Monday, December 27, 2010


We have spoken about the two dimensions of the Precepts, those being the Literal and the Intrinsic. On the one hand, the Precepts are quite specific in their formulation of a moral guideline. On the other hand, the Precepts are universal expressions of our boundless aspirations. The Precepts lead us to be in harmony with the universal laws that operate within ourselves and within others. To step outside this harmony is to step into suffering. But, once inside the harmony, within the Oneness, realizing the One-body, the Precepts are virtually unnecessary; we embody them simply by living. If we enter each moment with Zen Mind the Precepts are realized.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Dharma Bread" by Konrei

Yesterday was a rarity in South Florida, where I live. Although (contrary to popular opinion) we do have a winter season, it is usually short and relatively mild, adding up to three cold weeks in Janfebruary when the temperature at night can thud into the low forties and the days are bright and cool in the fifties. Tourists, though rarely resident Floridians, have been known to hit the pool on Christmas Day.

A pre-Christmas cold snap this week drove nighttime temperatures into the mid-thirties, and daytime temperatures rose barely above fifty all week. Usually-forgotten winter jackets had their Days of Remembrance. I actually saw someone wearing a scarf and a watch cap, though layering probably would have been more effective.

And then there was Yesterday. The temperatures rose into the low seventies, a comfortable breeze sprang up without a hint of humidity, and a brilliant sun shone through a perfectly transparent atmosphere that seemed to cascade like a waterfall from an impossibly blue sky.

A good day to wash the car.

Let me explain: Most Floridians don’t wash their cars, they take them to be washed. A few extra bucks on the gas card at the next fill up will guarantee you a turn in one of the area’s ubiquitous automated car washes, where high-pressure water drives away the memories of miles that accumulate on the rocker panels and front grille, and a little wax goes a little way to restoring the shine you never realized you missed. A few bucks more will buy you hand detailing, as men named Jose and Naresh Armor-All the interior, Febreze the carpet and Windex the glass. Washing a car by yourself is so odd, it seems, that it attracts an audience of neighbors who walk their dogs past you in a rhythmic line, each one secretly wondering Why?

In my case, the Why? is both easier and more difficult to fathom. Ever since a car accident left me dependent on using a quad cane to ambulate, walking has become somewhat of a mindfulness adventure as I carefully weigh each slow footfall. In truth, the accident was only the endgame of a slow loss of function that began when I first moved from New York to Florida and gave up transportation by foot in the face of the increased heat, the relentless humidity, and the greater, more boring distances that had to be traversed. Prior to moving to Florida, it was not unusual for me to walk from Washington Square to East 64th Street in Manhattan, a distance of about two miles, there to gladly collapse on a friend’s couch after conquering a fourth-floor walkup. And this with Cerebral Palsy that made every step worth two in muscular exertion.

Perhaps it was the Northern feel of the day, but I overcame my natural inertia and manfully hobbled out to the driveway, armed with bucket and dish soap, rags and an assortment of clean-and-shine chemicals that would make me recoil in fear if I really understood what their labels were telling me. With awareness of each muscle motion and of the pull of gravity, I managed to cross the rough ground to the outside spigot, turned it on, and hauled the garden hose around the side of the house, muttering very un-Zenlike imprecations at every bush and projection upon which the hose managed to hook itself during my slow passage there-and-back-again.

The word “pain” is really inadequate to describe what I experienced as I bent my back (and legs and arms) to the simple task of soaping down the car. Each movement brought shrill protest from my inflexible, ischemic musculature. My ankles ached. My archless feet protested. A few times I lost my balance, grabbing for the car for support, only to find myself sliding uncontrollably along the soapy surface like a beer on a bartop in a Western saloon.

As I worked, clumsily and carefully, I was reminded of the sixth of Mahatma Gandhi’s Eleven Vows, Sharirshrama, or Bread Labor. The Mahatma was firmly of the opinion that everyone needs to perform some useful body-labor, regardless of the nature of how they earn their “living.” In the West, there is an ingrained prejudice against body-labor. People who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow are somehow seen as not quite as intelligent and less ambitious than professionals whose tool is their mind. The tool in the hand---or the act of picking and boxing fruit in the field---is interpreted as a sign of weakness, even dishonesty. Auto mechanics, plumbers, and migrant farm workers are not seen as lazy, but they are seen as shifty. In the popular mind, they are either creating new problems in order to assure themselves of future work, overcharging for their services, or getting something for nothing, whether they be “illegals” living off the public weal, or Union men costing innocent owners obscene amounts of money in medical benefits and paid vacations.

Bread-labor is the labor of struggle and pain, I reminded myself, the work of a certain day.

Many years ago, Denis, a close friend explored his entrepenurial spirit by opening a company that purveyed fine baked goods, pastries and fancy breads, to the exclusive Country Clubs of Long Island. On a violently rainy day, we were returning from one of the Hamptons-area clubs with a carrier full of samples, not, unsurprisingly, having made a sale to a hidebound Kitchen Manager, who did not even want to take the samples from us gratis.

A little disgusted and very disappointed, Denis and I decided to stop in to Captain Norris’ Bar on the long drive home. Captain Norris’ was only a few miles but a world away from where we had been. A haunt of the “Bonackers,” descendants of the original English settlers of eastern Long Island, Captain Norris’ was the home port watering hole for the commercial fishermen of the area, a notoriously rough-hewn bunch.

Entertainment at Captain Norris’ was sparse: A dusty jukebox with dusty songs, and on Saturday nights, a fiddler who would stomp and holler next to the potbellied stove in the corner. A one-eyed tomcat prowled the premises, appropriately named “One-Eye.” We were visitors when we went there, tourists from the land of Suburbia, and while we were never made to feel uncomfortable, we were never truly welcome.

Except on this stormy day. A beer or two into it, we fell into a discussion about the local fishing, which, it seemed, had been very poor for some time; most of the men were cooped up in the bar this day, unable to fish, and each was quietly worrying about feeding his kids. Denis and I commiserated, telling the fishermen about our lack of luck in the Hamptons. Everyone agreed that the work was hard and the rewards few.

“We have a carrier full of samples they didn’t want,” we explained, and brought a pile of boxes into the bar, an assortment of Napoleons, petit-fours, marzipan, creamcakes, whipped-cream pastries in the shape of swans, and sourdough and multigrain loaves.

There was a moment of silence. “Can we take these home . . . to our kids?” the barmaid asked a little fearfully, as if she thought we would say no.


What followed was nothing short of a bacchanalia. I remember one burly fellow, who laughed maniacally while cramming a swan full into his mouth, the cream slithering down his beard. “We’ve never seen stuff like this,” he told me, tears starting in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

No, I said, I thanked him. I thanked him for going out every day on an indecent sea that could swallow a man in the blink of an eye to bring me a meal. I thanked him for standing, legs braced against the swells, on a pitching deck in all kinds of weather, tearing his hands with hooks and lines so that I could sit and eat in a warm kitchen. I thanked him for the opportunity to give something back today, to repay his bread-labor with a little bread, perhaps a little sweetness.

What I remembered most of that day, though, as I flopped around my car struggling to clean the rims, was what the barmaid had said: “Can we take these home . . . to our kids?” Because, in the end, the glory of Sharirshrama is not merely in the doing of the work. It is in the compassion that compels us to work for others. By our work, we earn them their daily bread.

"Bodhi Day: Celebrating the Buddha's Enlightenment" By Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Ph.D. (First published December 8, 2010)

Today, all over the world, Zen Buddhists are celebrating the day of the Buddha's enlightenment. Known in Japan as "Rohatsu" (literally, the 8th day of 12th month) this Bodhi Day marks the defining event in the legend of Shakyamuni Buddha: his enlightenment experience.

After sitting through a night of doubt and temptation -- in the form of the many kinds of mental obstacles that cover the whole gamut of unskillful thoughts and images that the human mind is heir to -- Shakyamuni Buddha looked up as the planet Venus came into view, and gazing at this morning star, broke through the agony of the nightlong struggle, and realized the nature of the self, the cause of mental suffering and its remedy.

In honor of this momentous awakening, many Zen Buddhists sit in meditation for an entire week's retreat, culminating with an all night sitting on Dec. 7 into the dawn of the 8th, watching their minds. As the minutes, then hours, go by, the mind becomes quieter, and they are able to bear witness to the marvelous quality of being that Shakyamuni experienced: an embracing of reality as it is in each moment. In a sense, this very intense annual ritual helps each of us to realize that it is not so much what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens that determines whether or not we create suffering -- our own and that of others.

