Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

July 20, 2019

Priesthood in Boundless Way Zen

Boundless Way Zen (BoWZ) is my practice home, and as such, it is also where I was first introduced to the Soto Zen priesthood. Boundless Way Zen has a carefully considered set of expectations and hopes for our priests. Most essentially, becoming a priest is a call of the heart to live by the precepts, serve others, and embody our tradition for all beings.

In BoWZ, to be ordained, priest candidates need to demonstrate a list of competencies, including pastoral skills, an ability to perform Zen ceremonies and forms, an understanding of Soto and Linji Zen, a capacity to meet people as they are, self awareness, leadership, public speaking, a priestly presence (hard to articulate but easy to recognize), and a means to support themselves with right livelihood. BoWZ also requires some retreat experience in other traditions and, to become an unsui priest, a minimum of 100 full days of sesshin. An ordination committee holds the candidate's feet to the fire and offers support along the way. Ordination is conferred by a BoWZ senior priest through the authority of her or his own ordination and precepts transmission, in consultation with the ordination committee and the Boundless Way Zen Guiding Teachers Council.

Unsui ordination represents a public vow to practice intensively, to offer pastoral and liturgical services, and to support the well-being of the sangha and all beings. It reflects a commitment and stability of heart and practice. Ordination publicly affirms the significance and prominence of the role of the dharma in one’s life, in the same way that a marriage ceremony might be said to publicly affirm a commitment and relationship to one’s long-time partner; nothing changes, and everything changes.

The Path to Priesthood in Boundless Way ZenIt is entirely possible and even likely that most priests would choose to remain unsuis for their entire lives. Not all priests are called to teach. To be an unsui priest is a noble calling to serve the dharma and sangha with one's deepest heartfelt commitment and no gaining idea. It is a pure and complete expression of the bodhisattva vow.

After a priest has practiced for many years, if they demonstrate the inclination and capacity, and only if their shoken teacher deems it appropriate, they may be offered denkai transmission from their teacher. Denkai is the first stage of dharma transmission (teaching authorization), and for priests, it confers the title osho, or senior priest. For one to become an osho, due to the associated teaching responsibilities, one must have demonstrated an inclination and capacity as a teacher of the dharma either through koan study or some other careful appraisal with one's shoken teacher. This was my path. An osho may receive shoken students, offer the precepts, and ordain unsui priests, though may not offer dharma transmission to dharma heirs. Years later, a BoWZ priest might also receive denbo, or full transmission, if one's shoken teacher determines it fitting. At that time, one may offer transmission to lay or ordained dharma heirs.

In Boundless Way Zen, being a priest is not a necessary step along the way to becoming a fully authorized Zen teacher. BoWZ does not privilege ordained over lay practice but views them as equally meaningful forms of practice in the West. A lay person can therefore also receive transmission. The first stage of dharma transmission for a lay teacher is called dharma entrustment, at which point the teacher is given the title "dharma holder" rather than osho. Full transmission for a lay teacher is called denbo, as it is for priests. After denbo transmission, both priests and lay teachers are given the teaching title, Sensei.

I appreciate Boundless Way Zen's model of ordination for a number of reasons. First, to me, it makes sense that not all priests would be teachers, just as not all monks would serve as teachers. The emphasis of devotion for the unsui priest is the life of vow and liturgical and communal service. Among other services, our priests offer meditation in prisons and half-way houses, visit sick sangha members in hospitals and their homes, offer grief counseling, and officiate ceremonies marking life's most significant transitional moments.

I also think BoWZ's model where priests are generally expected to earn their own living allows for an admirable path that also honors the life of vow. We have no expectation that our sangha will support our priests financially. This means that we expect our priests to work in the world according to right livelihood in ways that contribute to the well-being of the larger society, perhaps as educators, social workers, therapists, ministers, and more. This model appears to be the most common way the dharma has transmitted to the West, encouraging lay folks to practice with priests rather than creating and supporting a separate monastic class. This allows the dharma to penetrate the lives of every day citizens and creates an integrated community. We work in this world together to save all beings.

Though not identical in expectations, Boundless Way Zen's path to priesthood meets the Soto Zen Buddhist Association's (SZBA's) criteria for membership in all but one respect. For full membership, the SZBA requires at least one 90 day residential ango, or 4x3 week residential ango periods. In BoWZ, we agree that expectations for intensive training are essential, but there are many people who do not have the economic privilege to walk away from earning a living to complete extended periods of residential priest training. Many people have family members to support, be they elderly parents, partners, or children, some of whom may be ill. Many people only get a few weeks off from work each year, and we do not encourage them to forego employment and familial responsibilities to live a life of vow but consider these responsibilities another form of living a life of vow. I personally do not admire the way the historical Buddha abandoned his wife and child, but his wealth and privilege protected them from destitution. Not everyone is born a prince. Many of us long for a more diverse population of Soto practitioners in American convert sanghas, and a 90 day residential ango requirement can be an undue burden for those of lesser means and for those with family responsibilities.

