True man/woman of no rank.

 

By the age of 26 I had my own business, a new home, a family and lots of toys. However, one day at work, at the age of 24, I lost all feeling in my legs and was rushed to the hospital via ambulance; my life would change forever. I was told I had severe facet disease (probably from a surfing accident in my teens) and sympathetic neuropathy. I would never return to the life I once had. Over the next two years I lost my home, business, cars and any sense of security for my family, just like that – gone. I underwent three major surgeries; the last one fused my whole lumbar spine. During my last surgery, my ordination teacher visited me in the hospital, I remember very little but, moaning out load and shadows. The nurse said “Maybe this is not a good time to see him”. What I do remember clearly is six words that were said “This is not who you are”. The words meant little to me at the time, the waves of pain took every bit of concentration I had. After I got home and settled, I sat on the fire escape of my now one bedroom apartment which housed my family of four. I was looking over the Lehigh River in a lightning storm, and pondering that statement that was offer weeks before “This is not who you are” when a bolt of lightning struck across the highway between the river and I and everything changed in that instant. I know this sounds like something from pop-zen but, this is how my awakening began. I share this story not because I want others to know about my experience, but, to demonstrate my history going into formal Japanese Zen Practice.

I had never really done any formal Zen practice before that initial kensho, in 1986 I started practicing SGI after moving to Pennsylvania. In 1990 I met the man who would become my ordination teacher Thich Nguyen, via his son Thien who attended college with me. I started sitting with them occasionally in their townhouse; however, it was very relaxed, we all had outside demanding jobs and commitments. After that lightening flash though, things became clear, I knew what I needed to do next. I needed to peruse personal depth and clarify my experience. To do this, I needed to find a serious environment in which I could train FT or as much as my health would allow me. In return, I ended up at a couple Soto centers initially; however, it was just not what I was looking for. I was seeking a disciplined practice, which seemed to compliment my unfolding practice and nature; great idea huh? A spine full of screws and rods, still walking with canes and I have now navigated to a Rinzai Monastery, known for its fierce physical and mental training. I am chuckling as I write this!

Zazen was always difficult for me and I knew early on that people didn’t understand me, I mean, how could they? They had no frame of reference, and in no way did I wish my experiences on them. So I accepted how I would be viewed, and at first it bothered me greatly. I was told the first day I started practicing at the monastery that it was normal to have pain and it would go away after a few months; I thought “wonderful”! It was a false promise, still to this day, round after round ends in the same way – severe physical pain; however, I sit unmoving. To me the pain is worth it. After a few years of watching the guys across from me falling asleep while I tried to levitate over my zafu due to the overwhelming pain, I knew something was going on here. Yes, yes, pain is a part of sesshin and zen practice in general; however, this observation is based on a healthy student. The key here is “pain is part of practice” not “practice is pain”. We are not all healthy or have perfect spines; does this mean our karma is such that we cannot practice Zen? This is a question that crossed my mind many times and appeared supported by the attitudes of those around me. I remember during sesshin, when it became too much, I would shamefully crawl upon a chair. In return, I would be moved to the lowest place in the Zendo…way down there, you know the spot. Even people who used more than one zafu were designated as members of the “tower of shame” club by fellow monastics. So sitting in a chair was the worst, and I had no example to see what someone who had disabilities sat like, there was none. Yes, there was the guy with an achy knee who would grab a chair or the person with a slipped disc but, no one who had severe constant physical issues. I was viewed in the same way as the other students who could not sit in traditional full or half lotus, failures and not serious students. I understand that many new students or even elder students “give up” and grab the chair without pushing. “Giving up” creates disappointment for both the student and teacher but, it is up to the student in the end to gauge what is healthy sesshin pain, not someone else. I currently suggest to the members of the Zendo, if the pain becomes so consuming that all you can think of is the horrible pain all day long, then it is time to grab a chair or bench. I have even started putting new students in chairs for their first two sits so they don’t confuse the normal “stretch” pain with how all Zazen is. Culturally, we do not sit cross legged and I do not think Asians, who grow up sitting on the floor, have as much initial pain when sitting in Zazen.

I can remember the first Rinzai Monastery I trained at, the teacher told my visiting father that my problems were a result of my weight. Remember I had been in bed for almost a year before my surgery, so of course I gained some weight.  He said if I could just “lose a few pounds” I would be okay. At this time I was five months out from fusion surgery and still using canes. I did my first sesshin seven months out from surgery and was mowing lawns with staples yet in my spine. This is the attitude I have encountered time and time again. Maybe it was attachment, maybe it was looking for a new persona; however, I like to think it was the faith and insight generated by that lightning flash. Looking back on this, it is not anything I would recommend to anybody, to this degree that is. I am just trying to flesh out the main point of this post.

