Abbot’s blog

Our Abbot, Koshin Christopher Cain, is an ordained teacher, or Osho, in the Rinzai Zen tradition. He also teaches at the Oslo Zen Senter in Norway. He trained at Mount Baldy Zen Center in California before founding Puget Sound Zen Center with his wife in 2003. He grew up in London and North Carolina. He and his wife have two children.

You can reach him at koshin@pszc.org, or leave a message at the Zen Center: 206-259-3145

August 2017: Ikkyu’s Living and Dying

 

peace isn’t luck for six years stand facing a silent wall

until the you of your face melts like a candle

don’t wait for the man standing in the snow

to cut off his arm help him now

–Ikkyu

 

I enjoy giving Dharma talks on poets.  They bring a different view of the dharma – often more earthy, emotional, and lyrical.  The best poetry points to something that is too subtle, too rich for prose.

In the poetry of Ikkyu we see a rich variety of teaching and of feeling.  In his verse I find a love of life – that is, an affirmation of the importance of life, self, and action in practice.  And I find an appreciation for the activity of death – the giving up of the self, and the manifestation of silence.

As I see it, the rhythm of our practice is this activity of dying and living.  We die by letting go of our life and everything in it, by putting down all of our burdens and our loves, when we sit.   Then we come back to our life and our passions a little different:  lighter, more centered, ready to live more fully.

The two Ikkyu poems above form a pair, reminding us to die fully, and to live fully. They both also reference Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen.

The first poem above is about dying.  In it, Ikkyu stresses the necessity of hard work in this practice.  Awakening to our deepest nature doesn’t come by chance – it demands disciplined stillness.  The reference to Bodhidharma, who sat in front of a cave wall for years, illustrates this stillness, this death aspect of Zen practice.

The second poem above stresses the importance of the life aspect of Zen practice, the aspect of motion and action.  Ikkyu says here, don’t hesitate! Don’t get stuck in that still world of death!  Come back to life!

Here Ikkyu is criticizing the great Bodhidharma, who he praised in the first poem! A monk named Huiko begged Bodhidharma to teach him, but the founder of Zen just sat motionless, ignoring his pleas.  Finally, desperate, Huiko cut off his arm to show the seriousness of his intent.  Only then did Bodhidharma take him as his student.

In this poem I believe Ikkyu is encouraging us to be bodhisattvas – to turn back from nirvana and re-enter the world of suffering without hesitation.  To move without hanging on to the world of stillness.

It is possible for meditation practice to make us cool and slow to act.  We can become so comfortable with the stillness of Zen that we remain too still. We do not adequately respond to changing circumstances.  We do not fully engage with life.

I see our job as Zen practitioners as learning to live and to die as fully as we can. To work hard on the cushion, and to get up and help others.

I sometimes talk about the vertical axis as the zero axis, the death axis; and the horizontal axis as the axis of the world, of life.  I see Zen practice as learning to travel as deeply as we can along both these axes.  To travel the vertical axis is to travel as deeply into silence and no self as we can.  To move along the horizontal axis is to walk deeper and deeper into the messy world of differentiation and suffering.

My practice is to travel more and more deeply into both the world of life and the world of death; both the world of motion and the world of stillness. I’m glad to have Ikkyu as one of my companions on this journey.

Note: Koshin will be leading a weekend retreat at Camp Sealth on Vashon Island October 12-15, 2017, called “A Crazy Cloud: Ikkyu’s Irreverent Zen”. For more details and to register, click here. 

July 2017: Finding Real Freedom

 

This month in America we celebrate our freedom and independence. But according to Buddhism, we are not as free or as independent as we might think. Buddhism teaches that we’re bound by our habitual patterns of thought.

We humans have been handed the gift of thought, and we’ve run with it. Thought has allowed us to construct elaborate systems about all kinds of things – mathematics, music, politics, philosophy.

However, the gift of thought has a downside. Thought allows us to create a story about ourselves: we are this way, not that way; we are with this group, not that group. Thought gives us a fixed idea of our self, and then reinforces itself. Our story becomes more rigid, more concerned only with protecting itself, more focused on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Our self becomes isolated from the world around it.

In some religions the antidote to this existential isolation is to connect with God. In Zen, we practice losing our thinking selves for a time.

Without a thinking self, we can more readily see, feel, and intuit our world as it is, beyond the story of ourselves. Such a practice punctures that walled-off sense of self we’ve built.  It lets things in.  It allows the world around us to touch us in random ways.

When we sit quietly, we let in the birds and the cars.  When we’re really quiet, for a time we become nothing but the bird sound, the car sound. The story of our self becomes broader; includes more. We become things beyond the control of our thinking self.

Sitting quietly we may realize we are in fact anger, sadness, joy, and many other things.  We are someone who makes mistakes and someone who doesn’t.  To quote Whitman, we contain multitudes.

