Pre-pandemic, it was easy to see what our Sangha was. It was the community of dharma friends who supported each other in our Zen practice. It was all of us coming together, physically. We would meet at our Zen center for practice sessions, retreats, and workshops. We would have social gatherings as well.
For the past year, we have been meeting “virtually.” We “see” each other on our two-dimensional screens. So, are we still a Sangha? For me, the same could be asked of my family. I’ve been unable to see my kids and granddaughter for well over a year, other than virtually. The same is true with my ninety-five-year-old Mom. Are we still a family? The answer for me is, yes, we still are a family. So too, we are still a Sangha. It takes some work to keep in touch, but this has always been the case.
The dynamics of how we function have changed drastically, but the job we had as dharma friends has remained the same – to help one another in our practice. While I greatly look forward to seeing you all in person again, meeting virtually has provided some opportunities for practice that didn’t exist when we met only in person. Remote Sangha members have been able to participate in practice sessions and retreats. Also, it has been easier for people to attend sessions and events. We have had participation from people in other states and countries. Some of our members have taken advantage of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s online Sangha to participate in retreats, study groups, and practice sessions as a part of the larger Sangha.
As I mentioned, I am really looking forward to seeing most of you in person sometime this year! That said, I want to continue to “see” those of you who are unable to be present in person!
Photo courtesy of Susi Childress
My Sangha is Small
My sangha is small. It is a tiny planet around a middling sun in one of a gazillion galaxies light years apart in time and space.
My sangha is small. It is a country wounded by disillusion and illusion where thousands of pandemic deaths are counted one by one by one.
My sangha is small. It is a city on a lake where the sun rises gold each morning to paint every single street, building, and person the color of a new day.
My sangha is small. It is a video collage of faces greeting each other on a zoom screen chanting together apart.
My sangha is small. It is the little green worm hanging by a thread of silk from a branch where I watch him for twenty minutes twisting and curling down to the earth.
My sangha is small. It is this pen and paper where I write these words to you.
Photo courtesy of Susi Childress
It Would Have Made a Great Zen Hall!
Last weekend I assisted on a photoshoot, the purpose of which was memorialize an architectural gem slated to be torn down to make way for a new medical clinic. The location is approximately where Mitchell Street meets Forest Home Avenue. The name of the building pronounces the location, more or less: Forest Home Library. Various attempts were made to save it from being razed; however, efforts lacked resources and time and power (all the usual suspects) – the developer won.
Andi, the photographer I assisted, was hired to make large format image negatives of the interior and exterior. Think Ansel Adams and his 4×5 view camera and you’ll get an idea that this was not a simple point-and-shoot job. Each setup took 2-3 hours to frame, focus, measure, calculate, meter, and wait for best light. The process is very much like watching grass grow, and few photographers raised on the instant feedback of digital photography have the patience for it.
The day before the job, I found myself anxious with the prospect of having to wake up at 4 am so that I could be on site by 7. The first day was likely to be a 10-12 hour day, the second at least 10 hours, and the final maybe a half day (it turned out to be 8 hours). In other words, a weekend retreat without the 3 meal breaks. I was seriously asking myself why I accepted!
When I arrived and we were let in by the developer who now owned the property, the reality of what I signed onto sunk in: we were witness to the final days of what was once a thriving community library. This was not just any library; it was an expansive space where natural light entered through every window and transom, from every direction: north, south, east, and west. It was a place where a patron could come close to being inside and outside at the same time. Even in its compromised state with garbage strewn into heaps in corners as it was in the process of being gutted, and with its dirty, grimy windows from years of neglect, the light pressed through with warmth and brilliance.
During the course of the weekend, I learned through back and forth banter with the architect who was part of the historical preservation organization charged with documenting the site that he was a member of the Milwaukee Zen Center when he made the random comment that it would have made a great Zen hall. I agreed, adding that I practiced with the Great Lake Zen Center and was thinking the same thing. Then we both acknowledged how odd and unlikely it was that we crossed paths, given that the Zen Buddhism community is relatively small in Milwaukee. Yet, it was at that moment that I felt a strong connection to something bigger than I – I felt part of a community – a sangha – in support of the bigger community to which I belong.
