Saturday, October 31, 2009

Boy, Alone (Part 3)

"Why are you wearing that stupid rabbit suit?"

Why was I wearing that stupid man suit? Halloween, the holiday for wearing costumes and trying on other identities, is as good a time to ask that as any. What was it that I saw as I sat in mondo, unable to answer the dragon king with the sword? Certainly, my self-consciousness was making me self conscious, but that wasn't the point. The point was that I was unwilling to face the person underneath the stupid man suit.

But why? That question - what was it that I didn't want to face? - kept coming up during subsequent zazen. I couldn't avoid thinking about it, so I looked deeper into it as I sat, using the calmness and clarity of meditation to peer unflinchingly into the mirror of my self.

Now, before I can explain what it is that I saw, I probably have to state up front that the chances are pretty good that if you're reading this blog, I probably don't like you. Not that I dislike you for reading the blog, but rather because I dislike most people, so in all probability I probably don't like you. Sorry if that sounds harsh but it's nothing personal - I'm just something of a misanthrope.

There are exceptions - there are people whom I've met that I like and like a lot. In fact, it's more the general species that I dislike than individual members of the species. I like people, I just don't care that much for humanity.

What does that say about my compassion?, you probably wonder. As I sat in zazen and looked at my compassion, I could see I generally have more compassion for women than I do for men (I may be a misanthrope, but I'm certainly no misogynist), and more compassion for children than I do for adults. And I have more compassion for animals in general than I do for the human species. In fact, the more unlike me sentient beings are, the more compassion I generally feel for them and the more that I like them. Put the other way, the more like me they are, the less I like them.

So there's that. As I sat and examined myself, I realized that the reason for disliking those similar to me was because, fundamentally, I didn't like myself. It's hard for anything to be more similar to me than myself, and if I dislike that which is similar to me, my own self must be the Ground Zero of my dislike.

That was revelation number one, and not an easy one to admit. I've simply never been very satisfied with what I've come to call "me," and I've subconsciously wished that I was someone else, one somehow better. I wouldn't go so far as to say I dislike myself ("disliking" not being the opposite of "liking") and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say I hate myself. It may be best expressed passively by calling my ego-self "unloved" rather than actively by naming my feeling.

This shouldn't have come as a surprise to me. I remember being at a neighborhood party once almost 20 years ago and talking to a woman somewhat older than myself, and one whom I quickly realized was rather wise. She was talking to me about cooking, and I admitted to her that I didn't put that much effort into preparing food for myself, because it was just me eating the food, so why bother with all that effort? She cocked her head and looked at me kind of funny, and said that I must not like myself very much, because I didn't take very good care of myself. Her words resonated with me (I still remember them 20 years later) but the situation hasn't changed very much - I still don't put too much more effort into preparing food for myself now than I did then. You can even say that with the increased availability of pre-cooked, prepared food and the improved technology with which to serve it, I put in even less effort into it now than I did then.

So there's that as well. I don't know how or when I stopped liking myself or if I ever did, and I can't tell you specific reasons for my not liking myself. But the biggest revelation that came to me as I sat was how this characteristic has controlled so much of my behavior over the years, and beyond just the kitchen. Not satisfied with who I was, I've always tried to reinvent myself, moving from this city to that, from one situation to another.

As I sat and looked back at my life, I saw that the young, underemployed me of the mid-1970s thought that a college-educated me would be better, so I took advantage of an opportunity to move to Boston and go to college. One Master's Degree later, I thought that the now-well-educated but still underemployed me would be better if I was working in my chosen field (geology), so I quit my job teaching high-school science and moved to Atlanta of all places for a job with the Georgia Geological Survey. After a few years of that, I got it into my head that things would be better if I had a bigger salary and more responsibility, and so left state employment to work in the private sector for a large consulting firm.

From the outside, this might appear to be merely a manifestation of the American way of life, upward mobility from college to an entry-level job, the career advancing from one position to the next, one firm to another, with relocation from one town to another as necessary. That might have been its outward appearance, and I cloaked myself in that appearance to hide my true motivation from others as well as from myself - the first donning of the "stupid man suit" that got stripped away in mondo.

But no matter where I went, no matter what I did, I was still "me." I tried to re-invent myself by moving from Atlanta to Albany, New York and starting a new office for my company up there, but soon found that I was still the same unsatisfactory person. But one day I visited the Pittsburgh office and saw an opportunity to relocate myself there, and got it into my head that the Pittsburgh me would be better than the Albany me. I lived there for a year but Pittsburgh didn't work out for various reasons, and at that point I had gotten to thinking that even past selves were better than the current one, so I wound up moving back to Atlanta in an attempt to re-invent myself as a former me.

I had never realized this before, but as I sat in zazen I clearly saw that all of this moving up and down the East Coast was just a futile attempt to run away from myself and repeated attempts to create some different "me" in new locations. But as the saying goes, "Everywhere you go, there you are," and inevitably I found myself in the same conditions and situations as before. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same, to invoke another cliche.

So there's all of that as well. And as I looked at my romantic relationships, I saw the same pattern there as in my career. My partners came and went just like the cities in which I had lived - romantic relationships interwoven with the job changes and relocations, some unique to where I lived at the time and some that I carried with me from city to city. And just as with jobs and cities, I saw each new relationship as the chance to be someone else, someone different, as if I could absorb some new identity from my partner and emerge as someone else. I would get it into my head that myself and Betty Sue would be better than just myself, and when that didn't turn out to be true, that the "myself" in Myself-and-Mary-Jane would be better than the "myself" in Myself-and-Betty-Sue (the names have been changed for purposes of discretion; for the record, I didn't date exclusively doubly-named women). And then there was myself and Anne, and Connie, and Deborah, and Beth, and L., who even appeared in early entries in this blog, and others whom I have forgotten. For various reasons, all of these relationships failed, and while at the time I could point out the shortcomings of each partner, I had to admit that the one thing that all of these failed relationships had in common was me.

So I continued to sit in zazen and looked into this deeper. I can see now that the reason for the multiple failures laid in my trying to transform myself with each one. Just as my partner was trying to get to know and learn to trust me, I was trying to change like some sort of chameleon. I was trying to jettison that self to which she had initially been attracted and was trying to transmogrify myself into some composite of the two of us. How could that strategy fail to sustain intimacy?, I asked myself ironically.

Up to that point, I could clearly see my lack of self contentment and the effects that it had on my career, on my relocations, and on my relationships. But with additional zazen, I saw that even entering into Zen was itself just another attempt to re-invent myself. Newcomers to Zen all have these little narratives they tell themselves about why it is that they came, and when I do newcomers instruction I humor them and listen to their stories, even though I also know that lacking clear insight into themselves, their stories are just fictions and fantasies ("Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life." - Simone Weil). So it was with myself. When pressed for a reason for coming to practice, I would say that I had been experiencing some sort of general and unspecified existential crisis, and I might even point to the most recent failed relationship as an example of that crisis. But the truth was that I came to Zen merely because I had gotten it into my head that a Buddhist "me" would be somehow better - or at least different - than the current "me." And when I learned that I could get a whole new name, Shokai, to go along with this new and better me, well that did it: nirvana here I come.

