Thursday, December 31, 2015

Snow Idyll

From Thomas Merton: There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Years ago my friend Ruth Ozeki told me about a famous Japanese book from the 14th century, Essays in Idleness (or The Harvest of Leisure), written by a  Japanese Buddhist monk. I suppose she thought I would appreciate the book because of my own forays into the country of idleness, or, as I said for a few years, “gainful unemployment.” Now I am gainfully and happily employed in the work of ministry, which is a 24/7 sort of job (maybe I’m making up for my years of idleness!), but I find that times of idleness are even more important, not less, in this life I have now.

And so I found myself here in a stone hermitage at St.Benedict’s monastery, otherwise known as Snowmass Monastery, for five solo days in the heart of winter, starting Christmas Eve, because, luckily for me, my current Colorado congregation celebrates Winter Solstice rather than Christmas, and so my winter holiday obligations were officially over. This Trappist monastery on nearly 4,000 acres of land, up above Snowmass in the Colorado Rockies, home of Father Thomas Keating, maintains a few small hermitages, offered freely, in the Benedictine spirit of hospitality.

I’ve been in seminary and trying to learn the art of ministry for years now, so this kind of open time has just not been possible for a long time. As I drove the snowy roads on Christmas Eve from my house in the valley up into the wild open mountains, I wondered, “Will I remember how to just be? Will I be frantically trying to study something, just out of habit? Will I feel guilty that I am not answering emails?”

I did remember how to be idle! I suppose it’s not surprising, given how much of my life I’ve spent in silent retreat. I turned into the mile-long road to the monastery, sitting at 8,000 feet in a snowy bowl surrounded by high ridges, and felt the deep familiarity of entering sacred space; drove up the hill to the hermitages and felt something in my heart ease. 

I parked and walked up the snowy path to my little octagonal hut, rabbits (more on rabbits later) scattering this way and that under the trees, and I felt home in the silence. And so for five days I  drifted, dreamed, sat in zazen, slept, watched sky, watched snow fall, read poetry, wondered, wandered, opened, breathed.

I found a phrase from a dream about process theology, dreamt more than a year ago, in my journal – the journal I have barely written in this past year - “Everything brimming over with divinity.” That’s what it was like. On Christmas Day is began to snow, and it snowed and snowed, all day, all night, the light crystalline snow of western Colorado, like feathers and sugar combined, glittering in the light, everything covered up with snow, mountains hidden, and I remembered Norman Fischer’s story of being a young Zen student and wandering in the snow reciting the Heart Sutra, around and around in a sort of joyful delirium. A rabbit came and peered in at me, its paws on the glass door,  then hopped away into the storm.

In the afternoon of Christmas Day I put on my big warm winter boots and my warm down jacket and headed out in the snow, my car already buried. It seemed like I was the only one here. I found the path down to the main retreat house, through the Gambel oak, and kicked my way down through the deep powdery snow. Half way there I could just make out the outlines of a bench, completely covered. I unburied an edge of it and sat down, warm, the only sound the delicate sound of snowflakes landing on me – my hat, my eyelashes, my jacket, my boots. I was so still for so long that a rabbit (I told you would be hearing more about rabbits) came right up alongside me, looked at me, and hopped way.

The next day was clear, a blindingly blue sky and snow sort of day. I shoveled out my path and around the car (greeting the rabbits, of course), helped a monk dig out his plow, which had nearly been swallowed up by snow, and then sat and read and thought and drank tea.  

I thought my heart might burst with happiness and gratitude. And that night I walked the mile or so down the road through the open fields to the main monastery for vespers, the air so cold it was nearly frightening, despite my layers and the thermos of tea in my pack. 

In the dark the monks sang songs to the Holy Family and to Mary, and afterwards I walked back, only now the full moon had risen over the hills, and miles of snowy mountains were illuminated with its brilliance.

And so it went. Ordinary moments -- making meals and eating, brushing teeth, shoveling snow. Sleepy moments. Waking to moonlight. Moments of tears, of gratitude, of laughter. Taking off the armor, re-acquainting myself with my life and my practice, remembering why I am doing the work I am doing, and what matters. 

It is such a privilege, to be able to take time out from work and ordinary life for this plunge into beauty and solitude. If I had fewer resources, if I had a family to care for, if the great generosity of the donors to this place had not manifested in a way that makes being there many causes and conditions had to come together to make this possible. I never take for granted how much silence and depth have been part of my life, and what a blessing they have been. 

May all who need idleness find a way to it.   


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Japanese Pilgrimage: "No matter where you go, you can’t lose yourself."

Rinso-in from the garden
Road approaching Rinso-in
Our little group of Mountain Rain pilgrims (seventeen Canadians and me) spent five days at Rinso-in, a 500-year-old family temple in Shizuoka province. Rinso-in, though not a place where tourists generally visit, is very important to those of us who practice Zen within the lineage started by Shunyru Suzuki Roshi, who founded San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960's.

