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Catching up… part 2

Autumn kessei (90 to 100-day practice intensive) started a bit late this year, so will actually only be 81 days. Traditionally, no one could come or go from the monastery during this time, but the modernity of our society and economy, the complexity of our lives and schedules makes things less simple than once upon a time. But we will still manage to hold a strong meditation container for ourselves and the one to two hundred people who come to practice each season. Since mid-September, we have been through three sesshin, one being the first-ever Mondo Zen retreat at DBZ, and an Intro to Zen weekend, attended by over 50 people, 45 of which were college students.

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In addition to all of the intensive training, I was put in the role of “jisha,” head temple caretaker, for this kessei. On the surface, the jisha manages of all the housekeeping of the monastery, top to bottom, end to end, tending to the needs of guests, and a number of jobs during each day of sesshin. I dreaded it because I got rather burnt out on multi-tasking management with my former business, but found it to be a different experience. Of course, it is important to keep the monastery clean and to be at the ready for the sake of our guests’ experience, as well as the daily sense of well-being for us residents. But the deeper aspect of the role is to provide an ambiance of soothing care, as a counter-balance to the jikijitsu role, the one who maintains the spirit of alertness and discipline in the zendo.

More important than accomplishing the tasks of housekeeping and hospitality is how they are done, what ambiance is created as we clean rooms, or get someone an extra blanket. Another fine Japanese word that points to life’s subtleties is “hado,” the characters of which can translate as “wave” and “motion.” It invites us to remember that our motions, our actions, create waves, and those waves affect people and circumstances, even places. The role of the jisha is to maintain warm and comforting hado in the monastery. Being jisha has been a rich time for me, and I have received profoundly warm and comforting support from fellow monks who are training and encouraging me. I find myself loving and valuing this opportunity and experience more with each day, each moment, each breath… watching the hado I and we create.

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Four days after the kessei opening, we started Golden Wind sesshin, five days of silent meditation. The story behind the name of this sesshin, which became a koan is this: A monk asked Ummon, “What will happen when the leaves fall and the trees become bare?” Ummon said, “Golden Wind!” Ummon is the Japanese translation of the name of Chinese master Yunmen Wenyen. During Golden Wind, I resumed my koan practice with Shinge Roshi, having lost touch with it during the flurry of activities through the summer. That loss in itself reveals the challenge of this practice, since the purpose of, and real source of benefit from, koan practice it to become completely absorbed in reflection and meditation on it, 24/7. If you are practicing koans or curious about the practice, I highly recommend reading the collection of essays, “Sitting With Koans” edited by John Daido Loori, founder of Zen Mountain Monastery. The fourth essay provides a particularly excellent history of the development of the practice. Further in to the book you will find a dharma talk by Shinge Roshi. (Here is some interesting DBZ history: Loori’s first formal Zen experience was at DBZ, and Shinge Roshi, then called Roko, gave him his first-ever sitting instruction).

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John Daido Loori

At DBZ, koan practice starts with the “Mumonkon,” or Gateless Gate, collection. The name “Gateless Gate” reminds us that there is nothing between us and realization of our essential nature. “Two Zen Classics” contains the version that DBZ uses. Since koan practice really only exists when practiced with a qualified teacher, it is not a book that will help the curious or the beginner understand what it is about. “Sitting With Koans” is among the best books to offer an understanding of koan practice, as well as some of the history of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.

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I’ll write another post soon about koan practice, since the longer I practice it, the more I understand what a vital and precious awakening tool it is. This is especially so because those trained and skilled enough to facilitate it are few and far between, especially in the U.S. You may find this Wikipedia page offers a good explanation of koan practice (though remember, koan training is about lived experience, not intellectual comprehension). If you have had the least inclination to do a residential Zen training with koan practice, stop hesitating and go. You may not always have the opportunity, and it may not always be available.


 

Immediately after Golden Wind ended, we had a samu, or work, weekend, during which volunteers came and helped us with various maintenance projects in the monastery and on the grounds. That made a big difference with the post-retreat clean-up as well as accomplishing some other important projects that we few residents often do not have time for. Great thanks to all who came to help out! Samu weekends are free to attend, and a nice way to get a taste of our morning and evening Zen practice. Visit the DBZ website for the dates and to register.


 

Six days later began the seven-day Mondo Zen retreat with the Hollow Bones order. It was the first ever held at DBZ, so a bit of an historic event for our lineage, to have a post-modern practice form in a traditional practice monastery. Hollow Bones founder Junpo Denis Kelly, who trained and received Inka at DBZ, created Mondo Zen with fellow sangha members as a way to facilitate clear understanding about meditation practice, and how to integrate it in to one’s daily life. The heart of the practice is to develop an emotional koan, in which one uses counter-productive behavioral habits to recall the ever-present meditative mind within, and to develop the ability to respond consciously and compassionately in any situation.

