This Drifting, Wandering Life

September seems to be slipping by quickly, and the last few mornings have felt autumnal, with chill in the air, even as it warms in the middle of the day. I am running around trying to take care of last-minute things before flying to England for a month-long visit. It will be colder there, for sure, which I am not looking forward to.

September has also been the first month this year where I paid my rent at the beginning of the month and still had any money left in my bank account. I was never much for the pursuit of money (a little rabbit-hole reading yesterday morning brought me to this post, where I subscribe more to this reply to it; all found from this post). I have been consciously choosing poverty for the last fifteen years, since I gave up regular work to go to Tassajara. At Zen Center, my housing and food needs were taken care of, I had health insurance, and could still afford to buy myself some nice clothes, and tickets to England most years. Now that I am fending for myself, I am more or less on the same financial level, but it feels a little more precarious.

It is two years now since I started my transition out of Zen Center, and I have been reflecting on the ways I have been keeping myself afloat since then. Much of it has involved creating various forms of online presence: this blog, Thumbtack, Patreon, Meetup, Airbnb, Mailchimp, Eventbrite, working with different apps, signing up for Venmo, Square, Bill.com and other services in order to get paid. At the same time, my sense of what it means to be successful – or perhaps I should say credible – as a teacher depends on remaining grounded in reality and embodying a set of values that run counter to much of what online activity represents (we could argue about the merits of interconnectivity over the ether, but I would mostly plump for face-to-face transmission).

I still feel the twin poles of formal zen practice and being out in the world tugging me with different strengths at different times, and I understand this to be my current koan: what does it mean to be a priest out in the world? I always love putting on my robes, like I did for the Genzo-e last month, but as I always say, most people I teach these days, whether in corporate settings (such as I taught at yesterday) or the county jail (where I went on Monday to find the place on lock-down), could care less about the trappings. My job, such as I would care to define it for myself, is to cultivate my imperfect compassion and use it to help people avoid suffering.

The title for this post comes from the shukke tokudo (priest ordination – literally ‘leaving home, attaining the way’) ceremony. Last Sunday I rode over to Green Gulch to attend Kogen’s ordination, happy to have a reason to put on my white kimono and meet some zen friends, including some I did not expect to see there. At one point, while the ordinand’s head is being shaved, the ino, and then the assembly, chant, ‘Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting, wandering life and take the path of Nirvana. This virtue cannot be defined.’ At the beginning of the ceremony, Kogen bowed to his family and other benefactors, which traditionally would have been a way of saying goodbye to them as he entered the path of monastic training; in this case, he has a wife and daughter who are an integral part of his practice life.

All of which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying that I bow once again to my benefactors, as I try to figure out what it means to leave home, and return home; what the path of Nirvana looks like in the midst of this drifting, wandering life; and whether I have enough money to pay the rent in October and November with the amount I expect to come into my bank before then…

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Kogen, in the middle, with preceptors, the jiko and jisha.

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I have a number of pictures of Kogen and Lauren looking adorable together.

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Green Gulch was at its best on Sunday, with dahlias and monarchs in profusion.

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Dogen

Dogen drew a circle in the air with his whisk, held up the whisk, and said: If I hold this up, you call it buddhas appearing in the world. If I put it down, you call it the ancestral teacher coming from the west. If I draw a circle, you call it what is protected and cared for by the buddhas and ancestral teachers. When I do not hold it up, put it down, or draw a circle, how do you assess this? Even if you can assess it, you should laugh at both the view of the unconditioned and at the livelihood in the demon’s cave. Although it is like this, students of Eihei, there is another excellent place. Great assembly, do you want to see that excellent place?
Again Dogen held up his whisk, and after a pause said: Great assembly, do you understand? If you understand, the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature. If you do not understand, my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata. Great assembly, what is the meaning of “the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature”, and of “my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata”?
After a pause Dogen said: In the early morning eat gruel, at lunchtime rice. In the early evening do zazen, and at night sleep.’ (Extensive Record, 518)

I did not understand so well the function of the whisk and how it can manifest the teaching in the way that Dogen is talking about here, until I saw Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi offering lessons in how to use the whisk ahead of the Mountain Seat Ceremony at Zen Center in 2012. When I went looking for the pictures, I also found photos of him with ceremonial cymbals, inkins, a piece of paper, and a statue of Bodhidharma, all held and met with the same sense of complete presence and concentration. I think this is what Dogen was also doing.

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Sekkei Harada

‘When you think, your whole body from your head to your toes is thinking, and that is all. But we have the idea that there is some “mind” inside of us that is operating and creating thought. For that reason, we believe that “I” and the thoughts that arise in “me” are something separate. But it is not like that.’ (Unfathomable Depths)

Silvia Boorstein

‘To perfect my truthfulness I need to be able to tolerate seeing clearly all of who I am and all of what is happening. I need to not feel ashamed or afraid. If I pay attention calmly and steadily, my mind will be unbiased and its secrets will reveal themselves to me in an honest, gentle way. I will not be distressed. The pleasure I’ll experience by not hiding from myself will inspire me to create the intimacy of non-judgmental gentle honesty with everyone.’ (Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake)

Michael Stone

‘When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world.’ (Awake in the World)

I always get a lot of reading done at Wilbur, and when I was packing for my recent trip, I chose to take the one book of Michael’s that I possess. Opening it at the bookmark where I had presumably stopped reading the last time I picked it up, perhaps six months ago, it was deeply poignant to find myself in the midst of his deep exploration of suicide.

Sharon Salzberg

‘Fear is the primary mechanism sustaining the concept of the “other”, and reinforcing the subsequent loneliness and distance in our lives. Ranging from numbness to terror, fear constricts our hearts and binds us to false and misleading ways of viewing life. The fallacy of separate existence cloaks itself in the beguiling forms of our identifications: “This is who I am,” or “This is all I can ever be.” We identify with a fragment of reality rather than with the whole.’  (Lovingkindness)

I might add that often we are very choosy about the fragment we identify with, and make an effort to push away other parts of our selves that don’t fit that narrative. I have many parts of my self that aren’t especially flattering, but I try to keep them with me rather than push them ‘out’ through shame. I also try to keep with me kind things that wise people have said about me, rather than choosing not to believe them because that would not fit my self-story. And also trying to stay with the slippery realisation that all of these are just fragments of an unknowable and ever-changing whole.

Joshu

With an empty stomach I look at smoke rising from nearby kitchens.
Having bidden farewell to dumplings and steamed bread last year, my mouth still waters thinking of them.
There is little room for mindfulness but much for despair.
From a hundred neighboring houses, no one gives to the monastery.
Visitors come for tea, but not finding a treat, they leave unhappy.