Living by vow

Lately I have been reading this wonderful book by Shohaku Okumura, “Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential zen chants and texts”.  Shohaku trained with the great Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji Temple in Kyoto, and one of Uchiyama Roshi’s most important teachings is encapsulated in the title of the book. On the subject of living by vow, Shohaku writes, “. . . part of the definition of a bodhisattva is a person who lives by vow instead of living by karma. Karma means habit, preferences, or a ready-made system of values. As we grow up, we learn a system of values from the culture around us, which we use to evaluate the world and choose our actions. This is karma, and living by karma. In contrast, a bodhisattva lives by vow. Vow is like a magnet or compass that shows us the direction toward the Buddha.”

How do we decide on the right course of action in our lives? What guides us in our daily lives? For most of us, before we come to a spiritual practice like Zen, the foundation of our decision-making maybe comes from our family history, or our personal preferences, which are probably conditioned by our family history, or just by force of habit. This is living a life of what Buddhists call karma.

The word karma has sort of a bad reputation in our society because both because it is misunderstood and because it is used in different ways in different Asian traditions. In Zen, especially as we have come to understand it here in the west, karma doesn’t really have anything to do with past lives or with any sort of spiritual determinism. It’s really very concrete and specific. Our karma is the set of our accumulated habits. This is not just the things we usually think of as habits, like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes. We also have many habits of mind. Often these are things that got established in our families, the ways we related to our parents and our siblings. Maybe we are drawn to a partner who reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of one of our parents, or we find that we are playing out unresolved issues from our childhood over and over again in our adult relationships. This is karma, and for many of us, it is the material we work through in psychotherapy. Until we come to grips with our karma, most of us tend to be tossed around by these habits and maybe we don’t even understand why our lives aren’t working out the way we want them to.

Once we make our way to a meditation practice, we begin to see the power of living by vow, although we may not think of it in those terms. As Uchiyama Roshi explains, the practice of zazen is fundamentally a practice of vow and repentance. When we sit, we make a vow to simply be present and not respond to the karmic life that unfolds in front of us. As we see after sitting for even a few seconds, though, it’s actually an impossible vow. The structure of our minds is such that it’s really impossible to remain completely present. When we find that our minds have wandered, we simply and gently bring our attention back to our breath and our posture. This is repentance. It’s not some sort of dramatic beating ourselves up, like “Oh I’m such a terrible person! Please forgive me!” It’s just the recognition that we have, for the moment, missed the mark, and we recommit ourselves to this vow to simply be present.

Once we begin to break the karmic chains, once we are no longer so tossed around by our habits, what replaces them as our guideline for action in the world? Our vows. When we formally become Buddhists in the ceremony of jukai, we take the Bodhisattva vows and the precepts, which form a good basis for ethical and sane decision making.

Beings are numberless: I vow to save them

Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless: I vow to enter them

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable: I vow to become it

The precepts are sometimes worded as a vow, sometimes not, and they can be worded in either positive or negative ways, but at their simplest they are:

(1) I vow not to kill

(2) I vow not to take that which is not given

(3) I vow not to misuse sexuality

(4) I vow not to lie.

(5) I vow not to intoxicate mind or body of self or others.

(6) I vow not to slander

(7) I vow not to praise self at the expense of others

(8) I vow not to be possessive

(9) I vow not to harbor ill-will.

(10) I vow not to abuse the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

If the word vow seems to grandiose, maybe the word we can use is “intention”. Maybe that’s a bit more realistic. For some people, the idea of a vow entails a requirement that one may never fail, and then, if we do fail, we may feel disillusioned and disappointed in ourselves and maybe even give up. So don’t set yourself up for that, don’t be too dramatic about it. Shohaku writes, “A life led by vow is a life animated or inspired by vow, not one that is watched, scolded, or consoled by vow. The simple phrase living by vow emphasizes that the person and the vow are one thing. Our life itself is a vow.”

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Finding your place

As many of you know, I am a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico.  Every year, I spend a couple of weeks working at our field site in the northern Chilean Andes, at a place called the Chajnantor Plateau, located at an altitude of about 17,000 feet, where we are studying changes in Earth’s hydrological cycle.  It’s an extraordinary place, one of the very driest places on Earth’s surface, and it’s home to several astronomical observatories.  We’ve been working there for several years now, and we are starting to see the fruits of spending some extended time really focusing on getting to know this one place.