James Ford is a Guiding Teacher Emeritus of Boundless Way Zen and former SZBA board member who now leads Empty Moon Zen Network. His thinking was central in developing BoWZ's path to priesthood. Regarding ordination, James writes that some priests are fortunate enough to have the formal cloistered experience ranging from several years to ninety day retreats. When possible, this is encouraged. However, due to family and work commitments, practitioners in the West experience the cloister more commonly through sesshin, briefer but more intensive meditation retreats of three, five, and seven days duration. Based on this vision of the cloister experience and of long-term maturation in the Dharma, in BoWZ we offer a path to becoming an osho (or senior priest) that allows for a person to honor other life responsibilities. In BoWZ, rather than requiring one 90 day ango experience, our priests attend sesshin over and over through years and decades. Generally, our practice has been that only after about 300 full days of sesshin do some priests receive denkai and the title osho. Denbo, or full transmission, has been offered only to mature practitioners with at least year's worth of full sesshin days. Boundless Way Zen's prolonged and rigorous path opens the door to becoming an osho and to full teaching authorization for priests who have family and employment responsibilities.

Life as a Boundless Way Zen priest is a challenge and an opportunity to live every moment according to the vow to save all beings, not in some grandiose way but moment after moment. We meet people and situations as they are. We avoid causing harm, practice good, and try to preserve all life. And when we screw up, we atone and vow to do better. We perform liturgical rituals at sesshin and officiate weddings, funerals and other ceremonies. We visit the sick and offer services in prisons and in homeless shelters. We lovingly attend our children and spouses, and we endeavor to care for colleagues, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances as we care for sangha-mates, extending our sense of sangha to include the entire world.



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June 27, 2019

No Knowing

In the first case of the Blue Cliff Record, Bodhidharma, who at least mythologically is credited with bringing Buddhism from India to China, was asked by the Emperor of China, "Who are you?" Bodhidharma responded, "I don't know."

In Case 20 from The Book of Equanimity, Dizang asked Fayan, “What do you think of wandering?” Fayan answered, “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Seung Sahn also used to encourage his students, "Only don't know!"

What is this "no knowing" that is so celebrated in Zen?

As an English, philosophy, and Zen teacher, I have a hearty appreciation of language, definitions, and concepts. Indeed, each is an important aspect of the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings.

But the Dharma really comes alive when we acknowledge the limits of our knowledge. For example, though we may know the dictionary definition of "I", when we open to the possibility that we, like Bodhidharma, do not fully comprehend what "I" refers to, this 10th most used word in the English language becomes a dharma gate extending an invitation to look more deeply.

Like Bodhidharma, we all know our names. But as Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name?" My name is Michael. But who is Michael? What is in this name other than letters? What does it point to? I can go on listing attributes, but every attribute is a relationally designated and impermanent characteristic. For example, I am a teacher only because I have students. No students, no teacher. So being a teacher is not something that exists intrinsically in my essence. Identities are provisional, born out of changing relations. Is there something that is just "me"?

Though it may have seemed dismissive and strange, Bodhidharma responded to the Emperor from a deep place. What carries this body around? "No knowing." And Fayan answered Dizang from a deep place. Rather than add anything extra, he let wandering speak for itself.

In Zen, "no knowing" is not the non-existence of thoughts or of knowledge. I know my name and birthday. I also know what I think of wandering. (I often find it quite pleasurable, especially in the woods or in ancient cities, and sometimes in my refrigerator!) Both Bodhidharma and Fayan could have told entertaining stories in response to their questioners. That is what is customary, after all. If Bodhidharma were worried about what Emperor Wu thought of him, Bodhidharma might have shared a story. Even if we are not sure about something, we tend to cover up our confusion by filling the space with stories.

But Bodhidharma and Fayan chose not to. This is because they were answering questions on a different level from our ordinary way of interacting. Their not knowing was not some kind of blankness or confusion. It was not the inability to recall facts. Rather, it was an acknowledgment that there is something that cannot be known. There is something present that exists beyond conceptions that is worth exploring. In no longer preferencing knowledge over this sensory-world, we can open beyond our conceptual maps to immeasurable reality.

Our heart-minds are as vast as the stars. However, if we get tangled in conceptions, we become blind. If we think we already know who our partners are, we may take them for granted and pay less attention to the emerging, magical presences before us. If we think we already know the flavor of our tea, we may never taste it again. If we think we already know who we are, we may never awaken to our true nature, which is no nature at all. No knowing means waking up to how things are in this very moment.

Zen's no knowingThere is an ancient Chinese story that illustrates how thoughts are just thoughts. Once there were a farmer and son who had a stallion who helped the family plow the fields. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away? What terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows?” A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a wild mare back to the farm as well. The neighbors proclaimed, “Your horse has returned and brought another horse home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows?” Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break  the mare, and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows?” A few weeks later, war broke out and soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son who was still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows?”

