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Not By An Act of Will

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

Reading the teachings of Buddhism, one encounters a lot of discussion about the nature of a human being, of a human life. It has been viewed from various perspectives, described according to various systems and frameworks, and explored in meditation and in the daily lives of millions of practitioners. Some say it's pure. Others say it's impure. Here’s how I practice with it.

A human life is a precious thing because it is so fleeting. It is the coming together of countless conditions, acted upon by the energetic principals of impermanence, karma, and dependent co-arising. Each moment is a unique transformation into one particular state of these conditions and energies, as they harmoniously arrive at resolution, at completion. Having come together, the state of the universe, and a human being within it, is so momentary that there is no way to pin it down. There is nothing that can been seen as wrong or right, pure or impure, about this state because it includes everything as mere instantaneous phenomena. It holds all things as mere conditions relating to other conditions in a flux of transformation. This is one way to express the ultimate or absolute perspective of a human life.

Image: NASA Hubble

Image: NASA Hubble

However, simply saying such a thing is like a painted rice cake. It doesn't satisfy our hunger. It doesn't satisfy our thirst. For that reason, the historical Buddha got up from the seat of enlightenment and spent the remainder of his life explaining that one can only find one's peace with life by seeing its principles all the way to the bottom. He gave teachings from both the absolute and relative (or subjective) perspectives. He said that "tanha" or "thirst" is the reason for fundamental pervasive dissatisfaction or "dukkha." And he taught that meditation and an ethical life are necessary to have a firsthand experience of how and why this is so. Having seen it and experienced it clearly for oneself, one is no longer willing to engage in a life that creates dissatisfaction and is dominated by thirst.

From then on to the present day, sincere practitioners have received the Buddha's teachings and expressed them in fresh ways, extrapolated from them, or sometimes focused on just one aspect with great vigor. Some had profound revelatory insights and wrote breathtaking new teachings. Some walked the path adhering as closely as possible to the Buddha's own, as they understood it. Some shared the teachings of Buddhism with new cultures and countries, bringing forth those unique expressions. I don't subscribe to Buddhist elitism, claiming one form of the teachings to be the only valid form. That kind of thinking abounds, but I believe it fails to capture the incredible diversity and richness of human experience.

That said, I deeply agree with the Buddha's teachings to the Kalamas that the teachings must be lived in order to be effective, or even to be assessed for their effectiveness. And the Buddha gave us an incredible variety of tools with which to investigate the nature of mind, body, and human experience. Lately, I have been exploring many more of these early teachings, and living at a monastery where women train to put them into practice. As many of you know, for the past six months I have been in residence at Aloka Vihara, a monastery in the Theravada Forest Tradition in the West. I came here for many reasons, one of which is to fulfill a yearning that I have had for years to live only with other women practitioners.

Reflecting on my experience here, I notice shifts in meditative experience. I notice the way that the body responds with more relaxation and clarity. I notice that my life feels different than it did at other monasteries and practice centers. That it is different and quieter than, say, an urban center is to be expected. 

However, something unexpected happened to me during the extended period of silent practice that is called the Winter Retreat. As with each of the monastics, within the three months of silent Winter Retreat I had the opportunity to sit a "solo" retreat for three weeks. This meant that I lived in the forest, in rustic accommodations called a "kuti," focused exclusively on practice, with no contact with the community other than to see each other in passing once or twice per day. This is a new form of practice for me. Solo retreats are not done in Zen, a tradition that has been my path since I began practicing many years ago.

The kuti in which I stayed, March 2018

The kuti in which I stayed, March 2018

I chose to begin the solo without any specific plan about how to practice - no schedule, no particular commitment to one style of meditation, bowing, or chanting. The only thing I was sure I wanted to do was to chant "metta." Metta is typically translated as "loving kindness," and chanting metta has been my daily practice for 12 years. The chant of metta is an intention for all beings to be well, happy, free from suffering, and to realize spiritual fulfillment. It is based in the Buddha's teachings on the four sublime abidings or "brahmaviharas," together with compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. 