In Japan, temples are passed down from father to son, generally. Suzuki Roshi inherited Rinso-in from another Zen priest, and when he left for America, he left the temple in the care of his son, Hoitsu-san. Now, many, many years later, Hoitsu Suzuki (respectfully called Hojo-sama - "revered abbot"), now in his seventies, his wife Oka-san, his son Shungo-san (also a priest), his daughter-in-law, and his two grandchildren all live at Rinso-in.

For me, our days at Rinso-in were the heart of the pilgrimage, and I mean "heart" in every sense of the word. There was a tremendous sense of heart there, expressed by the whole family. In Zen sometimes we talk about a "family flavor" or "family way" of a particular lineage, and it's always felt to me like the family way of Suzuki Roshi's lineage, at its best, is generous, kind, and humble. Now I found myself in a place where Suzuki Roshi's own family, his actual biological descendants, live and work, and the feeling of that kindness was everywhere there.

Suzuki Roshi's family
I was also amazed by how beautiful and, in a way, how grand, Rinso-in is. All these years, when people said that Suzuki Roshi came from a small rural temple, I had imagined a run-down little place. Instead, everywhere I looked there was a graceful, dignified beauty, from the lines of the tile roofs to the exquisite pond and gardens. Rinso-in is tucked up at the head of a narrow valley, surrounded by steep slopes, and I could see why Suzuki Roshi fell in love with Tassajara when he first saw it. It must have reminded him of home.

Buddha Hall 
Every morning we sat in the old zendo, 300 years old and built to be a training place for monks. The rest of the days we cooked, worked around the temple, went for walks in the surrounding mountains, and spent time with the family. One evening Hojo-sama gave a dharma talk and question and answer for us. I took notes, as Kate McCandless and Michael Newton translated.

Old zendo and abbots chair, Photo by Kwee Downie
The talk filled me with delight and happiness. Afterward I had such a sense of pride - although pride is a funny word to use - in this particular way of Buddhism that somehow I'd been lucky enough to fall into, nearly a quarter century ago. I can't imagine another path that would be more perfect. Of course, every path is perfect, in its own way, but this one, this "family way" is deeply and thoroughly perfect for me. And of course, it has shaped me over these many years, and so perhaps I am thoroughly perfect for it too. I remember my mother used to tell me I was such a good traveler, and I would say, "That's because you've trained me!" Maybe it's like that.

Here is Hoitsu Suzuki's lovely talk, given May 19, 2013. What you can't see is his humor, sweetness, and tremendous gift for mimicry. You'll just have to imagine his impersonation of the big frogs.

Hoitsu Suzuki looking at tiny frogs in the garden. Photo By Kwee Downie
The reason human beings have so much suffering is because we’re so smart. Sometimes we think good things, but often our thoughts confuse us. We have a lot of desires: “I want this, I want that, I want to go here, I want to go there, I want to be this, I want to be that.” Shakyamuni sat down and quieted his whole being, his whole heart. When we do zazen, our heart and our whole life becomes quiet and still. If we continue the way we are we just keep running and running. Buddha asks us to stop and take a look at our lives, how they truly are.

Having desires is not a bad thing in itself; it’s how we relate to those desires. Zazen allows us to harmonize our lives with what is. It’s not a bad thing that we want things; that’s just what’s given to us. We can’t throw it away – it’s part of who we are. Or maybe we can get rid of them – desires – perhaps! [laughing]

It’s the body that does zazen. Sometimes we think, “Oh, I’m not doing zazen,” but it’s the mind that’s not doing zazen. Don’t worry about it. The body is doing zazen. Even when you think of something else, that is also doing zazen. If your body is doing zazen, that’s enough. Even if your mind is thinking things, there is also the “you” who is watching the thoughts. No matter where you go, you can’t lose yourself.

Kate McCandless and Oka-san's ikebana
There was an old teacher, two generations before Tendo Nyojo, Dogen’s teacher in China. Huanxi Zenji. He wrote the poem called “Zazen-shin”, “the acupuncture needle of zazen”. Zazen is the point of the needle. He said, “Your mind is like a pool of water. You can see the bottom and you can see a fish slowly swimming. It is like an endless sky where a bird slowly flies. And that is zazen.”

Koi in a pond at a nunnery in Ohara
Dogen changed the poem a little bit: “The mind is like a clear pool, and is the fish; a fish swims like a fish. The sky is limitless and a bird flies in the sky. A bird flies like a bird.”

Dogen Zenji says, “ If you are doing zazen, you are doing zazen, no matter what you think, just as a fish swims like a fish. You’re doing it like you.”

Just as Huanxi and Dogen said, “ The world before our eyes is vast and clear.” Around us everything is as vast and wide as the whole universe. It’s right here.

