A rose is a rose

Today we’re going to start studying from the relatively recent reissue of ‘The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo’, a collection of teachings by Kodo Sawaki Roshi, along with comments from his dharma descendents Kosho Uchiyama Roshi and Shohaku Okumura.  Kodo Sawaki was an iconoclastic Japanese Zen teacher who relentlessly emphasized the practice of zazen even as he always insisted that zazen is ‘good for nothing’.  Through his students, his style of practice influenced American Zen quite a bit, and while we now recognize that we need a whole range of practices in addition to zazen, Sawaki Roshi’s emphasis on zazen is refreshing and continues to inspire us today.

Kodo Sawaki was born in Japan in 1880. He was the sixth child and both his parents died when he was young,  Sawaki was then was adopted by an aunt whose husband soon died,  After this, Sawaki was raised by a gambler and lantern maker named Bunkichi Sawaki.

When he was 16, he ran away from home to become a monk at Eihei-ji, one of the two head temples of the Soto Zen sect, and later traveled to Soshin-ji where he was ordained in 1899 by Koho Sawada.  However, he was drafted to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

After being discharged in 1906 Sawaki practiced with several different teachers, but eventually began studying Dogen and practicing zazen with the great Oka Sotan Roshi, who was also the teacher of one of Suzuki Roshi’s important teachers, Kishizawa Ian.

Sawaki later became a Zen teacher, and during the 1930s he served as a professor at Komazawa University. In 1949, he took responsibility for Antai-ji, a zen temple in northern Kyoto.  Because of his regular travels throughout Japan to teach zen, and against tradition his not becoming a conventional abbot of a home temple, he came to be known as “Homeless Kodo” (“homeless” in the Japanese referring more to his lack of a temple than a residence). Sawaki died on December 21, 1965, at Antaiji. He was succeeded by a senior disciple,Kosho Uchiyama.

Instead of the customary large-scale funeral services, Uchiyama Roshi decided after Sawaki Roshi’s death to conduct a memorial sesshin for him – 49 days long. Thus he emphasized Sawaki’s stress of Zazen, which can never be replaced by rituals and services. The 49 day sesshin also became the start of what is now called the “Antaiji style” sesshin: Sesshin without toys – no dharma lectures, no sutra reading, no talking, no kyosaku, no samu.  This style of practice is continued today in several Zen centers around the country.

One of the things I love about Sawaki-Roshi’s teaching, which I also love about Suzuki-Roshi’s teachings, is that they are an expression of his understanding, straight from the heart, not focused on a formal teaching of some particular sutra.  Instead, these teachers were steeped in the practice from the time they were little children, and they were able to express something about the dharma that was original and clear and true to the Buddha’s teachings while at the same time simply expressing their own lives.  I see some of this spirit in our great contemporary Zen teachers, and I think it’s one of the contributions of our Soto Zen tradition to the larger Buddhist dialogue in the west today.

I wanted to begin our study with this teaching from Sawaki Roshi:

To practice the Buddha way is not to let our minds wander but to become one with what we are doing.  This is called zanmai (or samadhi) and shikan (or “just doing”).  Eating rice isn’t preparation for shitting; shitting isn’t preparation for making manure.  And yet these days people think that high school is preparation for college and college is preparation for a good job.

Each moment of our life is exactly an expression of what is called our dharma position.  We spend so much of our lives focused on the next thing and how we’re going to get it that we don’t actually live in the reality of our lives right now.  Of course we should make plans.  Of course we should pay attention to school and getting a good degree and getting a good job.  Sawaki isn’t saying we should ignore those things.  But we shouldn’t get so swept up in our plans and schemes that we lose the preciousness of what’s happening right now.  Even if we’re in school preparing for the job we want, we can be present to the richness of our lives right now.  We shouldn’t disengage from the present moment in favor of our fantasy about some better moment down the road.

This is exactly what Dogen is writing about in Genjo Koan:

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood which fully includes past and future, and is independent of past and future. . . . Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

When we are in the midst of winter, we don’t say “Ah, Spring is now starting!”.  Winter is completely winter.  Firewood is completely firewood.  Suzuki Roshi famously, and enigmatically said “When you are completely you, zazen is completely zazen.”  This is a subtle teaching, but I think it’s so important for us in our modern busy world, so full of plans for the future.  We can learn something of this when we relate to our elders, settled into their lives and embodying this teaching.

