Proclaim and Transform

While Zen is most commonly associated with the Japanese tradition, many of the important Zen Teachers were not from Japan. Zen has deep roots in China and a number of Chinese Zen (or Ch’an) Masters made important contributions toward establishing Zen in the west. One of these was Hsuan Hua, whose name literally means “proclaim and transform”. Hsuan Hua taught in the west for nearly 4 decades, calling himself  “the Monk in the Grave” as he never wanted fame or profit and preferred to be beneath the feet of all living beings as a stepping stone to the ground of Buddha.

Like many of the best known teachers of Zen in the U.S., he first began teaching in San Francisco in the 1960s where he translated and lectured on the Buddhist Sutras, held daily meditation sessions and became famous for fasting and praying for peace. Hsuan Hua founded the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah California, one of the first Ch’an monasteries in the United States. He also supported and helped harmonize all types of Buddhist tradition in America and would later be instrumental in helping establish the Theraveda Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley California.  As well, he founded the Buddhist Text Translation Society, the Dharma Realm Buddhist University and the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, eventually ordaining over 200 people from countries all over the world.

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I think that, like many people, when I first came into practice, I came into it for myself — to lessen the suffering/dissatisfaction that the Buddha described in the First Noble Truth. Now, after many years of practice, something has shifted. I’ve been thinking about what it means to sit, whether you sit by yourself at home, with a sangha, or as I did yesterday at Friends For Life, with three other people, or just with one person. Can you do Sesshin with one other person? Can you do Sesshin by yourself? “Yes” to both of the above. You never know where or how practice ripples out. When a student comes from a college because he/she has to write a paper and perhaps is only meeting the requirements of the course, you still don’t know how that affects the person. Why did that person pick Zen to investigate? Perhaps not today nor tomorrow nor even next year, but at some time, the instruction and sitting will resonate. Perhaps it works even when we don’t know it’s working. Nothing is ever lost.

And so, now I feel compelled to share — to just sit with those three other people, people whose lives might be vastly different from mine — yet, we just sit and it ripples and ripples and ripples.

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The Great Way

“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against.” – Sengstan

Sengstan was the Third Zen Patriarch, known in Japanese as Kanchi Sosan. This quotation is from his famous Zen poem, “Faith Mind.”

I’ve been asking myself how I can “hold no opinion for or against” when I see someone I love doing things that cause her pain. Perhaps when “love and hate are both absent” this is possible, but even then, can this work in all situations? Is there a difference between drinking oriyoki tea with all the bits and pieces of residual food and not making a distinction, not even squirming when that taste crosses your lips and slides down your throat, and not saying anything when someone you love is way off track? But look, the operative word here is “love” and I’m already making distinctions between one thing and another. I have so many opinions.

However, who was Kanchi Sosan? He was a monk. Probably celibate. Very little is known about him. If he had been a woman who had carried a child in his womb for nine months would/could he have written these words?

Perhaps I need to keep these words in mind while still doing what needs to be done in the Relative. Zen is also about looking at what is right in front of you and responding to that in a skillful way. Perhaps speaking up and having an opinion can also be upaya, skillful means.

Maezumi Roshi said to me, “You know what to do.” These five simple little words have a profound meaning. Look at them. Be with them.

I will honor my own innate wisdom.

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“Meech” The Cat


This past Friday we had our cat put to sleep.
His formal name was “Mister”, but somehow the kids had evolved that name into “Meech”.
He had been not well for about a month.
He had been tumbled by a car, and as a result his front left paw had nerve damage and was un-usable.
We made him a splint out of foam pipe insulation and a Popsicle stick.
He also had problems with his digestive system. He couldn’t process food and so he started eating and drinking less and less.
For 4 weeks we cycled up and down. Some days he ate and drank fine then other days nothing.
We finally decided it was best to let him go.
We made an appointment for 2:40 on Friday
That afternoon before 2:00 we moved his bed into the sunshine so he could enjoy the warmth of the sun.
I then sat next to him for an hour just petting and talking to him.
When it was time to go I placed Meech on a towel. I sprinkled some catnip on the towel to help calm him down, then placed the towel in the Pet Carrier.
We covered up the pet carrier with another towel so that when we brought him into the Vets he wouldn’t be bombarded by the barking and meowing of the other animals.
They showed me into an examination room.
I sat with Meech talking to him all the time.
The Doctor came in and I took Meech out of the carrier.
It was very intimate just me, Meech and the Doctor.
First they give the animal and very strong tranquilizer. They lift up the skin along his spine and inject it there. It must have hurt a little because Meech turned and meowed when he did it.
Then they wait a few minutes for it to work.
We then took Meech out of the Carrier and laid him on his side. They shaved a small patch of fur off of his hind leg in order to find a vein. Then they give a second injection to stop his heart.
I saw his final beat and exhale.