This time, in addition to doing our own work, we got to spend some time working with some of the many other scientists who work in the area.  For several years, we have been interacting with the cosmologists who have observatories on the Plateau, and we got to spend some more time with them this year.  They are studying the first 300,000 years after the big bang, trying to find evidence for a process called inflation, which is a hypothesized exponential expansion of the early universe.  They study this by looking for tiny ripples in what is called the cosmic microwave background, these echos of the Big Bang that they are measuring from the Chajnantor Plateau.

We also spent some time with some anthropologists who are studying pre-Hispanic irrigation practices in that part of the Chilean Atacama desert.  We saw some old ruins from the Atacaman people and some slightly younger ruins from when the Incas invaded.  It was extraordinary to see this sweep of history that occurred all before the arrival of Europeans.  You could see the individual adobe bricks from the Incan structures and we walked along the Inca Road that connected Cuzco all the way to Santiago.

Our own work is helping us to understand the ongoing changes in climate that are affecting our planet, but we also were looking at features from the last ice age, 21,000 years ago, when this region had large glaciers on it, and from the Miocene epoch, about 20 million years ago, when that part of the Andes was beginning to be tectonically uplifted.

It was remarkable to me that just by hanging out in this one place, we could learn about literally most of the history of the universe!  For some time, I have been feeling there would be real benefit in focusing on one particular place and really getting to know it across the broad expanse of time, and it felt like a validation of that as many threads of our work have started to come together.

During this time, I thought a lot about our Zen practice and often thought of a quote from Dogen’s Genjo Koan:  When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.  When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.  This is one of those great quotes from Dogen that summarizes the entirety of the practice in just a few words.  What he’s saying is that when we orient ourselves in space and time, when we really get to know a place, whether it’s a mountain or a watershed, a yoga studio or a zendo, or even just our zabuton or our own minds, when we really know that place right at this point and right at this time, that is the manifestation of our practice.  When we sit in zazen, we watch our thoughts and moods and different shades of feeling and study them in detail, just like we might get to know the ancient pathways of the Incas or the subtle ripples in the cosmic background radiation.  We really get to know them, and through that, we find this sense of place right where we are.

Most of the time, most of us are not connected to that sense of place in our own lives, in our own hearts.  Before we come to practice, we are tossed around on the turbulent seas of our own desires and our unseen and unknown impulses.  Simply put, we don’t know ourselves.  Eventually, if we’re lucky, a friend might suggest to us that a meditation practice might be helpful.  By this time, we may be desperate for some relief so we give it a try.  Bit by bit, over time, we start to map out the different pathways and ripples of our hearts.  We start to become known to ourselves, at least a little bit.  And with that knowledge comes the kind of orientation that Dogen speaks of, and we start to find some stability in our lives.  These are the real fruits of our practice.

This sense of place must also be at the heart of any Buddhist response to the world’s ecological crisis.  No one speaks more eloquently of this link than the great poet Gary Snyder.  In 1974, he wrote:  “[There can be] no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, [to] find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point.”

“That’s why I talk about watersheds,” he explains in an interview in Shambhala Sun from 1996. “Symbolically and literally they’re the mandalas of our lives. They provide the very idea of the watershed’s social enlargement, and quietly present an entry into the spiritual realm that nobody has to think of or recognize as being spiritual.  The watershed is our only local Buddha mandala, one that gives us all, human and non-human, a territory to interact in. That is the beginning of dharma citizenship: not membership in a social or national sphere, but in a larger community citizenship. In other words, a sangha; a local dharma community. All of that is in there, like Dogen when he says, ‘When you find your place, practice begins.’ There are several levels of meaning in what Dogen says. There’s the literal meaning, as in when you settle down somewhere. This means finding the right teaching, the right temple, the right village. Then you can get serious about your practice.  Underneath, there’s another level of implication: you have to understand that there are such things as places. That’s where Americans have yet to get to. They don’t understand that there are places. So I quote Dogen and people say, ‘What do you mean, you have to find your place? Anywhere is okay for dharma practice because it’s spiritual.’ Well, yes, but not just any place. It has to be a place that you’ve found yourself. It’s never abstract, always concrete.”