The legend says that as he gazed at the morning star, he said, "How marvelous, I, the great earth, and all beings are naturally and simultaneously awakened." This phrase teaches us the great lesson of interdependence, that we are not separate from all that is, but rather we are interconnected, a piece of the grand whole of the universe. And at the same time, this very piece, this "I" sitting here is an integral and vital component of the whole. When we take care of this "I", we can take care of the whole universe.

So, even if we cannot devote a week or a full night but are only able to meditate for a few minutes on Bodhi Day, it can be a reminder of the wisdom that is naturally available to us, the wisdom of cultivating our minds and recognizing our relation to the whole.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Tradition of Buddha’s Robe: A Dharma talk given by Sr. Candana Karuna at IBMC September 24, 2006

During the past year, I’ve noticed a lot of people wondering about Buddhist robes: why are there so many different colors and styles, why are they worn, what do they mean, what’s the big deal? It can be confusing. Doubly so here at IBMC, where there are not only many Buddhist traditions represented, but there are also differences in robes among those ordained within the American Vietnamese Zen tradition of our founder, Dr. Thich Thien-An.

Answering questions about Buddhist robes is easy on the surface, but each answer seems to lead to more questions. For some Buddhists, these answers are important; for others, even the question of robes is extraneous. Sometimes one explanation contradicts another or even seems to go against the spirit of Buddhism.

I like questions. I don’t have all or even most of the answers, and I still have questions, because in researching this subject I’ve discovered that for almost every statement I’m about to make, you can find a completely different answer. Sometimes, it’s simply that the different schools of Buddhism have different explanations or ways of doing things; at other times, language issues arise and translations are not reliable.

At any rate, this morning let me present you with what I have learned, my best guess, in trying to demystify the Tradition of Buddha’s Robe.

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become Buddha, was born a son of the Shakya clan and grew to manhood in an entitled and sheltered life during the 6th century BCE in India. Encounters with sickness, old age and death shattered his complacency and made him question the privileged experiences and assumptions of his life. He renounced home and family in order to devote himself to answering the questions of suffering and, as was the custom, traded his fine clothing away for that of a mendicant seeker.

So, what did beggar’s clothing look like? In most representations of the Buddha, such as the figure on our altar, his clothing looks pretty good: classic simplicity – clean lines and not a hole or stain in sight. Presumably, that’s because he’s usually shown after his enlightenment, when his robes were cared for by attendants and replenished by donations.

But even if you find a statue of the ascetic Siddhartha – hollowed cheeks, sunken eye sockets and ribs like desiccated bones – although he looks terrible, the loincloth looks neat and tidy. Take it with a grain of salt, because there are no contemporary portraits extant. In fact, it was hundreds of years after he passed into parinirvana before anyone thought to make an image of the Buddha. And art, by its nature, idealizes. So, don’t look to statues or artwork as a primary source – they simply tell you about the culture in which they were created.

But here’s what we are told in the sutras about mendicant robes during that time. They were made from discarded scraps of cloth, or what is called in Sanskrit pāmsūda or pāmsūla. There are various lists identifying what constitutes pāmsūda. For example, cloth that has been 1) burned by fire, 2) munched by oxen, 3) gnawed by mice, or 4) worn by the dead. The Japanese equivalent of pāmsūda is funzoe, a polite translation of which is “excrement sweeping cloth” and indicates another potential source.

These scraps were scavenged from the trash, out in the fields, by roadsides or even from the cremation grounds. Any truly unsalvageable parts were trimmed off and the resulting bits were washed and sewn, piecemeal and without pattern, into a rectangle large enough to wrap around and cover the mendicant. Then the rectangle was dyed, using gleaned roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers or fruits, especially heartwood and leaves of the jackfruit tree, which resulted in a variable and generic color known in Sanskrit as kashaya, denoting mixed/variegated, neutral or earth tones. It’s also defined as "color that is not pure" or "bad color." I have also been told that it refers to colors considered ugly, colors chosen to renounce that culture’s values. This also ties in with another connotation of the word kashaya, which is impurity or uncleanliness, reflecting back to the source of the cloth used.

We’ll return to color and style later, but this is the clothing Siddhartha Gautama wore as he studied with and surpassed several prominent teachers of that time, and undertook to master the most severe ascetic practices. Even then, he found them as ultimately empty of answers as was his early life. Finally, he turned away from those paths, sat down under the Bodhi tree with his questions and found the solution to suffering.

After his enlightenment, he began to teach and many of those who heard his teachings – mendicants, former teachers, householders, even his own family and royalty – left their pursuits and followed him forming the Sangha of monks and, later, nuns. Their clothing was not codified, and various sutras refer to a variety in dress, some of it fairly fantastic. Tradition has it that those who ordained with the Buddha, as well as the Buddha himself, primarily wore the mendicant clothing of that time, essentially the same worn in India today; they all wore some version of a simple, serviceable, Kashaya robe.

This caused a problem for a Buddhist king named Bimbasara, who wanted to pay homage to Buddhist monks but was having trouble picking them out of the crowd. One day, he complained and asked the Buddha to make a distinctive robe for his monks. They were walking by a rice field in Magadha at the time, and Buddha asked Ananda, his personal attendant, to design a robe based on the orderly, staggered pattern of rows of the rice padi fields.

This original Buddhist robe comprised three parts, layered depending on activity and weather, and was therefore known as the “triple robe” (tricivara in Sanskrit):

1. Uttarasanga is the normal clerical robe. It is a large rectangle, about 6 feet by 9 feet, worn wrapped around the torso and covering one or both shoulders. Although all three parts were made of kashaya fabric, this piece was the robe that came to represent Buddhism as it traveled to other countries, and it came to be called the Kashaya Robe. With its five-fold or five-column rice field pattern surrounded by a border, it is regarded as symbolic of a Buddhist’s relationship with the Buddha and his teachings

2. Antarasavaka is a lower robe, wrapped around the waist to knee like a sarong and tied at the waist with a flat cotton belt. According to the monastic rules or Vinaya, a monk could wear it by itself if he was on his own, sick, crossing a river or looking for a new Uttarasanga.

3. Sanghati is an extra robe, often made of two layers, which is used for extra warmth or may be used, spread out as a seat or bedding. It is sometimes folded and placed on one shoulder.

This “triple robe” traveled from India throughout the world as Buddhism spread and was adapted, as Buddhism has adapted, by each country and culture it encountered.

I’d like to go on a brief tangent and mention robe relics, those purported to be of an actual, worn-by-the-Buddha variety. A tradition of hand-me-down robes was extant during the Buddha’s lifetime; the sutras tell us when Ananda agreed to become the Buddha’s attendant, he stipulated that he would not take any of the Buddha’s robes because he didn’t want to create the appearance of favoritism. Since the Buddha taught for 45 years after his enlightenment, he undoubtedly went through quite a few robes, and there are quite a few stories of such robes or pieces thereof.

One of these relics was entrusted to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka by the Emperor Asoka in the 4th Century BCE but, unfortunately, the Buddha’s Robe relic disappeared or was destroyed during one of the many Chola invasions between the 9th and 13th Centuries CE.

Another story of such a robe comes from Zen Buddhism, which holds that the Buddha gave his robe to Mahakasyapa in testament to his deep understanding, evidenced when the Buddha held up a flower in silence and Mahakasyapa smiled, the only one to see the Buddha’s teaching. Some believe the 28th Indian Patriarch/1st Chinese Patriarch, Bodhidharma, brought this very robe to China and go so far as to say that it was passed to succeeding patriarchs until the Fifth Chinese Patriarch passed it to Hui-neng, with the instruction that there would be no more passing of the robe. Not every Zen Buddhist believes this in a literal sense; I personally suspect the Buddha’s Robe, at least in this case, was more symbolic of Mind-seal transmission than involving any actual original garment.

Back to the “triple robe,” which arrived in China with Buddhism well ahead of Bodhidharma, although it wasn’t Chan (which became Zen), and once it left India, the form of the “triple robe” as well as the terminology began to change. The Sanskrit word kashaya was transliterated into Chinese as jiasha in Mandarin, kasa in Cantonese, and came to be applied specifically to the Uttarasanga, or normal clerical robe.

While India’s climate is temperate, and the three rectangular robes provided sufficient warmth and protection from the elements, even a double-layered Sanghati didn’t cut it in China. So the Chinese layered additional, Taoist-style robes and jackets, or what we would recognize as kimono (although that’s a Japanese term), under the kasa. These garments had sleeves of various types, from relatively close-fitting to what we Americans think of as the archetypical Asian sleeve, the pendulous dogleg that may or may not be closed at the wrist.