There is much that could be said about the practices of metta and of solo retreat but, for now, I just want to say that each of the three weeks had its flavor. I was a bit surprised at the flavors that I experienced, even after many, many years of practice. The first week had the flavor of remorse. I had feelings of remorse about big things, about small things, about things I had done or said, or things others had done or said that I had been powerless to stop. I sat, and walked, stood still, and lied down with remorse sprinkled throughout the days. However, I was also chanting metta, for myself, for those I had harmed, for those who caused harm, and for my family, students, teachers, and all beings. I chanted and chanted, knowing that this positive intention for the well-being of others and for my own well-being has helped me to cultivate compassion and loving kindness in all the other parts of my life. Slowly the remorse subsided, and I felt much happier.

Then the second week was about the body. In very noticeable ways, my body began to feel more in tune with the forest. I could smell the pines, hear more birds and deer, sense the changes in the air. And I could relax. I was literally standing up straighter, and feeling the small muscles of my face get full and soft. Even though I was sitting many hours each day, I no longer had the pain in my right hip that I had been experiencing for years. All of this also meant that I felt happier and found joy, during times I was sitting and during the other times of the day. The body was finding its own wisdom.

The third week arrived. By then I was feeling comfortable with having no particular rhythm to the days. I would sit as I felt ready, and do walking meditation at other times. Yet I began to notice a pronounced inclination to meditation on the breath entering the body at the nostril, using it as an anchor for concentration. Though I had occasionally had this feeling in the facial area before, I had not made the connection that it preceded the deeper concentration until that moment. The mind inclined itself deeper and deeper into this concentration, experiencing things never felt before.

All of that was fascinating and brought up lots of new areas of investigation for me, but the most important part came a few weeks after the solo retreat ended. One of the other nuns gave me the reference number of a sutta (teaching by the historical Buddha) about one type of dependent origination that can lead to liberation. This was in response to some exploration we were doing in the morning readings. Looking up the sutta, I was deeply moved to find that the 11 steps that the Buddha describes begin this way...

"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.

“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.

“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.

“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.

“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.

“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated...."    AN11.2
 

Now, I am not claiming that I have consummate virtue, or that I am half way to complete liberation, or even that I have fully plumbed the depths of this sutta. Still I found this very encouraging. It deepens my confidence in the path of practice that I am following when I can relate my experience directly to teachings that describe a path to freedom. For me, acknowledgment of the gradual nature of a path that leads to sudden moments of life-changing clarity and peace is most realistic.

Though there are others, this description of the path starts with virtue, a vast topic that the Buddha described in various ways. However, for monastics he was very clear about prescribing certain practices that he saw as virtuous, especially forgoing all sexual activity, maintaining frugality about eating and material belongings, and humility.  In my view, this doesn't mean that some other path might not be better for someone else, or even for me at some point in the future. However, for my body and mind of this time and place, this practice is extremely supportive and skillful.

fabrics in sunlight.jpg

Given this confidence and many other experiences over the past six months, I have decided to continue on the path of Theravada practice. I want to go forth as an ordained Buddhist nun in this tradition. I have found that the supports I need to walk the path of practice are right here at Aloka Vihara, in the place, the schedule, the people, and the forms. This ordination will be in addition to my precept vows in the Zen tradition, as is typical for Chinese Chan and many other Buddhist lineages.

So I have asked to stay for the long-term and the two nuns who are the founders here, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta, have been gracious enough to open the door and welcome me. They will be my Theravada practice teachers, and Ayya Sudinna from South Carolina Buddhist Vihara is kind enough to be the “pavattini” or preceptor. That is, she is the nun presiding over the ordination because she has the requisite years of seniority and a generous heart. Typically, there are two one year periods of commitment to training as a novice 10 precept nun, and then one two year commitment of training as a bhikkhuni (a fully ordained Buddhist nun), should one chose to take up the 311 training precepts in full. The 10 ethical and renunciate precepts I will take up as training rules when I go forth on this path at "pabbaja" are:

1.    I refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
2.    I refrain from taking what is not given.
3.    I refrain from any kind of sexual activity.
4.    I refrain from false and harmful speech.
5.    I refrain from consuming intoxicants.
6.    I refrain from eating at an inappropriate time (between midday and dawn).
7.    I refrain from dancing, singing, music, and going to shows.
8.    I refrain from beautification and adornment.
9.    I refrain from lying on a high or luxurious bed.
10.    I refrain from handling money.