Zen practice allows for a more spacious view of ourselves and of others.   We are the fullness of ourselves.  And we are everything we meet.  Our thinking self doesn’t easily recognize that. But our non-thinking self feels it.

Sometimes we see freedom as the freedom to do what we want, when we want; as freedom to find agreeable circumstances and avoid disagreeable ones.  But Rinzai tells us – “don’t be in the clutch of agreeable circumstances.”

Seeing through our rigid sense of self allows us to loosen that clutch, and to experience life in new ways.  This is real freedom:  to move through both agreeable and disagreeable circumstances; to have a self that readily expands to meet the whole world.

June 2017: The Everyday Wisdom of Zero

I’m re-reading a book I first read as a monk in training – “The Gift of Fire” by Richard Mitchell.  It’s a book about thinking and reason, and what we can learn from the wisdom of Socrates and Jesus.  As a young monk I was happy to remember how much wisdom there was in the Western tradition of my upbringing. I was also happy to remember that I didn’t have to throw out one type of wisdom to enter deeply into another.

“Wisdom” in the Zen tradition often refers to a very deep wisdom about the way things work – ourselves, others, the world.  This is the Wisdom of Zero, the realizing understanding of the emptiness of self.

When reading certain Zen texts, it’s easy to think that the Wisdom of Zero solves everything; that if we just drop into a deep place of quiet and stay there, everything in our lives will work itself out.  Take it from me, it doesn’t, and it won’t.

I think the Wisdom of Zero sets the table for everyday wisdom; for the experience and sense to make good decisions.

As practitioners, we have to develop a commitment to deepening the Wisdom of Zero.   This necessitates a lot of zazen, a lot of work with an experienced teacher, and a community of supportive practitioners.   I believe we also have to commit to cultivating our everyday wisdom, and to widening the circle of our wisdom to include better and better judgment in more and more types of situations.  We must add precepts, ethical training, and character development to our wisdom training.  We must learn how to think and act clearly as well as learn how to not-think.

I want students of Zen to have a diverse diet: to read widely; to study systems of thought other than Zen; to have experiences far beyond the meditation hall. I want them to increase their everyday wisdom in whatever ways call to them.

And then I want students to bring all that everyday wisdom right back into the Zendo, to let it all go, and to go deeply back into the Wisdom of Zero.

The Wisdom of Zero and everyday wisdom don’t have to be at odds with each other; in fact, I believe they can complement each other. The richer and more varied our experiences are off the cushion, the more we can enter fully into the Wisdom of Zero.

May 2017: Buddha nature and the Luminous Mind

Earlier this month I led a retreat at North Carolina Zen Center, where I started my Zen practice 28 years ago.  Among the participants were a group of professors from Wake Forest University, one of whom was born and raised a Theravadan Buddhist in Sri Lanka.

What he found most puzzling about my talks as a Mahayana teacher was this concept of Buddha Nature, which to him sounded like a basic goodness or wholeness.  He was raised to feel that there is no fundamental self, and no basic goodness or badness.  Completely dropping desire and seeing through the illusion of a self was, to him, the Buddhist path.

The concept of Buddha nature, which we hold as axiomatic in Zen (a part of the Mahayana school), is somewhat controversial in some Buddhist circles.  The Buddha himself didn’t say anything about it.  Hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death, after Buddhism had traveled from India to China, the Mahayanists made up the concept and the term.

To some, Buddha nature sounds like it is a basic self, and at odds with the Buddha’s concept of no-self.  I once attended the American Academy of Religions annual meeting, and sat in on a very spirited panel discussion on a movement called Critical Buddhism, whose members reject the idea of Buddha Nature as non-Buddhist, or heretical.  I mean, they have a point.  The Buddha taught that upon close examination, there is no fixed self, but a bunch of traits that are not “you.”  Buddha Nature sounds like an original self, like something that is “you” at the core.

According to the Mahayana scriptures, all beings have Buddha nature.   At some point the Mahayanists developed a retroactive story of the Buddha’s awakening that encapsulates this view:  “Immediately upon his awakening, the Buddha said, ‘All beings already have Buddha nature–they just don’t know it.’”

This concept of having an inherent Buddha nature may have been related to the fact that the Mahayanists were trying to integrate Buddhism into a Chinese culture steeped in Taoism, which valued being harmonious with the ways of nature.

There are many ways to conceptualize and to talk about Buddha nature as a modern Mahayanist, and a modern practitioner of Zen. I like to say my teacher Joshu Roshi was in some ways a Taoist at heart, and his teachings on Buddha nature sometimes reflected this.

I see Buddha Nature as a way to understand our experience of no-self.  When we let go of our thinking selves, it seems like we should have an empty experience.  But that experience, though empty of thinking, is full of the present moment.  Emptiness is in a way fullness.

Buddha Nature, to me, then, is the capacity we all have to fully inhabit the present moment, and that capacity is always with us.