Uchiyama Roshi expands on this:  You don’t need to get good grades.  It’s not necessary to go to a famous school.  Just do things naturally and straightforwardly.  As a violet, it’s enough to bloom as a violet.  As a rose, it’s fine to bloom as a rose.  It’s meaningless for a violet to think being a violet isn’t good enough, that you should work hard to produce a rose.  However, if a violet doesn’t become a violet, you spoil your life force.  This is absurd.  Try to express your life force to the fullest.  You want to know whether you’re a violet or a rose?  I don’t know and you don’t need to know.  Life is a possibility; it’s not fixed.  You don’t need to decide what you are – just live your self and naturally bloom your own flower.  Instead of studying in order to get good grades, you should bloom as the flower of this time here and now, because this is the time to study.  If you’re sleeping, reading comic books, or eating lunch during class, you can’t bloom the flower of this time of studying.  Open your eyes wide to read the textbook, and listen carefully to the teacher.

Do you see what Uchiyama Roshi is saying?  He’s not saying that grades are unimportant, but that the motivation to study in order to get good grades is misplaced.  What he’s advocating requires a great deal of maturity.  If we’re only studying in order to get good grades, or if we are practicing zazen only to get enlightened, we’re missing the point, and more importantly we’re missing our lives.  Moreover, if we do these things in order to get something else, we are unlikely to stick with them for very long.

We study at the time of study because that is the expression of our dharma position, that’s what is happening right now.  We sit zazen at 6:30pm because that is when zazen starts and we are occupying our dharma position in the zendo.

I will leave you with the great question from Case 16 of the Mumonkan, a collection of Zen stories compiled in 1228.  This question gets precisely to the heart of Kodo Sawaki’s teaching:

Ummon said:  The world is vast and wide.  Why do you put on your robe at the sound of the bell?

–Taisan Joe Galewsky


Travels along the Gandaki River, Nepal

I am a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I study the Earth’s climate, especially in high-altitude regions.  I am also an ordained Soto Zen priest in the Everyday Zen community, and I co-lead a sitting group here in Albuquerque with my dharma brother Keizan Titus O’Brien (www.valleydragon.org).  This past December, I traveled to Nepal as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to begin studying the impacts of climate change along the Gandaki River corridor.  The Gandaki is one of the major rivers of Nepal and it transects remarkably diverse landscapes from the arid Tibetan Plateau, across the high Himalayas, through the Siwalik foothills, and into the humid Terai plains. Our research team included an atmospheric scientist (me), an economist, a water resources engineer and several graduate students.  The trip was officially a ‘research planning trip’, meaning that our goal was to meet with Nepali partners and get a feeling for the lay of the land, and to see how the different cultural groups along the Gandaki perceived climate change and how they were responding to it, with the aim of developing a full proposal to study the problem.  Several of us on the trip were long term Buddhist practitioners, and we were very keen to see if there might be an intersection between our climate change work and our Buddhist practice here in the birthplace of the Buddha.

When we arrived in Kathmandu on Christmas day, the first thing that hit me was the air pollution.  It was orders of magnitude worse than anything I have ever seen.  The air everywhere was smoky with car and motorcycle exhaust.  It was overwhelming, and it was not a welcome start to our trip.  We checked into the Samsara Hotel (that’s really the name of it!) and immediately went up into the foothills outside of town for a Christmas lunch at my Nepalese colleague’s mountain home.  It was nice to get out of the air pollution and have some time to relax while gazing at the gorgeous Himalayan snow peaks that surrounded the site.

The next day was focused on meetings with local NGOs working on the climate change issue in Nepal.  It was very inspiring to meet with the World Wildlife Fund, which is involved in many aspects of rural community development that I would have thought was well beyond the core focus of the WWF.  It turns out that NGOs in places like Nepal provide the kinds of support that governments provide in more affluent nations.

Our first glimpse of the links between Buddhism and a response to climate change came here.  One of the heads of the local WWF is from the Upper Mustang region and is a devoted Tibetan Buddhist.  There is a terrible problem with deforestation in the plains of southern Nepal, especially around Lumbini, where the Buddha was born.  The WWF has committed itself to planting 108,000 trees every year for 10 years in and around Lumibini.  They plan to native plant trees that would have been around at the time of the Buddha, including ashoka, sal, pipal and kadam.  The region is an important carbon sink, and this project has the potential to really improve wildlife habitats, improve water quality, and, in the words of our colleague at the WWF “build connectivity across the landscape to facilitate wildlife movement while promoting harmony between humans, wildlife and nature.”  He spoke with real passion and emotion about how this project is a direct expression of his Buddhist practice and how he has been conducting it with the support and guidance of his Tibetan teachers.

