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In response to the border crisis

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

In memory of 7 year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín,

and all who have been or will be affected by her death

Jakelin Caal Maquín

Jakelin Caal Maquín

In these times,

 When those who come to the US southern border seeking safety are attacked with tear gas

 When children far from home sit in cells awaiting reunions with parents they may never see again

 And when the fear of too few resources and the feelings of overwhelm,

lead those who work and live at the border to harden their hearts and act with aggression

I am saddened and concerned

In these times,

 When the needs and desires of human beings are far out of balance with nature’s ability to provide

 When the pressure to create and hoard wealth leads to corruption, oppression, and violence around the world

 And when the concept of territory is harmful,

increasing divisiveness and the sense of separation in a world engulfed in climate crisis

I am saddened and concerned

Hearing the cries of the world, I offer this blessing:

 May we all be touched by these forms of suffering, and find loving kindness and compassion in our hearts

 May we all care for those who seek peace and safety for themselves and their children

 May we all share in the joy of those who have been able to create a better life for themselves

 May we all open our arms

 And may we receive all beings with eyes of equanimity

 May we all find balance within ourselves as beings supported by and made of Earth

 May we all realize that greed is a delusion that never leads to fulfillment, and find a boundless flow of generosity

 May we all quench the fires of violence, embracing those who are friendly, indifferent, or hostile, sharing the blessings of our lives

 And may we all cultivate minds as vast as the sky, relinquishing all that separates us and dwelling in peace together


En memoria de Jakelin Caal Maquín quien tenía 7 años de edad,

y todos los que han sido o serán afectados por su muerte

En esta época,

 Cuando los que vienen a la frontera del sur de los Estados Unidos en busca de seguridad son atacados con gas lacrimógeno

 Cuando los niños lejos de casa se sienten en las celdas esperando reuniones con padres que quizá nunca volverán a ver

 Y cuando el temor de la falta de recursos y el sentido de estar abrumado

conduce a los que trabajan y viven en la frontera a endurecer sus corazones y actuar con agresión

Estoy entristecida y preocupada

En esta época,

 Cuando las necesidades y deseos de los seres humanos están fuera de equilibrio con lo que la naturaleza puede proporcionar

 Cuando la presión para crear y acaparar la riqueza conduce a la corrupción, la opresión y la violencia en todo el mundo

 Y cuando el concepto del territorio es perjudicial

aumentando la división y el sentido de la separación en medio de un mundo envuelto en crisis climática

Estoy entristecida y preocupada

Escuchando los llantos del mundo, ofrezco esta bendición:

 Que todos nos sentiremos afectados por estas formas de sufrimiento, y conseguiremos el amor bondadoso y la compasión en nuestros corazones

 Que todos ofreceremos cuidado para aquellos que buscan la paz y la seguridad para sí mismos y sus hijos

 Que todos compartiremos en la alegría de los que hayan podido crear una vida mejor por sí mismos

 Que todos abriremos nuestros brazos

 Y recibiremos todos los seres con ojos de ecuanimidad

 Que todos encontremos el equilibrio en nosotros mismos como seres apoyados por y hecho de la Tierra

 Que todos nos demos cuenta de que la codicia es un engaño que nunca resultará en satisfacción, y encontraremos el flujo de generosidad ilimitado

 Que todos extinguiremos los fuegos de la violencia, abrazando a los que son amables, indiferentes, o hostiles, compartiendo las bendiciones de nuestras vidas

 Y que todos cultivaremos mentes tan vastas como el cielo, renunciando todo lo que nos separa y viviendo en paz juntos

Resources for those who want to respond

Border crisis 

Sacramento Immigration Coalition

https://www.facebook.com/SacImmigrantCoalition2015/

California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance

https://www.facebook.com/ciyja/?eid=ARC81ax56kwroER8eozVr49Ud0EUT3YGdfLGWyY7S5sVE-S8uGM0kQ030pO3ZRrz7VxydyYxYdjZplqY

East Bay Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights

https://icir-clue.blogspot.com/p/action.html?fbclid=IwAR27605rWp_LwpBNmgjuioNr22yvRnsU3lmkZI3CKwXAGSHDGC_8ZMRrvGc

WOLA Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

https://www.wola.org/programs/beyond-wall-resources-tools/

Climate crisis 

Extinction Rebellion

https://rebellion.earth/

Drawdown: Summary of Solutions

https://www.drawdown.org/solutions-summary-by-rank


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.

WP_20150429_024.jpg

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.
 