The key difference between these precepts and the eight I am currently keeping here at the Vihara is giving up the personal use of money. It means that I become totally reliant on the relationship of mutual support, as the Buddha set it up. And I promise to live so that relationship is communicated through my commitment and my robes. There is something beautiful about the way that everyone involved in this relationship is learning to let go in a variety of ways.

There will be more to write about the precepts as training rules, and the intentions and practices related to each of these. For now, look for an ordination announcement to come soon.

With gratitude to the Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha, to Mahatheri Mahapajapati Gotami, the first bhikkhuni, and to my Teacher in the Zen tradition, Ven. Shosan Victoria Austin, and all the skillful Buddhist teachers with whom I have had the good karma to practice, a lifetime of deep bows of appreciation!

The 11th Year of Not Knowing

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & Engagement, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment
Zen ordination photo 2007 03 22.jpg

The above photo was taken in a small fishing town in Japan called Obama, at a training monastery known as Hosshinji. It was taken on this day in 2007. It is a photo of my ordination into the Zen priesthood, the day on which I became a nun after some 20 years of lay Zen practice. I can hardly believe that it has been 11 years since that day.

The teacher in the huge, fancy hat is Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot of Hosshinji and a well respected, high ranking member of the Soto Zen establishment in Japan. I knew nothing about any of that, however. At that time, I only knew that I had met a person whose practice was so deep and so vast that it changed my life. His practice and teaching gave the Dharma a whole new dimension. As I said to my Zen friends in the US after my first five day sitting (sesshin) with Roshi, it was like realizing that my practice had been exploring the four corners of the earth for many years, but now I had been shot off in a rocket. I was exploring something much greater. The vastness was daunting and inspiring all at once. Practice with Harada Roshi surprised me in many ways.

Perhaps more importantly, I saw in Roshi's practice the reality that it is possible to awaken to the inner meaning of the Dharma, to the true nature of all being. Over the course of a very short period of time, the Dharma went from theories and concepts to a lived activity framed by the inquiry, "What is this moment?"

So what does it mean to be ordained into Soto Zen, particularly when lay practitioners and priests all take the same 16 bodhisattva precepts? When asked by Sojun Mel Weitsman the meaning of being a Zen priest, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi of San Francisco Zen Center famously replied, "I don't know," a reply echoed by his then assistant Katagiri Sensei, who later become the Roshi at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. I understand this reply to be an elegant pointer toward the basic paradox of Zen - the mind and heart of abiding in and responsiveness in the moment, and the timelessness of a practice that points to the personal discovery of suchness. In later writings about the meaning of priesthood, Sojun Roshi would point to "...the fundamental intuitive quality that is the basis of our practice." Yes, being a Zen priest is a life committed to "don't know" mind.

Sekkei Harada Roshi too would exhort us, the Hosshinji residents, "You are not from families that expected you to become a Zen priest. Why did you ordain? Don't forget the reason." The reason was to be fully immersed in a life of waking up.

And in the course of waking up every day to the world of suffering and freedom, there are many aspects to being a Zen priest. In large part, we are role models, whether we know it or not. We are a visible example of the path of committed practice. We model sitting, model ceremonies, model wisdom and compassion, model ethics, model humility, model friendliness and inclusiveness, and so much more.  Of course, sometimes we also model making mistakes and finding ways to correct them or atone for them. This too is the very public practice of a priest. Once, when I told Zenkei Blanche Hartman Roshi that I was planning to sit more often in my room in the evenings, she said, "Don't be so selfish. If you're going to sit, do it in the zendo." Sharing our practice with others, being an upstanding role model for their practice, is an important part of being a Zen priest.

Many expressions of Zen priest - Zenju Manuel, Shosan Austin, Konin Cardenas, Kiku Lehnherr, Josho Phelan, Keiryu Shutt

Many expressions of Zen priest - Zenju Manuel, Shosan Austin, Konin Cardenas, Kiku Lehnherr, Josho Phelan, Keiryu Shutt

Because we have this commitment to living fully in the Dharma and to being a role model, priests also take on the responsibility of serving the sangha. Like being a role model, being of service takes many forms, from the mundane tasks like cleaning toilets and cooking, to the most exalted functions like leading complex ceremonies or teaching from the platform. Often we are of the greatest service to our sangha when sitting quietly over a cup of tea, listening to the heartfelt to and fro of a human life. Shosan Victoria Austin has been my Teacher for 13 years, and it is her practice of service to sangha that inspired me to become a resident at San Francisco Zen Center, and to continue as a priest when I returned from Japan. To be of service is to embrace the fullness of a human life, and without Shosan's shining example, I don't know whether I would have ever found the generosity in my heart.