So this brings us back to our practice of zazen.  To find our place where we are, we come back to the zendo over and over again, week after week, year after year, and we just keep coming back to the breath over and over and over again.  In doing this, we get to know the landscape of our hearts in intimate detail.  Over time, we find this sense of place right in our own lives, wherever we are and whatever we are doing.  And that is actualizing the fundamental point.


–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Visiting Teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer talk, Mon 7/7 6:30pm

norman-fischer1On the heels of a visit from our other guiding teacher, auspiciously this week we host Rev. Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Rev. Zoketsu is the former long-time abbot of San Francisco Zen Center and a respected poet and author. Zoketsu is the founder and senior Dharma teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of sanghas with chapters in Canada, the United States and Mexico. He is the author of many books poetry, non-fiction, and Buddhist teaching, including Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, and Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons.

Zazen starts at 6:30, followed by a short service and Norman’s talk. Please join us!

Visiting Teacher Taigen Dan Leighton talk, Mon 6/30/14

Following on the heels of a wonderful seminar on Saturday, Taigen will be giving a public talk Monday night, June 30, following zazen which begins at 6:30 pm. Please join us!

taigenTaigen Dan Leighton is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.”


Qiyuan Gives Birth

Master Shiche asked his student, the nun Qiyuan Xinggang, “Buddha nature is not illusory.  What was it like when you were gestating the spiritual embryo?”

She replied, “It felt solidified, deep and solitary.”

“When you gave birth to the embryo, what was it like?”

“It was like being completely stripped bare.”

“When you met with the Buddha, what was it like?”

“I took advantage of the opportunity to meet the Buddha face to face.”

Shiche said, “Good!  Good!  You will be a model for those in the future!”


Qiyuan Xinggang (1597–1654) can be considered the matriarch of seventeenth-century women Chan masters, not only because she was the one of the first to set foot on the stage in that century but also because she left seven women Dharma successors, one of whom wrote a relatively detailed biographical study of her.  This is a wonderful and very unusual awakening story because the imagery used here, that of gestation and birth, are not typical of the more male-oriented traditional stories.  Those stories often entail a spirit of confrontation or warriorship, the path of the solitary hero.

The spiritual embryo is a traditional Taoist image, and I think anyone who has done any length of meditation understands that feeling of nurturing something within us.  You can call it a spiritual embryo, maybe you can call it Buddha nature, but when we sit zazen we can feel that we are nurturing something very tender within our hearts.

I like the teacher’s opening statement that Buddha nature is not illusory.  In other words, it’s not just an idea.  We really do have this very grounded, very sane, wakeful quality within us.  And then he asks the student – what’s that like for you?  What is it to nurture that part of yourself?  And her answer is very personal: solidified, deep, and solitary.  This is a practice we have to do ourselves, and while we have the support of good spiritual friends, ultimately we must go deeply within ourselves, and the practice of nurturing this quality within our hearts is indeed solitary.  We can talk about it with others, but ultimately it’s our own path and our own experience.

The image of childbirth as a metaphor for awakening is beautiful and Qiyuan’s response is certainly accurate: it is like being completely stripped bare.  When my wife was in labor with our daughter, not quite a year ago, I was completely awed by the totality of her effort.  For those who have experienced it, either as a mother or as a father present and witnessing the woman’s effort, you know what I mean.  In Zen, we talk a lot about making a wholehearted effort.  Dogen talks about our practice as “total engagement with upright sitting.”  A woman in labor is truly totally engaged.  The way I thought about it was that Jessica was “all in”.  All her chips were on the table.  There was truly nothing left out, nothing held back in her effort.  It was extremely humbling.

What is it to be stripped bare in our spiritual life?  Is that something we can do through our own effort, or is it something that just happens to us?  Can we do a spiritual practice half-heartedly?  Can we live half-heartedly?  Certainly, Qiyuan is pointing toward a particular quality of effort that we should make in our lives.  Are you up for that?

