Yorktown Zen http://yorktownzen.org/index.html Authentic Zen Practice in the Hudson Valley of New York Sun, 24 Sep 2023 15:24:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 SitePad Reverend Jeanette Phillips http://yorktownzen.org/blog/reverend-jeanette-phillips.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/reverend-jeanette-phillips/#respond Sun, 24 Sep 2023 15:18:35 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/reverend-jeanette-phillips.html


Tesshin Roshi used his talk this week to eulogize Jeannette J. Phillips who was one of his clerical colleagues in the Hudson Valley region.  Roshi noted that right before her death at 90 years old, rev Phillips was actively assisting our group setting up the Peekskill mediation “circle.”  It was quite a surprise that she was working one day and gone the next.


It is said in Zen that our practice is all about “Learning, Understanding, and then Doing.”  Although Reverend Phillips was not a Zen practitioner, nobody embodied this approach more than her.  One of her signature initiatives was bringing healthcare to underserved areas.  Roshi explained that instead of simply protesting the situation, the reverend took the time to learn about the needs of the community, then deeply understand why the community was underserved, and finally to do something about it.  


It is important to note that her project to bring healthcare to underserved communities was not done in a day, but over a period of decades.   The clinic she helped found started as a simple storefront.  Through determination, it grew to become Sun River Health which is one of the largest federally qualified health center networks in the nation including 45 locations in NYC, Long Island, southern Westchester, Rockland and Dutchesscounties.  The reverend’s dedication, determination, and patience serve as an example of how we should approach our practice.  Results are only achievable through long and diligent work.  Even stories of “immediate enlightenment” come after many years of diligent practice.  


Roshi also noted that the reverend was tireless in working with anyone who shared her vision.  This could include working with government agencies like the Westchester County Department of Health, but it also meant raising funds by selling homemade pies and cakes.  Reverend Phillips was not a lobbyist in fancy clothes working government corridors, rather she very much focused on the “grassroots” efforts in the community which she cared so much for.  Roshi noted that the thing he remembered the most about the reverend is that she never would take ‘NO’ as an answer.  Roshi asked the group if we would have such a no compromise attitude to our goals in life and practice.


Roshi next mentioned that his relationship with Reverend Phillips came through the strong interfaith group in the region.  He noted that interfaith relationships are really an American tradition and do not exist in countries like Japan.  There is mutual respect and formal relationships between traditions in a place like Japan, but religious leaders seldom simply spend time and socialize like they do here in the United States.  Roshi speculated that this interfaith tradition sprung from the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s when many groups joined together to further that cause.  Roshi mentioned that this interfaith dialog is so important because without it, he would never have come in contact with a person like Reverend Phillips.  To be exposed to great leaders across many traditions deepens our practice in ways that working only with people in one’s own tradition cannot.  Roshi wrapped up by inviting each of us to study the life and achievement of Reverend Phillips and perhaps aspire to the life of service which she was an exemplar of.


(Photo from sunriver.org)

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Walking Meditation http://yorktownzen.org/blog/walking-meditation.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/walking-meditation/#respond Sun, 10 Sep 2023 15:41:03 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/walking-meditation.html
Nothing to Grasp


This week Tesshin Roshi explored “Buddhist Walking” and what it means for our practice.  It is important to note that all schools of Buddhism have some type of walking practice, even if the style and technique is very different among the different traditions.  Roshi also noted that walking was a large part of the practice of the historical Buddha as monks of that time spent a large amount of time collecting food donations for their sangha.


So, what is this walking practice?  Commonly, new students look at walking mediation as a break between sitting periods where one can stretch the legs and work out kinks.  While this is true to some degree, but there is so much more to this practice.  Roshi invited us to consider the kanji character for walking.  The top portion of the character represents the neck and head, and the bottom part relates to a road or a path.  


The bottom part of the kanji translates as “DO” which in English is “Way”.  We see this term “way” in many pursuits.  For instance, we may study the way of the bow “kyuDO” or the way of flowers also known as “kaDO”.  Roshi reminded us that this way or path is not simply a google map telling us how to get from point A to point B.  This is because the way/path we are taking requires our consciousness.  This is the other part of the kanji.  We cannot fire the bow or arrange the flowers or do any of the other myriad of things without bringing our consciousness to bear.  So, in walking meditation, we are not walking to reach a destination.  We are also not just walking to stretch out after a long sit.  We are walking to bring our consciousness to bear on the task at hand.  In a very real way, we are walking to our own enlightenment.


However, Roshi did not stop here.  In our conventional way of thinking, we travel a path to get from where we are to where we want to be.  So, in Zen we have to always ask the question, where are we going?  Is the destination better than where we are right now?  Here Roshi stopped and pointed out that the answer must be NO.  It is dualistic to think that over there is better than what is right here.  To undertake a path to get to some “promised land” is simply a recipe for suffering.  We do this all the time as it is part of our conditioning.  We think that if we get promoted to the better job, we will be happy.  Perhaps if we become degreed in a discipline, we will be happy.  On and on we go.  We are always moving towards something and when we get there, we simply end up looking for the next thing.  It never ends and we are never happy.


So Roshi asked the group, “Should we not strive?  Should we not take up a path?”  Of course, we should!  The thought we should hold, however, is that the destination is not what is important, rather it is every step along the way.  Each step is perfect as it is.  This is because every instant of our existence is perfect as it is.  Our walking meditation is another reminder of this moment-to-moment perfection.  In walking meditation there is no destination.  We walk around the zendo and end up right back where we started.   What we do, however, is to focus on each step as it is taken.  We realize that each step is an expression of perfection in the moment.  Roshi reminded us that this is the deepest meaning of walking meditation.  


