Saturday, July 26, 2014

Upaya practice period with Norman and Kaz

Upaya Zen Center, outside of Santa Fe, is in a high valley at 7000 feet, surrounded by dry hills that are covered with high desert bushes and trees. Every hot afternoon, there was the mercy of high cumulus clouds and thunderstorms, accompanied by a celestial game of Buddhas Bowling, with thunder balls rolling down the valley.

The zendo is in an adobe structure and is an exquisite combination of Japanese woodworking and Southwest design. There are soji screens along one wall, and the remaining three sides are held up by giant grey tree trunks. A picture of Green Tara covers almost entirely one wall. The floor is a dark brown. The altar looks as if it could have been a Hopi Indian work table. Everything was cool and beautiful – all an expression of Roshi Joan’s aesthetic and attention to detail (and love of female bodhisattvas).

Eva B and I were roommates in the beautiful Upaya House, along with Norman and Kathy. I rarely saw Norman, but every morning at 5:30 am, I made coffee for them. And every morning Kathy and I bowed to each other in a way that is the Bowing Prayer: the bodies of bower, the bowed to, and coffee are one.

The following is very difficult for me, but I feel compelled to express my concern about the “scene” around Joan Halifax, or “Roshi” as she is called. For many years I was intimately connected with the guru scene around Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Gurumayi lived like a queen, while young people worked 12 hour days, with no pay, to anticipate her every wish. Apparently Joan has “retired.” She is doing important work, but the resident students at Upaya have no teacher. Based on what students shared with me, she inspires awe and actual fear. She has people preparing her lunch, doing her laundry, and one young, handsome man appears to be her constant companion, which was the most disturbing observation of all.  I don’t really know the whole story, and I am probably coming from my own pain around the issue of celebrity, genius, abandonment by my teacher, and the exploitation that I have experienced in my own life.

For the first time, to my knowledge, Kathy came forward to take the dharma seat. She gave talks that subtly used her knowledge of amoebas, sea stars, and sharks to illustrate the dharma. She gave dokusan along with Norman, and as people discovered her great kindness and charm, the list for Kathy quickly filled up to capacity. And because the Upaya students are desperate for a teacher, many wished to become Kathy’s students.

So, every morning, I woke up at 4:30 and drank coffee until the first birdsong at 5:13 am, and then walked to the zendo in the early morning light. I often stopped at a stone bench, surrounded by wildflowers. For the first meditation, we all sat facing inward. I love the way that Norman so nobly enters the zendo, and I would always think, “Good morning, beloved friend.” When he did the three bows, it was clear that he was bowing to the altar, to us, and the great boundlessness.

Upaya has different versions of the chants. Norman says they have been “kaz-ified”

Creations are numberless; I vow to free them
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them
Reality is boundless; I vow to perceive it
The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

The schedule was rigorous and was pretty much the same as that at Zen Center at sesshin. It took me almost two weeks to acclimate to the altitude, and because I have residual pain and fatigue due to rheumatoid arthritis, I had a difficult time physically. By the third day I was in tears and told Norman, “I can’t do this practice.” He gave me permission to rest during a period of zazen (although I ended up doing all zazen sessions except the late evening sits.) I was reminded that my practice is my practice. How could it be otherwise?

The three weeks was a wonderful way to practice with Norman in a monastic setting. And this practice for me is more than “just sitting.” It is sitting with sangha and is practicing with our teachers and listening to the dharma. Just practicing together, doing our best, knowing that in some mysterious way, it is the most important thing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ordination: The great offering of ancestors and teachers

This calling to be ordained – to give myself completely to the dharma – has been present for thirty-two years, or, maybe, it has always been so. Long ago in India, I stood outside a small room in the jungle, listening to the chanting of those taking the vows of sannyasa, monkhood in the yogic tradition. I cried, knowing that I could not take vows of celibacy. [And if I had, I never would be married to the kind and gentle seeker of the truth – Brad, my life companion and friend and husband.]

Due to the love and grace of Hoka Chris Fortin, I was given permission to sew an okesa, Buddha’s robe. She said, “I see your shining priest heart.” So began a year of the joyful, but arduous path of sewing an okesa, a rakusu, and a bowing mat. Each stitch taking refuge in the Buddha. The robe itself became the Buddha, the offering of myself to the dharma. It was literally a year of blood, sweat, and tears: doing a long row of stitching, only to discover that I had sewed the wrong side of a panel to the border, having to remove the stitches, and sew the row all over again.

When I contemplated being a priest, I had one fear: that I would think I had become someone special.  Humility is the essence of priesthood, along with seeing the Buddha in everyone, and a desire to serve all beings. I just didn’t – and don’t – want to take myself too seriously, while taking the vows themselves very seriously.

