Brad Warner

‘As far as I’m concerned if someone wants to call themselves a “Zen Buddhist” I will accept that, the same way I accept other people’s various chosen identities. I would expect a person who calls themselves a “Zen Buddhist” to regularly practice zazen and to be trying their best to follow the precepts. I’d expect them to know at least the basics of the philosophy & history of Zen Buddhism. On the other hand, I know people who call themselves “Zen Buddhists” and don’t do any of those things. I don’t bother arguing against them.

As far as beliefs, it really doesn’t matter. Buddhism is not a belief system. Having said that, I should add the caveat that there are forms of Buddhism in which they care very much what you believe. But in the Zen form of Buddhism beliefs are not considered to be very important. My teacher used to say, “I believe in the universe.”’(from Hardcore Zen)

I have a basic hesitation before calling anything ‘zen.’ I think that was one of the things I absorbed while training at Zen Center; while some people were very keen to attach labels and name things, those teaching there rarely, if ever, seemed to. That works for me (and I appreciate that it was called the Zen Center, and that I have tagged this post ‘zen’; the point stands).

Thankful

Even after twenty years, I still don’t do Thanksgiving like those who were born here (it took me a few years to warm up to gratitude in the first place).

This year, though, I do have something to be particularly thankful for: a first Thanksgiving with my partner Caitlin and her dog Collin, who braved a flight over from Kansas a couple of weeks ago. As the two of us settle in together, I am happy that the apartment looks more like a home. We are buying a few new things and moving on a few old things; now there is a cosy fullness about the place. It has also been comforting to fill the fridge, with things for Thanksgiving dishes and other staples – even as we live in a neighbourhood where there are long lines for different food banks almost every day.

I wonder how it must have seemed for Collin, who has spent all his life in the midwest: one day he gets into a noisy, bumpy container, and later that day he ends up in a new space. His first act on coming in the door was to leap on the bed, where he felt safe. It took him a few hours to trust the long hallway, and he still has a tendency to want to go up a different staircase and stop at a different floor to the one we live on. He doesn’t know he is in a different state; while he had never seen the ocean before, he lived close to a large lake, and perhaps experienced Ocean Beach in the same way as he did that – though I suspect the smells were different at the ocean. Perhaps everything else in California smells relatively familiar. He is mapping out his territory around the apartment, and has his own bed, our bed, and the couch to spend his days and nights on, sufficient food and abundant love. I think he likes it.

I know it has been a huge transition for Caitlin, leaving behind much that was dear to her in the midwest, and I am deeply grateful that she felt able to make that leap, and that we have an opportunity to create a new life together, with hopefully many adventures in many different places.  

Collin encounters the ocean for the first time.

Dogen

‘An old buddha [Hongzhi] said, “Reach over to grasp what’s there, and bring its workings right here.”

When you take on sustaining this, all things, bodies, actions, and buddhas become intimate with you. These actions, things, bodies, and buddhas are simply covered [immersed] in acceptance. Because they are simply covered in acceptance, they are just dropped off.

The covered eye is the radiance of one hundred grass tips; do not be swayed [into thinking] that it does not see one thing, does not see a single matter. The covered eye reaches this thing and that thing. Throughout journeys, while taking on coming and going, or while leaving and entering by the same gate, nothing is hidden in the entire world, and so the World-Honored One’s intimate language, intimate realization, intimate practice, and intimate entrustment are present.’ (Shobogenzo Gyobutsu Iigi)

As I typed out the last word of the passage, my keyboard suggested the emoji 🎁 . And why not, after all? When we see things intimately, and immerse them in acceptance of what they are, they do not just become one, but they become the complete gift of themselves.

Soko Morinaga

‘In the Japanese language, determination is composed of two ideographs that carry the respective meanings “to be angry” and “aspiration.” Your anger is not directed toward someone else. Indignant with yourself over your own weakness and immaturity, you employ the strong whip of aspiration; this is determination.’ (From Novice to Master)

As with other quotes from this book, it is helpful to remember that the author is reminiscing about the rigours of traditional Japanese monastic practice. In the right container, what might seem like the complete absence of self-compassion is perhaps the necessary tool to break through old patterns.

The Dhammapada

‘O let us live in joy, in love amongst those who hate! Among those who hate, let us live in love’

I have often packed my Dhammapada when I have been traveling, as it is one of the smallest Buddhist books I own, and it is comforting to pull out and read at an airport, or a train station. I pulled it down the other day ahead of doing a meditation on Chalk, as I was wanting to to find some words about what we create with our minds (the opening lines in fact), and leafed through the rest of it. These seemed like good and challenging words from millennia past. Human behaviour has not really changed in the meantime, even if the way it manifests takes a different form.

Lama Rod Owens

‘One thing that I have discerned from my practice is that all our different bodies are interconnected. The physical body is the central experience body for us, as it is the body that seems to be in the same time and place with us. Every other body links into our physical body, and we can work through our physical body to connect to and learn to embody our other bodies. The bodies that I identify and work with in my practice are the physical body, emotional body, subtle energy body, sexual body, spiritual body, collective body, social media body, and ego body.’ (Love and Rage)

I was reading this passage with my student group this week, and my first thought was that if we take a moment to look at all these different bodies, they have all suffered from the isolating circumstances of this year. I asked my students, and I ask you, what will you be able to do to nourish these important aspects of your being?

Dogen

‘When you see a speck of dust, it is not that you don’t see the world of phenomena. When you realize the world of phenomena, it is not that you do not realize a speck of dust. When buddhas realize the world of phenomena, they do not keep you from realization. Wholesomeness is manifest in the beginning, middle, and end.

