Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Few Words Left

First, I want to express my gratitude to all of you who were a part of this incredible journey. If you'd like to see some more photos, including some from the Dharma Inquiry Ceremony, please go to my other Shuso blog page at A Few Words Left in Winter 2012 Practice Period. If you'd like to continue to follow my banter about practice life, please check out my new personal blog site Jaku En Zen. Deep bows, and may your practice continue until you bring an end to it, Konin

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Equinox poem

Spring Equinox 2012
It seems as though the
equinox returned.
The cycle yet again has turned,
upon the head of a precious pin.
You marvel at the lovely, gentle
unfurling of the ferns,
forever dancing,
taking turns,
in the twilight's soft glowing.
But do not be fooled
by this lore,
that echoes o'er and o'er,
and assures you of that
which you should not know.
This is a moment
never seen before,
though her lovely, arching shoulder
bares itself
in that same
aching, longing way.
Do not escape the night,
nor offer cool respite,
should her fever burn and burn.
For her longing will,
no doubt,
lead her to herself, and lonelier,
but surer still,
than life remaining
as a seed,
still until the flame's gone out.
Breeze on,
delivering fair floaters
to their world,
which ultimately ends unfurled,
dancing forever,
taking turns,
in the twilight's soft glowing.
Praise the moment
of the day,
which foment can no longer stay,
when revealed
the safety of having your say
is seen
as but an illusion.
May it be your dissolution,

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Technology Two Step

This just in....enticed by the new and exciting phenomena called the "Practice Period blog," I have been posting to another blog site all practice period long, and have only recently realized that some were looking here for my musings. Thus, this week I encountered some requests for more communication from the Shuso. So I'm going to begin re-posting them, but if you're in a hurry you could go to the Shuso's blog within the Winter Practice Period 2012 blog. Stayed tuned either way!

Catching up with the Buddha's Wisdom

Yesterday (Feb. 25) I had the distinct pleasure of participating in a workshop lead by Issho Fujita, the current head of the Soto Zen International office here in San Francisco and a sometimes resident of SFZC City Center. He gave a workshop about practicing with the six senses, a foundational teaching in Zen, and one which can be elusive for new and mature practitioners alike. I really enjoyed his talk, as it echoed many of the teachings I've received from my ordination Master Sekkei Harada. Fujita Sensei spoke about zazen as a form of sitting in which we endeavor to rest in an awareness of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and thinking, without attempting to focus on any one thing. His examples were quite interesting, and we did some fun exercises like tugging on our ears.
tugging ears
Still, one of the most interesting parts of the day came at the end, when a participant raised her hand and offered a comment. She said that, for her, much of what she had heard during the workshop sounded like a new branch of science called Affect Theory. In brief, it's a field in which psychoanalysts study the way that our most basic feelings are influenced by our bodily functions. So it turns out that, for this woman and for many people, Affect Theory is one of many areas of modern scientific study that seem to be offering "proof" of Buddhist teachings. It's fascinating because this area of science did not develop as a result of Buddhism, yet it seems clearly in accord with it. And I have no doubt that more and more areas of science will turn out to be like that, demonstrating the truth of the teachings, even while starting from a completely different approach to understanding.

This makes sense because one way to think about practice is as an experiment. Using the mind of inquiry and study of the teachings, we develop an idea about how life and the greater universe really are. Then, we sit and we go about our daily lives, and we see whether our actual experience is in accord with our understanding. This is radically different from most religious traditions which are based on faith.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with faith; it's simply that Zen doesn't rely on it. Zen relies on actual experience and the study of the true self within the mundane world of body/heart/mind. And zazen, the practice of Zen sitting "meditation," is a way in which things are simplified, stopping activity so that the study of experience is nearly unavoidable.

Sitting down or not, it seems the world is catching up to the Buddha!

No Bullet Proof Zen

Today is Parinirvana Day, the 15th of February, a day on which millions of people around the world observe the anniversary of the death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Here at City Center we had a beautiful ceremony, which we do at this time every year, in which we darken the zendo, and light a candle at each person's place, and read the sutra that recounts the Buddha's last days.

The Buddha was a person who had had the most profound of spiritual awakenings. And yet, he was simply a human being, subject to the fundamental condition of impermanence. Like all of us, the Buddha was subject to old age, sickness and death. Yet, this is a day of celebration because the Buddha clearly demonstrated his teaching in his own death. His last words were an encouragement to his students. He said, "All conditioned things are subject to decay. Practice earnestly to awaken." It's such an inspiration to me, because I see the Buddha not as a deity or a superhuman being, but as a person who showed us a path to freedom that we can all walk.