Sometimes when I breathe in, it’s not so much that I’m taking air into my body, but the air is passing through me. And bird song passing through me, light passing through me. Sometimes. We have many different experiences during zazen. Just because someone has written down or said in the past that you should feel a certain thing, don’t believe it. Really the only thing to do is sit quietly and settle your posture and breath. When you stabilize your posture, you make your mudra round, your arms round, your face and your breath round – but this is just something I feel, not something you have to do.

Old arhat statue
This is the teaching that came down from Dogen Zenji’s teacher to him, and from him to us. If you look for where your mind is, you notice, “it’s not here, it’s not here,” or, “it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” You could look at it either way. You have a certain feeling when you do zazen, but it’s not a feeling exactly. No one is special in their accomplishment; we are all the same. If you tried to put your own experience of zazen into words, it would be impossible. Just words.

We really worry about things more than we need to. The trees, the stars, the rivers, the rocks, they don’t worry nearly as much as we do. The Buddha is inviting us, in zazen, to be like the many beings of the world – the trees, the rocks, the waters, the stones – to be in their family. To do zazen is not to be concerned with our desires to become this or become that. If you think you’ll get something out of zazen, some great idea, you’re just being sucked into the world of confusion. Good or bad in zazen is irrelevant.

Tiny frog. Photo by Susan Elbe
I was watching the pond today, and tiny little frogs were coming out and climbing up the mountain. My father loved frogs. There’s a very big kind of frog here in Japan, or maybe a toad, that almost never croaks, and doesn’t move much either. But when a little bug comes flying, it moves fast! (pantomimes a frog catching a bug)

My father was like that big frog. He was put in charge of the monastery when he was about twenty, but he had studied English and he wanted to go study zazen in a place where English was spoken. When the opportunity came, he jumped, just like that frog. “Within the stillness there is sudden movement. In movement there is stillness. Don’t forget your heart-mind.”

It took my father ten hours to prepare an hour talk in English. He must have been very busy, but when you read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, it seems that he was very calm. He must have had a very calm steady heart, even though he was busy.

Shungo-san at Suzuki Roshi's ashes site, surrounded by the memorial stones of the many abbots of Rinso-in, We did a ceremony for Suzuki Roshi here. Photo by Kwee Downey.
Zazen is a good thing. It’s not a matter of being good or bad. There is no one who is good at it and no one who is bad at it.

My father went to Poland with Bill Kwong. Someone asked, “Is it OK if I do zazen as a Christian?” He answered, “So you’re Christian, but when you do zazen you are a zazen person.” Kobo Daishi, who brought Shingon Buddhism from China, didn’t tell people, “Forget about indigenous religion.” He said, “Indigenous religion is very important, and let’s practice Buddhism.” And because of that, Buddhism was able to penetrate and sink into Japanese culture.

Just do zazen. That’s it!

Question: When I’m doing something and thinking about something else, am I having a direct experience?

You can really only do one thing at once; you can really only think one thing at once. It’s really always like that. It might seem like you can think or do more than one thing at once, but you really can’t. It’s OK.

Question: What is the relationship between ceremonies and zazen?

[Quite a bit around the translation of “ceremonies”...perhaps no good Japanese word for it, but he understood when Shungo-san pantomimed hitting a mokugyo]

There is no relationship. Zazen is zazen. Ceremony is ceremony. But there is an expression of gratitude, “Thank for the teachings.” Or when we are doing our jobs. All of that is Zen. This is written in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Why do we do ceremony?

It is all, “Thank you very much.” And also how we help support each other. The natural things we do to express gratitude are all ceremony, like bowing, or saying, “Good morning,” saying, “Thank you.” All are ceremony.

Old arhat statue
Question (my question): What kind of attitude or way of being is most important for a priest?

Shungo-san teaching chanting
[Leaning forward intently] EVERYTHING! But “everything” is very difficult. From the top of your head to the bottom of your feet you are practicing the way of Buddha. There’s no break, no wasting time. You might be angry or suffering, but you always remember your aspiration. This is very hard. But your whole body, even the bottoms of your feet, are dedicated. [The feeling here was sadness, or a strong sense of how hard the path is of a priest is, to live into these vows.] If your mouth is smiling but your eyes are angry, then you are not practicing with your whole body.

 Question: On the han it says, “Don’t waste time.” What does that mean?

Because we can only walk one path at a time, we can’t waste time. There is a much deeper way of understanding this saying, which is seeing deeply into the empty nature of time. Actually, the original text is in Chinese, and there are two ways of reading it. The typical way to read it is: “Don’t waste time.” But the other way is: “There is no time to waste,” which leaves behind our emotional confusion about wasting time. In the Chinese, it is literally, “Waste time not.” Our Zen way of understanding this passage is to look more deeply. What we mean by “path” is not some long road. It’s more like, “this instant,” and then, “this instant.”

Path to the tea house,
Question: Is it enough to practice zazen as a way to cultivate compassion, or are there other ways of developing compassion?

