Yorktown Zen http://yorktownzen.com/index.html Authentic Zen Practice in the Hudson Valley of New York Sun, 29 Mar 2020 16:49:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 SitePad The Great Equalizer http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-great-equalizer.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-great-equalizer/#respond Sun, 29 Mar 2020 16:32:28 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-great-equalizer.html
Power of Zazen

 

Tesshin started his talk by chanting the Heart Sutra for our group. 

 

He then opened his talk by likening this period to an intensive training period.  We are trapped at home socially isolating ourselves – what better opportunity to deepen our practice.  He reminded us about all the online training which has recently become available.  

 

Tesshin is a member of the Soto Teacher’s Association.  The group has been meeting during the Covid situation in order to explore how Zen can be of service to the wider community.  One thing was clear during all these meetings – the teachers were calm and centered.  Were they worried – yes!  Were they harried with all the responsibilities thrust on them – yes!  However, the teachers always manifested the Dharma – namely meeting every moment in life with honesty, skillful means, and compassion.  In this regard, they are truly teaching the Dharma and acting as a role model for all of us.

 

Tesshin next stated that Covid-19 is something which affects everyone regardless of their gender, race, wealth, etc.  All the things which normally separate us is not relevant when fighting this threat.  He reminded us that this has always been the message of the Dharma.  We are all the same thing!  We all seek the same thing.  It is ironic that it takes something like the Covid virus to remind us of this very simple truth.  However, the realization of this fact makes Tesshin optimistic that there will be some long term good which comes out of this situation.  

 

Tesshin next challenged the group.  Can we ramp up our practice intensity during this time?  For some it may be Zazen and for others – especially first responders and medical staff – it is acting on the vow to save all beings.  In normal life, we negotiate with ourselves constantly around how intense we want to practice and how much we can “get away with.”  We may do a ‘quick sit’ before crashing on the couch to watch some TV.  Is this good enough?  Today’s situation ‘amps’ everything up – but can we direct this nervous energy skillfully into practice?

 

Tesshin next discussed a bit about his meetings with local clergy in our area.  How do different traditions deal with suffering?  Many look externally to salvation – which is totally legitimate – but Zen does not share in this tradition.  What can we do?  It was once said that a child compared Buddhism to other traditions by stating …

 

“…many times, instead of pointing the finger, point the thumb.”

 

Yes, this is it – we look internally to our center instead of pointing to something outside of us.  This is a core tenant of the Dharma – you are already complete and perfect – there is no reason to look outside of you.  Once you remember this, you begin to manifest your true nature and then you can actually be of service to others.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by speaking of the meditation list which Wendy is compiling.  This list contains all the meditation centers in the US offering Zazen through teleconferencing technology.  When this list is ready, we will post it on the website.

 

He also reminded everyone that he is available if anyone is having trouble getting through this period of extraordinary challenges.  If you need to talk to him privately please send an email to yorktownzen@gmail.com simply stating that you wish to connect and he will get in touch with you.  

 

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Adaptation http://yorktownzen.com/blog/adaptation.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/adaptation/#respond Sun, 22 Mar 2020 15:10:35 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/adaptation.html
SandGarden

 

We held our normal Saturday meditation session via teleconference.  Students either used the Zoom application or dialed into the conference bridge with their phone.  (Reach out to yorktownzen@gmail.com for details)  Although it is not a good as being present with everyone, hearing the normal sounds of the zendo including coughs, rustles, and phone beeps on the conference line brought a certain comfort that we are still all connected in some way.  

 

After the Zazen session, we were treated to Tesshin chanting the Heart Sutra for us.  The Heart Sutra reminds us of the core teaching of Zen – namely that everything we experience is “empty” of an independent nature.  It reminds us that no matter what is going on, we are all linked in the shared reality of NOW.

 

Tesshin asked the group if the situation we currently find ourselves in is really so new.  If we reflect for a bit, we realize that this is not so novel after all.  The history of humanity has been one seismic shift after another.  Humans have always used their ingenuity to survive and grow.  This is our history.  Our culture is the result of how we have reacted to crises of the past.  It is our responsibility to choose wisely now for ourselves and for future generations.  

 

Tesshin next talked about the technologies we have today in order to cope.  

