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.