Thursday, October 27, 2016

Walking Rain Sesshin 2010

In late September twenty seven people gathered at Mountain Lamp for Three Treasures’ annual Walking Rain sesshin. Students from three countries and many Sanghas traveled far for this week of collective, intensive zazen. This was our second full sesshin up in the valley, and our first since the passing of our Dharma grandfather, Aitken Roshi, in August.  His presence was keenly felt, and evoked by a beautiful calligraphy and poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, which adorned the altar.

We convened Friday night, and after introductions did zazen amidst strong mountain winds. I was fortunate to serve as dokusan attendant, or jisha, and my old partner in mischief Nils served as jikijistsu. As we closed up the dojo for that first night, he whispered to me, “doesn’t this seem like Palolo?”  In the infinite rustle of trees that night, and with a heightened sense of Aitken Roshi’s presence, I told him that I sensed it too.  

Since most of the participants were old hands, our zazen settled quickly. The rains came in, first hard and then soft, and briefly clearing at times in the traveling of days. We inaugurated a new honorific for the recitation of the Ancestral Line. As Jack is Dharma holder of the lay lineage of Aitken Roshi and his teacher Ko’un Yamada Roshi, the epithet “Dai Osho”, associated with the priesthood, was replaced with “Dai Busso”, Great Buddha, a pointer to awakening beyond distinctions of laity and clergy.

Blocks, and days, of zazen passed, and all the while the participants actualized the harmony of shared activity, moving increasingly with grace and precision as the forms of sesshin held us. It seemed to me a great gift to be permitted to escort my Dharma sisters and brothers to dokusan, and I found myself inwardly rooting for the next person to get in before the block of sitting ended.

By Friday, the rains had gone and sun burned hot over the valley mists. Jack presented his last teisho for this sesshin, an exposition of Dogen’s Genjo Koan. Finishing his talk, he quoted our Old Boss :

“The wind of the Buddha House,
the practice of zazen
and going beyond realization
Is altogether in accord
With the wind of the Universe”

As tears welled in my eyes, and in the eyes of others, the vanished wind, unheard since last weekend, at once rose up. The echoing “goRAWK!” of ravens in the valley called us back to our kinhin and cushions. The sesshin moved on, and finished the next day. As usual, I wondered how best to carry forward the sacred intimacy we had diligently cultivated. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t have to be, since I had great companions, good maps of the trail, and a grandfather; a jet-winged, keen eyed Raven calling still through dissolving, and clearing, mountain mist. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Zen and Intensive Dynamic Psychotherapy - a Wayward Endorsement. 

I suppose I should start with a disclaimer – it is now fifteen years since these events have passed. In that time I have myself become a psychotherapist, and have continued Dharma practice in both Asia and the States. But I will try to write what I recall.

In my early twenties I began Zen practice at the Rochester Zen Center and several of its affiliates in the Midwest. At that time if a student wanted to study koan Zen the RZC affiliates in the Midwest were the only opportunity available for that, other than going to New York, California, or Hawaii.  This did not seem realistic for me, even though I was more drawn toward Robert Aitken’s writings than any other teacher’s. After a year of regular sesshin attendance I decided to move to the Rochester Center. My plan was to do an initial six month trial stay, and see how my practice matured. I also knew, from my friend John, that an intensive therapy was available to residents of the Center, via Deborah LeBeaux, an old center member practicing therapy at the Genessee Hospital. This was a significant part of my motivation to move to the center, as I had done about a year of supportive therapy which I did not find very useful.

Also of note is that two of the three group leaders in Madison made it clear – in a half-joking, but in retrospect passive aggressive way,that they expected me to become a Zen teacher. One of these people became a big part of my break with the Zen Center about a year later.

I moved to the Center in Sept 1991. From the first day I was annoyed by arbitrary and dreadful decorum, the rigidity of many of the leaders, and the way that any questioning of aspects of life at the Center were framed as character problems of the student, especially if the student had not passed Mu. I felt I was pressured into becoming the abbot’s student, and we were forbidden to even consider visiting other centers in the greater American sangha. It seemed mildly cultish, but I had made a commitment, and I intended to honor it. I tried to match the encouraged athleticism of the sangha, sitting with as few cushions as possible, often in excruciating pain.