China did not have a mendicant tradition, wherein monastics would be supported by the populace (nor was it likely official support would be forthcoming from a government steeped in Confucianism and Taoism). In order to be as self-sufficient as possible, Chinese monastics farmed and performed manual labor in addition to religious practice. Because the wrapped “triple robe” is not designed or conducive to this type of heavy work (especially when it’s freezing), the monks developed wrapped leggings, split skirts (like culottes) or pants as alternate forms of the lower robe or Antarasavaka.

The kasa, itself, also went through some changes. The original Uttarasanga had five columns in the rice field pattern and was large enough to simply wrap around the body and shoulders. Once Buddhism had left India, four small squares inside the outside corners and two larger reinforcing squares near the top border on either side of the center column were added to the kasa, modifying the original design. Ties and straps, or fasteners were attached, often in the form of a ring and spoke.

At some point, perhaps in China, Korea or Japan, a smaller version was developed, like the one I’m wearing which we call the rakusu. It has the five columns and is worn around the neck like a bib. The origin of the rakusu is one of the confusing questions for me. Some say that it developed during the transition to manual labor in China, because a full kasa was cumbersome. Some say it was originated during a time of persecution, so that Buddhists could wear the kasa, hidden and safe, under their outer clothing. It’s also been suggested that started as simply the “cloth bag that wandering monks wore to carry alms bowl and other small items,” which was later “formalized as a monastic ‘accoutrement’.” There are even Japanese scholars who believe that it was developed in Japan during the Edo or Tokugawa Era, as the result of sumptuary regulations which limited the size and fabric type of clerical wear (I suspect a bit of nationalism, here).

The other big change to the full-sized kasa was the addition of columns as the monastic advanced in ordination and power, whether spiritual or temporal. The basic five-fold robe expanded to accommodate a system of rank modeled after the traditional nine-grade hierarchical Chinese law, so that five grew to seven, to nine, to 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25 strips of cloth, often of rich or rare fabrics, providing a physical proof of one’s status.

Buddhism spread from China to Korea, and the Koreans adopted the term Kasa. They also maintain the rakusu or small kasa tradition, but did add a shortened kimono-type robe to be worn under the kasa.

Korean Buddhists introduced Buddhism to Japan, although eventually it was Chinese influence that overwhelmed and was wholeheartedly embraced by Japanese Buddhists: Taoist-style robes with wide arms, purple kasa, multiple columns, work clothes and all. The Japanese transliterated the Korean/Chinese kasa to kesa, or okesa, which is simply a polite Japanese format. The Japanese adopted the distinctive and practical work clothes, which they called samue, as the everyday working uniform of the monastic. They also created a new form of kesa, by developing a black wide-sleeved kimono-style monk’s robe which conforms to the spirit, if not the form, of the Kashaya Robe in that it is made from the pieces of cheapest fabric, which are sewn and dyed by the monk.

Japanese Buddhist monastics created many different robes, sacred as well as ordinary clothing, and it seems like they have 20 words for each one. As an example, I will simply mention the rakusu. In addition to the one we’re familiar with at at this temple, there is the Okau, a larger rakusu worn on the left shoulder (I believe that’s the style that looks a little like you’re wearing a barrel by one suspender), the Hangesa or “half kesa” given to lay people and the Wagesa or “small kesa” also worn by lay people who have taken precepts.

Japanese rakusu have sewn designs on the straps, or on the collar covering, where they fall across the back of the neck to indicate denominational sects: Soto is a pine, Rinzai is a mountain-shaped triangle, and Obaku is a six-pointed star. In addition, Rinzai and Soto traditions sew a large flat ring on the left strap. This ring is not functional, but recalls the shoulder fasteners of the full-length kesa. As a result of a reform movement known as the fukudenkai in the mid-20th century, some Soto Zen groups have eliminated the rakusu ring.

Buddhism entered Vietnam from India and later from China, although the Chinese forms became dominant. The Vietnamese prefer a close-fitting sleeve on the kimono, again illustrating that robe style often begins with an adaptation of a culture’s normal clothing and becomes institutionalized. A similar situation applies to the Vietnamese pajama-like work clothes: a monastic uniform, but not sacred clothing.

Within the Tibetan or Vajrayana tradition, the culture once again adapted the “triple robe.” Ordained male and female clerics wear a sleeveless tunic and lower robe or skirt. The Tibetan Kashaya Robe is variously called shamtab (five strips), chogu, or namba (25 strip, for high ordination).

American robes, such as they are to date, are largely determined by a teacher’s tradition. Variations occur due to personal preference, convictions, understanding, or simply opportunity. And sometimes, speaking for myself, it’s all about comfort.

Although the essential Buddhist robe was the Kashaya Robe, there have been variations in quality of material ever since the Buddha’s time. In the Pali tradition, six kinds of cloth are allowed for making the upper and outer robes of the “triple robe”: plant fibers, cotton, silk, animal hair (not human), hemp, and a mixture of some or all of them. There are other lists of materials, but it’s clear that a variety of fabrics were used throughout. Some were sumptuous. Some were simple or easy-care. Certainly, most of Asia seems to be using man-made fabrics right now. In the ultimate sense, of course, any material could be used, provided there is no attachment.

With reference to attachment, one interesting thing that is prohibited in the Vinaya is “sewing cowries shells or owls' wings” onto robes. Evidently, some of the Buddha’s monks were adorning their robes and had to be restricted in their artistic or preening tendencies. When the Chinese embroidered scenes in gold thread in their ceremonial kesa, or the Japanese took a single elaborate weaving and simulated the pieced, rice field pattern by appliqueing brocade dividing strips, perhaps sewn to one edge only so that the loosely attached strips swayed like tatters -- do you suppose that they were truly not attached? Not that I’m not appreciative of the craft and beauty of these kesa. I’m just wondering.

This finally brings me to color, back to the concept of kashaya – broken or variegated color – which probably was in a spectrum from yellow to a reddish brown from being washed and dyed with plant materials, sometimes saffron or tumeric. Because the materials and dyestuffs vary, colors are not consistent. They also fade and become soiled. According to Seung Sahn Sunim, the Korean Zen master, during the Buddha’s time, the monks wore yellow robes, because that was the color of the dirt and didn’t show soil when the wind was blowing.

In modern times, monastics of the Theravadan tradition in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand or Laos usually continue this tradition of saffron or ochre robes. One source I encountered claimed that forest monks wear ochre while city monks wear saffron, but concluded that this is not always the case.

Monastics in the Mahayana tradition wear many different colors, according to region, country, sect and ordination level. When Buddhism came to China, color changed and changed again; different temples in various regions wore different colors: yellow, light golden brown, brown, grey or blue, shades of black: pitch black, grey black. During the Tang Dynasty, the emperor awarded purple robes and honorary titles to high-level monks.

Japanese monastics usually wear grey or black. They adopted the purple kesa tradition, which was revoked in the 17th Century under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The emperor abdicated in protest and monks who resisted, no matter how high, were exiled.

Koreans wear grey, brown or blue robes.

In the Vietnamese Zen tradition the kimono robes are brown or yellow, or somewhere in between, and the kesa are yellow to orange. At IBMC, after 10 years at high ordination, the cleric may wear a red kesa.

The colorful robes of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet range from the simple to some of the most elaborate in the world, from bright yellow to orange to maroon to a purplish-red according to School and Dharma level. Their versions of the Kashaya Robe are usually yellow. If their sleeveless tunic is trimmed with yellow brocade or they are wearing yellow silk and satin as normal attire, they are probably eminent monks or considered living Buddhas.

Americans tend to follow the color coding associated with their teacher’s tradition, although we do have a tendency toward individualism and downright contrariness when it comes to formalization. Our Rev. Kusala once suggested that American Buddhist robes might be blue denim.

As an example of how schools assign colors according to Dharma level, here’s what I think I know about IBMC’s Americanized Vietnamese Zen. Monks and priests wear some shade of brown robes with yellow/orange kesas. Fully ordained priests may additionally wear yellow collars or yellow piping around the collar. Laypeople, whether taking Refuge or atangasilas (eight-precept ordainees such as myself, Nam, Doug and Gary) wear the rakusu and, while not entitled to wear the larger kesa, we do get to wear these spiffy grey non-sacred robes.

One Soto Zen website mentions that Bodhisattvas wear black or dark brown kesas, so I guess IBMC and a large part of Japan are pretty far advanced.

With respect to bib-like rakusu, colors may reflect those of the kesa. At IBMC, ours are gold. In Korea, the half-kasa is brown. Or they may be a different, contrasting color to the kasa. In China, Chan-style rakusu are white. The Japanese wear blue, brown or black, with their rakusu first given during Refuge. No matter what color faces out, the Japanese back them with white cloth, on one side of which teacher writes the “Verse of the Kesa” while on the other, he writes his name, the student’s dharma name and the date of the Refuge ceremony. In Soto Zen, blue is for laypeople, black is for priests, and brown is the highest, for people who have received Dharma transmission from a lineage teacher.