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The Mondo Zen retreat participants at DBZ

Having been at DBZ over a year now (426 days on 11/14/17), I find that the traditional koan practice and the emotional koan practice are perfectly complementary… yin yang. Traditional koan practice is more existential, having us “face the wall” of infinite consciousness to truly know the root of our very being. Emotional koan practices gives us the ability to face our lives from that very depth of awareness. Profound meditation on a cushion that is not actualized in daily life is meaningless. Daily life lived without true connection to our pure, essential nature is fated to be limited at best, and a perpetual struggle at worst. Giving time to attend silent retreats and practice traditional koans is one of the best things you can do for your mind. Taking that depth of practice in your activities and relationships with emotional koans is one of the best things you can do for your life.

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Junpo, center, with four Hollow Bones members who took lay vows at the end of the retreat

 

The weekend following the Mondo Zen retreat, we hosted the sangha from Eiryu-ji Zen Center from Wyckoff, NJ. They are in the Soto lineage of Maezumi Roshi, one of the early Japanese Zen masters to come to the U.S. to help establish the practice here (Daido Loori, mentioned above, also trained with Maezumi Roshi). They were a delightful group to host and practice with, and we look forward to their return next year. If you live in that area, go enjoy their practice center, which also offers training in Aikido.

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The Eiryu-ji sangha after their sesshin at DBZ

 

The weekend after that we began Harvest Sesshin, a seven-day silent retreat. During every silent retreat, each morning at 9:30 we have a reading from The Diamond Sutra, with two participants reading the roles of The Buddha and one of his disciples, Subhuti. Then we chant it in Japanese for about ten to fifteen minutes. For the event, a large accordion-fold panel with the The Diamond Sutra hand-written in kanji on it is set up in front of the altar.

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It offers a sublime and bold presence, echoing the depth and importance of deeply understanding and realizing the teaching in this sutra.

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Like our other chanting in Japanese, I have found that not knowing the meaning of the words has much less importance than having an essential sense of the text, and chanting with deep meditative attention on that. Listening to the dialog between Buddha and Subhuti just prior to the chanting makes the experience all the more powerful.

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Various Buddhist sects focus on different sutras, and for Zen, The Diamond Sutra is one of the most important. If you are a practicing Buddhist or curious about it, I strongly encourage that you read it. For starters, enjoy this essential taste:

Buddha: “Subhuti, how can one explain this Sutra to others without holding in mind any arbitrary conception of forms or phenomena or spiritual truths? It can only be done, Subhuti, by keeping the mind in perfect tranquility and free from any attachment to appearances.

“So I say to you, this is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightening in a summer cloud;
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream;
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

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Last weekend (November 10-12), we held our bi-annual weekend retreat, Intro to Zen. Last fall and spring, each event had less than 10 people. For some reason, there was a lot of interest this fall, and we had over 50 participants. That number was mostly due to students from three colleges closely associated with DBZ (Wesleyan University, Syracuse U. Hamilton College), several of which were returnees.

A first-time student had this to say:
“So often on campus, I feel like I’m just drifting around, somehow far away from my own experience. At DBZ, I felt close to life in a way that I haven’t felt since the first time I fell in love. The whole place–the monks, the rituals, the forest–is somehow freeing, like its inviting you to quit hiding inside your silly, messy head so you can instead live at the edge of your senses and from the honesty of your heart.”

And a returning student said:
“The scenery of Dai Bosatsu Zendo is beautiful. What is more beautiful, though, is the quality of love that the monks, students and visitors of DBZ share. I have been visiting DBZ for several years now, and I have yet to leave without feeling deep love and gratitude. The teachings and experience of DBZ do not end at the driveway. The temple is a place in my heart that I can return to again and again, wherever I go.”
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New and returning students from Wesleyan University. They have a large and active meditation group on campus.
It was an energetic weekend, and an important time to support the emerging or existing meditation practice of young adults. They were enthusiastic and fully engaged in all the aspects of our practice. It also was a rich and inspiring time for the others as well. If you are interested in this practice, and want a taste of it before signing up for a week-long retreat, I highly recommend Intro to Zen. The details are on our web site.

 

Now I’m officially caught up with sharing my experience here since summer. Our next activities are the Thanksgiving pot luck, followed two days later by the transmission ceremony in which Shinge Roshi will make Dokoro Osho her first dharma heir. It will be a busy, highly-attended and magnificent weekend, and I look forward to telling you about it afterwards…

Until then, I wish you vigor and clarity in whatever your spiritual practice is!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catching up… part 1

I has been so long since I last posted…. over two months… that I am not quite sure what to write about. So much as gone on around and in me during that time, it is beyond my available time to try to convey it all. That is too bad, as this community, and even tradition, are in a transition, as am I. On one hand, I like to note the changes that I and the community are going through, to be able to see and look back on the evolution. On the other hand, Buddhist philosophy does not give such endeavors much value… experience is ultimately illusory, and in the past… nothing to hold on to. Let it go. And yet, as humans we live our lives and experience others by the stories we share, even if they are biased and have gaps in accuracy. All that said, here goes…

Because I was going to take a 4-day forestry course during our hiatus, I got to take that amount of time off before hand. I used it to visit fellow Hollow Bones priests Dazu and Koren in Portland, ME. It was such a heart-filling time with them and their children.