Of course, after I learned more about the buddha-dharma and deepened my Zen training, I came to realize that this "self" that I never learned to like doesn't actually exist, it's just a narrative, a creation of my own device. The fact that I didn't particularly like my creation could even be seen as a benefit to my Zen training, as there's that much less attachment to deal with in letting go of an unloved ego-self than of one cherished and held dearly.

All this realization didn't come to me during one period of zazen or with the dramatic impact of the "as in dreams, so in life" incident, but instead came during many hours of sitting over a week or so. Although Zen has helped me to see this situation, it hasn't changed it. My recent attempt to move to Portland, foiled only by the nationwide collapse of the residential real-estate market, was merely the latest in the string of attempted transformations by relocation. My recent fantasies about quitting my job and selling all of my belongings is merely an indication that things have gone so far that a part of me considers a homeless "me" preferable to the current "me."

Back, then, to last August. I sat there in mondo, face to face with Zen Master Dae Gok, trying to express myself sincerely and honestly, without deception, but found myself unable to take off the stupid man suit I was wearing, which that morning was a rakusu and a few poorly understood koans. "But you already know about this deception," he noted. "You're deceiving us now." He was speaking to the me behind the rakusu, the me from whom I had been running from for at least 35 years.

So that's what I have to deal with, that's the baggage I have to carry. Such is the nature of the demon sitting on my shoulder. How's yours doing? And I do care, even though I may not like you.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Night Video

Do you like Miles Fisher? His latest EP marks a new peak of professionalism. This is his take on David Byrne's This Must Be The Place, a great, great song and a personal favorite.

(Actually, it seems appropriate what with Halloween approaching and all to mash up American Psycho with the band that performed Psycho Killer.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Tests continue. Today was a big day for The Tests, the day that I had to sit down and write a $5,100 to the City of Atlanta. Send them my money, so they could, I don't know, use it to dream up some more half-baked ideas on how to make my neighborhood less desirable, like running a concrete running path through the last remaining greenspace in our community. I have a meeting tomorrow afternoon with the City's Director of Traffic Planning to discuss a Health Impact Assessment recently written about the effects of traffic from the local hospital on our well being (it's not good), but I don't expect things to dramatically change. You can't fight City Hall, they say, but you do apparently have to pay them the prize money.

So tonight, it's get-out-your-checkbook time. In preparation, I sat in zazen for a little while to calm myself down, then opened up Quicken on my computer, got out my checkbook, and grabbed the tax bill they mailed to my house.

And realized the tax isn't due for another 30 days. Because the City couldn't manage to reconcile the Tax Digest on time (whatever that means), the bills went out late and we have an extra month to pay our taxes.

So, I'm relieved. My money can sit in my account for another month, and I'll have that much more put away by the time I need to write the check. But I wonder, where did all that tension go? What happened to all that misery, the dread, and the grief? I noticed that it says on the corner of my bill that I have until November 30 to pay my taxes, and then all these negative emotions were just lifted away by this little bit of information.

How quickly things change. Were those emotions that affected me so deeply real in any sense? If not, what was it that had bothered me? Something was worrying me. If they were real, what happened to them? Where did they go?

What happened to the little boy and his truant mother? I awoke from that dream with tears running down my face, and now can find no trace of the mother or son, even though they continue to have some sort of emotional impact on me.

And where did yesterday go? It all seemed so compelling and real to me at the time - I was totally involved, totally into it - but now it's all just memory, fading away by the hour. Now I can find no trace of anything I can call "yesterday."

Jessica Watson. Is my concept of her any more real than my memories, my dreams, or my imagined tax deadline? There might really be a brave young woman out there all alone battling big breakers on the ocean, but all I have are concepts, mental formations, and imagination.

So, too, the readers of this blog. I hate to break it to you, but you're just imagination and fantasy, at least to me, just as I am to you. I don't even keep a counter on the site any more to track the number and locations of visitors, so you're all that much more abstract to me.

All these dharmas - these ideas, memories, dreams and emotions - once did not exist, then came into being, and then faded back into non-existence. How real, then, are any of them? And what's the use in trying to hold onto them, when we can clearly see that they are impermanent and empty of any abiding existence?

Or maybe I'm just giddy from relief that The Tests have been delayed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Girl, Alone

Blah, blah, blah - enough about me (for now). Have you ever noticed how much longer my posts are when I'm talking about myself versus when I'm talking about anyone or anything else?

Here's something interesting with which to occupy our minds - Jessica Watson is a 16-year-old Australian girl who is sailing non-stop around the world, solo and unassisted. She set off from Sydney about a week ago, and has just passed Norfolk Island and left the Tasman Sea. When I was 16, I couldn't drive the family car to the supermarket and back, so I find this pretty amazing.

The best part is she's maintaining a blog of her voyage, so you can follow her daily progress. It's pretty informative and entertaining. I suggest that you keep an eye on it and support her brave journey.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Boy, Alone (Part 2)

In an evening talk some 800 years ago, Zen Master Dogen said that we should do good things secretly while people are not watching and if you make a mistake or do something bad, you should confess and repent of it publicly. On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I invited members of the Atlanta sangha to confess their bad deeds and repent publicly, and not surprisingly, not one person took me up on the invitation. But I will publicly confess to my shortcomings here, and continue the story of my recent insights into the nature of my self and my motivation to enter into Zen practice. This public confession is not a posting from which I am going to emerge looking good, or wise.

Among a great many other things, when Zen Master Dae Gok was the visiting teacher at the Atlanta Zen Center a couple months ago, he participated in a Sunday morning mondo, or "dharma combat." Mondo is not a debate and certainly not a fight - no one "wins" in dharma combat and no one loses. Instead, the participants use the encounter to deepen their understanding and practice, just as a boxer trains with sparring partners not to "win" against them but to improve his skills. In a typical mondo, at least in our tradition, a student publicly poses a question to the teacher and there usually follows some sort of exchange as the student either challenges the answer or asks for clarification. It is somewhat similar to dokusan, or private teaching, except that it is done in front of the rest of the sangha. A mondo exchange might go something like this classic example:

A monk approaches the teacher saying, "I'm going to ask you a question. Can you answer it?"

The teacher replies, "Please, ask your question."

The monk says, "I've already asked it."

The teacher replies, "I've already answered."

The monks asks, "What did you answer?"

The teacher asks, "What did you ask?"

"I asked nothing."

"I answered nothing."

In our tradition, the questions don't have to be challenges - they can be sincere inquiries into life or practice or dharma. So, on a beautiful late-summer Sunday morning, I approached Dae Gok during the mondo period and sat across from him in the middle of the zendo and in front of the sangha gathered for the event and asked, "In the Eihei Koroku (or, Master Dogen's Extensive Record, the book that Dae Gok had open in front of him from his earlier sermon) there's a famous passage wherein Dogen says 'I was not deceived by my teacher, but my teacher was deceived by this mountain monk' (meaning Dogen). You've talked to us about acceptance and trust, but Dogen talks about deception between teacher and student. What is this deception?"