In the sutra that describes the Buddha's last moments it's said that some of his disciples tore at their hair, fell on the ground, and exhibited other extreme states of sorrow at their teacher's death. This is completely understandable. They had given their lives to follow this incredible teacher, and then he was gone. However, it also mentions that "those disciples who had let go of attachments reflected on the impermanence of all things, and wept softly." This is a great lesson, especially for practitioners of Zen. It is a teaching which clearly demonstrates that, even for the most admired practitioners, letting go does not mean not having feelings or not showing our feelings. Rather, the most advanced practitioners of the Buddha's day were those who could gently hold and express their emotions, while acknowledging the inevitability of change.

I'm struck by this because I think that it's easy to make the mistake of hoping that through practice we can become bullet proof.  You might think that if you sit zazen long enough or hard enough that you will have more control over your mind, so you won't have to deal with strong feelings anymore. Or you might think that achieving equanimity means that strong feelings will just stop coming up because your mind will become completely quiet. A few years ago, when I went through the very painful breakup of a relationship, I found that I too had fallen into this trap. I was surprised that it hurt so much and that I found myself crying a lot. Studying that a bit further, I realized that I held a subtle belief that because I had been practicing for a long time, I shouldn't feel so much pain. But that is not what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught that you can feel the pain but still become completely free of it, free in the midst it, free by being at one with it.

I'm reminded of a time many years ago when my Master, Sekkei Harada Roshi, cried after the death of his dog. Even students who had been studying with him for decades were surprised, and wondered what that was all about. Roshi cried because of the loss of this being who had a companion to him, and he did so quietly and without wishing it to be different.

So let's not fall into the trap of bullet proof Zen, not fall into the trap of believing that zazen or anything else for that matter, will eliminate strong emotion from our lives. Instead, realize that strong feelings can and do happen, and when they do, we can gently accept them and express them and be free of them.

Change is Coming

The invitations have been sent and the replies counted. The cookies are baking and the vegetables have arrived, displaying their gorgeous colors and still carrying a bit of the earth they came from. Rare orchids have been brought in for display all around the building. People are wondering what to wear and going out shopping for gifts. All of this sounds like a party, but it's actually more significant than that. It is a Mountain Seat Ceremony, the ritual which marks the installation of a new Abbot or, as in this case, Abbess.

On Saturday (Feb. 12) the current Abbot of City Center, Ryushin Paul Haller, will step down after nine years of service in that role. For me he has been an inspirational leader, someone whose personal practice is a support and role model for everyone. Then, on Sunday, Kiku Christina Lehnherr will step up. As does any organization, Zen Center takes on the qualities of its leaders. There is a subtle shift in tone and feeling whenever someone takes up a new position. And in the intimacy of practice life, change can be deeply felt. The anticipation is building and the sense of carrying forward the tradition is heightened, as rehearsals of bells and drums have already begun.
Volunteers from the greater sangha have been arriving each day to offer their energy and knowledge - supporting the kitchen to serve up a feast, sweeping and cleaning, and applying fresh paint to the walls. It's a labor of love for all of us and I'm deeply grateful that so many can contribute at this joyful time.

Getting Excited about Dharma en Espanol

Yesterday (Feb. 4) I spent the afternoon sitting with a group of Spanish-speaking practitioners in a half-day workshop entitled "Dharma en Espanol." Lead by Joan Amaral, a friend and fellow resident priest here at City Center, the workshop was an expansion of Zen Center's offerings in Spanish, which include zazen instruction and a discussion group on Saturday mornings. Joan's gentle way of offering instruction on the basics of zazen and the teachings gave us all a chance to breathe deeply and relax. I enjoyed the afternoon, appreciating the chance to put my language skills to use supporting new pratitioners to taste the life of Zen. For me, hearing a newcomer talk about their enjoyment of practice is one of the benefits of taking up a monastic life.
We sat in the Buddha hall, taking in the bright sunlight, the grassy smell of the traditional Japanese mats, and the comfort of well-worn cushions. The schedule alternated between brief periods of mindful movement and periods of sitting or lying down in meditation. At one point, standing with arms outstretched and eyes closed, I felt childlike, free to forget about everything but the cool air touching my face
About midway through the workshop we chanted a Spanish translation of Eihei Dogen's "Fukanzazengi," a text that exhorts everyone to take up the practice of zazen as a way of manifesting their inherently awakened nature. It's interesting to take in this seminal text - which I've read dozens, or maybe hundreds, of times - in my second language. Different aspects of it come forward. For example, one section reads "El Camino nunca se aparta de uno, esta donde uno esta. Porque afanarse en pulirlo?" These two sentences are relating Dogen's comments that "We are never apart from the Way of Zen, so who could believe in a means to brush it clean?" Yet this word in Spanish "afanarse" has the sense of getting excited about doing something. The dictionary translates it as "to work with zeal." I liked hearing it put that way because, in my experience, that's what people often do. They want things to be a certain way, a way that is in accord with their preferences, and they get excited about trying to make the world conform. They get zealous about polishing things until they are just right for their way of thinking. This is truly suffering since, no matter how excited you get, the world will never really conform to your desires. So if you're going to "afanarse" (get excited) maybe it would be more helpful to be excited about discovering a way of being free within a world that doesn't meet your expectations. This is the Way of Zen. So let's get excited, not about polishing things, but about freedom.