Today I borrowed a book from our PSZC library by the Theravadan scholar Rahula Wahpol, who wrote the well-known What the Buddha Taught. In an article on Buddha Nature, Wahpol traces the idea of Buddha Nature back to the ancient Anguttara Nikaya, part of the Theravadan scriptures, where citta, or mind, is described as “luminous” but “sullied by adventitious minor defilements.”

That’s a feeling we get to know through our practice.  We have an aspect of our mind that is pure and uncluttered, underneath whatever clutter we might possess.  Experiencing this mind feels luminous.

Whatever we call it, and whether our practice originates from the Theravada or Mahayana school, I feel sure all Buddhists would say that this luminous mind is a mind worth finding.

April 2017: Investing in a Zen Children’s Program

Ten years ago we started a Children’s Program at the Zen Center.   We’ve done all kinds of fun things over that decade – lots of stories, so many games, community service, overnights at the center, family retreats, and more.  For me it’s always been a bright and colorful spot at the center.  I believe we’re in a very good place in the life of the program – a good curriculum, wonderful teachers, and new energy.  

It has of course taken time and resources to build.  Here’s why I think it’s worth investing in:

  1. Finding a quiet and calm place within herself will help a child her whole life through.

  2. A Buddhist framework is a good one to help understand the world.  In the Children’s Program we work on a three year cycle – we concentrate on wisdom one year; on values the next; and on compassion in the third year. Within that structure, we use stories from many different traditions to help kids appreciate values such as generosity, courage, and clarity.

  3. It’s helpful for children to have a social group that is outside the regular hurly burly of school.  One where deeper questions can be posed without fear.  One where values like empathy and openness are valued and modeled.

  4. It helps a family to have a common language and practice, so that kids understand what their parents are doing when they come to the Zen Center–it’s not that mom or dad just disappears and then comes back!  Over time the center becomes a spiritual home for the family, a community through fun and difficult times.

  5. Having kids and families involved helps everyone at the center.  We learn from each other and help each other at all ages.  One of our older children is helping take care of the toddlers.  One of our youngest members recently took calligraphy lessons from one of our eldest.

If you’re interested in helping out with our children’s program, we’re always looking for volunteers. Email kids@pszc.org to get connected with our children’s program leaders.

March 2017: Precepts-A Re-orientation of the Heart

I’m happy to report that after a year-long class, four members of our sangha will be taking the Buddhist precepts during our 10am service on Sunday, April 2.

Traditionally, when a monk or nun enters the Buddhist order, they vow to uphold the many precepts; that is, to behave properly. This has traditionally been done to preserve and protect the sangha, to keep order so that all can practice.

But precepts are also a way of changing the heart: the precepts orient a practitioner’s heart toward noticing the effects they have on others.

Zen practice is not only about learning the Dharma, about helping us make sense of our lives. It is also about helping us get wise to karma – to the way our actions affect other people. No matter how many years we’ve practiced, no matter how deeply we understand the Dharma, we can still misunderstand the way our actions affect people. We can still act in ways that cause suffering. We can fool ourselves into thinking that what’s convenient for us is good for others. Even Zen masters can fool themselves in this way.

The five precepts we take at PSZC say: pay close attention to the effects of your actions, now and for the rest of your life:

Aware of the suffering caused by killing, I vow to respect the dignity of other living beings and to do my best not to harm others.

Aware of the suffering caused by stealing, I vow to be trustworthy and generous.

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to honor my romantic commitments and to cultivate lasting, loving relationships.

Aware of the suffering caused by lying, I vow to be truthful and considerate in my speech.

Aware of the suffering caused by the abuse of intoxicants, I vow to keep a clear mind and to study the roots of my cravings.

After taking the classical precepts on April 2, our preceptors will also take the Mahayana precepts, as I took at Mt. Baldy Zen Center. They are a call to practice the interplay between self and no-self.

I vow to manifest absolute self without attachment to personal self.
I vow to manifest personal self without attachment to absolute self.
I vow to manifest the interplay of absolute self and personal self as the way of the Dharma.

Congratulations to our four preceptors – Stephen Black, Elizabeth Fitterer, Sissel Johannessen, and Jim Hunziker. I look forward to practicing together with them for a long time to come.

February 2017: Take In Anyone

That’s what I was taught during my training at Mt. Baldy Zen Center.

It didn’t matter what your past was. It didn’t matter what mistakes you’d made. If you could follow the rules, you could stay.

One young man came boasting of his mafia family blood, and stayed with us for the better part of a year.  He was a rough character and got into a few loud arguments and one shoving match.   But he was committed to studying Zen, and we found a way to work with him.  That work strengthened me, and had me confront some of my prejudices.

I have spotted what appears to me to be classism, racism, and clannishness even at Dharma centers.  Even Zen practitioners can look down on others who are not as experienced or refined; who seem too loud or too rough; who aren’t part of the tribe.

If someone comes in who doesn’t neatly fit in with our Zen clan, we have a chance to take them in, and to change our picture of what our tribe is. Working to do this is not merely being nice–it’s an important part of our practice.