Not a bad question, I thought - I kept it relevant by referring to the book which he had in front of him and had wove the theme of the weekend's teachings into my question. However, it's not the first time I've asked that question - I've asked it of our teacher, Elliston Roshi, once before during a mondo, and not satisfied with the answer I had received, asked it of him again during another mondo (only to receive the same answer). But Dae Gok could not have known that it was a recycled question, and besides, I still wasn't satisfied with the answers I had received from my teacher and was curious to see if I'd get the same answer again. I didn't.

"But you already know about this deception," Dae Gok replied. "You're deceiving us now."

A shock of recognition shot through me because I immediately knew exactly what he meant. My clever question, or at least my attempt at a clever question, was not a sincere inquiry but an act, a disguise. Deception. It was not sincere in that it was not a question to which I felt a great need to have answered, but instead one to which I thought I already knew the answer, or at least knew what the answer wasn't. If I'm to be completely honest here, I was vainly trying to prove to myself that my teacher was wrong and that by implication I was right.

"You're deceiving us now." To some degree, since no one had gone up voluntarily with a question before me, I was showing off in front of the sangha by arrogantly approaching the Master and demonstrating my self-assurance and insight by asking my recycled question. But the insight and the assurance were just an act to make others think I was something that I was not. I was hiding my true self behind the mask of my actions and my so-called clever question.

He, on the other hand, was being completely sincere as he looked directly into me. You can tell by the eyes whether or not you've got a person's full attention or if the person is just waiting for you to finish talking so they can speak. I could see in his piercing blue eyes that I had his full and complete attention, as he was staring at me with a laser-like concentration as if we were the only two persons in the world. He was fully present and there was no place to hide, and that was making me uncomfortable. I felt like he was seeing me for who I really was, including all my faults and all my many flaws, and like Adam in that garden, I wanted to hide to cover my nakedness.

"You're deceiving us now." Most of all, I didn't want to admit to my deception in front of the rest of the sangha. Pride and ego-attachment, those twin barriers to enlightenment, were manifesting themselves within me. It was bad enough that he could see that I was a phony, but I didn't want tout le monde to know as well. I sat there and tried to buy myself some time to figure out what to do next by asking him, "Please explain."

Kindly, he began a Socratic explanation of deception, asking me questions such as "What if I said the sky was green? Or the sun was dark? Would that be deception?" But I wasn't listening - my ego was too busy worrying that he was going to reveal me as a phony in front of my peers, and my mind was spinning trying to think of a way to escape this fix into which I had gotten myself. His smile was friendly but I was thinking "Please don't make me look bad" as his eyes were boring into me. He was not hiding anything, not covering anything - no deception. I, on the other hand, wanted to retreat - my fight-or-flight impulse was telling me to flee and to flee fast.

It was then that I realized that he had just asked me a question and was waiting on my answer, but I had no idea what he had just asked. My mind had been so busy plotting its "damage control" and pleading "please don't make me look bad," that it had entirely missed the question. So now things had gotten even worse - if I asked him to repeat himself I would be revealed in front of everyone as inattentive; if I answered wrong (and how could I not since I didn't know the question?) I would reveal myself as a fool.

Fundamentally, I didn't want to reveal myself at all. Not as inattentive, not as foolish, not as anything. I wanted to remain hidden, concealed behind my clever question and rakusu and black wardrobe, and maintain my mystery so that no one would know that I was . . . what? What was this "I" that I felt was so important to keep concealed?

But I had to say something right there and then, so I mumbled some sort of answer to the last part of the conversation that I could recall, something about the sky being green that I'm sure entirely missed the mark and bowed in gassho to signal my escape.

"Oh no, you're not getting away that easily," he said, cutting off my retreat.

This went on for a few more minutes and I honestly, or possibly mercifully, can't recall now all the details, but eventually he finally rang the bell signalling our mondo was over and I was finally able to retreat back to my zafu.

I felt embarrassed but even more, curious as to why I had such a prideful and egotistical reaction to our encounter. To have been bested in mondo by a Zen Master is surely no disgrace, just as losing at chess to Bobby Fisher or finishing last in a foot race with the Jamaican Olympic team is no disgrace. When I approached him that morning to start our mondo I hadn't expected not to have been bested and had hoped that I would learn something from the way that I would be defeated, just as a kung fu student can learn from being taken down by the Master.

But I was profoundly uncomfortable at having been seen, at having had no place to hide, and having to face my unadorned and unconcealed self. I had felt naked in front of the sangha, and wasn't used to being revealed.

As it turns out, like that theoretical kung fu student, I did learn something after all from being taken down by the Master. As I sat in zazen over the next several days, the question kept arising of why I had reacted that way and what it was that I was trying to hide, and a series of psychological insights came to me - aftershocks following the seismic mondo - that have given me a great deal of understanding of my life and my behavior over the past many years.

I said at the beginning of this post that I was going to confess my shortcomings and I have kept my word and revealed some of my arrogance and my cowardice, as well as my vanity and my deceptiveness. I don't mean to tease this discussion along but, but having fulfilled my promise for this post, I ask the kind reader to indulge me as I take another day or two to describe the nature of those psychological insights in subsequent posts. Publicly detailing your shortcomings is not easy work (try it some time), especially knowing that this blog may well be read by some of the very sangha from whom I I had been hiding myself. I've provided the narrative of what triggered the insights, so please allow me some sleep tonight and in return I will let you look under the hood as it were and show you what I've realized was my motivation to enter Zen practice in the first place, and how that same motive has driven so many other decisions in my life.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Someone said, “We are living in the last period of the dharma, and ours is a country remote from the Buddha’s land. The buddha-dharma can flourish here and its benefit spread widely only by living at ease in a quiet hermitage without worrying about food and clothing coming from lay supporters, and by practicing the Buddha-way only after being sufficiently provided for.”
Now, as I think about this, it is not so. When people gather together to study who are only able to see the form of things and who cling to their egos, surely not a single one among them will arouse bodhi-mind. Even if a thousand or ten thousand people who were attached to profit and indulging only in their desire for possessions were to gather together, it would be worse than if no one were to come. This is because only the karma which causes falling into the evil realms of samsara would accumulate naturally of itself and there would be no aspiration to practice the buddha-dharma. If we remain pure and poor and practice the Way while enduring hardship in begging for food, eating wild nuts or fruit, and enduring hunger, a single person hearing about us and coming to practice will be one possessing true bodhi-mind. I think this is the way the buddha-dharma can truly flourish. To have no disciples because of hardship or pure poverty and to have many people gather together because of abundant food and clothing while lacking the buddha-dharma is six of one and half a dozen of the other (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 6).
Someone advised me saying, "Your way of practice is extreme. You don’t understand this age and do not reflect upon our capability. Our nature is inferior and this is the degenerate age. If we continue to practice in such a way, it will become a cause of backsliding from the Way. Seek the support of some patron, take care of your body by living in a quiet place without worrying about food or clothing, and practice the Buddha Way peacefully. This is not greed for property or belongings. You should practice after having provided for your temporal means of livelihood."
Although I listened to his advice, I do not believe it. Just study carefully the conduct of Zen monks, along with the lifestyle of the buddhas and patriarchs. Although the customs of the three countries are different, those who truly study the Way have never practiced in the manner described. Just do not be attached to worldly affairs but study the Way in a straightforward manner (Zuimonki, 1-16).
Most people today mistakenly think that constructing buddha-images and building stupas helps the buddha-dharma flourish. Even though we might erect huge temples adorned with polished jewels and gold, we cannot attain the Way by these works. This is nothing more than merit for lay people enabling their wealth to enter into the world of the buddha and allowing people to do good. Although they might receive a great result from a small cause, for monks to be involved in such things has nothing to do with the flourishing of the buddha-dharma. To learn even a single phrase of the dharma-gate (teaching) or to practice zazen while living in a thatched hut or under a tree even for a single period shows the true flourishing of the buddha-dharma.

