Blog

Siren

A siren
woke me
up
while I was
meditating
entering
on an inhalation
No
I wasn’t
asleep
I mean
not
the nighttime kind
but the asleep
of not Awake
You might be
asleep
too
right now
even though
you are feeling
in to words
about Awakeness
I am not
criticizing
you
We are all
the same
Next time
you
will remind
me
like the siren
deeply urgent exhale
cutting through
the chaos
of traffic
trying to save
a life

© John E. Vérin
06/17/2018

A Three-event Journey

Between November 21 and December 9 we had, with all the preparations and clean up on either side of each event, a Thanksgiving potluck, a Dharma transmission ceremony and an eight-day silent retreat, which is the most intensive silent retreat of the year, called Rohatsu.

Before the major events occurred, on the 21st, we held our monthly Mandala Day celebration. Mandala Day commemorates the spiritual relationship of Soen Nakagawa Roshi and Venerable Nyogen Senzaki. The two were not able to meet in person for many years, so agreed to exchange Dharma greetings across the Pacific on the 21st of every month with chanting, zazen, and bows. The ceremony also pays homage to those in our lineage, and all teachers known and unknown, who have helped to further the Buddhadharma. The significance of Mandala Day is described in the introduction to Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa. The book introduces the poems, letters, journal entries, and other writings of Soen Roshi (edited and translated by compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi Sensei and Shinge Roshi).

An electrifying sunset preceded this month’s Mandala Day celebration.

Thanksgiving is a giant family affair, full of energy and an abundance of food. People arrive gradually during the days leading up to it to help prepare both the facilities and some of the food. Dinner is a potluck which makes it fun and interesting every year. We residents and early guests make some of the food, other guests bring raw ingredients to cook or prepared dishes to warm. And then there are the desserts… oh, the desserts!

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This year well over 50 guests arrived, including Dharma dignitaries from Japan who came to witness and participate in the Transmission ceremony. This included Noritake Shunan Rōshi of Reiun-in temple in Kyoto, who is also the current abbot of Mt. Baldy Zen Center, or Rinzai-ji, outside of Los Angeles. Mt. Baldy is where Dokuro Osho did most of his training for many years, so several friends affiliated with the center were also in attendance.

At the dinner, Noritake Roshi gave a warm and funny short speech. It was  his first-ever Thanksgiving, and he professed his joy in experiencing hot apple cider for the first time, and that he would request it when back in Japan. I hope he has been able to find it.

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What a great, festive meal!

Two days later was the “Inka shomei,” or Transmission Ceremony for Dokuro Roland Jaeckel, Osho (“Osho” is an honorific word for a priest who has trained a long time). “Transmission” means different things in each sect of Buddhism. In Rinzai Zen, a zen master sees in the long-term student the realization of non-dual consciousness, the mind from which all manifestation arises, and the ability to actualize it in daily life, instruction to students and dharma talks. It is not a “giving” of anything from teacher to student, not an ability nor merely a title. The ceremony is public acknowledgement that the student has trained with an established master (at least 10 years and generally more; in Dokuro’s case, over thirty), and completed koan training (traditionally 1700 koans; in recent times, 100-500 is more common).

Despite arriving at such a point of recognition, this “transmission” is a beginning, not a completion point (in Buddhism, training has no end). In Rinzai Zen, receiving inka meant one could go in the world and teach, and that was viewed as the next stage of training. Could the student actualize, in society with all of its activity and trappings, the insight cultivated in an isolated practice vessel? If so, then they would be allowed to use the title “Roshi.” This period is usually ten years long. Consider that to receive inka shomei can take ten to twenty years of training. Then, an additional ten years of training in society was required before one would be allowed to use the title “Roshi.” This unbroken line of transmission, since the beginning of Buddhism, is an important reflection of the depth and continuity of this practice of awakening.

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Dokuro, Osho, after passing through the “Five Gates.”

The Inka shomei of Dokuro Osho was the second major ceremony at DBZ of which I had the joy and privilege to be a part (the first was the wedding of Kai and Connor). I have been to a fair number of special ceremonies in my life, but none created such a deep communal energy as these. The whole Inka shomei weekend, preceded by the festive and bountiful Thanksgiving, gave the feeling of being carried in a strong but gentle current that has moved through centuries of sanghas and dharma transmission. It is clear to me that this shared energy is the fruit of a deeply bonded sangha steeped in zazen, with a long line of ancestors behind it. What is more, this energy was mutually shared with people from multiple sanghas who had not met before. To have shared zazen and morning service with people you have never practiced with before, and to have it feel as if you have been practicing a lifetime together, is a transformative experience of its own kind. The universality of One Mind, and the commonality of our lineage and practice tradition, was apparent through the weekend.

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Shinge Roshi handing Dokuro Osho the official transmission scroll.