Like Socrates, the mark of the father's wisdom is his willingness to acknowledge that there is a bigger picture that we humans cannot comprehend, and that everything changes. The neighbors jumped to conclusions that did not prove to be true. Still, you have to give them credit for not getting stuck on their previous notions. Imagine if the neighbors had felt certain that they were right and then defended their points of view. "Of course it is bad news that your son broke his leg! Have you no compassion or love? We should take your child from you!" When we stake out a position, even when evidence suggests that there is more to the story, we often blindly defend our previous claim. There is even a name for this: confirmation bias. We can go on endlessly marshaling facts to support our point of view, even though there may be other valid ways of interpreting the situation, and even as the situation changes. Wars are waged when both sides are certain they are right.

Of course, we are the neighbors in this story. We are the ones who jump to conclusions. When we pay attention to how the mind works, we eventually see that our thoughts are just thoughts, and they, like all of our perceptions, are incomplete and biased presentations of an incomprehensible mystery. There are actually no fixed, intrinsic essences anywhere that we can pin down.

This does not mean that we can't know things provisionally. It was fine for the neighbors to state their reactions. Not knowing does not mean we have to abandon knowing what a red light means while we are driving. We need to differentiate between vegetables and weeds. We should not give up our sense of what is beneficial and harmful, nor of what is right and wrong. Without words and letters, concepts and facts, we could not survive, never mind be of service to all beings.

But imagining that our conceptions capture fixed essences or that they are in some way absolutely true closes our hearts and minds to infinite possibilities. Most painfully, when we get lost in our thinking, we obscure our innate intimacy with the world.
Zen's no knowing


Knowing is like a wave on the surface of the ocean. Waves are often beautiful and sometimes terrible, and each is an expression of the ocean. And, when we look deeply into what we know, we find an unfathomable mystery as boundless as the sea.








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June 17, 2019

The Three Pure Precepts

Many Soto Zen Buddhists take the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts, which are vows we try to uphold. As formulated by Eihei Dogen, they include the 3 Refuges, the 3 Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts.

Sometimes Zen students seek enlightenment and think the precepts are just ancillary guidelines for behavior. But in my view, the precepts are a powerful expression of awakening, and the 3 Pure Precepts are their quintessence. The 3 Pure Precepts express the heart of Zen.

Many teachers wait for students to have significant time on the cushion before offering the precepts so that students do not get caught in working with the precepts as rigid rules. The risk is that a person can get caught up in fundamentalist interpretations. Viewed instead as signposts that wake us up to what we are doing, the precepts foster awakening.

The first pure precept is, "I vow to cease from evil." The ten grave precepts offer more specific advice on what we should try to avoid in order to cease from evil: killing, stealing, misusing sex, lying, taking intoxicants, slander, praising oneself at others' expense, sparing the dharma assets, harboring ill will, and abusing the three treasures (Buddha, dharma, and sangha).

Of course, we break precepts all the time. At a minimum we kill plant life to eat and survive. So we hold the precepts not as rigid rules but as reminders to pay attention to our actions. We hold them as compass points that help us minimize the harm we cause.

If I must kill to eat, I want to be aware of the sacrifice another being is enduring to sustain my life, and I take this life humbly and with gratitude. After all, the earth, oceans, and sky nurtured this life into being. I can also try to minimize the suffering involved. I can avoid eating meat altogether, which would help fight global warming too, or I can avoid factory farmed animals. But there is no avoiding taking life. We must at least harvest grains, fruits and vegetables to survive. We can appreciate the miracle of how the earth and its ecosystems sustain all life and in this way deepen our gratitude.

While we try to minimize the literal killing of beings and the suffering it causes, we can also view these precepts metaphorically. Do we subtly kill others' ideas and enthusiasm for life? With attention, we can minimize the pain and loss that we cause.

Each of these precepts also cultivates global awareness based on our interconnectedness. We strengthen our capacity to avoid evil by expanding our awareness of ever-changing circumstances and adjusting our actions. Though it may once have seemed appropriate for humans to burn fossil fuels and consume plastics, we are way out of balance. Earth's climate is changing and whales are dying with plastic filling their bellies. We risk the extinction of millions of species, maybe even ourselves. Since we are now aware of the unfolding and impending consequences, I view our inaction in addressing the environmental crisis as the great evil of our times. For our own comfort, we are jeopardizing the survival of millions of species and future generations. The precepts awaken us to our self-centeredness and remind us to cease from evil.

I cannot claim that I am better than others. I presently own a combustion vehicle and a home that burns natural gas. When we point our finger in accusation at others, three fingers point back at ourselves. Awakening to my role in society is humbling and essential. I vow to do what I can to cease harming the environment by dramatically reducing my reliance on fossil fuels and plastics. I hope you will join me. With awareness of present circumstances, we can change our behavior and reduce our harmful impact.

While the first pure precept is cautionary regarding causing harm, the second pure precept encourages positive action. The second pure precept reads, "I vow to practice good." Once again we can be guided by the ten grave precepts, which can be re-articulated as positive aspirations. I vow to: protect life; be generous; engage in mutually respectful intimacy; tell the truth; nourish my mind and body; speak kindly; appreciate others; share the dharma; be forgiving; and support the three treasures.