I have read a couple of articles about teachers breaking their legs and not being able to sit full lotus anymore, and about how scared and embarrassed they were. Imagine what the guy or gal is feeling who is required to sit in a chair, on a bench or even lying down. There was one situation that I would like to point out in which a past osho fought with the abbot to allow a woman with severe back injuries to attend sesshin laying down. Think about the strength of that woman! She ended up leaving though after the abbot demanded she sit up during his teisho. In my mind this women was a true student of no rank. There was also a man with mental illness who attended a sesshin I ran, and he had a panic attack which required him to go to the ER to visit his doctor. He returned one day later and sat like a rock the rest of the sesshin. He would later do several sesshins and ultimately take Jukai. His doctor actually told him to return to the sesshin and complete it – wonderful! The courage he must have had to return in presence of everyone – it humbles me still to this day. We also have a blind women who learned to so sesshin by mapping out the temple beforehand. She would later become a core sangha member (Yes you Lee). She makes me think of Gempo Yamamoto whose life as a disabled monk is an inspiration to me. My point in all of this is as follows, teachers and students should be very cautious when pushing or judging student’s practice based on their physical limits, especially those with disabilities. Moreover, if someone says they are sick, and have the diligence to sit out in the Zendo with a blanket around them versus sleeping in their room, to me that should be rewarded, not punished. I do believe in pushing students; however, they are the ones who ultimately know when to say enough – not you.

 

 

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Knot Zen

What a grand experience Zazen Practice is for the new student and how confusing it also may become. Bow, sit down, inkin rings and the designs within the floor appear on cue. I remember one day in the Zendo, everything disappeared and all that remained was one little black knot on the floor. After a few weeks, I got much better at “Knot Zen” and became quit talented at making everything go away but, my one black knot. Soon even my knot disappeared and I was left with an empty and still mind. I remember thinking that this must be the “emptiness” that Buddhism teaches. At the time, it felt great, instead of facing my issues, I could just send them away. If only I could keep my blank mind, I could abide in shunyata and finally find the peace I sought.

The “manifest self” or “ego self” is a very dynamic construct of our brain. It is a necessary conduit which allows us to interact and navigate within space/ time. To simplify, the “manifest self” is that which separates us from the myriads of other things. The “self” is the conceptual straw man which creates the contrast needed for the formation of “other” and ultimately the formation of our reality.  The “manifest self” is actually a wondrous process which allows us the balance required to truly experience and engage the world around us. What a “marvelous little tail it is” states Wumen in case 39.  However, the problem arises when the “manifest self” becomes misunderstood and is so integrated with the physical body that it soon becomes synonymous with it, in other words,  the self becomes a solidified “thing”. For example, many of us have experienced times when the  “self” is perceived as threatened and we feel overwhelmed by the same “fight or flight” response that is evoked when we are confronted with true physical harm. It is a common experience for these intense defense mechanisms to overwhelm new students and cause them to cease practice. However, most of the time we are not cognizant of this activity until the artificial seams fall apart and our dream abruptly ends. Splitting apart, the binary self becomes evident as we instinctively begin the process of trying to rectify the two conflicting attributes into one neat reality.  Due to the powerful stimuli generated by the skandhas, and our strong reactions to them, the subtle “limitless self” falls into shadow and our “manifest self” takes control. Our perception of “self” then aligns itself with the source of the skandhas and excludes all that which is perceived as other. These views lead us to perceive the “manifest self” as independent from the world and based in the skandhas. In return, protective psychological armor forms around our “concept” of self. We are, after all, a little fish in a big pond from this perspective. Initially this armor gives the appearance of working; however, in reality, these mechanisms just create even deeper states of suffering and drain more and more energy from us. It is always interesting to hear students after sesshin speak about all the energy they have. Many bounce from one part of the temple to the other days after the sesshin has ended. All of this free psychic energy reclaimed after defensive armor has been dismantled over days of Zazen.

The absence and suppression of the “limitless self” creates elaborate shadows which echo the desire for unity; however, they can never produce it. Completion always exists just outside of our dreams and no matter how elaborate we make them, they remain empty shells of desire. So we become hungry ghosts seeking completion in the world of red dust. Maybe that new car, new job, new relationship or new religion will bring us the completion we seek. Once obtained, these things crumble within our fingers and leave brittle hollow shells.  Honesty and fearlessness are keys to realizing the completion we seek. This means digging deep within ourselves and experiencing that which we originally sought refuge from; our pain and suffering. It is through these catalysts, that we are privy to a more complete view. However, this window may also bring with it misunderstanding.  We may become confused and perceive these two conceptual attributes as separate from each other and deem one superior and the other inferior.

