Monday, March 22, 2010

Jukai Sesshin

We just got done with our annual week-long Jukai sesshin, where we gave the precepts to 21 new lay buddhists. I was jisha (teacher's assistant), and my teacher Kyogen did sanzen (formal interview) during every block of meditation -- 4 times a day! Each time I had to set up a row of cushions for people to sit and wait, and then put it all back away when they were done. At the beginning of the week I was also doing a lot of instruction about how the process works and making sure that people got in okay, etc. It was tiring, but rewarding.

I got through it just fine, even the back, though I was lying down for 1-2 periods each day as well as during rest periods. The ceremony itself on Sunday was beautiful and went very well. We had one fellow who had to sit in a chair, couldn't kneel at the altar, so we (jikko and I) whisked a chair in there, moved the zabuton under the table, and kept handing wagessas and certificates and ketchimyakus to Kyogen. It was very smooth, no glitches this time (the last few ceremonies I've been participating in have had their share of glitches -- Monday night when we did the Kyojukaimon ceremony and I had to bow several times in front of Kyogen with the sambo, I managed to bonk him on the head with it at one point. Ah, well.).

We're having great weather, though today is partly cloudy -- it's supposed to warm up a bit the next few days. Quite lovely, with lots of flowers blooming.

During the week, I found myself enjoying the experience of sitting in that hall as the day unfolded. Here's a bit of a poem I wrote about it:

dark morning meditation
eyelids droop
pipes hiss and gurgle
crows call
construction rumbles and beeps
the world wakes
light grows
daily ordinary miracle

gold light through gold window
lights up gold carpet
rows of black zabutons
topped by people in black robes
sitting like mountains

a flotilla of black boats
on a golden sea

Monday, March 01, 2010

Countdown to the auction

Today is a day off, but I'm acutely aware that our annual Silent Auction is this Saturday, March 6, and there is still a lot to do between now and then. You can read about it here. From there you can link to our catalog of items available for viewing, and many of them are also available for online bidding. It's going to be great! We are doing many things better than we did last year. Mind you, last year's auction was a great success, but this will be more professional, more streamlined, and hopefully more fun.

Right now ticket sales are lagging a bit behind of where we wish them to be, so there's a little worry there. But a lot of people do things at the last possible minute, and we exceeded our goal last year, so we'll see.

We're using an online software package that allows us to do a lot of things better than we did before, and will require us to have reliable Internet access at the site, as well as to be able to print out things like receipts and such there. So there's been a technical aspect to manage. However, it seems like everything is coming together and should work out just fine.

Today, though, is a day off. So I'm going to forget about the auction, or try to, and go out for a walk to the library.

Dharma Talk February 14, 2010

A Tassajara Report: Yogic, Monastic, Religious

Thank you to my Sangha for supporting and sending me, to my Teacher(s) for kicking me out of my comfortable niche here and sending me to what seemed to me a scary place, and to the Ancestors for transmitting the dharma to this place and time.

It is impossible to share everything that happened during 3 months of intensive practice, but here’s a little snippet.

Paul Haller, the Abbot for the fall Practice Period at Tassajara, did classes regularly and also dharma talks during sesshin. One of his teachings was to look at practice within the framework of 3 aspects: yogic, monastic, and religious

This term, though obviously related to "Yoga," is not one we use much here, so it may be a little unfamiliar. Here’s some background.

The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root "yuj", meaning "to control", "to yoke" or "to unite." Translations include "joining", "uniting", "union", "conjunction", and "means." An alternate root from which the word yoga may be derived is "yujir samadhau", which means "contemplation" or "absorption."

(The information below is from Wikipedia, based on Doumoulin's Zen Buddhism: A History (India and China).

The most ancient sustained expression of yogic ideas is found in the early sermons of the Buddha. One key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative absorption should be combined with the practice of mindfulness. The difference between the Buddha's teaching and the yoga presented in early Brahminic texts is striking. Meditative states alone are not an end, for according to the Buddha, even the highest meditative state is not liberating. Instead of attaining a complete cessation of thought, some sort of mental activity must take place: a liberating cognition, based on the practice of mindful awareness.