The second pure precept sharpens our awareness, deepens our reverence for all life, and encourages beneficial responses. When we see a child fall and hear the thump of her head, don't we automatically cringe? This precept then encourages us to offer consolation, maybe ice for the bump, and to pick up whatever caused the fall so nobody else falls. This precept encourages us to be active rather than passive. We not only cease from causing harm but actively practice benefitting all beings.

This brings us to a deep, synthesizing vow, the third pure precept: I vow to save all beings. In one sense, there are no separate beings anywhere to save. We are all deeply interwoven and interdependent. Each of us is an expression of the infinite universe. It gives us form, manifests as our bodies and consciousness, and to it we return. We exemplify the Buddha-nature perfectly. Given our flaws and pains, it can be hard to believe the teaching that we are already Buddha. But as we practice and keep turning toward whatever arises, this teaching penetrates us and we come to see that yes, even our flaws and pains are the Buddha-nature, perfectly manifesting. Everything is exactly thus.

the three pure preceptsAnd, though all beings are already saved, still we should save all beings! It is pretty easy to get preoccupied with taking care of what we think of as ourselves, and it is important to do so. But our true nature is that we are one with all beings throughout space and time. Opening beyond self-concern, compassion inspires us to take action to reduce suffering and protect all life. This vow opens us beyond dualistic notions of self and other as our vow includes all beings, even those whose actions we consider evil. With deepening compassion, we see that just like ourselves, all beings are manifestations of infinite causes and conditions. "There but for the grace of karma go I." Those who act in cruel ways are suffering from greed, anger, and ignorance and also deserve our compassion, even as we work to prevent them from causing further harm. All beings truly reside in our boundless hearts. The vow to save all beings is a manifestation of this Buddha nature.

Being interdependent, we cannot live in a just society if we participate in unjust systems, such as profoundly unequal access to health care and educational opportunities. We recognize that our water, air, and earth must not be polluted if we want to protect life itself, this amazing creation of the universe. We save all beings by picking up plastic on the shore, by installing solar panels on our homes, by challenging educators like me to close the racial achievement gap, by writing to political representatives, and by caring for our children and pets. Each being we save is an entire universe.

Ultimately, the virtuous function of the one true mark is manifest in the enactment of Three Pure Precepts. The Three Pure Precepts awaken us to self-centered, harmful actions and foster beneficial actions in the service of all beings. They help us realize the unity of all life, which is our Buddha-nature. The precepts are not some low-level practice that happens outside of realization but are the direct cultivation and expression of enlightenment.


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June 10, 2019

Nourishing Engaged Buddhist Practice

what to do with your goat in a drowning world

hear the helicopters come over the roof
water's up to my attic windows
and I'm stuck here with my goat
I can see my neighbor in the hole on his roof
sustainable environmental and social justice practice

he's got two dachsies and a tomcat
just across the rushing river is his sister
she's cradling her baby and a rooster
circling helicopters circling helicopters
will take me but not my goat
will lift me up from muck and flood
but they won't take my neighbor's dogs or cat
or his sister's baby's rooster
helicopters overhead nation to the rescue
take the people damn their friends
I'm not going without my goat
he's not going without his pets
baby won't leave without her rooster
lord oh lord why don't we have an ark
that's the helicopters leaving
that's the nation to the rescue
leaving us here in the dark
             - Andrei Codrescu

Buddhists are called by compassion to alleviate suffering in the world. While there are innumerable forms this practice can take, two that I have explored are social justice and environmentalism. But anyone who has dared to turn toward these issues can easily feel overwhelmed, like the tide is literally and figuratively rising around them, and, as a way of feeling better, slip back into denial.

For me, these issues sometimes seem utterly overwhelming and intractable, especially in the face of a White House that is so regressive. Though I may put solar panels on my house, if the Trump administration simultaneously denies the reality of global warming, pulls out of international climate agreements, and boosts coal and oil production, I can feel defeated. And as a teacher, though I may help a Latinx or black student advance into a higher level English class, if more aggressive border patrols separate migrant families from one another and children die in record numbers while in detention, I begin to feel hopeless.

In the face of such overwhelming odds, it is tempting to turn away from these issues to avoid feeling so disheartened. We may thus swing like pendulums from feeling motivated and taking actions to feeling overwhelmed and disengaging. In moments of overwhelm, we may tell ourselves, "it's all just too much. There's actually nothing we can do to prevent institutional racism and the destruction of our planet. It's inevitable." We may even pretend that our "Buddha-nature" liberates us from caring. But this is a misunderstanding of our Buddha-nature.

As I have described, if our insight into emptiness is genuine, our compassion naturally increases. We are all interwoven. We are all part of the same systems. We breathe the same air. In awakening to the inherent interconnectedness and beauty of the world, we can't help but be moved when we see what we love being harmed. Though sometimes it offers temporary relief from this world on fire, escapism is ultimately no refuge from what actually is. If our practice is authentic, withdrawal will, in time, give way to a more honest sense of co-responsibility every time we hear about the disproportionate imprisonment and poverty of people of color, about historic storms flooding our cities, or about the eventual potential destruction of civilization due to global warming. This sense of co-responsibility (or even guilt) is not a flaw in practice. It is our compassion urging us to do more to save all beings.