Old arhat statue
Tendo Nyojo said, “Do zazen only with the heart of compassion.” There are people who do zazen who think they are doing it through their own effort and strength, to get something from it, but Dogen’s teacher insisted that we can only do zazen for and with all beings.

When we are looking down in zazen, we are looking down, but not fiercely. We are open, practicing with the heart of compassion, and that’s conveyed to others by our way of being, quiet and gentle. People would always say, “Oh, your father is so kind and gentle and nice.” But we children were afraid of him. He was strict, and would yell at us. So doing lots of zazen doesn’t necessarily make you 100% nice. You will still be human.

Sitting on the tan, sitting on the zafu, becoming a Buddha – there is not one iota of difference.

Dogen Zenji became a monk because he understood that there is no way to escape change, and once you are on that path there is no turning back, and therefore no wasting time. Not that the path is straight: it’s just that there is no other way when you have that determination. Buddha's way is not something that someone can teach you; you have to find the way yourself. Your own path appears before you. It’s not about imitating someone else.

Zen is simple and easy to understand, but when we use words, we end up drifting farther and farther from the heart of Dogen Zenji’s words. Ungan Doyo, the 7th ancestor, came to the 6th ancestor. The 6th ancestor asked, “Where do you come from?” but Ungan Doyo can’t answer. He practiced for eight years, and after eight years all he can say is, “I can’t say. It’s beyond words.”

Tonight I’ve probably told you at least 800 lies. Perhaps!

The next morning Hoitsu said a formal goodbye to the group after zazen. He said he would like to come to Canada and someone said, “But our temple isn’t as nice and big as yours.” He said, “Wherever you sit zazen is a temple as vast as the universe. Like the old story of building a temple with a blade of grass [Book of Serenity, Case ?]. Wherever you sit zazen is a temple, a monastery.”

Mountain Rain with Hojo-sama and Oka-san in front of the Buddha Hall, Photo by Kwee Downie.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Japanese Pilgrimage: The City of the Dead

In order to attain serenity of mind and become a person who is like the clouds in the sky and the whirling snow, consider that everyone's fate is to be become a corpse.                                                                           -- Kobo Daishi (Kukai) translated by Nobuhiro Tamura

It is night-time, and we are walking through an immense and ancient graveyard. All around us, the huge, straight trunks of 600-year-old cryptomeria, trees, like giant coast redwoods, rise up and disappear into the darkness above, so it feels that we are walking through a forest rather than a graveyard. Stone memorials line the wide pathway where we walk, and continue beneath the trees to either side, as far as can be seen. Some monuments are fresh and white, perhaps only a few years old, while others are covered in a deep layer of moss. Some are massive and pretentious; others are humble, clustered together and leaning toward one another like whispering children. The remains of 200,000 people from the last 1,100 years are all around us.

It is very quiet, except for the chitters of the flying squirrels, high in the trees above. Our little group speaks nearly in whispers as we walk in the dark: it doesn't seem like a place for raised voices. Unlike a cemetery in the West, there are no bodies here, or even the ashes from cremations. Beneath each stone memorial is a single bone: the nodobotoke, or Buddha bone, a small bone from the neck, shaped like a seated Buddha, carefully separated from the rest of the ashes after cremation.

This is my introduction to the Okunoin cemetery on Mount Koya, one of the most sacred places in all of Japan, where the spirits of commoners, samurai, monks and aristocrats have all lain down together in silence beneath the great trees.

We walk a gentle uphill slope through the dark graveyard, and across a series of small bridges. Before the third bridge, the monk who is guiding us, Nobuhiro Tamura, stops and tells us solemnly that beyond the bridge is the heart of Mount Koya, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, or Kukai, the 9th century monk and teacher who brought Shingon Buddhism - esoteric Buddhism -  from China to Japan. Kobo Daishi founded the first monasteries on Mount Koya, at 2,600 feet in the remote wilderness mountains of southern Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. Since the 9th century this place has been the heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and once had more than 1,000 temples nestled between its eight mountain peaks. The whole complex is like an immense mandala, and at the center of the mandala is the Okunoin graveyard and the mausoleum.

Our monk/guide tells us that it is believed that in the year 835, when he was 61 years old, Kobo Daishi walked into that mausoleum, sat down in meditation, and has been in a deep meditative state ever since, for 1,178 years. He has been receiving teachings in the Tushita heaven from the next Buddha, Maitreya. When he wakes and speaks, he will give the greatest sermon the world has ever known, and that's why 200,000 people have chosen Mount Koya for the final resting place of their Buddha bone, so they can be there when the great sermon is given.