These days, the big questions for me as a priest are about how to best serve the sangha and the tradition. How can the practice of Zen be true to its full lineage, all the way back to the historical Buddha? How does one maintain the quite specific forms and teachings of this tradition, and pass them to future generations in ways that are suited to this culture and time? How does one do this delicate, intimate dance of practice together with people with all sorts of expectations and life experiences, and still show them the beauty of a way they have never imagined?

The life of this priest has been incredibly varied, and there have been times when the vow of service loomed large. One example is the time that I was in the hospital offering spiritual care on Ash Wednesday. I'd spoken to my supervisors quite a bit about the ritual of offering ashes on the forehead, its meaning, and whether I could actually do such a thing. Then one of my peers, an Episcopalian priest, shared the meaning to which he felt closest.  He said that Ash Wednesday is about the circle of life and the inevitability of death - ashes to ashes. This was something I could get behind. Still, I secretly hoped that I would not be called upon to do this little ceremony.

The day flew by, and I was about to settle in for the night, when my pager went off. I was asked to visit the acute care floor to offer the ashes to someone who had been asleep all day and missed the floor chaplain. I prepared myself on the way, recalling the words, the ceremony, and what I might say to the patient about its import. As usual, when I arrived at the unit, I asked to see the patient's chart. To my consternation, the patient was a man with whom I had had a difficult interaction just days before. He was a large, older gentleman with debilitating, chronic back pain. When he arrived at my regular unit, I had gone to his room to introduce myself but, seeing my shaved head and Zen clothes, he dismissed me at the doorstep with a roar. Now I was the only person in the hospital who could give him what he wanted. Would he still want the ashes? Would I give them to him? 

A photo from my hospital chaplaincy days

A photo from my hospital chaplaincy days

I entered the room quietly, checking to see whether he was awake. It was fairly dark, but I could make out his face as he lay in bed. He turned and saw me, and gently acknowledged his recognition of me from the day of his arrival. I asked whether he wanted to received the ash ritual. He said he did. I placed the ashes on his forehead, in the shape of the cross, speaking the words, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." At that point I expected him to ask me to leave but, instead, he asked me to stay. In the softest of voices we spoke for some time of the wonder of life, encounters with people and things that are unexpected, and the beauty and mystery of simply being a human being. This man's don't know mind was so present and so gentle. I was deeply moved. A Zen priest never knows where don't know mind will appear.

So how does the ancient way become embodied in me and in the sangha, honoring the uniqueness of each person, while engaging the one who can see the emptiness of body and mind? These are the questions of a Zen priest in 21st century America. The answers? Well, I don't know, and I vow to continue not knowing so that, step by step, we practice together and discover the way in each moment.

 

 

 

Sharing the Light

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & Inclusion, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

For me, nothing can compare with the joy of seeing someone commit to a life of Dharma, a life of exploring how wisdom and compassion can come into the world through oneself. It's a happy, moving occasion and one that is a milestone for the practitioner.

L to R: Dana Elliott, Konin Cardenas, Norma Fogelberg

L to R: Dana Elliott, Konin Cardenas, Norma Fogelberg

 

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of offering the Buddha's robe and the bodhisattva precepts to my student Dana Elliott, whose long years of dedication to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha have now led her to jukai, the lay bodhisattva initiation ceremony. I am very glad to be Dana's preceptor. Having spent the past year studying the precepts and sewing the rakusu together, we'll now take another year to explore what it means to put the precepts into practice. May all beings benefit!

 

Thoughts on the Bhikkhuni Life

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment
Becky, Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Ahimsa, Anagarika Shannon, Ayya Santacitta, Guiding Teacher Konin

Becky, Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Ahimsa, Anagarika Shannon, Ayya Santacitta, Guiding Teacher Konin

It was a little over a year ago that I wrote to Ayya Santacitta, one of the two founding monastics of Aloka Vihara. We’d known each other for several years, and I had always enjoyed her presence and practice. I wrote telling her of my deep longing to come out for a visit to the Vihara, an unassuming home in Northern California, set at the top of a broad meadow where deer feed in the twilight hours. We agreed that a visit could be arranged for a time before the winter retreat began in January, but the airfares were simply too costly, and I had to defer. Respecting the retreat time of the monastic community, we arranged for me to come in May 2017.