However, not all Soto temples, even in Japan, follow the Dharma level color coding. One might receive a brown rakusu at lay ordination at one temple, but be chided at another temple for wearing a color reserved for someone at a much higher level. This actually happened to someone at two American Zendos.

Confusing? Yes, and that’s simply mundane style and color. Here’s a quick rundown of the symbolism of the Buddha’s Robe.

Kesa or Kashaya Robes, whether small and large, today are almost entirely “Symbol.” They are the Buddhist’s connection with the Tathagata. In Buddhist numerology, five is the number of the Buddha, which is echoed by the five-folds and five points of the rectangle: east, west, north, south, and middle. The Kashaya Robe is the robe of the renunciant, wherein the discards of the world are made pure and precious, yet the rice field pattern also represents and encompasses the world, in all the fecundity of agriculture. It can also be regarded as a mandala, geometric patterns of squares and lines which represent the universe and serve as a meditation object on many levels. The little squares on each corner represent the four directions or, perhaps, each of the Buddhist Dharma protectors. The center column is sometimes said to represent the Buddha, and the two flanking squares his attendants.

"The kesa is the heart of Zen, the marrow of its bones," said Eihei Dogen, (1200-53 CE) who established the Soto branch of the Zen in Japan. It is the physical doctrinal symbol, the essence of Transmission, and essential to a sense of legitimacy. Dogen studied in China and received the kesa of a Chinese Zen patriarch who had lived a century earlier.

Dogen was somewhat fanatical on the subject of kesa, proselytizing its profound virtues, lamenting the decadent period wherein it provided the only lifeline and yet was so neglected. I recommend his Kesa Kudoku (The Merit of the Buddha Robe), Chapter 3 of his great work the Shobogenzo, which waxes poetic on the subject, while providing practical information concerning the making, care and use of the garment. I can provide copies by email if you are interested.

He wrote, “… one verse of the ‘Robe Gatha,’ [also known as the Verse of the Kesa]… will become the seed of eternal light, which will finally lead us to the supreme Bodhi-wisdom.” The Robe Gatha is a Zen chant which is said before one puts on the Kesa or Rakusu.

Here is one translation:

How great the robe of liberation
A formless field of merit.
Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching,
We save all beings.

Pretty marvelous, isn’t it? However, a cautionary story about the robes, appearances and reality comes to us from the founder of Rinzai Zen, Master Lin-chi I-hsuan, who lived in the 9th century CE, who said,

“… I put on various different robes…The student concentrates on the robe I'm wearing, noting whether it is blue, yellow, red, or white. Don't get so taken up with the robe! The robe can't move of itself; the person is the one who can put on the robe. There is a clean pure robe, there is a no birth robe, a bodhi robe, a nirvana robe, a patriarch robe, a Buddha robe. Fellow believers, these sounds, names, words, phrases are all nothing but changes of robe … Because of mental processes thoughts are formed, but all of these are just robes. If you take the robe that a person is wearing to be the person's true identity, then though endless kalpas may pass, you will become proficient in robes only and will remain forever circling round in the threefold world, transmigrating in the realm of birth and death."

Perhaps it is not a good thing to become too impressed or too attached, even to the kesa, although Master Dogen might disagree. Some American Buddhists chafe against robes as representative of the hierarchy of Asian Buddhism; they wonder if robes have any value. Some wonder if different robes encourage comparisons such as, “who is most enlightened?” or “who is the senior here?” Some believe robes intimidate newcomers or encourage pride as one advances. And some just don’t like the inherent formalism or the implied elitism. Many Americans, simply wear their robes or just a rakusu over ordinary clothes. Rev. S’unya often replaces his pajamas with Heartland Zen brown overalls. Perhaps we *are* developing American Buddhist robes. But then again, perhaps not: the Sangha at Spirit Rock in Northern California has decided not to wear robes or differentiating insignia at all.

As a final point and to thank you all for listening to me, I would like to address one additional aspect of the Tradition of Buddha’s Robe. Although I’ve run through the quick guide as to who wears what, when and why, I’d also like to leave you with a proactively positive way of approaching life with the help of the Buddha’s Robe.

In the Lotus Sutra, the great, some say the greatest, Mahayana Sutra, we encounter a specific concept of “putting on the Buddha’s Robe.” This appears in Chapter 10, “Teacher of the Law,” which addresses how to communicate with others, specifically when discussing Dharma. But I believe it is applicable to our everyday lives, whether chatting about the weather or politics or sitting, alone, with ourselves.

In this chapter, Shakyamuni Buddha explains “the three rules of teaching,” one of which is that a teacher must, “put on the Thus Come One's robe,” before trying to teach the Lotus Sutra.

In the Sutra, Buddha is speaking metaphorically; he explains that his Robe is “a mind that is gentle and forebearing.” What does this mean? Gentle seems easy enough. Forebearing, or perseverance, seems to me to be the echo of Zen’s Great Effort, this time applied to communication. If we, as a people, were able to combine kindness with willingness to stay engaged in dialogue, even when disagreement, criticism or misunderstanding arise, a great many problems might simply be talked away. Unkindness breeds; if someone does not understand or rejects our position, we are tempted to return the favor. Rejection leads to anger or disengagement, our cliché of fingers-in-ears “La,la,la, I can’t hear you,” often resulting in frustration and sorrow. We lose the opportunity to communicate.

I believe that “gentle forebearance” comes from a resolve to develop one’s center – it nurtures seeds of equanimity. This requires inner strength, but also an open mind. Such a tremendous amount of effort is involved in simply acting, rather than reacting, in not becoming too attached to what you believe, to being right – because if you personalize dogma, it becomes a fixed barrier to dialogue, any attempt at discussion swirls around it and crashes.

This is not to say that one should be passively meek and it’s not a quid pro quo kind of situation. “I’ll be nice if you’ll be nice,” is not the goal here, although it is a nice side effect of being respectful. In fact, I think we should approach communication without expectation of reaching agreement or even understanding.

I may believe that, but I rarely achieve it. However, I offer this Dharma talk to you all in that spirit! May you all be warmly wrapped in Buddha’s Robe, open to dialogue but firm in your resolve and effort, and not perturbed by the questions of Buddhist couture.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dear Friends:

Jasmine, my eleven year old calico cat, passed away early on Monday morning, September 27, 2010, due to sudden, unexpected kidney failure. She died at home, comforted by me, and in the presence of her feline friends Sunshine and Squeaky.

This has been a season of loss. My father passed away on March 15th of this year. When I returned from his funeral on March 18th, I found my cat Reba, Jasmine’s lifelong companion, dead on the bedroom floor. And now, Jasmine has joined her.

There is not much to say of Jasmine. She was a cat. Yet, it was her very cat-ness that made her so extraordinary. Nothing troubled Jasmine. She took what came in life, accepting even her own death with a grace I have rarely seen anywhere. She behaved with an excellence I have never seen in any creature. She was not a cat that cried, yowled, scratched, jumped dramatically, or got into “cat capers.” Her favorite place was on my desk, watching me work. When she walked, it was with an ease I envied.

I had often said that if Jasmine could be human she would have worn white gloves and carried a parasol. And spoken softly, which she always did (unless she was at the vet’s, where she routinely let the doctors know that she would prefer that they not live through the day---yet, that too, was “behaving with excellence.”)

Somehow, some years ago, she got locked in the garage for several days when I was away. When I came home, I didn’t even notice her absence. By chance, I went into the garage. When I opened the door, she simply walked out of the garage and went to her water bowl. There were no cries, and no dramatics. She did not dart for the bowl. She walked as if nothing had happened at all, as if this was just the norm. Yet, she had been in there at least three days in the heat and humidity. When I checked the garage, I discovered that she had been using the padded seat of my exercise bike as a place to sleep, and that she had used an empty spare litterbox for her needs. She made do, trusting that what was to be was to be.

She was almost forgettable simply because she was so undemanding, and yet is immeasurably memorable because there lived in her little body a sentient spirit that was always in the moment. It took me too long to realize that Jasmine’s spirit was one that could be a template for my own life. I was in the presence of an accomplished Zen Master who loved, lived, and did only what was needful, whether it was eating or grooming or comforting her companions. Just to be in her presence was soothing. She always was just where she was, and she always acted kindly; it did not matter if she was in the presence of humans, other cats, or dogs. She treated everyone well, and was liked by all. Even my Dad, who was not a cat person, called Jasmine, “My little girlfriend."

