“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.
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.
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.”
My Mother made the greatest meatballs and spaghetti sauce, or gravy as we called it, I ever tasted. The recipe of which was one of those “family secrets” except it was entirely my Mother’s secret. You never saw my Mother making the gravy, you’d wake up one morning and sitting on the stove was this large pot with about three inches of gravy at the bottom which increased by the time we ate dinner later that evening. Later in the day when we returned home from school, my siblings and I, would immediately notice the aroma of the meatballs cooking in the gravy which immediately drew you toward the stove like ancient pilgrims toward the holy grail. You raised the lid on the pot with one hand and a with a piece of Italian bread in the other you proceeded to “dip”. Suddenly you’d hear my Mother say, “Hey, get out of their, dinner’s not ready yet.” Once I asked my Mother what she put in her gravy, all she would say is, “Everything”. She never would tell us and I suspect that it was because she found pleasure watching us enjoy eating her creation and, she also believed that if she did tell us we would somehow mess it up.
“A Tree gives glory to God… by being a Tree.” – Thomas Merton
Each of us are Spirit, manifestations of the One with our own signatures; Authentic Spirituality is the means by which we awaken from a lifetime of ego delusion to realize our True-Self and to manifest our own enlightenment in the world. “In setting off in search of true identity, one steps into a labyrinth, a maze, a tunnel of love, a hall of mirrors, a derelict graveyard, a long-neglected archeological site.” This “awakening” is not easy and results as a function of entering a process, a kind of “path” which takes us through a “hall of mirrors” and challenges us to confront our many false identities we have accumulated.
Authentic Spirituality, Zen is life-it’s our life, and our journey begins right where we are, with our lives exactly as it is and as it isn’t. One of the barriers presenting us from entering the path and liberating ourselves from our suffering is the myth that, “I’ll start when…”, or “I need to wait until…” There’s never going to be any more appropriate time to begin your journey than now. There are no required preconditions or circumstance, just the desire to be free and the willingness to make the journey no matter the circumstances or situations ahead. Even if you have begun and failed to continue, start again. As Jesus taught, “Pick up your cross and follow.” As the ancient masters would ask, “If not now, when?” Even if you lack the courage or the strength. You know how many people in the world are weakened by life’s challenges facing and confronting life every day. Hospitals and cities are filled with such people.
As a youth I grew close to the parents of a friend of mine from high school, we kept in touch for many years after graduation. “Mr. Fitz,” as I called him was much like (the famous 70’s sitcom character) Archie Bunker type personality with smoother edges. “Mrs. Fitz,” was indeed much like Edith Bunker, Archies wife, without pretension, beautiful, sweet, and with that quiet wisdom overshadowed by her humility. I remember one occasion when I stayed for dinner, afterwards the news with Walter Cronkite came on the television. The “Fitz’s” made it a point to sit together on the “davenport” or the sofa together, sometimes holding hands if she wasn’t knitting. At the end of the news broadcast Walter Cronkite would always say, “And that’s the way it is.”, to which Mr. Fitz would respond, “No it isn’t Walter, no it isn’t.”
“C. S. Lewis taught, if the devil were to succeed in England, he would need to wear a three-piece suit and speak with the Queen’s English, and surely never appear as a red demon with horns and a pitchfork.” This morning like most Americans I woke to the news of yesterdays current events, a practice I have limited now to approximately 3 minutes at best, only to hear the same news from the day before and days before that. Nothing much had changed. Hatred, distrust, accusations, true or false, blaming, promising, hopes, doubts, more hatred, more accusations, and more promises that have been made for decades by others who, hated, suspected, and mistrusted someone other than themselves or their party or particular group. Like the saying goes, “The more things are supposed to change, the more they stay the same.” I immediately observed my muscular skeleton retract in pain with the kind of feeling you get when you’ve tasted something that always turns your stomach. My reaction was to pick up my aging and almost near dying dog sitting near me and hold her close to me telling her, “I love you girl.” I needed to find refuge in my humanity and something that was real, my dog.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief…” – The Talmud
The words of The Talmud and the words of my dear friend I shared with you in my last meditation, “We are not to be absorbed by the suffering of the world…,” continue to dominate my thoughts and experience these days. When I add Chardin’s words which point to our true identity: “You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” – This is where I must always continue my journey in this temporary existence we call “life”.
What does it mean to “not be daunted” or “to not be absorbed”? Given the horror of global current events and its consequences, the uncertainty about the future which dominates all our lives, the reality of a way-of-life we all were told was a “dream” only to discover it’s really a nightmare; is it at all possible to practice these two essential teachings? And when I move from out there to right here in Shamong, NJ and even closer to home in my own heart and mind, “What’s a Monk to do?” “What can anyone do?”
“When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” I’ve thought a great deal about that and how it sounds a little like a saying that showed up in the 70’s, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” – And everyone I knew began procrastinating. The previous quote is actually a koan. Like all koans it is designed to “not make any rational sense, and are used to ‘blow the minds’ of trainee monks in order to trigger their enlightenment.” If you read it and interpret its meaning as it is, the problem with that is that after forty-one years teaching it is my experience that, “The student is never ready,” and that any lesson of any value, any lesson that is really transformative always appears as a kind of “inconvenient truth”. God knows we don’t like to be inconvenienced.
The way most of us live our lives, making choices, or committing to anything is usually a function of how we feel at the moment. If I were to do much of what I do let’s say just in the course of one day, according to how I feel, I wouldn’t accomplish much. The first thing to realize is that our “feelings” about the moment are often unreliable and have nothing to do with this present moment. They are almost 100% of the time connected to some past (unresolved issue) experience. Relying on my feelings and I would include my opinions and points-of-view, as well as the beliefs I have formed about my life, is like relying on the other person to change before I can be happy.
Certainly the student should “be ready to learn,” but what does that really mean; To “be ready” to learn? When are we “ready”? Again I have found that we are never really ever ready for those transformative lessons in life. Those lessons are either always heaped upon us at any unexpected and sudden moment or, we decide to apply what I always call “Nike Buddhism” or “Nike Zen” if you prefer: We learn to “Just do it”.