To many students, this feels a bit disappointing.  We are hardwired to desire a goal.  There has to be something to strive for.  If this is the case, Roshi suggested that our goals should always be informed by the Bodhisattva vows.  We should always strive to reduce suffering in ourselves and all beings with every path we embark on.

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Buddhist Culture http://yorktownzen.org/blog/buddhist-culture.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/buddhist-culture/#respond Sun, 03 Sep 2023 16:22:59 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/buddhist-culture.html
Mindfulness or Awareness


Roshi opened his talk this week by telling us that he was invited to give a talk at the United Auto Workers conference on “Safety.”  Why would a Zen teacher be invited to talk to a group of auto workers?  A clue could be the name of the conference – “Creating a Culture of Safety.”  Roshi asked us to consider for a moment what a culture actually is.


Tesshin Roshi noted that he has spent a good part of his life outside of the dominant culture.  Whether this was when he was an American in Japan or a Zen teacher in America – he was always a bit of an outsider.  This outsider status has the great advantage of providing an unbiased perspective on the dominant culture.  In other words, being on the outside allows one to deeply observe.  As an example of this, consider that many of our most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish immigrants.  Why is this?  Perhaps as outsiders, they could really see what people needed at that moment. 


Roshi next asked us to consider the American culture for a moment.  First of all, we must realize that the culture is always changing.  What was acceptable one hundred years ago may not be acceptable today.  Consider something like same-sex marriage.  In the past these relationships were shunned, but now they are more mainstream in our culture.  So, if culture is always changing, is there a foundational essence which does not change?  Roshi noted that a good working definition of culture is a set of beliefs and values on which the majority of people agree on and are stable over time.  In America, there are many different beliefs and values – as we would expect in such a large and diverse country.  However, looking into the matter deeply we can see that this culture puts a lot of value on the individual.  This may express itself in positive and negative ways.  For instance, our sense of political and economic liberty derives from this value of the individual.  However, we may over indulge in this value and descend into mindless consumerism and selfishness.  We can also look to other cultures to see how they contrast.  For instance, other cultures venerate the society and tradition.  This leads to traditions such as respect for elders and a desire for order in society.  


Roshi stopped here and asked the group to consider if there is such a thing as “Buddhist Culture.”  This is a recurrent question – especially in America where Buddhism is a relatively new transplant.  Many American practice centers resist Buddhist forms and liturgy.  They ask, “Isn’t it enough to simply sit?  Aren’t all the forms simply a reflection on Japanese or Chinese culture?”  Many conclude that we do not need these foreign forms in America!  Roshi asked us to think a bit deeper on this.  In his estimation, Buddhist culture is all about attention and wisdom.  Sitting is not the Buddhist culture!  Zazen is a tool we use – but our shared value is being present right here, right now.  


This brings us back to the forms.  Are the forms Buddhist culture – no!  However, if we are to jettison the “foreign forms” we have to ask the question – what tools are we going to replace them with?  If we are to build a house, we can drop our hammers and measuring tapes – but we have to replace them with something else.  Perhaps we move to power tools or even 3D printing – but we need something.  The tools of Buddhism are all about generating “present mind” and wisdom.  This is our culture.  We can use new tools and modify existing tools, but we can never lose sight of what makes our practice work.  


Roshi emphasized this point by noting that details matter.  We pay attention to everything in practice because this attention lessens the power of the ego.  We hold elaborate Oryoki meal ceremonies instead of ordering take-out as the fine details of the meal discipline our wandering mind.  We chant, bow, and perform all sorts of liturgy in order to focus on detail.  Working on details allow us to forget the self – if just for a brief moment.


To emphasize this point, Roshi told a story about when he first started as a student in a Japanese temple at the age of 19.  His first assignment was to wash the windows.  On the first day, he was all mindful about the job and did his best to make the windows perfect.  On the second day, he was assigned to wash the windows again.  He asked, “But sir, I have already done that job!!”  He got this same job over and over again for the entire week.  Finally in frustration, he asked “Why do you keep assigning me this task – the windows are perfect!”  To which the answer was, “Yes, the windows are perfect, but you are not!”  It is not about the windows – it was never about the windows.  The task and the details exist to forge our ability to be present and mindful.  THIS is our Buddhist culture at work.  


Roshi reminded us that adopting this Buddhist culture is central to our practice.  We cannot have one without the other.  He reminded us that this extends to every activity in the Zendo.  How we bow, our posture in Zazen, how we care for the alter.  Every detail is superfluous and a matter of life and death.

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You are Buddha Right Now http://yorktownzen.org/blog/you-are-buddha-right-now.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/you-are-buddha-right-now/#respond Sun, 27 Aug 2023 15:24:40 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/you-are-buddha-right-now.html
You are the Buddha


Roshi begins this week with a reminder that we have been talking for several weeks about the sixth patriarch, the Platform Sutra. He tells us he could spend an entire year on this easily and never get bored since he was such a radical and rebel and you could see in his teachings why so many people were upset with him his whole life.  His life was always threatened because his teachings were so profound and so simple that it really disturbed a lot of people in their preconceptions about what Zen is and what Buddhism is.


Roshi reiterates for us that the structure of the Platform Sutra is jukai, the precepts.  We are told the sutra starts off with his background on how he came to his path with the Diamond Sutra being very big for him, that he gained his enlightenment through the Diamond Sutra, and so he was a big proponent of it.


We learn that he does his version of jukai in a very different and radical way compared to the way we do it. He then finishes with a fairly long lecture on practice, so we will take out one section to look at, section/paragraph 30.  (In the Red Pine translation of the Platform Sutra)


Huineng says,

“All the sutras and texts, all 12 divisions of the Hinayana and Mahayana Canons, were arranged by people. And it was because the nature of wisdom that they could do so. Moreover if there were no people in the world, none of the 10,000 teachings would have happened. Hence the 10,000 teachings have arisen because of people. And the sutras all exist because somebody spoke them. Some people in the world are foolish. Some are wise. The foolish are narrow-minded and the wise are open-minded.”


