“I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.” – Fridtjof Nansen
I have always felt like a “stranger in a strange land”. I first felt this way when I was seven years old, and after God had stolen my heart, and has yet to return it to me.
In my youth, I often visited the “rushing noisy centers of civilization,” in search of love and glory. I found it for a while, and then the lights would come on at 1:00am as they did hundreds of times, only to find myself in the streets of the city making my way back to that place from whence I was convinced the journey would lead me to what I felt I most needed.
I would occasionally seek refuge in the “Institutes of Knowledge” which I would never underestimate their contributions to civilization. Yet, here we are in the 21st Century still debating the fundamental issues of humanity: The right to life; to live free of the fear of discrimination, injustice, poverty, and illness; the right to full self-expression, freedom from repression and oppression, equality and war.
Being the first-born son of a “conservative capitalist” “meaning of life,” was defined, for me, a definition I would quickly reject and in doing so, be rejected. Early on I was exposed to the “Industries of Commerce,” in an effort to try to shape and form me toward that ends. There I heard Mara’s voice and his promises of wealth, security, and glory? I would not be enticed, well not entirely. Remember God has my heart, and regularly interrupts my thoughts.
Lately I have felt like I have been living under and endless stream of clouds. Winter has certainly taken its toll. But clouds unlike the light which shines behind them, are impermanent, no matter how long they may linger. But more importantly they are deceptive, and when we look up and only see cloudy skies, we must keep looking until we see the whole truth. The Sun does not go up or down, in or out, it is always shining, always bright, always in its appropriate place in the Universe. The light is never dispelled, only hidden at times by obstructions both natural and manmade. No matter what direction we look, if our vision is big enough, wide enough, high enough, we must and we will eventually, discover the light.
“Man is spirit.” — Winston Churchill
If we are ever going to rebuild and renew the world and humanity, it must begin with personal responsibility and a real commitment to the principles of peace, loving-kindness, compassion, benevolent service, and the cultivation of real Wisdom. This will require real effort toward establishing lasting peace within one’s own heart and mind first. When this self I call “Myself” changes, the world will naturally change. The individuals healing and renewal, becomes the worlds healing and renewal, just as the Buddha declared on that day of his own healing, “All beings are Buddha.”
All Life Has Meaning and Purpose
Shikantaza — “Just Sitting” reveals the meaningfulness of life. We will never come to know the meaningfulness of life in our comings and goings, our striving, and our craving. Shikantaza is about accepting ourselves, accepting our world, just as it is, and just as it isn’t. Without adding, without detracting, we embrace, we hold, we experience, we simply accept ourselves. This is the first gate on the Path. Accepting yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do. Accepting your world will be even harder. This is why we sit. You can study the Dharma, the Sutra’s, the ancient teachings of the Masters, all the way back to Shakyamuni, for your entire life and still remain in ignorance, until you have accepted yourself and your life. Shikantaza is the light that will guide you in your darkness. It is the truth which will set you free.
You may think you understand, but words cannot describe it, its essence is immeasurable. It is not something one can understand. It is not dependent upon human intellect. The fullness of Shikantaza cannot be taught, cannot be acquired, it can only be known. You will not believe me until you have experienced it for yourself. Then no one will believe you, until they experience it for themselves.
Shikantaza is, in all things and matters of life, the relinquishment of dualistic views and approaches. We may “think” of the mind as separate from the body, but neither can exist without the other. There has always been persons who think of themselves separate from Nature. Our very existence is, the natural world. So, we sit to reawaken to our true-nature. Our true-nature is non-dualistic. Dualism is the breach between reality and our ideas about reality — but not to be mistaken as “two”. Like neighbors, dualism and non-dualism live side-by-side. No road or path runs through the middle. In order to realize this we must learn to embrace dualism and non-duality in equanimity. By dualism I mean, the individuals responsibility to find their “Way Home”. By non-dualism I mean, what follows personal responsibility is always “relationship” or “community”. We all need each other. This is the marking of a true and authentic spiritual path or practice. We must make the journey on our own two feet, only to meet others, making the journey on their own two feet, along the way who will help us complete our journey.
Whenever the Monks of Pine Wind come together for a meal we pray:
“This food is the gift of the whole Universe, each morsel is a sacrifice of a life, may we be worthy to receive it… As the lotus flower does not adhere to water, we will feel no rain, for each of us will be shelter for the other; We will feel no cold, for each of us will be warmth for each other; There will be no more loneliness, for each of us will be companion to the other.”
This is the journey and the destination, and the vehicle is Shikantaza.
I am a monk. I have had no formal training per se, by choice. What I have had, is a “Vision”. From as far back as I can remember, my “Vision” has been my True Teacher, the Spirit which continues to drive me, my Guiding Light. I have been a student of several great teachers, before, and after their deaths. When they were alive they would say to me this, they would say to me that. Some of “this” I would remember and apply. Some of “that” I would forget and discard. My Vision has been my primary formal training. Everything I have done, everything I do, has been, and continues to be a manifestation of that Vision; an expression of either my understanding of it or my lack of understanding. Either, or, has served me well.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
– Abraham Lincoln
We are at a critical moment in the history of the nation and make no mistake about it, these are clarifying times; the world, we will bequeath to our children will be shaped and formed by our response or lack thereof to current events. I believe that what will be required of both the monk and the layperson, who claim any identity with being spiritual, with being moral, is the putting aside of business as usual, and waking up, stepping up, showing up.
