Sunday, February 6, 2011

Awakening Bodhisattva Energy

Uku has an interesting post considering several things, but much of it is focused on the evolution of both personal Zen practice and collective Zen practice. Having just finished our "lay practice intensive" this morning, with a discussion about the experiment we just did, what Uku wrote struck a chord with me.

When I started my group during spring 2009, I decided to start it with traditional way with robes and shit. But later on I realized maybe it wasn't such a good thing because people seemed to look at me with strange eyes. One dude even suggested privately that I was enlightened. Something else also happened in the Zen scenes and in my personal life, so I decided to change my style into more secular way, or should I say, my life moved into this direction. Of course my talks and my behaviour were secular before but eventually I just didn't wear robes or stuff anymore. Of course when I have to, I put them on (like Rohatsu Zazen etc.).

And now it seems my practice is going more and more into some concrete helping of other people: less talk, more action. I'm trying to find ways to help homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and so on. I have some plans but maybe I'll mention about those later on. Like I wrote to my teacher, " It seems my practice is moving more and more to real people, to real problems, away from robes and shit. I think that's the essence of Buddha's teachings, Dogen's teachings: what can we do to help others and ourselves? What can we do as Buddhists to help those who are really suffering? Arguing about the colors of robes and Zen monkhood is not essential when people are actually crying, I think."

It's interesting to hear this evolution, as well as the issues with sangha members and their perceptions. The early years of my Zen practice, I was totally in to pushing hard, meditating like crazy, and trying to appear like a "good Zen student." The culture of our zen center supported that approach, which included lots of group zazen, retreats, and over-extending yourself. We were going for fucking enlightenment, and nothing else mattered! Even if that wasn't the stated mission, this is how it felt.

Over the years, my practice has evolved, along with the rest of my life. I'm more interested in experimenting with forms, working with a diversity of teachings, and putting myself forward, even if it negates the "good Zen student" story. It's interesting to me that Uku had the kind of troubles he did with people projecting ideas upon him based upon the clothes he wore. Not surprising at all, but an interesting dilemma for lay practitioners and communities.

One of my dharma sisters expressed her frustration that there weren't more members of the sangha attending at least one or a few of the sections of the practice intensive. She looked around and said "We're the ones upholding so much of the container here." Which is true in many ways, although not completely. The whole sangha helped make that 2 weeks of practice possible, in various ways. As well as all the other causes and conditions that came together, including all the veggies, beans, and other "beings" that gave their lives for us to eat morning meals, and keep going.

But she was totally right in that it was the group of us there, plus three or four others, who do the lions share to keep the sangha going. About 15 people for a center that serves probably one hundred fifty. I point this out because I sometimes wonder if the general membership looks around, sees those of us with robes or rakasus and thinks: "they've got it covered." Or "it's their role to have it covered."

One of the wonderful things I have witnessed over the past four or five years is the development and increased emphasis on "sangha" in our community. More people seem to feel connected, are willing to share, and yes, more people are also volunteering their time not out guilt I don't think, but because they genuinely want to build and maintain a healthy community. In other words, we're going in the right direction, but there's still an imbalance.

What can we do to help others and ourselves? What can we do as Buddhists to help those who are really suffering?

These are simple questions, but very important, don't you think? It's worth examining deeply what "help" and "helping" means, and whether what you do or don't do is going to just add more trouble.

However, in the context of a Zen sangha, or any spiritual group really, how do you individually and collectively cultivate an orientation towards benefiting others, both inside the sangha and in the rest of the world?

I say orientation because that's what I believe it is. If you look at how Uku describes his life, it's a shift in orientation towards service, towards struggling people, towards embodying the bodhisattva vows. This takes time. Effort. And a willingness to break sometimes with the prevailing culture, even the culture inside your sangha (if that culture doesn't support such a shift).

Somehow, whatever we do, it should boil down to awakening that bodhisattva energy that pulses through us all. Or awakening to it. And making use of it, as it makes use of us.