“So the foolish ask the wise and the wise teach the foolish until the foolish understand and open their minds. But once people foolish people understand and their minds are open, they are no different from the wisest of the wise. Hence, until they understand, buddhas are ordinary beings. But the moment they understand, ordinary beings are buddhas.”


“Thus the 10,000 teachings are all present within your very own mind. So, why don’t you use your own mind and see the nature of reality right now? The Bodhisattva Precept Sutra says, “Our original nature is pure. When you know your mind and see your nature, you complete the path to buddhahood.'”


The Vimalakirti Sutra says, “Suddenly all at once you discover your original mind.” This tradition of sudden awareness, of sudden awakening, is something he pushed hard on compared to slow awakening. Roshi points out that we can see in this one little section that the emphasis is on people.


We are reminded that this is not new to all of us. We know everyone’s the same. Everyone is born with buddha nature, everyone is enlightened. Some of us know it, some of us don’t. But what makes this teaching kind of radical is he’s saying, “You’re enlightened now! You’re buddha now. You might not know it, but now! Now now now now now now.”


And people always think this is absurd. How can we be buddhas now? Every one of us this in this room is Buddha? We are given an example of a neighbor that took their trash out, spilled all over the road, and didn’t clean up, and are taught to believe that they too are buddha. That we can go through a long list of people that we feel are clearly not Buddhas. How can you say they’re Buddhas?


Roshi teaches us that there is a simple explanation, easy to understand, and a little bit more nuanced explanation about how everyone is a Buddha right now. So, the simple explanation is: our nature is our nature is our nature. Sometimes we’re blind to the nature, but it never changes. It’s just like the sun. 


The sun is the sun is the sun. It’s always shining. Even when it’s night, it’s still shining. Even when it’s stormy, it’s still shining. So we’re all buddhas whether we see it or not. Sometimes we’re just clouded to that. It’s a beautiful day. Today we see the sun, but often we can’t. It may be in ancient times we thought, “Oh the sun goes away and comes back.” No, it’s it’s always there.


So Roshi teaches us that it is a matter of whether we are able to perceive it or not. And this is the whole explanation for our buddhahood. Are we able to see it or not? What kind of training do we have to do? What kind of practice do we have to do to get rid of the attachments and clouds and delusions that prohibit us from seeing our own buddha nature? 


We are told that this is the easier explanation, that the only difference between those who are enlightened and those are not–the foolish and the wise–is the foolish aren’t wise yet. It’s just a matter of time.


The more nuanced explanation to this uses the scope or the lens of Paramita, of wisdom of enlightenment. We are reminded that we have learned before that the Paramita meaning is to cross the shore, to go to the other side. So, we’re on this shore, the shore is the shore, it’s all the same thing. We just haven’t crossed over yet. 


So, we still on our side perceive life and death and goodness and badness, we still perceive all those differences. When we are wise, those differences go away. So if you look at the scope of humanity, and evolution, we all know and we accept that nothing is permanent. Things are in transition all the time. Every single moment things are moving and changing. We can all accept that; we all know that. 


So then when we look at ourselves in that scope of humanity, if we’re here, we’re either moving in one direction in another direction. We’re either getting more stupid or smarter. We’re becoming more foolish or more wise.


You can’t stay the same. You’re moving in one direction or the other, always. So even for the folks that are moving in the more foolish direction, that’s good! Because it is the foolishness that brings the pain and suffering and brings all the negative karma that eventually becomes the fuel, the mud, out of which the lotus grows. 


So that’s good because it’ll keep going toward more and more foolish, and then it has no other choice but to bounce to the other direction. And if you are really wise or if you are in that direction, maybe you feel like right now I can be so much better and be so much happier. I can be so much more enlightened and at one with everything and less judge-y and just in bliss all the time. I’m not there yet. 


When the Huineng says, “You’re wise right now, you’re enlightened!” we feel that’s not true. That we know our own life. “I’m not there yet, I just know it.” “I don’t know what ‘mu’ is!” we think. “I’m still working on ‘mu’! I’m still working on emptiness and nothingness. I’m not there yet so don’t tell me I’m Buddha and enlightened right now, that’s crazy.” That is what set off a lot of people at that time. People resisted claiming that this is not what all the teachers have been teaching us for years.  He said no, you’re wise right now. That people felt it makes no sense.


Roshi tells us that with further examination, basically he’s looking at it from the view of Paramita, of wisdom, there is no delineation between life and death. It is one continuum. So if you look at your lives right now and you say, “Where am I?” you have to recognize that through the embodiment of where you are right now, this incarnation through your conditioning, where do you find yourself? On a Saturday morning, on a cushion.


Roshi shows us that when we look at this continuum, it is pretty clear where the continuum is going. We all, because of our condition or where we are, find ourselves on a cushion having made a value judgment, having made bodhisattva vows, having engaged whether we think that we’re good at it or not. We are clearly engaged in this process of enlightenment and awareness and consciousness. We are on that path. 


We are directed to just look around the room, and see that everyone is very clearly on that path. And for that we have got to be incredibly thankful. We are asked to think of all the people in the world who don’t have a path. Who don’t have the dharma. Who don’t have any consciousness of their actions, and become victimized by their decisions every single moment of their life. 


Roshi tells us a story of when he recently witnessed someone having a hard time assisting someone who was clearly and publicly not receiving instruction well at all, and that with permission he gently conveyed that we need to remember that there is no break for that person, that you have to have some empathy, some compassion for that.