Our next meeting was with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.  The Vice Chancellor of the Academy, Dr. Jibaraj Pokharel, warmly welcomed us into his office.  The centerpiece of his office was a magnificent seated Buddha figure.  After we settled down and his staff brought us tea, Dr. Pokharel began the meeting by recounting the story of the Buddha’s awakening.  I must confess I was a bit confused by this – did he know that I was an ordained person and that this was a key interest of mine?  Apparently not, but it appears that he often begins meetings with this story.  How lovely it would be if we always began our meetings with stories from the life of the Buddha!  Again, we found that this group recognized that a response to the broad problems of climate change could be firmly rooted in the Buddha’s teachings of interdependence.

After these initial meetings, we flew to Pokhara and then drove (very very slowly) along the Gandaki River, between the magnificent 8-km high peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna to the southern fringe of the Tibetan Plateau and the town of Jomsom.  This drive crosses one of the strongest climate gradients on Earth, driven by the intense orographic rain shadow of the Himalayas.  As we drove, we transitioned from the very wet jungle-like terrain on the southern slopes of the Himalaya to the drier, higher elevations dotted with pine trees (very reminiscent of our beloved Sierra Nevada in California) to the semi-arid deserts of the Tibetan Plateau that reminded us a bit of New Mexico.

In Jomsom, we met with local community leaders who spoke of the disruptions they have experienced from droughts and changes in precipitation patterns that they attribute to man-made climate change.  It wasn’t clear to me, as a climate scientist, that everything they attributed to climate change was really an effect of a changing climate.  Some of the issues they described may have been related more to local changes in agricultural practices and water use.  But still, it was clear here that the communities are keenly aware of climate change and view it primarily as a problem foisted on them by bigger countries like India and China.

Our trip continued down to Lumbini itself, where we visited the Maya Devi temple at the Buddha’s birthplace, and Kapilivastu, the site of the Shakya clan’s palace, from which the young Prince Siddartha escaped to begin his life as a monk.  We had several additional meetings aimed at launching the new Lumbini Center for Sustainability, where the explicit focus is on bringing the teachings of the Buddha to bear on problems of environmental change in Nepal.  The chancellor of Lumbini Buddha University joined us and spoke eloquently about the need to bring the Buddha’s teachings into the discussion of how we respond to climate change.  We then traveled to Chitwan National Park, where deforestation is rapidly bringing tiger habitats into close proximity with human populations, and then finally we returned to the Hotel Samsara in Kathmandu to rest a bit before returning to the USA.

I am not a specialist in development, but I wonder to what extent has ‘climate change’ become a catchall for the wide range of (legitimate) grievances that people in small, poor countries have with their larger neighbors?  I can certainly understand that tendency, although I am not sure how helpful it is.  In Nepal, the response to climate change is primarily focused on adaptation rather than on mitigation.  Despite the terrible air pollution, Nepal is fairly low on the list of the world’s greenhouse gas emitters (between Uganda and Namibia), so they feel that it is China and India and the United States that need to take primary actions to stop global warming.  My sense from the Buddhists we encountered on the trip was that they felt that local actions are consistent with the Buddha’s teachings and that they can be helpful in staving off the worst effects of climate change.  Very notably, the Buddhists we met with were not despairing about climate change or even complaining about it very much.  Instead, they were all focused on the local, concrete actions they could actually take, right now, that could help the situation.  It was a very pragmatic, down-to-earth approach that I found refreshing.

The Buddha famously refused to address questions beyond the scope of his teachings.  Instead, he exhorted his students to focus on suffering and on its cessation.  The Buddha’s teaching on the origin of suffering implies a local, proximal response.  Rather than concerning ourselves with some ultimate, cosmic cause of suffering, the Buddha’s teachings emphasize steps we can take ourselves.  I think some of this spirit infused our Nepalese colleagues in how they are approaching the problem of climate change.  Even though poor countries like Nepal are extremely vulnerable to manmade climate change, they can’t really stop China and the US from emitting greenhouse gases.  One potential approach to climate change might be despair, which is certainly a very human response.  Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work finding the steps that we can take locally, however small, to do our part.

I always think about a story the great folksinger Pete Seeger used to tell about the power of individual, small actions:

“I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us.

“I imagine a big seesaw, and one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand…

“One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction. And people will say, ‘Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?’ Us and all our little teaspoons.”