I’m still processing the entire experience: my attachment to a pandemic routine that has shrunk my world and mind to the inside of my ranch home; my observations of Andi’s painstaking deliberations for each setup and how I might apply myself with the same measured diligence when photographing birds, landscapes, and flowers; the neighborhood rhythms – a parking lot bullhorn church sermon in Spanish blasting to the far reaches of the neighborhood punctuated with many well-placed “Alleluias,” domestic back porch disputes, crying children, drag-racing on less-than-street-legal bikes and cars, and the occasional pedestrians stopping to ask what we were up to. I wanted to say we were there to document the imminent death of your family member, but deferred to answering an honest question with as straightforward an answer as I could muster. As I now reflect, I’m mostly trying to understand how I became so attached to a building in the space of three days that up until up then I had never realized existed. I am mourning what cannot be saved and repurposed for the community it once served. (There must be some reciprocity between attachment and mourning. Actually, they may well be the same thing.) Before leaving, I dug up some crocuses, daffodils, and tulips lest they end up in a dump truck to be used for fill for some other new development, and relocated them near a hummingbird feeder in my backyard.
Photo courtesy of Susi Childress
Sangria, one of the most popular drinks in Iberian cuisine, is a beverage that traditionally consists of wine and chopped fruit and is often fortified with other sweeteners and spirits. There is no one recipe for Sangria. Any kind of wine, spirits, tea, soft drinks and just about any variety of fruit can be used. The wine (or other liquid) and fruit sit and muddle together for many hours. I love it because it is delicious, versatile and just about impossible to mess it up. All the disparate ingredients come together to make one fantastic, sustaining concoction. Isn’t this a nice metaphor for sangha?
Here is a Sangria that I like that uses Hibiscus tea and replaces the wine with fruit juice:
Hibiscus Sangha-ria 2 cups Hibiscus tea, brewed and chilled 1 cup orange juice 1 cup lime juice Orange slices Lemon slices Lime slices Mango slices Black berries Lemon Raspberry or other sparkling water for topping
Mix together the brewed tea and juices. Add the sliced fruit and chill in the refrigerated for 4-6 hours. To serve pour liquid into wine glasses and top off with sparkling water or club soda. For more sweetness, try topping with a lemon/ lime soft drink. Garnish with sliced orange and lime slices.
I omitted any alcohol to keep the recipe more precept-friendly, but red or white wine can be used instead of the fruit juices and any variety of spirits can be added. A robust red wine like Roja is often used. Other herbal teas, like green tea or Red Zinger can be substituted. Literally any variety and amount of fruit works. Have fun experimenting and creating your own brew!
Here’s to the wonderful inclusiveness and diversity of both Sangria and sangha!
Photo by Pete Neuwald
Come as you are
come as you are just as you are happy, sullen calm, agitated curious, bored mended, broken
all you are is expected is accepted is welcome is needed
come to sit with to be with to become friends with just as you are just as we are
then use this just as you are just as we are to help oneself to help each other to help this world
A couple of years ago I became interested in Albert Camus and after reading a short biography he became one of my heroes – mainly for his resistance work in Nazi occupied France, his advocacy of justice in general, especially in Algeria where he was born, and, although having been a communist at one point, his rejection of Stalinism. I read a little of his philosophy with limited success.
Then the pandemic hit and I took up Camus’ novel The Plague to see if it could inform my life under COVID-19. The plague is described in the novel as a bubonic plague and is set in the mid-1940s, but is based on a typhus epidemic in Oran, Algeria in the mid-1800s. While many of the scenes are playing out in our midst today, the novel was really a means for Camus to explicate his philosophy of Absurdism.
While my acquaintance of both Buddhism and Absurdism is so minor as to be considered trivial, I noticed some correlations between the Four Noble Truths and Absurdism.
First Noble Truth
Buddhism: suffering is an innate characteristic of existence.
Absurdism: suffering is universal, life/the universe is without meaning.
Second Noble Truth
Buddhism: suffering comes from attachment (to the idea of a separate self?)
Absurdism: suffering comes from the attachment to the idea that life can and should have meaning.
Third Noble Truth
Buddhism: the cessation of suffering is possible
Absurdism: the cessation of suffering is possible
Fourth Noble Truth
Buddhism: the Noble Eightfold Path
Absurdism: full acknowledgement that my life is meaningless and then I will die. However, by perceiving and then just doing my job my suffering will be relieved.