The teacher then shifts the question: “When you met the Buddha, what was that like?”.  In other words, when you have made this effort and really come face to face with this ground of reality, what is that for you?  How do you do that?  And Qiyuang tells her teacher that she met the Buddha face-to-face.

Our tradition places a particular emphasis on the face-to-face meeting with the teacher, sort of in the same way that we are taught to meet our experience directly in zazen.  The transmission of the dharma from generation to generation is often described in terms of face-to-face transmission, or warm hand-to-warm hand transmission.  It’s a very intimate meeting between teacher and student.

Continuing with this metaphor of the spiritual life as childbirth, and how we may meet that difficulty or challenge face-to-face.  What’s that like?  Is there some fear there?   Some excitement?  But ultimately here the question is: can you meet that face-to-face, and what does it mean to meet face-to-face anyway?  It also reminds me of that profound moment when you first see your baby.  Did you meet her face-to-face?  This is the direct experience of meeting your own heart.

The teacher then congratulates the student, and I don’t think he’s being snarky or ironic: Good!  This kind of effort and willingness to meet one’s own experience is exactly what will inspire future generations of students.  When you’ve had that kind of intense experience, and especially if you were able to meet it head on and not try to swerve around it, it changes you.  You become a different person, and others will see that in you.  You can see the change as a woman becomes a mother, or as a man becomes a father, and you can see it in a person of practice who has met their experience directly, over and over again.  That’s what we are practicing here.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Taigen Dan Leighton Visit to ABQ!

Zen master Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra: “Ancient Keys to Current Crises”

Sat. June 28, 2014 9:30-4:30

Chicago-based Zen teacher and renowned Dogen scholar/translator Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, PhD will lead an all-day seminar on the teachings of Eihei Dogen (the founder of Zen in Japan.) Concentrating on Dogen’s epic Mountains and Waters Sutra, we will investigateits vast perspectives and poignant applicability to many of the ecological, psychological, and spiritual issues we face today, individually and collectively. The day will be interspersed with discussion and periods of zazen (silent meditation.)

Taigen is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.

Location: Dragonfly Yoga, 1301 Rio Grande Blvd NW, ABQ.

contact for reservations.

Suggested fee: $55.00; sliding scale available (no one turned away!) Discounted pre-registration: $45

Ziyong’s Earth

A monk asked Master Ziyong Chengru, “Thirty blows – are they the actions of a man or an enlightened being?”

Ziyong replied, “Just as long as the fellow isn’t beaten to death.”

The monk said, “When you speak, the congregation assembles like clouds.  In the end, who is the ‘great hero’ among women?”

Ziyong said, “Each and every person has the sky over their head; each and every one has the earth under their feet.”

The monk gave a shout.

Ziyong said, “What is the point of recklessly shouting like that?”

The monk bowed respectfully and Ziyong said, “The dharma does not rise up alone – it can’t emerge without reliance on the world.  If I take up the challenge of speaking I must surely borrow the light and the dark, the form and the emptiness of the mountains and hills and the great Earth, the call of the magpies and the cries of the crows.  The water flows and the flowers blossom, brilliantly preaching without ceasing.  In this way, there is no restraint.”

Ziyong Chengru was an abbess from the Lin-chi (Rinzai) Chan tradition near Beijing who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.  She was also known for traveling widely and meeting with teachers and students from all around China.  This story recounts an exchange that took place with a monk at a monastery where she was visiting and had been invited to give a Dharma talk.  She was visiting the monastery to pay respects to her lineage ancestors, and it sounds like this monk is challenging her using the enigmatic and confrontational style characteristic of classical Chinese Zen.

We can imagine that after she gave her talk she asked if there were any questions, and this monk begins with a question that relates directly to the confrontational style of classical Chinese Zen.  Many Zen stories of monks and their male teachers involve the teacher giving the student 30 blows with a stick.  Usually the teacher is beating a student who has offered a response that the teacher deems to be too intellectual, not somehow spontaneous enough.  The physical beatings were apparently thought to help shift the student from an intellectual mode to a more intuitive approach.  So the monk in this story is asking a question about this kind of action – is this striking of students an expression of a truly enlightened person, or just some ordinary schlub?  Ziyong responds in a pretty down-to-earth way, basically saying, well, it’s OK as long as the student isn’t beaten to death!  She doesn’t seem interested in getting involved in this question of enlightenment or not, and we see this pragmatic approach throughout the exchange.