Thus, realization is reality right now. Even shocks, doubts, fears, and frights are none other than reality right now. However, with buddha knowledge it is different; seeing a speck of dust is different from sitting within a speck of dust. Even when you sit in the world of phenomena, it is not broad. Even when you sit in a speck of dust, it is not narrow. If you are not fully present, you do not fully sit. If you are fully present, you are free of how large or narrow it is where you are. Thus you have thoroughly experienced the essential unfolding of dharma blossoms.

Is it that the manifestation and essence of your practice now originates in the world of phenomena or in a speck of dust? Have no shocks and doubts, no fears or frights. Just this turning of dharma blossoms is the original practice, deep and wide. In seeing the speck of dust and seeing the world of phenomena, there is no attempt to create or measure.’ (Shobogenzo Hokke Ten Hokke)

Before turning to this passage, I was looking at the fascicle on the kashaya, and the same propositions were at work. Don’t get caught on whether silk or other cloth is right, or what constitutes the discarded cloths traditionally used for Buddha’s robe. Here, don’t get caught in measuring. Though, being Dogen, he goes on to say that even attempting to measure is ‘in accordance with dharma blossoms.’ Realization is reality right now, as long as we don’t stop and think about it.

Kosho Uchiyama

‘I tell my disciples that should sit silently for ten years. There are several people here who have already been sitting for ten years, so I must say, “Sit silently for ten more years.” When they have sat for twenty years, I will say, “Sit another ten years.” If they sit for thirty years, people in their twenties will be in their fifties. If they sit immovably, without any bait, until they are fifty years old, I’m pretty sure that they will be very capable people who will be able to carry out great work.’ (The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo)

By this standard, I am a bit of a failure. I have sat for twenty years, but I was not able to stay still for all that time. And I started older, so perhaps had more karma to work through than someone who starts in their twenties.

Often I wonder whether we are capable of change as humans; I feel that I have, and am still painfully aware of the ways I have not. At Zen Center there were many wonderful, kind people who most likely refined these qualities through their years and decades of sitting; and there were others who had been in residence just as long who seemed quite stuck in karmic patterns. Perhaps the place to rest with that is with faith in Buddha’s proposal that each of us has the capacity for awakening within us. I still believe that zazen is a sure route towards that.

The Health Of The People Is The Highest Law

On Tuesday night, what with the clock change and everything, I went to bed after Florida had been called for Trump. I woke up early on Wednesday morning, and even before checking the news, my body remembered the sinking feeling I woke with in 2016 – not once but twice, with the Brexit vote and then the US election.

Since it was a sunny day in San Francisco, and I had time in my schedule, I went out on my bike to gather my thoughts. I made it up to Sweeney Ridge, more settled, and glad that I had worked my legs hard to get there. As the day wore on, it did at least seem likely that Biden would be assuming the presidency – unless there are court interventions.

What caused the sinking feeling, for me and I am sure for many others, was the fact that this was not a blow-out victory – that the senate is still up for grabs (as I write). I had a notion, a wish, that there would be a massive repudiation of the shocking norm-shattering behaviour seen from the current president and the Republican party in power these past few years. It shocked me that fully half the people in the country I live in do not care for others to feel safe, healthy or supported, that they choose to continue to be represented by venal, self-serving liars. San Francisco may seem like a bastion of sanity in this country – and I would love the notion of secession to be explored if the culture war that are evident in almost every answer given in the exit polls truly represent the state of the nation – but I fear for the many people who don’t have the privilege of the safety we might feel here.

Of course, our practice asks us to keep going, to start from where we are and keep heading in the direction that reduces suffering and promotes well-being. Maybe, one day, there will be a government that cleaves to the phrase in the title, which I have written about before, and which stays clear in my mind.

On the ridge, the moon was waning, and sinking towards the fog that lay over the ocean. We trust it will rise again, and wax again.

From the top of Sweeney Ridge, a view across to San Bruno Mountain and the city.

Doshin Mako Voelkel

‘There’s an image in Zen of the “board-carrying fellow.” You can imagine the visual. It’s like a cartoon: the person carrying the board looks to one side, and as they do, they swing the board, and then they look the other way and swing the board, and they just can’t see anything on the other side of the board.

Suzuki Roshi said that almost everyone is carrying a big board and cannot see the other side. That goes for me, that goes for you. How do we acknowledge that? There’s a big board that we’re carrying—you can call it privilege, you can call it partial understanding, you can call it not knowing, maybe even not wanting to know because sometimes knowing is frightening. So how, when we feel the fear, feel the outrage in response to the suffering of the world, how do we make space for that part of us that is shouting, No, this is not all right—this has to stop? How do we not smooth over that and say, Oh, no—as a good Buddhist, I should be at peace? That’s bullshit. I think every one of us knows it.

When we talk about discovering ease, it’s not that we’re whitewashing away the blemishes, the fears, the so-called “afflictive emotions.” We study the self because we’re studying the seed of ease that can be nurtured within dis-ease. We learn through practice how to trust that we can develop our capacity to be with suffering. That is our number one goal as bodhisattvas—to be able to hear the cries of the world, like Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms and hands and implements to help suffering beings. It starts by acknowledging suffering.

It’s easy to lose ourselves in dukkha if we’re not able, in our practice, to allow for the full range of our experience. If we’re not able to develop the capacity of this heart to expand, to include everything, we can feel that. We can feel when our heart is constricted. When our stomach is constricted, when our throat feels constricted, we can feel it. We can pay attention to it. Our vow is to stay upright, amidst it, and not turn away.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

It’s always nice to see my dharma friends and peers appearing in the the Buddhist magazines, though it comes with a tinge of self-reproach that I am being lazy and not doing enough to put myself in the same position… Mako’s piece is, as I would expect, well argued and to the point.