Monday, September 29, 2014

How to turn a cheese sandwich on the grill.

My family has really enjoyed the movie “Chef.”  Yesterday in my car, I was listening to one of Linda Ruth Cutt’s lectures from SFZC and she used examples from that movie to demonstrate what Zen work is like. 

Since it seems that Clouds is embarking on the voyage of moving to a new building, there will be a lot of work.  How do we do this work from a Right View standpoint?  As I heard Fish say the other day, how can we bring the heart of Zen with us as we move and work together?

What is work in Zen?  Why is “work” emphasized by “work practice” and sound bytes like: Chop wood, carry water?  I think the emphasis on expressing your wisdom through work started long ago when there was a shift in monastic life that included agriculture.  All of a sudden, the monks were doing labor.  In the earliest Buddhist days, the monks were wandering mendicants and that was their work.  A wandering monk offers people the opportunity to give to the dharma, “the monks”, through begging and to allow the monks to practice deeply with no root.  When monasteries started to happen, work practice and how to work in daily life became more important.

Linda Ruth Cutt’s said that watching the chef’s in “Chef” use their knives, turn the cheese sandwich, watching their cooking, was a wonderful example of the attitude in Zen Work.  Lovingly taking care of each object, paying attention to the moment and taking care of details.  Perhaps what is not so evident in a professional chef’s life is - letting go of the results of your actions.  But in terms of carefully caring for each aspect of the job, like how to place the side dish just so, they are a prime example of attention in work.  Mindfulness in work.

She also mentioned another scene which she thought had a Zen perspective.  The chef’s son is learning to cook.  In this scene, some workers had helped them for free, move a large stove, I think it was, and in return, the chef was cooking them sandwiches for free as a return gift.  The son had burnt a little bit one of the sandwiches and said,  “Well, they aren’t paying for this, so it doesn’t matter.”  The Chef stopped what he was doing, took his son outside, and explained to him that nothing from his kitchen went out burnt, free or not.  This was his expression and love for what he did.  This is his generosity and gift to all, to make beautiful food, delicious food, as his life’s work and not about the money.

I found these examples inspiring.  How do we think about our daily work as love and practice.  Even in the smallest things. 

This is not to say we get stuck on perfectionism or Epicureanism.  It does not mean we have to have the most gorgeous temple in town.  Tomoe Katagiri has taught me that a Zen view is also to take old things, refurbish them, and find another life for them.  Like taking the old cloth and making it into okesas.  Like taking a building that was meant for another job in life and turning it into a Zen Temple. 

Zen work means that we work out of our hearts and with care, with presence, and let go of the results of our actions. Zen work is an extension of our understanding and a gift we offer to life.

Friday, September 26, 2014

With which mind do you eat these dumplings?

I gave a talk at Clouds on sunday about Work practice, Sangha and practice period.    Something I said has been lingering in my mind.  I said,  “Zen is not a philosophy, it’s something that you do.”  After all the books, scholarly study and the hundreds of Zen books in the libraries, how can that be true?  It has also been discussed a lot- is Zen a religion, a philosophy, or a practice?  Of course, it has to be a mixed answer of all three.  But what I meant on sunday, was that Zen is not something that is done in your head although we can use our heads, for example through studying sutras, koans and words about zen.  But Zen is something that you do.  I really heard that a lot from Katagiri Roshi.  Zen is not a machination of our minds and it is not our idea or concept of what it is.  Zen is a manifestation in each moment and in our daily life of all that we think and do.  It manifests in this one day – strictly speaking, in this one moment.

In the course of my spiritual life, I have practiced Zen in combination with 12 step recovery work.  What they definitely have in common is that our spiritual life has to be expressed and practiced on a daily basis.  One day at a time.  It is not practiced in our heads, our ideas, our dreams for the future but in what you actually do today.  And it cannot rest on the laurels of past spiritual work.  What we did yesterday, or 5 years ago, does not specifically impact what we do today.  It is included as a basis for today’s activity, but today’s activity is today’s activity.

I love one of the Zen stories about Deshan Xuanjian (819-914) in the Golden Age of Zen in China.  He was a great northern scholar of the Diamond Sutra and when he heard what the Southern school was teaching he said, “how dare those southern devils say that just by pointing at the human mind, one can see self-nature and attain buddhahood?”  So he packed up all his Diamond Sutra Commentaries, put them in his backpack, and journeyed south to correct their view.

On his journey he met an old women selling tea on the side of the road.  He asked for some dumplings.  The women said,  “What’s that on your back?”  “Commentaries on the diamond sutra,” Deshan replied. The old women laughed and said, “If you can answer my question, I’ll donate the dumplings.” 

Then she said,
The past mind can’t be attained.
The present mind can’t be attained.
The future mind can’t be attained.
With which mind do you eat these dumplings?

Deshan was speechless.
The old women points him in a direction to the Zen master and Deshan goes to explore and have a dialogue with him.
Eventually, Deshan sets fire to his books and commentaries
And continues to explore the Buddha way.