Zen practice isn’t just about sitting on the cushion. The dual work of Zen is to get good at unifying with everything on the cushion, and then to emerge and work skillfully with differentiation.

A Zen Center should be a place of refuge for all sorts.  As such we need a strong and loving container – customs, standards, and rituals that we share.

Those customs have to be clear as well as flexible.  We have to see adapting to meet all sorts of people–black, brown, or white; male or female; Democrat or Republican; gay or straight; quiet or outspoken; formal or iconoclastic; young or old; experienced or inexperienced–as a strength, not a weakness.

I want our Zen Center to be a place where people of all sorts of backgrounds feel comfortable enough to do the sometimes uncomfortable work of Zen.

January 2017: The Zen Way of Pruning

As a landscape laborer in high school, I couldn’t believe the amount my boss told me to prune back bushes.

“They’ll grow back better this way,” he said. Sure enough, those bushes that looked so sparse and empty burst back into life full of new blooms.

I went on in life and discovered the same lesson in Zen: Zen practice also tells us we grow healthier when we prune ourselves back.

The critical part of this practice–and the hard part – is coming to a full stop. The Zen way of pruning is to stop all of our activities; to sit down and really get quiet.

This kind of pruning makes manifest a hidden aspect of ourselves and of the world. It allows for a new self; one that is unburdened and clear eyed, one that can act and help in the world more creatively.

Real renewal doesn’t come cheap.  We have our habits, our ways of thinking, and these can be tough to drop, even temporarily. But the deeper we can go down to a full stop, the fresher we can come back up.

These are uncertain times in our society, and I believe it is important for all of us to exercise our responsibilities as citizens of this nation and of this planet. This means active involvement in our family, our community, our social groups, and our political institutions.

But the essence of Zen is beyond all that. Whatever you do for our society, please don’t miss that essence- stopping. We have to take care not to become busy and hardworking in the world, and lazy in the world of the spirit.

Zen can help us, and it can help our society.  It helps best when we have the courage to let go of everything;  to temporarily but profoundly let go even of family; even of loves and hates; even of preferences of all types; even the idea that what we’re doing is good, or that it might make society better. The Zen path asks of us nothing less than to pruneourselves all the way back to zero.

In Zen we get to practice renewing ourselves over and over. Here’s hoping for some fresh green shoots this year.

December 2016: A Challenging Journey with Steadfast Friends

A Zen Center is a safe place to do unsafe work. Our practice involves the often uncomfortable work of giving ourselves up.  The frightening work of diving deeply into quiet.  The dangerous work of facing our demons.  The challenging work of changing our habits.  The brave work of helping others in need. We ask ourselves to do this difficult work each day, each week through easier times and challenging times. And we do it together.

We do this practice in a safe space, together with dharma friends—people who support us through a difficult practice and through all our ups and downs.  A sangha forms precious bonds that can last a lifetime. Zen is a practice that is built in order to help both ourselves and others.  It allows us to face life’s challenges with tenderness and strength, and to help others do the same.

Our Zen Center is offering more and more people the chance to take this challenging journey with steadfast friends.  I have enjoyed seeing new faces walk through the doors of the Havurah this year and observing the gradual unfolding practice among all of our members. Your compassion and the insights you bring each week to zazen help weave the fabric of the rich, ever-changing tapestry that holds our sangha together.

We could use your help. Whether you live near or far away, I encourage you to become a member.  Your support keeps this center available to all.  It helps us remain strong and active as we become a more integral part of the Vashon and greater Puget Sound communities.  It allows us to offer a difficult, helpful practice to the people who sit with us, and to a society greatly in need of it.

November 2016: The generosity of Leonard Cohen

Jikan Leonard Cohen was a true mensch, a devoted Zen practitioner, a gracious host, and, perhaps surprisingly, an optimist.  What I remember most is his generosity.  Every time I’d knock on the door of his cabin at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, he’d invite me in, often to read me the latest verse of the song he was working on.

He did the schedule.  He got up at 3 every single morning and went to the zendo with the rest of us.  He sat strong, and long.  

We had a good number of lunches at the Greek restaurant down the hill from the monastery.  I smoked my first and last cigarette with him there, talking about Greece, his family, my family, practice.  He was always so easy to be with.  

For his ordination I was the head monk, and he wanted to serve Kentucky Fried Chicken and champagne afterwards. That was so like him–to put two seemingly opposite things together and to make something beautiful out of it.

We stayed in touch every now and then after I left Mt. Baldy to come to Vashon.  I saw him last two years ago at Roshi’s funeral.  He said what a nice scene we had up here.  He was bummed we didn’t produce paper newsletters anymore-he always enjoyed reading them.  He was one of this Zen Center’s most steadfast and generous supporters.  

25 of us gathered at the Zen Center this Sunday to sit together, discuss the recent election, and to chant the Namu Kara Tan for Jikan. We sat zazen while listening to “Anthem”.