The Zafu or mediation cushion!!    This tech has been with us for over 3000 years and its longevity is proof that it works.  By increasing our consciousness, we can deeply explore and understand “what is.”   No matter what happens in the world, the cushion is always available to you.

 

Internet – This is relatively new for humanity.  We are finding that during this crisis, we can still be together and continue to practice.  Tesshin noted that many Zen centers have opened their “virtual doors” to anyone who wishes to practice.  This is a great opportunity to hear from famous teachers and practice with groups too far away to practice with in person.   Current list of Virtual Practice Centers can be found here

 

Tesshin next asked what will be the nature of our adaptation?  In a way, this is a great opportunity for Buddhism to live up to its vow of “saving all beings.”  Tesshin challenged us with some questions …

•In times of crisis, how do you adapt mindfulness and make it useful to others?  

•What does practice look like with empathy, compassion, and endurance.  

•What does it look like for a Buddhist to adapt?  What things do we keep doing and what things do we change?

•Can we be a role model for others?  

•What message do we give the world, and does this message help us to evolve as a species?  

•Can we deepen practice globally?    

•What does it really mean to save all sentient beings when it becomes real and not just a vow we recite?  

 

 

Tesshin wrapped up by stating that in this time of need, our mantra should become ….

“World, come sit with us!”  

 

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Strength of Community http://yorktownzen.com/blog/strength-of-community.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/strength-of-community/#respond Sun, 15 Mar 2020 17:09:13 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/strength-of-community.html
Compassionate_Activism

 

This is the first week Yorktown Zen has been holding virtual Zazenkai (sitting sessions) through the Zoom teleconferencing.  Overall things went well and was great that we can continue to practice as a group.  Tesshin is looking to host a Tuesday and Thursday evening sit along with our normal program each Saturday morning.  If you are interested in participating, please drop an email to yorktownzen@gmail.com and we will make sure you get all the notifications.

 

Tessin opened his talk this week about his experience attending a workshop on depression and suicide prevention in the clergy.  One would normally not expect clergy to be prone to depression, but it is this exact perception which makes them particularly vulnerable.  Tesshin asked, who helps the helpers?  The talk concentrated on the cause of depression – namely a lack of hope.  In stressful times, many faith traditions look to god for strength and encouragement.  This is total valid and is why faith is such a powerful aspect of what it means to be human.  

 

Tesshin next asked what Zen could offer in times like this.  We do not specifically invoke grace of god – although there is a rich tradition of invoking the spirit of Bodhisattvas when attempting to manifest compassion in the world.  Tesshin stated that Zen always comes back to understanding our true nature and that there is no duality between the good and the bad.  Our path is life – right here and right now – and the total honesty of experiencing it.  Experiencing life means that there will be negative aspects.  As an example, he recounted that one of the greatest teachers of Zen in the west, Maezumi Roshi, struggled with alcoholism his whole life.  What are we to make of this?  Zen would say that Maezumi was a person and a great teacher who happened to have an issue with alcoholism.  We cannot get wrapped up in delusions of perfection – it is the message we are after – not the picture of a perfect teacher.  Again, this is why Tessin commonly states that he is the least important person in the Zendo!

 

Tesshin continued stating that depression arises through isolation.  The particular situation with Covid-19 will increase our isolation, and thus depression.  Our tradition, however, reminds us that we are never really alone.  We are all a part of suchness, and as such, isolation is a delusion.  Tesshin gave the example of when he was alone on the top of a mountain in his temple.  At first, he became depressed because he was all alone day after day after day.  One night he had the sudden realization that he was one with all of nature, the animals, the plants, even the stars in the sky.  To feel that you are alone is to separate yourself from reality – this is the biggest delusion of them all.

 

Tesshin concluded that in addition to faith in the Dharma, a community needs to depend on each other.    One of the topics in the workshop asked participants to list three people you could call in your life if events got so crazy that you felt overwhelmed.  Tesshin asked all of us to pause and give that some thought.  (Tesshin reminded that group that he is available at any time if anyone needs someone to talk to.)  The community needs to support each other.  Beyond the scriptures and wise teachers, it is the community helping each other which makes faith communities uniquely equipped to survive and thrive during difficult times.  This is why in Buddhism, the Sangha is considered one of the “Three Jewels.”  Tesshin reminded us to reach out to other members of the group – just to check up on them and make sure they are ok – not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.

