Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The healing heart of at-home rituals

I went to the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) conference this past October and the keynote speaker was Paula Arai.  She is the author of several books - Women Living Zen and her latest book, Bringing Zen Home – the Healing Heart of Japanese Buddhist Women’s Rituals.  Her message of the importance of rituals in home and lay life and the use of creativity in making them, really impressed me.  It was support for the creative, personal rituals which Clouds has already been encouraging.

She was a very feminine speaker.  Mostly the SZBA has had male Buddhist scholars give the keynote speech.  It was a breath of fresh air to hear a speaker at this type of conference talk about: women practicing at home, healing rituals in zen, nurturing the self and so forth.  These topics are often passed over in the more austere aspects of Zen Practice.  Paula Arai has all the credentials of a scholar and yet her approach was very warm, funny and coming from the heart.

Both of her books have shared with the West, the deep practice of women lay practitioners in Japan.  Partially this aspect of Buddhist practice has been overlooked because these practices do not come from monastic practice or scholarship which has been a main focus for so many years.  But these predecessors and examples for rituals in lay life can be very helpful for the Western Buddhist world where many, if not most, are lay practitioners with families, mortgages, full-time jobs etc.

You can have a strong Buddhist life that is not based solely on zazen. This might surprise some of us.  That’s not what we have previously learned.  I have always seen this in Tomoe Katagiri’s life and practice.  Although she does not do a lot of meditation practice or sesshins, when I’m with her, her life practices, her daily life, her sewing, her treatment of objects in her house, always teach me Zen.

 I also saw these devotional practices when I went to Japan.  There were many practices that people did every day in their homes and on the street that were quite different than Western practice.  Some examples that I saw were:  keeping the altars on street corners cleaned and fresh with flowers.  These altars carefully prepared, were ready for people who stop in their hurry to work, for a moment of connection with the universal energies.  Sometimes they light a candle or pour water over a Buddha statue's head.  There were also many Temples where people went to pray or light a candle or whirl a wheel on their lunch breaks. 

I came home and made a pagoda in my back yard where my family, friends and I could simply walk out into the woods and light a candle sending energy to people and situations that we were worried about.

Paula Arai’s emphasized the power of establishing a sacred space in your home.  One of the ways to do this was to have an active home altar.  A lot can happen around a home altar with your family and with your children if we are creative and attentive to what is needed.  These are homespun rites woven into our daily life. 

For example, I have a small ritual I do everyday at home.  It began when my last child went off to college.  I worry about my two boys in the world and away from me.  So I began to light candles for my two sons, my husband, myself, Clouds in Water and the last candle, for people I know in distress, sick or past on.  It’s a small thing.  Putting new candles in six holders, lighting them, and doing a little metta for each one but it has held my attention, helped to relieve my anxiety for nearly two years.  Now it seems so natural to do, that I don’t even notice it as “something extra.”

Paula Arai emphasized the aspect of warmth and healing that is sometimes absent in the way we perceive Zen.  She named quite a few aspects of a Healing ritual that were a heart opening and confirmation for me:  A ritual shows us
·      The importance of connecting with interdependence
·      Expressing that our body and minds are one
·      Connects us with the larger meaning of life and a larger sense of ourselves.
·      Self-nurturing
·      Increases or emphasizes the enjoyment of life
·      Our ability to create beauty in all our activity, not just art, but in the way we arrange the objects in our life.
·      Cultivating our gratitude
·      Accepting reality as it is
·      Expanding our perspective
·      And embodying compassion

What I really felt affirmed by was her saying that the more personal a ritual was the deeper it affected us.  In that sense she supported us in being creative with ritual and using our knowledge of Buddhist principles as a supporting structure for making them.  We shouldn’t be afraid to create rituals that fit our family, our person, our particular sangha or our society.  Otherwise, we will miss out on the deep practice of home-based prayer and ceremony.