Leonard Cohen’s music isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some people find it too dark, and they might find Zen to be too dark as well.  But it was a deep conviction for him, of which his Zen practice was a part, that it’s darkness that gives birth to the most beautiful light; that brokenness gives birth to wholeness;  that sorrow is necessary on the road to love:

“I will greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair, with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.”  

October 2016: Impermanence

Of the many concepts Buddhism could direct our attention to, impermanence is at the top of the list. Which is kind of a downer.  I mean, think of the alternatives: love, friendship, compassion, camaraderie, bravery, wisdom.  But no–Buddhism directs our attention to primarily to impermanence, including the ultimate impermanence:  death.

Unlike love, compassion, wisdom, or courage, impermanence is not an aspiration or ideal. It’s not a commandment.  It’s not a should, it’s an is. And impermanence is more than a human truth.  It affects everything.

We Buddhists turn our attention to impermanence because it is true, but mostly because working with this truth helps us as humans. Practicing it helps us in our aspirations toward love, friendship, and wisdom.

The first thing to recognize as impermanent and ever-changing is ourselves. In order to bring order to our world view, we tend to have a fairly fixed idea of ourselves. We are a certain way and other people are a certain way. The world, also, is a certain way. We have our story and we stick with it.

Our practice of zazen tells a different story. We are many things, some we like to admit, and others we don’t.  In addition, when we get quiet, we may realize that we are also our environment.  We are what we experience.  As Walt Whitman writes, “There was a child went forth every day; and the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.” As we practice we can feel more fully the ways in which everything is less fixed than we think.

The most troubling aspect of impermanence may be the recognition that we will die.  In Zen there is not even a promise of a permanent afterlife, no promise of the continuation of the individual self after death. It has been argued (by Ernest Becker in the Denial of Death among others) that fear of the ultimate change – our own death – tends us toward reifying ourselves and our environment.  It makes us want to hold on tight, to freeze and solidify.

Zen teachings throughout the ages advise us not to keep still in this way, but to move gracefully through the changes of life.  In his Instructions to the Tenzo, Dogen Zenji encourages his students to cultivate a “vast heart” that “does not follow the sounds of spring or try to nest in a spring garden; it does not darken with the colors of autumn.”  A heart that knows impermanence is one that moves through the phases of life with a light heart, knowing that things change.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re meant to be passive, diffident, happy about or even accepting of all change. We are meant to, born to shape our lives, and to shape the world around us.  An awareness of impermanence can help us to do this work with more grace.

Above all, I believe we were made to move. And I believe that Zen, though a practice of intense stillness, is fundamentally about motion, a particular motion of the mind. Impermanence practice helps us move through the joys and sufferings of life with more composure.  And it helps us move more skillfully toward wisdom, compassion, and other qualities we aspire to in our practice.

September 2016: Patience and Diligence

Zen teaching can sometimes seem ambivalent about energy or effort.  We’re reading Shunryu Suzuki during our Wednesday night service, and more than once we’ve discussed passages where Suzuki seems to say that no effort is needed to practice Zen.

Suzuki is not alone.  The 6th patriarch Huineng made fun of his rival for diligently wiping the mirror of his mind.  Zen master Rinzai says “Just be ordinary with nothing to do.”

But Zen teachers can also speak of effort as a virtue.  Suzuki also says “The most important point in our practice is to have right or perfect effort.”  The Buddha’s dying words are sometimes translated “strive on diligently.” Where does this leave us as practitioners?

The place within ourselves to which Zen points is one without any effort or will in it.  It is complete and perfect just as it is.   But getting to know and trust this place often takes hours, weeks, and years of honest work.  All the masters know this, and most are talking to monks and nuns who have devoted their lives to this work.  The effort these dedicated practitioners give is not simple.  Every day they have to learn to hone their attention, and keep relaxed. They have to learn to be diligent and patient at the same time.

We have to cultivate a sort of patience in our lay practice as well, one that is not defeatist or soporific.  The kind of patience we work with is one that knows the road of practice is long, and it’s ready to walk it one step at a time.

In our zazen practice, the posture represents diligence to me, and breath represents patience.  We sit up straight in our practice – this helps us pay attention.  And we breathe – this helps us relax.  The mix of attention and relaxation is an unusual mix.  Often when we’re attentive, we’re not relaxed – many times we’re sharply goal oriented, we’re stressed.  When we’re relaxed, we’re often not attentive, preferring just to drift, daydream or sleep.  Clear attention and relaxed patience are rare, and for me they feel good together.

The place we’re going is without effort, without desire or will.  But getting there takes effort and desire. It’s one of the many paradoxes of Zen practice.

July 2016: Interdependence

Not long ago a therapist friend of mine told me about a developmental model he uses for relationships of all kinds.  In it there are four stages of development in a relationship: Dependence, counter-dependence, independence, and interdependence.