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Zen Magic http://yorktownzen.com/blog/zen-magic.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/zen-magic/#respond Sun, 08 Mar 2020 00:22:55 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/zen-magic.html
Zen magic

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week recounting that when he was an eleven-year-old boy he became interested in Magic.  In fact, two years later he joined the official magician’s guild as its youngest member.  The main vow one takes upon entering the guild is never to reveal the secrets of any given illusion.  Tesshin then asked if there were any “Zen Secrets.”  Of course, there are – the problem is that the teacher cannot simply explain them because that destroys the essence of Zen!  So what is a teacher to do?

 

Like any skilled magician, the teacher uses specific techniques to guide student’s awareness to where it needs to be for the performance to work.  In the case of Zen, the teacher uses forms, rituals, and liturgy.  There has been quite a bit of criticism of ritual in modern American Zen centers.  Students and even some teachers claim that the Asian forms are empty and pointless.  One can say the same thing about the magic wand wielded by a magician.  Is it not just a piece of wood with no “real” powers?  Well, it is, but every magician uses one!  Why is that?

 

Tesshin next started to examine some of the forms followed in traditional Zen temples.  For instance, why does everyone shave their head?  Is there some metaphysical passage in some ancient sutra saying that hairless humans have a direct path to absolute knowledge and are free from suffering?  Well maybe, but could it also be that removing hair frees the monk from thinking about themselves.  It is quite amazing to see a group of monks and nuns with shaven heads.  They all look exactly the same!!  So hairless, they are now free from the constant focus on the “me bag!”  They do not need to worry about how they look today.  There is no thinking, “ Oh boy, that one over there looks kind of cute!!”    With the hair gone – the “me bag” becomes the “We Bag.”  Shaving the head is simply a skillful way to dissolve the ‘I’ and remind the students that they are all the same ‘thing’ looking for the same ‘thing.’

 

Tesshin suggested that we should not shave our heads, of course, but pointed to other “magic” we can create in the Zendo.  For instance, we light incense.  Why do we do this?  Think about it – what makes a space special?  Think to special places in your past.  They look, sound, and SMELL different than everyday spaces.  The incense is a simple ‘magic trick’ to remind you that you are in a special place.  This is the same reason we bow upon entering and leaving the space.  It is also why we bow and ritually clean our Zabuton (meditation mat).  We are reminding ourselves that this is not just a room, it is the place where we are working to find reality! 

 

Many Zen centers have a Buddha statue on the alter.  Is this simply an idol or a stupid block of wood?  What is this thing?  Again, nothing special, while at the same time being the most important object in the room.  It is said that our practice is Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  The Buddha represents absolute reality.  The statue represents the center of the sacred space we are creating.  Even if it is not present physically, we are magically ‘invoking’ it every time the group sits together to meditate.  We are creating the Buddha, because we are the Buddha.  We bow to the Buddha because we are bowing to the Buddha in ourselves.  The magic of Zen is really realizing this.

 

Tesshin next discussed the value of ritual.  He described two types of ritual.  The first is what he called a “productivity ritual.”  These are the rituals we do every day to get along in the world.  For instance, one may get up, brew coffee, and read the newspaper before leaving for work.  These are the things we do to be productive every day without thinking about it.  

 

The second type of ritual is “Transformative.”  These are the rituals where we start out in one state, but end up in a different state.  A good example of this would be a marriage ritual.  Here two people enter a building, some words are uttered, and they leave in a different state.  In one sense, nothing special happened, but in another state, two people’s lives are completely changed.  It is these transformative rituals which are truly magical.  It is said that in Dharma Transmission, the student and teacher just stare at each other – nothing happens, yet the Dharma is transmitted from one generation to another.  Nothing happened.  Everything happened.  POOF!!  It reminds us of the old Zen story where the Buddha raises a flower and Mahapaska smiles.  Nothing special here – right?  However, something magical happened which echoes throughout the eons – even to us today!!

 

Tesshin next explained to the group that our practice is about bringing the magic of transformative ritual to every aspect of our life.  He cited the difference between a common cook and a master chef.  Both practitioners use knives and must maintain them.  The cook comes into the kitchen and is preoccupied with many things.  They may joke with other workers, check for ingredients, and gripe about the pay – all while prepping the knives for service.  A master chef, comes into the kitchen and performs a holy ritual with the most important object in the kitchen.  The knives are holy objects and typically the master chef owns their own knives and they are his pride and joy.  How do you handle the knives of your life?