The Family Way

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

June 15,  2017

After staying at Sojiji, I paid a visit to Rinso-in, a fairly large and busy rural temple by Japanese standards. As karma would have it, I ran into Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi at the Yaizu train station on the way there. Although he is a highly respected teacher, having held one of the key positions at Eiheiji, he eschewed all Japanese customs by giving me a big smile and a bear hug before running to catch his train to Tokyo. This is unusual, especially considering that we have only met a couple of times in rather crowded settings. However, he has such great generosity toward anyone associated with San Francisco Zen Center, the temple that was founded by his father. I felt so grateful to be a part of that family lineage. 

Konin Cardenas and Shungo Suzuki

Konin Cardenas and Shungo Suzuki

Hoitsu Roshi's son Shungo-san and his wife were very warm as well, offering all sorts of help, and including me in family meals and as an observer of the bell ringing class. It's called "baika" and there were some 80 women performing it. I noticed that they had their own chant leaders, women who participated in a ceremony alongside the priests, but then the classes were all led by the men. Though I was fortunate to have experienced a largely egalitarian form of training at Hosshinji with Sekkei Harada Roshi, and with my Preceptor Shosan Vicki Austin at San Francisco Zen Center, I recognize that this is the usual way in Japan. Social norms of gender hierarchy are experienced by women in Zen practice settings as well.

The hydrangea virtually covered the temple grounds, and they were flourishing, in full bloom blue, white, and pink. They were planted by Chitosei-san, Hoitsu Roshi's wife. It was such a lovely gift to the world. I mused about what would make Shunryu Suzuki want to leave this place in favor of the clashing culture in the US, a place he could not possibly have imagined. Still, his open heart and optimism for starting anew enabled him to develop SFZC, a sangha with strong roots. As for my own reasons for coming to practice in Japan 11 years ago, at this moment I can only say that it had something to do with leaving behind that newness of American Zen, and reaching back much further to a Zen that I thought would be free of my identities.

June 17, 2017

Having arrived at Kogestu-an, I was again the grateful beneficiary of generous hospitality. After lunch with his wife Madoka and their 5 year-old Junsei, the Head Priest Kensho Miyamae invited me to come along with them to the onsen (hot baths). This was another first for me. I accepted the invitation, but feared that we might all be expected to bathe together. Thankfully, only the little boy bathed with the women, and the men were in another room. Sitting together in the outdoor tub, we enjoyed a cool evening breeze amidst the bamboo. The temple and this family are so cozy, the antithesis of Sojiji, though that is where Kensho-san trained. 

Kensho, Junsei, and Madoka

Kensho, Junsei, and Madoka

Family temples are unique to Japanese Buddhism, I believe. The system developed over time after the "Nikujiku Saitai" (肉食妻帯)  law was passed during the mid-1800s, allowing Buddhist monks and nuns to marry and have sex. It stands in contrast to most other Buddhist traditions in which monks and nuns are strictly celibate. The change meant that the children of Japanese priests could become the next generation of monks and nuns, and inherit the temples where their parents lived. This has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the priests might become more appreciative of, and integrated with lay life, and more involved in community at places like schools and playgrounds. On the other hand, it might mean that the people running the temples consider it a vocation, rather than a personal calling. When I asked Kensho-san whether he would ask his son to take over the temple, he said, "Probably not. I want him to be whatever he wants to be."  Only time will tell what Junsei-chan would like to be.

For now, Kensho-san has made Kogetsu-an into a place that welcomes Western practitioners who seek a taste of the tradition as it is expressed more intimately than at the big training temples. The names of those who have come to sit are displayed about the temple, and they include people I know and with whom I have practiced. One day I went with the family to do a bit of weeding together with the community group on their block. Little Junsei came with us too. Since we finished up early, I invited him to the small garden at the back of the temple to continue, weeding a patch together, marveling at bugs and the lotus in the tiny pond. Now that was a traditional Japanese temple moment. 

Companionship and Camaraderie

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment
Ananda turned to the Buddha and said, "This is half of the holy life: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie." The Buddha replied, "Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life."
Image from What-Buddha-Said.net

Image from What-Buddha-Said.net

 

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is quoted in the Upaddha Sutra as having said that dharma friendships are the whole of our spiritual life. In the Sutra he goes on to say that just as his students have depended on him for spiritual friendship, and have thereby been able to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, so too each of us depends on our spiritual friends to help us walk the path. This is a teaching about sangha. It means that the Buddha and Ananda, our Dharma teachers, and all of our fellow practitioners are our personal sangha.

But what is it that makes a sangha? Each one of us might have a different answer to this question. Originally, in the Buddha's time, Sangha meant the community of women and men who were ordained as nuns and monks. At that time, ordination was sometimes as simple as the Buddha saying, "Come monk." Still there was a strong sense of renunciation, and a person took on a difference appearance and lifestyle when they became part of the early Sangha.