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I fell in love with the city, got to see Grizzly Bear for free thanks to Koren’s sister, and surfed for the first time. Surfing is quite a meditative experience, much of the time spent sitting and waiting in silence for a good wave, then a sudden burst of activity that demands all of one’s attention. I’ll definitely go back sooner than later… maybe land there one day, or at least spend some extended time to collaborate with them on consciousness raising retreats.

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I also learned that time and temperature are controlled there. Who’da thunk?

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By the end of summer, we monks were exhausted and discouraged from the incessant work and communal tension, yet also managed to enjoy hosting groups. All summer long, every week we hosted a new group. It was a constant cycle of preparation, service, clean up and turn-around. We went from the rigors of spring kessei (100 days of intensive practice), culminating with the 41st Anniversary Sesshin, right in to the routine of “Open Space,” hosting a variety of  groups. And in the middle of that was O-bon, a major four-day ceremonial event. It is a great joy to host people here, make our practice, our home, this gorgeous land, available to them for restoration and inspiration. Being of service and pushing through fatigue and self-interested wants is part of the training. And at the same time, there is only so much output a human can give. We needed our own restoration. Thankfully, Shinge Roshi is attuned to our well-being, and there has been and will be discussion about how to adapt the schedule to honor our well-being, while maintaining a rigorous practice, as well as meeting income needs that hosting groups provides. However, the summer ended on a somewhat dark note, and we were all glad to have some time off, even away, to restore. Some of were not sure about returning, me included

But back to the “enjoyment” part at the end of summer… which, I regret, I don’t have any photos of. The last two weekends of the summer are “Healing and Wellness” and  “Family Weekend.” Healing and Wellness was started decades ago to give people with chronic health issues a chance to unplug from the busy-ness of life, enjoy the restorative energy of pure nature, and get free body work from professionals. It was a small, festive group, and we all enjoyed lots of time at the lake house, on the patio and in the water. We residents also enjoyed deeply restorative body work (which helped reveal how exhausted we were). I got acupuncture one day and shiatsu the next. Ahhh…! And we all watched the solar eclipse together. The Family Weekend was just simple fun for all. It was just like the previous weekend, but included children and a good bit of playing games.

The hiatus period was from August 28 to September 14. I spent it visiting friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and my parents and family in Ohio.

In Pennsylvania I took two afternoons to go to the archery range I used to frequent. I took my bow out of storage, a classic Fred Bear “Kodiak” recurve, circa 1970-72 (for enthusiasts, it is 52″ and 50X #. Dig this page on Bear bows).

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I have loved archery since childhood, when I got a bow from S&H Greenstamps, but never really got in to it until my early 40s. Going to the range this time was a big treat, as I had not practiced much in a couple of years, and sadly bows are disallowed at DBZ (even though archery has deep roots in Japan, called “Kyudo,” and also has a history with Zen training).

Stepping up to the shooting line I could tell this time was going to be a new experience for me. Having spent a year in monastic training, I had a depth of focus and body-centric awareness that I did not have the last time I shot. I made a point to use breath to direct all my movements, and see the target from my hara, the intelligence in the abdomen, and be fully aware of my whole body.

I focused on the target in such a way that it was almost all I could see, all that existed, creating an energetic link that somewhat dissolved the illusion of the space between me and it. When I was in this state, aiming was effortless, release of the string was like a flower opening, and the shots were excellent. If I was in my head, thinking about aiming or a desired result or physical technique, aiming was strained, releasing was clumsy and shots did not go where I had intended. I would distinguish the experiences as a state of with-ness, being with my body, bow, arrow, space and target at once, versus having a goal in which all the above elements felt separate, isolated. What would we and the world be like if we lived in this state of with-ness?

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In my home state of New Jersey, and my first hometown, Bloomfield, I visited the town’s cemetery with my friend Pete. I had never been, and was glad we went. Seeing names of the families that shaped the the growth and development of society (for better and worse) gave me a better sense of the town’s and region’s history. Many headstones were very old (by U.S. standards, also lending to a deeper sense of time for this country. And yet again, because of the age of the cemetery, it was home to several trees who’s lives predated that of European arrival here. To stand in the presence of a living being that is 350-400+ years old is quite awe-inspiring, evoking imagination of what the land might have looked like then, void of and buildings or pavement, just pure nature.