The last point in Absurdism is (to my limited understanding) obscure. In another book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains this philosophy in a series of essays. What I think he is saying is that most other philosophies based on the assumption that there is inherent meaning to life are unsatisfactory in that life has no meaning. Even Existentialism, which postulates that while life has no inherent meaning, it is possible to achieve meaning by how you live your life. This, Camus says, is false. He says that it is not possible to achieve meaning, but it is possible to achieve a satisfactory life by “doing your job.” His image in this is that of Sisyphus, bound by the gods to struggle each day to push a giant boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back at night and have to start again the next day through all eternity. Camus’ famous quote here is “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. While I don’t pretend to understand the Noble Eightfold Path or Absurdism, it seems to accomplish Sisyphus’ task and be happy, he would have to achieve all the elements set down.
Whenever I start considering the shut-down I always think of the zen phrase: no one guarantees your life. The virus doesn’t care what you think; it just does its job. That’s just cause and effect. Old age, sickness and death were the Buddha’s teachers. As the sutra says, “Everything is always eating everything else.” So, sometimes we eat food at the Hollander and some times we are food. This situation brings up the great question, what are you really? 🙏
Photo by John Brander
This is my block. I am asleep in my house. On this cold Covid tinged night, a sleepless neighbor takes a walk in the early, pre-dawn hour, his porch light left on. There is great peace and silence in the night, which he found and shared with me. Here is a poem that wanted to be a Pantoum, but didn’t quite work out that way. A pantoum is a poem with specific rules for repetition and rhyming. I am probably just too lazy to keep at it to fit the pattern. This is about when I had my son shave my head early last summer as the pandemic looked like it was going to require a long time retreat from social life.
I cut off all my hair. The Buddhists call it Cutting Grass. I cannot miss what isn’t there. A Crowning Glory doesn’t last.
Without a frame, the face is bare, the naked head’s protection thin. Eyes hold a larger darker stare. A bitter wind will chill the skin.
I now abandon lingering hope that comb or brush or new shampoo could change a bad hair day to good. The message of the mirror is true.
I cut off all my hair. I will not dwell on what’s not there. The Buddhists call it Cutting Grass to clearly see what always lasts.
Weathering the Storm
As the lock down started, with miles of trails out my back door I was able to do daily “forest bathing” for my soul from the very start.
As a physician, my work was not shut down, so I had lots of daily human interaction. And although our numbers of cases and deaths are consistent with much of the country, the pandemic rolled into the Western UP slowly without a sudden peak so we generally have had enough staff and supplies to meet our needs. My personal experience primarily is that of having to have trimmed my beard to accommodate a seal for the N95 masks, being trussed up like a mummy in plastic and latex, and having nearly worn the skin off my hands from washing. Although, as a Geriatrician, I care for the most vulnerable group of patients, thus far only one has died – though there have been several near misses.
So, at the outset, I didn’t experience the stresses that many were feeling: I had my daily time in the woods and, although intense, I was able to continue work that was engaging, both socially and intellectually. But after several months I realized that I really missed my friends. A feeling that continues to grow.
Although a confirmed Luddite, Zoom has been a rope tossed to a drowning man. But still, I need to give and receive a hug.
The pandemic became a reality for our family in December of 2020. The Covid virus ripped through our house like a tornado. Of the five people currently living in our house, four of them spent time in the hospital because of Covid. Last month was full of uncertainty. It was scary at times. It was thirty-one consecutive days of “don’t know”.
Our practice, it seems to me, is often preparation for action in the world beyond the cushion. The sitting and the chanting help us to deal with each moment, as it comes and smacks us upside the head. I spent most of December doing. There wasn’t much thought involved, because there often wasn’t much time for thought. When Karin needed to go to the ER because she couldn’t get enough air, we went. When Hannah’s water broke seven weeks too soon, I took her to the hospital so she could give birth to Asher. Later, I took Hannah to the NICU at St. Joseph’s Hospital whenever she needed to be with her tiny son. I washed, cooked, and cleaned when other people couldn’t. I didn’t do any of these things because I am particularly virtuous. I did them because my fifteen years of practice with the sangha told me that these things needed to be done right now, and they needed to be done by me.