But how can Buddhists stay engaged with social and environmental causes in a sustainable and effective way given how intractable the issues appear? I decided to write this post for myself as encouragement in the face of tough odds. I hope that some of my advice to myself will be of some use to you.

First, for me, Facebook is not nearly enough to nourish or carry out activism. Social media stirs us into a frenzy with its extreme headlines, but the most common outcome is that I react to a few posts, maybe write one myself, and then slip back into feeling overwhelmed.

Sustainable Environmental & Social Justice PracticeIn terms of inspiring effective and persistent activism, we might begin by spending more time appreciating what we actually love. We are, for example, more inspired to protect nature when we remind ourselves of how much we cherish being in it. I'm lucky. My father took me on a tour of many of our nation's parks when I was young and brought us mountain climbing every year. I vividly recall him standing on top of mountains looking over valleys of fall foliage with tears in his eyes. My love of nature was implanted early. But in our high-tech, busy society, it is easy to lost touch with nature and our love of its beauty. We need to nourish this love. Take walks in a park among the trees. Sit on a bench and listen to the birds sing and the wind in the leaves. Watch chipmunks scurry through the ivy and chirp at one another. Listen to children play in a green field. Remember that this is their world too. By being attentive in a meditative way in the real world, by "practicing" being awake to what surrounds us, we find our inspiration to save all beings.

Another way to nourish ourselves is to join with others doing the same work. In a culture where things may be going in a direction with which we do not agree, we can feel like whatever we do is, as one friend put it, "a squirt gun in an inferno." And we can feel quite alone, without a clue what to do. But when we join with others, we get ideas and energy from one another. Each of us can carry part of the load. This gives us hope. Thousands of buckets of water just might make a difference.

Morning Star Zen Sangha, my practice group, is forming a "social justice and environmentalism support group." When one of us writes or calls legislators, we can share our letters and send them together, magnifying our voices. We can also encourage one another with new insights, ideas and energy. It is easier to live according to our vow to save all beings when we are supported by others with similar values. There are so many organizations and people doing excellent work. We can carry out local projects with them like challenging school boards to address the achievement gap, picking up trash off the beach, or gathering signatures for more renewable energy. Perhaps most inspiringly, when we join with others, our efforts add up. Many drops become a wave.

Joining organizations that advocate politically offers us a personal hope that we can sway public policies in an altruistic direction. Eli Broad offers democratic engagement as the most effective and empowering means of joining with others to transform a society. He writes in the New York Times, "When a society helps people through its shared democratic institutions, it does so on behalf of all, and in a context of equality.  Those institutions, representing those free and equal citizens, are making a collective choice of whom to help and how.  Those who receive help are not only objects of the transaction, but also subjects of it -- citizens with agency.  When help is moved into the private sphere, no matter how efficient we are told it is, the context of the helping is a relationship of inequality:  the giver and the taker, the helper and the helped, the donor and the recipient." While democratic institutions may not always deliver on our hopes, actively participating on the local, state, and national level offers the real opportunity for our society to live up to our ideals. And when we do so with coalitions, our voices multiply and reverberate.

Another thing I have been reflecting on is how our mindfulness can help us attend to issues one moment at a time. For example, we might notice the way we casually buy, use, and "recycle" plastic. But most plastic that we drop in the recycle bin is not actually recycled, and huge amounts of it end up in the oceans, dissolving and entering our food chain. (Turns out things actually are interconnected!) When we see how much we waste and the harm it causes, we can attentively curb our waste. These commitments, when shared among friends, begin to feel meaningful, like maybe we can turn the tide.

Finally, I need to remind myself to notice successes, not just failures. Even though there are many people who may buy styrofoam cups, if I don't buy one, there is one less cup for a whale to swallow. As a child, my daughter used to take the rings that held six-packs of cans together and cut them so they would not strangle sea turtles and birds. We can all become children again, taking great care of what we naturally love and feeling good about the small things we are doing. After all, each being we save is a universe unto itself.

So spend time appreciating what you love, join with others to take action, and celebrate the successes along the way. Most fundamentally, we need each other if we hope to save all beings. And that is what sangha is ultimately all about. If we are left alone on the roof of a house and the flood waters rise, we will not be able to save ourselves, never mind those we love. But if we can build bridges to one another, we can save all beings, one being at a time.


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June 3, 2019

Buddha's "Freed from Pleasure and Pain"

In the Bahiya Sutta, a wise yet humble devotee named Bahiya loses his confidence in his practice and seeks the Buddha. When he finds him, he asks three times, "Teach me." Buddha's response helps Bihaya realize and transcend the relative and absolute truths.

Buddha's "freed from pleasure and from pain"Buddha says, "Herein, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: 'In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.' In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya. When, Bahiya, for you in the seen is merely what is seen... in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be 'with that.' When, Bahiya, you are not 'with that,' then, Bahiya, you will not be 'in that.' When, Bahiya, you are not 'in that,' then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.... freed from form and formlessness. Freed from pleasure and pain."