At present I am appealing for donations and working as much as possible to construct a sodo. Still, I do not think that this necessarily contributes to the flourishing of the buddha-dharma. Only because there are few people who are studying the Way right now and because I am spending my days leisurely do I think it better to engage in these activities than be idle. I hope this will enable deluded people to form a connection with the buddha-dharma. Moreover, I am working on this project for the sake of founding a dojo for zazen practice for people studying the Way in this age. I will have no regrets even though what I have wished for and begun might not be realized. I do not mind if but one single pillar is erected as long as people in later generations know that someone had the aspiration to carry out such a project (Zuimonki, 2-6).
Once, someone urged Dogen to go to Kanto to help the Buddha-dharma flourish. "Kanto" refers to the eastern part of Japan, in this case Kamakura, where the shogunate government was located. At the time, the samurai who took over political power from the court in Kyoto had accepted Zen Buddhism. Several Chinese Zen masters came from China and a number of Zen temples were founded there. The person was suggesting that Dogen go there to gain the support of the shogunate government.

Dogen refused. “If someone aspires to practice the buddha-dharma, he will come and study it even if he has to cross mountains, rivers, and oceans. If he lacks such resolution, there is no certainty that he will accept it, even if I go and urge him to practice it. Shall I fool people merely for the sake of material support? Isn’t this just greed for wealth? Since it would just tire me out, I feel no necessity to go.” Later, however, after Dogen moved into Eiheiji, he did visit Kamakura and stayed there for half a year (Zuimonki, 2-7).
and finally,
There are three steps in the manifestation of virtue. Firstly, it becomes known that the person is practicing the Way. Next, people who aspire to the Way come to that person. And lastly, people learn the Way and practice with him in the same way. This is called the manifestation of the virtue of the Way (Zuimonki, 2-3).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

As promised, the discussion of my recent intuitive insight, the one that not only clarified why it was that I came to Zen practice to start with but also told me volumes about my own personality and nature, will continue over the next several days, but not tonight. As the picture above indicates, today I went up to Chattanooga, but for more than the usual monthly visit. Today, I went up accompanied by Michael Elliston, the head abbot of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center; Arthur, my Zen teacher (visiting the U.S. from Switzerland); and Gareth, one of the Atlanta Center's novice priests. This large assembly joined me in Tennessee this month for a ceremony for two of the Chattanooga group's members into discipleship to the Silent Thunder Order.

The Silent Thunder Order is an organization led by Elliston Roshi of Zen groups across the United States and Canada descended from our founder, Rev. Dr. Zengaku Soyu Matsuoka (1912-1997). Rev. Matsuoka was a pivotal figure in the transmission of Zen Buddhism from Japan to the U.S., being "one of the first teachers to make his home and life work in North America. He also seems to be the first teacher to clearly and unambiguously give Dharma transmission to Western students" (James Ishmael Ford, Zen Master Who?, 2006, page 80). Both the Atlanta and Chattanooga Zen Centers are affiliated with the Silent Thunder Order, named after Matsuoka's term "Mokurai” to describe zazen practice.

So today, rather than talk about myself, I want to simply acknowledge the new discipleship of Jikai Terri Reith and Kannin Bill Agee. I look forward to continuing practice with the two of them, as well as the rest of the Chattanooga sangha.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Boy, Alone

Picture a young boy, age about 4 or 5, all alone at Day Care. The hour is getting late and the October afternoon has already gotten dark outside, and all of the other mothers have already picked up all of the other children. He is the last one still there, and is all alone.

The day-care workers have already put on their coats and turned off most of the lights, except, kindly, the one light where the little boy is still waiting for his mother. In his little circle of light, he is playing with a toy car, mindlessly rolling it forward and back, trying to keep from worrying about where his Mommy is.

He senses the anger of the remaining workers, who are growing impatient waiting for the last mother to arrive, and he thinks that they are mad at him. He does not understand why Mommy hasn't come to get him yet and thinks that maybe she is mad at him. He can't remember what it was that he did that was bad, but he must have been a bad boy to be left here all alone.

The thought that the day-care workers are thinking doesn't occur to him - that his mother might have been hurt or in an auto accident - as the concept of mortality hasn't yet formed in his juvenile mind. He only knows reward and punishment, and he feels he's being punished for something he doesn't understand. He is afraid. He doesn't know if his mother is ever going to come. So he tries to occupy his mind by playing with the little toy car and not think scary thoughts of abandonment and loneliness but his consciousness is all in his ears, listening for the sound of the door to open and for his Mommy to finally arrive.

And finally she does. Picture the mother: a young woman, attractive, accustomed to the attention of men. She is dressed in a cat costume, with cute little kitty ears on top of her head. Whiskers are drawn on her face in eyeliner and the tip of her pretty little nose is blackened with makeup. She's had a few drinks but is not yet drunk (just a little white wine). She looks cute in the kitty-cat costume, but the boy does not perceive her as sexy - his mind has not yet matured to that point yet, and besides, she's his mother and she's wearing a coat against the autumn cold.

The day-care workers can see precisely what has happened - she was at an after-work Halloween party, and was flirting and enjoying the attention she was getting and had forgotten the hour. Now she finally shows up, late and a little tipsy, and feels guilty and embarrassed that she's now the truant mother. She walks over to her son.

"Hi, pumpkin," she says in a tentative voice. She doesn't know if her son is mad at her or not so her words are like a toe tipped into a bathtub to test the temperature.

"Hi, Mommy." The boy murmurs his reply and is afraid to raise his eyes to her since he still thinks that he's being punished for something bad that he must have done.

Look at these two: they love each other so very, very much but don't have the means to express that love in this moment. The boy continues to just stare down at his toy car and tears are welling up in the mother's eyes, but she just stands there.