 

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After a few days in Jersey I flew to Ohio to be with my parents and family for my 50th birthday. Turning 50 is a strange thing for me. It part, it makes no sense; I don’t “feel” 50, whatever that could mean. Most people say I don’t look 50. And yet the round number that is halfway to 100 also points to mortality, evoke a bit of fear, and drawing attention to do more of what matters, to live as authentically as I can. The birthday celebration my parents and extended family gave me was a rich treat, allowing me to let go of looking back and just relish living and loving in the Now.

During this trip, my parents and I had to discuss their end of life issues, which, as you could imagine, got quite heavy. It was fascinating to feel like my child self again, yet with a whole new fear of the unknown of them being gone. As hard as the conversation was, it was a potent reminder to savor every moment with them, and by extension, every moment, everywhere, with anyone. The Buddha said, “Everything is on fire.” Acknowledging the impermanence of all life and life experience is a core tenet to the philosophy and practice. However, not from a morbid perspective, but to radically deepen our appreciation for this fleeting life, and as an urging to practice constantly, strengthening our ability to live in the present, consciously, openly, compassionately. There is not time to be wasted in confusion, regret, resentment, or any hurtful behavior outward or inward. Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now” statement is not some flippant, warm fuzzy spiritual quip. It is a profound and urgent call.

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One afternoon my parents and I went to the Urbana Historical Society so that I could see the ancient trees there. Again I got to be in the presence of trees 300 too 400+ years old. For me, old trees radiate steadiness, sturdiness, depth and stillness unlike any being. It is a remarkable experience to expand one’s sense of awe, of the vastness of life, the mysteriousness of Creation. They are deep teachers. I encourage you to find some near you and spend quiet time with them as often as you can. And rather than scroll on by this picture of a majestic White Oak, who is six feet in diameter at its base, be with it a few minutes.

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While in Ohio, I felt dread about returning to DBZ, its ambiance that could be so cold at times, the dark hallways… shouldn’t spiritual practice be bright and uplifting? I also felt concern for my health, as the relentless schedule and limited time for sleep had been wearing on me. I emailed Shinge Roshi and my fellow residents to say I was returning, but with trepidation, and would be taking it one kessei at a time.

Upon returning I learned I would be head jisha, or temple attendant, responsible for making sure all the housekeeping gets done. It is essentially a delegation job, assigning tasks daily, making sure they are done well, plus tending to some of the morning and evening rituals to open and close the day. During sesshin there is more to do, including a tea serving ritual called “sarei” done in the zendo three times a day. It was a role I dreaded, but accepted with grace and set out to do my best. With great support from past jishas, and encouragement from others, I have stepped in to the role fairly well.

As with many aspects of Japanese culture and especially Zen training, getting a task done to a certain technical standard is the less important aspect of doing something. The ambiance one creates doing the task creates is understood as having influence on those who see its results. It is much like painting: many artists can paint a landscape to look at, but only some can do so in a way that moves the viewer to experience being in that landscape. The role of jisha is not simply to make sure housekeeping gets done, but that it is done in such a way that the feeling of the care for the temple is felt throughout. And how else could that be done other than dwelling in the feeling of deep care, and sharing that with those who are sent to do the chores?

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As I settled back in to being here, I also settled in to recognition of what a gift it is. Th depth of meditation practice environment; profound inspiration of the vast, pure nature all around; the immeasurable roots of our tradition; the dedication of Shinge Roshi to our awakening, and our own individual and collective dedication as well. The residents were bonding well, communal frictions were being handled better, and the energetic shift was palpable. This waking up is not something we can engineer… there is no perfect, warm-fuzzy, no-struggle spiritual practice. We must surrender, open, allow what is, face and embrace it, work with it, including the discomfort, confusion, friction, all of it. We must be tumbled to become polished gems, endure great pressure to become diamonds. When we can do so in a community of devoted fellow practitioners, we can have experiences of opening to the enormity of this mysterious life that are not really available elsewhere.

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One afternoon I walked out in to the woods for some “forest bathing.” It is something I have always done since childhood, finding restoration and inspiration in nature. It has a name in Japan, shinrin-yoku, and is actively practiced for health benefits. As it became evening, I headed out, and spontaneously decided to go down to the lake. I saw pretty scene of the moon sending light that shimmered on the water, and I took picture. Once back in my room, I ooked at it and the phrase “Moonlight makes stars” came to me, and then in a velvety flow a poem came forth. The inspriation of the beauty I experienced by the lake, and the poem that emerged from it, was somehow part of a tipping point that helped me know being at DBZ was perfectly right for me. I quietly resolved to continue to immerse myself in meditation, strive for the liberation promises by the ancestors, to absorb the tradition and form, to never complain but never squash concerns, to be open and real when conflict arises, to be deeply present with the whole of the experience. In June of 2016, when great doubt seized me soon after deciding to come here, Junpo said to me, “I was here for six years and it transformed my life. It can for you, too. Trust the Dharma. Trust the Dharma!”

