Full Moon Zen launch

I’ve been preparing to launch a Zen group in Boston, now that my family is settled here, having moved from the burbs in mid-2018.  I designed the logo below, started looking for space, and . . . the COVID-19 pandemic happened (making our Five Remembrances impossible to forget).  Then I learned that many other White Plum teachers had begun moving their own sangha’s practice sessions online (which some of them had begun doing even before the pandemic). So, I subscribed to Zoom, spun up a website, and launched.  A small, lovely group of us have met twice now.

I had thought and thought and thought about a name, which produced . . . zilch.  Finishing a sit in our attic office at dawn one day, I looked out the window from my cushion and saw the full moon in a hazy, pale blue sky.  Full Moon Zen.  Of course.  This little reflection by Kenneth Kraft, on full moon symbolism in Zen, gets it just right.

Meditation

Meditation is what’s happening now.

Sitting meditation (zazen) is what’s happening now, while I’m sitting.

Whatever is happening.

 

Ceaseless practice

 

This an an approximation of a talk I gave on May 31, 2017 at Bright Sea Zen, the sangha led by my dear friend, Kate Hartland.

“The meaning of zazen, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other.  Zazen doesn’t start when we start making effort, doesn’t stop when we stop.

We can’t do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.”

From “Guidance in Shikintaza,” by Reb Anderson

I want to use this passage from one of our chants tonight to talk about the notion of ceaseless practice.

The universe practices ceaselessly.  Everything that’s happening right here, now – everything that’s happening everywhere – is the universe’s practice.  The universe is universing.  This is Buddha’s practice. It is Buddha nature expressing itself.

Buddha nature expresses itself ceaselessly.  The universe practices ceaselessly. E ndlessly flows forth; erupts; gives its all; gives it all up for the sake of . . . giving it all up.

Kate and I just had a nice visit at her house before our sit.  She definitely delivered on her promise to make a wicked grilled cheese sandwich.  The sandwich and time with her were a real treat, yet the main event was a tour of Kate’s beautiful garden.  Kate is an avid gardener, as I suspect you know.  I’ve always appreciated and admired the way so much of her teaching is inspired by what nature teaches her.

Kate’s garden is radiant now.  Many of the flowers are erupting.  The universe erupting as Kate’s flowers.

And, later in the year, when the flowers die, their death is the universe erupting, too.

It’s the same with us.  Each of us is the universe universing.  We are flowers blooming. Our lives – our thoughts, speech and action – are the universe erupting.  And our deaths are the universe erupting, too.

And, yet, many of us, much of the time, don’t seem to regard our lives this way.  We have this gnawing sense of separateness, of isolation, of not-okayness.  And we often, in more or less unconscious ways, respond anxiously to this sense, and often in ways that tend to compound it.  We take refuge in thought, speech or conduct, in situations we create or gravitate toward, that are about escaping from the here-and-now.  That aren’t about nearness to it and intimacy with it.

Why is this?  I don’t know. In some religious worldviews, it’s a mark of our fallen nature.  In some, it’s a pathology; a kind of sickness.

I’m more inclined to see it in the spirit of what Zen types call the “samadhi of play.”  Why shouldn’t the one wish to flow forth and know itself in the many; in and as myriad dharmas, “the 10,000 things”; as you and me?  And why shouldn’t the many, why shouldn’t you and I, truly feel distinct and separate, with the twinge of discomfort that entails (even as it also creates opportunities for joy).  And why shouldn’t all delight in discovering, and constantly rediscovering, oneness-in-manyness and the boundless love manifested in and generated through all this?

But these are just ideas, and, so far as I can tell, the universe universing doesn’t seem to be dependent upon my own or anyone else’s ideas about it.

This is the “we can’t do it for ourselves” part.  We can’t do it for ourselves, because it’s already done.  From this perspective, there’s nothing at all to do. Polishing ourselves – trying to be wiser, more virtuous, more spiritual; shinier, newer or whatever – it’s all futile from this perspective.  This is a come-as-you-are universe.  The universe goes on erupting, despite and as our efforts, whatever our efforts may or may not be.

So why practice?  We practice because of the opportunity it provides to become more and more aware of the universe universing, and to discover ourselves as participants in the universe universing.  It helps us not to resist our participation, just as we are here and now.  To attune.  Zazen tends to help us attune.

This is the “nobody else can do it for us” part.  Nobody else can live our lives, and nobody else can sit for us. Nobody else can practice for us.

