I totally love this. It’s rather lively. Serving tea can be rather humbling. There’s no instruction on how to do it. We each learn by taking a risk and working cooperatively.”

Working cooperatively, in silence, with a rotating group of folks makes for a new experience every week. Typically, four people will serve tea to 25ish people as quickly as possible and the result is not just humbling but is often a tad chaotic. For those being served it is an opportunity to immerse themselves in an activity as mundane as eating a cookie with a cup of tea. For those serving it is an opportunity to maintain a non-abiding mind in the midst of all the weirdness that arises when you are trying to silently work with a group, leave no teacup unfilled, drop of tea spilled, or person completely missed (including the servers themselves). After tea the same people clear things up and we have our dharma talk and sharing time. It doesn’t always go smoothly but it strengthens the Sangha each time an individual stands up and avows their own sense of community by offering to serve tea. (More about tea at SZC found here.)

chinese-almond-biscuits-15286_lThich Nhat Hanh writes, “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Serving or drinking tea,or coffee for that matter, alone or with friends are things we do every day. They are simple acts that can be performed without our slightest attention. But when I look back on a lifetime of ritual around the serving and drinking tea I see that the more I am observant of these ordinary activities the more it helps me to be mindful of what is going on both within and without. The simple act of having tea can help me regain that still point that might otherwise be lost in the background noise of daily life. A quiet cup of tea is not about finding a place of great stillness outside of one’s daily life, it is about finding the stillness already in one’s life. As Shunryu Suzuki once noted,”The practice of rituals is the practice of stillness.”

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Now, “volunteers for tea?”

…Just as a solid rock remains unshaken by the wind, even so, neither forms, nor sounds, nor odors, nor tastes, nor contacts of any kind, neither the desired, nor undesired, can cause one whose heart dwells in peace to waver. Steadfast is their mind and gained is deliverance. The Buddha (somewhat paraphrased)

Buddha in front of a fanIt’s late summer in Oregon and the days are hot. I arrive at the UUC of Salem for the Wednesday evening Zazen and find the hall has been transformed into a proper Zendo. Except tonight and for most of the evenings between now and the first rains two large fans will roar from opposing corners and only to be silenced during Sensei’s talk.

It was much the same when I lived in Southern California. The nearby Pacific generally spared us summer’s heat but by early August the fans would be drowning out the traffic in the street, and the games in the neighboring park. Even the aging air conditioner whose condenser unit was the size of an old Volkswagen bug was no match for their roar.

I don’t know how the other members of these Sangha’s feel about the fans with all their noise but I am sure that they, like myself appreciate the cooling air they provide as they cast pleasant breezes upon the sitting fellowship.

It is my lot to be afflicted with tinnitus and while for others so vexed the white noise generated by fans offers respite, in my head they are just another noise to contend with. So I sit and like a drunk not trying to think of pink elephants. I listen to the sound of the fan, the ringing in my head and woosh, my free range mind wanders off to some perceived sanctuary far distant from my body. Eventually the droning of the fans takes over and within a few sessions becomes integrated into the act of sitting. (More on meditating with tinnitus found here.)

Then, one evening in September or October, the fans disappear, a forgotten quiet settles over the room, the practice becomes easier – the wind subsides and once again this rock wannabee experiences peace.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

As noted in other posts, my brain is host to a bad case of tinnitus. Tinnitus is the result of neuroplasticity run amuck. In the United States it is estimated nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Trauma, sickness, and age related hearing loss can bring it on. The brain senses that some essential part of the auditory spectrum is compromised so it tries to fill in for the missing bits by recreating the lost frequencies for itself. It turns out this adaptation is in no way positive but there is currently no way of calling the brain to a different course of action. So while I would prefer that it “give up and let go” this 4100 Hz banshee has been my constant waking companion for over 28 years.

fanPopular wisdom is that people with tinnitus can better cope with their tormentor if they have white noise around them and I am sure that many folks use white noise generators, like fans, to keep their tinnitus at bay. For me the only white noise that dampens the din in my brain is the noise my mind creates when it is thoroughly occupied. Work, study, play, movies, even the sound of birds and crickets are all good distractions and take my mind off the noteworthy scourge. The rest of the time I prefer things to be quiet because most “outside noise,” especially electrically generated white noise just seems to make things worse.