It was so pleasant, the warm familiarity of good Dharma friends Ayyas Santacitta and Anandabodhi contrasted with the newness of meeting (then Samaneri, now) Ayya Ahimsa and later Anagarika Shannon, as well as learning how the details of daily life reflect the pāṭimokkha or monastic rules of early Buddhism. I felt drawn to this way of living Buddhism together with women, and there was something more. I experienced a spaciousness and sincerity about practice at the Vihara, a sense that there is room for a whole human life, room for a practice that is as big as all things.

The three of us were sitting on the floor in Ayya Santacitta’s room, talking quietly about how we were and how my stay was going, when I asked about a longer visit. I knew that my term at Empty Hand Zen Center, in New York, was coming to a close. I thought that three months would give me a taste of this Theravada life governed by the Vinaya, and enough time to plan next steps, whether here or in a Zen practice setting. The Sisters agreed, and I was really pleased. 

Still, I had my doubts. The monastic rules of Theravada Buddhism are very strict. They call for complete sexual abstinence, refraining from all entertainment and alcohol, no meal between Noon and dawn of the next day, and many other forms of renunciation and virtue. Would I be willing to set down everything in order to focus exclusively on practice?

Some of this territory is familiar. I have been celibate for many years now, and practicing brahmacarya for the past two years. I have lived at remote places, like Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery and Hosshinji, where there were no televisions or computers with which to watch any form of entertainment. And I have gone for long periods of time eating only twice per day and not having a drink. Yet the commitment of this entire group of women to these and other renunciate forms of practice as the basis for a peaceful life is an invaluable support.

Now I have been living at the Vihara since October, and the weekly rhythm has become familiar. Just as it is at the Zen monasteries in which I have lived, this life is full. There is early morning and evening community sitting and chanting called puja. There are regular times in which to contemplate the early Buddhist teachings, and to hear a Dharma talk by someone in the community or a recorded talk by someone far away. There are regular gatherings to check in about how we are feeling, and to divvy up the work of cooking and cleaning and maintenance. Visitors come and help out, and then go back to the larger world. Everyone contributes with work. Everyone participates in sitting.

The activities are familiar, but the way in which they are held is quite different. Here there is no wake up bell; each person is responsible for monitoring their own attendance and yet there is no one who forgoes the pujas for more than a day or two. During retreats, 10 day periods of focused practiced with only minimal work, the sitting is arranged in two or three hour blocks of time. People move about as they wish, sometimes sitting with the group, sometimes alone, sometimes walking. The walking meditation is relaxed. People move at a slow but natural pace, without any mudra or pattern, just moving back and forth. It feels as though there is room enough for each person to find their own pace.

Also, I find it interesting and inspiring that, rather than a doctrine, much of what we chant here is appreciation for the Buddha, Dharma and the early Sangha. It is a sharp contrast with the Zen liturgy, which is primarily concerned with teachings about emptiness. The chants and teachings here strongly emphasize ethics as a part of the Buddhist path, and virtue as an attribute of those who have embodied it deeply. I have come to realize that this is an important part of what drew me here. This is a place where there is an understanding of monastic ethics as a support to, and container for the practice of discovering the wisdom of non-self. It feels so right. It has been true for me that each time I have chosen to live a more ethical life, it has led to greater clarity of mind and fewer difficulties in life. Now I can live among women for whom this is also true.

And what of the differences in the teachings of Zen and Theravada Buddhism? First, I must admit to being surprised at how similar these paths are.  For example, although the Mahayana rhetoric is that ours is the stream of Buddhism that concerns itself with practice for the benefit of all beings, my experience of the Theravada is that we chant for the benefit of all beings at meals and other times during the day. Some days we chant the "Loving Kindness Meditation" that I learned at San Francisco Zen Center, which is actually a teaching from early Buddhism, one which predates Zen by centuries.

I often encounter threads like this, that begin with the historical Buddha and continue right through to present day Zen in America. The Buddha said that the sangha should be harmonious, “blending like milk and water,” which was later quoted by Eihei Dogen and later quoted by Shunryu Suzuki, and is now regularly quoted by Greg Fain, the Head of Practice at Tassajara.