And so I am…

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Morning Sky Medicine Friends

Morning Sky Medicine Friends

 

You metropolitan folks

will really have to use

your imagination

for this one

since modernity

has stolen the stars

from your eyes

This morning

4:15 AM

I stepped

on to the landing

of the outdoor stairway

on my way

to the meditation hall

The sky was still night

blackness deeper than my mind

could ever reach

not even a wisp

of sunlight

at the hill-curved horizon

crisp Catskill air

kissed my cheeks

awake

Held quietly boldly forth

by the incomprehensible sky

the Big Dipper

openly offered

its diamond-bright self

to me

a giant cup

of unimaginableness

handle hanging down

touching the tips

of the bare trees

so close

it seemed I could reach out

and take hold of it

so with immediate delight

I did

and I have to tell

you

Big Dipper was glad

to be held

same as us

you know

Gratefully gleefully

I poured it’s celestial nectar

in to the top of my head

my body

drank it down to my feet

revealing a thirst

I’d forgotten

or ignored

I could feel each cell

of me

smiling

It was the most natural

joyful thing

to do

You would too

I’m sure

Then of course

I wanted to share

some of me

with my new friend

so held its sparkling cup

to my heart

filled it up

and placed it

back in the sky

precisely

feeling it’s contentment

through to my bones

This wasn’t some childish fantasy

it was child-like wisdom

and love

shared between two aspects

of the One

whom we all know

when we listen

and see

and play

I wonder

who else

I can make friends with

this way

Maybe you

 

 

 

10.28 & 11.3.2017

Moonlight Makes Stars

Moonlight makes stars

on the lake

wind caresses water

to give them their shimmer

hillsides silhouetted

by the wordless song

of the setting sun

delicate yellow glow

in its wake

gently pulling night 

across the sky

the blackened stage

for a spiraling dance

of uncountable 

suns 

and moons 

and planets

This play

of light and dark

of fading away

and shining forth

coaxes

from the unfathomable

center of my chest

the love

that creates

it all

9/28/17

O-bon, a 3-day memorial ceremony for the deceased

During August 10-12, we celebrated O-bon, an annual memorial ceremony to honor and bless the deceased in our lives, and per the tradition’s origin, even free their spirits from suffering. Thursday and Friday nights we did short versions of the chanting ceremony, and Saturday and Saturday night held the full expression of all the rituals. O-bon originated during the Buddha’s life, when a disciple asked him how he could help free his mother’s spirit from the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. This realm is where spirits are caught in relentless dissatisfaction and insatiable craving. Whether or not such a realm exists, the celebration also serves to acknowledge the hungry ghost aspect that is in each of us.

the seemingly ceaseless wanting for ourselves, others and circumstances to be other than they are; to want what we don’t have and be rid of what we have that we don’t like. It is a cycle that is truly vicious.

It does not take much to recognize this ghost in ourselves, and its almost relentless agitation of wanting what it does not have, and be rid of what it does not like. Sometimes the craving is discreet, sometimes tempestuous. Aside from any high spiritual ideals, the practice of sitting in stillness and silence cultivates the ability to observe and be present with whatever arises in our bodies and minds. This helps us develop the capacity to remain non-reactive to their energies, and consciously choose our inner experience and outward behavior from this still, silent clarity, not from craving or repulsion. The process is not comfortable, but the fruits of transformation are sweet. This in itself is the practice of awakening, and the realization of enlightenment.

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Preparing for O-bon is a big deal, and is started a month in advance with cleaning the floating lanterns, followed by grounds care in the weeks prior. The week of the ceremony, about forty volunteers arrived to help gather the ceremonial materials, clean the monastery and prepare rooms, set up altars and decorations, plan and shop for meals, and much more.

The week prior, I was asked to weed the paths of Sangha Meadow, the monastery’s cemetery area, as well as the grave site of the parents of Eido Shimano Roshi, DBZ’s founding abbot. Sangha Meadow is a shrubby area, mainly composed of the native Spirea alba, or meadowsweet. Winding grass are cut through it, weaving around the cemetery section, offering a maze-like experience and the occasional surprise of resident statues.

 

 

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I enjoy weeding and valued the quiet time alone to meditate while working in nature. In the O-bon spirit of blessing the deceased, all the while I weeded, I chanted the phrase “Namu Dai Bosa.

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The week of August 8 was full of preparation for O-bon, with more volunteer participants arriving each day. The zendo foyer was transformed both a festive room and somber memorial. Photos and “ihai,” or spirit/memorial tablets, that normal reside on the Dharma hall altar, are placed, in a specific order, on a temporary altar in the foyer. Later in the week, paper lanterns on which each participant writes the names of deceased family and friends would line the walls.