Did I say that there was not much to say? I should say rather that so much of who Jasmine was has to be left unsaid to be appreciated. There was not a wasted moment, extra motion, or unnecessary action in her life. Truly, she was a Bodhisattva in the shape of a seven pound cat.

It was an honor to be her “owner.” A greater honor to her will be if I can live just as she lived.

Thank you for your kind thoughts and good wishes.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.

---Marcel Proust

'The Reality of Being" by Jeanne De Salzman

I exist in this moment. I cannot hold myself apart observing from the outside, nor fix or stop the the movement, appropriating it for myself. I can only feel that I am part of it. I am nothing without it, and it can do nothing without me. I let go, and in losing myself I find myself. I submit to this movement, in which form is created and immediately swept away as soon as it appears. I live in my breathing.

HIDING IN THIS CAGE By Kabir (15th Century)

hiding in this cage
of visible matter

is the invisible

pay attention
to her

she is singing
your song


He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

---Edwin Markham

Doug Marlette was among my favorite cartoonists. Mostly I knew him from his political cartoons, which were generally liberal and which appeared pretty much everywhere. Although Tammy Faye Bakker once called him a tool of Satan, I found his work was not marked with that raw and partisan hatred we too often see today on just about every side. I think he well deserved his Pulitzer Prize. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago in an automobile accident.

But, what brings him to mind for today is that Marlette also had a daily cartoon strip. Over the years I would run across reprints of it here and there. Called Kudzu, it was largely a celebration of things Southern, and featured, among other characters, a Baptist preacher Will B. Done.

Two things sparked my thought about Kudzu. For one, Peace Day, the United Nations sponsored International Day of Peace is the 21st of September. We here in Providence are mostly celebrating it on the Sunday closest to the 21st, which is today. There are many things going on, among them our service here, and later between three and five, the Peace Flag Project downtown at Burnside Park at Kennedy Plaza.

And, second, I find it particularly meaningful that in the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur was just observed, with that hard look into the heart of judgment, and the sincere seeking of reconciliation. I think these things are intimately connected.

I really like the Kudzu cartoon, and have alluded to it on occasion. I looked around the web and couldn’t find a copy. Still, I think I can describe it pretty accurately, certainly the punch line. Three panels, as I recall. Throughout the preacher Will B. Done is watching. In that first panel a batter has just swung and the umpire is calling out strike three. The second, however, is a strike five. In the third panel, against still another swing has the preacher commenting, “I hate playing against the Unitarians.”

Actually that’s a Universalist theme we’ve inherited, but no doubt it runs a wild and wondrous current through our liberal faith, a spring, a life-giving well. And I appreciated the thumbs up, even if it came from the back of his hand. In the justice/mercy dichotomy, while I think justice important, bottom line I’m a mercy guy. I’m all for second chances, and third, and one hundredth.

I know my own life is marked by second chances, both personal and societal. I’m a pretty self-aware person, and over the course of my life my choices, my actions, have not all been, shall we say, up to my highest ideals. Justice untempered by mercy would put me on a pretty hot seat. I know it. And I’m grateful for those who would cut me a little slack. And I try to return the favor.

In addition to the personal, there is also societal.

As a child of poverty, college was not supposed to be part of my future, and I left High School without a diploma. Later, I tried community college. Actually, it took a couple of tries for it to take. In many countries, such second and third chances are not part of the deal. But in California in those days with its open admission and cheap registration, I got those second and third chances that led directly to my standing in this pulpit.

I mentioned Yom Kippur. I’m quite taken with this season, which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, inaugurating the days of repentance, and culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which, was observed from sundown on this past Friday through sundown yesterday.

I think part of the reason I’m so taken with Rosh Hashanah and particularly with Yom Kippur is how it touches on both justice and mercy, but, also, how in the last analysis it is about the mysteries of peace both within our individual hearts and scattered promiscuously upon this planet. So, all of these things have set my heart to bubbling, to my reflecting on the nature of forgiveness, of justice tempered, of second chances, and how these are essential ingredients to peace of any sort.

Now, some of us find our deepest inspiration in the wilderness. I appreciate that. But for me it is within our human communities that I am personally most moved, most horrified and appalled, but also most moved to joy and aspiration. Cities can be, often are, the archetype of human failure and, for me, of human aspiration, of human possibility. In this context of longing for peace, of seeking to understand justice through a path of mercy and compassion, through that willingness to start over, again and again, my mind, my heart flows to that archetype of dream where East and West meet, that city of the human heart, Jerusalem. In another Jewish celebration there is a toast, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” I would offer that a meditation on Jerusalem brings all these themes together, and points us on our way.

Its Arabic name is al-Quds Sharif, which means Holy Sanctuary. And that certainly is a powerful layer of meaning for us all, if we’re seeking to understand a complex community with its divided heart and persistent longing in the face of war and tribulation as an image of ourselves, a metaphor for who we are and how we might be. Of course its oldest name is Jerusalem, which speaks to that deepest longing of human hearts. I gather the name comes from two ancient roots, “y-r-h” which means something along the lines of direction or instruction or teaching and “s-l-m” which means wholeness or peace. So, Jerusalem is the teaching of peace or the place or abode of peace. And, also, I hope you caught, peace means wholeness. This city, so torn by strife, is often called the door of peace.

Of course everything is complicated, muddied if you will, by contending forces, and multiple claims, pretty much all of which are to one degree or another legitimate. And no one seems immune to this roil of contention. A few years ago one of Jan’s co-workers, who is of Armenian descent was celebrating Easter in the ancient Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Its care is divided among different flavors of Christian. And her experience at that service was a near riot between the contending Christian factions pushing beyond their boundaries, possibly only held at bay from seriously hurting each other by Israeli soldiers, who, frankly, weren’t all that gentle in keeping order. In the not-quite riot Jan’s co-worker’s husband was pushed to the ground. Not a very happy Easter.

So, what in this mess is a pointer for us, here in Providence, Unitarian Universalists recalling Yom Kippur, a Kudzu cartoon, and observing an international Day of Peace?

As I understand the etymology, peace is essentially a treaty. It is a covenant of presence and harmlessness. For it to work there must be an inner component as well as an outer one. As I see it the treaty is a call to wholeness. When we look at Jerusalem as an image of both our selves and of our condition in the world, we see the contending forces of our own hearts, apparently irreconcilable, and possibly that is so. But, in the face of that most reasonable doubt, of uncertainty for the outcome of any project dedicated to peace, one more thing: Edwin Markham’s famous poem, a drawing of a circle large enough to include us all. For me that’s the image of Jerusalem. Or, it can be.

But how to draw that great circle, considering all the obvious and seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing the project? I have a few thoughts. There’s an old Zen saying, fall down nine times, get up ten. Or, some such number. That and that other great Zen chestnut how our path is all “one continuous mistake” certainly inform my walk toward peace, both inner and outer. And, perhaps yours? Here I think of that Kudzu cartoon, again; strike whatever. One more chance, one more chance, as long as breath allows, one more chance.

But I’m also of a practical turn of mind. And so beyond this encouragement to keep on keeping on, and to draw a circle that includes everyone within the city of peace, I would like a few more steps, as clearly stated as possible. Which brings us back to Yom Kippur.

Poking about the Yom Kippur traditions, thinking about it, looking at it through the lens of liberal religion here are four steps we might consider to allow our desire to draw that great circle of peace around our hearts and the hearts of this hurting world. First, owning up to our own part in the mess. Second, turning our hearts once more to our highest aspirations, toward our better angels. Third, reaching out to another, to do our own part in the healing of our many communities. And, fourth, to rededicate ourselves, and to rededicate ourselves again, endlessly to this way of peace.

Okay, owning our own part in the mess. I think we got it right within liberal religion when we walked away from the idea of shame. No free floating guilt about being good enough. But, we also have too often also cut ourselves off from guilt. Guilt is like pain; it is a reminder when something is going wrong. In the case of guilt it is often enough our deeper self, telling us we have done something harmful. We need to assess our own actions and thoughts relentlessly. Look hard. Take inventories. If you feel a pang of guilt, look at it. It may be pointing to something you need to attend to.

Second, what to do with that information? Well, let us recall the moral compass that rests in our hearts, that part of us which knows we are precious as individuals but only exist because we are all part of the great family of things. Let us remember the family, and that we are part of it, and we will have a pretty good idea of what to do next.

Which is the third point. Reach out. Don’t keep it private. Do something for someone else. We’re talking about the family, after all. Small or large, your call, but, for goodness’ sake, do something.