The day before the ordination, several friends helped me and Mary Ann shave our heads. I had an overwhelming sense of disorientation and a kind of confusion. I didn’t know who I was. Deep in my heart, I knew that I didn’t really know anything.  Such a gift: beginner’s mind – immeasurably deep and profound, as the ordination ceremony says. The fear that I would take myself too seriously lessened.

The night before the ordination, I had a remarkable dream. I was a passenger in a Ford Explorer. We were on a road, stopped at a river. The river looked deep and flowing. I knew we had to proceed through the river, but I was scared. I knew that I had to trust the driver. 

During the ordination ceremony, I was in a state of deep concentration and inward focus. It felt like a powerful form of zazen. I felt still and quiet. It was a backward step, an inner deep return to myself. During the entire ceremony, I was never aware of the large number of people attending. I saw and heard only what was right in front of me.

I saw Chris’s radiant smile as we bowed to each other, and she offered me my name, a sitting robe, a rakusu, a bowing mat, and finally the okesa. Every time I received a gift, our fingers intertwined as she released it to me. So tender and beautiful!

Apparently I kept sitting down on my robe, and every time I stood up, it would pull apart. Three times I stood up and turned to Arobin, who tucked it back in again. The third time, Jeff Bickner whispered to me, “Don’t sit on your robe.” To credit the robe itself, I remained quiet and still as my robe was put back on. [Norman had spoken to me a few years ago about wearing the robe with the quiet dignity of a buddha.]  I was embarrassed, though, and I am sure my face was flushed. But this is good! So much for taking myself too seriously! Hard to do, when your robe keeps falling off!

The language of the ordination ceremony is a great promise of freedom from karmic bonds. It is a promise of liberation and enlightenment. We vow to live a life of enlightenment. I think, “What if this is true? What if I am really freed from my karmic formations?” Now, a few days later, I think it is not that the seeds of karma are exterminated; it is that we can see them through a new lens. My relationship to them could change. May it be so!

More than this, I vow to act and speak from the ground of the precepts. I vow to have love for others and service to others, as my only desire.

Gratitude to the ancestors and lineage of teachers, handing the dharma to me this day.

This is really the essence of what I wish to say: thank you.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Can we wake up (or not)?

We Zen practitioners use the words “wake up” as if we actually understand what waking up is. One can even buy coffee cups and tee shirts with the words, “Wake Up!”

The historical Buddha said, “When one person [italics added] opens up reality and returns to the source, all space in the ten directions disappears.” Pre-Mahayana literature describes this as an act of awakening that happens to a practitioner after rigorous practice over many lifetimes. [I won’t discuss here the confusing paradox that there is no-self to wake up!]

With the Lotus Sutra, and its emphasis by Dogen, awakening is a liberative function of all time and space.  Thousands of bodhisattvas emerge from the earth, and the Buddha has an inconceivably long life span.  Quoting from Dan Leighton’s wonderful book, Visions of Awakening Space and Time, “But Dogen’s own version of this utterance [the words of the Buddha] expresses a deeper appreciation for the vitality of the spatial environment and for the actual spiritual potency and capacity of the world to manifest awakening.” [I like to visualize Kogen in the fields of Green Gulch Farm!]

Important to note, I think, is that Mr. Leighton does not say here the capacity for one person to wake up. And this gets to my question: can one person wake up?  According to the Soto Zen view, as I understand it, there is no final state of enlightenment, as in one moment you are deluded, and then you wake up and are enlightened. “Practice enlightenment,” as described by Dogen, is ongoing, continuous practice.  In fact, great teacher Norman Fischer said in a talk recently that for Dogen,

Awakening was a kind of metaphysical reality, not a mere psychological achievement. Awakening existed in its fullness, always, and everywhere. It was not something produced by a little person’s little activity. ~ from Introduction to the Precepts

Ouch! “A little person’s little activity.”  I do love this idea of a metaphysical reality. But I don’t want to limit myself, to say that I, personally, cannot wake up or experience waking up.  I don’t know what to call them exactly, but I have had glimpses of a kind of non-dual reality, and always in the context of nature. At risk of sounding like some hippie-dippie person, I recently had an experience of the unity of all things.  I was walking kinhin outdoors and came across a radiant, golden poppy. For a moment, I did feel that I was actually that flower…until my mind kicked in and obscured and negated the whole experience.

Again quoting Leighton, “According to Dogen, there is clear and beneficial mutuality in the inter-relationship between the practitioner and the environment.” So that seems to validate my experience.  But do I need Dogen – or any teacher – to validate real experiences of spaciousness and love and the unity with all things?  No, I hope not!

The best language might be to change the verb tenses.  Instead of the past tense of “she woke up,” you could use the present participle, “she is awaking.” Instead of “enlightenment,” use the sense of “enlightening.”

However it is talked about, I have faith in the mystery that is always available to all of us and to have faith in my own experience.