The lonely cloud has no path home, and loves a distant peak. I don't claim to know worldly things; I just watch the moon and lie down beneath a green pine.                                                                                    - Kobo Daishi (Kukai), translated by Nobuhiro Tamura
 (This poem by Kukai is particularly touching to me because there is a kind of beautiful conifer on Mount Koya called the Koya pine, or Japanese umbrella pine, known as the koyamaki in Japanese. I walked beneath it in the mountains around Mount Koya and saw many offerings of its branches on altars and on memorials in the cemetery. It is a living fossil, a species more than 230 million years old with no known close relatives. It is also one of the five sacred trees of Japan. There are so many koyamaki around Mount Koya that I can only imagine that it was this kind of pine that Kukai lay down beneath, illuminated by moonlight, so long ago.)

Offerings of koyamaki

Our group of Zen pilgrims (17 Canadians and me) stayed in a temple on Mount Koya, Ekoin, for two nights. (To learn more about our pilgrimage, read this.)

There are still more than a hundred temples clustered in a high valley amidst the peaks of Mount Koya, and a thousand monks and nuns, and Shingon pilgrims come from all over Japan and walk (or more frequently, ride the vertiginous tram) up the steep mountainside to stay for a night or two in a temple, along with curious Japanese and Western tourists. It might be possible to visit Mount Koya, eat some good temple food (and Japanese vegetarian temple cooking is deservedly famous), buy a few souvenirs, gawk at the famous gravestones in the cemetery,and get back on the tram and go home, relatively unmoved. But I found that the place, and the teachings there, seeped into me like pure mountain water, so even without understanding Shingon, I found myself moved, opened, and touched by something without name.

Perhaps we were also lucky. Our guide that first night in the graveyard was a young, very sincere monk from the temple where we were staying. Nobuhiro-san speaks and writes English. Here are some of the notes I took, as he offered his understanding to us, standing in the dark in the Okunoin:

"The purpose of Shingon meditation is to understand that 'inside' and 'outside', which we normally think of as opposed to one another, are actually one thing....Buddha Nature is everywhere...What makes esoteric Buddhism 'esoteric' is that the teachings cannot be really properly spoken in language. Instead, they are hidden in the world -- in the moon, in plants and trees and animals. The world is speaking the teachings....Kobo Daishi said that our minds are like the moon. The moon is bright because of the sun's rays, and our minds are bright because of the primordial sun Buddha. Just as the moon appears to change from day to day, so do our minds, but actually it is always the full moon, clear and bright."  - Nobuhiro Tamura

Wagtail on a painted fusuma door at Ekoin temple
But there was another side to our time there. Until 100 years ago, half of our group would not have been allowed to enter the precincts of Koyasan. I would not have been allowed to enter. From the 9th century until 1870, no living woman entered this most sacred place.

At each of the entrances to Mount Koya there was a women's hall where nuns practiced, always outside the gates. There is a path of many miles that leads from one gate to another, skirting the very edge of the sacred area, and this was the women's pilgrimage route, as close as any woman pilgrim could come to the center of the mandala, that mausoleum where Kobo Daihsi sits in meditation in the valley far below.

Three of us on our pilgrimage were ordained women priests, and we three decided to walk the women's pilgrimage trail. We began at the only surviving women's hall, the Niyonindo, where we read about Kosugi, who founded the hall:
According to an old story, there once was a young woman named Kosugi who lived at an inn in the province of Echigo. Her life was full of hardship, but she was saved by Kobo Daishi. Kosugi became a nun and opened here, at the top of the Fudo slope, along one of the pilgrim roads leading into Koyasan, the first so-called "women's hall". She looked after women pilgrims, who at the time were not allowed to enter Koyasan. Kosugi is now venerated as Kosugimyojin, a guardian deity of the Nyonindo hall.
We spent a day on the steep, up-and-down trail, often in silence, considering those women who had walked here for a thousand years in prayer, those women who had lived in the nun's halls, helping the weary pilgrims as they reached the gates, watching the men pass through, the women stay outside, century after century. Only one of the women's halls still stands, but at each place where there had been an entrance and a hall, we stood in silence, considering.

The following photos are from the women's pilgrimage route.

Reproduction of old map of women's pilgrimage route

The outside of Daimon, the grand gateway, with the guardian deities on either side. A woman could not cross through.

Kate McCandless on the women's pilgrimage route, beneath a koyamaki

A view to the main temple precincts from the women's pilgrimage trail

Irises at the Niyonindo nun's hall

A Jizo shrine along the trail. Women often pray to Jizo for children lost to miscarriage, abortion or early death.

From right to left: Kate McCandless, Flo Rublee, and me (buried under the hat), at one of the gates where a women's hall once stood.

On our last morning I returned to the Okunoin, the great graveyard, this time in daylight, and wandered among the stones in early morning light. I had brought a brush and black ink with me on the trip, and I sat on a mossy root and sketched the leaning stones, the tree trunks, the offerings of Koya pine.

I found that I could both celebrate the grandeur of a place of such deep practice and great piety, and mourn the way it had excluded women for so long. I don't really understand - how can I understand, from the viewpoint of a woman of the 21st century? - but I know that the practice of Koyasan did not stop at its gates, that the gates themselves, and the women who lived at the gates, were integral to the mandala.

