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.