Monday, October 31, 2011

On Form

One of the questions in the forefront of American Zen is about the exacting form we inherited from the Japanese Zen history.  There is a wide range of response and a continuum of how strictly teachers hold the Japanese forms.  Some follow exactly the Japanese forms in a strict manner.  Some have thrown out what they think of as Japanese cultural form and yet, the problem is “what to retain?”  Oddly, some kind of form emerges even within a “No Japanese form” sangha.

I am contemplating Katagiri-Roshi’s admonition that “Zen IS the Form”, reminiscent of the heart sutra:  Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.  The form is the concrete expression of the teaching.  It is what we have to give to the next generation other than a teaching based on the personality of the teacher.  The form is also a physical expression of the teaching without words.  Interestingly, many people have expressed to me that it was the structure of the form that held the center together when the Clouds in Water Sangha had no teacher.  They upheld the structure of sesshin and kept other forms alive until a new teacher appeared.

So, what to do?  Where is the middle way?  What is throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  In my particular case, I feel an overwhelming debt of appreciation to Katagiri Roshi and his Way.  Having had a Japanese teacher, I feel more reluctant to “throw away” the form, out of respect and debt.  He often said that my generation was the bridge generation between the Japanese form and what will become modern American Zen.

So in an effort to explore this difficult topic, I am going to try and pull out of myself what I have learned over the years about the form and how I feel about the tone of how I want to practice.  How can we avoid the pitfalls of adhering too tightly to Japanese form as Americans or westerners?

What’s important to me about form (Particularly in sesshin):
•    What the form provides is a structure of safety in which you can allow your mental functions to let go.  You can stop thinking and evaluating.  In a highly choreographed form, you always know what to do next.  You don’t have to think about it.
•    It teaches us the flow of the day or a structure for the experience of One Day at a Time.  It teaches us about the rhythm of life.
•    It teaches us to become one body and to let go of our highly developed individual needs.  This is very unusual for Americans and very important in the discovery of no-centralized self.
•    You learn the form by some basic verbal instruction but mostly by observation and copying.
•    One thing I would like to let go of is a militaristic feeling in Zen stemming from our association with the development of the Samurai Way and perhaps a more Rinzai approach.  I am aiming for a softer relationship to form and a gentler feeling in the zendo.  A more spacious feeling.
•     I never experienced Katagiri Roshi’s way as harsh or militant.  His zendo seemed quiet and welcoming in general.  Interestingly, I have very few memories of Katagiri criticizing anyone or correcting people.
•    I would like to see us have a general, fairly open, simple form that has enough structure to facility the flow of the events and the development of people moving as one body.  Enough structure so that people can let go.
•    About precision and perfectionism:
o    In a mature practitioner, precision with the forms comes from their deep concentration and clarity.  The more concentrated, the more subtle your precision can be.  Precision is harmful, I feel, if it comes from an external, pressured environment that “forces” adherence to a strict way.  People grow into precision as they become more settled and more familiar with the forms.
o    Precision can easily be usurped by the “manas” or our self-centered consciousness that wants to be the best, be more evolved, to be better than other practitioners.  When precision becomes a project it has been taken over by ego-building consciousness.
o    Perfectionism is the devil in disguise.  Outwardly, because of our highly choreographed form, a newcomer can interpret zen’s goal as being perfect in the form.  This can become oppressive and obsessive.  I would like to see a form coming out of our expression of generosity, inter-being, and spaciousness.
o    If you want to see the form grow in our sangha, be stricter with yourself and more tolerant of others.
•    Form is a way mindfulness can be expressed and enhanced.  Are you present in what you are doing?  Do you know where you are?  Are you wholeheartedly doing the activity of the moment.
•    The liturgy is a devotional practice.  Are you present to devotion? Are you part of the integrated group?  Is your heart open when you: take refuge, in repentance, say your vows?
•    If you are the doan, please practice so that you become more and more familiar with what you are doing.
•    Are you present in bowing?  In humility, can you put your frontal lobe down on the ground and offer whatever practice and effort you have made, to the larger good?
•    A few things that I am trying to soften that comes from what I perceive as our Japanese heritage is:
o    Too much concentration on detail and minutia
o    A very strong adherence to hierarchy
o    A tendency to think that over-working, and a constant stretching beyond our means, is good practice.  Sometimes that is appropriate, but it is not a basis for a spiritual life.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dana or Generosity or Giving