I wish I could meet one of those women who sat outside the gates for a lifetime, waking up as she served the pilgrims. I wish I could do three bows to her, offer incense to her, and tell her that her practice inspires this woman of the future, as I walk the hills she walked, stand in the place where she once stood.

And really, as Kobo Daishsi himself taught, "inside and outside are the same."

A statue in the Okunoin graveyard

Clear streams on the mountain never stop flowing with compassion.                                                                                             - Kobo Daishi (Kukai), translated by Nobuhiro Tamura                                                                                              

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Japanese Pilgrimage: Entering Asia

Gio-ji, Arashiyama

I am alone in the garden of a tiny nunnery called Gio-ji, in the village of Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, and before me, in the late afternoon light, is a luminously green space, floored by moss, roofed by Japanese maples, the golden light streaming across it.

It is very quiet, all sound muffled by the maples in full leaf, the bamboo groves below. I have been alone in this dream-like precinct of temples and quiet lanes all afternoon, and my heart is simply bubbling over with happiness.

This last May I traveled to Japan for the first time in my life - my first time to Asia. This, despite nearly 30 years of Buddhist practice and ordination as a Soto Zen priest. For the first years of my Buddhist practice, I didn't have a strong desire to go to Asia, and later my life circumstances didn't allow it. Three years ago I almost traveled to Japan with a group of senior students from Everyday Zen, my home Zen sangha, but needed to take work in Alaska instead (you can read about those adventures here and here).

Finally, nearly miraculously, everything ripened for me this spring, and I was able to travel to Japan for nearly three weeks with the Mountain Rain Zen sangha from Vancouver, British Columbia, with old friends and dharma companions from my days of living just south of the border in Bellingham, Washington.

Mountain Rain in the onsen (hot springs) town of Yamanaka, wearing the cute little yukata one puts on after the bath

About half the time we stayed in temples: Rinso-in, the 600-year-old family temple of Suzuki Roshi (who brought Soto Zen to America); Eiheiji, the great 850-year-old mother temple of Soto Zen in the mountains near the Japan sea; and Koya-san, the complex of Shingon temples in the mountains south of Kyoto, dating from the 9th century. The rest of the time we were in a small, unpretentious ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging-house) near the train station in Kyoto, free to explore Kyoto and its environs on our own.

Like all truly transformative travel, it is all much too large to fit on the page, or the blog. I think that's what's kept me from writing about it, since I returned. I've been daunted by what to write - every day was filled with such richness and beauty. But I truly want to share it, somehow. I kept a journal during my time there, and did a lot of photography. Perhaps I will try to offer some of each, and see where it goes...

This ancient set of guidelines was offered to us by our friends/guides/teachers, Kate McCandless and Michael Newton, before we left.

The Five Excellent Arts of Pilgrimage, 5th century

Practice the arts of attention and listening
Practice renewing yourself every day
Practice meandering toward the center of every place
Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts
Practice gratitude and praise singing

Roadside flower arrangement, Arashiyama

So in the spirit of "praise singing", here's what I wrote as my plane lifted off from San Francisco airport on May 11th, turning west into the setting sun, above fog and the Golden Gate bridge, headed across the Pacific

Flying west
the way the dead go
When I come back
it will be a different life

Then, as we approached the Japanese coast the next day (two days later, because of the international date line), after a night in Honolulu and many hours of travel across empty ocean, a verse from the moment I first saw land:

I keep looking for land
but each time: ocean, clouds, the wide calm wing below me.
Asia, awaited so long, still just over the horizon.
Ah - mist-blue islands!
Mountains after mountains
soft as smoke or dreams

Mountains from the Women's Pilgrimage Trail around Koyasan

In Japan I experienced, for the first time, the deep roots of my own tradition and spiritual life. And it's changed me in subtle and important ways that I couldn't have imagined, that I can feel every time I bow, light incense, or sit zazen. The person who practiced Zen before going to Japan is not quite the person I am now.

Torii gates on the Women's Pilgrimage Trail, Koyasan

To be continued....

Friday, April 12, 2013

Zen Priest Goes to Seminary

A Buddha in New Mexico

The spiral above the main doorway to Starr King School for the Ministry. Photo by Jim Lewis

Over the last year my life has made a dramatic – and for some people, somewhat mysterious – turn. I am, for the first time in twenty-five years, back in school, in the Master of Divinity program at a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California: Starr King School for the Ministry, which is part of the nine-seminary Graduate Theological Union.

People ask me, with some concern, “Does this mean that you aren’t a Buddhist any more? What about your path as a Zen priest?”

The short answer is: “I am as much of a Buddhist as ever, and this is an integral part of my path as a Zen priest and my path as a human being.” This post is a deeper exploration of what I mean.