That we have the majority of humanity that is just constantly doing things and making decisions that are hurting themselves and hurting others, they have no path. So you feel bad, and you feel empathy or sympathy. 


But then you look at us and look how privileged we are, which is one reason we want to do this outreach.  How privileged we are to be able to have the cushion, have a place to come to, to listen to these incredible teachers that reach out over 12 centuries.  Can you believe that, Roshi asks, like after 12 centuries, they reach into our heart right now and go, “Wake up! This is what’s happening in your life!” 


Like we’re on this continuum and very blessed. We just have to continue that practice. So if you take away the life and death, the reincarnation part of it, we’re there already. That’s what the sixth patriarch means by we’re already there. 


Just take away the time element, we’re already enlightened. We’re already buddha. We’re on the path. We’re on the cushion. Let’s get the practice going. So it’s a little bit nuanced.


Roshi tells us if we like the sun metaphor, it’s a little bit easier.  But in terms of the practicality of our practice and how we judge ourselves, it’s really just a matter of: relax, it’s okay, it’s practice, you’re on the path. You’re on the path, you have everything you need. Just keep sitting. Just keep going back to the dharma. 


When we feel off, at least we can observe it and go, “Wow, that was a really crummy thing I just did. I kind of regret that.” Okay great! We have a practice that allows us to be self-reflective enough to make those adjustments and keep us on the path. 


We are encouraged to just feel the flow of the moment, and the sixth patriarch talks a lot about how it is just this flow, to be in the breath, to be in the moment, you’re buddha now, just keep opening your eyes, keep watching your thoughts, keep to your vows, it’s all good. It’s all good.


A lot of people were upset with the patriarch in essentially saying, “With buddhas there is all this architecture, there are all these images, and there are all these forms we have to do,” and he says, “No.” That is what he says over and over again. “You may have this image of what an enlightened person is.”


It may have been Suzuki Roshi who said, “You have no idea how disappointed people are going to be when they finally meet Buddha. He’s just a dude. It will be really disappointing for those people.”


Roshi reminds us that the sixth patriarch says all sutras, all texts, all 12 divisions of Mahayana were arranged by people. People. If there were no people in the world, none of the teachings would have appeared. It’s just all about just being a real person! Just be a human being. You’re already human beings, we’re already people, that’s what makes us do this. So, just enjoy your life, enjoy being a human being, a person. That’s what it is to be a Buddha.

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Huineng’s Three Refuges http://yorktownzen.org/blog/huinengs-three-refuges.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/huinengs-three-refuges/#respond Sun, 20 Aug 2023 16:47:09 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/huinengs-three-refuges.html


Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion this week on Huineng and the  Platform Sutra.  


Roshi opened the Taisho (dharma talk) this week by noting that the Platform Sutra is really all about the Jukai ceremony.  This ceremony, which some of the Sangha just went through, centers on the process of becoming a Bodhisattva.  We should understand this transformation as something very profound.  The Bodhisattva way is the “platform” or foundation of our practice.  


The sutra focuses on Huineng’s version of the Jukai ceremony.  Unlike today, back in Huineng’s time it would have been exclusively monks and nuns going through this process.  These individuals would have been inundated with Buddhist teachings, stories, and sutras from a young age.  As such, the students already had the necessary background “information” and were ready.  Modern lay practitioners, on the other hand, need to go through a multi-month preparatory phase to be ready to appreciate the ceremony.


Roshi next mentioned that in the Sutra Huineng starts the Jukai ceremony with a Taisho which focuses on the distinctions between different states of mind.  What is pure concentration?  What is pure wisdom? What is delusion?  In the talk, Huineng is clear that the concept of each of those things is actually the thing that defiles it. That the mind is already in the state of purity that concentration.  Again, the thinking mind gets in the way of its own clarity!


Roshi next stated that he wanted to focus on the first part of Huineng’s ceremony.  His version of his ceremony is considered somewhat radical and isn’t practiced today – although it is respected to this day.  The first section of the ceremony, not surprisingly, is the three refuges in which the participant takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  What does this mean?  If you do an internet search for it, there’s endless dharma talks, lectures, and books trying to explain the concept of refuge.  Roshi asked everyone what they think in their mind when we take refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Shangha?  What connection do you have with these words?


Roshi stopped here and stated that words are not the answer!  He then struck his chest and said THIS is the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha!  In essence, there is no difference between the mind and body.  It is all one thing.  This is Huineng’s message in the Jukai ceremony.  Roshi then proceeded to break this down a bit for us.  The first refuge in the Buddha is understood to be taking refuge in the “Buddha Body.”  When taking refuge in the Dharma, we are taking refuge in “Reward Body.”  Lastly, when we take refuge in the Sangha, we’re taking refuge in the “Inevitable Eternal Body.” 


Roshi next proceeded to explain what Huineng meant by these Dharma bodies.  Roshi used the metaphor of a tree.  He pointed to a tree out in the yard which had a branch extending a great distance from the trunk at a right angle.  When that tree was initially born from a seed it grew each year by a number of feet.  However, at each point the tree was perfect.  It was not like the tree would only be perfect once it gained its full height.  In a very basic way, it is perfect as it is in every moment.  So seed, sapling, and tall tree are all perfect.  This is Huineng’s first refuge in the perfect Buddha Body.  Like the tree, it is the same with us.  Why would Huineng use the body as the first refuge?  Roshi noted that the reason was rather simple – our body is our vehicle through life.  If our life is already perfect, it stands to reason that the vehicle carrying it must also be perfect.  So Huineng is telling us to take refuge is our very physicality.  