When it is quiet I can cocoon myself peacefully inside of, yet detached from, the noise that envelops my world. It is “within” this space that all my meditation and contemplation take place. It is from here that I have to be roused from when someone wishes to speak to me. It is from this deep well that I find solitude yet it is a principle source of the unconfined gushers of frustration and anger that can spring forth – for this place is both wellspring and geyser, sanctuary and prison. That said, fans, especially loud ones do not provide a respite from my tinnitus but are just another noise in an already noisy space.

The Fourth Ox Herding Picture

Print by Master Gyokusei Jikihara

Having tinnitus has made me more disciplined but far from being a good thing, my discipline is somehow austere, idiocentric. I don’t respond well to changes in my environment, especially where sound levels are concerned. I rarely turn on music or television just for the sake of hearing it in the background, and on bad days I can be irritable with others for a reason they can’t discern. Having tinnitus has not made me a better meditator. My waking/active mind long ago learned that distraction is the best way to escape the banshee’s grip but this defense mechanism fails miserably when I am concentrating, interacting with others, or trying to meditate. It’s a bit like the fourth image of the ten ox herding pictures. In my case a distracted wandering mind is like an ox that has never known a lead or halter. Like the herdsman in the picture l poses both items but every time I start to get them hitched the ox charges off in a new direction leaving me freshly distracted and the bell still ringing.

While I may not be a better meditator I have become a diligent one. It was a terrible shock when I finally realized that the ringing wasn’t going away and it impacted my meditation practice so completely that I stopped sitting for over two decades. Eventually I started meditating again and shortly after turned to Bhante Sutadhara Tapovanaye for help in meditating with tinnitus. He gave me some excellent advice and suggested I try employing mindfulness practice. He said I should ‘observe’ all my thoughts, including any worries about tinnitus and to use my mind to find out everything there was to know about the ringing in my ears. So I sat and observed every thought and listened to every tone. Often this effort was excruciating but I began to make discoveries. For instance, it wasn’t just one ringing there were several tones, a kind of Irish keening or wailing, five in my right ear and four in my left. Later I discovered Mandy Sutter’s excellent 2011 blog post, “Meditating with Tinnitus.” Here I found that I was not alone and people are still commenting on this article after all these years and she still responds to every one of them.

Several years have passed since I rebooted my daily meditation activities and as you have surmised I was not immediately cured by mindfulness practices. Most of the time I feel unaffected by the ringing but it seems a long path to accepting that tinnitus is part of who I am, that it doesn’t have to rule my life, and that I can just let it be. It hasn’t been easy. I still display plenty of idiocentric behavior. I still have bad days and find myself obsessing about it and in so doing, fearing and hating it rather than observing it for what it is, a bell ringing in an empty sky.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Taken literally a zazenkai (座禅会?), means “to come together for meditation” and refers to a Zen Buddhist retreat that is usually less intensive and of shorter duration than sesshin. The purpose of zazenkai, is to separate oneself from daily affairs and sink deeply into ones practice – even if for just a few hours. The Salem Zen Center (SZC) holds a zazenkai every quarter. They last for 6 ½ hours, including lunch and it is lunch that I wish to write about.

wash-your-bowlOur Sensei tells us that in other groups the meal break is either handled by participants bringing a bag lunch or a cook preparing a simple meal for all. I myself have experienced the latter wherein the Tenzo’s (cook’s) meal was served in the Soto and we ate while sitting on our cushions in style I know as three bowl oryoki. The style at SZC is potluck and being such the Sangha has added a distinctly western touch to this eastern tradition. One advantage to this is that if you can find nothing else to “work”on during the sitting periods you can consider the effects of craving after delicious dishes of food as a distraction to practice.

Craving lunch is not the only source of discomfort one will experience at a zazenkai. Being haunted by life’s experiences, aching legs, and a sore tailbone are all discomforts that come with sitting Zazen for an extended period of time. My own discomfort came upon me early this day and from an unexpected source. But first a bit of background.

My contribution to the potluck was a chilled corn and cauliflower bisque. It was a hot summer day and there would be no unsweetened rice porridge coming from my kitchen. Because of its sweetness the dish it is best served with a freshly pickled combination of jalapeño peppers and radishes.

Freshly pickled means that the vegetables have to be thinly sliced and put in the vinegar and sugar mixture about three hours before they are consumed. So I worked the morning of the zazenkai and sliced the radishes and the peppers. Not wanting to turn the zazenkai al caliente I carefully removed the seeds that clung to each of the jalapeño slices, before adding them to the rest of the pickle ingredients and flying out the door. Forty minutes later I was gathering myself on my zafu and listening to the densho bell in the hall when I rubbed my eye with one of my fingertips.

