Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Horizonless Intimacy

I captured this image as I took an early morning walk along the beach in Bray, Ireland (County Wicklow) this past Monday morning (7/28/08). I was looking across the Irish Sea as the sun made its way up through the clouds.  If I would have been able to see beyond the horizon where the sea and the sky appear to meet, I would have found northern Wales on the other shore.  In fact, on the previous afternoon while walking along another stretch of beach just south of Bray near Newcastle I ran upon a granite marker tucked among the boulders of the seawall protecting the railroad that passed nearby.  On the opposite side of the the railway from the nearly hidden marker was an abandoned and decaying building.  The marker indicated that it was from this site and this tiny station that underwater telegraph cables were first laid beginning in the late 1880's, connecting Ireland and Wales.  These connections were in use through the early 1930's.  What happened then? I suppose technology changed what was possible.  Horizons for communication were extended and expanded.
If my view across the Irish Sea could have extend even further that morning, beyond the Welch border, I would have encountered the midlands of England where I had just spent the previous two weeks teaching and walking on the moors of Derbyshire. Further still and the English Channel would have come into view and then the Netherlands, France, and the whole European continent. Where would it have ended?  With a higher or more complete view, when obstructions or limitations are released, when horizons vanish, what can be seen? Apparently there is no end to the great view of a liberated mind, which I am only imagining, even while my particular human senses are, of course, quite limited.
These past three weeks have been very concentrated for me - many days of teaching and very deep encounters. I worked with a number of wonderful people who were wholeheartedly offering themselves to a process of assisted self-discovery in mindfulness.  They were curious about what they could see and what horizons they might explore as their self-identifications relaxed into the more diffuse awareness and warmth of intimacy.  In my reading this morning, I ran across this brilliant statement by the late Irish poet John O'Donohue: "In the human face infinity becomes personal." 
As I turned my attention to the vastness of the morning sky, into the cold wind, and toward the glistening sea last Monday, my awareness expanded and opened, inviting the unbound possibilities of my heart and mind to know themselves more fully.  In the very next moment, in the reflected light of that same morning sun as I turned and looked into the eye of my friend Donna with whom I was walking, that vastness became personal, close, and alive.  This is also what I saw in the faces of the participants in the retreats over these past three weeks. In the reflected presence they offered to each other, they began to see their own brilliance and fullness, flaws and limitations, all perfect because they were whole.  This is the same infinitely transformative potential I see in the faces of each person who brings themselves forward in our Inquiry Groups, who come to practice discussion, and who sit in the zendo every day.  We offer ourselves to each other so we can remember our vulnerable humanness and, in the bargain, get a glimpse of the divine.  "In the human face infinity becomes personal." What are the limits of this liberating intimacy? Our spiritual ancestors suggest that it is boundless. Let's turn to face each other again and again, and in that reflected presence, discover this truth to be our own.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

About Practice Discussion

I thought it might be helpful to explain a bit about practice discussion (individual meetings with the teacher, called dokusan in Japanese Zen practice) for new folks, and anyone else who might be a little mystified about it. Ordinary Mind Zen as we understand it is relational practice. It is about connections and the flow of energy and information in our encounters with each other, not solitary contemplative achievement or individual self-improvement. In our view, the work of zazen is in service of our relationships in and with the world. It is about enlightening concourse, the liberating possibilities in our coming together, and is not confined to a personal experience of exalted states of consciousness. For this reason, regular communication with teachers and sangha members is central to our practice. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about this process.

The rule of thumb Joko established is that her students see her once a week if they are new to Zen practice. Once they have been practicing for two years or so, they see her every two weeks. She finds that new students need a little more support for the challenges they meet in establishing their practice. Practice interviews are quite short, usually 10 minutes or so, although this can vary a bit, and they focus on the person’s practice. If the issue is complex or requires more explanation or background, however, Joko will usually recommend that the student make an appointment with her outside of dokusan, when there is more time for providing a context.

Practice discussion is not therapy, nor is it a substitute for therapy. It is not professional coaching. However, any of the issues that might also be addressed by therapy or coaching can have implications or opportunities for practice. So actually, there are no “inappropriate” topics for practice discussion. You do not, in fact need to have a topic, question, or issue: the fundamental purpose of practice discussion is the liberating possibilities of the encounter itself. Of course, practice discussion is always optional, but it can be extremely helpful, and even necessary, as it is quite possible in practice to sail confidently off in a misguided direction, or to torture yourself needlessly with self-doubt, anxiety, or confusion.

