Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Zen Time

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival. People only see time's coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time-being abides in each moment.

from Zen Master Dogen's essay "Being Time"

The problem with time is that it appears to be moving in a certain direction. That is, until we will it, through things like Daylight Savings Time, to move the opposite way.

And of, people tend to think they know what time is. As if the question "What is time?" never occurred to them.

Whatever it is, there's clearly constant change in the relative, everyday world. Certainly, this body of "mine" has grown, and gotten older over the last thirty six years. And when I look around, everything else has shifted as well, even if only in tiny ways. But it's not the whole story. How could it be?

The thing is, each of us is a "time-being" in each moment. Inside the movement of life is also a timelessness not separate from that movement.

I think a lot of the resistance I feel to whatever is happening in the now comes from forgetting this timelessness. Being disembodied in some manner or another. Literally out of touch.

That's about all I have to say at this time.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Self Care and the Spiritual Activist

The following is from a post I just wrote on one of my other blogs. It's related to the material I tend to offer here, so I though I'd share part of it.

I recently went through another round of what might be called activist burnout. After several months of devotion to multiple aspects of the Occupy movement here in Minneapolis, I hit a wall. Having left a teaching job the year before Occupy started, I was running out of money, and the few potential options for income that had developed during Occupy hadn't materialized. I was flat broke. Getting concerned comments from a few members of my family and friend circle. And when I surveyed the group of folks who had stuck it out in Occupy, what I mostly saw were middle class, white Boomer activists and broke folks like myself. (There's definitely more diversity than this, but this is the makeup of the two largest groups.) And although there have been some amazing acts of mutual care, including a few Occupy members sharing homes and trading skills to get work done without having to hire expensive help - there hasn't, at this point, developed something like a culture of community care. Not a thriving one anyway. It's a minority viewpoint, the idea that part of revolution - a big part of it perhaps - is modeling what moving beyond the privatization of our needs might look like.

If you want to read the rest of this post, please go here. Given how important this topic has become for me in recent months, I'm sure I'll have more to say about it at some point. However, if it's not your cup of tea, feel free to wait for the next post. May you all be well.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Attachment to Meditation Practice

This is a repost from last fall. I've had a lot on my plate recently, including doing work to promote the new book I have an essay in. There are a few blog post topics brewing, so I'll be back with new content soon. However, having spent the last year studying Dogen with several sangha friends, I'm still wrestling with some of the ideas in this post. So, here it is for you.

I really enjoyed this post by Andre over at Zen and Back Again. Mostly because it's familiar to me, and is something I've written about on here before.

If Zen is the practice of complete non-abiding, requiring the relinquishment of all attachments, then doesn't it serve to reason that we should let go of Zen too? For as I have found, Zen, namely zazen, can become a form of attachment.

We hear more about this regarding koans, where teachers caution their students against attaching to koans, since they are merely a raft to carry us to the other shore. Like the Buddha's teachings, they are upaya, skillful means.

But we seldom hear that said about zazen; instead, meditation, especially in Soto Zen, is regarded as the holiest of holies.

It almost feels anathema to imply that zazen can turn into a form of attachment, but try skipping 0ne day of meditation and you will soon realize how attached you are to the practice. Shame, guilt, anxiety commonly accompany a missed zazen session of mine.

Yesterday, we started a new group down at the zen center for those who have completed jukai. As one of the facilitators of the group, I introduced myself as "an eclectic practitioner" who is always experimenting. Which isn't to say I can stick with a form - such as zazen - only that I've grown more interested in how form flows in everyday life.

Having spent the last three weeks or so reading a lot about Dogen, as well as practicing with a few of his teachings, I find myself returning to some of the same things Andre is speaking about.

Dogen says that sitting is what a Buddha does. But isn't that making zazen something special by elevating it above all of our other daily activities?

The thing about Dogen's writing is that sometimes it really does seem like seated meditation is his sole focus, while other times he uses the word "Zazen" as an action in each moment. Some Soto teachers seem to lean in one direction, emphasizing seated meditation nearly all the time. While others seem to lean in the other direction, saying that Dogen applies zazen to all activities. I'm more inclined towards the latter, but sometimes it feels like a gloss over, an apology for a founding teacher that simply might have gotten too focused on seated meditation.