The burning pain was immediate and intense, each blink or eye movement brought a renewed wave of capsaicin and this just as all thoughts of escape were being thwarted by the Tanto beginning the ceremony that closes the container and blesses the Zendo in each of the four directions. I was left with no choice but to sit there, accept this burning (pot) luck, and observe it’s slow passing over the next 90 minutes or so.

Case 39, The Book of Equanimity

A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’
Joshu asked: ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’
The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’
Joshu said: ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’

The instruction for this koan by the 13th century Chinese master Wumen Hui-k’ai reads:

When food comes, you open your mouth;
When sleep comes, you close your eyes.
When you wash your face, you find your nose;
When you take off your shoes, you feel your feet.
At those times, if you miss what is being said, take a burning light and make a special search in the deep night.
How can you find the right correspondence [with your true self]?

Pain can be an excellent teacher and I think I got the burning light part down but in my case the koan will always be, have you prepared your lunch? Then wash your hands before you partake. Have you finished your meal? Then wash your bowl and wipe the counter. When working with chillies, expect some heat.

When I get caught up in what I will be doing later I fail to notice what the present is telling me. The present is where I can find every answer and correspond with my true self.  This is the essence of mindfulness and the lesson I’ll take from this zazenkai.


Postscript:
l am sure this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he spoke of developing the Dharma Eye but perhaps the peppers furthered my practice a skosh.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Sources: Zazenkai definition from Wikipedia and Yamada Ko’un Rōshi (1907 – 1989). Case 39 translation mostly from a translation by Thomas Cleary. Oh and I discovered the word skosh is from the Japanese word “sukoshi” meaning a small amount of something.

While the Buddha was at Jetvana, a drunk Brahman asked to become a bhikkhu. The Buddha asked Ananda to shave his head and give him the monks robes. When his intoxication had worn off, the Brahman was frightened, did not want to be a bhikkhu any longer and fled. The monks asked the Buddha: “Why did you allow this drunk Brahman to become a bhikkhu?” The Buddha replied: “For numberless eons, this Brahman did not even have the idea of becoming a monastic. Today, as a result of his drunkenness, he made a small resolution thanks to which, later, he will renounce the world (with its ignorance, attachment and aversion) and obtain the Path.” From the 13th chapter of the Mahaprajanaparamitasastra often attributed to Nagarjuna (150-250 CE), and again a thousand years later in Dogen’s Shobogenzo.

When I first started sitting at a local temple in Southern California there was a regular attendee named Richard. Richard struck me as both a troubled soul and an amazingly well read Buddhist intellectual. For several months he attended the weekly gatherings and was a regular contributor to the open discussion period. Then he stopped coming. I ran into him several weeks later and he looked terrible. Eventually I would learn that Richard had struggled with drug addiction for decades and that he regularly fell off the wagon and found himself back on the streets. So here he was, manic as all get out and telling my wife and I about how he had been kicked out of where he was living and that his old roommate had sold his collection of Buddhist books to pay rent and buy drugs. After our encounter it was almost a year before I saw him again. He showed up at the temple one evening looking very shaky. You could tell he needed some of the energy Buddhists get from exposure to the Dharma though he just sat quietly a few feet behind the rest of us.

meditators-under-Bodhi-lightened

Troubled beings are to be expected at spiritual centers and Buddhist temples are no exception. Many in the group have been or are going through “a rough spot,” divorce, illness, grieving following a death, drug and alcohol problems, the list is endless. No matter the reason, they arrive seeking solace or sanctuary or perhaps they are just looking for answers to the “everyday” matters weighing them down.

From the day we are born we begin collecting baggage. We become trapped in cycles of thinking and behavior that hold sway over our lives and, like the Brahman, we all experience times when we resolve to renounce aspects of or even all of the life we have been leading. And, as in the case of the Brahman the glimpse can prove to be overwhelming.

Unpacking a lifetime’s worth of baggage requires a commitment to be attentive to the ways we fabricate our world, suffer our fates, and deal with others. Letting go of aversions and attachments demands that we begin to examine the ways we have kept ourselves ignorant of the future we create with every action; this is a core concept of the Buddha’s teachings. To paraphrase what he once said, our good and bad deeds left done and undone become the legacy of our past and the cornerstone of our future resolution. That first glimpse of what is involved in letting go, what it will take to unpack our bags, can strengthen our resolve, cause us to hunker down, or turn tail and run. Our Brahman found his resolve while under the influence but in that one-night the Buddha saw great things to come as a result. As a group we see this ourselves many folks come for just a night or a few sessions and there are others that return week after week.

