Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Observing & Noting.. Why?

I wanted to talk about 'Observing & Noting' practice for a moment.

What is the purpose of this practice, and why do we do it? Most importantly, why or how is it relevant to 'Dying Practice'?

Well, Dying Practice is primarily about facing fear, accessing life more fully, developing a degree of equanimity, and most of all; opening the heart.

In order to be able to do this, it is important to know how to go about it... or, to at least have some idea of where to start.

Since each of us is unique, how do we teach these skills??

Well, if we don't know where to go... we can at least begin by eliminating the paths, habits, and behaviors that we know are not the 'right' ones.

Essentially, there are three attributes that we are attempting to develop;

  1. Asserting the truth.

  2. Not indulging in anger.

  3. Giving (of our possessions, and of ourself).

This is oversimplifying to a certain degree... but it will do for now, at least.

When we are less than honest, either with ourselves or with others; when we are becoming angry (or fearful - which is often the root of anger..); and when we withold our aid - there are physical body patterns that we can perceive. Soft Belly practice is a push in the right direction towards feeling one of the least subtle body patterns; a tight gut. When we are frightened, anxious, angry, resentful, or feeling some other afflictive emotion, this is one of the body patterns that is easiest for us to detect. This is a fairly universal body pattern. In some people, the shoulders will tense, the brow will knit, our jaw will clench, we will sweat, or fidget, or any of a number of body patterns.

Observing and Noting coupled with Soft Belly will gently guide us on the path towards knowing ourselves - physically, at first... and then, gradually, this perception will expand and deepen.

While we are looking for physical sensations, feelings, reactions, etc., we can slowly begin to associate them with the emotions that we are feeling at the time. This is where the 'Noting' portion of Observing and Noting comes in to the picture.

The more skilled we become in this practice, the quicker we will detect our mental state... the further 'upstream' we are able to do this, the more easily we can begin to 'short circuit' angry/fearful/pre-scripted habitual reactions that stem from these afflictive emotions and the better equipped we are at replacing them with skillful, kind, and compassionate responses.

First, however, we must be able to develop the mindfulness necessary to step in before the reactions 'go off'.

This is the purpose of this practice; at least in the context in which we are using it for Dying Practice.

Additionally, once we are capable of responding to life, rather than reacting to it, we begin to develop the ability to confront, and to accept those situations and circumstances that we had previously reacted to with contempt, aversion, fear, or loathing. Once we can accept whatever life unfolds and reveals to us, with tranquility, and with a sense of calm equanimity, we may learn that many of the fears and aversions that we have held onto so very tightly for most of our lives have existed only in the confines of our minds. We create most of our own suffering. And when we suffer, even though it was self-imposed, our attempt to escape from the discomfort only causes us more suffering. (Don't believe me? Read "The Story About Ping" by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese which illustrates this very beautifully, and with humor and insight as well.)

Holding on is a habit that we develop very early on in life. Letting go is a skill that many never seem to learn... and fewer seem to master.

Life is a gift... and, in the giving of any gift, there must be an act of letting go. One person must accept and take hold of the gift... and the other must present and let go... or there can be no giving.

In order for us to be able to access the gift of an open heart... so that we may create room in which we may live and grow.. we must first learn to let go. To give.

Giving is what Soft Belly and Observing and Noting practice teach.

In order to accept this gift, we must free ourselves of anger, and we must learn to be truthful.. we do this by freeing ourselves of fear. Once we let go of our fear, we find that we are free of both the need to indulge anger and the need to deceive. How??

Both Compassion and Anger live within us... or, to be more accurate; the potential for both of these attributes exist within us... the seeds you might say.

The same is true of the seeds of truth and deception.

We must simply learn to choose properly; so that we may water the seeds that we wish to grow. By being mindful or our emotions as they arise and dissolve... and of the physical sensations that they create and leave in their wake, we develop a more intimate knowledge of ourself, and a sense of the interiority of others, as well. By being attentive, by observing, by noting what we are feeling.. and how it is affecting us, and by applying 'Soft Belly' and letting go of the afflictive emotions as they arise, we become more centered, more balanced, more stable. Upon this foundation of stability, we may begin to develop compassion; towards ourselves, towards others, towards all beings.