Simple sounding. Not necessarily easy to do. But also maybe not as difficult as it seems. These past two weeks, I saw my mind produce several variations on the theme of "you can skip out on this." A few mornings, it was a thought that I had done enough, what's one missed morning. During sitting a few times, it was the thought that "it wouldn't hurt to just sit out this period of zazen." I'm not all that polished when it comes to oryoki practice, and mostly would rather not do it, even though it does has a beautiful rhythm. However, I found myself paying attention to even the mistakes I made, checking around the room to see what the "correct way in our sangha" was, and then attempting to correct what I had done. Not to say I didn't check out sometimes during the past two weeks, but what I found was that those "skipping out stories" can be overridden, sometimes pretty easily without effort.

Ultimately, there's an unflagging optimism lurking about in Zen. My good buddy Jizo Bodhisattva is said to be the representation of that embodied optimism, but when you look around, you can see it running throughout Buddha's teachings and practices. And that's good because if it wasn't there, the whole thing would be too much of a drag. If it were all just suffering and emptiness, there wouldn't been any evolutions, personal or collective, going on.

It would be like being trapped on a train tracked between samsara and nowhere, which makes frequent stops that all were basically the same. Dante's rings of hell come to mind. And I suppose there's bodhisattva energy running through all of that as well, but it's a hell of a lot harder to see it, touch it, and finally be it.


Petteri Sulonen said...

When I got into this thing in 2009, I started out marveling at the Japanese forms and wondering what a Western Zen would be like.

That perception has shifted. Hell, this *is* Western Zen. We're constantly tweaking, adapting, pushing, pulling, experimenting, to get this borrowed cloth to cover a different piece of furniture. It's rather marvelous to be a part of this process, too.

We had another experiment with the weekend's zazenkai, by the way. We often have tea after zazen. It was now announced that from here on out, the center will only provide basic green tea and dry biscuits. However, there's a little Kanzeon altar in the tea room, and we're encouraged to practice dana by putting any tea supplies we want to share on it, and, conversely, pick up anything we want to have for tea from it (and then put it in the kitchen).

The upshot was that we had way better stuff for tea than usual, and everybody was happy.

There's other stuff too; for example, a current "problem" we're having is that the zendo is packed on Tuesdays when we have a 2 x 25 minutes zazen, but half-full on Thursday when we have 2 x 30 + teisho or dharma talk or 3 x 30, and sparsely attended on Sunday for 3 x 30 + recitation. There was some talk about why this might be. Could it be that the five minutes shorter rounds on Tuesday give the perception that that's 'for beginners,' which starts beginners coming on Tuesdays and they never 'graduate' to Thursdays or Sundays?

We are creatures of routine; I did feel this way when I started, and only started coming on Thursdays by accident—the first time after the introduction I meant to come on Tuesday, but something came up so I only made it on Thursday, and I've been going on Thursdays ever since.

Social dynamics are funky.

Nathan said...

I would think the days a talk was being given would be more popular. That's been our zen center's experience anyway. During this two week thingy we just finished, the only days we pulled in extra people were days when the teacher gave a talk. Except the first Monday, where two people showed up thinking a talk was being given.

Shorter sitting times do seem more attractive though, even if it's just five minutes.

Petteri Sulonen said...

The dharma talks and dharma discussions are pretty popular. The teishos are recorded, except on the occasions one of the teachers is visiting, which is about four times a year plus two retreats. The teachers are based in Sweden; we don't have a resident one. And, regrettably, an iPod doesn't pull in all that big a public, no matter how good the song.

We've got a few people at the point in their training where they're able to give dharma talks, though, and we've managed to arrange for the teachers to visit a bit more often too, so the leadership decided to drop those recorded teishos altogether and have dharma talks or dharma discussions instead. I'll miss them, but I think it's a good idea in general.

Also, having the teachers not constantly available isn't all bad, IMO. It makes those visits more... special, as it were. And if we really need them, they're there—we're able to go stay at the Zen training temple in Sweden at any time, plus there's always phone and email and such. It's a pretty good arrangement all in all IMO, although fluid and constantly changing. Part of the reason it's good, in fact...

Nathan said...

"Also, having the teachers not constantly available isn't all bad, IMO." I totally agree.

We have always had longer term students giving some of the talks at our center. Partly logistical - how could one teacher give multiple lectures nearly every week and also do everything else they need to do - and partly because we see the value in having different voices.

Yeah, I can also see where it would be less appealing to come to listen to a recorded talk on an ipod.