First, a bit about Unitarian Universalism, or "UU," as it’s known to its friends. (If you already know this history, feel free to scroll down).

UU is a merging of two American liberal denominations, with separate histories until the 1960s:  Unitarianism and Universalism. American Unitarianism was born in Massachusetts just before and during a time of cultural flowering in the first half of the 1800s. This was the time and place of fabulous thinkers and writers like Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, the young Whitman, and a host of others.

Massachusetts had been dominated by a particularly rigid and vicious form of American Calvinism since the 1600s. Only a few were the “elect” and destined for heaven, and the rest of us poor shlubs were headed for eternal damnation by a judging and unforgiving God. Those who suggested alternative views, like the Quakers, were publicly executed. By the early 1800s this system was beginning to crack at the seams. The water inside these cracks were some radical ministers, and one of them was a brilliant preacher who drew crowds of hundreds, William Ellery Channing.

Channing was convinced of the perfectibility, rationality, and innate goodness of all people, believed in a loving God, and questioned the divinity of Jesus. Ironically, a “Unitarian” was one of the worst things you could be called at the time. The “Unitarian heresy,” rejected and punished by Catholics and Protestants alike since the 4th century, denied the theological concept of the Trinity in favor of a whole-hearted commitment to the unity of God. This might seem like a small theological difference, but believers in Unitarianism were martyred with a passion in Europe for hundreds of years.

Unitarians, both in Europe and America, were also believers in the tremendous importance of religious freedom, freedom of thought, and the absolute separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held many of the views of Unitarians, and these ideas found their way into the documents that formed the U.S. Constitution.

Had Channing been preaching a hundred years before, he probably would have ended up a martyr himself, but by the early 1800s, even Massachusetts had to grudgingly support religious freedom. They could, however, try to deny him, and other liberal ministers, the right to speak from their pulpits.

Unfortunately for the old guard, Channing and others were speaking to the spirit of the times, and the structure of the churches in New England were such that a congregation could vote on their minister and the teachings. Congregation after congregation voted in favor of the liberal ministers, with the losing minority forced to leave the church. Eventually, Channing and others embraced the slur that had been thrown at them, and even now, “Unitarians” occupy many of the oldest and most beautiful churches in New England, preaching social justice, activism, and freedom of thought from pulpits that once taught near-universal damnation.

First Parish Church (Unitarian Univeralist) of Ashby, MA
I learned some of this history as a child, because my mother came from a long line of liberals, knew her Unitarian history well, and even spent part of her young adulthood as a Unitarian minister’s wife. I went to Sunday School at the UU Fellowship in my home town in Indiana, and can say, “Oh yes, I was raised by one of those liberal feminist secular humanists that the Moral Majority worries so much about!”

Unitarianism and liberalism runs deep in my family. My mother’s family came from a small town in northwestern Iowa, called Cherokee. In 1890 my great-great-great grandfather John Potter, great-great grandmother Julia Cowles, and great-grandmother Hattie Allison, along with other liberals in Cherokee, formed a Unitarian church and invited two of the leading woman ministers in Iowa, Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon, to be the first ministers of the church. This was at a time where virtually no denomination in America allowed women ministers. Over the next few decades, the church had other women ministers too. I feel proud of my family and their commitment to both a radical form of religious practice and to women’s rights and freedoms while living in rural, Midwestern America. It feels like the ideals of Unitarianism are in my blood.

I knew less, growing up, about Universalism, which merged with Unitarianism in the early 1960s. Universalism was also largely an American denomination, dedicated to the belief in another heresy (still considered a heresy by most Christian churches): the universal salvation of all people. In other words, no one goes to Hell. Universalists say, quite reasonably (I think): “How could a loving creator God commit so many of his/her creations to damnation?” This American Life did a beautiful radio show about a contemporary evangelical minister who had a deep insight into his own universalism, and what happened to him because of it:
So these two radical “heresies,” with Protestant roots, both dedicated to freedom and social justice, came together in about 1961 to form an even more radical form of religion, one which embraces absolute freedom of religious belief, up to and including atheism. UU has become a place where gays and lesbians, transgender people, pagans, atheists, Christians, humanists, agnostics, and yes, Buddhists, can all be part of religious community with one another. In fact, that’s the point.

In a way, I see UU as an ongoing exploration of a deep koan: is it possible to create a loving community which genuinely embraces difference of all kinds, and works together for a better and more just world?

There are many gay and lesbian UU ministers. There are atheist and agnostic UU ministers. There are pagan UU ministers. And yes, there are Buddhist UU ministers. The most well-known is James Ishmael Ford, who is also a writer and Zen Buddhist priest and teacher (and has been a generous resource for me on this path). James Ford works as a minister but is also an active Zen teacher, with a large community of students throughout the Northeast. To read more from James Ford, click here:

To read more about my own exploration of the mutual history and issues of UU and American Buddhism, click here:


So this brings us back to the original question: why am I, a Soto Zen priest and field botanist, attending a Unitarian Universalist seminary? Well, the beginnings are probably back there in the 1890s in Cherokee, but more personally, I think it starts just south of the Grand Canyon...