Speaking of the sangha, whatever I did was only possible because of the support and love my family received from the people at GLZC. I never did anything by myself. I was never alone.
Photo by Suzanne Stone
This moment, and by moment I’m referring to the past year of living life cautiously, has clarified two realities for me: #1) We’re all stuck, and #2) Everything is perfect in this moment if we just wake up and embrace it. (And by “we”, I’m really referring to myself.) This is all easy enough to put into words and/or documents through photography, video, or other means…. More difficult to resign to the reality and be with it. I have moments where I want to get in the car and just drive until I relocate myself to a place never before seen or experienced, just to reassure myself that there is something other than the sameness of what seems like an exact replication of the previous day. What I’m realizing, however, is that less of my energy is spent going through the motions of running errands, commuting to work, only to then deal with the inherent anxieties they provoke. Moments of internal stillness have displaced the frantic need to get as much stuff done before the day is over, and it’s a state unlike anything I’ve ever experienced pre-pandemic. That it took a year to experience stillness….No, a lifetime is perfect.
A year deferred?
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
When can we get back to “normal?”
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
2020 was a year of cancellations, postponements, and separation. To say our lives have been disrupted would be quite the understatement. It looks like this will continue for some time as we move through 2021. Like everyone else, I am missing in-person connections with my family, friends, and communities. A year of cancelled plans. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, holiday gatherings, family visits to New York, trips, in-person Zen practice – all cancelled.
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
Throughout the past year, I have found myself coming back to asking myself, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” This “doing” encompasses thoughts, words, and actions. “Why am I thinking what I am thinking?” “Why am I saying what I am saying?” “Why am I acting what I am acting?” As difficult as it has been sometimes, asking myself this question leads me to “only help,” in whatever ways I can, cultivating kindness, compassion, and Great Love. Actually, I find this helpful no matter which year it is, and whatever the situation may be. 2020 is now done. We have only this moment – oops, that’s gone too!
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
Bad Situation, Good Situation, U.S. Covid Edition
Bad Situation: Covid-19 arrives in the United States, and we go on lockdown.
Good Situation: Families spend more time together.
Bad Situation: People are laid off work and find it difficult to make ends meet.
Good Situation: The spread of the virus is minimal due to the lockdown.
Bad Situation: Everyday life is disrupted.
Good Situation: People start finding creative ways to help out or entertain others.
Bad Situation: People are becoming worried, restless, angry, and depressed.
Good Situation: With the arrival of warm weather, people can go outdoors.
Bad Situation: Politicians, doctors, health professionals, and citizens disagree.
Good Situation: Some businesses are able to reopen with restrictions.
Bad Situation: Many people are still out of work, and businesses are closing.
Good Situation: Some businesses are booming as people adjust to the pandemic.
Bad Situation: As the seasons change again, some are reluctant to follow restrictions.
Good Situation: Progress has been made on testing, PPE, and vaccine development.
Bad Situation: Ignoring health guidelines, people travel and gather for holidays.
Good Situation: Those who find ways to gather with family are happy to connect.
Bad Situation: Cases spike and climb to their highest levels of the pandemic.
Good Situation: Vaccine approval gives us hope.
Bad Situation: Lack of supply and poor planning lead to slow vaccination rates.
Good Situation: Infection rates begin to fall.
Bad Situation: Large numbers of people are refusing the vaccine.
Good Situation: Less people wanting the vaccine makes it easier for others to obtain it.
So this is where we are at. Obviously there are some significant “bad situations” I did not mention (people dying and exhaustion of front line workers, to name two). But this was never meant to be a comprehensive list. If we keep following the situation through the lens of “good” and “bad”, we will be on quite a roller coaster ride. “Oh, this is good!” “Oh, this is bad!” “But this is good!” “But this is bad!” I catch myself doing this. It’s a habit I have developed over my lifetime. But Zen teaches us not to live in the world of opposites. This only causes suffering, as we are constantly trying to avoid what is “bad” and grasp and hold onto what is “good”. If we put it all down, only go straight, don’t know, and help when the opportunity appears, perhaps we can all get through this difficult time with our sanity intact. So how do we do this? Practice, practice, practice. Watch your mind. Ask yourself, “What is this?” “How can I help?” And only go straight, don’t know.
