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Reflections on the Human Experience

Study & Arts, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

The nature of human experience is to reflect on and react to the human experience. That is, human beings are constantly noticing their thoughts, feelings, and bodies, and having thoughts and feelings about them. In fact, one could say that this is one of the defining features of humanity. We are born with the ability to observe ourselves and, typically before two years of age, we become aware of ourselves as individuals. Have you ever stood with someone in front of a mirror? The immediate recognition of self and other is so familiar that it probably wasn’t something you thought about.

Humans have the capacity to imagine our place in a context, whether physical or mental, and to consider who and what we are within that context. It’s called being self-conscious or self-reflective. What we notice can be the simple observation of a small detail of experience with little impact, or something intensely painful, or a profoundly uplifting experience as vast as the cosmos. The reflection can be so quick that it seems automatic or that it is assumed to be present before we notice it. At other times, it takes decades to form around an experience long past. In myriad ways, human beings spend quite a lot of our time and energy reflecting on ourselves.

resting Buddha.jpg

Practice is an effort to bring to awareness that capacity for self-reflection, using Buddhist principles and teachings, and to turn self-reflection into a source of clarity, calm, and deep inspiration. In particular, the practice of zazen or meditation can be about clear and positive self awareness. Even the word “self-conscious” can have a negative connotation, an implication of discomfort, unease, and awkwardness. Yet my experience of many years of the practice of self-consciousness has been incredibly valuable and healing, leading away from unease. So, I am suggesting that you can reframe this term, and learn the usefulness of this powerful mental ability that we all share.

Consider, for example, what happens when you hear a sound. Perhaps you think, “Why is that garbage truck ruining my silence so early in the morning?” or “Isn’t it lovely how that bird is singing me a song?” Can you notice the constructed self that is implied in those thoughts? Can you see how those events actually don’t belong to you, or say anything about you? Can you allow them to come and go without clinging to some idea of wanting less of that, or more of that? There is so much to work with on the cushion. and there is plenty to work with off the cushion too.

looking down from front.jpg

This kind of practice can go a step further, too. If you examine deeply, in detail, the components of the experience, perhaps using the framework of the five aggregates or skandhas (body ~ feeling tone ~ perception ~ volition ~ consciousness), then you may begin to see the constructed nature of hearing itself, the way that the experience of hearing is a group of conditions that depend on one another for an instant, and then shift in the next moment. Perhaps you can begin to dismantle some of the sense of continuity and permanence, and begin see the fleeting nature of life. Life is as brief and insubstantial as a mirage. This kind of awareness begins to get at the reason why the self is not actually referenced by events, and it begins to loosen our grip on the wanting and wanting, or not wanting and not wanting, that causes us so much difficulty. Look deeply at the conditions and their relationships, their presence and absence. Notice whether that begins to soften your ideas of how things ought to be, of how you ought to be. Because, after all, having a look at yourself is the most natural thing in the world. And what you will see, if you are honest and persistent, will wake up a whole new you.

Update on activities for 2019

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

Dear Students of the Way,

For many of you, it has been a while since we have practiced face-to-face, whether virtually or in person. Know that I think of you often, and send kindness.

Since we have entered a new year and the Spanish online course is completed, I am settling down to prepare the curriculum for the 2019 online offerings. I am hoping to offer one class in the spring and in the fall, as well as a summer book club again this year.

I would like the Spring 2019 class to begin in late April or early May. It will be based on Dogen's "Guidelines for the Practice of the Way," originally titled "Gakudo Yojinshu" in the Chinese. It is Dogen's top ten list of important points for Zen practitioners to keep in mind, and it touches on topics such as effort, student-teacher relationships, compassion, and the koan "mu." Of course, there will be some supplemental materials as well. I expect the course will involve a pre-recorded talk and a group discussion meeting each week. Once the class dates are set, I will post them to this website and to Twitter. For now, if there are other folks you know who may be interested, please feel free to pass this page along to them.

It's not too early to make suggestions for the summer book club, also. It will be a bit short this year, starting in mid- or late July and ending by October 1st.

In the more immediate time frame, I am going to be offering practice discussion online. If you would like to connect for a practice discussion, please write to {hey.konin@gmail.com} to request one of these times. Also, please specify whether you prefer Zoom or Skype video chat, or a phone call and to what number.

And I have added some more “Study & Arts” posts to the home page, including recent poetry and watercolor paintings from my solitary retreat.

Lastly, my next retreat offering is to co-lead a 5 day sit in early May at Spirit Rock in Northern California. It's wait listed, so mention this post if you decide to sign up. We'll try to get you in.