Roshi again pointed at the tree with the large perpendicular branch.  He noted that the branch is pretty much naked until the very end where it captures the sunlight with a cluster of leaves.  Why does it look that way?  Obviously, it is because that is where the sunlight is and the tree needs it.  If the main trunk is in the shade, the tree adapted by sending out a long branch to where the sun is available.  Roshi noted that this is the “Reward Body.”  We all go throughout life following our needs and desires.  As we follow these things our mind and body adapt and change as needed.  All of our needs and desires, and all the conditioning from them have led us to this very moment where we are now.  So, we take refuge in our state as it is right now – which is perfect – how could it not be?


Roshi next stated that you may look at a tree with a long horizontal limb and worry that it will come crashing down in a storm.  Does that branch fall today?  Is it going to fall tomorrow?  Maybe it never falls.  We just do not know what will happen, but we do know something will happen due to all events leading up to a moment in time.  This karmic causality is the third refuge Huineng speaks to.  


Roshi stopped and reminded us that ultimately these three bodies, the Dharma Body, the Reward Body, and the Transformational Body are one of the same body.  Again, Roshi pointed to the tree in the yard and stated that the tree is the tree.  Isn’t it obvious?  We are what we are. So, it is with the Three Refuges. They are distinct and can be explained individually, but they are one and the same.   Roshi noted that Huineng is exhorting us all to practice with that level of immediacy.    


Roshi wrapped up by noting that the Three Refuges was just the first part of Huineng Jukai ceremony.  Next week we will delve into the Repentances.  

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Turning the Mirror Inward http://yorktownzen.org/blog/turning-the-mirror-inward.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/turning-the-mirror-inward/#respond Sun, 13 Aug 2023 19:23:14 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/turning-the-mirror-inward.html
Turn Attention Inward


Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion this week on Huineng and the Platform Sutra.  (Red Pine translation)


To reiterate, Roshi suggested that we could consider Huineng a rebel and a renegade as he did so much to change the established Zen tradition even though many of his contemporaries considered him uneducated and unsophisticated.  Roshi noted that an interesting aspect of Zen is that it fosters an ongoing discussion between masters separated by time.  He mentioned that masters like Dogen and Huineng were separated by a large period of time, but Dogen can still comment, debate, and agree or disagree with Huineng’s work.  The interesting thing Roshi noted is that this running conversation comes all the way down to us.  We are part of the great discussion of enlightenment!


Roshi next mentioned that at the end of the Platform Sutra there was a section where Huineng gave some advice to practitioners.  What is interesting is that Huineng directed this advice to both monks and laypeople.  He did this because he considered monks and lay practitioners in the exact same category.  This is very unusual for teachers of this time who mostly directed their teachings to monks.   

Roshi next read the Red Pines version of this advice as follows …


People who truly follow the Way don’t consider the faults of the world those who consider the wrongs of the world only add to their own I don’t condemn the faults of others my own wrongs are what I’m after just get rid of thoughts about wrongs and all your afflictions will shatter.


Sometimes we get distracted trying to figure out the big problems in the world.  We tend to tie ourselves up into knots worrying about big things like climate change, social justice, and evil in the world.  These things weigh down our lives and we find that there is little that we can do to solve these problems.  However, what if the solution is to be improving yourself and your actions continuously?  Huineng is clearly telling us to focus on our own issues and problems first before we take on the entire world!


Roshi then gave some examples of this.  If you are angry at someone, you could indulge your anger and find all kinds of faults with the other person.  However, what would happen if, instead, you stopped for a moment and applied a different perspective?  That other person could still be wrong and terrible, but they are still a person!  They are still the same “thing” as you are, and as such deserve some basic level of understanding and compassion.  This does not mean we are passive to all insults – it simply means we “tweak” our response to be skillful – always remembering that our overall goal is to alleviate suffering for all beings.  


So how do we tweak our thoughts?  Roshi suggested that when the desire comes to focus on the faults of others, simply turn the mirror a bit towards ourselves instead.  Focus on those things which will make you a better person.  If someone commits what you consider an evil act, consider if your life is in perfect order before you react.  Have you said hurtful things in the past?  Did you ever indulge in malevolent acts?  Have you been careless in your relations with others?  It is a simple thing to be mindful of your faults, but it actually ends up being a huge change in your life.  


It is the same thing with the problems of the world.  We can spend a lot of energy worrying these things.  Roshi gave examples like domestic abuse, the Ukraine war, climate change, and social justice.  Our first reaction is to worry ourselves sick about these problems and endless talk about simplistic remedies – yet nothing changes!  However, if we search ourselves deeply, all we have done is increase our own blood pressure.  We have not really helped the situation in any meaningful way.  Roshi again suggested that we turn the mirror inward a bit.  Instead of complaining about domestic abuse, one could donate some time, money, or supplies to the local women’s shelter.  Instead of keeping oneself up all night about climate change, one could educate themselves about the climate and find ways to be more efficient with consumption.  One could even invent a way to help others to do this!  These “small” solutions will not be very visible or “flashy” but they will incrementally help.  Think back to the Bodhisattva vow.  We vow to save all beings.   How could we do this?  It is impossible.  Yes, it is, but small acts of compassion multiplied over many years and many mindful individuals really add up!  


Roshi then stopped and considered a few concerns with this line of thinking.  The first is that if we stop focusing on the faults with the world, will we become complacent and apathetic?  Should we not correct others when they are clearly wrong?  Should we not address all that is wrong with society?  Roshi mentioned that this is one of these Zen puzzles where multiple answers can be right at the same time.  Yes, we need to be concerned with the world, but we need to keep things in perspective.  We need to focus first on things that we can change right here and now with ourselves.  Only then should we address the faults of others or the world.    Our practice is very much like this.  We start with our own mind first.  Once we can control our own mind our behavior and actions naturally provide a good example to others about what skillful behavior can look like.  The more we practice, the more others are influenced and the cycle of good karma moves forward.