What does it mean to be "freed from form and formlessness"?

It is important to realize the context of the Buddha's teachings. Like many people of our time, in ancient India people believed in a self with an intrinsic essence. It is true that each of us has a different story that we might say makes us who we are, and we must honor one another's stories. They deepen our compassion for ourselves and one another, even inspiring us to alleviate suffering in the world. Also, without our "relative thinking" in which we differentiate one self (or object) from another, we could not distinguish poisonous weeds from food. We would not know what to eat when we were hungry. Relative truths help us distinguish me from you and this from that. We need our relative truths, our conceptions of reality, to survive.

And, though these relative truths are helpful and necessary, they are only relative truths that are impermanent and relationally defined. Each "self" is constantly in flux and therefore has no unchanging essence. Each entity is also a dependent arising, existing in dependence on other factors, and therefore without any intrinsic essence. This lack of an unchanging, intrinsic essence Buddha called "anatman," or "no self." It is this perspective that we refer to as the absolute truth in Mahayana Buddhism.

The absolute truth is offered as medicine for people who suffer as they defend their egos, their senses of self, from inevitable change and decay. We all grow old, sick, and die. We often speak of the absolute by saying, "no." As the Heart Sutra states, from the absolute perspective there are no forms, and there is no suffering.

Both the relative and absolute expressions are true. Most western philosophers would say this is not possible. There cannot both be form and no form. After all, the rule of non-contradiction says that since these statements countermand one another, these statements cannot both be true. Hamlet's response is best: "There are far more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

When we get a glimmer of both sides of the coin, the mind tends to flip-flop between yes and no, between either this or that, between form and emptiness. We can easily get caught in either the relative side or the absolute side of the dharma, then deny the other side of the coin. Or we can get caught in seeing both sides of the coin. And this is where Buddha met Bahiya. Ever the skillful teacher at meeting students where they are, Buddha's counsel points beyond the paradox.

In actuality, "relative and absolute are altogether blended" (Robert Aitken, The Mind of Clover). Put differently, though the relative and absolute truths are both true, they are also just constructs pointing beyond themselves to the great reality, and in that sense, neither is true. Zen itself is a human creation to help reveal our true nature, which is no nature at all. Things neither exist nor don't exist. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, nor is there not suffering, nor no cause of suffering.

When we are freed from all dualities, life whispers in the trees, dances like statues of stone. There are no essences to be found anywhere, and still, there is this "dream," like shapeshifting clouds in the sky, like rainbows, like bubbles in a stream.

All we must do is receive things exactly thus, receive what is sensed without adding anything extra, think our thoughts without adding belief or disbelief, open our heart-minds without investing any identity anywhere. Here self and other are the same, and both fall completely away.

Everything is exactly as it is. Emptiness is exactly form, form exactly emptiness. Practice just this, Bahiya. Just this. Free from form and formlessness, free from pleasure and pain.


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June 1, 2019

Mono No Aware, Compassion for Life's Poignancy

My son is graduating from high school. He is my second and last child. My daughter graduated a few years ago and is in college. Soon, my wife Sandra and I will be empty-nesters. 

As part of a graduation present, I digitized a collection of videos from when my kids were young. Last night I watched those videos for the first time. 

Every parent thinks this, but in my case, it is true: my children were the cutest, most adorable creatures to ever walk the face of the earth.

Now, they are both quite mature adults, and they are headed into this world to make their mark. I am in awe of them both. I won't go on bragging about them. Not particularly seemly. But I am very proud. 

And I am also sad. 

A poignant nostalgia swept over me watching those videos as I transferred them to USB's to share with them. How I longed to kiss their rounded cheeks once again. The videos were filled with laughter and adventures -- trick or treating tigers and princesses, Godzilla destroying cities made of blocks, dances in puddles in summer rain, first bike rides and roller skates. Exhausting as those years may have been, I was fueled by love to engage with these two sparkling singing dancing laughing children. We played hide n' seek in the graveyard. We did treasure hunts and built ships of driftwood by the ocean. And somehow, without consciously thinking it, I felt that this family constellation would last forever. 

But now my son is off to drive across the country alone. He'll camp and hike in national parks across America. It's quiet here at home. And I am so deeply aware of how things change, of how everything is impermanent. 

My students at school also graduate and move on. I have been teaching for about 24 years. That's 24 classes of graduating seniors whom I have cared for who resettled across the world. And every year at the end of the year, I feel that goodbye.

Closer to home, both of my parents have died. I sometimes visit their graves. I can no longer ask them what I was like as a boy or where we first went biking together. I have only my own memories to remind me. And I feel memories of them slipping away. Of the many years we spent together, my mind only contains fragmented images, a few archetypal stories. These people I loved are gone. 
mono no aware, compassion for life's poignancy
I am reminded of Dogen offering incense after his mother died, watching the smoke rise and ashes fall. We are touched by impermanence every moment of every day. So many moments coming and going, and we can't hold on to any of them. The present keeps slipping away. 

Sometimes it feels like the whole world is slipping away. As Buddha said, "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"  (Upajjhatthana Sutta).