Sitting is optional . . . we’re part of it all, no matter what, and the universe goes on practicing as me, whether or not I sit.  Yet this attunement, this particular quality of willing participation, can matter so much personally and collectively.  So much individual and collective suffering is attributable to our resistance; to our attempts to take refuge in someplace other than this.  Someplace we think promises something more.

The quality of our lives – our thought, speech and actions – may begin to change as we attune.  The universe goes on erupting despite our efforts and as our efforts, no matter what, but we do have agency.  We participate.  We have the ability to influence the universe erupting as our efforts.

So what we realize from our practice is simply that we are part of the universe’s ceaseless practice.  We realize that we are already home.  That we are practicing ceaselessly, too.

This isn’t exactly a destination, at least not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about destinations.  The universe’s practice is completely open-ended.  And our practice must take on this open-ended quality, too.

Time and again in our practice, we must confront the idea that there is a goal, a destination, an ultimate point.  This idea can arise in many different ways, sometimes with a positive, sometimes with a negative tinge: a belief that there’s something wrong with my sitting practice, or that my practice is going really well; a belief that I’m virtuous or not virtuous; a belief that I’m not enlightened and never will be or that I’m finally realized.

However this idea arises time and time again, time and time again we must let it go.

So it’s all sort of like the line in that old folk spiritual:  “My life goes on in endless song. How can I stop from singing?”  The universe goes on universing as me no matter what.  Goes on in endless song.  So why not sing in tune?

As we let go of our gaining ideas over and over and over again (including our gaining ideas about supposedly losing), we tend to begin to manifest a positive quality of poverty of spirit.  By this I mean simply that we become more at ease with our practice and with ourselves and our lives.  We tend to increasingly practice without striving.

Another word for this quality of practice with poverty of spirit is reverence.  Simple reverence.  Reverence with a light touch.  Reverence with a sense of humor.  Reverence that is loving, but not too precious.

Reverence for the 10,000 things.  Reverence for your own life and experience.  Reverence for others’ lives and experiences.

Experiencing things this way is a cue that our personal practice is aligning with the ceaseless practice of the whole universe.

The universe, you and me practicing together.  Each breath.  Each step.  Each supernova bursting.  Each grilled cheese sandwich.  Each flower blooming.  Ceaselessly.

 

Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade

I was in the Middle East last week for meetings and work related to a project exploring the recent tensions regarding the Holy Esplanade (the Noble Sancturay to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews) and the ways in which this holy site figures into the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict and possibilities for its resolution. It was a fantastic, intense productive week, which included many related activities, like visits to the site and time spent in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, from which the first and second Intifadas began. The Second Intifada was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Holy Esplanade. 

A (Zen) Valentine’s Day Reflection

Love is the frequency of the universe.

We vibrate to it whether we know it or not.

Some people seem to oscillate (in their own ways) in that frequency without knowing it, and without needing to know it.

Some people, at some points in their lives, seem to feel out of sync.

Zen practice is one way to tune in if we feel out of sync, if we doubt.

(Deep bows to great doubt!  Doubt that softens hard hearts, helps timid hearts find courage.)

Zen practice helps us deepen that sense of synchrony and to celebrate and honor this once the feeling passes (and even if it doesn’t).

If and as we tune in . . . no separation.

Buddhahood, Enlightenment, Awakening: a quality of the universe, not something we attain.

So lovely, so reassuring, to know it, if ever we’ve doubted.

 

 

 

 

Cultivating the Empty Field

My dear friend Kate Hartland gave a wonderful Dharma Talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center last night.  She spoke about the writing/poetry of Master Hongzhi collected in the text, Cultivating the Empty Field.  Hongzhi was first to spell out the approach to meditation we know was shikantaza, or “just sitting.”  He was a major source of inspiration for Master Dogen, founder of the Soto stream of Zen.

(Kate is a Dharma Holder in Boundless Way Zen.  You can learn more about what that means here, if you’re curious.  Part of what it means for me, practically speaking, is that I see her less often these days . . . and I miss her!  Kate and I sat together for many years as part of the former Ralph Waldo Emerson Zen Sangha (affectionately known as “Waldo,” which was the name of the dog my family had when I was a kid), and then as part of the GBZC, once we got our permanent digs in Cambridge.  A couple of years ago, Kate started, and she continues to lead, Bright Sea Zen in Weymouth.)

One of the many golden nuggets in Kate’s talk was her take on this notion of cultivation – of human agency.

Weeds will grown in an empty field, of course.  Indeed, fields full of “weeds” often look really lovely.  There truly is nothing we must become; nothing we must do.

This goes on happening, regardless.