Yogacara Buddhism is a school of philosophy and psychology that developed in India during the 4th to 5th centuries. Yogacara received the name as it provided a yoga, a framework, for engaging in the practices that lead to the path of the bodhisattva. The Yogacara sect teaches yoga in order to reach enlightenment.

[My note: there is more to it than that, of course – much exploration of the mind, especially positive and negative mental formations and how to work with them, and that’s part of what Paul talked about in his dharma classes.]

Ch'an (Seon/Zen) Buddhism
The Mahayana school of Buddhism is noted for its proximity with Yoga. In the west, Zen is often set alongside Yoga; the two schools of meditation display obvious family resemblances. This phenomenon merits special attention since the Zen Buddhist school of meditation has some of its roots in yogic practices. Certain essential elements of Yoga are important both for Buddhism in general and for Zen in particular.

Paul's Notes on Yogic practice
• Presence, awareness, just sitting
• Contact, stay attentive to experience that arises in the body, see the state of consciousness, move toward stillness, stay close
• Stay attentive to what pulls you away
• “The World According to Me”
• How do I sit with the body and mind that I have?
• Working with the mind – what is skillful, what is the process?
• Keep returning to Big Mind, recreate the vow to practice
• Intention brings us back to the experience of the present moment. Notice where you are. Connect to recreate the mandala of body and breath and the disposition of consciousness. Give over to the experience.
• That which sees separation also sees the path to connection. That which notices distraction is already aware.
• Be aware you're aware when you're aware.
• Attend to what arises, not to dwell in it, but to incorporate it into continuous contact
• Progression interweaves distraction and coming back. Experience flows through without being attached to.
• Carry mindfulness into activity

My experience of this was difficult. I read books that inspired me to try to follow my breath – they made it sound easy. Paul spoke of it so precisely, and outlined much of my own experience so accurately, that I thought I would finally get the great insight I needed to get this down. I kept thinking this was great stuff, maybe I would finally get this zazen thing.

But as the time went on, I began to see that I had as much trouble as ever staying present, focusing, keeping my awareness and attention up, and I told Paul toward the end of the practice period that I didn’t think I was any better at this than I was at the beginning of it. His reply was, “Don’t be too sure about that.” Which was a good answer. I’m not sure I’m any “better” at it than I was before, but I do find that when I sit, I more readily enter into the mind of inquiry, curiosity, acceptance of where I am at that moment.

Ways that each person at Dharma Rain Zen Center practices monastic forms:
chanting, bowing, moving in the Zendo, kinhin, sitting zazen, putting shoes straight, sangha circle, etc.

Paul’s notes on Monastic practice:
• forms are a container for social development and awareness
• they are a direct expression of practice
• training is learning by doing and messing it up
• Ordinary mind: what's happening? See the complications of personality. Nothing special, just do it
• Monastic forms help us to see what we add to them
• They trigger reactivity. You do it anyway, whether you want to or not. It brings us close [this sounds like an aspect of Yogic practice].
• As the present moment is energized, the activities of self-consciousness are less energized. Through our sincere attention, we shift something. This is not about control, success or gaining. Stimulates arising of way-seeking mind, reveals what's really going on.

I worked with a question about form, given that the particular forms at Tassajara were different from what we do at Dharma Rain. I knew from experience that it can be fruitful to practice with resistance to a given form, anxiety over doing it wrong, etc. In the end, it became clear that the particulars of form matter only in the context of a given community, but in that context they are critically important. It isn’t exactly the specifics of form that matter, but the process of giving over to it wholeheartedly shifts something within ourselves.

Monastic practice supports Yogic practice and is supported by it.

