Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Green Gulch practice period Part 4: Reb Anderson

It amazes me that I have been in the Bay Area for 40 years and had never met Tenshin Roshi, aka Reb Anderson.  I was delighted to spend time with this great teacher.  He is, as most know, one of the original students of Suzuki Roshi and has subsequently been the abbot and senior dharma teacher of the San Francisco Zen monasteries for many years. 

Reb has the amazing gift of greeting every person with great love.  He has a penetrating, almost unnerving, look that seems to create an immediate intimacy and friendliness.  And I was able to meet his look without fear or shyness.  I particularly remember being only a few feet away from him in the dish room.  We looked at each other eye-to-eye, in a way that one rarely fully meets another.   

I must say I was a little wary of him.  I knew very little about him (and still don’t), but I had heard he had a lot of charisma and personal power.  I spent many years with charismatic gurus in the tradition of kundalini yoga, and while I received many gifts of insight and love from them, I now believe that I will be very careful about giving my complete devotion to any teacher. 

Norman Fischer advised me to have dokusan with Reb, so I set up a meeting.  I felt strangely exhilarated in his presence.  We were both laughing, like two children in a sandbox.  I told him how I had once asked Norman if he was a Zen master, and Norman replied, “Unfortunately, no,” and how later Norman told me that I could study with Reb, a genuine Zen master.  After telling him this story, I looked directly at him and said, “Are you a Zen master?”  He smiled his enigmatic smile and said, “I don’t know.”  I asked him what a Zen master is, and he said both the “unknowable and mysterious” and “all the stories we tell about him.”  I was flattered that Reb asked my permission to tell the story at Sunday’s dharma talk, without mentioning Norman’s name.  It was interesting that Richard Baker was there at his talk, which could have been entitled, “What is a Zen Master?” 

In my second dokusan – encouraged by Norman – I told him about my many years with kundalini gurus and the hurt I had suffered by their betrayals of my trust.  I told him I am now reluctant to trust any teacher.  Although I am very devotional by nature, how can I love the teacher but not the man? This is my lifelong koan.  His answer at the time was a little vague to me.  He seemed to be linking the Perfections (generosity, etc) with how to love the teacher.

But a few days later, I experienced an important insight, which I saw as a profound answer to my question.  Reb and I passed each other in the dining room.  We looked deeply at each other.  Afterword, I was filled with great love and joy.  I realized that it was just love, not really directed to Reb, because, after all, I do not know him at all.  It was just love – fluid, dynamic, alive!  Anything added on is just extra.  Love is the mysterious and pure.  When we add on our stories to the person, we open ourselves to attachment and suffering. 

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful practice to greet each person with this non-clinging and mysterious love? 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Green Gulch Practice Period Part 3: “Everyday mind is the way”

I had heard many of the senior dharma teachers in Everyday Zen say that Zen is a “body practice.”  I never really understood what they were saying.  Zazen is sitting in the body, but isn’t every meditation technique also in the body?  What could this mean? 

I would say that one of my greatest insights during this Practice Period is that Zen is indeed “washing your bowls.”  Or, in more rustic terms, “chopping wood and carrying water.”   

The monastic schedule was very rigorous.  I was up at 4:15 am to take a shower (primarily to wake up, but it also seemed like the only luxury, since the lavender scented shampoo smelled so good).  There were two periods of zazen, and the rest of the time I was working in the kitchen until 2 pm, with breaks for breakfast and lunch.  There was a rest period between 2 and 4 pm.  I learned to fall asleep the moment I lay down!  At 4 pm there was a study period, but I have to admit that as much as I love reading Buddhist books, I was not interested in this at all.  Then zazen, dinner, and two final periods of zazen. 

The kitchen work was fun but really exhausting.  I became one of the official onion choppers, since I was one of the few people who could tolerate this work. We chopped in very close quarters, and as fast and efficiently as possible.  I was concentrating so hard that once Martha de Barros came to stand right by my side, and I didn’t notice her, until she softy said, “Hi, Barbara.” 

There were days that we have a half day sit, with 5 periods of zazen in the morning.  On the full day sits and during sesshin, we had ten periods of zazen. 

