“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.
I have spent more than half my lifetime inquiring about and observing the space I occupy and beyond. Science teaches us that the very material which makes up the known Universe can be found in a single human cell. With that I have always felt that the journey has always been one within and, if I cannot find it within me I cannot expect to find it anywhere out there. When I do find it within me, I will then find it everywhere out there.
“Underneath all we are taught, there is a voice that calls to us beyond what is reasonable, and in listening to that flicker of spirit, we often find deep healing.”
– Mark Nepo “The Book of Awakening”
Spirituality is not a vacation but rather a vocation. Meditation and Yoga, were never meant to be a means of escaping the world but rather, a means for entering into life more deeply and profoundly. While both the monk and the pilgrim may retreat from the world for a brief period of time, it’s not to escape but rather to train, to renew, to reconnect, in order to re-enter life more skillfully and with understanding and clarity developed while in retreat, learning to “be in the world more fully, intimately, and without reservation or self-preservation.”
The contemplative is not interested in either novelty or variety. He or she seeks a deeper meaning of life than the cultural or social definition accepted by so many. We train in the spiritual practices to learn “not to be daunted by the things of the world,” so that we can be present to our lives as they are, including our families, our friends, and our neighbors; and to the world as it is, and to the endless evolving and ever-changing circumstances of life, not as a victim of change but rather as a healing and reconciling force of Nature.
“Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi
Several years ago I wrote an article titled “The Love which Never Dies,” it was during the worst period of my life to date. I had yet to experience then the two heart attacks and several bouts with pneumonia which would follow in the years ahead. This was a battle of the worst kind of ailment or disease possible – “A Broken Heart”. Eventually I did have those heart attacks, I did battle with pneumonia four times, and as some of you know a wrestling match recently with a virus that landed me in the hospital for a few days. I continue to fight the good fight of staying alive and well, I still know of no other battle more painful than when the heart is broken and left to make its way from the battlefield and thereafter.
Yesterday we all woke to one of those strange “climate change” effects, “Summer in February”. As I too enjoyed the day with my daughter and friends, (who had not been to my home in a very long time, a kind of “reunion” of friendship), like so many of you I was impressed by the budding of trees and the presence of daffodil’s breaking through the winter soil. Perhaps like me you thought, “How Strange, how mysterious.” Well, later that evening I would conclude it was Mystery, the greatest one of all, and it was speaking to me, to all of us. Perhaps you may have heard Its voice as well.
“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to endure suffering, and in winning our freedom, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we will win yours in the process.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Whether one is a Buddhist, a Christian, or Jewish, there exist certain universal convictions that the founders and their disciples of each of these paths held and continue to hold to be inviolable.
“Every human being without exception possesses intrinsic dignity; everyone without exception should be treated with fairness, loving-kindness, and compassion; that each of us has the responsibility, and this includes how we treat the stranger, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to lift up the fallen and provide them with basic tools to rebuild and flourish once again; and finally, the delicate web of the natural world should be handled with respect, and all natural resources should be used appropriately.”
Our nation and the world finds itself once again in tumultuous times marked by so much uncertainty and instability, accompanied by threats of increased violence and assaults on personal freedoms and basic human rights. This time, however, it will not be enough to simply assign these dramatic changes which have already begun and the ones that are still ahead, to just the ruling party’s political platform or vision for the nation. No, we are witnessing a dynamic effort to thwart the evolution of human consciousness that has been moving toward a more loving-kind and compassionate society, an inclusive society where no one is left behind or forgotten, a real and imminent threat upon the social fabric of our society and all humanity.
What lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.
During this time of so much change and adversity, I am regularly reminded of some advise given me about parenting which has extended into all the roles I play at any given time. “Pick your battles.” Recently after making a decision back in November to spend less time watching cable news and visiting Pine Wind’s Facebook page, I made the error of visiting both the news media and social media a little more often than I would prefer to. An error I have quickly corrected. However, for anyone who feels otherwise I would like to respectfully offer some advise. Like so many I am sure, I find that more than necessary, repetition on current events and oppositional themes shot at me on Facebook. While one can certainly be entrapped by our emotions responding to every one of them, my advice is to “Pick Your Battles”. (I also noticed one day while drinking my very large cup of coffee and getting lost in one of the cable news networks, that all they really do in the course of just two-hours is repeat over and over again the same news they reported just an hour ago, and they are masters at making it look like “Breaking News”.) You don’t have to respond to each and every one of them. In fact I think there is an important “lesson” to be learned in feeling that you do.