Photo by Pete Neuwald
Getting Lost January 6
dawn grey shroud hugs the lake Pete is asleep I slip downstairs make coffee flick on the news
4000 more Covid deaths officer not charged in Jacob Blake shooting Hong Kong arrests 53 democracy advocates Trump still says he won Ugh Warnock beat Loeffler in Georgia Yay
at the nature center we tramp through soft snow inspect the dots and dibs left behind by rabbits and deer stare up at towering oaks do you hear that? tat-tat-tat-tat woodpecker!
loud voices rise behind us hurry, lets get away from them! turn here—is this really a trail? are they still behind us? boots kicking up snow jacket sleeves swishing I think we lost them! where are we?
we follow fresh ski tracks along a snowy ridge weaving between trees we climb over fallen trunks brush against brambles releasing cascades of white powder where are we?
wait, down there, the creek we scuttle down the slope snatching at trees and rocks to slow our descent we follow the black water as it winds around each turn takes our breath away where are we?
the creek, a dark mirror ice-rimmed reflecting limbs laden with snow hooded stones when black comes, black when white comes, white
we are lost completely lost we smile at our good fortune
out in a clearing snow-shoed hikers point the way back we pass three women do you drive a Hyundai? we found car keys in the snow set them on the fence post by the waterfall
Heading back we ask those we pass have you lost your keys? in the parking lot we search for a Hyundai not there
is that your car? a young woman asks, pointing to the SUV next to ours its window smashed oh no! not ours! I called the police, she says just waiting until they come how kind, we say do you want us to wait with you? no need, they should be here soon
the drive back I’m hungry, says Pete me too, I say Kind bars in the glove compartment? no such luck I switch on NPR Following the Trump rally protestors have stormed the Capitol. The Capitol at this moment appears to be occupied
every day is January 6 only go straight when lost get completely lost find your true home help all beings
2500 years ago
baby slips out from his mother’s side
“a tidal wave without wind”
baby breathes in his first breath
mother breathes out her last
Infinite Buddha breaths
reaching backward forward
At the lakefront
green grass pokes
through decaying leaves
blue waves crash
in and out
a carp carcass bobs
up and down
in the wash
On the sidewalk
bikes zoom past
yellow police tape wraps
in the breeze
sporting face masks
chatting at arms length
approaching each other
At the stoplight
a runner catches
Up on the hill
While black men die
One breath all breath In out in out in out Is this living? Is this dying? What is this? Sea gulls shrieking eee eee eee
From the Dharma Talk, Gretchen Neuwald
The world seems turned upside down, living and dying at the same time. It’s at times like this that the world as we know it seems to be ending; the new reality uncertain.
What is this coming, this going? Is the gate swinging open or swinging shut? Isn’t this the very question that Buddha obsessed about, the question that drove him from his home and family? For seven years he sat examining life and death, breathing in, breathing out, asking “What is this?”
Then one morning, gazing up at the morning star, he attained the truth of life and death, of himself, of the universe. So he passed down this practice to us. Only breath in, breath out.
What am I? What is this?
When you attain the life and death of this moment you attain your true self which Zen Master Seung Sahn called great love, great compassion, only help this world.
It seems to be a “only help, not for me” moment right now. So much sickness, death, uncertainty, and fear, unprecedented in our lifetimes.
Yet unprecedented also is the “not for me, together action” across the globe. So many of us are staying home, social distancing, sewing face masks, and reaching out to those who are lonely and scared.
Certainly we do this to protect and help ourselves, but largely we do it to help others, those most at risk of falling ill and dying and also for all those risking their lives to care for them.
So thank you for joining us this morning. Thank you for being here for all of us.