I look forward to seeing you soon. In the meantime, let's keep sitting!

Yours in the Dharma,

Dhammadīpā Kōnin Cardenas

How Could I Have Known?

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

June 19, 2017

How could I have known that I belong to this place I had never been before?

Eiheiji feels so familiar. It has a sense of being closely held, and it has a very human scale, belying it's capacity to train hundreds of monks.

Walking very slowly through the corridors, my new Japanese colleague and I were led by the Jisha (Attendant), who carried a paper lantern, lit only by a single candle. He took care to point out the places where one might misstep, and he spoke so politely that I had difficulty with some of the conjugations that were then translated by my Anja (Assistant). We were shown each place of practice. Walking in the outer corridor of the dimly lit zendo, I had a deep sense of Dogen's presence, his profound sincerity and resolve. I feel very at home in Eiheiji, and I felt Dogen's teachings about attention to detail, generosity, and grandmotherly mind come to life.

The head of the International office, Rev. Taiken Yokoyama, also accompanied us for part of the preparations. His ease and willingness to help were evident. Later, after the ceremonies had all been performed, he invited me to his office. We spoke for a long time about American Zen, where he'd practiced for a number of years, and about the difficulties of leaving one's training temple. We exchanged cards, and he welcomed me back. I look forward to being in touch with him again before too long.


The ceremonies went very smoothly, though I made note of how nervous my Sojiji colleague was.  It must have felt very awkward for him, just as it had for me at the other Head Temple. After breakfast I spent the rest of the morning enjoying the tall, tall pines and the pools on the Eiheiji temple grounds. There are so many lovely places tucked into the greenery of that hillside, including a pond with a huge frog. This, of course, reminded me of Suzuki Roshi who loved frogs. I also made an offering at the lay sangha memorial hall, acknowledging their crucial role in making this Way possible for everyone. Their contributions and Dogen's remind me that I can take the bodhisattva vow only because I am held within the vows of other bodhisattvas.

Daihonzan Eiheiji Zuise-shi photo

Daihonzan Eiheiji Zuise-shi photo


Concluding with Zuise at Eiheiji was just right. It feels like the perfect end to the long road of Dharma Transmission, each step a place of practice and awakening to the Way of Zen.
 

#DayWithoutAWoman

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

Are you taking Wednesday off for a #DayWithoutAWoman, a nationwide event demonstrating the solidarity of women? Then come to the Empty Hand Zen Center for tea, talk and meditation led by Guiding Teacher Reverend Konin Cardenas. We'll enjoy each others' company and discuss the Zen teachings of liberation and equality for women. 4:00 pm at 45 Lawton Street, New Rochelle, NY

Each One Liberated

Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment
The Way is fundamentally complete and perfect, all pervasive; how could it be dependent upon cultivation and realization? The vehicle of the source is free; why expend effort? ...The great whole is not apart from here; why go someplace to practice?
— Fukanzazengi - Translation by Thomas Cleary

These words were written by Zen Master Eihei Dogen shortly after his return from four years of study in China, in a piece entitled "Universally Recommended Way of Zazen."  Yet I imagine that, for most of us, life does not feel "complete and perfect." This may be especially true when you think about yourself - your tendency to anger or anxiety, or the way you may feel overwhelmed by the suffering of the planet or the people around you, or simply your confusion about life. So, when encountering this teaching, you might wonder whether this is really relevant to your life. You might think that it's all well and good for Dogen to have said this, living in the 13th century when things were surely simpler. Or you might think, "It could be that way for Dogen and his students, but it certainly can't be that way for me."

   Photo from the movie "Zen," about Zen Master Eihei Dogen's life.

 

Photo from the movie "Zen," about Zen Master Eihei Dogen's life.

In fact, Dogen acknowledges this tendency we might have in the next line he wrote. 

Nevertheless the slightest discrepancy is as the distance between sky and earth; as soon as aversion and attraction arise, you lose your mind in confusion.

That is, as soon as you forget that all things are expressing the Way, then confusion sets in. Your mind is included in this Way. And even if you can accept this, even if you can take it in, even if you understand this deeply, Dogen has more to teach you.

Though you may boast of comprehension and wallow in understanding, having gotten a glimpse of insight, and though you find the Way and understand the mind, though you may roam freely within the bounds of initial entry, you are still lacking in the living road of emancipation.

Thus even an insight into your own mind isn't "realization of the Way." Even having a deep, wise understanding isn't liberation.