This is part of a much longer story, but the element I wanted to contemplate is in this particular part of the story.  How do we practice in our life, that which is actually in this moment and not a story or philosophy in our heads?

This leads me over and over (in case I have forgotten) that a daily meditation practice and a structure for the day that emphasizes the spiritual view of life is the expression of Zen and our religious life.  It is not in the talking- it is in the doing.  Our practice period at Clouds is focused on setting up a rhythm or a ritual in each day to remind us of our intentions and our practice.  As a whole community, we are committing to do certain gathas or verses as we wake up and go to bed, to a daily sitting practice and to some type of daily study.  We are trying to practice as a community during the active part of our days, the incentive to “pause, relax, and open”. 

This is what brings me consciousness and peace.  Practice Period reinforces the fact that each day I surrender to a ceremony of religious life and bring my spiritual intentions for the day to the fore. Reminding me not to rely on past practice.  The past is gone. 

When I say ceremony of religious life, I am not talking about a ceremony imposed from outside yourself.  At this point and for lay life, the conscious intention to express your understanding in this one day and the forms that help you do that, are very important to notice.  It is very important to explore what forms work for you.  What practices or ceremonies work in your life and are you doing them on a daily basis? 

Sometimes I fall short and rely on my past laurels.  But participating in practice period always reminds me of the importance of a spiritual structure to the day and the importance of surrendering to the loving disciplines of spiritual life.  What happens when I do this?  I am much happier.

You can register for practice period at

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ireland, Sept 2014

I am in Ireland on vacation with my family.  I have been taking what I call a well-deserved vacation.  I have been busy with other aspects of my life since around the beginning of August.  What has surprised me the most is that after about 6 weeks of “other things” besides my work as a Priest, I miss the Sangha.  I miss Zen.  I miss the quiet root and anchor my Sangha life gives me.

Before this break, I had been feeling very rebellious and anti-Zen.  What good is it? After all these years of trying to change my life through zen practice, I end up with nothing!  Not only nothing but a deep exhaustion from doing service and trying to live up to the rituals and forms which are the expression of a formal Zen Practice.  Like all human minds, my mind swung from one extreme to the opposite.  Now, perhaps, I thought, free from form and ritual, I can just live my life!  But if I "just live my life" too far away from sangha, I go back into a state of mind that has meaninglessness at its core.

How do we deal with "nothing" and "nothing that is something!" How do we bring nothing and something together? How do we bring effort and no-effort together.  The unending koan that arises in my life.  How do I reconcile the effort of trying to change my life with non-doing or the instruction to relax!.

So what has been surprising to me, is, after “escaping back into my life away from sangha”, I end up knowing why I need the processes or forms of Zen again.  Underneath all these stories of daily life, and the endless talking, and karmic habits of life, in order to find peace which i deeply want, I must reconnect over and over with the silent inexpressable “suchness” for a lack of a better word.  This suchness or as-is-ness, (what I called "nothing"), when I am aware of it, helps me live more thoroughly the human life and perhaps even to live the human life with acceptance, compassion and peace.  My koan- how can I stay in contact with suchness with form and without form.  How is this done with ease which will help me become less strained and tired with "serving others"? 

Right now, in Ireland, I am in a Downton-Abbey-type estate at a destination wedding of my husband’s nephew.  There is complete beauty, indulgence and abundance here.  It is gorgeous!  Grounds groomed by gardeners, Irish linen sheets, gorgeous furniture,  delicious expensive meals and chocolate fudge on your pillow at night.  Even still, amidst all this beauty, I can feel the suffering of human life in people’s stories and faces, and this same suffering in myself. 

As I sat in meditation outside in the formal garden, I missed my sangha and the zen ritual which is a expression of life’s forms and suchness merging together.  With Zen, I can breathe in the life that is larger then me and penetrate into what is really happening beneath our talking and analytical mind. This allows me to get closer to the suffering inherent in human life without judgement.  I can change my mental attitude through meditation.  On this vacation, I have been sitting with the 4 tetrads of the foundation of mindfulness. I hold the instruction in my hand and reading them over and over to help me concentrate, while I sit in different spaces and different gardens throughout my trip. When I get to the portion on stabilizing and cessating the mind, no matter what is happening, I come back to a different attitude towards all my stories and i feel surprising relief.

I missed going to sesshin at Hokyoji this season, where I deeply experience life in its most naked form. 
So again I see, if I allow myself to just go along forever in my stories for too long, my life starts to appear as it did before I began practice - as meaningless and superficial. The hungry ghosts within me with their unending cravings for pleasure starts to roar up again.  The antidote is a simple matter of turning the light within, and entering the quiet truths of life.  Entering the dharma gate of this moment, I can find peace and touch in on the joy of our true nature. However, i have to take the time, the gentle discipline to do this- to stop the movement of the world and sit.  This refreshment is deeply necessary, and so, I begin again.  In Ireland, In Minneapolis, in Tokyo.