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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.

…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.

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.

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.