And, yet . . .

We have this wonderful opportunity to act, to influence, and to do so intentionally.  (In fact, we leave a mark whether we act intentionally or not.)  We can plant flowers, so to speak, and so help shape the field into something it might not otherwise become.  Not something “better,” mind you, but something else to behold.  Something in which we’re participating, and know we’re participating.

Something expressing and reflecting our best intentions.

It’s so lovely when our own best intentions are sensitively and skillfully integrated or aligned with others’ best intentions.  The field becomes yet something else to behold.  Something in which you and I are participating together, and in which we know we’re participating together.

Shaping and being shaped by it.

Shaping and being shaped by one another.

That’s what Zen practice is about, really.

And that’s what work life, and home life, and all else are about – with a Zen heart.

Thank you, Kate.

 

Harvard Divinity School with the Pastor and the Imam from Nigeria

I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar on religion and peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School one night a month this year (as HDS’s first Lecturer on the Practice of Peace). The course is connected with the public speaker series that is part of the school’s new Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative.

Our most recent speakers were Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, founders of the Interfaith Mediation Center in Nigeria. They once led rival youth militias and tried to kill one another. James lost his hand in combat. Muhammad lost his teacher and two cousins. They ultimately made peace and now help others do the same.

I’m pictured here with them, and with Dean David Hampton, Professor Diana Eck (one of my teachers when I studied at HDS years ago), and Professor Darren Kew of UMass Boston (who I know from my student days, and who now focuses his academic work on Nigeria).

IMG_0813.jpg

 

Dedicating our practice

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Boundless Way Temple on February 19, 2015, during our annual Coming and Going Retreat. It is the next in a series of talks I have been giving about the major elements of our liturgy.  A recording of the talk, along with many other lovely talks from the retreat, can be found here.

I went skiing with two Swedes a few weeks ago. At the end of the day, I asked them – rather innocently, I thought – “Did you have a nice time?”

One of the two, who has become a close friend over the past five years, and who now lives in the U.S., said, “It was a great day.”

Our other companion, who I’d just met, said nothing. I looked at my friend, wondering whether he’d had a bad day, despite outward appearances.

My friend explained that this is an awkward question for Swedes. Theirs is a fairly collectivist culture, and yet also a fairly competitive culture. This question puts Swedes in a bind.

On the one hand, everyone is supposed to have an equivalent experience.   That’s the ideal. On the other hand, people really don’t have precisely equivalent experiences, and people do desire to have a comparatively good experience.

My friend has known me long enough, and been immersed in U.S. culture long enough, to have felt compelled to respond to my question. Not so for the other Swede.

From this cultural frame of reference, revealing how he felt about the day – good, bad, or in-between – would have been to engage in a comparison of experiences, which is verboten.

Because we do have different experiences, and experience things differently, my skiing companions explained that this taboo often leaves Swedes feeling jealous, but not having any way to contend with that feeling. As a result, they said, it can be hard for Swedes to take joy in others’ joy.

My friend tried to explain how these cultural patterns are born of the cold and darkness that makes life up north so hard. They’re a recipe for group survival in harsh conditions.

I told them that the ideal I’m more acclimated to, at least in my little corner of the U.S., is taking joy in other’s joy, even though most of us probably practice it quite unevenly. It’s a nice idea, they agreed.

I was also thinking, of course, of one of the closing dedications for our sutra services:

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now. The wind blows, waves fall on the shore, and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads. We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men, ants and sticks and grizzly bears. Let wisdom go to every corner of the house. Let people have joy in each other’s joy.

I really appreciate our dedications. For me, they answer the “So what?” question about our practice. What is our practice about?

And I’ve always loved this particular verse.

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now.

Other dedication verses also open with this reminder. I find it so interesting that this verse, which is about dedicating our practice, opens with something akin to a statement of fact; some might also say an article of faith:

We’re alive. All is alive. And all is blessed.

Notice this! Wake up!

After this or another opening reminder, other verses tend to transition into what we might think of as more clear cut dedications: to all being; to those who suffer from calamity, cruelty and war; to specific people who we know are suffering.

With this verse, we chant:

The wind blows, waves fall on the shore . . .

The alarm clock rings.

The dog scratches its neck.

An email arrives.

Buddha nature pervades the whole day.

. . . and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads.

Compassion does have a way of finding us in our “dark and broken roads.” We may be particularly open to others’ helping hands and the compassion that fills the universe, including our own broken hearts, in moments when we feel lost or down. And, of course, that’s precisely the same love available, and that we may feel, in the wind blowing on our face; the surf pounding against our chest on a warm summer day; that email arriving. Whatever our current life circumstance and disposition.