Ten years ago, I woke up from this dream of a mother and son with tears running down my cheeks, and was surprised to find myself crying. I still vividly remember the dream and it continues to break my heart to this day - I'm misty eyed right now just from recalling it and writing it down here.

I've wondered for years what this dream meant. I tried analyzing it myself but got nowhere - I never had abandonment issues growing up and as a child never felt anything but loved. I also found it curious that I saw the dream not through the eyes of the little boy but from some sort of third-person perspective. But the boy obviously represented me, although the mother figure didn't accord with my feelings toward my mother. Could the young mother have represented past lovers whom I felt had abandoned me emotionally? Or could she be society in general? None of these explanations seemed to work, and I continued to wonder what my subconscious was telling me, and why this odd little dream had become stuck in my memory.

This dream occurred before I starting practicing Zen, about a year before I started practicing to be precise. Newcomers to Zen all have various narratives they tell themselves and tell the teachers about what brought them to Zen, and these narratives frequently change as they get to better understand the true nature of their selves. I never went so far as to say that the dream had led me to start Zen practice, but my standard newcomer narrative was that I had been experiencing some sort of general episode of unspecified existential crisis, and I might have used the dream and my reaction to it as an example of that crisis.

As it turns out, I can now clearly see that it was something altogether different that led me to Zen, which is really what I wanted to blog about here. But I can see now that it will take several posts to describe my true motivation correctly, so this is just the first installment in a series. Actually, I tried to start into this once before in a post last August but had never gotten around to continuing the thread, much less answering Greensmile's very astute questions on that past post. I will address those questions and any others that arise after I finally get this all off my chest.

But back to the dream. A couple of years later, I had a most astounding moment of sudden insight and understanding into the dream. These sudden insights are not uncommon to meditative practices - once the mind has settled down a little and some level of clarity arises, we can directly perceive things as they actually are, not as our thinking mind wants to interpret them. And as we learn to quiet the constant dialog running through our heads, these perceptions and their implications can come flooding in, unhindered by limitations of language or our mind's attempt to rationalize and categorize the experience.

Let me illustrate - as I was driving home from work one afternoon about six or seven years ago, memories of that dream arose once again, leading me to wonder again what it might have meant. At the time, I was about two or three years into my Zen practice and had been attending several week-long meditation retreats, and my mind was quite capable and accustomed to letting go. As I drove, I suddenly saw the dream from a completely different perspective than I had in the past. Up to that time, I had always taken an egocentric approach to interpreting the dream, assuming that the boy had symbolized my self and seeing all of the other characters only in relation to that boy-self, just as in life. But as I drove, it occurred to me that since the dream was all just a figment of my imagination, just my mind creating its own fantasia, everything in the dream was, literally, my mind. There was nothing in the dream that wasn't a creation of my mind; there was nothing in the dream that wasn't, in fact, my mind.

In other words, there was nothing in the dream that wasn't me. I was the boy, I was the mother, I was the toy car, I was the cat's ears on Mommy's head. I was the day care center and the workers and the little circle of light. There was no center of things to be "me" and no "others" to revolve around that center; it was, quite literally, all me.

Interesting. But then the realization arose, "As in dreams, so in life." Without articulating the words, I suddenly found myself awash in a flood of intuitive insight and understanding about the nature of perception and reality. Everything I've seen and felt and understood, literally the whole world that I've experienced, has been nothing but my perception. It's all been my mind, just like in the dream. Everything that I knew of the past was just memory and inventions of the mind, and at that present moment I was the car I was driving and the road on which that car was riding. I was the traffic and the landscape and the music on the radio. Or the car and the road and the traffic and the landscape and the music were all me. I had the strongest sensation that everything was just boundless "me" and that there was no center, just as in the dream. But at that point the understanding wasn't expressing itself in words and I can't adequately reconstruct the experience here now using words, just as I can't recreate it in my mind - memory is a pale substitute for experience.

The emotional and psychological impact of this flood of intuition was so profound I had to pull the car over onto the side of the road and gather myself back up before I could continue the drive home.

So why, you ask, do I bring this six- or seven-year old experience up now? Especially an old experience that can't accurately be recalled or recreated? At what am I trying to get?

This story is a prelude, stage-setting if you will, for a more recent intuitive insight, one that not only clarified why it was that I came to Zen practice to start with but also tells me volumes about my own personality and nature. This second episode occurred not like a single thunderbolt out of the blue as the first one had, but as a series of events, sort of like an earthquake and aftershocks, starting at the weekend sesshin last September with Zen Master Dae Gok, the sesshin about which I was unable to blog for several days, that had rendered me momentarily speechless.

But this post is already getting long and it's emotionally draining not only to describe a dream that affected me so deeply but also to try and recreate a non-verbal flood of intuition that literally forced me off the road, so please bear with me as I continue this discussion over the next several days.

However, there might be those readers who are still wondering, "Okay, I get it, it's all you, but what did that dream actually mean?" without realizing that "it's all you" means the same thing as "it's all me." I urge those readers to not search for symbols in the dream any more than they search for symbols in waking life. Do you search for a meaning in the splash of a frog diving into a pond? Do you try to decode the sounds of rush-hour traffic? Is there hidden meaning in the pattern of leaves fallen from a tree?

"As in life, so in dreams." All of these are simply manifestations of suchness, things as they are. Modern psychiatry has rendered quaint phrenology, the interpretation of bumps on the head. Having seen deeper into the nature of perception and reality, I can no longer consider it important to interpret dreams.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Samsara In The Maketplace

This is a stressful time for me on several levels, and lessons are revealed through the cracks the tension causes.

In Georgia, probably elsewhere as well, October is the month that property taxes are due, although they've been delayed slightly in Atlanta due to the City's inability to reconcile the tax digest. On the 15th of this month, the property taxes on the Unsellable Condo in Vinings were due (and paid). At the end of this month, the City tax is due on my house and on the 15th of next month the County taxes are due. Altogether, these taxes total over $7,500. I've come to call these sequential payments "The Tests."

Many people deal with these taxes by creating escrow accounts with their mortgage lenders, basically, sending to their lender a little bit of the full amount due each month, and then having the mortgage company pay off the tax. That's not a bad idea and I once did just that in the past, but since moving into this house, I decided that I could manage my money just as well as a mortgage company could and set up my own escrow account through my bank. The money's in there now to pay the full amount, but somehow I've gotten attached to the balance in the escrow and have come to think of it as "my" money.

As I was listening to a podcast recently by Zen teacher Chozen Bays, a remark she made about money really resonated with me. In these modern time, she noted, wealth has become nothing more than computerized 0's and 1's. Cash money once was a symbol of actual wealth, the legal tender that represented some tangible assets, and now numbers on a computer screen have come to represent cash - a symbol of a symbol. You can think of those symbolic numbers as the economic capital that holds our materialistic society together, a measure of our value and our worth, or you can regard them as nothing but black and white pixels on a computer screen, digital "zeros" and "ones" in a computer. My employer pays me through direct deposit, and when the digits appear in my on-line account, I redistribute those numbers via electronic fund transfers to those various parties to whom I owe debt. What's left, I use to buy groceries and gasoline using an ATM card, and the balance after that gets divided on line into different electronic accounts, such as the escrow account. I hardly ever deal with cash any more, much less anything of actual value.