This poem made me regard memory in a new way. I had spent months fighting the grief of loss, the end of good times, good places, good people. Memory became a relentless reminder of loss, and no end of sitting and cajoling, “Let it go” helped. And then, this, hanging framed on the wall of an art gallery:
“Remember” by Joy Harjo
Remember the sky you were born under, know each of the star’s stories. Remember the moon, know who she is. Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the strongest point of time. Remember sundown and the giving way to night. Remember your birth, how your mother struggled to give you form and breath. You are evidence of her life, and her mother’s, and her’s. Remember your father. He is your life also. Remember the earth whose skin you are: red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth brown earth, we are earth. Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems. Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the origin of this universe. Remember you are all people and all people are you. Remember you are this universe and this universe is you. Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you. Remember language comes from this. Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
It hit me then that memory was not just a scab to be picked and wept over, but a way to honor and connect with the whole world, past and present, the three worlds of the Buddha. Swallow our pain, one of our teachers said at a retreat here, swallow it so you can digest it and it becomes transformed into fuel. Then we can be open to the dance that life is and know how to live in a universe where all is in motion, the strongest point of time at dawn and then the giving way to night. I find this poem by our national Poet Laureate such a sweet reminder of what we know to be true from our practice, but sometimes discover anew in different language. I hope you are moved by it too.
“Lotuses never bloom in the lofty hills or high terrain. Instead, this flower unfurls its petals in lowly swampland.” – The Vimalakirti Sutra
I have a good work situation. I am fortunate to have a well-paying job with great benefits and wonderful co-workers. I work at a public library. I am paid to connect people with books, magazines, dvds, the internet, and all manner of wonderful resources. I help people from all walks of life find the information they need or are merely hankering for. How cool is that! For the most part, I enjoy my work. I find it stimulating, rewarding, even fun. But not always. There are those times that being at work feels less like scaling a lofty hill and more like dredging through a lowly swampland.
Many times I’m on that lofty hill. I might help someone locate a book they desperately need for a research project. Or I might recommend just the right novel to someone looking for a good read. On any given day, I might reunite a lost toddler with their parent or a cherished bookmark with its owner. Perhaps its a day when a co-worker thanks me for my advice on dealing with a disgruntled patron. Or maybe I help an elderly person find that tax form they need. Or assist someone else with uploading their resume to a website. I feel pretty good about myself and my job at these times.
Other times my job is not so much fun. I have to tell someone they owe fines or have to pay for a damaged item. Perhaps I have to explain that they can’t get a library card because they lack the proper ID or live in the wrong county. Sometimes I can’t find the item that they have on hold and expressly came in for. People often get frustrated and irritated when I can’t help them. I get irritated and frustrated, too, because I want to help and dislike saying no. And then there are those times when someone gets angry, very angry. I find it hard not to get angry back when all that negative energy is directed my way. Sometimes I know I am right and the patron is wrong and I have to be very careful that my choice of words or tone of voice doesn’t upset them. I’m not always successful with that.
Then, there are those times we are so busy that I despair at the long lines of people waiting to check out. I see carts and carts of books that need sorting and shelving and mounds of new books that need processing. At these times it feels like we will never catch up and nothing I am doing will make a dent. Much worse, though, are the times it is so dead that time just crawls by and we fight amongst ourselves over who gets to shelf books and file library cards. I dislike shelving books and filing library cards, tasks that seem so mind-numbing and menial.
The worse times by far are the times when I mess up. Sometimes I am not paying attention and an item doesn’t get checked in and eventually someone gets charged for something they have returned. Or I misread the call number on a book and shelve it where nobody can find it. Or I give someone the wrong change back when they are paying a fine or forget to credit their account. So many little details to pay attention to at a library; so many ways to screw up.
When all these low times come together, I feel like I’m drudging through a quagmire of muck.
Everybody’s job entails highs and lows, many much more rewarding and challenging than mine. If you are like me, though, its the low times that give you pause, that seem to stay with you. It’s the boredom, stress, indignities, and messes of everyday life that shake us, that have so much power over us. When we understand that at its root, all this suffering is of our own making, we awaken to our true nature. Buddhist practice helps us see that it is in the mud of every day life that true spiritual growth takes root. The lotus flower only blooms in marshland.
I try to remember this in the swamp of work. All the difficulties and setbacks I encounter at work fuel my desire to practice. The more I practice, the more I see my attachments and the suffering they bring about. Live in the swamp offers up many lessons about attachments. I see that being attached to the idea of “help” isn’t very helpful. Sometimes helping someone means telling them something they don’t want to hear and getting them to see the consequences of their actions. Likewise, I see that being attached to the idea that some work is more important than other work often leaves me bored and dissatisfied. When I see that all work is interrelated and needs to get done, its easier to just do it and not attach to the outcome. By letting go of my attachment to likes and dislikes, I can relax and pay attention to each task at hand. And by surrendering my insistence that I am right and the patron wrong I am able to see situations more clearly and respond more compassionately and hopefully not give in to anger.