The thoughts in my mind were no more intellectual or “spiritual” than asking myself, “What’s next?”  "Do I have dishes tonight?"  "Do I ring the Bonsho bell today?"  On the way from the kitchen to my room in Cloud Hall, I would often look at the mud and leaves on the path and think, “Just one foot in front of the other.” 

In zazen, my thoughts did not race.  In fact, as I look back, I am not sure I was thinking of anything other than how to hold my posture in such a way that I could make it to the end of the meditation period.  Sometimes I actually counted my breath.  Sometimes I did deep breathing, not because it was recommended that I breathe from the “hara” (an area around the navel), but because it felt good to get oxygen to as many cells as possible! 

So, my awareness was literally in my body – either sitting upright, or paying attention to the sharp knife so I wouldn’t chop a finger off. 

Perhaps this body practice is good because it keeps you very mindful in the present moment.  The “be here now” sort of thing.  I think that we mostly don’t do this in our usual everyday lives, so it was an important experience for me to live this way for two months. 

“Everyday mind is the way,” as it is said in a famous koan.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Green Gulch Practice Period Part 2: Zazen

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation.  It is simply the dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally illuminated enlightenment.

                                                Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

Zen is, after all, zazen: just sitting.  But how many of us have wondered whether Dogen was making some kind of cruel joke?  Where is the repose?  Where is the bliss? 

Zazen, zazen, and more zazen.  Sometimes a minimum of two hours a day on the cushion, usually 3 hours, and during the 7 day sesshin, ten periods of zazen.   I checked the sesshin schedule, and there were 295 minutes of zazen a day (equaling 4.91 hours), and if you add in the dharma talk, tea, and three oryoki meals, that is an additional 3.5 hours on the cushion.   

I thought I had trained for this.  I was sitting 30 minutes a day, 3 times a day, for two months.  But I felt as if I had never sat at all.  I knew that I should not condemn myself or feel like a failure – although that was often how I felt.  As my good friend and mentor, Chris Fortin, said, “It’s not that you were a failure, it was just not what you expected.” 

The big shock was on Day 2, when we did a tangaryo.  I went to the Ino, the head of the hall, and said, “Let me get this straight.  I sit from 5 am until 9 pm with bathroom breaks and three short breaks for meals?” “Yes,” she said, “do your best.”   

Doing my best was an ever-present koan.  What is my best?  What is the discomfort one works through in order to gain a strong posture that one can hold?  What level of pain is simply too much – pain that would cause any reasonable person to stay in bed?   

During the entire practiced period, I was dismayed by how much my body hurt.  I switched between a chair and the cushion, but I can tell you sitting motionless in a chair for 40 minutes can be just as painful as sitting on a cushion. On the chair, I felt burning sensations in my neck and shoulders.  On the cushion, pain between my shoulder blades. 

One good thing:  during the 40 minutes, I was constantly making small adjustments and learned my true posture.  My teacher, Norman Fischer, said that I would become intimate with my spine.  How true! If I slightly bent my head or tucked my chin, my neck and shoulders felt better.  I would adjust my spine and learned that if the vertebrae were in a line, like children’s play blocks stacked in a column, I could sit better.  There was a balance between using muscles to sit upright and yet staying (relatively) relaxed.   
This must sound pretty masochistic, and one would reasonably question whether this is a “cult of pain,” – words my mind repeated at my very lowest experience.   There were instructions from the Abbess to stay with the schedule, to stay with the pain.  I do not agree with this philosophy at all.  I think intense pain is not necessary and possibly harmful.  But I do think, now, that pushing through discomfort can be useful. 

So, although this description might sound grim, it was, in retrospect, a wonderful challenge.  After these two months, it is as if I found my posture, found my foundation, and I am now able to just sit for several hours.  Not exactly in repose and bliss, but with a body-mind open awareness that is actually refreshing.





Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practice Period Green Gulch Zen Center (part one)

I went to the two month practice period at Green Gulch Farm, one of the San Francisco Zen centers, to immerse myself in monastic practice.  These centers, founded by Suzuki Roshi of the Soto Zen lineage, are the “mother ships” of Zen practice in America, and I am extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity. 
I agreed not to leave from October 13th until December 11th.    