 

Tesshin wrapped up by asking how we bring the magic of transformation into the Zen experience.  We do this by following the forms which are the gifts given to us from the masters throughout the centuries. Like all magic, they appear rather simple, but very deep in their application.  We create a boundary by taking off our shoes.  We “gassho” to each other with palm to palm to recognize the other person in ourselves.  We bow to each other for the same reason.  We bow to the teacher in recognition of not just him, but the entire lineage all the way back to the Buddha 2500 years in the past.  Lastly, we bow to ourselves for undertaking the practice of finding the magic of suchness in the universe.

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Not Knowing http://yorktownzen.com/blog/not-knowing.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/not-knowing/#respond Sun, 01 Mar 2020 15:56:39 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/not-knowing.html
Not Knowing

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week recounting a call he attended where a professor was discussing approaches to climate change.  At some point, the talk digressed into a discussion of the multiple injustices in contemporary society.  These include social, economic, environmental, food, gender, and many other injustices.  The professor noted that bringing up these injustices tend to make white men in power “sweat.”  It was this last comment which caught Tesshin’s attention.  Does not our practice also make people “sweat?”  What does sweating actually mean here?  Tesshin noted that there is a great tradition in Zen where the student and master sit “nose to nose” and face the great question – what could make one sweat more than that?  So perhaps a bit of sweat is good for us!!

 

Tesshin also noted that towards the end of the talk, the professor threw up her hands and said that all of the injustices in our world is nothing more than a huge pile of excrement!  If this is the case, she asked, what should we do with this excrement – well make compost of course!!  What does this mean?  Here Tesshin commented that what the professor was really getting at is that people in power make mistakes and create injustices because they think they have the complete and correct answer.  However, the problems of today’s world transcend simple “bumper sticker” answers.  Making compost is, first and foremost, understanding that we don’t always have an easy answer.  It is coming at the problem with a fresh perspective.  It is trying new approaches without preconceived notions.  Here Tesshin and the professor agreed – “diversity” is all about bringing in new ideas to break open old problems and make real progress.  

 

Tessin next recounted a recent meeting he had with a local clergy member.  This normally solid and stable leader was in the midst of a breakdown.  All of their normal techniques to deal with problems were not working this time.  In desperation, this person reached out to Tesshin and wanted to try “the Zen thing” as a possible solution.  This came as a surprise to the group as we all assume that religious leaders have all the answers and should be the most “put together” people in the community.  Tesshin remarked that this person was grounded enough to realize that their normal way of dealing with problems was not working and that something else was needed.  How many of us would be willing to try something new the time of highest stress?  Could you surrender your certainty at the worst time and place?

 

Tesshin finally recalled another example of “Not Knowing.”  When he graduated college, his first job was a personal assistant to a famous playwright.  One night in a bar, Tessin was going on and on about how to solve all the world’s problems – like all recent college graduates do!!  The old wise dramatist turned to Tesshin and stated …

 

“To know you think you know …. is not that interesting.” 

 

Wow!  This stopped the young “know it all” right in his tracks!!  We all know this is true.  How many times have we been bored to tears when some “expert” at a party prattles on and on and allows nobody else to even suggest a single idea?  Their mind is totally full and will not allow any possibility of another point of view.  Tesshin remarked that that one comment from the playwright was probably one of the most profound teachings he ever received.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by stating that Zen talks quite a bit about this state of “not knowing.”  We are constantly reminded that we already have enlightenment, but we are ignorant of this.  Tesshin constantly reminds us that he is the least important person in the Zendo and that he does not hold any special secret to impart to the group.  Our tradition prizes the “beginners mind” – the empty mind open to any possibility.  It is not our responsibility to know everything – rather our job is to quiet the “expert” mind and be open to see reality for what it is.  A “full” mind is simply the ego and the ego’s attachment to its perceived knowledge.  If our mind is already “full” of certainty, we will never be willing or able to learn anything new.  Tesshin reminded us that our time of the cushion is to generate the power of not knowing so that we can get out of our own way and make spiritual progress.  

