One of the primary directions of practice is to cultivate and explore the various footings of emptiness (shunyatta). Early in practice we begin explore the initial stages of emptiness we call oneness. Through this practice we experience a deepening sense of unity with the world around us. For example, when I first started to explore the depths of oneness, I found myself better able to “feel” the world around me. This was such an eye-opening experience for me. It grew from just more empathy for other people to more empathy for all life, including our planet. The lines of devision were becoming so very faint. This feeling of oneness made it impossible for me to continue to hunt and fish. I felt too interconnected, and any potential harm was not worthwhile. This is not to say I am against hunting and fishing; I am not. It is just no longer for me. Tumbling further down the rabbit hole I began to have even deeper experiences. I remember standing at “Sangha Meadows” at Dai Bosatsu and literally becoming the swaying grasses and the buzzing sounds of chanting, yet there was no longer any me. These experiences were the cool breeze of Harvest Sesshin. They swept through everything, leaving not even the slightest trace. Deeper yet, there is the footing I like to call “light switch” Zen, nothing can be said, yet a sound can be made. Getting stuck here is easy. My internal dialog was, “I want emptiness again. I want to be one! Not these dam achy knees or irritating Zen Politics! I will just need to work harder at oneness”. Who can’t be stuck on these initial life altering experiences? We are like a fish in a small pool who swims so hard upward, and with so much intensity that he breaches the water’s surface, and for just a moment, glimpses a whole new extraordinary world, only to come crashing back down into the same old pool. “What the hell was that, and how do I get back?”, we scramble. Everything becomes about this experience. If asked anything about Zen, we thrust this experience forth! Too many together and they sound like a herd of cows! With this being said, it is so easy to make our home here yet, no matter how hard we try, the experience slips through our fingers like cradled water. Soon we are left with nothing but a decaying memory. No matter how hard we try to replicate our experience, the further away we seem to move from it. What a pity. For those who push through, and let go of even this footing, the rabbit hole goes even deeper. I explain these depths as “tearing through”. When we open fully, and let go to even the slightest attachment to oneness, we begin to press against the “membrane” that separates oneness from multiplicity. These two are many times explained as the full moon (pure consciousness) and its reflection dancing upon the ocean’s waves (positivity/ multiplicity). Such an odd reality when it comes to dichotic equations. When we push ever so deeper into one side, we may end up tearing through to the other and thereby creating a truly “non-dual” experience. You may exclaim, “You got your absolute negative in my absolute positive!”. I liken this to a single piece of paper. If we hold up a piece of paper, we may say it is “one” piece, yet that “one piece” is made up of two sides. Take away one side, and what is left? So, our “one” relies on “two”. What does this insight point too? What is it to both realize and navigate the true waters of “non-duality”? To ride the choppy waters of the ocean’s surface without ever truly leaving the darkest and deepest waters of its depths. What now…
My wife is such a loving Bodhisattva. We have four stray alley cats that we adopted when the zendo was in the city. One “Blue” ran into the zendo door, sat down and never left. I perceive I am responsible when any sentient being seeks help from me. Whether this is a person asking, the land weaping, or an animal suffering. Over the past two days a cat, who has obviously been thrown away or lost, has been sleeping under a tree in our back yard. She is dirty, skinny, scared and hungry. Karma has brought her to my home, my attention and my responsibility. For me there is no choice. However, my wife reminds me of the needs of the others already under our roof. This is not indifference or greed but, wisdom and compassion as well. She reminds me of the balance that is needed when we are dealing with resources. Seven beings already inhabit our structure, so there is limited space. It also costs a lot to care for three humans and four cats. There is medical, food, housing ect that is needed for everyone. I fight myself at times to balance heart and mind. As I said, today, for me, there is no choice. I don’t seek to save the world but, those in need who pass through my life will never be turned away. I may not be able to give exactly what is needed but, I will always do my best. She is feed, and she has a place to sleep. Tomorrow she may be gone or she may need more. I will do my best then as well. That is really all that we can do, our best.
The Bodhisattva Vow – Torei Enji
When I, a student of the Dharma, look at the real form of the universe, all is the never-failing manifestation of the mysterious truth of Tathagata. In any event, in any moment, and in any place, none can be other than the marvelous revelation of its glorious light.
This realization made our patriarchs and virtuous Zen masters extend tender care, with the worshiping heart, even to such beings as beasts and birds. This realization teaches us that our daily food, drink, clothes, and protections of life are the warm flesh and blood, the merciful incarnation of Buddha. Who can be ungrateful or not respectful to each and every thing, not to speak of a man! Even though someone may seem a fool, be warm and compassionate toward them. If by any chance such a person should turn against us, become a sworn enemy and abuse and persecute us, we should sincerely bow down with humble language, in reverent belief that he or she is the merciful avatar of Buddha, who uses devices to emancipate us from sinful karma that has been produced and accumulated upon ourselves by our own egoistic delusion and attachment through countless cycles of kalpas. Then in each moment’s flash of our thought there will grow a lotus flower, and on each lotus flower will reveal a Buddha. These Buddhas will glorify Sukhavati, the Pure Land, every moment and everywhere. May we extend this mind over all beings so that we and all beings together, may attain maturity in Buddha’s wisdom.
ATTA DIPA VIHARATHA ATTA SARANA ANANNA SARANA DHAMMA DIPA DHAMMA SARANA ANANNA SARANA
You are the light! Dwell.
You are the refuge.
Have no other as your refuge.
Light of the Dharma.
Refuge of the Dharma.
Have no other as your refuge.