I imagined that my primary training would be in the “forms” – seated meditation (zazen), chanting, bowing, and moving in the zendo (meditation hall).  But upon reflection, I see that my primary training was how to live in harmony with a lot of people,  and the importance of following the precepts. 

Precepts are the foundation of Buddhist practice and evolved around the time of the Buddha.  The purpose was to create harmony in the sangha (community).  In fact, the precepts derive from The Six Harmonies, which include right speech and how to handle conflict. 

I lived with 2 other women in a very small room.  [Scientific studies have shown that if you put 3 elderly rats in a small space, they become aggressive, and subsequent studies have shown that this remains true for elderly women as well.]  I meditated, moved, ate, and worked in very close quarters with 30 other practice period participants.  It was so tight in the kitchen and the dish washing room that we were rotating and working around each others like small gears in a wristwatch.  

I was so exhausted that I had no tolerance for conflict.  Once a new arrival – a very large man – blasted a torrent of anger at me in the kitchen, because he thought I was violating “functional speech” by wanting to clarify whether we tore lettuce by hand or cut it with a knife.  Normally I would have a quick retort, but I was so tired that all I could say was “wow!”
Once I had a squabble with a roommate over the placement of a very bright light.  Of course, this seems absurd, and it is, but at the time it was very irritating.  But I saw immediately that I did not want my composure ruined by anyone or anything.  And the only choice is to let go.  Let go and let go and let go. 

I met up close and personal my own impatience and irritability and aggression.  I have a wonderful husband, and we rarely argue.  I am retired and spend most of my time alone, so I have not had to cultivate the virtues of patience and holding my tongue.  In effect: right speech.   

There is a precept that says “A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill will.”  I was probably in continual violation of this precept.   But it is probably human to have antipathies toward certain people, and I learned that some people who have lived there for a long time, did, in fact, have feelings of ill will.  The difference is that they had learned to live skillfully and harmoniously.  You bow to everyone.  

So, yes, the most important lesson was how to live and move harmoniously with a lot of people.  It was to my benefit to cultivate these virtues.  The motivation came from within and was not something imposed from the outside – some way I “should” behave. 

When I think back to the conflicts I have had at my various workplaces, I think I would have been much happier if I had lived for two months in a Zen monastery.   I doubt the American corporations would endorse this kind of training, but it’s not a bad idea!


Saturday, August 4, 2012

First seven day retreat at Green Gulch monastery

Seven days in a monastery, with seven periods of meditation (zazen) per day and three hours of classes per day and working in the kitchen and washing dishes and getting up at 4:20 am – understandably I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do this.  Even a young person, even a relatively healthy person would have difficulties.  But, I was able to follow the schedule, and I loved it! 

Sometimes I was so tired that I literally could not walk a straight line; I would not have been able to pass a test for a DUI. There were times in meditation that I felt as if hot lava was flowing down my neck and shoulders and back.  There were times that I felt as if little bugs were crawling all over my face, but I managed to sit without moving.  Why would I voluntarily do this to myself?  But there were times that I felt a kind of peace and calm, and rather than going forward to the practice, it came forward to me.  Make sense?

I especially loved the classes by Rev. Okumura on Dogen’s fascicle Only a Buddha and a Buddha.  He mentioned “dropping away of body and mind,” an important experience for Dogen.  I asked him, “I would like to know more about ‘dropping away of body and mind.’  I know I am entering the realm of trying to attain something (a kind of no-no in Zen), but I find it hard to believe that in my zazen there is dropping away of body and mind.”  I was surprised by Rev. Okumura’s answer.  In summary: don’t ask.  We are always trying to understand meditation or aim for something in meditation, but this is not possible.  This is all just conceptual.  Just sit.

I did, however, experience a kind of dropping away of my mind.  One morning I looked at the clock and it was 4:20.  I got up and got dressed and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth before everyone else.  I wondered why it was so quiet in the guest house.  I looked at my clock again:  1:30 am.  I was so embarrassed that I went back to bed fully clothed.