But sometimes when I look at the account called "escrow," my greedy mind wants to put a label on it called "nest egg" or simply "mine." I'm going to come close to emptying the account out over the next 30 days, and that scares a part of me. The balance has been steadily decreasing over the years, and it seems that each year I wind up taking more out than I put in. What will happen when it finally runs dry? What if I suddenly need those zeros and ones for something else? What if my employer decides to stop directly depositing pixels into my bank account? What would happen then?

As Chozen points out, that's the nature of our minds - always worrying about the bad things that might happen, could possibly occur (perhaps, maybe), and working itself up into a state almost as if the worst had happened. The Buddha once said that it's as if someone shot an arrow at us and missed, but we pick the arrow up and start stabbing ourselves with it. Of course, the mind doesn't spend much time at all thinking about the good things that might happen and it spends even less time giving "thinking" a break altogether and switching instead to its other function - perceiving.

So in addition to the stress of giving away funds from an account set up to ultimately be dispersed, I add stress by worrying about every possible bad thing that could result from those funds being gone. Of course, all of this is merely the tip of the iceberg of worrying - worrying about money and about health and about health care and about the cost of health care, and so on and so forth.

It also makes me realize how bound up I am by my financial obligations. I couldn't move to Portland a year or so ago because I couldn't sell the house and free myself of the mortgage obligations. Even if I could figure a way to feed and shelter myself, I can't quit my job and devote myself full time to practice because of two mortgage obligations and taxes and insurance and car payments and utilities. I have fallen victim to what the Subgeniuses call "the Big Con" - the conspiracy to convince modern man that we need to sell our labor for wages with which to consume ever greater quantities of real estate, automobiles, entertainment and diversions, and consider ourselves "successful" even as we sink deeper and deeper into servitude to our financial overlords.

Sometimes it seems to me a perfectly rational and even healthy idea to just liquidate everything - to hold a fire sale and get rid of everything, the homes, the car, the furniture, everything. Declare bankruptcy if the proceedings don't cover the debt. It would be scary, but liberating.

On the other hand . . . many people depend upon my redistributing zeros and ones in the computerized wealth matrix, and I made a sincere promise to certain individuals to pay certain fees in return for certain goods and services - would it be ethical to just quit? And I know for certain that Eliot the cat likes things just exactly the way they are right now - a warm, safe place to sleep and a reliable source of food. As a bodhisattva practicing kindness and cooperation, shouldn't I do what's within my ability to keep my obligations to all those cats, feline and otherwise?

To put it another way, can renunciation of materialism be a matter of simply no longer attaching to the material, even as one is still earning wages and paying debts?

Ah, layman's Zen - transcending the marketplace even while one is in the midst of it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Gasan (1275–1366) was a Japanese Soto Zen master, five generations removed from Eihei Dogen (Dogen was his teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher). Gasan once instructed his followers, "Those who speak against killing and who desire to spare the lives of all conscious beings are right. It is good to protect even animals and insects. But what about those persons who kill time, what about those who are destroying wealth, and what about those who destroy political economy? We should not overlook them. Furthermore, what of the one who preaches without enlightenment? He is killing Buddhism."

Gasan took a more expansive view on the precept of not killing than most (and gives me a strong reason to stop talking!). The late John Daido Loori also expanded upon our usual understanding of the precepts. In an interview, he once said, “Usually when people look at the Buddhist precepts, they understand them in terms of human relationships … Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not lie. Of course these are about human relationships, but what do they mean in terms of the environment?

"There is a particular kind of stealing that we do when we clear-cut forests, when topsoil is washed into rivers. There is a particular kind of killing that we do when we wipe out whole species. These precepts are taught not only as they relate to humans but also how they relate to the environment, to the ten thousand things. Not only the sentient, ‘feeling’ beings — deer, muskrat, beaver — but to the rocks, trees and river. All of it.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

"We have the fortune given to us by Shakyamuni; we also have the food and clothing offered by the deities. Moreover, we have the natural share of life we were allotted when we were born. Without chasing after it or worrying over it, we are sure to receive as much as we need" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 6).

"In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 16).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

At the Zen Center this morning, we eulogized and reminisced about the late John Daido Loori and his impact on our practice. While we are sad to seem him leave this world, in Zen we practice acceptance of death. The coin called "Life" has two sides - birth and death. By implication then, birth, not life, is the opposite of death, and this cycle of birth-and-death (samsara) makes up what we know as "Life." Since everything (and everybody) is ultimately impermanent, if we weren't willing to eventually die, we could not have been born into this life.

Zen Master Dogen pointed out that, just like food and clothing, we are all born with a certain allotment of life and that there is no point worrying about when that allotment runs out as there's nothing we can do to change it. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki (Book 2, Chapter 6), Dogen says "We have the fortune given to us by Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha); we also have the food and clothing offered by the deities. Moreover, we have the natural share of life we were allotted when we were born. Without chasing after it or worrying over it, we are sure to receive as much as we need."

Even old Epictetus (AD 55–AD 135) knew there was no point in running around worrying about material things. Since we are all endowed with the spark of Zeus, we already possess that which is most important and that which can never be taken away.

Dogen would have agreed, although what Epictetus called "the spark of Zeus" was referred to by Dogen as our buddha-nature. "In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 16). He encouraged his followers to not cling to the body, that old vessel of clay containing a quart of blood, and to not run around seeking after material things. They should not even store for the future that which they had received. He reminded them that the Buddha said not to keep anything except robes and a bowl, and to give away any extra food they had received through begging to hungry living beings.

During his lifetime, Dogen was told, "You don’t understand this age and do not reflect upon our capability. Our nature is inferior and this is the degenerate age. If we practice in such a way, it will become a cause of backsliding from the Way. We should seek the support of some patron, take care of our body by living in a quiet place without worrying about food or clothing, and practice the Buddha Way peacefully. This is not greed for property or belongings. We should practice only after having provided for our temporal means of livelihood."

Dogen replied that those who truly study the Way have never practiced in that manner. "Even if we might die of cold or starvation," he said, "we should follow the Buddha’s teaching if only for one day or one hour. In thousands of lives, how many times are we born and how many times do we die? This cycle of lives is samsara, caused only by blind clinging to worldly affairs. To die of starvation following the Buddha’s teachings for this one life brings about eternal peace and joy (nirvana). Moreover, I have never so much as read of a single buddha or patriarch dying of starvation or cold. If you refrain from arousing bodhi-mind in this life, excusing yourself on the grounds that this is the degenerate age, in what life will it be possible to attain the Way?"