We are coming up to Jukai or Buddhist initiation at Clouds, which is an ancient ritual and done formally in front of the community.  I see how much this deep ritual affects and encourages practitioners.  This same sense of ceremony can be taken into our daily life and our homes with a little bit of ingenuity.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth

There is a new Women in Buddhism book out now called, “Seeds of Virtue, Seeds of Change, a collection of Zen Teachings” edited by Jikyo Cheryl Wolfer.  I think there are 27 Women Zen Teachers contributing.  Some of them have big names like Jan Chozen Bays, Eijun Linda Ruth Cutts,  Joan Halifax, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Pat Enkyo O’hara, all women who have been published and many lead a large Zen center.  There are also many teachers who share their beautiful dharma that we may not have heard of.  My lineage has quite a few represented.  My transmission teacher Joen Snyder-O’Neal with a story that sounds just like her, intimate and heart-felt.  From Minnesota, there is Myo-O Habermas-Scher,  Hoko Karnegis, and my contribution.  In Katagiri-Roshi lineage, we can add Teijo Munnich and Meiren Val Szymanski.  And more!

Just having started reading through the book,  even the first piece, “The Authentic Tea Bowl before Birth” by Wendy Egyoku Nakao, stuck with me.  It is an exposition of the koan by the same name.

What really struck me was how we work with dukkha or our suffering.  Often I have heard that the role of the Zen Teacher is not actually “to teach” or to “try and fix people’s problems” or to “help”.  But rather to encourage and allow the practitioners who come to see them to receive their karma, to befriend their particular suffering, and to use the principles of buddhism to work within those conditions.  To, by our practice, turn samsara into nirvana in each moment of our lives.  As soon as you “fix” one problem, the next arises.  And, of course, in the end, as Buddha said, There is old age, illness and death.  Our practice becomes a journey of seeing from a different point of view, moment by moment, for the rest of our life.  It is not a destination or a particular manifested form.  It is acknowledging the mystery in “things as they are.”

In Egyoku’s piece and in the koan, the precious, ancient tea bowl is shattered by the “wild women.” 

                        Moon-Heart, a Zen student, was serving tea to her special guest, Abbess Eko of a nearby temple and Mushin, a dharma heir of the Abbess, stopped by. Mushin was a “wild women” and carried a bone instead of the usual ceremonial stick.

                        In the midst of appreciating the exquisite bowl, Mushin smashed the bowl with her bone and shattered it into pieces.  “Now, said the wild women, “Look at the Authentic Tea Bowl that exists before birth?”

                        Moon-Heart blanched, gasped and nearly fainted.  The Abbess of the temple said calmly, “I gave you this tea bowl, but now, I would like you to give it back to me.  Before you do, gather the pieces, glue them, and fill the cracks with gold.  Then have a box made for it.  On the cover of the box, write the name of the bowl, which I now give as “The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth.”  I will reverently pass this bowl on to my Dharma descendants.

                        Now I ask you:  What is the Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth?

Egyoku writes about the koan:  page 9
                        In Shattering – whether it is an individual or a community – there is a great possibility for truth telling in all of its myriad dimensions.  Don’t squander it!  To see this opportunity is to see into the beating heart of this koan.

                        It is a Japanese custom that cracked or broken pottery is glued back together and the cracks filled with gold leaf.  What is this gold of one’s life?  Do we hide our cracks and scars and try to render them invisible?  This koan challenges us:  these are the very attributes that express our uniqueness as a Dharma vessel.  When our self-centered agenda is forgotten and grasping stops, Buddha’s light shine through.  This is poignantly expressed in the words of Leonard Cohen’s song: “ Ring the bell that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”  When the bowl is shattered, when things fall apart, Look!”

                        We are called forth to live in full accord with what has been revealed, with life as it is.  The liberating openness of not-knowing is precisely the wholeness of life all together.  This wholeness calls us to bear witness:  What is this piece?  What is that piece?  Meeting this piece, meeting that piece, we practice the great wisdom of inclusion.  Each of us, individually and communally, continually gathers the pieces and affirms the wholeness of life.  Each of us, individually and communally, continually grows new hands and eyes, grows in wisdom, grows in love.  Each of us, individually and communally, is the gold in the cracks.  All of our thoughts, words and actions, may they be loving actions serving the wholeness of life.