The Mind that Seeks the Way

Tonight (Feb. 1) I will offer the first of three Dharma talks at City Center (Buddha Hall at 7:45 pm). At SFZC it's traditional for the Shuso's first talk to be a "way seeking mind" talk. That is, it's a talk about how the events of your life brought you to this moment in practice. For me, it's a chance to talk about the way seeking mind itself, and to consider the conditions that help it to arise and the ways it expresses itself through me.
In "Guidelines for Studying the Way" (Gakudo Yojin-shu) Dogen describes this mind - bodaishin in Japanese or bodhichitta in Sanskrit - as the One Mind of Buddha. Another name for it is Bodhi-mind. Kazuaki Tanahashi translates it as "the thought of enlightenment." At the outset of the "Guidelines" Dogen quotes Nagarjuna (the 14th Ancestor who was from India) as having said, "The mind that sees into the flux of arising and decaying, and recognizes the transient nature of the world is also known as the Bodhi-mind." So mind sees mind, and mind is expressed in the seeing. In my life this first occurred in 1987 when I encountered the Dharma for the first time. I was trying to find some spiritual expression and began reading some books about Buddhism. I was thoroughly struck upon encountering Robert Aitken's "Taking the Path of Zen." This moment had arisen out of a devout Catholic youth upbringing, and many life lessons about things like intention, unconditional love, delusion and anger. I've been sitting zazen since, prompting my first encounter with a Zen practitioner. She taught me to "be present in the spaces between the breaths," a teaching that I still find helpful. To make a long story short, I sat from that time on, mostly by myself, and then for a short while with Philip Kapleau after his retirement to Florida. I came to practice at San Francisco Zen Center in 2003, and became a resident in 2005. Then in 2006 I met Sekkei Harada Roshi, a Zen Master in Obama, Japan. I moved there to practice with him for the better part of two years, receiving priest ordination in March 2007. When I returned to the States in late 2008, I again joined the Zen Center sangha.

Now, having spent about two years at Tassajara and a total of three years at City Center, I work with the koan of "What is this moment?" and I practice zazen on and off the cushion, including shikantaza when sitting. I hope to be an instrument of the Mind of the Way, allowing many forms of practice - lay and ordained, American and Japanese, homemaking and homeleaving, in the suburbs, mountains and city - allowing it all to flow through me and nourish all beings.

The Year of the Dragon has Arrived

Last evening we had our annual Lunar New Year gala dinner, in celebration of the beginning of a new lunar-calendar year whose symbol is the dragon. It was a festive affair attended by more than 100 people and accompanied by delicious food.  In the Chinese culture dragon years are expected to be intense, involving big transitions and potential, and I was born a dragon, approximately 48 years ago.