We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men . . .

We dedicate ourselves to this practice, for all it gives us, and enables us to offer to others, with gratitude to those who have sustained it and transmitted it to us. It’s truly something to be cherished, preserved, and developed.

And we dedicate ourselves to . . .

. . . ants and sticks and grizzly bears.

Chanting and hearing this for this first time was one of the moments when I knew Zen was for me. I remember laughing out loud. I was hooked.

This is both playful and serious, of course. Matter of fact. Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, ants, sticks and bears included. The 10,000 things.

And it is our animal nature; the baser parts of our human nature. We, too, are crawling on the ground, like ants. We are dirt and sticks. We can be grumpy and brutish, like bears. We dedicate ourselves to these parts of ourselves, too. We’d might as well face them. We’re enmeshed in it all. We’re in the stew.

Let wisdom go to every corner of the house.

I hear this less as an expansionist, missionary aspiration, than as yet another reminder of what’s here already. This practice is so much about just noticing, I find; about letting be; about getting out of the way – or, rather, coming to know in our bones that we are part of this, and this is the way.

Let people have joy in each other’s joy.

Can there be any doubt that we’d all be happier if we could learn to practice this collectively and consistently? This is the pithiest little ethical mandate I know.

And, like the phrase before it, I think it’s as much descriptive as it is prescriptive. People taking joy in others’ joy. This is the way. The motion and frequency of the universe, to which we can tune in and with which we’re invited to cooperate.

Such a simple principle.

Yet, it’s the work of a lifetime, it seems.

And of generations, across cultures.

The Five Remembrances

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 30, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

 

I am of the nature to grow old;

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health;

There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die;

There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change;

There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions;

I am the beneficiary of my deeds;

My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

 

— The Five Remembrances

 

 

Tonight I’ll continue exploring features of our liturgy by talking about The Five Remembrances.

 

This short verse from the Pali Canon is as spare, and non-metaphysical, and direct – even “in your face” — as anything one encounters in religion. It tells it like it is, and does so succinctly.

 

It doesn’t make any speculative truth claims.

 

It doesn’t draw lines between chosen and un-chosen, saved and un-saved.

 

It doesn’t make any promises.

 

It doesn’t idealize.

 

At first blush, this verse may not seem to offer any comfort in light of the stark realities of this life that it describes – and, let’s be clear: comfort is what we seek.

 

This verse spoke to me deeply the first time I heard it, and it continues to speak to me deeply today. For me, personally, it is our most important text; at the core of what we do, and of what Buddhism is as a religion.

 

If we want to live fully and skillfully, we must eventually see and accept things as they are. Buddhism offers so much to help us live fully and skillfully, but accepting the inescapable facts of this-worldly life is an essential part of the equation. It is the essential part, really. Unskippable.

 

We won’t live as fully and skillfully as we can unless and until these seeming barriers become gates for us.

 

And this acceptance must occur moment after moment after moment. Much of our default programming points us in another direction.

 

The Five Remembrances are aptly named. Many of us need to be reminded constantly of these facts of life, either because we try to avoid them, or because we anxiously obsess about them and need to meet them in a new way.

 

Life manifests as change everywhere and always. It can’t help but do otherwise. This is obvious enough.

 

It’s the balanced accepting part that’s hard for us; so often, some form of avoiding becomes our refuge. Repeating The Five Remembrances each time we gather makes it harder and harder to hide. More and more evident that our efforts to escape are futile, and counter-productive.

 

The first four of The Five Rembrances remind us that we are “of the nature of change,” offering us no escape from that fact:

 

  • We grow old, if we’re lucky.

 

  • We become ill along the way. Some of us are born with serious ailments, and spend our whole lives coping with them.

 

  • Ultimately, we die.

 

  • Those we love are “of this nature,” as well. No one, nothing, is immune. Partings are unavoidable.

 

Do any of us really doubt this?

 

But do we really accept it – and not just casually and conceptually?

 

So much psychic and physical energy is exerted, so much social, political and economic activity is generated, to try to evade these inescapable realities.

 

That’s not all bad, of course. Quietism and defeatism aren’t noble responses to the facts of existence. By all means, let’s cure diseases. Extend life, if we can make the time worth living. Our urge to avoid old age, sickness and death propels much valuable social, political and technological effort and innovation.

 

And it also breeds much avoidable anxiety, conflict, misuse of resources, and misdirected energy and missed opportunity. So many forms of escapism – substance abuse, consumerism, and the like all can be that.