While the focus of the event was on one individual, there was a sense of collective effort that is carrying Buddhadharma and our Rinzai lineage and tradition forward. Also with that sense was that of celebration and gratitude, and a ubiquitous feeling of joyful awe. Similarly, having been involved in the event preparations, I saw how each small and large effort brought the whole ceremony together. Thus, I could see that this is how our tradition and its living teachings are passed on: through communal efforts of all sizes and kinds. To that, Dokoro Osho even said in his Dharma talk, “I need your help,” a fine expression of his recognition that he has received a responsibility, not an accolade. And it is simultaneously a reminder to us that the responsibility is shared. As Noritake Roshi said, first to Dokuro Osho, then to Shinge Roshi, then to the whole congregation, “Congratulations!” Thus, while Dokuro Osho has certainly earned the opportunity to receive Inka shomei, the singular yet shared quality of the One Mind of this special weekend shows that we are truly all in this together. Namu dai bo sa! (Homage to the One Great Bodhisattva!)

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Noritaki Roshi, Shinge Roshi, Dokuro Osho.

Five days after Transmission was the start of the 8-day silent retreat called Rohatsu, which simply means “the 8th day of the 12th month” in Japanese. We had to clean up from the Thanksgiving/Transmission weekend and prepare for Rohatsu, the most rigorous sesshin of the year, in just three days.

The retreat honors and celebrates Siddartha Gautama’s awakening, and encourages us to deepen our own resolve to awaken. Legend holds that after many years of ascetic practice, and several more of yogic training, he sat down beneath a tree (commonly known as the Bodhi Tree, botanically called Ficus religiosa) and vowed to reach enlightenment or die trying. It is said in Zen Buddhism that the morning that he realized the unity of all apparent phenomena was December 8. Despite many temptations from the demon Mara, Siddartha maintained a state of unwavering awareness. In a final effort to challenge him, Mara confronted Siddartha’s claim to have awakened: “Who is your witness?” Siddartha touched the ground and the Earth itself declared being witness, causing Mara to flee, and establishing Siddartha as a Buddha, a fully awakened one.

Rohatsu starts on November 30 and ends on December 8. The schedule is lengthened every day or every other day, so that by the seventh night the meditation practice goes until midnight. Traditionally, one could then meditate all night, honoring the Buddha’s effort to awaken and bring the teaching to humanity, and strive to do the same.

In the Hakuin Ekaku line of the Rinzai lineage, each night we read Hakuin’s “Rohatsu Exhortations.” They are pointed statements of encouragement, and worthy of reading throughout the year. The translation by Zen Studies is a particularly good one, and is available only through our store. Hakuin is a seminal figure in Zen Buddhism, having revived and evolved the tradition, and was an excellent author and calligraphy artist. His works and writing about him are all worth reading. But more importantly, his teachings are worth embodying.

“From the sea of effortless compassion, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth.” ~Hakuin Ekaku

During Rohatsu, my sitting experience was strong and consistent, and despite the fatigue from the rigorous schedule, I found myself eager to return to the zendo each time the bell rang for the next sitting period. However, I found myself struggling with a koan like never before, and it took effort not to succumb to frustration. There is no time frame or finish line when working with koans, and it is said a monk may work on one for months or even years. To the western mind focused on productivity, accomplishment, report cards, quarterly reports and annual reviews, the notion of giving up goals and fear of not achieving them, giving up identity while still experiencing a self, giving up locating one’s efforts on a progress chart… to to relinquish oneself to an organic, undefinable process can be quite disorienting. But we must remember our very lives are like this from the start… learning to walk, to talk, to develop motor skills… none of this happens on a production schedule. Re/discovering the original consciousness from which we come is a lot like this, and finding the middle way between great effort and complete surrender is essential. I will carry my practice with the koan in to winter interim, and for as long as needed for my realization of what it points to.

At DBZ, on the seventh night we listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was a favorite of our visioning founder, Soen Nakagawa, Roshi. It is a fascinating experience to go from a week of deep silence to listening to such a bold and dynamic composition. We listen to it in the zendo which by then is full of zazen energy, facilitating the letting go completely in to the experience of listening, dissolving the veil between listener and sound.

Afterwards I did sit all night, not by declaration, but just deciding to sit as long as I could. On a soft and simple current of concentration, suddenly it was morning. I did not have a thunderous awakening, but the choice to demonstrate to myself my determination and commitment to this practice, I was humbled by the untouchable vastness of the universe, and inspired to continue to surrender to the very consciousness that creates this life experience. My resolve deepened to find what I ought best do in my life by me actions, relationships and offerings to the world. With the end of the retreat, and the 90-day kessei, my practice begins again, renewed and yet the same.

Winter interim will go until March 23, 2018, when the next kessei period begins. I will spend some of the time at DBZ, and some in residency at The New York Zendo/Shobo-ji, providing me opportunity to train in Ashtanga Yoga with Guy Donahaye, support myself with part-time work, and help with the care of and events at Shobo-ji. It will be an important time to integrate what I have lived during this past kessei (and since arriving here), and sustaining my practices to begin kessei with a ready body and focused mind.

The meditation hall at The New York Zendo/Shobo-ji.

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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Eiryu-ji sangha and three DBZ residents after their sesshin and jukai ceremony.

 


 

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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