So, I tell myself, don’t wish problems and complications to go away; view them as opportunities for seeing attachments and letting go. The lotus remains pure and fragrant, despite its surroundings. It thrives in the muck of life. So may we all.
We had a big crowd tonight. I went with a couple other people to the psych ward of the VA hospital to visit with the patients. As usual, we brought them snacks and drinks. The ward was full tonight. Twenty-one veterans came to hang out with us. Some of them just stopped by to grab some cookies or fruit. Some of them stayed to play cards. A few of them stayed to sit and talk.
One man stood off by himself. He was tall and gaunt. He had long, grey hair that hung down limply to his shoulders. He had a beard that matched his hair. The man wore glasses with thick lenses. The lenses made his grey eyes look abnormally large. His arms were thin and blotchy.
The man had a curious look. By that, I mean that he looked like he was curious. He seemed interested in his surroundings, but a bit befuddled.
I spoke to him. “Hi, how are you?”
He smiled and replied, “Oh, I’m okay. I just wish I knew where I was.”
“Ohhhhhh….”, I replied.
The man looked around the ward and said, “I don’t know where I am. It seems like a nice place.”
“Yeah, it is.”
The man went on, “I wonder how long I’ve been here. Maybe I got here today. I don’t know…maybe I have been here a year.” He shrugged. “It’s okay. It would just be nice to know.”
“Yeah”, I said.
I asked the man, “What branch were you in?”
He smiled, “I was in the Army.”
Then he asked me, “So what did you do?”
I told him, “I was a helicopter pilot.”
His eyes lit up, “Really? Wow. I don’t think I would have had it up here to do that”, as he pointed to his head.
“What did you do?”
The man answered, “I was a medic.” He laughed. “They pointed to three of us, and told us that we were all going to be medics. I remember some of that time, but only bits of it. I wish I could remember more.”
I told him, “I got out thirty years ago.”
He thought for a moment. “I am seventy years old, or maybe I am going to be seventy. I’m not sure. I got out, hmmmm, it must be fifty years ago. Yeah.”
“That’s a long time.”
The man looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, it is.”
Then he paused, and said, “I would like to see my brothers and sisters. I wonder if they are still alive? They were all older than me.”
“I’m glad that I talked with you.”
He smiled again, and replied, “So am I. I think I will grab some of those grapes.”
I meditate with a Zen sangha. We strive to achieve a “don’t know” mind. We try to get to a point before thinking, before judging. We work so hard to accept things just as they are. We attempt through sheer force of will to be in the moment.
I just met a guy with a “don’t know” mind. He doesn’t work at all. He just is.
I gave a talk at the Zen Center recently on the Brahmajala Sutra and the Ten Precepts. Included in the talk was another way of looking at the 10 Precepts, by the Zen Peacemakers Order, self-described as a group of “socially engaged Buddhists.” These ways of reframing the Precepts are strengths-based and take a wide view, focusing on ways we can enhance our practice and accept this moment as complete, rather than only focusing on our faults. Members of the sangha attending the talk found them useful, so here they are.
First Precept: I vow to abstain from taking life.
Reframe: Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is.
Second Precept: I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
Reframe: Being satisfied with what I have.
Third Precept: I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
Reframe: Meeting the diversity of life with respect and dignity.
Fourth Precept: I vow to abstain from lying.
Reframe: Listening and speaking from the heart, cutting off attachments
Fifth Precept: I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.
Reframe: Cultivating a mind that sees clearly.
Sixth Precept: I vow not to talk about the faults of others.
Reframe: Bearing witness to the offering of each moment; also Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer.
Seventh Precept: I vow not to praise myself and put down others.
Reframe:Speaking what I perceive to be the truth, without guilt or blame.
Eighth Precept: I vow not to be covetous and to be generous.
Reframe: Using all the ingredients of my life.
Ninth Precept: I vow not to give way to anger and to be harmonious.