Dana, Giving or Generosity

It is interesting what comes first.  The first practice is dana, giving, or generosity in the fundamental structure of Buddhist spiritual life as represented by the Paramitas. (The Great Perfections).  How many years can we spend learning to have a generous attitude in life?  All of our years!  Generosity and Giving are the opposite of attachment and clinging.  The practice of Dana helps us to release ourselves from everything centralized around me, my and mine.

Dogen says:  Giving means non-greed.

It is not that we are trying to become a generous person but that we are undoing the way we feel poor and afraid.    We can open to the fundamental self-existing richness that underlies everything and become completely generous, our true nature!  What else is there?  I smile now, knowing this is not how we actually feel most of the time.

Bodhidharma has said this so beautifully:
 "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious.
In the genuine all-pervading Dharma,
not being stingy about a single thing is called
the Precept of not attaching to anything even the truth.”

Classically, there are three ways to be generous:
1.     Giving material things
2.     Giving the dharma teachings
3.     Giving fearlessness

We learn to loosen our grip and our defenses that things are going to be taken away from us.  That requires a lot of practice of the opposite.  Machich Lapdron, a 11th-12th century Tibetan women teacher left some very potent instructions and one of them is:
Anything you are attached to, give that.

Not holding back, but constantly giving, is self-existing openness.  But it is helpful to also understand that giving and receiving are coupled and are the natural order of the universe.  Give and take is like cause and effect – the law and rhythm of our life.  When we are defended, it’s hard to give or receive.  Sometimes when we are receiving, that is the greatest giving.

Dogen emphasizes that Giving cannot be measured.  Treasure cannot be measured small or large.  In his essay on the 4 Bodhisattva methods of guidance, he states:
·      To launch a boat or build a bridge is an act of giving
·      To accept a body and give up a body are both giving
·      Making a living and producing things can be nothing other than giving
And he adds:
To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons, are also acts of giving.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Waking up from our trance

We make experience belong to a “self”.  When this becomes the core of our experience, we loose sight of the wholeness of life.  All suffering or dissatisfaction arises from a mistaken understanding that we are a separate and distinct self.  This self imprisons us in our desires and fears.  This self often judges itself poorly and begins to develop a trance of unworthiness.  So says Tara Brach the author of “Radical Acceptance” which the Wednesday night class is studying.

Our release from this great story is to radically accept the experience of our life exactly as it is in this moment.  This requires two things:  awareness of what is happening and unconditional friendliness in accepting the human predicament.  Clear seeing and compassion. 

Tara Brach has terrifically practical ways for staying in the present moment and accepting life on life’s terms, which helps our freedom arise.

How do we do this?
1. The sacred pause: stop and breathe
2. Name what you are aware of:
"I see you Mara" the Buddha said.
Inquiry into "what is" with unconditional friendliness
 3. Go to the body sensation:
“Because with the thought, there’s also a sensation.  You must not miss this root.”  Goenka.
Embodied presence awakens us from the trance
4.  Have compassion for the human predicament with all its ups and downs.
5.     Say “yes” to our actual experience
            Let things come and let things go
            Invite all of our experience, good and bad, to Tea.
6.     Noticing our desires or cravings as a universal experience and not personal.
            Not getting lost in pursuit of substitutes for wholeness
7.     Say, “This too”
8.     Notice the huge system of karma that produced this moment.  This moment is not produced by an isolated “you”.  To avert the shame that might arise when you think that “you caused everything”, say, “It’s not my fault,  It’s never been my fault”
9.     Reconnect with the fullness of our being.  “This moment is complete”