These words were given by the Buddha to his cousin and student Ananda right before his death. Panicked and weeping, Ananda perceived he had lost his opportunity to awaken with the Buddha’s death. Ananda thought, “Who will lead and teach me?” The Buddha’s reply, his medicine, is beautiful and compassionate. Even upon his last moments, the Buddha comforted and empowered those around him. You are the light! These words are still spoken everyday by countless members of the Maha Sangha. These words still pacify and inspire countless students of the way. I invite you to not only speak these words but, to pass through the gate left by the Buddha, and KNOW, you are the light!
Zen Ordination at Blue Mountain
For those thinking of ordination, please consider the following. In the Rinzai tradition there are practices in place to test our dedication and metal. In more traditional Zen Center those tests range from being told over and over to leave or give up to a step-up process to gain admittance to the zendo. Our zendo requires a commitment of a one year period. The postulate must attend all activities and retreats for a solid year as well as dedicating time to temple maintenance. At other temples they require students to live at the monastery FT. At Blue Mountain Zendo a student becomes a postulate after one year and an unsui after 2.5. As a postulate, the student wears the robes and trains as a monk but, is not yet truly ordained as a novice. There is good reason for these traditions. They help both the teacher and the student determine whether the life of a monk is a good fit or not. They allow the student to feel what will be required of them after ordination. One of the most eye opening experiences a postulate will encounter is the sacrifice of time. Practice must come first. This is a “life” commitment. We can not put on and take off our robes as we desire. We wear the kesa wherever we go and whatever task we are engaged in. When we are called, we must be willing to say “hai”! There is no debating the call of the bell, however, this does not mean we do not set boundaries in our life. It just gives our life a primary direction, which is first and foremost our commitment to practice. There are also many examples of start and stop practice. We may begin at a time that is just not optimal for our endeavor and decide “not yet”. This does not mean that in the future we can not try again. Dropping out of ordination training and realizing that it is not a good fit, is exactly why there is an intense initial commitment.
At Blue Mountain Zendo, once we have dedicated ourselves to one year of training, there are only three exceptions: work obligations that can not be missed, sickness and a one week vacation ect. These to me are written in stone as they are a 25 year old compromise. A balance between the tradition I was introduced to, and the needs of the sangha I now serve. Believe me, originally there was no excuse to miss zazenkai or sesshin at Blue Mountain Zendo. Some centers still adhere to the old guidelines to monastic entry, and I get it. I can’t say I don’t miss that hard core unwavering commitment but, in the west the reality of practice is different for many. All things change, and some who are called find themselves leaving home, without leaving home. Did I mention the tens of thousands of dollars spent on training? Yes, the teachings are free but, the space and its functions are not. So this is another sacrifice and sometimes one of the most difficult. With this being said, I have never heard of a zen center turning a student away due to an inability to pay. Work exchange or scholarships are many times offered. Asking for charity is another great lesson for a monk.
Today a student of one day said to me after a 15 minute sit, “This feels like home”. I remember saying those exact words. That feeling is what has guided me up unto this moment. I can’t begin to explain the gratitude I feel, and the debt I owe my family for supporting me. Today, every time I place the kesa on my head and recite the “Verse of the kesa” I remember how heavy it felt at one time. Now it feels like nothing other than “home”.
Death is always an unexpected dinner guest. The table has long been set, and the candles are burning down. Best to enjoy the feast before it grows cold.
Dana “giving” is an important part of spiritual practice. Commonly we perceive the recipient as the blessed one, however, in Zen Practice we perceive both the recipient and the benefactor as equally blessed. They are interconnected and one. As the benefactor we are blessed with the feelings, thoughts and karma of giving. The apparent of giving is the sense of connection we form with the receiver (other) and the positive mental energy (nen) we experience and emanate. Our heart opens and our consciousness expands outward, infecting others as they too open. As the beneficiary, we feel held and loved. Our heart opens and we experience joy and gratitude. As with the benefactor, our gratitude and joy ripples outward and manifests within those around us. For example, we see a homeless man begging at a local intersection. We think for a moment, and then decide to offer charity. We wave the man over and give him money. He thanks and blesses us. Unbeknownst to us, others who are also debating what to do see us, and they too are inspired to give based on our example. These small acts are like casting a little stone within a large pond. The stone is cast, it strike the surface, and the ripples move outward enveloping the waters. Charity comes in many different ways. Holding the door open, allowing someone to go before us, listening to a friend, offering your time or just being fully present. It could even include doing nothing. The ways of giving are infinite. Please enjoy investigating them all.
Zen Practice is one of those lifetime endeavors, it is not something we ever truly perfect. There are no “Zen Masters”, only students of the way. With this being said, it only makes sense that those senior Dharma bothers and sister help guide those with less experience. As with any endeavor, the longer and more diligent we practice, the more proficient we become at it. It takes a few years for a new student to begin to embody and experience the practice with any maturity. There is a lot of emptying and healing that must take place before we begin to see clearly. So for those students who have done a few zazenkai or sesshin and think they understand the practice…you don’t. Keep that “don’t know” mind and march onward. If you stay the course and apply yourself, the reward confirms your conviction. There are no shortcuts, and there are no formulations to learn and deploy. A few sits are a good start but, will not do. Relinquish your projections and settle into the form, and in the readiness of time, your roots will strike deep and the cool waters will nourish you. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Fear of Death
The fear of death is the great usurper of life. We dress death in infinite suffering and pain, swathed in a dark cloak of totality. We attempt to hide, yet it always finds us. We try to ignore it, yet its patience always surpasses our own. It is only when we open ourselves completely to life, do we also open ourselves completely to death. Two sides of the same coin, within death there is life and within life there is death. So I ask you, when death comes and your elements scatter to the four directions, what of you then?
Called forth, called home.
Unbridled waves playfully chase as they dance across the sands. Exhausted, empty, and vast, the ocean calls its own. Neither deep nor shallow, nor trench nor shore. Called forth, called home. A willows whisper, a lions roar.