 

As we truly accept the basic facts of our existence, we tend to cherish life more. Live and love more fully and intimately.

 

The final remembrance is equal parts prescription and description. In this realm of constant change, the only solid ground – indeed, our very being, is what we do (and say) right here, right now.

 

Our actions and speech are rubber and road, and here-now is where they meet.

 

This is it, so far as we know and seemingly can know. This is conditioned by our own and others’ deeds in past moments. This is conditioning future moments, just as past moments have conditioned the present.

 

Each of us is the beneficiary of our deeds in this moment. We lie in the beds we make, so we should make our beds with care.

 

The present is our opportunity to shape the future. What preceded this moment conditions the present, but now is our opportunity to address what we’ve left undone in the past, or know we’ve done poorly.

 

Meditation and our other practices may tend to increase our capacity to conduct ourselves skillfully, to show up as the precepts encourage us to show up. If and as we do, that can have ripple effects, seen and unseen.

 

This past weekend I was home alone organizing things in our basement – creating a craft table area for the kids, an exercise space for my wife and me, a storage area. My family came home, and our eight-year old son made a big fuss about how I was encroaching on his indoor soccer space.

 

I had little patience for this at the moment. I told him to calm down. He didn’t, so I told him to go upstairs and leave me alone. I had a project to finish, and I couldn’t deal with the whining. He went upstairs in a huff.

 

Not skillful.

 

I got my bearings, went upstairs, and asked him if he’d come back down to help me make decisions about the layout of the space, including an area for him to play with his soccer ball.

 

We talked it through, and came up with a sensible plan that satisfied everyone. He was great. So cooperative when I was truly listening to him and demonstrating concern for his concerns.

 

Such a small moment, but such a chance to strengthen a bond and to model behavior that I hope will help my son resolve conflict constructively with others.

 

I don’t want to idealize about this mundane encounter, make predictions from it or make other big claims based upon it. I can’t.

 

But I will say that the tension, and my initial response to it, were a gate, not a barrier. Past conduct conditions the present, but the main thing that imposes constraints in the present is our narratives about the past, and what’s possible now.

 

We don’t get a chance to rewrite past moments. They stand.

 

We do have the opportunity to meet this moment in an intentional way.

 

The Five Remembrances may strike us as bad news initially, but they’re really the good news. Embracing these facts of our existence, not raging against them, is liberation.

 

The good news is that everything is of the nature of change.

 

As a witty theist once said, God created time so everything wouldn’t happen all at once.

 

And, as the Germans say, machs gute. Let’s make it good.

 

The Sound of the Bell

 

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 25, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

 

[Ring Inkan bell, which sounds something like this: ding.]

 

I recently committed to giving four talks – five, if we count the one each BoWZ teacher gave at the Temple during the Ango – in March and April. I have three to go, and this seemed like an opportunity to organize several talks around a theme. I’ve spoken before about features of our liturgy, and I’d like to use these next few talks to touch on aspects of our liturgical forms that I’ve wanted to speak about for some time.

 

[Ring Inkan]

 

Our liturgy practice begins with this bell, one of several we hear throughout the service.

 

It could end here, too.

 

In fact, it does begin and end here.

 

[Ring Inkan]

 

Here’s a koan from the Miscellaneous Koan set in our Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum:

 

Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.

 

[Ring Inkan]

 

From The Gateless Gate koan collection:

 

Yunmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”

 

[Ring Inkan]

 

A koan from the Book of Serenity:

 

Yakusan had not ascended the rostrum for a long time.

The steward said, “All the assembly has been wishing for instruction for a long time. Please, Master, give your assembly a sermon.”

 

Yakusan had the bell rung. The assembly gathered. Yakusan ascended the rostrum and sat there for a while. Then he descended and returned to his room.

 

The temple steward followed him and asked, “You said a while ago that you would give the assembly a sermon. Why didn’t you speak even a word?” Yakusan said, “For sutras, there are sutra specialists; for sastras, there are sastra specialists. Why do you have doubts about this old monk?”

 

[Rink Inkan]

 

I’ll end this little carol of bells with a poem by the famous British Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, that I’ve always loved:

 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

 

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

[Ring Inkan]

 

This bell with which we begin our service – and each bow, each tone chanted, each drumbeat, each waft of incense, and each breath and footstep that follows – presents itself.

 

We present ourselves.

 

All presenting together.

 

Now. And now. And now.

 

And so our liturgy begins.

 

And ends.

 

And so we carry on.

 

Right here, now.