And fourth, do it again. Strike three, strike ten, strike one hundred. Know our hearts are Jerusalem, contending and yet one. Draw the circle wide. Include everyone. Leave no one behind. There are so many souls, thirsting for justice, for mercy, for love, for peace. Come and drink freely from the well at the center of that city of peace.

Drink deep. And refreshed take up the task again. Come, dear ones; make the world a holy sanctuary. Come, my friends; draw the circle wide and join with all to make this world a holy shrine.

When I read the words of Schopenhauer and Goethe and the prose-poetry of Hesse, or listen to the music of Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms, it seems inconceivable that the culture that gave rise to such beauty also gave rise to the ugliness of Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich. In this lies a lesson, I think, for all humanity. We are all, individually, Guardians of civilization, and our watchwords must be kindness, compassion, empathy---and vigilance.


Friday, August 6, 2010


An Introduction

The Bodhisattva Precepts are skillful means to guide us in our engagement with the world. Our everyday life is a great, multifaceted koan that we resolve at every moment and yet never completely resolve. The Precepts transcend ordinary reality and are beyond both action and non-action. The Precepts point to our essential nature.

Living in this world, we sometimes experience a split or gap between “Me” and “Other” or “Inner” and “Outer.” Seen in that light, the Precepts act as a reminder of our Oneness with all creation, a marker of our interrelatedness with all Beings, and a signpost to our place as a jewel in the Net of Indra.

To me, the most important and overriding principle behind the Precepts is the principle of Oneness, which unites all ten Precepts into a single whole, taking as its base life itself. Seeing with the eyes of others, feeling with others’ hands, and experiencing the lack of the gap between “Me” and “Other” brings me to inquire how it is possible to lie, cheat or steal.

We are all swimming in the river of life; we are one with life; we cannot drown. This Oneness is the buoyancy that keeps us afloat.

Going down with a swirl
Coming up with a whirl

Monday, August 2, 2010


All harmful karma ever committed by me since of old

On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

Born of my body, mouth and thought,

Now I atone for it all.

“The Three Defilements”---Greed, Anger and Ignorance---are the badly-lit subbasement of the mind in Buddhist psychology. They are what Shakyamuni was referring to when he posited the Four Noble Truths, which, in sum, tell us that, "Life isn't what we want it to be; because it isn't, we're unhappy; when we decide it doesn't have to be, we become happy; and to help us make that decision, we should get plenty of sleep and eat a good breakfast every day."

The Buddhist term for a Defilement is “Kilesa” in Pali or “Klesha” in Sanskrit, and can be translated also as “affliction” or “poison” or even “fire.” These Kilesas have two manifestations: In one sense, they underlie our entire ingrained dualistic view of the universe; in the other sense, they trouble us personally and cause us to act in ways not in keeping with the Precepts.

Depending on the Buddhist sect, there are three, nine, ten, or as many as 108 Kilesas. Theravadan Buddhist temples usually have 108 steps, each step representing a Kilesa and a Precept. No matter how many Kilesas a particular Sangha recognizes, Greed, Anger and Ignorance always top the list. Others, like Conceit and Torpor and Wrong Views can be characterized as expressions of Greed, Anger and Ignorance, so let’s just stick with the Big Three that cause all our sufferings and prevent us from feeling tranquil.

We all know Greed: That wonderful little voice inside us that says, “Gimme dat t’ing!” But whatever “t’ing” it is, we will lose it, it may break, it loses its attractiveness, and in the end, we find we don’t really own it, right down to our own mind and body. So we cling. We cling to the senses, we cling to ideas, we cling to habits and rituals. Anything we cling to at a given time may be outmoded or not work for us. Ultimately, everything we cling to fails to function.

And we all know Anger: “I don’t wanna!”, "I don’t want to go to work today!"; "I don’t like Joe Dokes, as a matter of fact, I HATE Joe Dokes"; "What kind of lousy lunch is this?"

Dogen Zenji points out that our koan arises naturally in daily life. If we observe our Greed and our Anger we always find our koan. The answer to our koan cuts through our Ignorance.

Both Greed and Anger come from the importance of the “I” in our lives, from the Ego’s desire to protect itself---“To protect my idea of myself”---whether by girding myself ‘round with possessions for a sense of permanence or exiling those things from my life that threaten or don’t support my idea of my own permanence.

Ignorance is not complicated to explain: It works through self-justification. Whether we act well or ill we can be deluded. Thinking that we’re justified in hating Joe Dokes, or thinking that if we can befriend Joe Dokes we can turn things around are both ignorant, deluded thoughts. Baso’s answer, “I’m sitting zazen in order to become a Buddha” earned him a whack because his thinking was deluded. The outcomes we anticipate are delusions.

Bodhidharma said “No merit” to Emperor Wu in regard to all his works. Essentially, Ignorance and its handmaiden Delusion both come down to the underlying motives for our actions.

When we realize the emptiness of all five conditions we are freed of pain.

Just sit.


A Reflection by Konrei

In its simplest form, “Not using intoxicants,” the Fifth Precept would seem to enjoin the use of substances such as drugs and alcohol, and there is that side to it. But lest we fall into the very ignorance we are trying to overcome through a rote and mechanical application of the Precept, we need to look deeper.

A mind that sees clearly is not just a mind that abstains from drink and drugs. As a matter of fact, it could be said that the fixation of the Prohibitionists and the Drug Warriors caused its own delusions, and certainly led to greater evils like corruption and increased crime throughout society. That which is absolutely forbidden is desired all the more, and most of us, being human, will find a way to acquire what we can’t have, even if it is something we don’t truly want to have.

And it is true that, judiciously, intoxicants may bring conviviality and added enjoyment to life: “Good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used,” as Shakespeare said.

Ah, but there’s the rub (and the heart of the matter); for our friendly Fifth Precept is all about cultivating a mind that sees clearly. And no one has ever convinced me that the woman he met while wearing his beer goggles has been the love of his life.

There are myriad other intoxicants. Whether a good meal is good depends on mindfulness in eating it. Simply gorging oneself, even in the finest restaurant, leads to indolence and stagnation. One cannot live lightly with a bellyful of bricks, however good they tasted going down.

In our culture we drug ourselves unmercifully with shoddy entertainment, and escapes into fantasy. The fantasies are endless---The I WANT is insatiable, and serves to stoke our sense of insecurity and inadequacy. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a form of intoxication; even the Joneses are busy keeping up with the Joneses.

Our natural and unavoidable inability to fulfill our fantasies leads to the intoxicating experience of anger. Ah, anger, that state in which the ego triumphs, in which the fantasies feed on each other. The drama in my head is so much more interesting than the often boring and prosaic reality---“Why that So-And-So! He never showed up! He did this to me on purpose! Just wait! He’s got it coming!”---I then imagine the five forms of medieval torture to which my friend will be put, while meanwhile the poor schlub’s car’s broken down and his cellphone’s dead, and he needs my help.

Cultivating a mind that sees clearly means cultivating a mind that sees actively. A mind that sees actively counts its drinks, it weighs that second piece of birthday cake in the scales of my own well-being, it monitors its own escapes into fantasy and uses those moments to be creative, perhaps writing the next novel or redecorating the living room, and it determines whether the costs---emotional, financial and psychological---of my desires are worth the results.

Ignorance is both the cause and the effect of my not being in tune with the song the universe is singing.


Until I attain Enlightenment may I likewise attain the cutting-off of craving and clinging.
Whatever faults I have until I attain Enlightenment, may they quickly perish.
Wherever I am born, may there be an upright mind, mindfulness, wisdom, austerity and vigor.
May harmful influences not weaken my efforts.
The Buddha is the unexcelled protector.
The Dharma is the supreme protection.
The Sangha is my true refuge.
And Peerless is the “Silent Buddha.”
By the power of these Ones, may I rise above all ignorance.


Tweet Less, Kiss More

I was driving from Washington to New York one afternoon on Interstate 95 when a car came zooming up behind me, really flying. I could see in the rearview mirror that the driver was talking on her cellphone.

I was about to move to the center lane to get out of her way when she suddenly swerved into that lane herself to pass me on the right — still chatting away. She continued moving dangerously from one lane to another as she sped up the highway.

A few days later, I was talking to a guy who commutes every day between New York and New Jersey. He props up his laptop on the front seat so he can watch DVDs while he’s driving.

“I only do it in traffic,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

Beyond the obvious safety issues, why does anyone want, or need, to be talking constantly on the phone or watching movies (or texting) while driving? I hate to sound so 20th century, but what’s wrong with just listening to the radio? The blessed wonders of technology are overwhelming us. We don’t control them; they control us.