 

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Photos and ihai of Dharma teachers
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Photos and ihai of late sangha members

 

With all gatherings at DBZ, there is a social joy that is vibrant, even for O-bon and its focused on those in our communities and lives who have died. The spirit of collaboration was as nourishing as the food we prepared. Making an elaborate dinner for 75 was, fast-paced, meditative and straight-up fun. I and others assisted the tenzo, or head chef, to prepare dinner starting immediately after breakfast right up to 5PM serving time. We  working along side those making lunch at the same time. All day the sky and air were heavy with the possibility of rain, but inside we were basking in our own sunshine.

Making vegetable creatures for some of the altars kept playful energy in the atmosphere. The eggplant-radicchio dragon lived on the alter with the lineage holders.

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A large part of O-bon ritual is for each person to write and/or draw on a paper lantern,  writing the names of deceased people in their lives being the most common. The monastery entrance, or genkan, a formal and sacred space, was set up with cushions, brushes and ink for us to make our lanterns.

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Making my lantern had been on my mind through the day, but as dinner prep became busier it slipped my mind. Thankfully, someone reminded me around 4:30. I went from the bustle of the kitchen to the quiet of the genkan, took a moment to settle, and began writing the names of family, friends and my dogs on the taught rice paper. It was a  powerful moment as subtle waves of grief came forth, including for grandparents I never met. As I felt my mind constrict and my head hang with sorrow, I recognized the opportunity to liberate the energy, thus myself, and those whom I was grieving. I sat up and breathed in to my heart center, drawing the grief in to it, and dispelling its painful quality as I exhaled. A quiet, reverential sadness lingered, balanced with love and gratitude for those I was memorializing.

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The ampersand is for additional friends and family, and those who have died of whom I have not heard the news.

After making a lantern, each person takes theirs to the altar in the zendo foyer, lights an incense stick, purifies the lantern three times in the fragrant smoke, then sets it along the wall. After the evening chanting and reading of the names of the deceased, they would all be lit and carried down to the lake.

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A chant called “Dai Segaki” which honors the deceased, was chanted in call-and-response style. The chanting leader, a Japanese woman and long-time Zen Studies sangha member, had a hauntingly gorgeous voice. Her tone blended perfectly the beauty of life and the sadness of death. The group, over 75 strong, repeated each line back with both vigor and a poignancy that was stirringly deep. The whole service lasted about 90 minutes, and was a profound meditation like none I had ever experienced.

After the service, we all carried our lanterns in procession. Earlier in the day, the heavy sky let loose a huge rain storm, which felt like a powerful cleansing, a deep release. We were concerned it would continue in to the night and prevent us from going outside, but it stopped in time. Under the pitch black wilderness sky, the lanterns and path torches were all the light we had. The importance and nurturing energy of shared ritual was palpable as we moved as one living being to the edge of the lake. It made me wish for our society that such sacred rituals were more common and more frequent. This kind of soul food is only found in communal experience, not the anonymity of an increasingly isolated and digitized world. How can we light our way to shared experiences of wonder and reverence in our time and culture?

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All of our lanterns were loaded on two row boats, which in itself was a moving. Again, it was revealing the mysterious beauty of life, as the boats began to glow as two big lanterns in the night; at the same time, sending the lanterns off echoed the sorrow of letting go of the physical presence of loved ones when they leave this world. The crowd was silent like the night as the oarsmen asked Shinge Roshi if it was time for them to set off across the black water.

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They quietly rowed to the center of the lake and one by one set the lanterns afloat. The scene was sublimely gorgeous, small lights adrift in a deep darkness carrying the names of the deceased, the living energy and murmurings of the people on the shore, the fullness of the vast wilderness around us, and all of this just one speck held by the infinite night sky.

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The next day the sky was bright, the air calm and fresh. It literally felt like new life. That the rituals, ceremony, chanting and weather were all powerfully intertwined and self-expressive was truly magical and transformative. The miracle and joy of life and the mystery and sadness of death were clearly revealed to be one, and in that unification, an ineffable peace filled the valley.

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Who really knows what this life is, or what does or does not happen after death? No one. Despite all the mind-boggling realizations coming out of quantum physics, we do not really know how or why this worldly existence comes in to being, nor what will become of it. It seems the best we can do is appreciate and honor the mystery of it all, and attune our bodies and minds to harmonize with its flow as we journey through this human life, relishing its joys and accepting its pains. As The Bodhisattva/Awakened One’s Vow says: “May we awaken and recognize this Mind throughout the whole universe,
 so that we and all beings together 
may experience maturity in Awakened Mind wisdom.”

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My first shakuhachi experience

Nyogetsu Ronnie Seldin, a shakuhachi master (Japanese bamboo flute) with a deep connection to DBZ, died May 30 this year. He played at DBZ’s inauguration in 1976 and at the 40th anniversary ceremony in 2016. Every year he held a shakuhachi retreat and regularly played here when people got ordained. He drove all over the mid-Atlantic states five days a week to meet with students and to perform. Nyogetsu was himself a flute through which sounds of creation, love, and silence came freely.