Once in the kitchen, I was supposed to crack 70 eggs.  I cracked 17 and then added on a piece of paper the 30 eggs in the flat of eggs in the carton, and that equaled 47.  Then I figured that 70 minus 47 equals 23, so I cracked 23 more eggs.  The problem is, I forgot to add the 30.  So, in all I cracked only 40 eggs.  Since they were to be used for frittata, there would have been a lot of hungry people, if I had not remembered in zazen, “Oh my God, I didn’t actually crack the 30 eggs, I just wrote that number on a piece of paper.”  Immediately I rushed to the kitchen to tell the cook.  He just laughed.  I was glad that zazen was good for something.

In a monastic setting, if you are alone, you know you must be in the wrong place.  Several times I wondered, “Where is everybody?”  And then I knew I was supposed to be washing dishes or attending a work meeting.  Kind of humbling.

It is impossible to explain why this seven days was so wonderful.  Certainly the classes were great, and the beauty and harmony of everyone moving in unison in the zendo was great.  But ultimately it makes no sense that I now want to do a two month monastic retreat.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Longing for Completion

I truly admire those people who remain single and alone and happy!  But it may be true that most of us seek a life partner, and that we feel most whole when we are in relationship.  When I was in my thirties and single, I desperately wanted a husband.   In fact, I felt lonely and depressed.  Everyone seemed matched up but me.

I met Brad when I was thirty-nine, and we have been harmoniously and happily married for twenty-five years.  Our marriage is amazingly effortless – what a gift!  But I am realizing that there is a deep longing, a kind of deep grief, even in the most perfect marriage. 

Brad longs for God, and I long for…well, I am not sure what I long for.  

I have been with yoga gurus and Zen teachers.  Whenever I have developed that deep bond of love and devotion with a teacher, I become overwhelmed with a sense of love and grief and longing.  I used to ask myself of Baba Muktananda, “What do you want? Do you want to sit on his lap?” I know that no teacher can satisfy that longing.  The teacher can only evoke that longing.

Recently a senior student at Everyday Zen asked me, “Were you held by your parents?”  I knew I was at the edge of a precipice when I said, “No.”  She helped me see that that longing and grief is primal, is pre-erotic.  One might be tempted, perhaps, to see this as a matter of poor parenting or a dysfunctional family (which mine became).  But I think it is much more than that.

Brad says that this longing is a gift.  I think it is a deep longing for completion.  All the yogic and Buddhist teachings say you are already complete.  Maybe, but clearly I don’t feel that!  Now what?

One could experience completion or wholeness in each person you meet.  On every meeting. This is remarkable to contemplate!  And one can certainly sense completion while being in nature.

I am wondering, now, whether this seeking for completion is never-ending, that completion is never complete.  While always seeking, always going deeper could be a good thing, I wonder if the grief and pain of separation will ever go away?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Irrepressible love

The Buddha taught skillfulness.  With intention, attention, and effort, one can approach the goal of freedom.  So if you have an afflictive thought/emotion such as anger or desire, he taught that you can identify that afflictive thought.  You can see that the thought/emotion will harm yourself or others.  In the same way, you can see that putting into action an afflictive thought such as anger or desire, one will cause harm to oneself or another.

He taught that having realized this, one can choose renunciation of the thought and action.

Wouldn’t this be wonderful!  But the deepest afflictive emotions cannot be reasoned with.  They cannot be persuaded to go away.  Yes, one can effectively restrain oneself from acting on these thoughts, but they may never go away. Over time – maybe long periods of time – the thoughts can erode into less compelling psychic forces.  But in the meantime what can we do?

I have a friend who is in a profound state of anger and shock, because her husband of fourteen years left without a word or a warning.  I have a former husband, who is now a friend, who is dying of incurable lung disease.  My friend and former husband have just fallen in love.  This is wonderful!   Love is irrepressible, as it should be.  There are deep, psychic forces, like love, that are irrepressible despite the “prognosis.”  Love is not normally thought of as afflictive, but it often is a cause of pain.