When we are young we are dependent on our parents. As teenagers we go through a counter-dependent phase, when we are against anything our parents are for – another form of dependence of course.  If we continue to develop we become truly independent of our parents. The fourth and final stage is one of interdependence, when, though separate from our parents, we realize and appreciate the many shared connections we have with them.

Similarly, in Buddhism we say that realizing our interdependence is a mature point of view.

The doctrine of pratitya samutpada says that there is not anything that is truly independent. Everything is dependent on others for its coming into existence and for its sustained existence. The whole universe is interdependent.

Take you and me for instance.

Because we humans are top-of-the-food-chain independent actors with amazing powers of thought and creation, we may imagine that we stand alone above nature, independent of it.

In fact we are more connected to the natural world than we like to admit. We depend on food which is made by others, on the air we breathe, the sunlight, the ground we walk upon. Going a step further, our self that seems so unique and independent, is actually made up of a lot of un-unique parts. Our idea of self depends upon all of these parts.    A lot of interactions that are not exactly us – sight, hearing, emotions– we’ve been gifted by evolution.  And we are inexorably a part of the great interrelated web of life and death.

Though we have special powers, we are also nothing special.  As Ernest Becker says in a book that’s on my nightstand, The Denial of Death, “This is the paradox: [a human being] is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.”

We tend not to emphasize our gill-marked aspect. Rather we’re drawn to celebrating the unique, the personal, and the independent.  That’s fine, but let us not forget that we are both.  In some ways above and beyond nature; and at the same time we are completely a part of it.

Zazen helps me remember this interdependent part.  We cool down, stop building our amazing castles in the sky, and remember our more humble activities – breathing, looking, hearing.

The more we realize our interconnection, the more care we naturally take of each other and our surroundings. And the more grateful we feel for the interconnected web that we depend on.

Declarations of independence have their place in our individual lives and in our collective history. But so does the quiet voice of interdependence. This voice doesn’t get celebrated with hot dogs and fireworks. It doesn’t take victory laps. But it’s crucial to our evolution and our survival as a species. Let’s be careful not to overlook it.

June 2016: Wisdom

A central teaching about Zen wisdom has been drummed into Zen practitioners ever since Bodhidharma first opened his mouth after sitting for 9 years in a cave in 6th century China: you can’t get Zen wisdom by listening to teachers-not even by listening to the great Bodhidharma himself.   You can’t get it by reading this article. Or any article or any book.  Instead,  Zen wisdom is based squarely on the bodily experience of no-self, the experience of dropping our words, thoughts, and preferences.  There is a place in our practice for study, discussion, and reflection, but the wisdom that Zen offers starts with no-self, through the bodily experience of zazen, and nowhere else.

This teaching is very clear, but we have to be reminded of it over and over again. Why? a) we often think of wisdom as coming only from books or experts and b) reading a book or listening to a talk can sound a whole lot more attractive than sitting silently on a cushion for hours.

For 2500 years Buddhists have been mining the experience of no-self for its wisdom.  I’m not going to get to much of that here. But I think there are two fundamental truths that our practice of zazen can teach us, two truths that open up the path of Zen wisdom.

First, the world is not what we think.  When we get completely quiet and calm, we realize how much our thoughts and emotions normally color our world.   Our usual way of perceiving our world (and the events in it) is literally and figuratively self-centered.  Everything happens to my left and my right, in front of and behind me.  My story, my preferences, my concerns, my winning or losing are the central point.

The practice of no-self allows us to experience the world without our thinking mind coloring it.   It allows us to question the solidity of our world and our story.

Secondly, we ourselves are not what we think.  We are in fact more than what we think.   We are our everyday thinking self, and we are the quiet self that we call no-self.  As we start to identify with both of these selves, the way we move through the world begins to change.

I think of this no-self aspect of ourselves as a subtle yet powerful ally.  Knowing it allows us to be less incessantly stuck in our own self-centered perspective.  It allows us to open ourselves to a range of creative possibilities.  It has a tendency to loosen the knotty problems we find ourselves bound by at work and in family life.

Part of Zen wisdom is also the humility to know that Zen practice does not solve everything. It’s my belief that Zen wisdom is also a compound factor, one that helps other wisdoms grow.   It opens us to learning from other disciplines, other people, and learning from our own successes and failures.

The Dalai Lama puts it this way in his commentary on the Heart Sutra:

“The way we tend to perceive things to be does not accord with the way they are.  ….This does not nihilistically deny the fact of our experience.  The existence of things and events is not in dispute; it is the manner in which they exist that must be clarified.

Clarifying that is the work of Zen wisdom.

May 2016: Birth

Birth and Death are great matters.

So reads the first line of the Evening Gatha, written on the wooden han we strike every time we meet to practice. The striking of the han is a call to remember what’s most important in life.

As well as being great matters to ponder, birth and death also form the fundamental rhythm of our Zen practice.

When we sit still we give up our everyday lives for a little while. Our everyday self dies for a bit. We go back to our “original face before we were born” as the masters say. When we step off the cushion and back into the stream of life, we are then reborn, having reconnected to our original quiet nature.