Another point about this teaching Roshi mentioned is self-compassion.  People who are conscious of the problems of the world tend not to give themselves too much compassion.  Roshi reminded us that we cannot tend to the world’s problems if we are endlessly criticizing our own efforts.  How can you be expected to solve the world’s problems if you spend all of your time criticizing your efforts to save the world?  Give yourself a break!  Roshi wrapped up by mentioning that this is why practice is so important.  It allows us to get in tune with our mind and allows us to see when we are needlessly wasting time worrying about things we cannot control or tearing ourselves down with excessive criticism.  


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Zen Renegade http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-renegade.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-renegade/#respond Sun, 06 Aug 2023 15:50:01 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-renegade.html
Huineng Quote


Tesshin Roshi opened the Taisho this week by thanking everyone for their hard work and dedication during our second annual Jukai ceremony.  Special congratulations were in order for our Jukai class –  Wendy, Juan, Stacy, Ed and Bianca.   Video of the Jukai ceremony is available on our EVENTS PAGE


Roshi recalled the discussion on authentic Zen teachers we had a few weeks back when Gyokei Roshi visited the sangha from the Soto Zen North American Office.  One topic we did not discuss was how to deal with “Zen mavericks.”  We tend to like mavericks, cowboys, and renegades in America as it is so tied up with our culture.    Roshi wondered if there are teachers in our lineage who were truly enlightened but were really renegades who did not fit into the institutional system.


Roshi then suggested that the 6th patriarch of Zen, Huineng, may best fit the description of a Zen Renegade.  During this time in China, Zen was going through a major transformation.  At the time there were two major schools, namely the Northern School and the Southern School.  The dominant Northern School emphasized a calm and gradual path to enlightenment whereas the Sothern School stressed the concept of intense practice leading to sudden enlightenment.  Needless to say, the dominant school looked down at the Sothern school as unserious and unsophisticated.  As it turned out, Huineng’s transformation of spontaneous enlightenment had a lasting impact on Zen all the way to today.  As such, Roshi will be spending the next few weeks taking us through the Platform Sutra which is Huineng main teaching.  Roshi noted that that this teaching is so insightful it has been elevated to the status of a “Sutra” in Zen.  


This week Roshi wanted to provide us with a refresher on Huineng to get us ready for studying the Platform Sutra.  Huineng was active during the 5th century in China.  According to the history, he was an uneducated layman who had sudden insight when hearing the Diamond Sutra for the first time.  He then traveled to the temple of the fifth patriarch (Hongren) to receive training.  As Huineng was not a monk and lacked any educational background, he was initially refused entry.  Even after showing great determination, he was admitted into the temple more as a workman than as a monk.  Roshi paused here and had us consider the biases we have when evaluating talent.  He asked us to think in our own professions about where real talent can come from.  Sometimes it is not the person who has followed the normal path – but the renegade!  


Roshi related a famous story about Huineng.  Hongren was approaching the end of his life and had to pick a successor.  In order to determine this, he asked all the senior monks to compose a poem to show their realization.  Everyone expected the most senior monk to have the best poem as he was the most intelligent, sophisticated, and erudite.  Below is what he wrote…


The body is the bodhi tree.

The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.

At all times we must strive to polish it

and must not let dust collect.


Basically, what we have here is a very well formed but conventional response.  Hongren, however saw through this stock-standard answer and was not impressed.  Later on, the uneducated Huineng asked to have the poem read to him.  It could be imaged that Huineng rolled his eyes at the senior monk’s conventional answer and responded with the following verse…


Bodhi originally has no tree.

The mirror has no stand.

The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure.

Where is there room for dust?


Even to our unenlightened eyes, we can see Huineng blasting away at the years of academic accretion displayed in the first poem.  It is almost like Huineng is shouting at everyone to close the books and touch “suchness” directly.  As the story goes, Hongren recognized Huineng’s insight and handed him his bowl and robe making Huineng the successor.  However, and this is very important to note, the monks in the temple could not accept this.  Huineng was illiterate and uneducated!  How could he become the successor of the great master.  Did this prove that the monks were wasting their time with Sutra study and memorization of liturgy and forms?  Even worse, Huineng did not even conform to the established doctrine of the Northern School!  Instead of recognizing his insight and brilliance, they saw him as a threat which must be destroyed.  Hongren recognized the risk and suggested that Huineng leave the temple immediately.  Here Roshi stopped – what a shame!  A temple dedicated to the pursuit of realization casting away the very person who had the very thing they were all seeking.  Again, something for us to consider and meditate upon.    


Huineng did escape the monastery and was able to take on students.  His teachings on sudden enlightenment through intense practice of the unattached mind became the dominant approach in Zen.  Roshi wrapped up by reiterating that we will be studying this Zen Renegade through his main teaching of the Platform Sutra over the next few weeks.

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What is a Teacher? http://yorktownzen.org/blog/what-is-a-teacher.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/what-is-a-teacher/#respond Sun, 23 Jul 2023 02:14:59 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/what-is-a-teacher.html
children are zen teachers


Tesshin Roshi announced to the group that a representative from Soto Zen will be visiting the Sangha on Sunday July 23rd.  Roshi then noted that in the West, there are three broad group of Zen teachers.  The first group of teachers either came directly from Japan or trained extensively in that country.   The second group of teachers exist in the Japanese lineage, but may not have done any training in Japan.  Lastly, there is a third group in the West who are not strictly in the Japanese lineage, but are setting up practice centers and attracting students.  Roshi noted that the Soto Zen organization in the US has begun to increase its outreach to all of these groups.  The idea is to ensure that Zen teachers in the US become more connected to each other and to the larger stream of the Soto Zen tradition. 