So the question I’ve been working with is “Where is Meech?”

At what point did Meech stop being Meech?
Was it when they gave him the tranquilizer and his eyes glazed over in a drugged haze?
Was it when his heart beat for the last time?
Was he ever really “Meech” to begin with?

I once heard someone say that we are all verbs and not nouns.
And more importantly we are the “Present Participle” of Verbs.

1. forming the present participle of verbs:
a. the act or an instance of (a specified verb): talking, digging, hearing, noticing

His example was Rain and Raining.
Rain as a noun is just an idea a concept.
Raining is a verb and a present participle of that verb.
It is getting soaking wet when you forget your umbrella.
It is the light mist fogging up your glasses in the spring time.
It is Gene Kelly splashing about in “Singing in the Rain”.

So just like Rain and Raining. There is Jim and Jim-ing.
Jim is a noun a concept an idea. While Jim-ing is the manifestation of my life in the present moment. Being the space in which my life unfolds.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Zen is the belief in “No Self” or Anatta.
It is one of the 3 Marks of Existence in Buddhism.
Anatta or No Self.
Anicca or Impermanence.
Dukkha or Un-satifactoriness.

Of the 3 Anatta or No-self may be the toughest to digest.

So back to Meech.
Was there ever a Meech to begin with?
I don’t know but I do know that I experienced “Meech-ing”.
The manifestation of his existence.
Him being the vessel for his life unfolding and sharing it with us.

And where is he now? This too I don’t know. I do know that his “skin bag” as we call the body in Zen is in a cardboard box in our Garage waiting for a warm day for the ground to thaw so we can bury him by the garden where he liked to watch us work.

This past Thanksgiving we had my family over and a big discussion arose over why do Bad things happen to Good people. Everyone had an opinion.
Later I told my Sister that at the end of the day there are things that we KNOW and things that we BELIEVE.
The things that we know are,
Everything changes. Part of that changing for living beings includes old age, sickness and death.
Good things happen to good people, Good things happen to bad people.
Bad things happen to good people, Bad things happen to bad people.
When we do something loving for someone it feels right and in harmony.
When someone does something loving for us it feels right and in harmony.

Everything else is just beliefs.

It is also known as the great mystery.

One last thing that has been believed since man has been on earth and that is the belief that we came from Love and will return to Love.
Because this has been such a belief by all peoples for all time I think that it makes it a KNOWN. It is also what I experience when I go on retreat, and days of meditation strip away all the trivial thoughts and fears of the ego.

So though I don’t know where “Meech” is now, I do know that he is somewhere Loving.

And I do know that he will he will be greatly missed.

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End-of-life Doula

I have been an end-of-life doula with Valley Hospice since June of this now receding year. Each family, each patient, has different needs, different ways of managing this final transition. I have been privileged to be with 5 or 6 patients now, and have been present at 3 deaths. It is mindfulness practice to be sure, to stay awake and present to subtle changes and sometimes unspoken needs. Joan invited me to share one of the experiences I had… I was there in the middle of the night on Saturday when EM was stable. But I got to witness the tenderness, love and care of this family. I woke her son twice per his request so he could administer medication. He was very tender with her. J, her daughter, was asleep in the room so I sat quite still as she awoke to any stirring. She woke on her own at about three and sat up for the next hour, holding her mother’s hand, asking questions and telling me stories—a little impromptu legacy work perhaps. The second time I woke the son, a little before 4:00 and shift change, L, the father had also awoken and come back in the room. When CM, the next doula arrived, the family was all at the bedside. I said to CM, “There’s a little party going on in there.” I guess it sort of felt like that, because, though they may have been sad, what I saw was their love and care for EM and each other. What a lovely family. I am honored to have been part of this vigil and to be part this program.

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Zendo closed tonight (12/27/10) due to blizzard

Due to today’s blizzard and New Jersey’s state of emergency, the Zendo will be closed tonight (12/27/10).

We will also be closed on the morning of Wednesday, 12/29/10. That closing was planned in advance due to the teacher’s and instructors’ schedules this holiday week.

We will re-open on Sunday, 1/2/11, for our usual 9am program of meditation and more.

Till we meet on Sunday, I encourage us all to meditate at home.

Here’s to a mindful 2011.

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Zen Onions

Zen Onions

During this holiday season, I’ve been cooking a lot more than usual. Many dishes call for onions. I’ve been laboring in the kitchen, chopping onions for about a month now, eyes tearing and stinging,   their aroma burning the lining of my nose. I used to simply chop onions then toss them into whatever dish. Recently, I discovered that if I sauté the onions before adding them to a dish, they’re much sweeter and their flavors are really brought out. That bitter onion is transformed from something harsh and pungent into something sweet and delicate enhancing any dish.