We’ve got cellphones and BlackBerrys and Kindles and iPads, and we’re e-mailing and text-messaging and chatting and tweeting — I used to call it Twittering until I was corrected by high school kids who patiently explained to me, as if I were the village idiot, that the correct term is tweeting. Twittering, tweeting — whatever it is, it sounds like a nervous disorder.

This is all part of what I think is one of the weirder aspects of our culture: a heightened freneticism that seems to demand that we be doing, at a minimum, two or three things every single moment of every hour that we’re awake. Why is multitasking considered an admirable talent? We could just as easily think of it as a neurotic inability to concentrate for more than three seconds.

Why do we have to check our e-mail so many times a day, or keep our ears constantly attached, as if with Krazy Glue, to our cellphones? When you watch the news on cable television, there are often additional stories being scrolled across the bottom of the screen, stock market results blinking on the right of the screen, and promos for upcoming features on the left. These extras often block significant parts of the main item we’re supposed to be watching.

A friend of mine told me about an engagement party that she had attended. She said it was lovely: a delicious lunch and plenty of Champagne toasts. But all the guests had their cellphones on the luncheon tables and had text-messaged their way through the entire event.

Enough already with this hyperactive behavior, this techno-tyranny and nonstop freneticism. We need to slow down and take a deep breath.

I’m not opposed to the remarkable technological advances of the past several years. I don’t want to go back to typewriters and carbon paper and yellowing clips from the newspaper morgue. I just think that we should treat technology like any other tool. We should control it, bending it to our human purposes.

Let’s put down at least some of these gadgets and spend a little time just being ourselves. One of the essential problems of our society is that we have a tendency, amid all the craziness that surrounds us, to lose sight of what is truly human in ourselves, and that includes our own individual needs — those very special, mostly nonmaterial things that would fulfill us, give meaning to our lives, enlarge us, and enable us to more easily embrace those around us.

There’s a character in the August Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” who says everyone has a song inside of him or her, and that you lose sight of that song at your peril. If you get out of touch with your song, forget how to sing it, you’re bound to end up frustrated and dissatisfied.

As this character says, recalling a time when he was out of touch with his own song, “Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy.”

I don’t think we can stay in touch with our song by constantly Twittering or tweeting, or thumbing out messages on our BlackBerrys, or piling up virtual friends on Facebook.

We need to reduce the speed limits of our lives. We need to savor the trip. Leave the cellphone at home every once in awhile. Try kissing more and tweeting less. And stop talking so much.


Other people have something to say, too. And when they don’t, that glorious silence that you hear will have more to say to you than you ever imagined. That is when you will begin to hear your song. That’s when your best thoughts take hold, and you become really you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Introduction to Zen by Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

What is Zen?

The word "Zen" is tossed around so carelessly in the commercial world, the human potential world, the world of design, and in popular culture in general, that for someone new to it as an authentic spiritual tradition, it has become too vague to have much meaning. Real Zen is the practice of coming back to the actual right-now-in-this-moment self, coming back to the naturalness, the intimacy and simplicity of our true nature. Zen practice is not about getting away from our life as it is; it is about getting into our life as it is, with all of its vividness, beauty, hardship, joy and sorrow. Zen is a path of awakening: awakening to who we really are, and awakening the aspiration to serve others and take responsibility for all of life.

This sounds good, but how is it to be accomplished? How is it possible to enter such a new way of experiencing one's life?

The Practice

There is a term in the Celtic tradition that I find resonates with something fundamental about Zen practice. The Celts spoke of "thin places," places like caves or wells or other special sites where the boundary between the mundane and magical was permeable. To me, Zen practice offers a kind of thin place, a "place" where we can discover that there is fundamentally no separation between ourselves and others, that what we seek is always so close, always right here. In the Lotus Sutra's parable of the burning house, the only escape from our greed, anger, and ignorance is said to be through a "narrow door." The narrow door, the thin place, and any of a number of metaphors point us in the direction of our own realization. A door or a gate or a threshold also implies that there is effort, movement, investment in transformation.

At the heart of Zen practice is zazen, seated meditation. One master said that listening and thinking are like being outside the gate, and zazen is returning home and sitting in peace. Zazen is really a very simple practice and does not involve complicated instructions. When one studies the ancient Zen meditation manuals, it is always surprising how brief and plain they are. While they speak of the possibility of attaining the freedom and naturalness of a tiger in the mountains or a dragon in the water, the actual instructions are so concrete. Sit in the proper posture and attend to the body, breath, and mind.

Make a Place to Sit

It is best to have a place set aside for regular zazen. Whether it is a room or just a corner, the space should be clean and uncluttered. Place a mat on the floor (a folded blanket will do) and on it a zafu, another type of comfortable sitting cushion, or a bench. If floor sitting is too difficult, simply use a chair.

Preparing to Sit

At the beginning of a sitting period, it is traditional to bow to an altar, offer a stick of incense, and bow once more. Then, as you stand before your seat, bow toward and away from your cushion, bench, or chair. These acts help us to realize intention and respect. The incense is offered with the intention that this session is for all beings, for all creation, not just for oneself. The standing bow to and away from our cushion actualizes our respect for our practice and for those, whether present or not, who practice with us. The physical act of bowing, of folding our body down, placing our head in a traditionally respectful position of vulnerability, gives the ego a big break, an opportunity to let go. When you are seated-whether cross-legged, kneeling, or in a chair-settle into the zazen posture: Place your hands on your lap or thighs, in the cosmic mudra, your right hand holding your left one, palms up, with your thumbs barely touching, forming a circle.


Sit on the forward third of your cushion or chair, so that your hips are higher than your knees and your belly is free to move in and out without stress on your lower back. Your ears are in line with your shoulders, your head balanced gently on your neck, your eyes are slightly open, gazing down about three feet in front of you. Your chin is pointing neither up nor down, but is slightly tucked in. Place your tongue just behind your teeth on the roof of your mouth. Sway from side to side until you find your center point.

The Breath

Now attend to the breath. Breathe naturally. Breathing in, allow the breath to fully enter your body until your lower belly expands; then, breathing out, softly allow the breath to ease out through your nostrils. Notice how the breath seems to travel through the main avenues of your torso. Your belly should rise and fall naturally with each breath. Let the breath fill your lower abdomen as if it were a balloon. Later, you may notice that even the bottoms of your feet are breathing in and out. As you relax into the breath, you can begin silently counting each full cycle of breath, noting "one" on the out-breath, "two" on the next out-breath, and so on up to "ten." When you reach "ten," begin again with "one." When you realize that you have stopped counting, and are caught up in thinking, simply take another breath and go back to "one."

Do this-counting your breath, maintaining your posture, sitting still-for the 20-minute period of zazen. Notice that urges to move-to scratch your nose, to tug on your ear-are usually ways to move away from the energies in your body. Instead of moving, stay with them, observe them, and bring your focus back to the breathing. Learn to notice how these urges fall away, only to be replaced by others, demonstrating the second noble truth: the cause of suffering is craving. All the disparate ideas, thoughts, impulses-everything comes and goes, and yet you sit. And little by little, the chatter drops away and your body, breath, and mind are one. Zazen is so simple. We focus on our posture and on counting our breath, and this develops samadhi, a unified mind. But the practice is not about reaching "ten." It is about training the body and mind. Let the body settle, let the breath settle, let the mind settle. Don't worry about whether your practice is working, don't judge your performance, don't tell yourself stories or find other ways to avoid this very moment. These are just ways of separating from our deepest intention and our zazen. When you do zazen, just do zazen. That's enough.

The Original Self

In the Genjokoan (Actualizing the Fundamental Point), Zen Master Dogen writes:

When one first seeks the dharma, one is far away from its environs. When one has already correctly transmitted the dharma to oneself, one is one's original self at that moment.

Dogen Zenji's teaching reminds us of our initial separation from what is ours. When we begin to seek the dharma, there is an "I" that looks for it over "there." But the dharma is already alive in us, and requires only that we realize it, which is what he means in the second sentence: having "correctly transmitted the dharma to oneself," one is one's real self in that moment.

I think all of us yearn to experience ourselves as whole and complete, to live our lives fully and freshly in each moment. But something blocks us, and Zen training is one way to see that, all along, we have what we need. This is called the realization of the original self.