Then the monk says that her visit brought together the whole community, they all came to her talk, to see this great visiting teacher.  Then he asks kind of an odd question – in the end, who is the great hero among women.  Why does he ask this?  Would he ask this of a male teacher?  Clearly he is responding to her gender here.

Her response is very warm and down-to-earth: all of us, not just men, not just women, all of us live on the Earth with the sky overhead and the ground beneath our feet. It reminds me of the Buddha touching the ground when Mara asked the Buddha who could bear witness to the Buddha’s awakening, who could verify it?  The Buddha touched the Earth as if to say the Earth itself, literally the ground of where we all live, is the witness.  Awakening is our birthright just by being born on this planet.  Clearly, Ziyong is pointing the monk to a place beyond gender.

The monk then gives a good, old-fashioned Zen shout, which was a fairly common way to respond in a Dharma inquiry.  The shout is a way of pointing beyond words to the absolute.  Ziyong doesn’t play along and just asks basically, ‘Do you have to make such a racket?’

The monk bows, basically as a way of saying that he doesn’t have anything further to offer in this exchange.  Ziyong’s closing statement is so beautiful.  She is saying that the Dharma isn’t from some other realm of emptiness or some cosmic thing that touched down here on the Earth.  No, the Dharma, like us, is completely of this Earth.  It depends completely on the world.  When we speak about the Dharma, when we speak about our lives, we, like the Buddha, are immediately verified and supported by the Earth, by all beings.  It’s a tremendously validating perspective.

Now, it’s not to say that we don’t need teachers or that we don’t need feedback from our friends.  The monk in this story was probably well trained in the classical Chinese Zen forms, which place a very strong emphasis on meeting with a teacher.  In that framework, it’s very important to get feedback about our practice.  We need that, for sure; we need to talk to others because we do sometimes stray from the path and our friends and teachers can help us along.  So I want to be clear that Ziyong isn’t saying that the blossoming of the flowers and the call of the magpies is the only interaction we need with others in our practice.

What she’s talking about is the deeper kind of verification that we might understand in terms of Buddha nature.  All of us, without exception, have this sane, wakeful quality that is our birthright.  We don’t have to receive the approval of others to get this.  It’s part of the package.  And it is fully expressed in the sound of the magpie, the flowing river, the mountains, the valleys.

How many times do we feel something in our hearts but don’t honor that feeling, somehow believing that we are wrong or somehow don’t have the right to our experience?  When we sit quietly, especially in the natural world, when we walk in the hills, when we sit sesshin in the mountains, we feel this.  We hear that the sound of the Bluejay is expounding the Dharma, we see the Buddha’s teachings in the river and in that, we realize our own liberation.  Truly, as Ziyong said, there is no restraint.

I’ll conclude with a poem by WS Merwin that this story reminded me of.  As I read it, think about your own experience of validation or verification.  How has the presence or absence of the validation of others played out for you in your own life?  To what extent have you felt the inherent validation Ziyong talks about.  Do you feel that’s something you’ve had to generally look to others for?  Does zazen put you in touch with that?  What does this story tell us about our connection to the Earth?

December Night

The cold slope is standing in darkness

But the south of the trees is dry to the touch

The heavy limbs climb into the moonlight bearing feathers

I came to watch these

White plants older at night

The oldest

Come first to the ruins

And I hear magpies kept awake by the moon

The water flows through its

Own fingers without end

Tonight once more

I find a single prayer and it is not for men

(poem by W.S. Merwin)

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

A visit from guiding teacher Taigen Dan Leighton!

One of our guiding teachers, Taigen Dan Leighton, will be visiting us from Chicago for the first time! Taigen will lead an all-day seminar Saturday 6/28 on the philosophical and ecological ramifications and possibilities presented in Eihei Dogen’s beautiful and epic Mountains and Waters Sutra. He will also give a free public talk the following Monday, 6/30. Please see event details here.