With the representative honoring Yorktown Zen this week, Roshi started to wonder what actually makes a proper Zen teacher.  Next week our Sangha will be doing its second Jukai ceremony and Roshi will appear in his finest robes complete with large ornamental hats and other regalia.  Does all of this make him a Zen teacher?  Does the uniform really make someone a qualified Zen teacher?  Last year Roshi spent a lot of time talking about the official stamps used in Zen.  His teaching credentials are stamped by Soto Zen.  Is it this “stamp of approval” what makes him a Zen teacher?  Roshi asked us – what is the secret which makes someone a Zen teacher?


Here Roshi was very clear – there is no secret because there is no such thing as a Zen teacher!  Everyone is always talking about their teacher and how great or terrible they are.  This is just another type of delusion we fool ourselves with.  We must remember that Zen is everything!  How can someone teach reality?  Did someone teach you to breathe?  The center of our practice is that very thing nobody taught you to do!  It is no wonder that our first practice in Zen is the breath!


Roshi noted that he could teach you skills but never Zen.  He could teach you how to cook an omelet or fix a car.  These are discrete skills.  However, he cannot teach you Zen because to teach it he would have to break it down and separate it from everything else.  Where would he begin?  How do you separate reality from reality?  Roshi reminded us that our understanding of Zen can only come from within.  It can never be given to you.


So, who is that person sitting on the “Mountain Seat” in the front of the Zendo anyway?  Roshi noted that this person may have trained themselves over long years to the point they could now give useful advice in practice.  He invited us to think about our own lives outside the zendo.  There are people we turn to for advice on career issues, relationship issues, or a myriad of other things.  We turn to these specific people because we know they have actual experience in the area we are struggling in.  We have seen them navigate difficult situations in a skillful way and we trust them.  In certain domains, you may be the trusted one because you have gathered experience and wisdom in that domain.


This is the model of a Zen teacher Roshi would like us to hold.  The teacher is simply a person who has traveled a bit further down the path of Zen than you have.  They may have knowledge of the history, forms, and liturgy of Zen.  This may be helpful to you as it will ground your practice in the rich lineage of Zen.  In addition to that practical experience with the forms of Zen, Roshi noted that a good Zen teacher must have actually lived life.  They must have had their share of grief, heartbreak, trauma, and love, success, and happiness.  Roshi reminded us that Zen is experience and a guide must have tasted reality for their words to have any real meaning.  It is said that the “Human Realm” is the greatest realm to be born into because Samsara allows us to really understand the Dharma.  A teacher is anyone who has dealt with the ups and downs of life and kept faith with their practice.


Roshi wrapped up by emphasizing the point that Zen is always present because Zen is everything.  Anyone can be a teacher.  Don’t close your mind when leaving the zendo.  The turning word can come from anyone at any point.  The Zen teacher is simply someone who already knows this and patiently reminds us to look inward to find the meaning of Zen for ourselves.

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Dynamic Karma http://yorktownzen.org/blog/dynamic-karma.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/dynamic-karma/#respond Sun, 09 Jul 2023 15:42:39 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/dynamic-karma.html


This week Roshi continued our exploration of Dogen’s perspective on karma.  One translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo we can use is located at:   http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/Shobogenzo.pdf

(search for case 89 “Sanji Go” towards the bottom of the document )


Roshi wanted to emphasize the fact that Dogen considered Karma to be like a shadow.  If you think about it, you can never get away from your shadow because it is you, after all!  It is always with you no matter how you may try to get away from it or ignore it.  Roshi also wanted to remind us that Karma is dynamic and not strictly linear.  Karmic results may not show up right away, but could take time to manifest.


It is exactly this non-linearity which Dogen is expressing when he talks about karmic effects in the “next life.”  Whether you believe in rebirth or not, the message is clear.  Your deeds affect what happens to you, however the karmic effects are not always obvious and temporally linked with the original act.  This is the dynamism of karma which Dogen is teaching us.  Yes, our actions cause karmic repercussions, however karmic effects can also change our actions.  Cause and effect are the same thing – there is no difference!  According to Dogen, an effect can influence a cause.


Dynamism is one reason why karma is sometimes hard to understand and may seem “unfair.”  Any religious tradition needs to explain why it seems that “bad” things happen to “good” people, and Buddhism is no exception.    Dogen makes it clear that karma is not a value judgement made by Buddha or any deity.  It is simply cause and effect operating in the universe.  Is an action – evil?  In one sense, we cannot really answer that question as we are not omniscient.  We really do not understand the flow of time or understand all the various acts going on which affect our “karmic package.”  What we do know is that all actions will generate karmic consequences.  However, we need to get away from “Hollywood” interpretations.  If one does an “unwholesome” action, they will not automatically receive karmic retribution within a 30-minute TV plot.  The gears of karma turn in many strange ways.  It may take a slow and circuitous path which we don’t really understand.  However, just as we are confident that the sun rises in the east, karma will have its way and each action will generate its appropriate response.  Roshi again reminded us to always remember that the flow can go the other way as well.  Karmic effects always change our actions which generate new flows of karma in new directions. 