— Taisan Joe Galewsky

Theodicy, the Book of Job, and the Four Noble Truths

“Our habitual pattern is that whenever we encounter anything undesirable and unappealing, we try little ways within ourselves to avoid it.  We could watch ourselves doing that.  The little things we do, the little areas in which we try to entertain ourselves — that process which takes place all the time — is both the product of suffering and the producer of suffering.  It is the origin that perpetually re-creates suffering as well as what we are constantly going through as the result of suffering.”  –Chogyam Trungpa

The four noble truths are a remarkably coherent picture of human suffering, and of the ways we can end the vicious cycle.  The first two noble truths – the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering — are the diagnosis of the problem, while the second pair of noble truths, the cessation of suffering and the path, are the prescription.

The first noble truth is the simple acknowledgement of suffering.  There it is.  We can actually acknowledge that we experience suffering in our own lives.  It’s not just something that happens elsewhere, we can cultivate enough attention to our experience that we can actually see suffering as it unfolds in our moment-to-moment experience.  That’s an important first step.

The second noble truth acknowledges that suffering actually has a cause that is knowable.  We can watch how that cause plays out in our own moment-to-moment experience.  Last time, we were looking at the contrast between the Buddha’s teaching on suffering and the quintessential Judeo-Christian story of suffering, the story of Job.  Recall in that story that Job is a good man, a righteous man, who is put through a series of tests by God, who was persuaded to do this by Satan as a test of Job’s faith.  All of these terrible things happen to Job, and his friends all tell him that he must have done something terrible to deserve this outcome, because God should not let bad things happen to good people.  This is the most traditional understanding of theodicy, and it goes back to the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy.

This is the crux of the story of Job – why would God let such terrible things happen to a good person?  Ultimately, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind and basically says, “You can’t understand my reasons.”  Which really seems to suggest that that the question of theodicy is largely irrelevant in the Judeo-Christian context.  The story seems to acknowledge that one’s virtue is not sufficient to save one from pain.

This actually seems to jibe with our own experience as modern people.  We know good people who have died from cancer, or in a car wreck, and we don’t spend our time speculating on what they may have done to deserve these fates.  We know that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time and that thinking about some ultimate cause is basically fruitless.

The Buddha refrained from engaging in speculative discussions about the ultimate cause of suffering, and famously there were fourteen ‘unanswered questions’ about the nature of the universe that the Buddha specifically declined to address because they were not relevant to the problem of ending suffering.

Importantly, however, is that while the Buddha’s core teaching didn’t address theodicy, it did emphasize that there is a knowable cause of suffering.  But instead of focusing on some ultimate answer, he focused on a much more proximal answer to the question of suffering, and this is the second noble truth.  This is important – it’s not that the Buddha didn’t talk about the causes of suffering, but perhaps we can say he didn’t focus on the ultimate causes of suffering; instead, he focused on those causes that we can actually do something about.

About this, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:  The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.

So Trungpa very elegantly outlines the problem.  Whenever we encounter some unpleasant experience, our tendency is to turn away from it, and to try to turn our attention to something pleasurable.  We do this over and over again, and it is this very act of trying to turn away from what is difficult that feeds our suffering.

Trungpa goes on to say “. . . we prefer to spin around in circles rather than look around and extend outward.  Our actions are colored or flavored by a kind of fundamental ape instinct.  Our only guidance is our own very fermented body odor and mind odor.  It is like the blind leading the blind.  We are just sniffing around.  In this stupefied state, you are willing to step into a corral or den, like an animal, not knowing that the consequences will be painful.”

This is the first pair of noble truths – first, understand the problem, then understand its proximal causes, the things you can potentially do something about.  The third noble truth tells us that if we remove the causes of suffering, then suffering itself will dissipate.  Trungpa goes on, “In order to cut the root of samsara, the strategy is to unplug or disconnect everything.  We could actually unplug the refrigerator of samsara.  It might take several hours to defrost; nevertheless, as long as we have unplugged that particular refrigerator, defrosting is going to happen.  So we shouldn’t feel that we are stuck with those karmic situations.  We should feel that we always have the opportunity to interrupt the flow of karma.  First, we have to interrupt our ignorance and secondly, we have to interrupt our passion.  By interrupting both our ignorance and our passion, we have nothing happening in terms of the samsaric world.  We have already unplugged the refrigerator.”

We just passed the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a German Lutheran pastor and an ardent anti-Nazi, one of very few in the German church and he was murdered by the Nazis in 1945.  He was an important influence on the American Civil Rights movement and on Martin Luther King in particular.  Much of his writing touches in different ways on the problem of suffering and theodicy, and in general he emphasized the need for people of faith to be active participants in the world.

In this concluding quote, he touches on what I think is an approach to the suffering that is consistent with the Buddhist teachings we have been discussing.  He emphasizes the power of staying close to the the pain we feel and de-emphasizes the need to find some ultimate answer:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”


Dogen’s Zazen Instructions, part 3

Dogen’s third instruction is succinct: “Sometimes I spring quickly leaving no trace, simply wishing you all to drop off body and mind.”