If the limitless self is grasped in the same unbalanced way as the “manifest self”, it too may create an imbalance within the person and cause suffering. Many times the “limitless self” is perceived as a “superior self” or “true self”. With this flipped view, the world of form is ignored and seen as illusion. This view transforms us into blank minded men and women who deny who and what we are.  We become ghosts who are afraid to live, and seek oblivion. As living ghosts we stare at the floor day after day and see inactivity as the true practice. With great concentration we forge forward and continue to dispatch all the arising thoughts, experiences and emotions that arise in mind. We attempt to suppress more and more until cracks form within our defensive armor, and soon the power of all that was suppressed comes rumbling forth and spills outward. The binary self splits once again; however, this time the instability is created by the manifest self. Some of those suppressed thoughts and emotions have now become neurotic in presentation and we are now confronted with all the monsters under the bed. Maybe we just need to sit more! Maybe we need a different teacher! Maybe we need a different tradition! This Zen is not working! On and on we struggle to maintain our “blank mind”, until one day, if we are lucky, we are forced to reconcile our fragmented self and cease the endless cycles of birth and death.

The two attributes of the self are like the waves which flow across the surface of the ocean and the still depths which lie underneath.  The “manifest self” is the wave, while the “limitless self” is the still vast ocean that lies beneath. They both embody different attributes of the whole; however, they are unified by the same intrinsic nature (the water). Another example of this dichotomy is revealed by looking at the attributes of a single sheet of paper. When we look at a piece of paper, we perceive two distinct sides. We do not separate these sides or it would cause the deconstruction of the object.  With an understanding that both sides are needed to complete what is paper, we can begin to have insight into the nature of self.  If we place the paper down upon a table, we can still see the object via its attribute (side). If we flip the paper over, we can also see the object within its other attribute. It is the two sides which constitute the whole of the “paper” but, completion can be found in either attribute.  When we grasp the ‘self’ in the correct manner we no long experience the distortion of a fragmented self but, experience a fluid and unified self.  Emptiness can be a slippery concept and as “The Sutra of a better way to catch a snake” points out, “Bhikshus, understanding my teaching in the wrong way is the same. If you do not practice the Dharma correctly, you may come to understand it as the opposite of what was intended.” Learning the correct way to approach and grasp  the teachings is very important.

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Clean-Up Impressions

Over 60 people showed up to clean-up the Uplands located in the Lehigh Mountain Park. There were no Christians, Jews, Muslims or Buddhists, there were just people coming together to care for their world. Not once did I hear religion mentioned during the clean-up itself. All I saw were people engaged in a noble activity. This land was not owned by any individual but, everyone cared as if it was their personal property, how wonderful! If only we could get more people to view the world around them in this way, or even to view the world as an interconnected part of them, things could take a wondrous direction. I watched grown men playing with salamanders and snakes, although I had to point out the one was a poisonous copperhead, and a serenity overcame us all as through a long lost part of us awoke and we began to view the world through the eyes of a child again. I think we become lost and separated from nature, and in a way, I think we are lonely and sad. There is a spirit which permeates the earth and when we separate ourselves from her we become lost and homesick. Many times, we loose sight that we are “nature” itself and have become like a flower trying to grow within the dark of a cave. We seek the completion that only connecting with the world around us (other) can offer.

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Lehigh Mountain Park Clean-up

A serene section of Lehigh Mountain Park in Allentown for years has been known as a dumping ground for garbage referred to as “white goods” — including mattresses, appliances, stoves and washing machines — rather than for the natural sanctuary it could provide for city residents.

Members of Buddhist Blue Mountain Zendo visit the park regularly to pay homage to the natural fountain, springs and vibrant wildlife. They’ve teamed up with area park organizations and interested citizens to try to reveal the beauty of the park for the use of other community members as well.

“This area has a history of this,” Rev. Joriki Dat Baker, of Blue Mountain Zendo, says of the illegal trash dumping. “But what people don’t see is pristine forest and a huge aquifer.”

Lehigh County Parks Department, Allentown Parks, Salisbury Township, The Friends of Allentown Parks, Lehigh County Parks Department and Trinity Episcopal Church of Bethlehem are among the other organizations that have banded together to organize a mass cleanup being held 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. The groups will meet and start the cleanup at the park’s Constitution Drive entrance.

The effort, planned to address more than 230 acres of the park, was organized before a brush fire burned an area of wooded land of the uplands during the early morning hours of April 19. The fire, which began on Constitution Drive,  was contained to two acres by the Allentown Fire Department.