Growing up in North Carolina I was drawn to the physical drama of full immersion baptism – we Presbyterians only got a sprinkling of water during baptism. I still love the physicality of it, and the symbolism. It’s as if the celebrant goes all the way down to a watery grave, and is resurrected – fresh, new, and purified.

When I started studying with Sasaki Roshi at Mount Baldy in my twenties, I was into getting totally quiet, totally dying. Roshi then gave me the koan: “Jesus Christ died. Three days later he resurrected. How do you resurrect?”

Our Zen practice leads us down to death and back to life. This death and rebirth happens during and after every sitting to one degree or another, but it’s after a retreat that I feel it the most. After those long sittings the world is fresh and I have a new appreciation for it. Colors pop, food tastes better, and I have a love for details I normally miss in my life.

I’m born new not only to the physical world, but also to the world of work, of family. I find I have renewed gratitude for the loved ones in my life, and a wider view toward my problems. Entrenched notions loosen up. Battle lines soften. I can approach difficult situations fresher.

We just finished a retreat this past Sunday. Day by day its strong effects wear off as I get back into my routine. But subtle effects linger, among them a strengthened belief that this kind of death and rebirth practice is a help to my life. Another thing that lasts is the memory of the way I relate to the world when I’m new. That memory reminds me that I, and the situations in my life, are not as fixed and rigid as I often believe.

In Zen practice, resurrection isn’t a one-time occurrence. It’s a continual process of living, dying, and living again in each moment.

April 2016: Emptiness

Buddhist emptiness is easily misunderstood. This emptiness does not mean nothingness. The emptiness that Buddhism refers to is emptiness of self. When we empty our self, we make room for everything just as it is. We get a feeling for life as it is – life without our judgements, our fears, our pressing interests.

When sitting zazen in the zendo, the sound of the car passing, the chickens clucking, the feeling of breathing – those sensations become our self.

The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is rich and complex. But at its heart is the realization that we are more – not less – than we think. Everyone has a self, but everyone also has another aspect, one that is easily overlooked. It goes by many names – no self, true self, big self, Buddha nature.

The practice of emptying our self allows us to realize this aspect. It helps us see how often we take our way of thinking as concrete fact. It challenges some of our unconscious assumptions about our self and our world, neither of which are as fixed as they seem.

Giving up everything in emptiness practice also gives us a new start with everything. It allows us to approach situations and people in our lives with a fresh perspective, and to be more open to them. Over time we learn to be more open to our own suffering and the suffering of others.

Emptiness is a strange way to get to a fuller heart. The road to emptiness can seem cold – it involves giving up our likes and dislikes, our hopes and fears. But that giving up allows for a warmer, less self-centered, more caring life.

Emptiness practice is simple, but not easy. Quieting our usually noisy self and loosening our perspective takes time and effort. That’s why retreats are an essential part of Zen practice. A retreat gives us the time and the environment we need to do the work of fully emptying ourselves. Our spring retreat at Camp Sealth is a great chance to do just that. I encourage you to seize that chance and sign up.

I really believe Zen guides us toward truth and love. The doctrine and practice of emptiness helps us toward both.

March 2016: Ethics and Values

This month’s dharma calendar theme is Ethics and Values.

The fundamental practice in Zen is to lose our self – to go beyond thinking, beyond the opposites of the world, beyond any idea of good and bad.

In order to lose ourselves in a way that benefits ourselves and the people in our life, it helps to have a good, strong sense of our self. Part of a good sense of our self is a good ethical framework – a sense of what’s healthy and unhealthy, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. Just as the structure of the zendo and the Zen form holds us, a good psychological and ethical framework allows us more ably to do the serious work of losing ourselves.

Zen is a spiritual path that doesn’t get into a lot of detail when it comes to that ethical framework. When I compare Zen to Catholicism for instance, we have very few stated ethical or political positions on the issues of the day – marriage equality, abortion, stem-cell research to name a few.

The ethics that come from Zen are less specific: looking truthfully at what’s going on in our lives and what’s going on in the world; compassion and loving-kindness for other sentient beings.

Because Zen highly values the place of deep quiet where good and bad don’t exist, it’s possible to mistakenly think that Zen is unconcerned with ethics. As important as that place is, Zen is bigger than that. Zen is system that includes rituals, customs, stories, a way of considering our life, a community of practitioners. A good Zen system shepherds us down to that place of zero, and helps us channel our energies properly on the way up.

I feel that part of my job as Abbot is ensuring that that system is healthy and ethical. For me that means proper checks on power, and a transparent decision making structure. It means creating a culture where respect for people who are different from you is prized. A system that values both non-attachment and healthy attachment, both the cool of zazen and the warmth of friendship, both wisdom and compassion. This has to be not only talked and written about, but a felt sense in the sangha.