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Stop Chasing http://yorktownzen.com/blog/stop-chasing.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/stop-chasing/#respond Sun, 23 Feb 2020 17:22:02 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/stop-chasing.html
Keizan

(Above image is of Keizan Jokin who authored the Transmission of Light Koan collection and is considered the second great founder (with Dogen) of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan)

 

Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss a Koan from the “Transmission of Light” collection translated by Thomas Cleary.  We focused on case #7 where the Buddhist master Denkoroku speaks to Micchaka.  

 

Our story opens where the two are speaking and comparing spiritual practices.  Micchaka was known as a leader of a “sorcerer sect” based in central India.  We can interpret this as a group of ‘holy men’ who are focused on esoteric practices.  Micchaka was not especially impressed my meditation as it seemed rather plain and quite a bit of work.  The “sorcerer way” is exciting and grants its users great powers such as predicting the future!!  Denkoroku responds that “real practice” is not goal oriented.  Any practice which tries to achieve some “super power” or goal is based on delusion and will lead nowhere in the long term!

 

The story then states that the two teachers part ways for six eons (understood to be billions of years!!)  When they meet up again the two compare their level of achievement and it quickly becomes apparent that Micchaka has gone “round and round” and chased many ideas and practices, but has not really reached any deep level of understanding.  Upon seeing the deep realization of Denkorokuk, he asks for the teachings which will finally liberate his mind.   Denkorokuk states that any practice which works with the body, mind, or things in the physical world is bound to fail because it is still bound to a world of “this and that.”  One must practice with no separations where the mind and body do not exist independently from everything else.  With great compassion, Denkorokuk takes Micchaka on as a student.  One day Denkorokuk states that all practices are really like rivulets and ripples on the Ocean.  What we need to do is to give up the little streams and return to the great Ocean of the Dharma.  At this Micchaka was instantly enlightened.

 

So what does this story mean for us?  Tesshin stated that everything is a fad today.  Our society is always chasing the new thing.  He mentioned that bookstore shelves groan with new interpretations and “remixes” of ancient wisdom.  We believe that there needs to be continuous innovation and repackaging of well proven ideas.  “Dogen 2.0” is even better than the original Dogen because we have added some new repackaged ideas from other traditions and created a new “fusion.”  Tesshin compared this new “faddism” to the Micchaka’s Sorcerer’s path.   We spend year after year chasing the latest thinking and idea from a new guru in the hopes that this will finally liberate us.  We always seem to end up disappointed, however.  Tesshin reminded us that we have everything we need right here and right now.  All we need to do is STOP and SIT.  He asked the group if we were really willing to stop, let all the excitement and thinking go and do the necessary work of sitting with our minds?

 

To illustrate how we make things complicated for ourselves, he related the process of writing a grant for a community garden with other clergy in the area.  Tesshin stated that the point of the garden is to grow vegetables and give them away to hungry people.  Others in the group wanted to discuss the ecological impact of the garden, how it fostered economic and social justice, and how the garden could be a focus point for activism in the community against injustices in the community.  Tesshin again stated that the garden’s purpose is to grow vegetables to feed hungry people!!  Accreting other ideas and exciting agendas to the garden distracts us from the core purpose FEEDING people!  It is the same thing with our practice – there will be great side effects of training the mind, but if we get stuck on these, we will never gain the true benefit of Zazen.  The great masters throughout time have been clear.  Stop the chaos.  Find a cushion. (or chair)  … and SIT!  If we do this, everything else will fall into place. 

 

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The Four Preconditions http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-four-preconditions.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-four-preconditions/#respond Sun, 16 Feb 2020 17:31:54 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-four-preconditions.html
US Buddhism

 

This past week Tesshin attended a lecture at Neropa Institute covering the history of Buddhism and how it prospered in some countries, but failed in others.  The lecture focused on work done by Richard Gard in the 1960’s which focused on which conditions were essential for a religious tradition to thrive in a new country.  The lecture of Neropa looked at four key factors and tried to see how they are being applied in the West, and specifically in the United States.

