Monday, July 23, 2007

Reflections from the fourth of July

When we were small, some times, our parents would bundle us up and take us off to a grassy hill to see the fireworks. They would park the car, walk to a clear space, spread out a blanket and a bit of a picnic. We were impatient, constantly asking, “Is it time yet? When will we see the fireworks?” As it grew dark, the tension would grow, and the frequency of our questions would ramp up, until our parents finally would snap and say, “Stop asking about the fireworks! You will see them the minute they start! We can’t make it happen any faster!”
Then, when we were completely exhausted, dreamy, hardly paying any attention, suddenly the sky would explode with fiery beauty and splendor, and with hearts pounding, we would be breathing,“Ooooooh, ahhhh, wow!” Dazzled and suddenly wide awake, we would drink in the sky with deep hunger, the whistles and pops punctuating the brilliant colors and flaring patterns. And then the sheer impact of the finale, blazing across the whole sky, a riot of color and noise, until we were awed into silence, and stillness. At last our parents would gather up the picnic things and the blanket and all of us children, and pack us into the car, where we would immediately fall into a sleep so vast and deep that we would have to be carried into the house. And the next day, the fifth of July, would be a perfectly ordinary day.

I believe most of us imagine satori or enlightenment just this way, and that is why we are doomed to disappointment. Joko reminds us, the old masters remind us: Ordinary mind is the way. Nothing special. Chop wood, carry water. It is not a trick, not a clever Zen subterfuge. This very moment is it. And if that moment contains “fireworks,” just so. If that moment contains “carrying the children into the house,” that is it. If that moment contains “waiting for enlightenment,” that is precisely enlightenment realized. I can’t make it any plainer than this.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Summer in Austin

summer in Austin
Originally uploaded by Peg Syverson.

Or is it Hawaii? The rains have turned Austin into a tropical paradise, hot, humid, and resplendent with flowers. We are indulged with color, fragrance, and the kind of torpor that makes it harder and harder to go fast and try to do too many things at once. We are compelled to slow down, breath more deeply, look more closely, savor the moment, until finally, we just stop, immersed in timeless, jaw-dropping beauty. Sit on the stoop with an iced tea and watch the cats in the grass. Hold a baby for a minute or an hour or an eternity and gaze into those wide lucid eyes. Eat an enormous ice cream cone as big as your head. Let us be respectfully reminded: life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and with it our only chance. Each of us must strive to awaken. Be aware! Do not squander our life!

Monday, July 09, 2007

What is our practice?

In one of her talks, Joko said, “we get good at what we practice.” It’s interesting to notice just what we are practicing, and how over years and years of practice, we’ve probably gotten awfully good at it: complaining, gossip, annoyance, resentment, judgment, and many other forms of self-centered and often self-destructive thinking. With Wimbledon in the air, I am reminded that she also said that any tennis player who goes onto the pro circuit, even at the bottom of the rankings, has a minimum of 18,000 hours of practice behind them. Of course I immediately did some calculations: that would be nine years of work at a typical 8 hour a day job: 2000 hours a year. It seems unlikely that a person can practice tennis eight hours a day, so in terms of years there is probably an even longer investment.

My next thought was to try to calculate the number of hours I must have practiced Zen, a humbling tally. It certainly took the impatience out of my practice. For all of my wholehearted and sincere efforts, I could not come close to those numbers. It is true that we get good at what we practice, and for this reason, we want to pay close attention to just what it is we are practicing from moment to moment.

But this is only one sense of practice, the idea that we practice in order to attain something: some mastery or excellence or skill, like improving our golf swing or our posture. Or that we practice to become some kind of “Zen champion,” or “pro,” like Roger Federer in tennis, or like the ancient Zen masters we’ve read about. I think of Zen practice now in a different way, not as something done to get enlightened or awakened or more wise or compassionate, to relieve my anxiety or reduce my anger or my blood pressure. Rather, we practice Zen in the way a doctor practices medicine or a lawyer practices law: not because of what we want to attain, but as an expression of who we are. And because of this practice, many other things are naturally occurring, including a reduction in stress, a focusing of attention, greater awareness, healthier relationships, and so on. And just as a skillful, attentive lawyer or doctor cannot help learning more and more about their practice over time, we learn more and more about what practice really is through our experience and dedication. We do not practice to achieve these things, but they are the natural fruit of intelligent, wholehearted practice.

What are you practicing these days?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Practice questions from our sister sangha in Brownsville

Recently, Suzie Lovegren sent along some questions from the Brownsville Ordinary Mind sangha. I asked Suzie if I might post them to the blog, because I think they may have wide interest. I’ve also included my responses to her. She has edited the original message a little bit to preserve the privacy of the members:

Dear Peg,
One of the women, J, who attends our sittings is a devout Catholic. She has been attending faithfully and always asks questions. Last time we read "Practicing This Very Moment" from the first section of Everyday Zen. Someone made a comment about practice and James turned to the back of the book and read this:
".....The more we practice over the years, the more an open and loving mind develops. When that development is complete (which means that there is nothing on the face of the earth that we judge) that is the enlightened and complassionate state."

When James stressed 'there is NOTHING . . . .that we judge' J said, "What about evil?" This is the first time that neither James, Ed, or I had any answer or comment for her. When we were driving home I kept thinking about her question and James remembered something he had read by Houston Smith: "In Western religion sin is an error of will. In Eastern religion sin is an error of understanding." Still I could not connect the dots from J's question to James' comment.

Also C, a beginning practioner who is faithful to the sittings asked about "all this bowing". Why do we bow when we enter the zendo? Why do we bow to each other and even our places? The only thing we offered was that we bowed to the Buddha within each of us when bowing to each other but we didn't offer much more than that. Do you bow to your places in your sangha? I could not really say why we do that!