The Daily Practice: Be Consistent

The zazen period we are recommending is 20 minutes. You may find that you will want to do more---or less----and that is fine. What is important is consistency. To keep your practice consistent, remember what the famous Nike ad says: "Just do it." Don't concern yourself with trying to get to some particular place or state of mind. Each day's zazen will be a little different, just like the rest of life. We practice steadiness in our daily meditation-alert, sleepy, focused-we just practice each day, through the high points and the low. When you mess up-and you will- just say, "Okay, back to my cushion." When you are sitting, you may realize that you are thinking about something else. At that moment, take a deep breath and recognize that, in that moment of realization, you have come back to now. As an old meditation manual says, as soon as you are aware of a thought, it will vanish! When we are thinking of a thing, we are lost in it, lost in thinking about "x." But when we become aware of our thinking, then we are in a secondary state. The actual thinking of "x" is gone, and there is either just awareness or we begin a new thought based on that awareness. Either way, the original thinking is gone. If we practice daily, soon we are able to stay more often in that space of pure awareness without an object. Just breathing, just being present-we call this being naturally unified.

Zazen is a form that allows us to practice the no form of boundless emptiness. The freedom that is made available to us through form is one of those grand paradoxes of life. When we organize ourselves and create a structure, we also create the means to be free of structure. Form helps us by organizing and directing our energies. But we can carry our form lightly, with respect and appreciation for its gifts. This subtle discipline-settling, unifying, letting be-is called the dharma gate of peace and joy.

The Precepts

Finally, because all of this practice leads to our realization of our interdependence and interrelatedness with all beings, we will also take up the practice of the sixteen bodhisattva precepts. These precepts are not commandments; rather, they are guiding principles for living a life of freedom and service. The precepts will be one of the topics in the online discussions. The precepts are themselves worthy of a lifetime of study and practice. Indeed, in some Zen traditions, they are part of formal koan study, with each precept appreciated from various perspectives. Make them your own, be intimate with them. Rather than simply trying to follow them, embody them, in much the same way in which you "become" your zazen.

Sitting with Others

Zen is not a solitary practice. As we chant at the end of our liturgy, "May we realize the Buddha Way together." Sitting with others, studying with others, working with others, talking with others-all these are integral to the life of Zen. So I encourage you as well to join with others whenever possible. Go to a Zen meditation center or a similar group and sit with other people.

Let's let Master Dogen have the last word:

The dharma is amply present in every person, but without practice, it is not manifested; without realization, it is not attained.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nothing I Think Therefore I Am Nothing...I Think

While wrestling with Katagiri Roshi's "Each Moment Is The Universe" it suddenly occurred to me that our thoughts come not from the cells of our brains but from the infinitesimally small space between the end of one neuron and the end of another. In our heads we picture this as a kind of chemical or electrical exchange, something like the static arcs shooting between the positive and negative poles of Dr. Frankenstein's reanimator, our thoughts aren't just so many miniature lightning bolts (even though, with our monkey minds we create an awful lot of static for ourselves). No one knows what they are. No one's actually ever seen a thought, where it comes from or where it goes.

Thoughts arise not in the substance but in the empty spaces of our brains. Thus, as the Heart Sutra says, "all things are expressions of emptiness." All our perceptions---even the perception that we are having a perception---arise from this infinitesimal and yet infinite noplace that exists within the few cubic inches of our brains. The whole universe is in there. Now that's a pretty neat trick.

But better still is the fact that we therefore have the ultimate power to perceive what we want to perceive. Perceive love, and love will manifest itself. Perceive a war, and a war you will have.

These perceptions don't really exist, any more than the perceiver---in my case me, in your case you---exists. Nothing exists, but even that nonexistent Nothing is really a Something. A Something which is Nothing.

Thus we have the duality of Oneness, or as Sekito Kisen described it in the "Sandokai": "The Absolute meets the Relative like two arrow points that touch high in the air." In physics we have the lesson of Schrodinger's Cat, who is both alive and dead at the same time---1500 years ago Zen Master Dogo intuited the same concept and gave us a koan, "I Will Not Say"---and the choice is ours.

Knowing that we have full freedom of choice in this Virtual Universe, we can play at anything, because we are the Somethingless Nothing that is contemplating itself.

So, as long as we aren't here, we might as well play nice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Re: The Southern Palm Two-Step

(The following is a response to Sid's inquiry as to the meaning of "know" in "know where you are" re: The Southern Palm Two-Step)

Hi, Sid:

To me, the "knowing" that's referred to in the Southern Palm Two-Step is really a response to the situation or circumstances that one finds oneself in. The core teaching of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering - which is certainly why I came to Zen, not enlightenment or anything so esoteric. The Buddha taught that his dharma was about the cause of human suffering and the alleviation of that suffering. He said that his teaching, the Eightfold Path, could be judged as true dharma - if and only if it was skillful in helping to do that very thing: alleviate suffering.

The first step in the Eightfold Path is "Right View." As Steve Hagen writes in Buddhism - Plain & Simple: "Normally, a view of the world is nothing more than a set of beliefs, a way to freeze the world in our minds. But this can never match Reality, simply because the world isn't frozen. Nevertheless we carry on as though the way we've frozen it in our minds is the way it actually is --" which, as we've spoken often, causes us to suffer. "I want it to be this way," or I don't want it to be that way."

"When the Buddha spoke of 'Right View,' he was referring to a view that isn't frozen, 'Right View' is fluid and flexible, constantly in motion. It's an awareness of how this moment has come to be. 'Right View' is seeing reality in all its fullness and fluidity - yet there's nothing in particular to be seen."

So, in essence, this "knowing where you are" is really a response, and as such - as Bernie Glassman writes in Woodenman - "we just respond directly in accordance with the circumstances. It is not a matter of 'knowing' what to do; it is rather a matter of just responding."

Hence, as situations occur and as circumstances evolve, it is taking, as we say in zen, "the step back," treading softly, not causing suffering, and responding appropriately - not from the aspect of our preconditioned mind, but from the Reality of what is before us - and bringing a little kindness along the way.

Remember that when Dogen came back to Japan from China and his monks asked him what he gleaned from his training with Ju-ching, he responded: " I came back a kinder person." This, likewise, is my intention.

I believe the following account is apropos to this discussion:

A student once asked Suzuki Roshi why the Japanese make their teacups so thin and delicate that they break easily. "It's not that they're too delicate," he answered, "but that you don't know how to handle them. You must adjust yourself to the environment, and not vice versa."

Hope this is of some help.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Excerpt from a commentary on an article entitled “The Vocabulary of Peace” given by Lera Chacon, February 10, 2010.

What do I do to promote peace?

Here’s 6 things that I came up with:

1. I promote peace by understanding that the world out there is simply a reflection of the world in here, and then doing what I can to make my inner world peaceful.

2. I promote peace within, by reminding myself, when necessary, to simply allow “what is.” Part of “what is” is that there is peace and there is no peace. I prefer peace. In any given personal situation, I’ll operate on that preference. But I allow that not everyone else feels the same way.

3. I promote peace within, by acknowledging the mystery. I know that there’s a lot more going on than I can perceive and I’m convinced that I don’t know what is good for anyone, including myself. Who am I to say that something that exist, should not be?

4. I promote peace within, by trusting that “What is” is GOOD in some way that may not be obvious. Another way of saying this is: I trust Life is for us, not against us. A quote comes to mind from the Bible: All things work together for good (for those that love the Lord.) My version is: All things work together for good
….to point us in the direction of love.

5. I promote peace within, by trusting that everyone is doing the best they can, at any given moment, with the resources they have available, and with the life experiences and conditioning they have endured, so there is no one to blame. No one. Not even those who practice violence.

6. I promote peace within, by catching my negative thoughtforms and my less than peaceful reactions, and doing something about them. A phrase from Emotional Freedom Technique has helped me tremendously in forgiving the world and myself.
When I see something that I judge as not right or not as it should be, I take full responsibility for it being in my world and for my experience of it. The phrase from Emotional Freedom Technique is: Even though I (fill in the blank) I fully and completely love and accept myself. For example, I might say: Even though I experience manipulation, deceit, and greed, I fully and completely love and accept myself. Or: Even though I feel angry. I fully and completely love and accept myself.
Even though I just judged someone and made them wrong, I fully and completely love and accept myself. I keep repeating the phrase with different versions of “what is” until I feel the peace.

All of these ways I promote peace within sounds like I don’t do anything out there in the world. Of course that’s not true. I act. (Sometimes more successfully than others.) But I’ve found if I can maintain peace within myself, I am guided to more skillful action in the world. When I maintain peace within myself, it’s as simple as doing the next most obvious thing. And I never know what that will be in advance, so it makes life interesting.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hanshaku Kyo

Commissioned by Dogen Zenji in the 13th Century, Hanshaku Kyo ("Half Dipper Bridge") takes its name from the fact that when drawing water, Dogen, as abbot of Eiheiji Monastery, would return half a bucketful of water to the river as a sign of respect. As Suzuki Roshi said, "This was not done with any idea of economy." Rather, it was done as an exercise in mindfulness, to remind the resident monks of their dependence upon the life-giving quality of the river.