Reframe: Bearing witness to emotions that arise.
Tenth Precept: I vow not to slander the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, sangha).
Reframe: Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking, and using the resources at hand.
Note: This essay was written by Jorge Arciniegas as a part of his application for Dharma Teacher training.
by Jorge Arciniegas
Motivation for practice is an interesting topic. Looking back through the lens of memory and past experience, I have come to realize that my motivation for practice has been and probably will continue to be an evolving field, a field that moves ever mysteriously like everything else in this universe and that seems to have a sense of purpose and direction. Like the needle of a compass, that sense of purpose and direction is pulled toward the essence of everything by our fours great vows:
Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.
Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.
The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.
The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.
Practice, as experienced now, has a tendency to be more and more a continuous moment-to-moment reality, as opposed to a discrete and sporadic event. The sense of practice having an evolving characteristic comes from the fact that in that discrete-to-continuous spectrum I very often find my attention caught in familiar streams of thoughts, feelings and emotions … until a spark of awareness lights up the recognition that I am not those thoughts, feelings and emotions. Perhaps that spark was always there, but during most of my life, so far, I was oblivious to it. Formal practice led me to a precious moment of Grace to experience that spark as the sudden realization that, figuratively speaking, there is a certain distance between the thoughts, feelings and emotions and I.
Through practice, the very sense of “I” itself continues to vanish. To use an analogy, this vanishing experience is like a flickering light bulb that hasn’t quite burned off. When the old “I” that thinks, feels and suffers seems to be fully in command, the light bulb is on. When the “I” vanishes, the light bulb is off and the same thoughts, feelings and emotions simply happen in the same way in which the wind blows outside. A thought appears and then it disappears. A breeze of air comes and then it leaves.
If there is a motivation for practice it’s in that space somewhere, to guide the managing, so to speak, of the flickering light bulb. Ultimately, however, the true motivation resides in the complete dropping away of the analogy altogether, in the dropping of every-thing, even this “I”, and in doing so, help this world … Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all … To humbly paraphrase the words of our school’s founder teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, to only go straight keeping don’t know mind, only don’t know, moment to moment and just do it, do it, do it.
I must say that I’ve been a seeker of something for quite some time. Not knowing what was behind the seeking other than feeling a pull toward something other than “this”, long ago and somewhat unknowingly and haphazardly I stepped on a seeking path. Back then I followed no formal practice and if there was any motivation at all it was simply to alleviate the dread of “this” … Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all …
I think that the power of intention plays a mysterious role and I have come to realize that in spite of all my plans, everything, and I mean everything, in my experience so far happened exactly so as to bring me
to this very moment, at every moment. Talk about interdependence arising! Not as a concept but as deep unexplainable moment to moment experience.
When I eventually found ways to formalize a practice, the motivation was quite self-centered as “I” wanted to attain “something”. Of course that seemed quite suitable and indeed it was what worked for me at the time.
With time and Grace, practice is now just practice and I am not sure that I can put a finger on a motivation for it. As I sit in my living room typing these words while looking out the window, there is a tree outside and my dog is resting next to me. Not just that, but there is a sense that the entire universe is right here and there couldn’t possibly be anything missing. This is practice. But “I” am not practicing. Practice just is. It just happens. This very moment is just as it is. But the moment itself is ungraspable. It can only be experienced. There is no one there to do the grasping and there is no-thing to grasp. There is no motivation behind the seeing that sees the tree or the feeling that appreciates this moment.
Practice is every day, everything practice. Keeping don’t know mind is a pointer. That pointer becomes blurred when “the practitioner” comes in the picture and wants to practice. But that’s ok too. That’s just the way it is and I can only try and try and try, in earnest and with determination.
Practice brings me back full circle to the same starting point, but oddly enough the experience of it is not the same. At the original starting point “I” would have thought that the four great vows were, at best, a nice esoteric panacea and move on in search of something better. At this new starting point, the four great vows cannot be explained or understood, yet they vibrantly point to an ever present experiential reality that simply is. “I” am not there, but I am at the same ever fresh starting point practicing to save all sentient beings, practicing to cut through all delusions, practicing to learn all teachings, and practicing to simply be just like this, moment to moment and in doing so be of help to others and to the world.