So why do I keep returning to this Dharma practice and this Sangha? Not to commune with the Buddha. The person of the Buddha has been obscured by time and buried under countless tales and myths. I return because what truly survives are the teachings he set in motion (Dharma) and the communities that keep them alive and nourished (Sangha). Those of us initially attracted to the teachings and the communities may believe that ending suffering means ending suffering or we may be attracted to the community’s collegial atmosphere and the safe space it creates. Whatever the reason we will, at some point, discover that the practice of the Dharma requires effort, and that a Sangha is something one is challenged to create, not something one chooses to join. For the Dharma is a (personal) healing path not a helping path and the Sangha can only provide support for an individual to realize his or her commitment to meditation and self-exploration.

Life damages each one of us to a greater or lesser extent. Before setting out from his home, Siddhārtha Gautama, realized that all beings are subject to pain and suffering, aging and death. And like Gautama who spent years with various teachers we all come to realize that guidance in repairing or overcoming the damage is preferable to going it alone. Some will come to Buddhism and some of those will stay. For those of us that do stay the “strength” of a Sangha lies in the inclusive space that it creates and holds open week after week for the curious, the regulars, and those just dipping their toes in the stream.


A postscript:

While the equanimous spirit of community a Sangha furnishes is the best and most immediate expression of its Dharma stewardship this does not mean that there can’t be behavioral expectations. To be effective a Sangha requires some organized structure when it gathers to meditate, and to hear and discuss the Dharma. This is particularly true of any open discussion periods. How do we allow for the growth of each individual and not have it come at the expense of the groups growth and cohesiveness? I believe that sharing from experience (both the joyful and the difficult), practicing deep listening (as opposed to reviewing our personal storylines), abstaining from cross talk and offering advice, and maintaining the confidentiality of discussion periods are the best contributions individuals can make to the group’s collective insight and understanding. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Discussing the Dharma in the ultimate dimension, we look at each other and smile. You are me, don’t you see? Speaking and listening, we are one.”

One Wednesday evening our Sensei gave a dharma talk on the meaning of the word sangha. She noted that she could always tell when a person had decided to join the Sangha by the fact they would stand up to help serve the silent tea. When I heard her say this I was immediately reminded of the Buddha’s first sermon.

The Buddha turns the Dharma Wheel for his old companionsThe Buddha’s first teaching was called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which means the Turning of the Wheel of Truth. He delivered this discourse to the five ascetics who were his former companions, at the Deer Park in Isipatana (now called Sarnath), near Benares, in India. But it is not the text of the Buddha’s talk that I was thinking of as Sensai was speaking.

Towards the end of the sutta (Sanskrit: sutra) it tells us that, “there arose in the venerable Kondañña the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma. In that “Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation” and that upon hearing this the Buddha exclaimed: ‘Kondañña has indeed understood! Kondañña has realized (the four truths)!'”

And this brings me back to my thought as Sensai spoke. There is a legend of the days that followed that first sermon. As I recall it, on the next day, when it came time for the Buddha’s second sermon, Kondañña was nowhere to be found and that it was during this talk that the second of the five companions is said to have had the realization of the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. At the end of this talk who should arrive but, Kondañña, for he had been gathering alms enough to feed the Buddha and his fellow companions. And so it followed that each day that passed another of the companions skipped the Buddha’s talk and instead gathered alms for the group such that by the the sixth day there was no need for another discourse, instead they gathered alms together for they were no longer companions as all had entered the stream and now they abided as the first Sangha and the symbol of this transition was the simple and selfless act of providing food and drink for one another.

J. Krishnamurti

J. Krishnamurti

Some forty years ago a friend gave me a copy of  The Urgency of Change by J. Krishnamurti (here is a copy for you). This book profoundly changed my life. At the time I was suffering from a depression that had cast a fog of malaise over my entire life. Here I was barely 20 I had no idea who I was, where I wanted to go or what direction to take. It felt like I was in quicksand. Reading the book I came to understand that the only way out was to discover truth about this suffering business (at that point it was my suffering I was interested in), perform whatever steps were necessary to overcome the suffering and seek the advice and counsel of others that have been down the path and made profound changes in their lives. The source of this resolve was simple enough. In reading the book I realized that it is the space between realizing that something is amiss and undertaking to do something about it that one slips into depression, craving and loss and I was very much stuck in one of those

