The Energy of the Repeated Gesture

Back in the days of the first blog I wrote, whenever I was going to be away for a while, I would preload posts, either linking back to previous posts, or sharing various themed photographs – mostly of Tassajara. As I prepared to go to England for a month, I was wondering what to plan. I have written a few things for my Patreon page, seen by my handful of benefactors, which feel a little more informally anecdotal than much of what is on this blog, and I will share a few here over the next couple of weeks. This is a post I put up on that site, but is actually from the Ino’s Blog a few years ago. Its seasonality is appropriate – today is the day that people leave for Tassajara for the Fall Practice Period, the 100th at the monastery:

This was a phrase that came to me one morning at Tassajara, when I was wrapping up my bowls at the end of breakfast. There is a particular way to flip and fold the lap cloth that I enjoy, and it occurred to me that even though it was something I did three times a day almost every day, rather than being dulled by familiarity, I still paid attention to it, and that the energy of this repeated gesture helped me to be present in a sustained way.

I always seem to find September a more meaningful time of year than January; the new year itself is something I don’t get especially excited about, but in September I still feel the pull of transition – for many years, going back to school or college, recently the end of the Tassajara guest season and the beginning of the practice periods. Even when I am not there, there is always a part of me that wants to go, and having people coming from and going to Tassajara this week exacerbates that feeling. The weather right now is contributing as well; after the tiniest glimpses of a possible Indian summer, we are having autumnal temperatures, chilly winds and fog, which lend themselves to a closing down feeling; the leaves on the maple tree in the courtyard are starting to turn red. Next week we will have our equinox ceremony, to mark with a ritual the change of season; the moon is filling, bringing us round to our next full moon ceremony next Thursday.

This practice encourages us to pay attention to the cycles of life, from the smallest – a gesture repeated three times a day – to the largest – the phases of the moon, the advent of the seasons – with any number in between  – it’s time to shave my head again. I remember during one Genzo-e, Shohaku was discussing the kanji for ‘the Way’, saying that while we think of a path as something that extends in front of us, in fact it was possible to interpret the kanji as having a circular element to it, so that the path brought you right back to where you were (of course he explained it much more eloquently and convincingly). So while we are always moving in space and time, really we are always coming back to ourselves, and while there are moments where we mark a particular transition – coming of age, a wedding, and ordination, there are also the moments where we are just doing the same old thing over and over again, getting up, eating,  going to work, bathing, going to bed. If we can be present in the same way for all of these activities, we can be carried along with the joyful energy of living.

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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.

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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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.

Kobun Chino

‘Remembering the advice of Dogen Zenji, it is said that in order to admit and observe exactly how you are, sitting in zazen is the best way. Nobody can tell you what you have been; you have to see it yourself, what you have gotten and how things are going. You naturally see. That is the beginning. But a lot of problems continue to go along with our life. It is truly strange to be born as a human being. Maybe to be something else, like a rock or dewdrop or something, would be a little easier. Every day, somewhere hurts. There is something wrong every day. But the wonderful thing is, certainly something is new every day, although we cannot say quite what it is. But something is new. That new thing must be something we already knew, but had always forgotten. It’s essential characteristic is to allow us to live another day.’ (Embracing Mind)

When I go to England at the end of the month, I will be teaching on zazen, and it is helpful to have contemporary descriptions to set alongside Dogen’s Fukanzazengi. Kobun Chino is quite allusive – do you feel what he is getting at here?

Shodo Harada

‘When one sees clearly into one’s own mind, one sees that the worlds of the hell beings, the hungry ghosts, the angry gods, the animals, humans and heavenly beings are all based within oneself – that we are the vehicle. But the self-conscious ego is very heavy and is always pushing us to the right and to the left. It is easy to believe that when this small ego dies, this self-conscious self, then there will be nothing more, that life will end. But such a way of seeing things is just not accurate.
Nothing will truly disappear; nothing real will die. The flow of the universe just as it is, vast and infinite – this continuity is the substance of our true body. From our own experience of clarity and serenity we can recognize this as ourselves. Of course the self-conscious ego manifests in many different forms, one after the other. These, however, are all contained in and moving within the great womb of the universe. In reality there is not even an actual ego to be reborn. It is because people think there is a separate self that they believe in reincarnation. They think they are moving through these different worlds of the animals, humans, heavenly beings, and so on. But the universal self is not such a tiny limited thing. It is vast spaciousness, infinite expansiveness – this is what we are!’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

I don’t know about clarity or serenity, but when I read a passage like this, there is a space in me that opens up and relaxes. I trust that this is how things really are, even though I am unable to grasp them in a way that I can recognize. This is what keeps me on this path.

Making The Unwanted Wanted

Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water –
Not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
choosing
to make the unwanted wanted.
(A Cedary Fragrance, by Jane Hirshfield)

I thought of this poem at Wilbur. I have always loved it, with its evocation of Tassajara, where there is only cold water in the cabins. I too practised with washing my face with cold water every morning, even on the coldest winter days – and I still do, mainly for the awakening nature of it.
On the Saturday morning, with the temperatures already reaching the nineties, I went to sit on the yoga deck with a few other people who all came very early. As we settled, I was looking at the picture of the serene Buddha, with his hands in a particular mudra. In meditation instruction I often talk about the particular energetic significance of each hand position within the tradition that yoga and meditation arose from. And also how our physical posture as we sit is also of energetic significance; I usually spend a fair amount of time on details in the body which I have found it helpful to pay attention to as we settle into sitting (if you want to hear me actually talking about it, you can find a recording here.)
There were a fair number of flies that morning, as well as the sound of water, of people passing, birds, and the occasional vehicle. I spoke about practising equanimity, of sitting upright as a way of meeting each moment, without leaning forwards or backwards, or to the left or to the right, regardless of what comes up. Acknowledging that what is arising now IS what is arising now, whether we want it or not. And trusting that it will not always be like this, that this present moment is in flux. I was thinking of the wonderful quote by Katagiri Roshi, which I appear not to have posted on here yet: ‘The universal path is complete tranquility and at the same time constantly flowing’.
So, I went on, we can get to notice how we respond when a fly buzzes close to our ear, how our skin reacts when a fly lands on it. Do we need to wave our hands to try to get it to go away? It will head off somewhere else very soon anyway; can we stay with the irritation and discomfort for the moments that they last?
At Tassajara I discovered that my limit in this regard was having an ant crawl into my ear – that was something I felt I had to try to shake off, but otherwise, I did my best not to be disturbed by the flies. When we can practise with these little things, then we have a chance to build up our equanimity muscles so as to be able to meet more challenging moments in our lives. We may even discover that we have a far greater capacity for meeting these challenges – and I invoked the residents of Houston dealing with the catastrophic flooding that is their lives at the moment – than we might imagine in our thoughts and fears. And so on, all the way to the end, as tomorrow’s poem will illuminate.

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The sunrise on Saturday morning at Wilbur.