Dogen tries to explain the dynamism of Karma and how it could affect “future lives” by telling us a story which Roshi related to us.   In this story there are two individuals.  The first person practiced what we would consider an ethical life dedicated to the alleviation of suffering in all beings.  At the end of their life, they had a vision of being reborn into a hell realm.  How can this be?  This is especially bothersome to Westerners who are taught that a “good” life leads to Heaven and a “bad” life leads to Hell.  The story goes on to note that through an ethical life dedicated to the Dharma, the individual realizes that there could still be karmic effects which are “hidden” but need to be worked through.  This upcoming hell realm is simply just another aspect of practice and nothing really has changed in what must be done – namely the alleviation of suffering.  At that moment, according to Dogen, the individual has processed their “hidden” karma and thus they achieve Nirvana.    Why was the karma cleared?  This person could have become bitter.  They could think, “I did all of this good and I am still given a hell realm?”  If that was the thought, the hell realm would have happened as it would have been clear that the person was “exchanging” good deeds for a favorable rebirth.  There is no merit in this – in fact this motivation generates more negative karma.  In this case, however, the good deeds originated from right action – thus when the challenge of the hell realm rose it was not a problem for this person.  Could we be so strong in the face of adversity?  Would our practice hold firm in the face of such an unexpected tragedy?  


Dogen’s story then provides the inverse example to emphasize the point.  There is a second person who has led a life of indulgence, ignorance, and greed.  They have vastly increased the suffering of the world in the pursuit of private pleasure.  At the end of their life, the evildoer sees heaven opening up before them.  This person’s reaction is cynicism!  The thought is, “Karma, Dharma, and practice are all a sham!  I did everything I wanted with no regards to others and I am still reborn into heaven!!”  Again, perhaps the evildoer was seeing the heaven realm due to past good, but hidden karmic experiences.  However, the denial of Dharma, karma, and practice generated just too much negative karma and the outcome switched to a hell realm for this individual.  Again, the question for us is one of cynicism in the face of challenges and hubris in the face of positive events.  We naturally center on ourselves, but it is practice which we should be focused on.  Diligent practice insulates us from the extremes of cynicism and hubris and helps us to generate better karma.


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that karma is everywhere and is wrapped up with our whole being – past, present, and future.  He reminded us not to think of karma in simple linear terms.  Our past, and even our future, can affect us right here.  He left us with a final challenge.  Is there anything in Dogen’s teaching of karma which seems to clash with our broader understanding of Zen.  That will be the topic for next week.


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Karma in Action http://yorktownzen.org/blog/karma-in-action.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/karma-in-action/#respond Sun, 02 Jul 2023 15:36:06 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/karma-in-action.html


Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion of karma this week and reiterated how karma is the foundation of our existence and our practice.  Roshi started by relating a story about when he was in the airport.  As the food there is so expensive, he stopped off at McDonalds before his flight to get some snacks.  While waiting in the departure lounge, a woman walked up and got excited and asked where she could get McDonalds in the airport.  Roshi explained that he picked up the food before coming to the airport, but he would be willing to share.  At this point, the woman was thrown into turmoil as she wanted those fries, but should she accept food from a stranger?  After the woman left “fryless” another passenger commented, “Dude, you will get some good karma for that!”  


Roshi noted that this is how most people think about karma.  They think it is a linear flow of events.  You do X and then Y happens to you as a result.  However, historically, this is not how people thought about karma.  For instance, in the Hindu tradition, caste is linked tightly with karma.  One is in the caste they are in due to karma accumulated in all space and all times.  In Japan the concept of karma was used to make the Samurai more effective fighters.  Fear of death is not relevant as any give life is simply an illusion in the movement of karma.


Roshi then noted that in Dogen’s time Buddhist philosophy began to change to be much more inclusive.  It was not just monks and Samurai who were considered worthy of enlightenment.  The new thinking was that everyone was already enlightened all that is required is to realize one’s true nature through practice.  This practice included understanding the mechanism of karma.  Roshi noted that it is important to note that karma means “Action” in the Pali language.  Action does not mean blind fate.  One is not passive in the face of karma.  Dogen is teaching that action leads to action which is why wholesome actions are so important.  Everyone from peasants to kings can improve their lot by doing wholesome acts.  Wholesome acts originate when we understand the true nature of reality, our interconnectedness, and the compassion which arises from this knowledge. 


Dogen tells the following story to illustrate this point…


Long ago, King Kanishka of the nation of Gandhara had a eunuch—one born lacking normal male genitals—who supervised the affairs of the court. While momentarily departing from the city, he encountered a herd of cattle, at least five hundred in number, being led in through the city gate. He asked the herdsman, “What kind of cattle are these?” The herdsman replied, “They are bulls being taken to be castrated.” Upon hearing this, the eunuch thought to himself, “Due to evil karma in a past life, I received a body lacking normal male genitals. I shall now use my wealth to rescue these bulls from just such a hardship.” He ultimately paid their price and then set them all free. 


Because of the power of this good karma, the eunuch’s body was fully restored to that of a normal male. Filled with profound joy, he went back into the city and, standing at the palace gate, sent a messenger to ask the king’s permission to enter for an audience. The king had him summoned, wondering why he had asked for an audience. Thereupon, the eunuch presented the above in great detail. Upon hearing it, the king was surprised and delighted. He generously bestowed on his servant great treasure and, in turn, promoted him to a high office, making him privy to the external affairs of state. 


Good karma like this inevitably receives its fruits, either immediately or in a future life.


Roshi noted that this story still shows a linear flow of karma.  The eunuch rescues the cattle and he is THEN restored.  Dogen had a much more expansive view of karma.  This is why he talks about karma in the three periods including this life, the next life, and all lives.  According to Dogen, karma, and for that matter, time is not linear and predicable.  An action you take changes your condition which affects your action which changes your condition … and so on.  In this view, time moves forward and backwards.  An action taken in the “future” could change your condition in the perceived present.  If we practice deeply, this truth becomes apparent.  Put simply, we cannot impatiently expect a result to come immediately after an action.  The mechanics of karma are much more complicated and subtle than that.


Tesshin Roshi wrapped up by noting that this fluidity of karma is why all of the periods of karmic effect are so important in Dogen’s system.  Next week, we will explore what is meant by the “next life” and why this is important in our understanding of karmic effects.

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