"Moreover," he continued, "the Buddha offered twenty years of his life to us living in this degenerate age. Consequently, the offerings and support by human and heavenly beings to the monasteries in this world have not ceased. Though the Tathagata had mighty powers and virtues and was able to use them at will, he spent a summer practice period eating wheat used for horse fodder. How can his disciples today help but look up to this example?"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Zen Auto Salvage (Friday Night Video)

I re-scored this one from the heavy-metal soundtrack on the original, but with little regard for trying to synchronize the sound to the action. However, the "zen" part of this video is the question: what is recording this when the camera is being shown?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Maple Leaves at Mt. Takao, Kyoto, Komai Ki (Genki), 1747-1797

Autumn has arrived in Georgia, at least the north part of the State, at least in Atlanta. Summertime has proven that it, like all other dharmas, was impermanent and the heat of August gave way to a milder September, which in turn led to a cool, wet October. It's felt more like Portland outside lately than Atlanta.

Of course, summer doesn't become autumn just as firewood doesn't become ashes - it's all just a turn of speech.

But still, the weather's made me want to post a pumpkin-orange picture to go with the pumpkins and gourds filling the farm stands and the seasonal pumpkin beers being served to crowds of customers huddled together in bars and taverns for warmth. Eliot, my orange-and-white crepuscular cat, suddenly finds himself quite in fashion. This morning, we visited the vet again for a follow-up exam of his missing claw (they still haven't found it).

(I had wanted to call him my "orange-and-white creamsicle cat," but spell-check changed it to "crepuscular," as in active at twilight, which kind of fits, too.)

The week slides by. I work at the office by day, and on Monday night opened the Center for Monday Night Zazen. Tuesday night held a committee meeting of the Beltline advisory board, and on Wednesday night there was a neighborhood reception for a City Council candidate. Tonight, I get to rest and read and write, and perhaps later I'll light a fire in the hearth and put that theory of firewood not becoming ashes to a test.

So, as you've probably gathered by now, I really have nothing to say tonight, but then, as you've probably gathered a long time ago, I lack the restraint to say nothing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Something To Do

Make up your own imaginary album covers:

1: The first random article you get is the name of your imaginary band.

2: The last four or five words of the very last quote of the page is the title of your first album.

3: Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4: Use Photoshop or something similar to put it all together.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


"We have the fortune given to us by Shakyamuni; we also have the food and clothing offered by the deities. Moreover, we have the natural share of life we were allotted when we were born. Without chasing after it or worrying over it, we are sure to receive as much as we need. Even if we chase after and secure a great fortune, what will happen to it when impermanence suddenly comes?" (Dogen Zenji, from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 6)
"A few weeks ago, I found this book I showed you in a second-hand store in Chamblee." He held the book up so the old man could see it.

"The Stoics," Mr. Croker said once more. "And what was the man's name again, Eppitetus?"


"Oh yeah. Well. . . okay. . . what does Epictetus have to say about bankruptcy? - or is that something too mundane for a philosopher to think about?"

"Not too mundane for Epictetus, Mr. Croker. One place he says, 'You are all nervous and you can't sleep at night for fear you're going to run out of money. You say "How will I even get enough to eat?" But what you are really afraid of is not starvation but the prospect of not having a cook or somebody to wait on you at the dinner table or somebody to take care of your clothes and your shoes and the laundry and make up the beds and clean up the house. In other words, you're afraid you may no longer be able to lead the life of an invalid.' "

"He really said that?" asked Charlie. "About insomnia and leading the life of an invalid and all that?"

"Yes sir."

"Okay . . . What else does he say?"

"Well - I'm not the final word on this, Mr. Croker, but what he's saying, it seems to me, he's saying that the only real possession you'll ever have is your character and your 'scheme of life,' he calls it. Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark comes your character. Everything else is temporary and worthless in the long run, your body included. You know what he calls your possessions? 'Trifles.' You know what he calls the human body? 'A vessel of clay containing a quart of blood.' If you understand that, you won't moan and groan, you won't complain, you won't blame others for your troubles, and you won't go around flattering people. I think that's what he's saying, Mr. Croker."

"This is all very noble," said Charlie, "in the abstract, all this your man is saying, but what does it have to do with real life? Let's think about real life for a second. Let's think about a situation in which you lose everything . . you lose everything! You see what I'm saying? You lose everything, the house where you live, your income, your cars - everything. You're out on the street. You don't know where your next meal's coming from. What good do a lot of high-sounding ideals mean then?"

The boy said, "Many of Epictetus' disciples asked him that exact same thing, and you know what he told them?"

"No, what?"

"Have you ever seen an old beggar?" The kid's eyes were boring right into him.

"You're asking me?"


"Sure I have," said Charlie, "plenty of them."

"See? They've gotten by," said the boy. "They've managed to get food, 365 days a year, probably. They're not starving. What makes you think they can all find food, and you wouldn't be able to?"

"What kinda consolation is that supposed to be? I'd rather die than go around with a cup in my hand."

The boy smiled, and his eyes brightened. "Epictetus talks about exactly that, Mr. Croker. He says, 'You're not afraid of starving, you're afraid of losing face.' "

(excerpted from A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe, 1998)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Simply practice the Way wholeheartedly.

In an evening talk, Dogen said,
The late Sojo Eisai often admonished, “Monks, do not think that I give you the clothing, food, and other provisions you use. They are all offered by various heavenly beings. I merely play the role of distributor. Also, each one of you is fully endowed with the necessities for your lifetime. Do not run around seeking after them. Do not think that I feed you or that you have to be grateful to me.” I think these are most admirable words.

Also, in great Song China, when the assembly was under the direction of Zen Master Wanshi, Tendo Monastery had enough provisions for one thousand people. Thus, seven hundred people inside the sodo and three hundred people outside the sodo could be fed. However, due to the excellence of the master, many monks gathered like clouds from all over the country. There were one thousand people inside the sodo and five or six hundred people outside.

One of the officers remarked to Wanshi, “The temple provisions are sufficient for only one thousand people. We do not have enough food for everyone staying here. Please take this into special consideration and send the extra monks away.” Wanshi replied to him, “Each one of them has his own mouth. It is not your business. Do not worry about it.”

I believe that everyone has a certain amount of food and clothing granted from birth. It does not come about by worrying over it, nor will it cease to come by not seeking it. Even lay people leave such things to fate; being concerned with loyalty and filial piety. How much more should monks who have left home be unconcerned with trivial matters [besides practice]. We have the fortune given to us by Shakyamuni; we also have the food and clothing offered by the deities. Moreover, we have the natural share of life we were allotted when we were born. Without chasing after it or worrying over it, we are sure to receive as much as we need. Even if we chase after and secure a great fortune, what will happen to it when impermanence suddenly comes? Therefore, students must not be concerned with extra matters. Simply practice the Way wholeheartedly.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cats and Rats

Eliot the cat looked normal when I came home from work Thursday night, but once I got him inside (he plays outside all day while I'm at work) I saw that his back left foot was bloodied. On closer examination, it appeared that he lost one claw altogether - there was a bloody hole in his paw where his claw should have been. I have no idea what had happened and so far he hasn't told me.