It's important to note the the openness to, and deep interest in, lay practitioners Dogen had during the middle of his teaching life greatly waned as he got older. At the same time, he maintained connections with at least a couple of lay disciples until the end, spending his last days in the home of one of them in Kyoto. Given the frequent social/political upheaval that marked 13th century Japan, I can imagine there was always a tension for him between upholding the practice of householders, and feeling the need to emphasize breaking away from it all and practicing in seclusion with a small group of dedicated others.

When I go back to Andre's consideration of attachment to practice, I find myself returning to the value of just paying attention. Noticing what kind of stories are arising. For example, sometimes that desire I have "to experiment" has a bit of extra added to it. Like wanting to do something novel, instead of "the same old thing." And sometimes I'm just plain giving in to laziness.

So, I have to stay vigilant around these kinds of questions, lest they become intellectual ways to trick myself, or justify opting out.

And yet, I have always felt a crunchy rub around Dogen's teachings about "zazen," and how they have come to be practiced today. Because just doing seated meditation and some ritual bows and chants doesn't constitute living the spiritual life.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Zen Bodhisattva Vow Poem

How Long Must I Wait?

“Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.”
From the Four Great Bodhisattva Vow

For what? I don't know.
Unable to figure it out on my own,
I run straight to the temple
looking for answers.

The questions of my suffering,
like so many yellow leaves
hitting the newly frozen ground.

They, too, must wait
until the rain turns to snow,
until the moon returns,

a blue blossom
in the middle of the forest
where no one,
not even the ever watchful crow,
is at home.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Practice Like Our Hair is On Fire: A Twist on an Old Buddhist Phrase

One thing I find challenging about practicing Buddhism in a wealthy nation, surrounded by other practitioners who tend to have "enough," is the huge disconnect many have between their spiritual practice and the social environment. This is especially true of white, heterosexual North American practitioners who do not have to face issues of institutional, systemic discrimination and oppression. Beyond this, however, I continue to reflect on how, for example, Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, or Tibet, or Vietnam to give a few examples, really don't have the easy option of making such separations. Their practice and the social realities in their nations are obviously inseparable. They might be able to complete long periods of intensive meditation and study, or they might wake up one day to gunfire, ramped up soldiers, or some natural disaster barreling down upon them. These folks do not get to "wait" until they become enlightened, or "wise," to get into the fray of social concerns. They just have to step up, and do their best awakened work.

Along these lines, there's the statement "practice like your hair is on fire." It's provocative, but what is it really about? Perhaps more importantly for us in affluent countries, who have "enough" and/or are relatively "safe," what does it really mean?

I've seen numerous articles, blog posts, and comments in recent months about the ways in which dharma practice in affluent countries is too often being reduced to stress relief, psychological health, and other individualistic focuses. Even laments over the loss of a focus on enlightenment often sound individualistic, which makes me wonder if this is a byproduct - in part - of living and practicing in relative comfort. Being comfortable with the discomfort and dysfunction that are produced daily in materially wealthy, capitalist societies. There's something about living with most, if not all of your basic needs met, that can lead to a smug certainty about what Buddha was teaching us, and how we "should" apply it.

Is the general history we have about Buddhist teachings and how it's manifested in different countries accurate? Do we in Western affluent nations also apply our own understanding of social activism to that history, and assume that most Buddhists historically were focused on individual liberation?

Vows of poverty and "home-leaving" seem to have as much to do with breaking down separation as anything else. It's more difficult to think it's all about you, and/or you and your family and friends, when you depend upon others, including total strangers, for your food, clothing, and shelter.

In other words, teachings like "practice like your hair is on fire" might be an antidote to the separations commonly attached to affluent conditions. However, I think it's more useful to pluralize it.

Practice like OUR hair is on fire. All of us. The entire planet. Because it sure as hell seems to be anyway.