Two incidences which I now consider highly dysfunctional stand out as I write this. The first is that the head of zendo (Lanny Ross) insisted that I obtain a NY driver’s license. He said the center’s auto insurance would refuse to add me to the policy without one. I told him I wanted to keep my Wisconsin license, since I intended to return there for possible graduate school. I also knew that one other resident had an out of state license, and he’d lived there for a year, and drove the center’s vehicles. One day as I exited the zendo Lanny confronted me. In an aggressive tone he said “where your NY driver’s license?”. I said I did not have one. He said “don’t drive any center vehicles” and stalked away. I new he was bullshitting me about the insurance issue, but his aggression left me shocked and angry. Later that day he said that my feelings about this constituted my “baggage”. “Put it down” he said. The second incident occurred when Mitra Bishop insisted I sit sesshin without a small pad I wished to insert into my zabuton. I sat with the pain but resented it.

In October, with my teacher’s support, I began STDP therapy. As I progressed with the treatment, I experienced intense rage at my mother, which I had previously internalized and directed against myself. I recall literally feeling that the right side of my brain had been opened to the world – the right side of my head actually hurt, in a way that was somehow almost pleasant. Debbie also was open at times, when not challenging me to experience affect, about her own experiences of the rigidity of the Rochester Center, particularly the assertion common there that those who had experienced kensho were psychologically mature. By March of 1992, after 5 months of weekly STDP, I was sure that I did not want or need to live at the Rochester Center to practice Zen. Six months of my trying to fit into the model there of a “good zen student”, along with the self-affirmation of all the years of internalized rage I was carrying, and needed to carry no longer, were starting to show me that I could continue Zen practice without an external rigid structure. After learning to trust my own affects – a little – I was also starting to trust the intuition that knew the punitive structures in place in Rochester were not useful, and were even damaging.

I moved back to Madison, and into the affiliate center there. On the surface I told myself that I intended to keep attending sesshin in Rochester, though part of me knew that this was unlikely. I began applying to the Peace Corps also, hoping they would send me to Nepal, where I had done a study abroad program. The group leader in Madison, who was also my employer that summer, took it upon himself to correct me on these beliefs. After many conflicts, he publicly denounced me as having a “big ego”, having failed in my efforts to gain kensho, and a slew of other accusations. He stated that his “level of attainment” justified this aggressive behavior, and asserted his right to act as Bodhin’s “representative”, given that I had “fled the pressure cooker”. I wrote to Bodhin, explaining that this man was not someone I would ever have as a teacher. Bodhin defended Lou, and said I should be grateful that he was trying to humiliate me. “The desert fathers paid people to humiliate them” he wrote. I reacted strongly, and in retrospect too intensely, though I am sure, because of the STDP I had done, of the difference between my feelings toward Lou and that portion of them that were actually about my parents. This allowed me to resign as Bodhin’s student with sadness, but a clear conscience, despite his final letter lamenting that I was “not ready for the teaching” that he and Lou had “offered”.

I joined the Peace Corps shortly thereafter. Lou, while acknowledging that I had been a diligent and skilled carpenter for his business, refused to write me a positive reference based on his interactions with me in the sangha. After returning from Nepal in 1995, I began zen practice with Robert Aitken and two of his dharma heirs, John Tarrant and, since 1998, Jack Duffy. I found the sitting in all of these groups rigorous, with none of the authoritarian dynamics I tried so hard to not see when I began sitting in Rochester. Recently I have started training as one of the zendo leaders in sesshin – I am surprised to find that I am sometimes able to hold the forms of sesshin with more ease than many in the zendo, and I certainly owe some of this to my time in Rochester. But I also realize that ultimately zen practice is about realizing and expressing who WE fully are, and not adhering to some outward form, and despising myself for not adequately manifesting it. STDP cleared the way for me to see that for myself in zazen, and though self-doubt and loathing still arise when I am on the cushion, I now greet them with gentleness and patience, instead of pushing them away out of anxiety. Aitken Roshi approved my passing of Mu in 1999 (though of course Mu is boundless), and while I consider this a milestone and am deeply grateful, I don’t think it means anything special in regards to my relationships within the sangha. The Diamond Sangha does not operate in this authoritarian manner, much to my relief.  While any intrapsychic changes that arose from my work in STDP took time to manifest, the clarity and courage I gained from it empowered me to leave a very unhealthy situation, and I remain grateful to my therapist and her teachers.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Notes on the Great Vows

In Zen practice we frequently chant "Shu Jo Mu Hen Sei Gan Do". "Beings are innumerable, I vow to save them". When I began practice I’d never seen the Sino-Japanese version of the verse, and we chanted

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate
Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot
Dharma gates, beyond measure, I vow to penetrate
The Great Way of Buddha, I vow to attain

“All beings, without number” seemed redundant – of course all beings could not be counted. This is often misunderstood as a poetic vow to save everything, or to refer to a vast number of beings, like the dizzying multitudes that populate Vedic cosmology. The Sixth Patriarch said "save them in our own minds", but this seemed to refer to some sort of inner mental experience, and didn’t address the real suffering throughout the vast world.  This seems to be a popular way of reading the vows today, at least based on my readings online. There are vast numbers of beings, and delusions, and also Dharma entry points, so the practice of aspiration is to open into that and live as best we can in accord with the teachings and practices, arousing Bodhicitta.