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He was due to perform here this summer, so in his stead one of his students, Marco Burmester, came and performed two pieces the evening of July 16, and will again for the O-bon ceremony on August 12. Marco’s performance was sublime. The shakuhachi is an instrument deeply woven in to this meditation tradition; playing is a ritual, not an activity, and the sounds made instantly evoke a meditative state in the listener. Before and after playing each piece, Marco gave a deep, slow bow to the flute laying before him, his head to the floor. We all bowed with him. The reverence filled the room just as the flute’s sound did.

 

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At dinner, I had good conversation with Marco about the flute and the art of playing one. It is quite a subtle instrument, and it can take some people many months, even a year or more, to get a decent sound. Though it has only five holes, the sonic range is remarkable. Marco describe how each flute is its own entity. Though they can be made to be similar in tone and key, none are identical. Each responds to the breath in its own way, and is influenced by the qualities of the air in any given place, or even moment. Selecting a flute is as intimate as choosing a life partner. I thought it would be cool take up the practice, but dismissed the notion as I already do not do enough of the things I already want or need to do.

Marco ~ Shakuhachi

The next day, Marco was playing in the courtyard while we were doing chores. He asked me to take some pictures of him while he played. Then he offered me the chance to try his shakuhachi. It is played similarly to blowing across a bottle top, but has a very fine, inwardly-curved edge with an inlay to cut and even shape the wind of the breath. The mouthpiece creates many delicate sonic intricacies, and that is even before doing any fingering.

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For my first attempt, I literally got no sound, the few faint whistle-like sounds. When I settled my attention in my body, and completely allowed breath to be itself, full and natural tones came from the flute, plus a few interesting over-tones. It was a subtle awakening experience to be inhaling and exhaling with a spirit of allowing, and not in my thinking mind that was trying to do something and get a result. What a great teacher the shakuhachi is! More important to me than “getting a sound” was this meditative experience, in which “I” got out of the way, and allowed sonic expression arrive and be heard on its own.

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The opportunity was a real gift, and I am considering getting a shakuhachi, not necessarily to study it formally, but to have a sonorous friend to explore meditation with from time to time. The notion of going out in the forest and playing among the amazing boulders and trees is a delightful one. I’ll keep you posted… For now, enjoy Nyogetsu Ronnie Seldin playing “Makoto Shinjitsu” (With a Heart of True Sincerity).

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Sacred Love

In mid-May, we hosted a wedding at the monastery. We only host weddings for community members and their immediate families. The parents of the groom, Carl, had been practicing with Shinge Roshi since the early 90s. Carl and Shinge Roshi’s son grew up as buddies with Buddhist parents. Kasa is Japanese, and her family are lay Zen practitioners. From their childhoods, the couple was influenced by a philosophy that points to the wisdom of the heart, and practices that bring the wisdom forth in  deeds and interactions imbued with compassion.

C&K dock
Photo by Roy Gumpel http://roygumpelphotography.virb.com/

I did not know the couple prior to the wedding. Few of us residents did. We did our usual guest preparations and services as family members and friends gradually arrived over a three-day period. We had no particular anticipation about the weekend other than to be of service and enjoy the ceremony and celebration with everyone.

With any group that arrives, there is a shift in the ambiance in the monastery. Each group has its own energetic, or resonant, quality. The qualities cannot necessarily be named, but general descriptors such as “relaxed” or “dynamic” come up. However, with this wedding and its participants, a very distinct vibe gradually filled, or even surrounded in embrace, the monastery and its environs. It grew as people arrived, and became palpable as the ceremony approached. It was a literal atmosphere one could feel as we moved about in preparation through the morning and early afternoon leading up to the ceremony.

When the couple first arrived, I did not get a chance to meet them. Everyone was bustling about. Yet the movement of greeting guests and ceremony preparation had a smoothness, a dancer’s grace, to it. Movement, sometimes quick and concise, was without any frenetic energy to it, as I am sure is often felt at weddings. There was a roundedness to the energy of people as they moved through spaces, among and past each other. It felt quietly yet vibrantly awake, even aware. It coaxed my attention into focusing on this feeling throughout the weekend.

As I was approaching the food storage area in the basement, heading upstairs for some task or other, Kasa and Carl were there, and Kasa called me over. “How should I address you?” is the first thing she said. I was pleasantly taken aback, feeling the surprise in being spoken to with a tone of respect one would use with clergy. At once I could sense the quality of consciousness about respect in Japanese culture, and have more deeply rooted in my mind the notion that I am clergy. It is not a moniker I identify with; I am just living the life I must. It is for the spirit of the path, not the ornamentation (more on this in another post). I was also instantly at peace, recognizing her seeing me, an American, taking on an element of her culture, her reality, and appreciating my entering her world in that way. There was a quality of rapport that I had not experienced before.

