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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.

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?”

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.”