I started doing some research about onions. When they’re sliced in the kitchen or bitten into by your garden critters, the onions release an enzyme which turns into a gas which then dissolves in the tears in your eye to produce a mild sulfuric acid! Suffice, to say, I put down the knife and move away from the onions with burning eyes. That is exactly what those onions want us to do. Their harshness is a defensive mechanism to preserve their survival in their current, bitter state.

…but I decide to do things differently. I stay with onions. I put them in a pan and stand there tearing a bit as their odors are released but soon the onions start to caramelize. As their pungent scent turns into something sweet, I start thinking about the transformative power of meditation. Awhile back, I was looking at the Buddhist precepts thinking “I could never do those things, never be those things.”  But like the onions, I decide to “stay with” meditation and make allowances for myself when I am “harsh” or whatever “unpleasant” state I’m in and abandon the concept of “right” or “wrong” zazen. Whatever the state I’m in (anxious, stressed, angry, judgmental or checking the stick of incense every few minutes because I know it burns in exactly twenty-five minutes so I know how much time I have left to be sitting – hee, hee) I know that like the onions, this state will not only pass but is also the very thing I need to experience to then move past. (You can’t have beautiful golden caramelized onions without the tears.) So as I “cook” a bit longer, and stay with my “imperfect” zazen, I’m become a bit more generous in nature towards myself and consequently others, and a heck of a lot “sweeter”.

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Loving Kindness (Metta)

Loving Kindness (Metta)

Every Sunday on my ride to meditation I repeat the following:
I offer loving kindness to Myself,
May I be free from fear and sorrow
May I be free from anger and confusion
May I be free from remorse and regret
May I be filled with joy and with love
May I be filled with wisdom and with understanding
May I be filled with compassion and with tolerance
May I be well and happy and may she be at peace.
I start with myself, then for my wife, each of my 3 children then on to my mother, brothers, sisters, their spouses and children, etc.

In Theravada Buddhism there are what are known as the Four Brahmaviharas or the Four Virtues. In Pali they are –
Metta – Loving Kindness
Karuna – Compassion
Mudita – Sympathetic Joy
Upekha – Equanimity

The first Brahmavihar is Metta or Loving Kindness.
The Buddha taught on Metta in the Karaniya Sutra.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Hymn of Universal Love
Who seeks to promote his welfare,
Having glimpsed the state of perfect peace,
Should be able, honest and upright,
Gentle in speech, meek and not proud.

Contented, he ought to be easy to support,
Not over-busy, and simple in living.
Tranquil his senses, let him be prudent,
And not brazen, nor fawning on families.

Also, he must refrain from any action
That gives the wise reason to reprove him.
(Then let him cultivate the thought:)
May all be well and secure,
May all beings be happy!

Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,

Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

Let none deceive or decry
His fellow anywhere;
Let none wish others harm
In resentment or in hate.

Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.

Cultivate an all-embracing mind of love
For all throughout the universe,
In all its height, depth and breadth —
Love that is untroubled
And beyond hatred or enmity.

As you stand, walk, sit or lie,
So long as you are awake,
Pursue this awareness with your might:
It is deemed the Divine State here.

Holding no more to wrong beliefs,
With virtue and vision of the ultimate,
And having overcome all sensual desire,
Never in a womb is one born again.

I think I mentioned a few months ago that now that I work in the city I go out for a walk sometimes at lunch to see the sites. Often I would walk along with my mind wandering, sometimes judging those who passed by, often self reflecting on how I looked just in case people were judging me.
I’ve decided instead to walk the streets offering loving kindness for everyone who crossed my eyesight. Sort of like a roving Wi-Fi hot spot of loving kindness.

Sometimes this is the only useful thing we can do with our time.

Gandhi said, “every minute we should ask ourselves how will our next action help all beings”.
If you are unable to do anything more meaningful in any given moment, the least you can do is offer Loving Kindness for someone, even yourself.

In many ways Metta is like a prayer. It is an “intention” or an “earnest request or wish”.

There are cloistered religious in monasteries around the world who do nothing but offer prayer for different causes and intentions.

In Theravada or Vippassana mediation they often teach many forms of skillful means. When the mind is raging and roaming you sometimes need something less subtle then your breathe to focus on. In vipassana they use hand movements, body scans and Metta.
Metta is similar to Tonglin, breathing in the pain of the world and breathing out loving Kindness.
There are many variations in wording of the Loving kindness Meditation. I choose one that speaks to mental states (fear, sorrow, anger, confusion, remorse, regret, joy, love, wisdom, understanding, compassion, tolerance) instead of physical state (may they never break a leg, may they win a million dollars).
In addition to the use of different words there are different areas of focus or “Radiations”.