I suspect that at some point in life, all of us deeply realize that we are always saying goodbye, always parting with people, pets, places, and moments we love. 

The Japanese have a term that resonates with me. It is "mono no aware" (物の哀れ), an awareness and deep feeling of the impermanence of things that contributes to a poignancy and wistfulness at their passing, as well as a more lasting, deeper sadness about the transience of life itself. This awareness is revered as a form of deep appreciation. 

I think Americans are a bit ashamed of sadness when it comes. Kids, especially boys, are often bullied when they cry. All of us share our happy pictures on Facebook. "Look how happy I am!" I think maybe we identify happiness with success. So it has been a process for me to learn to appreciate sadness too. I think we in the US can learn from "mono no aware." It is so honest. Life is beautiful, and we lose everything we love. Cut off sadness and we cut off appreciation itself.

Even sadness is a dharma gate. When it arises, if we deny its presence, we cut ourselves in two. When we accept this touching emotion in ourselves, we open through it to the world as it is, present in these dewdrops of tears. We can be whole. 
mono no aware, compassion for life's poignancy
Cherry blossoms fall,
though we love them.

And when we accept sadness in ourselves, we are more likely to accept sadness in others, making us more compassionate as well. After all, everyone is always losing people, things, and moments they love. We have this in common.

New moments are arising, and in these new moments we find the seeds of the past blossoming. In a very real way, nothing is ever lost. The past, present and future all exist here in the present. And still, everything is changing. The specific things that brought us joy disappear, and we feel their loss. So the joy we felt in the past becomes sadness now. And the joy we feel now is part of the sadness to come. Past, present and future are intertwined in the human heart. If we can open ourselves, we find all beings residing there. 

My son is beginning to pack his bags for his trip. I wish him great joy and adventure, not to mention a safe trip (I am a father after all). And as he drives away, there will be tears of love on my cheeks. 



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May 23, 2019

First Steps on the Path of Liberation for All

Racism in America is one of our nation's collective traumas.

We feel this trauma in many different ways depending in part on how we identify. The feelings that arise are dependent on our circumstances, but we all suffer.

Sometimes white people have the courage to turn toward the trauma of race in America. It is common in these moments to feel overwhelmed by the scope and history of the problem and by the intensity of feelings involved. Therefore, even well-meaning white people sometimes neglect the simmering pain caused by racism in America. But we pay prices for this, including disconnectedness from the lived experiences of people of color. 

People of color do not have the same freedom to take breaks from racism. Systemic racial oppression affects their daily lives.

As Zen practitioners, we are willing to experience great turmoil while seeking liberation for ourselves. In the Gateless Gate, Mumon comments that while working with mu, "If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out." Many Zen practitioners are ready to endure the fiery intensity of being thrown in the furnace again and again for their own liberation. Should we not also be willing to drink a hot iron ball that we can neither swallow nor spit out for the sake of collective liberation?

We are deeply interwoven. As such, we actually cannot only heal ourselves. We are made of one another as much as we are made of the air we breathe. Our practice must include all beings. 

I like to think that many Zen practitioners aspire to save all beings, but many of us just don't know where to begin when it comes to addressing racism in America. How do we transform our vow into practice? We may need some kind of inroad to engage. 

Fortunately, there are teachers like Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams pointing the way. I recently read her inspiring and challenging piece, Your Liberation is on the Line. Then I read it again. And again. 

Inspired by Angel Kyodo Williams, here I offer an entry point for practicing actively anti-racist Zen. I adapted a few passages from her piece that I found particularly clear, inspiring, and challenging, and I offer a few thoughts on how we might work with them on the cushion and in the world.

I selected a few brief passages that inspire and challenge me as a white person, so I don't claim these are universal instructions for practice. But I hope these pointers offer at least a possible first step for some Zen practitioners to engage in this work of healing ourselves and our wounded society. 

We can think of these selected passages as flashlights illuminating aspects of reality that we must learn to see and address if we hope to attain liberation for all beings. 


Selection 1: "Obscuring the path of liberation for us all, simply put, is race." 


First, a few thoughts on how we might work with sentences like this in our practice. For me, it is helpful to meditate with short, clear phrases. So we could rearrange the above sentence into the statement, "race obscures the path of liberation." Then we can sit with this statement, reflect on its meaning, and see what arises. 

First, there will be an interpretive quality. In what way might race obscure the path of liberation? We might think of the history of our nation, including slavery, segregation, and discrimination. We might think of contemporary racial disparities such as the educational achievement gap or the school to prison pipeline. Or we might notice the way convert Buddhist sanghas across the United States are predominantly white and middle class. 

Soon, we might notice feelings arise. Maybe we feel righteous anger, or a deep sense of guilt.  Or maybe what arises is dismissiveness, such as, "this isn't my fault!" or, "yes, that's an issue, but there's nothing I can do." Whatever comes, our job is to bear witness, then drop the sentence again into our practice: "Race obscures the path of liberation." And don't turn away. 