Oryoki – basic description: This is a formal meal practice involving the setting out of a particular set of linens, bowls, and utensils in a particular way. You set these out precisely at the beginning, and there are prescribed ways to serve, receive, and eat food. After eating, we get served hot water to wash bowls and utensils, then we dry bowls and utensils, discard the water into containers to offer to plants, and then put everything back away again, folding and tying it carefully into its original form.

We were all assigned to be on serving crews, which served every 5 days or so. Roles within the crew constantly changed (one being head server, one playing han/drum, another on unpan, and all of us going into the zendo in a different order each time, which dictated which seat we went to first). Other days, being served also required attention – my tendency to watch what servers were doing with critical judgmental mind sometimes made me miss what I was supposed to do at my own place. I reminded myself to return my eyes to “my friend the floor” right in front of me, my awareness to what was happening in a tight circle right around me. At the end of the practice period, I realized that we were all just doing oryoki together, no right or wrong, no better or worse, just all doing it together.

Following the forms is a way of putting your body into a container that allows for dharmic expression and learning that bypasses the cognitive mind. In many ways, I find this easier to do and benefit from than sitting zazen. However, really what I find is that they interweave with each other, they support each other.

I’ve heard many people say that they are not into religion, but they are interested in spirituality, as though spirituality was dancing in a sunny meadow and religion was a huge oppressive stone building out to crush the life out of us. Unfortunately, many of us have experienced religion in just this way. Kyogen (my teacher) points out that the word religion comes from the Greek, and means “re-linking.” In that sense, it ties back in to some of the definitions of “yoga” – uniting, joining. It’s about connection.

Here’s some of what Paul says about the religious aspect of practice.

• Ceremonies reframe our life from a karmic family to a dharmic family
• Reframing everyday experience, lifting it out of everyday stories (self-intrigue) and joining it with greater being
• to revere and make sacred, not to explain
• iconography, ritual, archetypes, i.e., hungry ghosts (gakis)
• we turn an archetype into a conscious being that can be acknowledged, made offerings to, deeply held -- something deep in our being to revere
• Acknowledge the sacredness of Avalokiteshvara and the hungry ghost
• Enliven wisdom, activity, compassion (Manjushri, Samantabhadra, Avalokiteshvara)
• different archetypes are presented in Zen materials, because we all have an affinity for different ancestors

At Tassajara, we celebrated Segaki/Sejiki. We read Kanromon, the sweet gate scripture, every 5 days. I found that both of these had a profound effect on me, though it’s difficult to explain exactly what that was. It opened up something inside of me.

I find that religious activities allow me to access something in a way that bypasses the cognitive, discursive mind. Maybe it’s a more direct access. It incorporates forms, especially in ceremonies – chanting and bowing, processing, etc., and is thereby connected with the monastic aspect of practice, and shares its ability to transcend thinking.

It turns out that I’m a religious person, and didn’t really know it. I’ve been aware for a while of my affinity for what we sometimes call Other Power: in particular, Kanzeon, Fudo, and Prajnaparamita. My first encounter with the “Universal Gateway Chapter” from the Lotus Sutra was while we were processing, and it brought me to tears. I didn’t know for some years what that was about. Now I think it has something to do with the sense that Kanzeon (Avalokiteshvara) is someone I can call on to activate the power of compassion in my life.

Is this outside myself? Maybe not, but it is often useful to me to think of it as though it were. I stay open to what it may or may not be, knowing that it works on some level for me, without any sense that it also has to work for others the same way. Doing this allows me to access the mystery.

I appreciated Paul’s framing of practice in this way, and have come to see these three aspects, Yogic, Monastic, and Religious, as intertwined, supporting and interweaving with each other. I had direct experience with each of them at Tassajara, and can see them in play here at Dharma Rain Zen Center as well. I have a renewed appreciation for our practice and our lineage. I appreciate the opportunity to step out of my regular life here long enough to become immersed in the forms, the zazen, and the ceremonies at a Soto Zen monastery for three months. My gratitude to all of you, to my teacher, and to our ancestors.