Over the centuries various Buddhist traditions have evolved from the historical Buddha's teachings and, in modern day Zen, sangha is understood to mean the fourfold sangha of lay women, lay men, ordained women and ordained men. Thus, anyone who is a Zen practitioner is part of the Zen sangha. It can include people of any age, any background, any culture or skin color, and any amount of practice experience.

For me, sangha means the people who share an intention to live an awakening life, a life that returns again and again to the work of bringing compassion and wisdom into our hearts and into the world. Without this shared intention and the actions that make it come alive, we cannot really call ourselves part of a sangha. Both things are necessary - the intention and the action. It is work, but it is the most worthwhile kind of work you can do if you want to have peace of mind.

Thus, taking refuge in sangha is one of the key vows of a Buddhist. You may appreciate the teaching of Buddhism, and that may or may not make you a Buddhist. You may enjoy the people, places and things associated with Buddhist practice, and that may or may not make you a Buddhist. To take refuge is to turn for guidance to Buddha understood as awakened nature, the Dharma understood as the teachings, and the Sangha understood as the people who make these teachings present in the world. Once you take refuge, then you are ready to take the vows. 

 

At times like these, when we are again and again faced with the brevity of human life, it is even more important to take refuge in the sangha. And, as the words "companionship and camaraderie" imply, the sangha restores itself, renews itself by coming together. Centuries ago nuns and monks would walk for miles to gather together on the full moon and the new moon. They did this so that they might hear the teachings, and share with their dharma friends about how their practice had been going. For these reasons, we too need to come together in the zendo, sometimes in silence and sometimes making joyful noise. We can only manifest the many aspects of sangha by gathering together for the activities of practice. 

So I invite you to make the effort to find your sangha - whether by walking, driving, or flying - for the sheer joy of being around others who are also on this path. I invite you to return to our shared intention, to our personal, embodied dharma connection. I invite you to be the sangha, manifest the path, come. 

A Pivotal Day

Sitting & Ritual, Study & Arts, Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

Today is a pivotal day, a turning point in my path of practice. As some of you may have heard, I am taking up the role of Guiding Teacher at Empty Hand Zen Center in New Rochelle, New York. I write this post from the plane, as I travel from California to New York. I've packed all of my belongings - the books, altar items, and the clothes of a nun. I've sent those things ahead, boxes traveling across the mountains and plains on their way to the eastern shores of the US.

However, even if those things did not arrive at the Zen Center, I'd still have everything I need. For, as the poet Basho so eloquently put it, 

I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions.

That is to say, I meet that which arises in the moment, with a fresh eye, not reliant on the physical supports but on the ability to respond.

I've bowed the many bows, given and received many hugs, and even shared some tears with my local Dharma family. It's a big family - the students, faculty and staff of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Graduate Theological Union, the nuns of Aloka Vihara and Karuna Buddhist Vihara, and the residents and students of San Francisco Zen Center and of Berkeley Zen Center. The many streams of Buddhism are related, all part of the Great Ocean, but they need to remain independent of each other in order to nourish the land.

In the end, what does this move mean for you, the readers of this blog?

For some it means that you were my local sangha, and are now my long-distance sangha. We continue to practice together, but it will be a practice of staying in tune with each other's words and voices, more than with each other's bodies. It may mean that the blog becomes more important, a taste of the teachings of the moment as seen from afar. In a way, reading any sort of dharma is like this. It is a window into another person's practice. You can look in the window and relate it to your own experience, and you may or may not be living something similar.

For some it's not much of a change, you were part of the mahasangha ("greater," as in broader, sangha) and you will continue to be.

For still others, you may find that we are now local sangha, sharing the space between the brick walls of the Zen Center, sitting, standing, or walking. With the local sangha, we will carry out the traditional forms as they find their expression in our particular place and time. Our practice will be inevitably informed by American culture and the English language, but it will also find expression in Latino culture and in Spanish. I hope that we will find the points of contact with tradition to be many and varied. And I'd like to take practice out of the zendo (meditation hall), and into the world through service and dialogue with those who are looking for connection.

Empty Hand Zen Center zendo

Empty Hand Zen Center zendo

Generally, for everyone, this change means that there will be many more opportunities to practice with me. By taking up the Guiding Teacher role, I am committed to the life of a temple priest -  sitting zazen and chanting daily, offering Dharma talks several times a week, and leading workshops on Zen arts such as sutra copying and gardening.

Given this opportunity for greater focus, I plan to continue writing and to begin to offer online study groups. Please continue to visit www.ekanzenstudycenter.org for future blog posts and more information about how to study with me.

Finally, I want to share gratitude for my teachers Shosan Victoria Austin and Sekkei Harada Roshi, both of whom have shown unwavering confidence in the Dharma as it expresses itself through me. It is my pleasure to repay the teachings by continuing to share the practice of Zen. I may not be packing any provisions, but I am prepared to pick the fruits and be nourished by them.