Building a healthy and ethical system is a work in progress, at our Zen center and broadly in Zen in the West. I had a teacher who, despite his talents, had troubling ethical problems, and who encouraged a system that didn’t hold him accountable. That experience has made me aware of the power of the Zen system for good and ill. At PSZC many of us are working to shape a healthy Zen center that sticks to ethical principles. It’s worthwhile work, and very much part of our Zen path.

In that spirit, I’d like to introduce you to our Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee (currently Joyce Hunziker, Beth Glennon and Carol Spangler) is on-call to respond to any ethics-related questions or concerns about our sangha. They also review our Teacher Ethics Statement and provide a yearly report to the Board. Feel free to contact them any time at ethics@pszc.org.

February 2016: Taking Refuge

In February our Dharma topic is Taking Refuge. All branches of Buddhism incorporate taking refuge in the three treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

According to Karen Armstrong, author of The Buddha, the practice goes back to the Buddha’s day. Lay people who couldn’t take up the lives of mendicants took refuge in these three treasures.

In our precepts class we’re studying pre-Buddhist thought, and have learned that the Upanishadic sages wanted to find the essence of three worlds: the microcosm – our self; the macrocosm –the external world; and the mesocosm – the intermediary world between inside and outside, which is the world of ritual and sacrifice.

This theme of three – heaven (inside/spirit), earth (outside/society), and the link between the two -comes up in other traditions. In the Christian trinity for instance: God in heaven, Christ on earth, and the Holy Spirit as the messenger between heaven and earth.

As for our three treasures, for me the Buddha is the essence of ourselves – our Buddha nature. Our practice to discover that is zazen.

Sangha is our practice of living our everyday lives, off the cushion. Relating to people – whether at the Zen Center or at home or work.

Dharma is the link between these two. Dharma teaches us to make sense of our Buddha experience. And it teaches us some of the innumerable ways we may bring that experience into our lives.

Those embarking on a Practice Plan starting March 1 are now considering what to commit to in these three areas – Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

In February we will sing the Three Refuges in Pali after every sitting. Thanks to the Red Cedar Zen Community in Bellingham for inspiring me to try that.

I’ll be gone for the first half of February in Norway, where I travel twice a year to teach at the Rinzai Zen Senter in Oslo. I always appreciate my time there, and come back refreshed, usually with a new idea or two for the PSZC sangha. I would for instance like for our sangha to work toward running 7 day sesshins, like the ones I lead in Norway each summer. There is nothing like sitting in silence for a week.

In the meantime, feel free to join me in Oslo in late July/early August for the Rinzai Zen Senter’s summer sesshin. It is my hope that in future more connections develop between these two sanghas.

January 2016: A New Year’s Note

Friends,

I’m planning to use a Dharma Calendar at the Zen Center this year. For some years I’ve been looking forward to trying this. Here’s how it’ll work: Each month of the year will have a different topic associated with it – there will be dharma talks on that topic, the morning readings will reflect the topic, and we may adjust our chanting and ceremony a little each month. If the Dharma Calendar works out, we’ll repeat the cycle year after year.

Earlier this year I got re-inspired to create a calendar by Alain de Botton’s interesting book Religion for Atheists. De Botton argues that religion has done many things right, and that secular society should pay attention these things. Among other things, he commends the way religion uses the calendar as a
simple way to remind people of the values and practices we cherish. Every religious tradition uses a liturgical calendar to remind people what’s important year after year.

I’ve chosen 12 topics that I think cover the major themes in Buddhism and Zen practice. The first three months follow the ceremonial pattern of Buddhist ordination ceremonies: Confession & Renewal, Taking Refuge, and Precepts. In the other 9 months we have the 6 paramitas represented as well as other basic Buddhist concepts. We’ve been observing five major Buddhist holidays a year, and we’ll continue to do that: The death days of Rinzai, Bodhidharma, and Buddha; and Buddha’s birth and enlightenment days.

We start January with Renewal. During this month we’ll do the traditional sange chant, often translated “confession.” During this month I’d like to encourage all of us to do some reflection on how we’ve been living and acting. Zen may appear to be all about the present moment, but reflection on our past actions and the present state of our relationships is an aspect of Zen life that is sometimes overlooked.

Part of our practice is a commitment to change our habits of body and mind. Some of the sangha read Norman Fischer’s book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. The first lojong slogan is Train in the Preliminaries, and Fischer has this to say about it: “Training in the preliminaries is
the process of looking honestly at your life and making a firm decision to embark on a disciplined spiritual path.” In January I hope we can collectively reflect on our lives, and recommit to beginning our practice anew.

Here’s the Dharma Calendar that we’ll follow in 2016:

January – Renewal

February – Taking Refuge

March – Ethics & Values

April – Silence and Emptiness

May – Birth

June – Wisdom

July – Interdependence

August – Kindness & Compassion

September – Patience & Diligence

October – Impermanence

November – Generosity & Gratitude

December – Awakening & Buddha Nature

See you on down the path,

Koshin