Practice discussion is available during any zazen period by request. On Sundays, Peg sees people in order, counterclockwise starting with the timekeeper. However, priority is given to those folks who arrive in time for the first sitting period at 8:00. At other times, or if you have a special need to see her, please email a request or let the monitor know. The monitor sits directly to the right of the door as you enter, and can also help handle other needs, for a chair, bench, or extra cushion, for example. Flint is at Ordinary Mind one morning a week, when he is in town. To see Flint for practice discussion, please email him or call him with a request.

The form for practice discussion is fairly simple. When you are tapped, please rise mindfully and come quietly to the door of the practice discussion room, waiting for the bell. Enter and close the door, then right from the door, make a bow toward the altar. Come to the end of the bowing mat and do a standing bow to the teacher. Then sit, and the practice discussion begins. When it is over, give a seated bow to the teacher, then stand, arrange the cushions and make a standing bow to the teacher. There is no altar bow when you leave.

I hope this helps clarify our practice discussion format. I look forward to our work together!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Fall Class with Flint Sparks: Waking up and growing up

Here are further details and the schedule for Flint's upcoming class at Ordinary Mind.

Waking Up and Growing Up:
Maturing in Life and in Practice

A six-month series in studying the Self
with Flint Sparks

The great twentieth-century Zen master Uchiyama Roshi was once asked his definition of a Bodhisattva. After a brief pause, he replied in his very limited English, “I think, maybe a grown-up.” What is this “grown-up” that Uchiyama is referring to and how is this an expression of the Bodhisattva ideal in Buddhist practice?

In Norman Fischer’s book, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, he writes, “I have always been struck by the language the sutras use to describe bodhisattvic altruistic activity: the bodhisattva matures beings, the sutras say. The work of the bodhisattva is, in other words, to become mature and in doing so to work for the maturity of others.” (p. 20)

In this class we will investigate the interplay among all the streams of human development - neurological, emotional, relational, spiritual. These strands of development form our personalities and inform our relationships. They are the source of all of our joys as well as our sorrows. When Dogen famously wrote, “To study the Buddha Way is the study the Self,” I believe he was suggesting that we explore this map of human growth that opens most fully as human awakening. This is the path of the Bodhisattva which is nothing but the path of the human being.

The class will meet monthly over a six-month period. The program will follow the Ordinary Mind principle of experiential work, rather than following a classroom or academic model. We will incorporate into each meeting some time for sitting, some writing, small experiments or exercises, some inquiry work, and discussion. I believe that in this series, I will have a chance, for the first time, to draw on all I have learned over the years as a therapist and as a Zen teacher. I hope you will join me.

We will generally meet the second Tuesday of the month of each month except for November and January from 6:30 – 8:30 PM. Here are the class dates:

Sept. 9
Oct. 7
Nov. 4
Dec. 9
Jan. 13
Feb. 10

The fee for the entire class is $150. Application forms may be downloaded here:

Questions? Call 512.689.5301 or email or

Mail or bring this form:
Ordinary Mind Zen-Austin
913 East 38th St.
Austin, TX 78705

Precepts Program News

Because of the demand for the Precepts Program, I've expanded it into two sections. The first section will meet on the first Thursday of the month and the second section will meet on the third Thursday of the month (with a couple of exceptions, noted below). If you have a strong preference for one section over the other, please let me know. I'll form up the sections and let you know when you are scheduled. Here are the dates for each section:

Ordinary Mind Precepts Program Schedule


First Thursday of the Month

September 4
October 2
November 6
December 4

January 8 (Note: second Thursday because of New Year's)
February 5
March 5
April 2
May 7
June 4
July 2
August 6


Third Thursday of the Month


September 18
October 16
November 13 (because of Thanksgiving)
Dec. 15 (Monday instead of Thursday)


January 22
February 19
March 19
April 16
May 21
June 18
July 16
August 20

Please be assured that none of these dates conflicts with Flint's class, "Waking up and growing up." I'll be sending out information about the schedule and registration forms for that class shortly.