 

The first, and probably most important, condition Buddhism will need to prosper in the US is access to “real” and verified teachers.  Tesshin noted that America is a very “entrepreneurial” country which takes a “flexible” view towards authority.  In Buddhist communities in the US this could have some good and not so go outcomes.  For instance, the spread of many Buddhist concepts like mindfulness has been amazing.  However, on the flip side, there are a number of teachers simply “hanging out a shingle” and starting to teach without the deep understanding of the tradition.  Tesshin mentioned a number of teachers who studied with great masters but never received formal transmission.  Does this make them lesser teachers?  (As an aside, “transmission” is a specific ceremony where a teacher recognizes that a student has accomplished deep understanding and is ready to teach.)  Tesshin asked the group how they would feel if their doctor stated that they “attended” John Hopkins University.  One would probably want to know if they GRADUATED and even graduated with honors before taking their advice.  One would think it would be the same with a spiritual teacher.  

 

The next precondition Gard talks about is the presence of “Patronage.”   In other words, is there a way for the Buddhist organizations to fund themselves?  In the past, patronage could be sponsorship from a King or other powerful political leader.  Of course, this model is not applicable to the US, so how can Buddhism finance its practical costs?   In this regard, the United States has been an interesting case.  On the one hand, there is a large urban middle class who can afford and are interested in a “casual” relationship with Buddhism.  In other words, it is not too uncommon for these people to attend and pay for a retreat or lecture to get a “taste” of Buddhism.  On the other hand, there is a fear that Buddhism could become too “commercial.”  What does it mean for the teachings if the “customer is always right?”  There is a real risk that the message gets watered down to the point that it is meaningless or becomes just another self-help fad.

 

The third requirement Gard talks about is Buddhist Literacy.  In other words, do students have access to core texts in their native language?  In this regard, there has been a lot of activity in the past few decades in translating core texts into English.  However, remember that Gard talks about Literacy – not just access.  Just because you have access to a Koan collection in English does not mean you will have any deep understanding after reading it.  Tesshin mentioned that activity is moving towards a new phase where the commentaries are translated as well as the core text.  It was also noted that many books are now being written by American teachers.  This is also important because concepts can be cast in metaphors Americans can understand instead of having to first parse Chinese culture from the Middle Ages. 

 

The last requirement is the existence of monastic teaching centers.  These centers and the monks and nuns housed in them act as the core of the tradition and provide consistency to lay practitioners.  It the existence of these strong teaching centers which could act as a counter balance to the commercialization and watering down of the message described above.  In this regard, there are good signs in the US.  There are some very strong teaching centers which have been operating over the past few decades.  However, the monastic tradition is not particularly strong in this country.  This will make sustaining these teaching centers essential if the tradition is to prosper in this country.  

 

Tesshin next asked if any of the above discussion is really important.  Could we not make an argument to simply sit by ourselves?  While this is a very attractive argument, not too many people would spontaneously sit unless they found out about Zen and then were guided by a wise and skilled teacher.  It is one thing to pick up a self-help book on calming the mind and it is something else to embark on a spiritual journey to understand how reality really works.  It is the later which religion is focused on and which must be supported and sustained.

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Ceaseless Practice http://yorktownzen.com/blog/ceaseless-practice.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/ceaseless-practice/#respond Sun, 02 Feb 2020 16:34:48 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/ceaseless-practice.html
Cosmic Mudra

 

Tesshin opened his talk by recounting a recent “Buddy Movie” where the main characters were on a self-improvement kick and suddenly declared that they were “totally done” with all the hard work.  One character stated, that they were just “too old for this #$%^#!”  Tesshin then asked why accomplished Zen monks don’t suffer the same discouragement.  To answer this, Tesshin referred us to Dogen – specifically the concept of Gyoji – or “Ceaseless Practice.”  

 

(Text of the fascicle can be found HERE )

 

What does Ceaseless mean?  Does it mean we have to put even MORE time on the cushion?  Tesshin was clear here – it means that there is no beginning or end to practice.  There is no separation between the spiritual life and “real life.”  The insight here is that true practice does not need willpower.  Do you need willpower to breathe?  Do you need willpower to eat?  Of course not – eating and breathing arise because we are alive and these are characteristics of life.  Practice is the same!

 

Tesshin next described how practice grows and matures over time.  First one must practice with “intent.”  This is where most of us are now.  We must will ourselves to stop and sit.  It is seem as very similar to going to the gym.  We would rather do something else, but we know that sitting is good for us.  Over time, however, Zazen creeps into everything we do.  It becomes part of every waking moment.  Now we are touching Ceaseless Practice.  Sitting is nothing special and the most important thing we do.  Tessin reminded us that his teacher’s very last breath was taken while in Zazen and none of the students was surprised by this.