After some years I discovered the Japanese version of the vows, but didn’t connect the MU in each verse to the MU of my zazen.  Once in sesshin the verse “from beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance” stared through me and the Great Vows started to seem more like the Heart Sutra. “Beginningless” no longer gave rise to the concept of a vast stretch of time.  Sitting more zazen, the depth and transparency of these words hewed more to Bodhidharma’s words than Shantideva’s.

meets the great Buddhist emperor Wu, who asks him, “I have built many temples and ordained many monks. What merit is there in this?” Bodhidharma replies, “None whatsoever.” The emperor then asks, “What is the highest meaning of the ultimate truth?” Bodhidharma answers, “Empty, without holiness.” Astonished, the emperor then asks, “Who is it that faces me?” and Bodhidharma, thrusting home the final arrow, replies, “I don’t know.”

The first half of each verse of the Great Vows makes the point. "Shu Jo Mu Hen" ....NO beings. No thing at all. No passions, no liberation, no gates, no surpassing of them, no boundaries. And yet...we take the vow. After an experience of transparency, or opening, there is a great fragility and the old structures cannot contain the experience. How to step back into the mad world of anger, folly, and the relentless pace of American life? The latter half of each of the vows now seems like a map, something to guide me, not the territory of course but a lodestone to sail the nothing holy sea.

Perhaps a more bony translation would read

No beings/I vow to save them
No blind passions/I vow to abandon them

No Dharma gates/I vow to wake to them
No Buddha Way to go beyond/I vow to embody it

As I’ve learned zazen practice these past 25 years I’ve seen many teachers promote kensho as something that makes us immune to suffering, like an inoculation against identifying with loss and grief. There are people who seem to function like this, slipping into the amoral nihilism that Theravada teachers, and the Vajrayana Lam-Rim practitioners, have cautioned of. Too little grounding in the maps of Shila and overdoses of “without-no-bounds” can leave us stuck, especially if we have an inward bent to our personalities, or a thick skinned type of narcissism. But for me, and others I believe, long practice lowers the walls and defense, and after an experience of no-thing it’s even harder to be in the world, as the pain is very real and unremitting.

When prison canga is iron and has no hole,
(Echu's) followers have neither peace nor rest.
When you intend to uphold the teaching of Zen,
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.

This is agony, sometimes, and unbounded all at once. So we flow into the great nothing holy, no numbers vast or not vast, and follow our guides as we’re able. Zen is not the way of the inner journey, but the cultivation of neither inside nor outside, and no ending of inside and outside. Coming forth from that is no easy realization, and still more difficult as practice. After the structure has collapsed, one must come down from that peak or wither there, while the world cries out still.

American Zen so often seems to collapse in upon itself, realization of no-boundary stopping, like a migrating turtle embayed, at the place where there is only Mu, no-thing, in all directions. I hear people say things like “when I meditate, the whole world is at peace”, as if their own mental state is a barometer for the ten thousand things. Please do not miss the rest of the vow.

This translation, of unknown provenance, has it thus:

The Four Encompassing Vows

Masses [of] creatures, without-bounds,
[I/we] vow to save [them all]

Anxiety [and] hate, [delusive-desires] inexhaustible,
[I/we] vow to break [them all]

Dharma gates beyond-measure
[I/we] vow to learn [them all]

Buddha Way, nothing-higher,
[I/we] vow to accomplish [it]

When I’m struggling with words maps for practice, I try to find the oldest versions of them that I can. I tried to find the etymological roots of this Vow in the early Sutras from Kushana, which were taken to China by monks like Dharmaraksha, Lokaksema, and Kumarajiva in the early centuries of the last millennium. The Lotus Sutra contains the spirit of the Vows, but if there was a Sanskrit or Prakrit original it has not yet been found. It seems to have first become a gatha under the banner of Tien-T’ai Chih-I (538-597), who structured each vow as a response to, and practice pointer for, each of the Four Noble Truths. The first vow addresses the arising of dukkha, the second defilements (kleshas), and so forth. But do not be deceived by the apparent conflict between boundless greed, hatred, and ignorance and the magnitude of the Vows. As some ancient worthy in old Gandhara must have realized, they’re not something we have to accomplish – they’re what we already are. And of course, there is the task of practice. In this era of decontextualizing meditation practice, and jettisoning the ancient aspiration, I find all this very reassuring.