I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, about five years ago. A chronic illness flared up, and I found myself in pain and in bed much of the time. I gravitated toward the small UU church in town, where the lesbian minister read beautiful poetry from the pulpit. The first time I went, I sat in the back row and cried. I often cry in UU services, and I think it’s because I grew up in such a conservative part of the country. It’s still amazing and moving to me to encounter a "church" so determined to love and care for the world and each other.

California had just legalized gay marriage (briefly) and every week there were members of the congregation coming back from California wreathed in smiles, and getting up during the “joys and sorrows” part of the service to announce that after 10 or 20 or 30 years of loving one another, they were married. The whole congregation would break into cheers and clapping.

A sweet woman, who is still a friend, heard that I was ill and immediately offered the help of the church “caring circle.” I didn’t need physical caring, exactly, but I did need community, so I joined the caring circle myself, and felt like I had a place and something I could do, even while sick myself. I started a gratitude circle, and joined the weekly meditation group. And I started thinking about ministry, and had my first conversations with James Ford, whom I knew through the Buddhist community.

I began to have the feeling, stronger over the years, that as much as I love botanical work, something else wanted to happen in my work life. It was a strange feeling, as if something was growing in me, without my will, and something else was going dormant, ready to be quiet and underground. I’ve taught myself to pay attention to these things, and so I was paying attention, wondering what it was that needed to happen.

Then, last spring, suddenly, almost overnight, it was completely clear. And as soon as it was clear, everything fell into place, and it’s been like that ever since. Doors and opportunities opening, people around me affirming this path, and a deep sense of “this is where I need to be.”

When asked why I am in seminary, what I say is, “This world needs people who are dedicated and trained to be of service to the tender spirits of others, especially as we enter a frightening and uncertain time globally. I want to bring my years of dharma practice and marry that deep bodily steadiness with skills that will help me be more present with others. I want to keep growing up, and I think this is a way.”
Symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t scary, at times, to be doing something so far from what I’ve known, or such a big commitment. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wonder, at times, if and how I will integrate my Buddhist practice and commitment with practice as a minister in a Judeo-Christian tradition, however radical. I trust that I will know, as I walk along.

What I do know is that being in seminary is tremendous. I’m in classes at the Graduate Theological Union with brilliant, deep-thinking teachers and the most diverse group of people I’ve ever experienced: a Mexican Catholic nun, an ex-Marine studying for military chaplaincy, a Latina transgender woman, a Chinese Buddhist monk, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister, a woman working with homeless people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an Episcopal priest, a young Muslim, a young gay Filipino man….each person unique, wise, and extraordinary. This makes me very happy. I’m learning how to be present with another’s pain, about my own ageism, about how I might respond to the climate change crisis in a soulful way, about how to best companion a grieving person, and many other things.

I can feel myself stretching and growing, intellectually and spiritually. I can see possibilities of integrating many parts of who I am: the writer, the environmental advocate, the pagan, the radical, Zen priest, the Unitarian liberal, the compassionate listener, the believer in the equality and dignity of each person.

During the orientation and entering ceremony for seminary, the group of us who were beginning spent one afternoon with the president of the school, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, and the dean of faculty, Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini. They did a ritual with us, where each one of us went forward and the two of them washed and dried our hands, then held our hands in their own and blessed our hands to ”do the work of love.”

I’m traveling from San Francisco to Baltimore, with a stop in Dallas overnight, on my way to a convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. I rode a shuttle last night to the hotel. When I can, I like to talk to shuttle drivers, to catch a glimpse of their world, which is almost a world of immigrants. Last night the van driver was a young Hispanic man. My assumption, based on past conversations with shuttle drivers, was that he would be working three jobs, struggling to survive and take care of a family. But no. He is in his first year of a seven-year architecture and interior design degree at the University of Texas, after graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA. So much for assumptions.

On the way back to the airport this morning by taxi, the driver was an African man, with a beautiful lilting African accent. I asked him where he was from originally, and he said, “Nigeria.” We talked for a quite a while after the taxi arrived at the airport, the meter off. He had left Nigeria ten years before, with his wife and child, after twice being attacked by rebels and finding himself on the ground with a gun to his head. He is a trained pilot, and a Christian. He told me about the politics of Nigeria, the role of the British in creating a divided country, the Muslim north, and his desire to go back someday and help bring something better to his country.

When I think of ministry, or the pastoral vocation, these conversations seem like a piece of it. To meet whoever is in front of me, to learn from them, to see through my own assumptions and prejudices, and to love. Most of all, to love, to do the work of love.

A Buddha of Aynak, an imperiled ancient Buddhist site in Afghanistan