Peg I would really appreciate any comments you had regarding J and C's questions. They seem so sincere.

Ed sent me the note you wrote about our decision to change the name of our sangha. Thank you for acknowledging us on your website and for taking the news to Joko herself! We are all so very pleased about this.

I hope your trip went well.

Suzie Lovegren
Ordinary Mind Zen-Brownsville

My response:

Hi Suzanne-

It is wonderful that such deep questions are coming forth in your new sangha. Of course we all meet these questions in our path, and it is great when someone is courageous enough to express them. They are the ground of deep inquiry and practice. We cannot offer "answers" to these questions: rather, they are lived through. We might begin by examining our concepts of good and evil: how and when do they arise? What assumptions must be made before we can even define such terms? These questions are further pointers to the most important question: who we think we are (the righteous judge? The errant sinner? The failed saint?)

We begin to discover the constriction in all hard and fast distinctions, the ways that they limit our view. What are we to make of the child abuser who was himself horribly abused as a child? The conditions creating the hardening of the heart that brings a person to violent crime? The ignorance that leads to wars and conflicts? When we begin to look closely at all of the ways that humans cause each other to suffer, and the causes and conditions that we are all subject to and implicated in, it is not so easy to point the finger of judgment. As everything is interdependent, we participate fully in everything we think of as "evil" and "good."

Perhaps the true poisons the Buddha spoke of, greed, hatred, and ignorance are to blame for society's ills. But we are all subject to these delusions in varying degrees. We share these with all humanity; not in shame, but in sorrow. They limit our freedom and cause untold suffering for ourselves and others. These are the delusions we aspire to see through in practice, for the benefit of all life: for ourselves and for others. Delusions are not sins: they are mistakes, and our Bodhisattva vow means that we are committed to ending suffering in the world in seeing through them completely. When you keep looking deeply at the phenomenon you are most desperate to know intimately and deeply, you will find your practice path leads inevitably toward wisdom and compassion. To the extent that we imagine we are separate selves that can condemn and judge, we maintain the separation that is the source of our pain, and the wreck of a civilization.

When we acknowledge these facts of our human existence, our shared human conditions, our implication in them, and our very real human suffering, it seems to me the most appropriate response is to bow—not to a ruler or a deity, not to a sage or saint, but most humbly to life itself.

But I always suggest to people who ask this question: it is up to you to offer whatever meaning you wish to the bows. You may bow to a loved one or to the one who criticizes you, to your pain or to your joy, to the suffering of others or to their happiness. There are many, many meanings that may infuse this simple gesture, in which we place ourselves in a position of humble appreciation and respect. Of course such meanings may be expressed in other ways as well. This is simply our tradition. If you try it for a while, you may discover its deep, mysterious meanings for you alone.

I have at times done a practice of 108 bows each day. It was a marvelous teaching. The person who introduced it to me used to say silently with each bow "I forgive you." But my own practice seemed to call for a different phrase: "I thank you." I would spread the bows out, doing them in four sets, and it was lovely and often surprising to see what faces showed up for whom I felt such deep gratitude. And something moved deep inside me; it is a mysterious and transforming process.

Well, I must go now, but please keep these wonderful questions going, both in your sangha and in your life, and feel free to send them along any time, or ask for further responses if these do not meet the mark. This is just one person's perspective from the path.

all my best to the sangha,

Peg Syverson

And followed with an example:

Hi Suzanne-

I realized that right here at UT we have had an excellent example to illustrate the points I sent along yesterday. There is in prison right now a former professor of engineering at UT who has been convicted of planning serial murders, of his former dean, department chair, and various faculty. Even while in prison he has been plotting to carry out these murders, and tried to enlist the help of a cellmate. He is utterly remorseless and persistent. Is this man evil? Perhaps you might need to know that several years ago he suffered a stroke that damaged part of his brain, and that before his stroke he was beloved by his students and colleagues alike. Does that change your view? This is a human tragedy; a tragedy that could come to any one of us, or to those dear to us. But I am hard pressed to call it "evil." So it goes, in every case. Does this mean we stand by and do nothing, in passive acceptance? Of course not! Obviously this afflicted person must be kept contained somehow. Similarly, we practice both to recognize and contain our own unhealthy energies and to meet appropriately and to contain the kinds of violence, ignorance, and greed we recognize as destructive out in the world, in whatever ways we may. And when we do so, to the best of our ability, we operate out of our inherent wisdom and compassion.

This is a far, far different view than the conventional impulse to judge and punish ourselves and others.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Evening zazen

Tonight I was sitting in the zendo for about an hour. I realized that this was exactly what I would have wished for as a child, to be allowed to simply sit, still and silent, while the summer evening permeated me. There was a time I lived in wonder, only to be abruptly interrupted by demands, requirements, arguments, accusations, and all the noisy mess of a family shambling toward a breakup; the jealous bickering of children dodging blame and desperate for some kind of validation or righteousness, the doors slammed, sleep broken by the sounds of shouting below, the wretched fear and loss of control in terrible temper tantrums. To sit as I was sitting tonight, immersed in the sounds of rain and birds, the feel of the air cooling around me and through me without separation or boundaries, is truly a profound gift. It is not something to wish for as a permanent condition: I would not give up the connectedness of my relationships for anything, nor the satisfaction of my work, and even the anxieties and difficulties I encounter. It is simply that this moment, this time feels so nourishing, and because of it, I can experience the other parts of my life not as unwelcome demands and frightening conflicts that bring me to despair, but instead wholeheartedly meet them with some ease and openness. This is a different way of living, quite beautiful and filled with joy and equanimity, even when what I am meeting is fraught with grief or pain or rage.