Ages and Stages

Astasahasrika_Prajnaparamita_Dharmacakra_DiscourseAstasahasrika Prajnaparamita Dharmacakra Discourse

[The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. ]

I was reading in a recent Buddhist magazine a brief overview of the Four Noble Truths, and I really got a lot out of it. I think my understanding of those truths has developed recently, which is cool to see, and I have found my way back to finding them more truly touching. For a long time they felt cold or something, or I did toward them. But there have been tons of teachings I have been responding to, so it wasn’t as if this coldness from the Noble Truths was a stopping block. We all know this experience, that we respond to different things at different times. I’ve been getting back into jazz lately, for instance, sort of backwards through afrobeat and Erykah Badu, who I’ve had in heavy rotation for sometime now. Reading Dr. Cornell West etc. A lot of great Zen teaching there – my teacher even has Coltrane in his dokusan room, so that is where we are coming from. I played A Love Supreme for my art students today. They didn’t get it. But they will!

So we find teaching under our feet, and in our hearts and minds, in our loves and friendships. But then there is practice, which is the glue, or the solvent, depending. This would make dogmatism, complexity, esotericism, occultism, or curriculum-based training something of a charade. Theater can be helpful too, but we are generally aiming toward a non-dual thing here. So, in our tradition, for good or ill we don’t emphasize stages and ranks or special practices. Sometimes it gets said that we “start on the top of the mountain.”

I used to think I knew what that meant, but I think I appreciate not knowing anymore. Whew! I can let go of that one too. We are valley dragons, after all, so maybe we end up in the valley. Anyway, I can still see a point there. I think I would say that I appreciate our way (in as much as we have one as opposed another) as being very, very open. As long as you sit there for a little bit, and stick with it for awhile checking out a consistent habit, I think there is an expectation that each person will find their own way. It’s kind of radical Montessori-style meditation, meaning I hope that it’s tailored and sensitive to the needs of the student – or in this case the practitioner.

I think as Modern people maybe this is a really good way for us. We are awash in ego-challenging information, and tons of it, virtually non-stop. That can be stressful, but it can also initiate growth and evolution. I might say spiritual evolution, but I think that is really easy to misinterpret, so maybe better not to say. My point is that I personally like having a practice that allows for personal tailoring, with a clear intention or direction. As long as you just sit there, and aim toward a relaxed settled attention to what is happening, you can visualize, you can count breaths, use a mantra, dream, circulate chi, do kegels, pray your ass off, it is ok. It’s hard to accept this when we are practicing in the midst of fire, that its ok, whatever is happening there. Or maybe more importantly, not happening.

So we don’t give you the four noble truths on day one, and say chant this every day for three months and then come back, maybe take a test, and we will give you the next bit. Maybe some people would like that, and I am sure someone is doing that out there. Our whole point is that we aim toward creating a space where for 35 minutes a week you can sit in upright noble silence, and find there what you will. Supplemented of course with dedicated daily home practice. With a faith that this is in itself a noble, awesome activity, without doubt. That is also nothing special whatsoever.


Theory and Practice

One of the challenging things about studying Dogen – or any of the formal writings from our tradition – is that it only gives us a one-sided view of the practice.  These formal expressions don’t tell us what monks really practiced in the monasteries, what their teachers really taught them about the practical aspects of the practice, or what they taught newcomers to the practice, or how they talked to each other informally about the practice.  I wanted to bring this up because I have often wondered about the basic Buddhist meditation instructions of following the breath, of counting the breath, and how they relate to Soto Zen.  As far as I can tell (and I may be missing something), Dogen’s writings nowhere mention these basic meditation practices.  Instead, we are told that zazen is simply the ‘dharma gate of repose and bliss’ and that we should ‘drop off body and mind’.  For sure, these are beautiful and inspiring words, but they don’t offer a lot of practical guidance about what we do when we sit on the cushion.  So I wonder – is this what Dogen taught his monks?  Did he ever teach them to follow the breath?  What did the monks talk to each other about informally about their practice?  In our current Soto Zen practice, most teachers do in fact teach following the breath or counting the breath.

This dichotomy between theory and practice comes up in many contexts and traditions and it doesn’t mean that the practitioners are hypocrites for not necessarily practicing in strict accordance with their guiding texts.  Instead, I think there is a useful dialogue to be had between our understanding of the formal teachings and our practical lived experience of practice.  Without such a dialogue, we may think we are somehow practicing incorrectly, but in fact I think practitioners have been engaged in these conversations from the very beginning and across all faith traditions.

It’s not that the theoretical side is wrong and the practical side is right, or that our merit as practitioners is measured by the gap between the two.  Instead, these two aspects support each other.  Without some framing tradition for our practice, our energies tend to be scattered about, but without the concrete experience, these texts are just floating around as ideas.