 

Tesshin next recounted a famous Zen example of Bodhidharma to highlight the difference between “intentional practice” and “ceaseless practice.”  Bodhidharma was the 6th patriarch of Zen and brought Buddhism to China.  The story opens when he visited the emperor of China.  The emperor told Bodhidharma that he is a great Buddhist because he sponsored many temples, supported many monks, and commissioned Buddhist art.  He then asked the sage, how much merit have I gained.  (Tesshin reminded us that in many Buddhist traditions, merit is a measure of good deeds which will lead to a favorable rebirth.)  Bodhidharma responded that the emperor gained NO merit and explained that actions taken for premeditated personal gain mean nothing.  Tessin reminded us that many of the motivations of our “intentional practice” are just like the emperor – done for some personal gain.  I will sit Zazen as it will allow me to concentrate better or become happier.  Do you see how the emphasis is on the ego? 

 

The emperor then asks how merit is really gained.  Bodhidharma answers by stating merit is gained by developing “Pure Wisdom” and being free of all desires.  The emperor asks what is pure wisdom – to which Bodhidharma states “Emptiness!”  (Remember that emptiness is not oblivion, but the deep understanding of the inter-relatedness of all things.)  Finally, the emperor asks, “if it is all empty – who are you?”  Bodhidharma answers “I do not know.”  Ah, here is the point!!  Bodhidharma is in the state of continuous practice – to define himself and answer the emperor would show that he is playing the same game as the emperor.  If he said, “I am the best Zen master in China, he would be no more accomplished than the emperor splashing money all over on temples to feel good about himself.  Bodhidharma is nobody because everything is empty – but we have revered him for 1500 years!!!  Do you see it?

 

Tesshin wrapped up by suggesting to the group that we allow Zazen to pervade every crevice of our life.  Yes, we still need willpower at this stage, but we should strive never to get attached to what we are doing.  Sitting is enlightenment in itself.  Do not get attached to whether you are doing it well or poorly.  As the Nike commercials say – Just do it!!

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Intentionality http://yorktownzen.com/blog/intentionality.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/intentionality/#respond Sun, 26 Jan 2020 16:32:49 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/intentionality.html
Intentionality

 

Tesshin opened this week’s talk by exploring the recent movie  “The Two Popes.”  Basically this movie presents a “Catholic Koan” – specifically how important are forms and rituals for a spiritual tradition.  In the movie we are presented with two Catholic teachers, Francis and Benedict.  Francis represents a strain of thought which states that a religion must “bend” to today’s reality in order to remain relevant.  Benedict stresses the power of consistency.  Wherever you go in the world – one can enter a Catholic church and be guaranteed to find God.  Tesshin asked – which is right?

 

Tesshin next described an interesting scene from the movie.  In the exchange, Francis asks Benedict the following question:  “Is it ok the smoke while praying?”  Benedict answers immediately:  “Of course not – smoking would be a distraction and would prevent one from getting close to God.”  Ok, fair enough – we would all agree with this.  Francis then asks:  “Is it ok to pray while smoking?”  Benedict pauses and answers that it is always good to pray – so YES!  Hmmm, what is the difference?  To the casual observer we have a smoker who is praying in both situations.  This is the Koan!!  

 

Tesshin next remarked that we also have this same Koan in Zen.  Tesshin asked us if it is skillful to think about something mundane like a tax return while meditating.  He then asked us if it is good to bring mindfulness and single pointed focus (which is the technique we use in meditation, after all) to the preparation of our taxes.  Again, from the casual perspective, we have someone concentrating and perhaps looking at some tax forms.  Again, what is the difference?

 

The difference is intention!  If our intention is plumbing the depths of spirituality and holiness, then taxes and cigarettes are a distraction.  However, the opposite is NOT true.  Spirituality can be brought to any activity.  If you are smoking then one should at least focus on the taste and pleasure.  If you are doing taxes, focus on that – do not wander.  Tesshin was clear here, spirituality (Catholic or Buddhist) is focused on training us to bring the intention of “Samadhi” or the state of intense focus and attention to all activities.