We talked about Dogen dropping his whisk recently. It’s the 13th c. formal zen version of dropping the mike and walking off stage. But unlike Kanye, Dogen dropping the whisk and “springing quickly leaving no trace” is not a celebratory assertion of personal genius, but rather the ultimate prayer for every being to realize for themselves their beautiful, inherent, liberated uprightness, fundamentally unobstructed by conditions or any other beings.

When Dogen leaps clear, we leap clear. In the Korean Zen tradition, short intensive practice periods are called yong min jong jin, or ‘to leap like a tiger while sitting.’ This is like our playing freely and going wild on our cushion.  The practice of dropping off body and mind is a radical letting go. So radical it may not even be recognizable to us as letting go. True letting go is often experienced as being with, or abiding in. Our letting go is not a nihilistic or fearful running from, but instead is a courageous turning toward and settling into. It can be a subtle business; but it can have aspects of decisiveness that Dogen alludes to here.

Our decisive agreement to awaken with all beings together forever, we may notice, is for most of us not about running off to India to feed the poor, or off to a monastery to be a monk. Sometimes it can be that too. But for most of us the challenge is to be in the midst of the conditions of our life as it is, and carefully investigate what hurts, what wants, what impulses are dragging us around – and what isn’t. Sometimes, we are reminded that the mechanisms of our craving and confusion are built of pretty insubstantial stuff, and we glimpse “the one who is not busy.” Actually, daily zazen practice puts us in much needed regular contact with that person, who has already dropped off body and mind. We ourselves leap clear, and join Dogen out there in the radiant field beyond self and other, this and that.

Peter and ox in field

Dogen’s Zazen Instructions, part 2

Carrying on with our investigation of Dogen’s five-part approach to zazen, let’s move to the second kind of instruction he proposes. He says, “Sometimes, within the gates and gardens of the monastery, I offer my own style of practical instruction, simply wishing for you all to disport and play freely with spiritual penetration.”

gate1Another wonderful series of phrases to hear and be encouraged by. We of course are not exactly practicing in a formal monastery, but we do in fact have extraordinary wrought iron gates festooned with animal spirits and regional motifs, and there are lovely gardens here in this little adobe office park compound. Talking to someone with extensive experience in other Buddhist traditions, he remarked that when he encountered our way here at first he was a bit concerned, shall we say, by our apparently stuffy formality. He said he was reassured when I opened my mouth to speak that what I was talking about sounded like good friendly practical advice and recognizable Buddhist teaching. I am glad to hear that!

I know for myself that internally, I aim toward not being too tight, or too loose with the forms. You can look at any seasoned practitioner, and they inhabit these forms with a kind of ease and grace. Some may incorporate more forms or less, but in any case, our Dogen/Suzuki way is very much involved with these formal expressions of basic etiquette. It’s not the only way, but it is definitely an important aspect of our way. The Japanese have been known for masterful expressions of this kind of etiquette geared toward mindfulness (ikebana, tea ceremony and what not), and much of this understanding has been said to relate to their encounter with the Zen tradition.

But as Dogen points out, we play and sport freely with these forms. The point is not to become a Zen drudge or a paragon of renunciation. While many people may experience frustration at there being any rules at all, many others who are drawn to our way for its formalism come face to face with their perfectionistic tendencies, and have to learn to literally lighten up. Sometimes perfectionists can be real floor stompers; I have been known to resemble this remark.

So this business is indeed practical. This is an important point, really. Nothing we do here is for purely aesthetic purposes. It may sometimes be beautiful, but that is more of a by-product. When the Buddha started his community, he didn’t get a bunch of rules from a burning bush, or set out to create a new gorgeous ritual edifice. All the hundreds of vows monks take in some of the older traditions were reasoned developments, practical instructions to help monks stay out of trouble and focused on their studies and practice. Our way is like this too; we fold robes in certain ways and bow at certain times together so that we can put our preferences down for a minute and just let go into group activity. Such basic stuff, but this really is where our training occurs. The verbal teachings are crucial, but no more and possibly less important than experiencing the actual practice with our whole body and whole heart.

gate2We should keep a gently playful attitude. It is easy to lose, and maybe difficult to regain sometimes. But we can do it. Dogen reassures us of this. So, while this business of spiritual penetration is itself the great matter of life and death, we are told to be light of heart about it. You are hereby cordially invited by Buddhas and ancestors to have fun in your practice, and with your discipline.