I told her my dharma name, “Tozan,” smiling with an energy thankful for the respect, and conveying that I walk the path of being a “true person of no rank.” She then said she already knew me. “How?” From this blog. She was searching for some photos of Dai Bosatsu, which brought up A Modern Monk. Kasa was so appreciative that the blog made the pictures available to her, and I felt grateful to have the joy I put in to this writing reflected back to me. Our meeting was the gateless gateway in to what I would experience as an extraordinary sense of community-centered love, even though not many of us knew each other. We all became a temporary tribe gathered to affirm and celebrate a genuine heart connection between two people, across nations, cultures and languages, and it connected us all quite naturally. It is important not to be naive as well. Not all of us would necessarily have had common interests in another setting. But there was an irrefutable energy in the monastery the whole weekend, one of harmony like I had never experienced anywhere.

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The celebration dinner

 

The room was packed for the ceremony that was officiated by Shinge Roshi. It began with Buddhist rituals including lighting of incense and candles, bows and chanting. Shinge Roshi then spoke about knowing Carl and his parents, of Kasa and he meeting and becoming a couple, and how love brought them and their families together in such an inimitable way. Carl and Kasa each spoke of each other and their relationship with a touching simplicity and depth. A similar grace infused their exchange of vows and rings. The energy of the ceremony had a quiet strength to it, also unlike any wedding I had been to.

C&K candles
Photo by Roy Gumpel http://roygumpelphotography.virb.com/

 

The next morning, after breakfast, Kasa’s father got up to speak. I did not know anything about him, but somehow got the perception he was a successful business man. Seeing him throughout the weekend, one could tell immediately he was a respectable gentleman. He spoke slowly and softly and Kasa translated for him. Not just by his words, but by the presence he emitted as he spoke, the whole room was moved by the depth of his gratitude, which really transmitted a heart full of love.

Most of the guests left the day after the wedding. The newlyweds and their families lingered another day. The feelings of equanimity, clarity, and love were still palpable as we gradually tended to cleaning up. To be sure my perception of the communal vibe was not just in my mind, I asked around, “Did you feel that?” “Yes!” was the answer every time. Each person I spoke to had their own way of describing the same thing: there was a sweet vibe of love enveloping us all weekend, truly sacred love. A week later this experience was  further confirmed by an email the groom’s mother shared with the residents.

“That was the best wedding we’ve ever attended. Better than ours, better than Erica’s, better than my sister’s, other relatives, etc and friends. Seriously.  It wasn’t just because it was the novelty of the monastery…but the addition of the very earnest, thoughtful words imbued with love that were part of the festivities.”

C&K rings
Photo by Roy Gumpel http://roygumpelphotography.virb.com/

So what made this experience possible, and real, for so many people? How is it a group of people, many who have never met before, could find themselves in a shared ambiance of love so naturally? And have it last for days? And that people from diverse backgrounds all felt it? My best assessment is that it started with the depth of love the bride and groom and their families have within and between them. For these few days, we were all drawn in to it and contributed our own. This was likely further enhanced by so many of those present having sustained meditation practices, which is all about heart-mind. And naturally, the energy and ambiance of the monastery, cultivated over forty years, certainly contributed to the experience.

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The couple’s families. Carl’s mother and father to his right. Kasa’s mother and father are on the far right, behind the children. Photo by Roy Gumpel http://roygumpelphotography.virb.com/

 

The experience has me realizing that the power of love and meditation are very real. This power is not naive idealism or new age woo-woo. When hearts are open, and minds are able to rest in them, a way of living together as humans manifest, one that most of us only dream of. It visible in our actions and interactions, it is palpable in the air, it supports and informs and guides us. What if more and more of us gave the time to develop or deepen a meditation practice? What if more and more us gave the time to open our hearts to one another? We cannot wait on the peaceful world we so yearn for, and it certainly will not be provided by governments or corporations. It is up to us to open and unite our hearts and minds. Today.

As Torei Enji’s “Awakened One’s Vow” says, “All of our minds will now reveal a true Awakened One: a Christ, a Buddha, a Tara, 
compassionately aware and ready, 
fearless and wise, acting skillfully and appropriately. Then, all of our combined actions will create a new world,
 a world of love and caring, defended and ordered. May we awaken and recognize this Mind throughout the whole universe,
 so that we and all beings together 
may experience maturity in Awakened Mind wisdom!”  (From the Hollow Bones Sutra Book)

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Everywhere we go, there are reminders to be open, fully open, in heart and mind. They can show up anywhere. In fact they do all the time. They may command our attention like the wedding did, or be quiet and subtle, asking to be revealed by our recognition of them. How we pay attention to our surroundings, and how we respond to them, makes the difference. Maintaining a meditation practice, and keeping our hearts open and aware, and sharing them freely, makes the difference real. It makes love sacred.

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A lovingly crafted cortado at the Birch Coffee location in the Upper East Side of Manhattan

And of course, it is essential to keep a sense of play in our daily lives….

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Photo by Roy Gumpel http://roygumpelphotography.virb.com/