I also find that the way that language is used is very different, as you might expect, but what is being described is similar or the same. For example, Tiantong Rujing clarified that Dogen’s “body and mind dropped off,” while Theravadan Teachers say, “there is no one who attains jhana” not because it’s not possible, but because that meditative state does not include the sense of one’s personal body and mind. These are very simple examples but, for me, they are emblematic of the shared values of these two traditions.

One key difference, however, is the emphasis that these Western Theravada practitioners place  on leading a simple, disciplined life, one that steps out of most of the trappings of contemporary America. This is seen as necessary and beneficial, not just for the residents of the monastery, but for everyone with whom they come in contact. That is, the practice of the Vinaya is a demonstration that these monastics are "all in" and have devoted their entire life's energy to the practice of awakening. This gives the rest of the sangha confidence in the leaders of the sangha, and perhaps an appreciation for how much effort they are investing and the Dharma they are sharing.

It is different from the Zen view that even the ordained sangha can participate in secular life, which was particularly strengthened in the mid-1800s by Japan’s “Niku Jiku Sai Tai” law. This law allowed Buddhist clergy to eat meat and marry, and they also began growing their hair and drinking alcohol. Surely there were political reasons behind the passage of the law, but it was also a recognition of the fact that some members of the Japanese Buddhist clergy were already doing those things. As for the value of the renunciate life, so far my experience has borne out its usefulness. The simplicity of this form of monasticism, as structured by early Buddhist texts, brings the practice and one's personal responsibility for it into sharp focus, while ensuring that the lay and ordained sangha clearly understand their inter-dependence. It leads to some lovely relationships.

I wonder why Dogen chose not to bring to Japan the pāṭimokkha rules of the Vinaya that I understand were practiced at Mount Tiantong and other Chan practice places. His teachings that all beings are expressions of Buddhanature, and therefore fundamentally enlightened, did not obstruct his teachings about the necessity for realization of this fact. Thus, at times, Dogen was clearly able to acknowledge the ultimate and the conventional at once. It therefore seems that he could have upheld the conventional value of the Vinaya precepts, just as Chan monastics do up to the present day. However, he chose to create a tradition in which only the 16 Bodhisattva precepts are taken. This is something that I hope to understand better in the future by studying the history of the Zen precepts and the Eihei Shingi, the monastic code of conduct that is specific to Soto Zen.

At this moment I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather be practicing. Aloka Vihara is becoming my new home, in my heart, body and mind. Much more of this path is unfolding too, and there is much for me to learn and to share with my new community. It is my intention that the Noble Eightfold Path continue through me. And it’s my plan to stay on here at the Vihara for a much longer period. The whole community has welcomed me with open arms and I embrace them too. This decision also means that I will be taking the Vinaya precept vows, as a complement to the Zen vows I have been upholding for the past 13 years. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to practice this way, and I look forward to sharing this journey with all of you. May it be of benefit to all beings.
 

Pedestal Practice: Harmful Student-Teacher Relationships

Sangha & InclusionGuiding Teacher5 Comments

In recent weeks, a very painful situation has come to light in the greater Buddhist sangha. Many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are upset at allegations of harmful behavior by a very well-known teacher. Similarly, the Abbot of a very large and prestigious Thai Buddhist temple has been accused of breaking the ethical vows of his tradition and of breaking the law. A year ago, a very painful scandal emerged at one of the larger Soto Zen centers in the US. Unfortunately, these are not the first instances of abuse of the relationship between Buddhist teachers and students. These kinds of situations have occurred time and time again, across various traditions and geographic locations.

As I am not personally familiar with any of the situations mentioned above, I don't feel qualified to discuss the details. However, I do want to share my thoughts on possible reasons for how and why these kinds of abuses happen, why they seem to go unaddressed for long periods of time, and how they might be prevented. Each situation is different and complex, but there may be discernable patterns at work.
 

Some people come to Buddhism in search of a more positive sense of self. While a bit ironic, this is natural, since one of the most fundamental messages of Buddhism is each person's innate capacity for and expression of wisdom. People like the idea that Buddhism says, "You can be a kinder, calmer, happier, wiser person, if you just work on discovering your own goodness, your own true nature." In Zen this shows up as the teaching, "All beings are fully endowed with buddhanature." It's a very positive message about the basic goodness of a human being.

