“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.”
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?”
“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.
“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.
On Wednesday, December 28th I found myself in Cooper Hospital’s emergency room. I woke up that morning feeling wonderful, much better than I had felt in several weeks. By noon I was in a car speeding through the streets of Camden until I was ushered to a chair where I would sit for the next hour. I was in convulsions shaking so badly I could barely speak. But I would find no mercy, at least for the next 40 minutes, even though it felt like an eternity. No one enjoys being sick let alone having to go to an emergency room these days, especially over a holiday. The room was packed. I was shaking and waiting for someone to come help. This is where I always say, “Here is where training pays off.”
To know one’s “intention” is vital for any healthy spiritual practice. To live with “integrity” is quintessential. Intention without integrity has no value. We need to know our truest intention and then live intentionally with integrity. Webster defines “integrity” as “a strict adherence to a particular way of being.” When I live with integrity my intention is reflected in all my choices, in every decision I make. It reflects in every word I speak, every action I commit.
A “person of integrity” is reliable, their word is their bond, their actions reflect who they are, you always know where they are coming from. I believe that integrity coalesces vision with action; it creates for sustainable and fulfilling relationship. There is a saying in Zen, “Even if the Sun were to rise in the West, the Bodhisattva knows one way.” No matter the circumstance, no matter the situation, no matter how I may feel at this moment, and even what I think, my integrity is my guide, my code for living my life, the cause for the effects or the results I aspire to create. I often say, “There are days when I must muster up a whole universe of compassion for some people I may encounter. And I do.”
“In the twenty-first century if we ever expect to fully realize peace of mind and body, we must cultivate a way-of-living which transcends religious and political ideology, and detach from our expectations on governments and religious institutions of themselves to ever bring about the transformation which leads to a loving-kind and compassionate society; one which is deeply rooted in personal responsibility, the practices of contemplation, and moral or ethical living.”
– Seijaku Roshi
Often visitors to Pine Wind mistaken the fundamental aim and objective of the Zen practice of turning the most commonplace activities of daily living, the mundane, into a thing of spiritual beauty capable of transforming this place and time into the Kingdom of Heaven with, what they often identify with as just rituals of “another religion”. There is a saying, “You don’t have to be a monk to live like a monk,” and I say, “but you have to live like a monk” if you are ever going to fully realize true and sustainable peace of mind and body. The whole world needs to become your Zendo, a place of contemplation and prayer, where inner and outer charity, forgiveness, and loving-kindness, is our religion and way-of-life. The conventional paradigm for “religion” and “religious affiliation,” like that of “political ideologies” and “political affiliations” in the modern culture has failed us and, will not be sufficient for the future if we ever expect to realize what people often refer to as, “The Oneness of Things”. We cannot ever expect to know for sure that we are One People, One Nation, or One World as long as we cling to the “identities of religion and politics” which too often serve to separate us from the other. They re-direct our attention and demand that our focus be on our “differences” rather than our “commonality”. Love, equality, compassion, kindness, justice, freedom, equanimity, and abundant prosperity are not religious beliefs or political ideologies reserved for just believers or party members, they are the very essence of all life and humanity. They are qualities of what Buddhist refer to as Buddha-Nature.
Yesterday we witnessed the effect of an electorate who believes that, “Reality Shows” are reality; that a nation where malice toward those who are different, hatred or resentment toward those who have what we do not have, and indifference toward the most vulnerable among us is not only the expected but the norm. Yesterday it was confirmed what was long suspected, that the “United” States of America is a myth; that the notion that every citizens life and the life of their daughters and sons matter is a myth; that the rights and liberties of a so called free nation belong to everyone is a myth, and that the “pursuit of happiness” has only been a means toward distracting us from the “man behind the curtain”.
Yesterday was not an election about one personality over another, or one party over another party; yesterday the majority chose hatred, greed, indifference, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, injustice, and nationalism, over patriotism and a united country, inclusiveness, charity, love of thy neighbor (no matter their religious beliefs and political affiliations, their level of income, or the color of their skin) and basic humanity.
The day after like every “day after” the rest of “the people” are faced with a choice. We can either become daunted and discouraged by yesterdays results, ready to throw in the towel, or we can choose to become even more committed and stronger in our convictions. We can be afraid, or learn how to transform our fear into a force of nature which, like Nature when the forest is destroyed by a fire responds with its inherent compassion and life force to renew it for a stronger and better forest for the future.