Happiness is temporarily suspended. If we are ever going to be “the change we want in the world,” we have work to do to prepare ourselves to confront the Greed, Hatred, and the Indifference, embedded within a structure where “profit” is the bottom line, the context for governing the nation, and required by the both historical and current system to perpetuate itself. Our preparation and training must begin by confronting these “Three Poisons” wherever we find them, beginning with ourselves, our practice, and our relationships.
“Todays, post-modern Zen Buddhism in the West must be about groundedness in practice (training) and service – Neither a Self-Improvement Program nor a personal Wellness path.”
– Joan Halifax, Roshi
One day the Buddha found himself challenged by seekers with numerous inquiries about heaven and earth. After listening for a period of time he replied, “What I teach is suffering; the cause of suffering; cessation from suffering, and the path which leads to cessation from suffering.” What was important in his reply was not necessarily the content of his answer but rather the context. He expressed a “single minded devotion” which characterized his commitment to “liberating all beings from suffering and its cause” which was for him as it must be for each of us, a lifetime dedication to learn, to grow, and to opening our hearts and minds to change, to be transformed, and to awaken from our lifetime delusional view of ourselves and our place in the world.
Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of the Upaya Zen Center words, define The Way of Zen and the meaning and purpose of a “zen center” or “community”. Zen is not intended to be a “self-improvement program”; a zendo is not a “wellness center” but rather, a unique and exclusive conducive environment for “awakening from the cause of suffering”. We understand that, “Cause” to be “A lifetime attachment, rooted in ignorance, to ego-delusion.” We begin with the ground for our efforts, “All sentient beings are Buddha (Enlightened)”. There is no need for “self-improvement”. No need to become “more, better, or different”. While the results of “training and practice” may be a sense of self-improvement and certainly well-being, these are byproducts. The ultimate results of Zen training are for more deeply profound and transformational, “Incomparable, and All Pervasive”.
I choose to live the “life of a monk” not because I wish to go to heaven after I am finished here, or because I want to accumulate enough good karma to somehow escape the wheel of samsara or suffering; or because I believe, which I do not, that somehow the Universe is my personal ATM or offers me “The Secret” to abundance or prosperity, but because everything inside me has always and, continues to convince me that, thus is the better way.
I cannot remember a time in my life since I was seven years old that my vocation did not call me to, “Dare to seek on the margin of society,” to live Nobly, Grounded in Virtue, Honor, and a sense of Benevolent Responsibility to the World. A vocation I believe not limited to priests, rabbi’s, or those in religious life. Like Albert Einstein, I have always and continue to, “Desire only to know the thoughts of God. Everything else, is simply details.”
“The key to the path to enlightenment lies in the seekers motivation, and a single minded devotion: apart from which, no enlightenment.”
Every year since 1985 it has been a tradition that on the first or second week of September, depending on how the calendar falls, the Monks of Pine Wind and the truly devoted gather for the annual period of Zen Training known as “Ango.” It is essential that prior to beginning, both the monastery and the “seeker” is prepared to begin. A period of reflection should precede training, wherein a conducive environment is established both within the walls of the Zendo where the monks and the truly devoted will train, and within the hearts and minds of each person.
Not too long ago I wrote, “Apart from transformation their can be no enlightenment. Apart from renunciation their can be no transformation.” Webster defines “transformation” as, “a thorough change in form, appearance, nature, or character.” (It is written that when Moses descended the Mountain, and Jesus resurrected, even those who knew them for a lifetime did not recognize them.) Spirituality was never meant to be a supplement for life but rather, a means toward a complete transformation, a kind of metamorphosis. We cannot and will not ever know the faith and freedom of the butterfly for example, unless we undergo our own metamorphosis, discarding what we have come to believe we are, in order to become who we truly are.
Every morning whenever I enter the Zendo (meditation hall) at 4:00 AM, I enter a “sacred space,” but not for the reasons that may seem obvious to some. A Zendo and a Zen Monastery for that matter is a reflection, an outer representation, of the hearts and minds of those who occupy it. While it is designed to be a place for training the mind-body toward “awakening,” and “transformation,” those in training already possess everything needed to achieve this lifetime, sometimes arduous challenge, even though they may not know it when first entering.
Zen spirituality, including meditation and mindfulness training is about what I call “creating space”. It has very little if nothing at all to do with transcending or escaping the world’s problems, stresses, and anxieties. Quite the opposite, it has everything to do with creating space or to “Hold Space” for oneself and the world, including all the stuff our ego prefers averting and avoiding. The Buddha taught that, the heart and soul of the Buddha-Way is “friendship.” Authentic Spirituality is about “making friends with ourselves, with others, and with the world,” as we; and they; and the world is, rather than some idealistic notion about the way the world should be. This does not exclude engaging in efforts toward making the world more loving or kind. For me the question surrounding our efforts is always about, “How do we best do that?”
Like so many, I ponder what life will be for future generations, the future of our Nation, the planet, but most especially humanity. For what is a man’s life without virtue, without honor, without passion, without community, without a heartfelt benevolence, compassion, and love? It is our humanity which permits us to recognize beauty, to experience wonder, to laugh, to dance, to play; to cry, to grieve, to respond to injustice, to care for, and to appreciate life.