However, in the search for a better self, problems sometimes develop as students look for and encounter a teacher. They look up to that person, and begin to see that person as someone special. Of course, if they didn't do a bit of that, that person could not be a teacher to them. Yet, one consequence of this admiration may be that seeing the teacher as special makes the student feel special by association with the special teacher. Whether or not this sentiment is spoken aloud, it also makes the teacher feel special because of the positive messages coming their way. This set of beliefs tends to feel good to both parties, and therefore tends to be reinforced.

Thus, the student feels that the teacher can help them be a better person. And it seems to be true because the teacher expresses confidence in the student, and the student seems to feel better about him or herself. It also seems to be true because usually more than one student is saying these things about the teacher. As for the teacher, he or she begins to believe these positive things students are saying about them, and begins to believe that they are the special person who can help the students to be better people.

If all of this belief and counter-belief is turned toward the goal of keeping teacher and students on the path of wisdom and compassion, then it can be helpful. Students feel motivated to really practice hard, support the teacher and the sangha, and work on discovering self and other. And the teacher works hard to support them to do this for themselves and for all beings. Then they are all working at living the practice, and at fulfilling this idealized vision of themselves.
 

However, a problem can very easily develop with this kind of scenario. If this kind of behavior gets stronger and persists for a while, the student or many students may put the teacher on a pedestal, holding them up much higher than other human beings because of the great respect and appreciation they have for their teacher's teachings. Again, it's important to recognize that one underlying motivation, whether conscious or unconscious, is that the student gains status in their own eyes, and perhaps in the eyes of others, by being associated with the person who is on the pedestal. And the person on the pedestal enjoys a lot of attention, authority, prestige and, often, material comforts because they have been elevated in this way. However, if the teacher begins to believe that they are so special that they stand above the rest of humanity, then naturally problems will arise. I call this “pedestal practice.”

A teacher who has been convinced of the positive beliefs their students have about them may begin to think that they can do no wrong. They may think that no matter how they use their authority, or how they use the teachings and training, it will be beneficial for the students. They may think that they cannot make a mistake, and they may actually convince themselves that to admit a mistake would be harmful to the students.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who is a psychotherapist and long-time Zen practitioner about her teacher, a Rinzai Buddhist with a long history of abuses. She said, "It would crush him to have to admit that he was wrong." This she offered as an explanation for his inability to stop harmful behavior or to apologize to the community. It was then that I realized that when a person sincerely believes that they are so spiritual they cannot possibly make a mistake, harm to other beings in inevitable. The teacher's delusion about self has gotten so big that it blocks out any compassion for the experience of the students. In this teacher's case, pedestal practice cannot be acknowledged even when it has hurt many, many people.
This is truly ironic, and a clear indicator that the teacher's practice is lacking in compassion and wisdom. In Zen there is the practice of reciting the verse of repentance, which is part of the monthly precepts renewal ceremony called the Full Moon Ceremony, or "Ryaku Fusatsu" in Japanese. The repentance vow is this:
 

All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

This vow is key to Zen practice, because it begins with the acknowledgment that one has taken intentional action, “karma,” based on the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Reciting the vow is only possible if one has the humility to admit to oneself and others that one is still impacted by the poisons, and by the workings of karma and its results, called “vipāka.” The power of the vow comes from the fact that being able to clearly discern the harmful or less skillful ways in which one has acted, means being able to more skillfully deal with the consequences of those actions and with future conditions. It is a powerful practice. Any teacher who is truly wise and compassionate will be able to admit that they too are subject to karma.

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What about when students know that their teacher has been abusing their power or breaking their ethical vows, but they choose not to address it? This is actually a very complex question. It may be that the student cannot take the teacher off the pedestal because then they would have to take themselves down a notch as well, and they are not willing to do that. Or it may be that the student believes that the teacher is someone who is leading them on a special journey that does not fit within the boundaries of normal ethical and practice standards. Sometimes students simply feel ashamed of having broken their own vows, or of having believed in someone who turns out to be flawed. For all of these reasons, and more, students may be very reluctant to speak out against a teacher of high standing.