Irrepressible.  So maybe trying to make these emotions go away, or trying to be skillful to effect renunciation, won’t work.  What is left is to accept them, to live with them.  If the emotion is love, then whole-heartedly accept that loving, even though you know it could be painful.  My friend and former husband know that pain lies ahead.  He will die within the year, and she will lose him.  But they are going into this with eyes wide open, and hearts wide open.

To accept that there is suffering and pain, and yet to love with our whole heart is the nature of being alive.

Buddhism talks about “letting go.”  But it may be that letting go is the letting go of resistance – of pushing away, of trying to isolate and protect oneself.  Letting go may be a kind of surrender to your life as it actually is.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Soto Zen Hierarchy (2)

It feels safer to have postive thoughts about one’s religious practice.  Devotion and faith and being positive are essential, but one cannot throw out one’s critical thinking. 

I read that scholars have shown that this direct, one-to-one, historical lineage, beginning with the Buddha, is religious fiction. It is a religious myth.  [Although I don't need scholars to tell me that; it seems obvious]

The myth of lineage – not limited at all to Soto Zen – legitimizes and verifies internal structure and hierarchy.  It is a kind of governance and control of who has the power within the organization.  This control does serve the important function of creating coherence and continuity of practice. 

In its most powerful and beneficial aspects, myth of lineage reveres all those who have preserved and brought to us the tradition and practice of Soto Zen.  It honors and remembers all the practitioners that have caused our practice to be what it is today.  Without them, there would be no cohesive practice.  It is the flow of life. 

It is a flow of awakening and buddha-nature, and that is why I felt joy to receive the women's lineage papers from Norman and Chris.

On the other hand, I think we have to see through this.  We need to remember that it is myth. I don’t  believe that we should reify lineage or worship it.  Particular placeholders in the lineage may have existed or not.  And there are the myriad of unknown male and female practitioners who have practiced and influenced our practice who appear on no lineage chart.

This morning I read these words of Dogen:

When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others.  The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and is not merely arising now.

To me, this says it all.  Lineage is a beautiful and necessary metaphor, but it is empty of intrinsic reality.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Waking up to Soto Zen Hierarchy

It’s as if I woke up from a dream, or some self-imposed amnesia. It’s not that I didn’t know that Soto Zen is a hierarchy, and patriarchal until just recently. [My friend and teacher Norman Fischer has been instrumental in introducing the women's lineage papers.  A noteworthy achievement.]

Clearly the ordained and lay entrusted have the only real status.  It is not a status based on actually living the dharma – although many do - but on an ordination that may have happened years ago, or upon acting as shuso for two months.  When I first came to Zen, it was clear there was a kind of elite club: the priests. A kind of caste system. At Zen Center, I am told this enactment of hierarchy is very precise – down to where the zafu is placed for certain services.

What triggered my awakening to this after all these years of my being willing to ignore this every entrenched tradition within Soto Zen?

I was given a list of how people should line up to receive the new women’s lineage documents.  And there it was: a literal expression of rank.  Priests and lay entrusted first and everyone else. One priest – a dear friend – told me that the ordained hold responsibility for our practice.  Although this responsibility is taken seriously in most cases, there are many who through questionable ethical behavior, or simple lack of involvement with a sangha, do not hold the practice for me. 

Another dear friend told me that it is simply a tradition of honoring the elders and their longevity of practice.  I would agree that it is valuable to do so, but the problem is that there are many people who have practiced just as long, or longer.  And there are people who are not ordained and who have devoted themselves to service in our sangha for years and years.  These people will never receive this kind of honor and attendant privilege.

It’s as if I woke up, and I was shocked.  How could I have given so much time, have given so much of myself?  I am very egalitarian, and I do not believe there should be a special class of people.  Everyone has his or her own role, based on the causes and conditions of her life.  There are mothers; there are those doing socially engaged Buddhism; those sitting at the bedside of the dying.   