“As we have said, it is only in knowing oneself completely that sorrow ends. Do you know yourself at a glance, or hope to after a long analysis? Through analysis you cannot know yourself. You can only know yourself without accumulation, in relationship, from moment to moment. This means that one must be aware, without any choice, of what is actually taking place. It means to see oneself as one is, without the opposite, the ideal, without the knowledge of what one has been. If you look at yourself with the eyes of resentment or rancour then what you see is coloured by the past. The shedding of the past all the time when you see yourself is the freedom from the past. Sorrow ends only when there is the light of understanding, and this light is not lit by one experience or by one flash of understanding; this understanding is lighting itself all the time. Nobody can give it to you – no book, trick, teacher or saviour. The understanding of yourself is the ending of sorrow.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Urgency of Change

Rimpoche Tarthang Tulku

Tarthang Tulku

A few months later I was walking near my apartment in Berkley and wandered onto the grounds of Padma Ling, home of the Tibetan Nyingma Institute and enrolled in a beginning meditation course. It was my incredible good fortune to be taught by Rimpoche Tarthang Tulku. From Rimpoche I learned the basics of mindfulness meditation but the thing I remember most were his few short words to me at my darshan at the end of the weekend. He said, words to the effect, don’t think you can find out who you are and what the meaning of your life is by immersing yourself in a tradition, teaching or monastery. Live your life, ask questions, find out who you are. You are young, take advantage of the life ahead of you to know yourself completely. He dismissed me and I left the grounds of Padma Ling and walked down from Highland Avenue and back into my life.

“At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original [true] self.” – from Dogen’s Genjo Koan as translated by Robert Aitken

I have had 40 years to reflect on those few moments with Rimpoche and for a long time have known that at that moment the Dharma was correctly transmitted and the result left me devastated. There is a Zen story that goes like this, “The young monk approached Roshi and said, “Roshi, I have attained enlightenment. Ever since my life has gotten worse. Nothing is going as I had envisioned it would. Why am I so miserable?” Roshi replied, “Enlightenment, whoever said you would like it when you got it.” Roshi turned and walked away.”

Enlightenment is not the light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t the final destination. It is the empty gate and what lies immediately beyond is ones true self, the essence of the the human condition, your face before you were born and if one is not prepared to bear witness, awakening to the truth won’t be pretty. I left the grounds of Padma Ling keenly aware that I was the source of my fears, my suffering and frailties. This would be the first of many, to use a Zen metaphor, descents of the mountain.

“Quiet your thoughts and behold your Original Face before you were born!” – Daito

So what do you do? Integrating these trans-formative flashes (satori) into ones life is where the work begins, it is what practice is all about. For me it starts with meditation, a very particular meditation. By sitting quietly on a square mat and round cushion the contents of my mind comes to the foreground. As this happens, I have an opportunity to reclaim bits and pieces of my self. I can reintegrate. This meditation is not about detachment it is about re-connecting.

Innate within each of us is the the ability to contribute something that is unique in the universe; we can resolve to take control of our inner self and our relationship to everything we experience. In so doing we contribute something that is so basic to the universe that it is its very raison d’être, its most basic no, original, ground of being.

This blog is about that inner world, a changing personal world that we seek to maintain some discipline over. This blog is about our increasingly urban world, this ever changing blue marble and our intimate relationship to it. This blog is about Buddhism, a twenty-five hundred year old philosophical system and the answers it provides in these modern times. And finally this blog is about rediscovering the innate (inner) skills (siddhi) that each of us can utilize to help us on the path to awakening.

How will we recognize the true path when we are on it? I propose we start by applying a simple test – does the path that presents itself make sense? Which is to say does it promote our development of wisdom (prajñā), ethical conduct (śīla), and increase our concentration (samādhi) thereby allowing us to nurture increased inner calm and collectedness.

Even in this modern world with its distractions and temptations at every moment we are offered an opportunity to, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change we want to see in the world.” So where does one begin? What are the first few steps on the path?

It starts with a few realizations and perhaps you have had some of these or all of them and that is why you are on this path. The most primal of these realizations is the knowledge that there is suffering. This realization is strongest when you see beyond your personal suffering and see the truth that there is the presence of suffering and it goes hand in hand with existence. Suffering, in this sense extends far beyond our personal problems even if our suffering includes fear of loosing our most basic securities like shelter, income, health, excreta.

The Four Reminders

  1. This life you are experiencing is a precious opportunity.
  2. Impermanence is perpetual (it endures).
  3. Karma (just) happens.
  4. Samsara is futile.

So let’s start right here with this precious human life.