Generalized Radiation
The five ways of generalized radiation are as follows:
l. “May all beings (sabbe satta) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
2. “May all those that breathe (sabbe pana) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
3. “May all creatures (sabbe bhuta) be free from hostility, free from affliction. free from distress; may they live happily.”
4. “May all those with individual existence (sabbe puggala) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
5. “May all those who are embodied (sabbe attabhavapariyapanna) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
Specified Radiation
The seven ways of specified radiation are as follows:
1. “May all females (sabba itthiyo) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
2. “May all males (sabbe purisa) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
3. “May all the Noble Ones (sabbe ariya) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
4. “May all worldlings (sabbe anariya) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
5. “May all gods (sabbe deva) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
6. “May all human beings (sabbe manussa) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
7. “May all those in states of woe (sabbe vinipatika) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”

Directional Radiation
The ten ways of directional radiation involve sending thoughts of metta to all beings in the ten directions. This method, in its basic form, is applied to the class of beings (satta), the first of the five generalized objects of metta. But it can be developed further by extending metta through each of the five ways of generalized radiation and the seven ways of specified radiation, as we will see.

1. “May all beings in the eastern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
2. “May all beings in the western direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
3. “May all beings in the northern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
4. “May all beings in the southern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
5. “May all beings in the northeastern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
6. “May all beings in the southwestern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
7. “May all beings in the northwestern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
8. “May all beings in the southeastern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
9. “May all beings below (in the downward direction) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
10. “May all beings above (in the upward direction) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”

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Mindfulness hike in the mountains

Last month I took my children on what I called a “mindfulness hike.” Where we live, there are many great hiking trails in and around the Ramapo Mountains. I decided to take them to a favorite trail at the historic Long Pond Ironworks; wide trails, flowing water, old buildings, and some nice wooden observation platforms that I thought might be good places for some outdoors zazen.

The day was perfect for a hike with the crisp autumn air and the sunlight playing through the clouds. I decided we would just hike, pay attention to whatever was around us, and talk about whatever came up. Anything resembling formal Zen discussion would only happen at the platform.

I brought along my copy of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. I wanted to talk to my kids about “Right Speech” — what Bhante G calls “Skillful Speech.” Of all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, this seemed to be the one that needed the most attention.

I didn’t want this to be a pedantic exercise, and Bhante G’s book was perfect for the task. Each chapter has a wonderful, bullet-point summation at the end, and this was the only part I read aloud once we arrived at the platform. It was short and sweet, and left space for questions and discussion. These are the Key Points for Mindfulness of Skillful Speech:

  • Skillful Speech requires that you abstain from lying, malicious words, harsh language and useless talk.
  • Lying by omission is still lying.
  • Malicious talk is speech that destroys other people’s friendships or damages their reputations.
  • Verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language.
  • Harsh language hurts others and debases you.
  • Gossip and idle talk lead to quarrels and misunderstandings, waste your time, and create a confused state of mind.
  • All unnecessary speech not motivated by generosity, loving friendliness, and compassion is harmful.
  • The test of Skillful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”
  • Using mindfulness to strengthen your resolution to say nothing hurtful and to use only soft, well-chosen words can bring harmony to any difficult situation.

And I added one last item: Skillful speech includes the words you use in e-mail, while texting, and on Facebook.

It was a relatively quick talk. The kids had some good questions, and then we sat zazen for about five minutes out there in the woods. They commented on how vibrant the sounds of the wind and leaves and water were when just sitting still.

Make no mistake, skillful speech is still in short supply at our house. My children are, after all, 11 and 14, and we parents still have a way to go in carefully choosing our words and tone in the heat of the moment. But perhaps the most skillful speech that day was just talking about it.

(A version of this post originally appeared on The Zen Parent.)

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Doorless Door

There is a tape called “The Mysterious Guest” that I keep in my Walkman. I used to listen to it on a regular basis but now I only turn it on from time to time. It’s about a host who is inside his house and a guest, a spiritual teacher, who comes and helps him “fly.” When I turned it on early this morning, while I was still in bed, it was at the part where the host is at the doorway and the guest is bidding him to leave his house.

This tape always speaks to me, always resonates, and I see more and more in it each time I listen to it. Today I thought of how we often just stay in our own social/cultural/economic milieu — stay “inside” where the host is. It’s safe there. I thought of how working at Friends For Life with people who are living on the edge can be an eye-opener, how it was stepping outside the door for me when I first went there. It was a real stretch and I thought of it as “practicing the edge.” If we remain in our own small world, we can’t “fly.”

As often happens for me when I have access to this other great mystical tradition, it impacts upon my Zen practice. And, since it was so early in the morning, right after waking up, it began to present itself as a poem. I call this poem, “Doorless Door,” after “The Gateless Gate.”

Doorless Door

Stepping outside the door
I can fly
Inside — safe, cozy, nest.
Standing on the threshold,
I pause.
Do I look back,
Turning into salt
like Lot’s wife,
or losing my loved one
like Orpheus.
Dropping all notions
I cross the threshold
G Off

No inside,
No outside.

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