So how do I hold this with integrity?  By being so active in my Zen community am I being complicit with a value system that is not my own? Is this an actual moral question, or can I continue giving and receiving love?  And ignoring.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Prodigal Son: Christian and Buddhist versions

I am reading the Lotus Sutra in preparation for Chris Fortin’s discussion of this text in the Everyday Zen dharma seminars.  I just finished the chapter, “Belief and Understanding,” which is really the parable of the prodigal son…called the “impoverished son” in this text. 

In the Buddhist version, like the Christian, the son leaves home for many years and falls into a destitute state – a state in which he finds himself despicable and the lowest of the low.  In the Buddhist version, the father is also wealthy, although in this version, the father is king-like, sitting on a throne of pearls.

According to the Buddhist story, the father knows he is going to die eventually and sends for his son, so that he will have someone to inherit his vast wealth.  But he knows his son would not believe he is the son of a wealthy king, so he asks the messengers to say, “This wealthy man would like you to work for him.”  And also knowing that the son would feel unworthy, says to the messengers, “You can tell him that he can shovel excrement.”

The son in the Buddhist parable does return, but he refuses to see the king, because he considers himself to be filthy.  So the king – wishing to approach his son - puts on dirty clothes, puts excrement on his body, and goes to his son saying, “Let us work together shoveling excrement.”  After many years, the man gains the trust and love of his son.  The father then reveals his identity, but he still knows that the son cannot accept that he is the son of a king, so he puts his son in charge of the treasury, dispursing  great sums of money.  Only after several years of doing this work, can the son really believe that he is the son of a king.

In the Christian version, the son wants to return home, but fears the wrath of his father.  When he is returning home, his father sees him far down the road.  The father runs down the road, throws his arms around him, and forgives him.  He is overjoyed to have him home at last.

So here is what is so interesting to me:  In the Christian version, the father – God – is the antecedent to forgiveness and wholeness.  In Buddhism, buddha-nature is the antecedent.  That is, according to Buddhism, we are already pure and great.   We are buddha-nature.   Only because of our fear and suffering and low sense of ourselves do we feel unworthy to step up to our greatness.  In the Christian version, especially the evangelical version (as explained to me to my once evangelical husband), we are sinners and will always be sinners, but it is through God’s love and his incarnation into a suffering Jesus, do we find redemption.

I would guess that the Buddhist parable was heard on the “silk road” in the time of Jesus.  The story was then changed and told both through a Jewish perspective and through Christ’s message.

The parables seem very different, but somehow the same.  In one story the greatness is outside of ourselves in the form of God.  In the other story, our own true nature is already great.  But in both stories, we find peace and love and belonging.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

living freely as an unmoored boat

           Great is the matter of birth and death
           Life slips quickly by
           To waste time is a great shame
           Time waits for no one.

These are the classic words written on the han, the wooden board that is hit with a mallet, to call people to meditation in the Zen tradition.

These words are meant to wake us up to the great matter, to the investigation of what it means to be human.  What it means to live a life of value.

I do not need to hear these words!!  I am actually very aware that I am going to die!  I would say I am obsessed with the passage of time, and this obsession has produced a kind of dread.  This is not how I want to live my life, feeling in bondage to the passing of time.  I know that my deep commitment to the spiritual life in part comes from the knowledge of the passing of time, but the constant reminder of my mortality is more depressive than up-lifting.

Often one hears a dharma teacher quote this verse from Mary Oliver’s poem A Summer’s Day:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Doing, doing, doing is the disease of our modern culture.  “To be is to do” is the mantra subconsciously repeated by all of us who have been taught to strive for achievement.  Personal fulfillment is defined in terms of accomplishments that will give legitimacy to our lives.

Ironically, Zen Buddhist teachings suggest that we should be happy with our lives as they are.  To enjoy this moment as it is.  And yet, I see the persons I love most within this tradition working and working and working.  Travelling and giving talks and publishing.  One might argue, “But this is how he enjoys the moment.” But I do wonder about the need and value of a simpler life.  Isn’t something being sacrificed in all this busy-ness?

What if I decide – right now – to do nothing?  I am retired, so this should be easy.   Being alive, being joyful, being thankful should be enough.  I do not feel that I actually need to repay the incomprehensible generosity of having been given a beautiful life.