He didn't seem to be in pain, but I still took him to the vet Friday morning, as the wound looked like the kind of thing that could get infected and I didn't want to leave it unattended over the weekend. The vet cleaned the wound and gave him some antibiotics and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, and told me to keep him inside over the weekend so that the wound won't get dirty and infected. She briefly suggested having him wear a cone around his neck to keep from picking at the wound, but I talked her out of that. For what it's worth, her guess was that he got his claw caught in some sort of mesh or something, and then tore it out in a panic as he fled.

Eliot hates being cooped up inside all day and doesn't understand why I won't let him out. He's been driving me crazy all weekend walking around the house meowing, and running for the door every time I come in or go out. This will continue throughout the balance of the weekend and until Tuesday when we have a follow-up appointment to see how he's recovering. But he has no idea of how much worse it could have been if he had to have worn the cone as well.

The worst part, though, is he has no idea of how he's going to re-pay me for the $150 the vet charged. He apparently has no health insurance at all and instead merely relies on my generosity to cover his medical expenses. Well, today I had to send the dentist a check for $450 to cover the portion of my recent tooth extraction that my insurance didn't cover, so I'm a little stretched to cover his feline ass. And all of his complaining over not being allowed outside isn't winning him any sympathy dollars, either. I may have to send him outside with a box of pencils to sell, or have him go door-to-door and hustle magazine subscriptions. Or maybe I can sit him on a cart with his wounded foot stretched out in front of him and a sign around his neck ("Please Help"), and set him out by an exit ramp off of I-75 with an empty cup to get handouts from compassionate commuters.

But I'll probably just let his debt slide as I may have been at least partially responsible for bringing this karma down on us. Last week, I finally got around to setting a trap behind the refrigerator for the gremlin that's been rattling around back there at night. After having set the trap, I awoke in the middle of the night to the usual sound of the rattling, and then I heard a loud snap as the trap apparently was triggered, followed by two painful-sounding spasms. I wanted to pull the fridge out there and then to see what I had caught, but it was 4 am, so I just went back to sleep.
Check Spelling
The next morning, I did pull the refrigerator out from the cabinet after putting the cat outside just in case the trap hadn't been sprung, and saw what manner of gremlin I had killed. The plumbers were right - it was a rat, a big, fat rat, dead in the trap. I put it in a garbage bag and took it out with the trash.

There might have been more humane solutions, but rats are known vectors of disease and I wanted to do more than merely "discourage" it from coming into my house. But even though it had already destroyed the water line for my ice-maker, I'm not sure it deserved such a brutal death.

What any of this had to do with Eliot's injury I will never know, or if the loss of a cat's claw is fair compensation for the loss of a rat's life. But as I listen to Eliot's insistent cries and meows wanting to be let outside, I have to wonder if I'm not at least partially responsible in some way.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

In Memorium: John Daido Loori

John Daido Loori, dharma heir to Zen Master Taizan Maezumi, died yesterday morning from lung cancer. He was 79 years old.

The following is excerpted from a eulogy by Zen Master Bernie Glassman:

"I met Daido at Naropa in the summer of 1976 where he was teaching Zen and Photography. He was a striking figure, even among the throng of famous and infamous counter-culture icons gathering around Trungpa Rinpoche. He would stalk about, camera pointing, tall, lanky, slightly hunched forward. The emotional impact of his photographs astonished me, and still does today: fragments of the natural world intensely manifesting heightened consciousness. . . Daido has always been one of the most creative leaders establishing Buddhadharma in the West. His love for and immersion in the natural world led him to open the Zen Environmental Study Institute, and to expand Zen training to include excursions in the wilderness, helping others reconnect or connect for the first time with nature. He has offered Mt. Tremper as a presentation site for so many wonderful teachers from a huge range of traditions and disciplines. He founded Dharma Communications, which continues to provide a quality, multi-media source for Buddhist teachings. He has written and edited so many wonderful books on traditional and modern forms of Zen practice, Buddhist ethics, art as the sacred-made-visual, and philosophy. His tireless devotion to the work of Dogen Zenji has helped introduce this seminal Buddhist to a wide audience of practitioners, academics and artists in the West."

Although I have read several of his books, I had met Daido Roshi but once. In the fall of 2003, I went up to Mount Tremper for a weekend retreat, and was informed that I was lucky - Daido was going to be in attendance for the entire weekend, which was not always a given considering his many commitments. But over that weekend, he did not spare his presence, meeting with us, teaching, lecturing, and leading zazen. On Sunday morning he gave the dharma talk, and even allowed us the opportunity for a one-on-one dokusan (private teaching).

My question to him was on practice, and in response he posed a Soto Zen koan to me, taken from Dogen Zengi's Genjo-Koan. Reciting from memory, Daido said, "When all dharmas are seen as the Buddha-Dharma, then there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings. When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death. The Buddha's truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are beings and buddhas. And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds, while hated, flourish."

"Are you familiar with that passage?," Daido asked. I was.

"The first sentence mentions 'practice.'" Daido pointed out, "but 'practice' is not mentioned again in the next three sentences, although all the other examples are. What is this 'practice' that is only mentioned once? Think about this closely."

I had always planned on going back up to his monastery and continuing the conversation, but kept putting the trip off month after month, then year after year. I was always planning to go back "later," and could always find some excuse or another not to leave now. But now Daido Roshi is gone.

Dogen was right - impermanence truly is the reality right before our eyes. "Out of fear of time slipping away too swiftly," Dogen once said, "practice the Way as if you are trying to extinguish a fire enveloping your head." We should practice now, while we can, before it is too late.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Autumn Maple (Detail), Kamisaka Sekka, 1866-1942

"Take a look at this egocentric mind restlessly seeking fame and profit. Is it possible to realize the nature and form of the three-thousand realms in the space of a single thought? Does egocentric mind manifest the dharma-gate of the mind that does not bear thought? There is only the delusory mind which is thirsty for fame and clings to profit. There is nothing that can be regarded as bodhi-mind.

"In the past, there have been sages who contemplated the Way, attained the dharma, and taught others using secular means; yet none of them were pulled by evil desires for fame and profit. They had no attachment to the dharma, much less to worldly values.

"As I said before, the mind which sees impermanence is one aspect of bodhi-mind. It is totally different from that referred to by the madmen. Arousing the mind that does not bear thought or the mind that realizes the three-thousand realms are the excellent practices after having aroused bodhi-mind. Do not mix them up carelessly. Just let go of your egocentric mind and practice calmly. This is the most realistic form of bodhi-mind" (Eihei Dogen Zenji, from Gakudo-Yojinshu, "Points to Watch in Practicing the Way," 1234).

When egocentric views do arise, sit quietly, illuminate them, and consider Dogen's advise from Shobogenzo Zuimonki (Book 4, Chapter 3):

"I implore you to sit quietly and seek the beginning and the end of this body on the ground of reality. Your body, hair, and skin, were originally comprised of the two droplets from your father and mother. Once the breath stops, they scatter and finally turn into mud and soil on the mountains and fields. How can you cling to your body?"