In Zen we pay particular attention to the lunar calendar because of a practice called the Full Moon Ceremony, or Ryaku Fusatsu in Japanese. It is one of the oldest ceremonies we do, with long wailing chants and many prostrations. (listen here at  Services and Chants)  I really enjoy the sense of tradition about it, and I picture monks thousands of years ago traveling by foot to gather at night and renew the vows they took at ordination, the precepts. Here, at Zen Center, everyone is invited to chant the precepts each month. Our next Full Moon Ceremony will take place on the evening of February 8th.
The precepts can be viewed as guidelines for how to live in the world in a way that honors the fact that while we are not all one, we are also not at all separate. That is, rather than a set of mandates, the precepts are support for a life that meets each moment skillfully. So the ritual offers a time to reflect on how my life is an expression of the precepts, and on how I'm doing in responding to the events that arise in my life. It's a big job, particularly for someone like me who has made a promise to uphold a whole tradition and be a role model. Still, not one thing can be done alone, so I'm grateful to be part of a whole community of people with the same practice. Bring it on Dragon, we're ready for anything.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Winter 2012 Practice Period at San Francisco Zen Center's City Center has begun, and the energy of the community has shifted - fresh and full in new ways - supporting us to take up 9 weeks of more zazen, chanting, learning and life. This is the Shuso blog and, starting tomorrow, I will be formally recognized as the Shuso for the Practice Period. Shuso is a Japanese word that is usually translated as Head Student. Serving as scribe, role model and general dharma friend for everyone, I will record some impressions here, and I hope to hear from you about how it's going.

Participating in a Practice Period has been likened to riding in a boat. By making the intention to practice with this group of people, for this defined period of time, we board the ship. Led by the Senior Dharma Teachers Shosan Victoria Austin and Zenkei Blanche Hartman, we set out on a journey. I've practiced with these two Venerables for only a short time, eight years now, yet it's been a life changing experience. Like a conventional boat ride, we get to know one another in ways we might not have anticipated, and it's helpful if we all row together.

But where are we going? You could say that our journey is inward, studying the ways that we imagine a self and a world outside of it. But that wouldn't capture the whole story. This Practice Period is entitled "The Body as Great Vehicle Practice" and we'll be studying a text by Eihei Dogen, the founder of the particular kind of Zen that we practice here at Zen Center. It's a text that encourages to view our bodies as an expression of the universal. Bringing that potentially heady view down to earth, I've started offering daily walks after lunch, so we can get out of the building and feel our feet on the ground. Like in the Oxherding Pictures, I hope to be in the world in a way that doesn't define things according to me, and I hope to experience a me that isn't defined by circumstances in the world. So I'll just keep walking, together with everyone.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I woke up at the usual wakeup time but today there was no bell to ring. Alas, I lost my job!
Then i found myself a new job of sitting Zazen in my bedroom, doing Qigong in my living room and cooking breakfast in my kitchen. I can't believe that i am now not living in my Zen temple after 10 years! I am remembering you, Beginners Mind Temple and sending you all best wishes!
Deep bow to all of you for your practice and for your love!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Time flies! Tonight we're starting the 7 Day sesshin and very soon it's the Shuso Ceremony (March 27)! I am looking forward to the week of just stitting without any clinic shifts, classes, emails, blogging... Let the mind be still and focused; Let the breath be quiet and deep; Let the body be soft and present! What a precious way of ending this practice period!
Thanks to my Zen teacher Teah Strozer for her years of teaching! Thanks to Abbot Paul Haller for taking me on for this Shuso training! Thanks to senior Dharma teacher Blanche Hartman for her great example! Thanks to my beautiful Benji Renee who is constantly available and helpful! Thanks to all the former Shusos who are passing this tradition warm-hand to warm-hand - Dana helped me to get the shuso blog set up; Joan prepared me with a warm pre-shuso tea; Vicki shared her life with me over a hearty meal; Bernd talked with me over some sweet cookies and tea; and many other teachers and practice period participants greeted me with encouraging words and friendly gestures. I could not have gone this far without all of you - my dear Sangha! Here is my deep bow to all of you for your support and for your practice!
Words cannot describe how this Shuso period has been transforming for me in its mysterious yet simple way.
Here is the teaching: Just show up! Just ring the wakeup bell! Just clean the toilet and just watch the breath and sit!
Yes, this Shuso is signing off and ready for the sesshin.

Much love to all of you through the cyber space!
Liping (Clear Wind Wisdom Sword)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

---"A Three year old child can even say it!"
---"But an 80 year old man can't even do it!"
When i read the story of these two exchanges, i exclaimed, "That's so true!"
There are so many things that we know and we say, but it is so hard for us to really do it especially when it comes to the real situation. For example, we all say "be present", but sometimes or a lot of times we just can't do it. At least for me this is true. I found myself not listening to what was being said,found myself getting caught up in the fear of past or the worry of the future, found myself jumping into conclusion instead of really experiencing what is in front of me...Does this sound familiar to you?
The beauty of this practice is that we return to this over and over again, being present and noticing when we are not being present!
Thank you for all the inspirations each of you is offering through your examples of practice!