What we are doing is allowing reactions to arise and dissipate, just like in any meditative practice. Most essentially, we are practicing staying with the issue. We are developing our endurance in staying with a triggering subject so that we can remain present with it in the world. 

As we leave the cushion and enter the busy world, we can continue to recall the phrase, "race obscures the path to liberation," whenever we can. Then we see what is present in the world. 

We might hear of an unarmed black man killed by police, read an article about incarceration rates of people of color, or see our own shyness (or over-enthusiasm, or fear, or whatever arises) when around people of different races. 

Moment after moment, just by raising the statement with awareness, we begin to move beyond our own fixed ideas, theories, and reactivity into the actuality of our lived experience. We see that our initial reactions and responses were just the tip of the iceberg. We begin to awaken to what is present, moment after moment. 

Back and forth, from cushion to the busy world, this practice develops. We might hold just this single statement for a month. We can allow it to illuminate aspects of reality that we had not been willing or able to see before. 


Selection 2: "You cannot possibly understand the nature of your mind without understanding the nature of the collective mind. And in this country, the nature of the collective mind is oppression. It is white supremacy. It is patriarchy. That is what we were born into. We’ve internalized the idea that we should be divided, that we should be separated, that we are different, that we are better, that someone’s less than, that I am less than. We were partitioned, separated from one another and from our birthright. This disease keeps us from fully knowing each other, from seeing each other."


For me, the heart of this passage is the tragic notion that "we've internalized the idea that we should be separated." This statement is a call to be aware of the working of our own heart-minds. 

While meditating, we can reflect on the notion that "we believe we should be separated," and see what arises. In what ways might it be true? Perhaps what will arise first is defensiveness. "I have friends who are not my race." Or "I don't actually believe we should be separated. This is just the society we inherited." Or maybe what comes first is grief over the way we are so often separated by race, the way we are so often cut off from one another in our communities. Or perhaps we feel ashamed as we notice the previously unconscious stereotypes that we project onto people of different races or gender. 

Whatever arises is where we begin. As Williams writes, "If you are caught up, fixated on being a victim, or on the idea that you should just be guilt-ridden and there’s nothing you could possibly do to redeem yourself, wherever you are caught up, wherever you are stuck, wherever you are bound—this is not cause for concern. This is not cause for you to give up. This is exactly where your path begins." We just allow ourselves to see our own minds. We bring awareness to these patterns in our minds. 

What happens if we bring this practice phrase into our lives in the world? Can we begin to see the ways that we act on our belief we should be separated? Can we begin to witness our own blindnesses, the ways we may turn away from people because we think they are different from us, the ways we withdraw, the ways we judge, and the ways we segregate? Can we let ourselves feel the wound of this separation? Can we begin to see the ways that we have divided ourselves from ourselves? 


Selection 3: "Every single one of us must be, by way of our commitment to liberation, committed to being the cure."


Here we find our great Zen vow to save all beings. And here we find our bodhisattva vow to take personal responsibility for improving the way things are. 

Again, while sitting, we can abbreviate this phrase and raise it in our minds. "Be the cure." Then watch what arises in response to this call to action. 

Perhaps we first feel overwhelmed. "How can I possibly cure racism in the world?" Or we might feel inspired. "Yes, I must deal with this problem to help us all heal, including myself." Maybe we even start making plans. Again, just notice these thoughts and feelings as they come and go. Then allow the phrase to drop into practice again. 

Then bring this practice phrase off the cushion into our lives. As we hear reports of another unarmed black man killed by the police, raise the phrase, "Be the cure." As we read about for-profit prisons, reflect, "Be the cure." As we feel shyness, over-enthusiasm, or fear cause us to change our behavior with a person of a different race, think, "Be the cure." 

So what does "be the cure" mean? If we get too conceptual about it, we get lost and overwhelmed pretty quickly. We might imagine that we should cure all racism, then feel discouraged by the nightly news. 

But what if "be the cure" simply means to do what we can, one moment at a time? Without knowing the outcome, we simply take the next step, whether it is calling a representative, reading an article, making a donation, or reaching out when we otherwise might turn away. Without knowing in advance what we will do or how things will turn out, we can live with integrity by just doing what we can, one moment at a time. 


In this together


As Angel Kyodo Williams writes, "It comes down to this: if you don’t get on your path, I don’t get to finish mine. It’s an inside-out job—we need both paths. We need self and we desperately need other." I want to heed this call. 
A Response to Angel Kyodo Williams' Call




Meditating with these excerpts is just one possible way to begin the work of seeing and healing our internal and external divisions. If you are inspired and challenged by these passages, I invite you to practice with them both on the cushion and in the world. 

There are many other ways to begin or deepen the practice of awakening to and dismantling oppressive systems, such as creating or joining actively anti-racist affinity groups. I'd also suggest checking out a number of other books, including So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, Awakening Together by Larry Yang, and Radical Dharma by Angel Kyodo Williams, Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah. You might find more inspiring passages with which to practice.

Sometimes people imagine that Zen is about personally feeling better, and while that sometimes happens, Zen practice is really about liberating all beings. In broadening our motive for practice to include all beings, we realize the heart of Zen.


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