I am now studying the Taoteching.  I especially like the commentary by Chuang-tzu on verse 34.

Those who are skilled toil, and those who are clever worry.  Meanwhile, those who do not possess such abilities seek nothing and yet eat their fill. They drift through life like unmoored boats.

What a wonderful image: living freely as an unmoored boat.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is Zen really a male practice?

It seems that in American Soto Zen a lot of progress has been made in terms of awareness of gender inequality, and also progress in terms of having female priests, role models etc.

But I have been thinking of how gender differences may deeply inform our view of Zen practice itself.   Without having to turn to social or psychological theory, it is clear to me that in our EDZ practice, the women are more social.  The women's retreat is huge and there seems to be no need for the men to have their own retreat.  This warmth and desire to connect may reflect the proclivities of our female gender.

Obviously Soto Zen comes from a male dominant Japanese culture. I would suggest that the very spirit and energy of our practice reflects that gender difference.  Zen is considered cool, unemotional, and controlled. These traits are generally considered male.

Although women can fully practice in this manner - and it is a beautiful practice - our desire for warmth and connection has led to what many of we women call "warm hearted zen."  And this is the practice that most strongly appeals to me.

So I am suggesting that we deconstruct how we view Zen practice itself, based on gender difference.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Do women experience greater distractions?

In the Diamond Sutra, chapter two, the Buddha answers Subhuti’s question about how a “noble son” or “noble daughter” should act as they embark upon the path of the bodhisattva.

In the edition translated by Red Pine, there is a quote by Chiang Wei-nung that says:

In Buddhist sutras it is sometimes said that women experience such great distractions that they cannot become buddhas, but must first be re-born as men.

Wei-nung then goes on to say that the Buddha did not see male or female and that the dharma is shared by all.  However, he makes an interesting distinction between love and compassion, which supposedly explains why women are so easily distracted:

Still the distractions of women are great.  First is the distraction of motherhood.  Second, they frequently confuse love for compassion.  Compassion is impartial.  It knows neither direction nor degree.  Love, meanwhile is a river of life and death, of endless rebirth.

Of course, being a 21st century American woman, the idea that a man is more suited for spiritual practice is outrageous to me.  It does seem like a very old idea that has certainly pervaded religions for thousands of years.  [An example is the attitude toward women found in the ancient Upanishads, where women are likened to cows, and where re-birth as a man would definitely be an excellent idea!] 

I wonder about the impartial “compassion” of the supposedly great Zen teachers such as Genpo Mertzel and Eido Shimano, who had to dis-robe due to sexual predation.   Perhaps there are female sexual predators, but this seems to be the domain of men – the ones more suitable for the bodhisattva path – or so it is said.

But as I was reading this while parked at Linda Mar beach, I was somewhat startled to see that I am easily distracted, certainly by love.  I have a deeply devotional nature and have loved my two gurus and now my Zen teacher.  Although this love has inspired me all my life to dedicate myself to meditation, reading, service, etc, it has been painful, and it has been a distraction.  After a lifetime of inspiration and terrible disappointments, I think that it might be a good idea to be impartial in my love and compassion.

Well, that sounds good.  It sounds like some kind of spiritual maturity.  But is it?

We have idealized impressions of Buddha’s disciples as leading a life of absolute discipline.  We have impressions of monks living in their cells, undisturbed and undistracted by human emotions such as anger, lust, boredom, attachment, and doubt.  We have this idea that with enough practice and resolve, we also can be free of these distracting [and degrading] human emotions.

I think that this is not possible nor even desirable.  Although we can witness our emotions in meditation and can gradually move to some peace of mind, and although we can step back for a few blessed minutes in zazen, we are human, and it is good to love and be attached and passionate about our lives.

It is difficult for me to imagine compassion devoid of deep, painful human experience and suffering.  How helpful would a friend be –how compassionate could she be – if she had not also suffered the attachment and the confusion that can often be found in loving another?

I suppose there must be a middle way between being thrown about by human emotions, on the one hand, and being completely detached from emotions, on the other.  And I suspect that applies to men and women alike.