So I am interested in hearing from you about what you actually do during zazen, and how you relate that to the traditional teachings.


A few words about Buddha’s Robe

I’d like to talk a little about the great robe – the o-kesa – in our tradition.

I’m a little hesitant to approach this subject, because it feels very advanced somehow. It’s like a secret teaching hiding in plain sight. Here some of us are wearing these things, and I sometimes wonder what people must make of it. I wonder what I make of it! The ancestors tell us the robe is really important, but maybe not for the reasons we might think. Or not-think.

This talk was inspired by an artist I just met who is sewing the small robe “vestment” (rakusu) some people are wearing, as “art”. As an artist myself, and as a robe-wearer, I have real questions about converting the robe into what we might call an “aesthetic object.” The robe is a functional thing, but it goes beyond how and what we normally think of as functioning. It certainly goes beyond any idea of art. It’s not that it’s possible to be sacrilegious in making a facsimile of the robe. It’s just that it seems a bit senseless, (quite understandably) a little ill-informed, potentially a little disrespectful. The fact that she (as a European American non-Buddhist) is also having someone write haiku on these dozens of rakusu gets into issues of cultural appropriation and whatnot, and the whole thing is actually quite nuanced and complex. When she brought this up to me, I felt like I was suddenly plunked in the middle of the ocean in a small boat. I take this with what I feel is an appropriate gravity and seriousness – both the tradition, and her calling as an artist to do this thing. I still have questions. But we needn’t lose our seat in a fundamentalist reaction.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, sewing teacher at SFZC

I practiced for many years in a Buddhist tradition that, like most Buddhist traditions, had the robe in more or less the same arrangement as our robes, but with something of a different spirit. For instance, we did not sew our own robes. If for some reason we had taken precepts and didn’t have our robes with us, we could simply borrow a “temple” robe. There were usually a few hanging in the closet. A group of experienced Soto practitioners hearing about this for the first time would probably emanate a collective gasp in shock! If anything, our tradition can go to the other extreme, of making the robe into something a bit precious at times. Which is actually ok, too. Both are ok, but there are good teachings in our robe tradition that point beyond these attitudes (of attachment or indifference) – and that after all is the point.

So, we sew our robes completely by hand. And with each stitch we say a mantra, or prayer. We are usually taught to say “Namu ki-e Butsu” with each stitch sewed, which is Japanese for taking refuge in Buddha. I’ve said that, but I’ve said other mantras too, just going with the spirit of sewing as I found it. I think “I take refuge in Buddha”, since we mostly speak English, is an excellent mantra. I really love sewing. I think it is one of my favorite practices in our tradition, if we get to pick those.

Dogen said that the robe is itself the very body of Buddha; not other than zazen. He wrote what I just keep finding to be a really compelling essay on the robe, called the Kesa Kudoku. I read it somewhat regularly, and (mostly) just feel “yes, that is how it is.” He breaks down these ideas about things just being inert matter that we manipulate for our own ends. So no, the robe is not just a “symbol” of Buddha. Properly understood, it is Buddha herself. And of course, still just some cloth. This has to be an intuitive, even emotional understanding, not an intellectual thing.

Buddha outlined what kinds of cloth were good for this important garment; you can imagine perhaps silk brocade, or fine linen. Actually, the list starts off I think with “shit-wiping cloth” and sort of goes down hill from there. Leather was permitted if you couldn’t find cloth (in Mongolia for instance). “Rat-chewed” and “corpse-cleaning” are some of the other better cloths listed for the robe. They were all cleaned and trimmed and died ochre of course, essentially sewn into a quilt, as designed by Ananda per Buddha’s instructions to resemble the rice paddies around them. So much teaching here, I can’t even start to get into it.

As “Modern Americans”, we may feel quite far from an intimate understanding of what all this could possibly mean. “It’s just a symbolic blanket, right?” “Sure…” we say, “but not exactly.” Most of us here keep coming back. None of us appear at a glance to be religious fanatics. No one is clamoring to get their hands on one of these things the priests are wearing; we’re not going online to buy our kit and set up shop as teachers (which happens, sadly). Yet we come and we sit, and appreciate the rhythms of practice, the etiquette, our modest, simple forms. Something already intuits what the robe is, or might mean, or do or be.

Dogen has this wonderful list of all the possible designs of a robe: five panels, 7, 9, 21, 28, 84, and then he goes up to like 84,000. What is he talking about? It’s like that Willy Wonka elevator; it just keeps going up until we break through the glass ceiling of our conventional view. I think what he is saying here is that we are each a panel in this robe, and we are each made up of panels within panels. Endless panels in this one great Buddha robe. So it is important to realize that those of us wearing robes of various numbers of panels have simply found ourselves in the position of helping to facilitate zazen for the community. That’s it. Without zazen there is no community – hence, no robe and no priest.