 

So this is how we begin to unpack the quandary between the two popes.  Do we find God in a place or in the spiritual journey?  Do we find God in the rituals or in compassion?  The truth is silent – it is empty.  Both popes are right and both popes are wrong.  Why is this?  It is because actions are empty.  What counts is the INTENTION.  Forms such as prayer, chanting, cathedrals are very effective in invoking spirituality, but they are not the end – they are but skillful means.  It is the same thing in Zen.  The bowing, incense, and formality are skillful to put our mind in the right place, but they are simply physical motions if we do not have the intention of Samadhi.  

 

Tesshin remarked that it is important that we remember the importance of intention.  Today, there is an open and active debate in all religious traditions about the need for forms and formality vs outreach and compassion.  The exploration of intention reminds us that each of these things is means to an end, and he was clear that religious leaders should be careful before they cast aside traditions which have worked for many years.  On the other hand, we should not blindly adhere to traditions which may not work in the modern age.  As usual with a Koan, there is never a simple answer.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by emphasizing that the holy intention must be taken out of the church or Zendo and made manifest in our everyday life.  If we compartmentalize Samadhi, then we have lost the entire point and benefit of the practice. 

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Beyond Words http://yorktownzen.com/blog/beyond-words.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/beyond-words/#respond Sun, 19 Jan 2020 18:40:33 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/beyond-words.html
Beyond Words

 

Tesshin used this week’s talk to reflect on the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.  As a service to the community, he participates in a number of interfaith services to commemorate MLK and his work.  Tesshin made the observation that much of the language in today’s civil rights discussion echoes from the struggles of the 1960’s.  While, many of the struggles have not changed from the 1960’s, the 21st century has its own issues and problems, and he was concerned that they were not getting proper attention.   This got Tesshin thinking – when we speak, we are not just expressing our words and thoughts, but we are expressing our whole selves including our history, values, and culture.  It is this fact which could lead to many misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

 

This means our language is much deeper than we give it credit for.  Our language encapsulates so much of us.  Tesshin noted that when multilingual people are scanned in an fMRI machine, different parts of their brain light up when they use different languages.  For instance, the speakers brain is functioning differently when speaking Japanese than when speaking English – even if the same statement is being said.  Many spiritual people notice that they feel different when speaking in the context of their tradition.  The entire mental process changes when the language or context changes.

 

Tesshin reminded us that this deep perception of language is important if we are to be really helpful to other people.  For instance, in many progressive movements, there is a lot of talk about effecting change NOW!!  This is a very American way of thinking.  Our culture is all about rapid gratification.  We should challenge ourselves to imagine how this would be interpreted by someone in Asia where a longer term incremental approach is expected.  So an American may say to a Japanese counterpart that “innovation is important.”  The American assumes that this means to have a new website released next week whereas the Japanese may interpret this to mean continuous quality improvement over the next decade.  Both are saying the same words, but the deeper meaning is totally different.

 

Why is this important?  It is important because if we want to be truly helpful to others, we must go deeper than just the words.  This is especially important in relations between different groups with different histories and experiences.  Tesshin acknowledged this as he participated in the MLK celebrations.  It would not be “skillful” for him to talk about how the Dalai Lama is using a strategy spanning generations to deal with the Chinese when people are suffering right here and right now.  To them this would be arrogant and insensitive.  The words may be correct, but they would be unskillful for the audience and would do more harm than good.

 

In our country, we tend to forget this simple truth which is why we are having such difficulty helping and working with each other.  We assume everyone has the same “baggage.”  This is not the case.  Zen often talks about “Beginner’s Mind” or the state where we are open to new thoughts without our ego filtering everything to our perspective.  Tesshin mentioned that this is the mindset one should approach another group if we are to be truly helpful.  Listen more – talk less – and assume nothing!!

 

At this point, Tesshin asked how does someone enter this skillful state.  Zen answers with Zazen or seated mediation as the foundation.  Meditation trains the mind to detach from our history, culture, prejudices, and stories.  It allows us to open up and really SEE the other’s words as they are saying them.  Dogen stated that language is attachment.  One cannot really be free if everything we hear is filtered through our ego and our “backstory.”  

 

Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that if we are going to reach out to communities during MLK day, we should ensure that we stop and really listen.  We need to understand the speaker from their history, feelings, and perceptions.  It is not about the listener, but all about the speaker.  Listen and Learn!   

 

Martin Luther King JR Events Tesshin is participating in…

Monday    11am    Terrytown AME church

Monday     4pm     “New Firehouse” in Peekskill

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