Supported by these inter- and intra-personal dynamics, pedestal practice can go on for a long time. In fact, students who have not yet experienced any harmful behavior may pressure the students who have to keep quiet, because they do not want to see the problem or deal with its repercussions. Teachers have been known to get angry, and to threaten or to abandon students who question their authority or their wisdom. Whole communities have kept secrets about harmful behavior for decades rather than go through the painful process of bringing them to light and addressing them.

Fortunately, there are things can be done to prevent this situation from reaching such a harmful state. First, it is critically important for Buddhist communities to structure opportunities for teachers to have input from their peers. Ideally this can happen among teachers, away from a public setting, so that there is no need to keep up appearances for the students’ sake. Often teachers can be seen more objectively by other teachers. This helps to keep a teacher from getting put on such a high pedestal that they fall off their practice of wisdom and compassion. It also provides a place and time for sharing the joys and challenges of the teaching role, helping the teacher feel more connected to, and more identified with other teachers. These kinds of relationships can remind the teachers that their situation is not one of a special being above humanity, but of a human being devoting their entire life to the well-being of their students.

Second, students need to be aware of and take responsibility for the ways they relate to their teacher. They must deeply study their motivations. They must hold their behavior and their teacher's behavior to a high ethical standard. This is simply an expression of the Dharma, which has always been based on a foundation of compassion as ethical action. Students need to investigate their views of self. If they feel that they are leaning on a relationship with a teacher to bolster themselves, they can turn toward the teaching that practice is something only you can do for yourself. Practicing with a recognized teacher can be a great support, but ultimately the student is responsible for their own ethics. Choosing to practice in an upright manner is always in accord with the Dharma. That is true fearlessness.

Lastly, teachers would also do well to study their motivations regarding students. If a teacher's motivation is to use students to satisfy their own physical or emotional needs, or to keep students perpetually in a position of subservience, this is a sign that the teacher is using their position to bolster their self-esteem. Any teacher with a deep understanding and practice of the Dharma wants their students to discover their own deep expression of compassion and wisdom. When teachers acknowledge students' capacity, ability, and expression, this is expounding the Dharma of “endowed with buddhanature.”

The Way of Buddhism has brought forth many, many wonderful teachers. Still, any teaching, any practice, no matter how profound, can be twisted into something harmful by delusion and the frailties of human beings. When students and teachers build up each other’s self-esteem at the expense of ethics and compassion, deep harm is the natural result. Complex relational dynamics are at play, and can perpetuate even harmful relationships. Yet, working together toward the manifestation of the Way of compassion and ethics, teachers and students can support each other to move beyond pedestal practice and be an embodiment of the fearless Dharma.
 

Walking the Path of the Bodhisattva

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Today was a very joyful day for Ekan Zen Study Center sangha! Paula Borsody, a sangha member and Board member of Empty Hand ZC, took the 16 bodhisattva vows today. By doing so, she sets off on the bodhisattva path, receiving Buddha's robe, a new name, and publicly affirming her commitment to the refuges and the precepts of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. Paula's new name is 琢 園 明声 Takuen Meisho, which means Refined Garden Clear Voice.

It was a particularly tender moment when she was moved to tears by the chant, "Oh Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas, please concentrate your hearts on me..." As the Guiding Teacher conferring the precepts, I have to say that this is one of the best parts of my role, supporting students to commit to a lifelong path of bodhisattva practice. May her joy and sincerity of practice continue endlessly. Congratulations Paula!

To Live and Be Lived

Service & EngagementGuiding Teacher2 Comments

Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.

This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one's motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching

Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:

The three refuges

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

The three pure precepts

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do all that is good.

I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

The 10 grave precepts

I vow not to kill.

I vow not to take what is not given.

I vow not to misuse sexuality.

I vow to refrain from false speech.

I vow to refrain from intoxicants.

I vow not to slander.

I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.

I vow not to be avaricious.

I vow not to harbor ill will.

I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

rakusu - the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva precept vows

rakusu - the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva precept vows

For today, I'd like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it's not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to "live and be lived for the benefit of all beings." This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone's welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.

One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague's patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.

When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.

At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked "why here?" I replied, "I'm just here to bring you blessings." "Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!" She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman's room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn't have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.

This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn't see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.

As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as "Refraining from Unwholesome Action,"

...one moves from the aspiration for "refraining from unwholesome action" toward the practice of "refraining from unwholesome action." As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one's practice suddenly appears fully.

What is the power of one's practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That's a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.