Lantau Island Buddha.jpg

So what is this "living road" or this vital path of liberation? Clearly it is a path that Dogen believed everyone could walk, everyone could fulfill. Shakyamuni Buddha, too, believed in the individual's innate capacity for liberation. It is a path that is informed by zazen. This we know from the title of the piece and from Dogen's example in his own life and in his guidance for his students. And yet there is an aspect of the vitality of life off the cushion as well. It is this latter aspect that I want to explore with you today. 

To illustrate, I want to turn for a moment to a dialogue that happened about 250 years or so before Dogen's writing. Perhaps we can see for ourselves what Dogen may have encountered on his trip, and see for ourselves whether this teaching can tell you about your own practice.

This is a koan about Zen Master Tong'an Changcha who is best know for a poem called the "Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth." He lived in China during the 10th Century and is said to have had this conversation with one of his students.

The monk asked ‘Returning to the source, returning to the origin, how is it?’
The Master replied, ‘Even if the cicada has broken out of its shell, it cannot help clinging to the cold branch.’
The monk asked, ‘What about a very strong willed, and powerful person?’
The Master answered, ‘The stone ox step by step goes into the deep pool. The paper horse, shout by shout, cries out in the fire.’
— From "Unfathomable Depths" - Translated by Daigaku Rumme and Heiko Narrog

There are many historical and poetic references in this dialogue, so let's have a look at their meaning.

The phrase "returning to the source" is one that is often used in Zen tradition. It is part of our dedication at a memorial service, and it is also mentioned in other teaching dialogues like this one. It is a reference to the "Sutra in 42 Sections" which was taken from India to China and translated in about 69 CE. In that section of the Sutra, the Buddha says "When you guard the mind and revere the Way, the Way is profound and vast." Guarding the mind usually implies two aspects of practice. One is guarding the mind by not overwhelming it with intoxicants, food, sex, overwork and so on. The other is guarding against a dualistic view, a view that creates a sense of separation. Both of these aspects can help to point us toward the vital path of liberation.

 Master Changcha's reply is fairly straightforward. He says that even the practitioner who has broken out of fixed views cannot help but cling to that state of coolness, cannot help but cling to their hard won insight. Having glimpsed a bit of the Way, one might want to cling to an idea of a fixed source. 

Hearing this the student is wise enough to see that one cannot stop there. He then asks about the one who persists even beyond that point, one with determination.

And here the Master's reply is much more poetic and subtle. To break it down a bit, oxen and cows usually have the meaning of a being that is free, not pushed and pulled about by circumstances. This is a carry over from the long standing East Indian tradition of allowing cows to roam. The stone ox is not only free to roam but cool, unmoved. In the Master's words, then, a practitioner who has gained some freedom and equanimity, but persists, moves step by step into the depths of insight, the deep pool.

The horse is a symbol for a fairly sophisticated person, as horses are usually compared to the more mundane donkeys. In this case, the paper horse is likely an allusion to a learned person, as paper relates to books and study. Thus, the sophisticated, learned practitioner who persists burns up their delusion in the fires of their effort. This path is not without its difficulties, described by the Master as "shouts" and "cries." We should know that practice will not be comfortable if it is going to be liberative.

Therefore, what Master Changcha is teaching his student is that each practitioner is liberated by the very things that make them what they are. Each being, if they persist in practice, will find that their very attributes are the ones that lead to liberation. The ox sinks of its own weight; the horse burns because it is made of paper. This is not a matter of how you relate to yourself. Rather it is a matter of studying those attributes of mind and body until you completely see through them, until you completely eliminate any sense of separation of self.

   Hosshinji begging bags, Obama, Japan

 

Hosshinji begging bags, Obama, Japan

To illustrate with a slightly more recent example, standing at Tassajara creek,  I once encountered a small fish that had jumped up on the rocks next to me. Seeing that it needed help, I tried to pick it up, but it squirmed and wiggled and wouldn't allow me to get a hold of it. In that moment I realized that I could only help it by allowing it to swim away. Scooping up a bit of water and splashing it in the right direction allowed the fish to slip easily back into the creek. That is, the fish could only be saved by enabling it to completely be fish. There was no other way to save the fish. The same is true for you and I and all other beings. We are freed not by receiving something that we don't already have, but only by being absolutely, completely what we are. And what we are is not the same as our idea of it, or someone else's idea of it. It is just that which we truly are.

So it is my hope that these stories and these ancient teachings can inspire you to be the practitioner who persists, to be the one who asks "How can this very mind and body be Buddha?" Because it is.