Karen El-Chaar, executive director of Friends of the Allentown Parks, says cleanup is even more crucial now.

“Many people don’t realize this park even exists,” El-Chaar says.

El-Chaar has helped to organize high school groups and other volunteers to help out, along with securing small grants to aid with material expenses such as dump trucks, dumpsters, gardening equipment and trash bags.

“It’s not just a local park and important for the local community, but a national gem for the area,” Baker says of the historical significance of the park, including native artifacts found there and wildlife.

Baker says there is a plan to put gates up to block off the park to prevent people driving in with trash to dump, but they hope to have one big push for cleanup before gates are slated to be put in this summer.

More than 200 people are expected to show up to help with trash pickup and minor landscaping of the park, but more are needed.

Baker says the event has a larger purpose than just being a work detail. The area, which has also been used for walking and mountain biking trails, will also house community gardening efforts by Our Place, a Muslim Community organization, which has a location in Morristown, N.J.

“The focus is cleanup and bringing community together to realize what a great natural resource they have,” Baker says.

By: Tiffany Bentley Express Times

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Wind, flag, mind moves, The same understanding. When the mouth opens All are wrong. “Mumon”

One of the facets of self is to create a separated “entity” in space/time which creates the contrast needed to navigate through it. This contrast is created, by the brain, to procure the needs and desires of the organism. Many within Zen Practice tend to vilify the self and create just as much suffering, via this vilification, as those who are attached to the illusion of a permanent and unchanging self. Yes, there is a flag and yes the wind is that which moves the flag. The nature of this koan pertains to the unified or complete view that we are normally separated from via the chain reaction which arises when we manifest limited self. Our “limited self” nature creates a process in which the unified is broken down into facets and attributes which are easily manipulated and digested to fit within our perception of reality. Those facets which are brought forward into the conscious mind depend greatly on our personal preferences, needs and experiences. Countless other attributes are left undifferentiated as they are either unknown, deemed as unimportant or contrary to our desired reality. Within this dualistic process we can’t experience reality in its completeness, we can only see slices or frames that we have removed from the whole, digested and then conceptualized. If these attributes can not be neatly placed within our “view”, our “beliefs” fall apart and we struggle to find unity with reality. Life has a way of grabbing us by the gruff of the neck and pointing the way. When we let go fully, and open our eyes wide, we naturally return to that which is unified to rectify our conflict. In Zen, tools have long been used which force the student to let go of their “beliefs”, shed the limited self, and realize that which brings together and unifies. The seeker falls into completion which reveals the true nurture of the self. In return, balance is once again realized and the resulting insight replaces the ignorant view(s); until next time, as this is a process – how perfect! Mumon tells us,“When Mouth opens, all are wrong” so he is kindly giving us direction, he is pointing to an experience which transcends the extraction of a few mere attributes and the realization of completion. Directly experiencing and knowing, what creates the fragmentation of reality is key to realizing the precious dharma found within this koan. When self is revealed in its complete form, all return to their rightful places in the heavens. Completion reveals the core nature of all attributes, and restores the true nature of self – no nature.

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Iron Pine Sesshin

 

Blue Mountain Zendo

June 7 2012 7:00 pm – June 10 2012 2:00 pm

Literally “to collect the mind”, Sesshin is the Buddhist seclusion or retreat, consisting of five days of intensive Zazen (meditation) practice, a dharma talk once a day and a private interview with Rev. Joriki Dat Baker twice daily. During sesshin, the student concentrates on nothing but collecting the scattered shards of the mind so that they can realize their original unity with the universe from which they ordinarily feel separated. For centuries philosophy and religion have tried to evoke this unified mind but, with with transitory results. Zen will illuminate the way, it will uncover the inner strength necessary to restore the threads which weave our rightful place in this world.

Sesshin is the core of all Zen Buddhist Practice. While other traditions tend to be distracted by the playful words left by the Buddha of the past, Zen concerns itself with the engagement, validity and application of such wisdom. In other words, some traditions study the path while others walk the path; there must be a balance between the two. Sesshin is offered for those who have realized that mere scholarly pursuits fail to illuminate the true path of liberation. Sesshin is a time for brave women and men to realize the truth of life and death. Sesshin includes lodging, meditation instruction, koan practice, samu practice, chanting practice, vegetarian meals, daily walking meditations next to the river and daily private interviews with Joriki Dat Baker.

Summer Sesshin starts Thursday at 7:00 pm and ends on Sunday at 2:00 pm. The cost is $275. For more information please contact the Jisha on the Contact Us page.

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