Once we have done this, we may enter and take refuge within the unimaginable vastness of an open heart.

Open your hand... open your heart. This is my teaching for today.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Enjoying your garden..

This practice has taught me something that is value regarding how to approach my own life. It is my habit and my joy to spend time in my garden. When we first moved into our cottage, the area was overgrown and the property had been used more or less as a pseudo-landfill. Using only our effort and some hand tools, we slowly transformed the ugliness that had prevailed, allowing the beauty to shine through.

During the first year that we lived in this place, we effectively doubled the usable size of the property. We took five full-sized truckloads of garbage and junk out of the ground. Every square inch of ground was dug up down to perhaps 3 feet, and put through a sifter that I built.

A tree that was maybe 60 to 70 feet tall had fallen some years prior to our arrival in this place, coming to rest diagonally across the property. The tree had grown on a neighbor's property, but had been left to lie where it had fallen, and a small forest of saplings sprouted around it, growing around the through the tangled branches. Knitting and twining themselves to the old tree, and holding it to the ground. With only a chainsaw and muscle, the large tree was painstakingly cut into sections and neatly stacked on the neighbor's property for proper removal. The saplings were individually removed with a shovel, trowel, and clippers.

To our delight, we discovered bulbs and plants that were carefully transplanted and nurtured, and little by little, step by step, the garden began to take shape.

Nearly all of the plants were transplants, rescues (from areas that were being dug up for construction and development), or gifts; i.e. The hydrangea were sent as condolence flowers to my wife's paternal grandmother's funeral. Some plants were brought from other states by family as donations.

Every plant in this garden has a story. Each one of them is a friend that I have known from root, pod, or seed. Each has been a source of joy when it has thrived, or tears when it has not.

A garden is a strange and wonderful thing. One must have a great deal of optimism when planting a garden; for one must hold a belief that there will be a time when all of the hard work will come to fruition. And it does! All of the sore muscles, stinging blisters, scratches, bites, and stings are well worth it.

In this post, I will share some recent photos of my garden, and some of the wisdom that it has offered in thanks for helping it to grow.

Sitting in the garden, drinking coffee, listening to "Sunday Baroque" on NPR, and reading a book is not enjoying your garden.. it is enjoying your coffee, the music, and your book.

Sitting in the garden and creating a 'To Do' list of all of the gardening tasks that must be attended to is not enjoying your garden.. it is planning your work.

Sitting in the garden and breathing... appreciating the beauty of the plants.. feeling the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the breeze, the smell of the grass, the soil, the flowers.. listening the drone of the bees and the singing of birds.. the wind chimes tinkling.. feeling the textures of bark, leaf, twig, cone, branch, petal, and stone.. noticing the multitudinous teeming lifeforms that cover every square inch of ground, normally beneath our sightline.. marveling at the intricate geometry of nature... and truly realizing that you are a part of it all...

This is enjoying your garden!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Making some headway...

It seems that both the "Soft-Belly" practice and the "Noting & Observing" practice are beginning to become somewhat easier to practice as a matter of course, though I still catch 'slips' now and again.

Honestly, there is some part of me that is still horrified at how quickly the time is passing... A year doesn't seem at all to be a great deal of time from where I now sit.

On the other hand, I feel as though I am using each moment with much more skill and clarity, though I think I still have quite a long way to go.

Accepting death as an eventuality is quite a bit harder to internalize than I would have liked to admit... but, even so, I feel that I am making quite a bit of headway there as well.

Initially, I wanted to sort of skip through the "Soft-Belly" and "Noting & Observing" practice, as I viewed it pretty much as more or less a reprise of my normal Zen practice. I am retrospectively glad that I ultimately decided not to do this, and to stick to the program... I am learning a great deal from what struck me initially as a simple practice. So... a valuable lesson in learning what you do not know, but think (inaccurately) that you do!

This too, I am attempting to bring into my daily life practice... to simply accept that I do not know, rather than to assert that I do... and I am finding that when I am capable of letting go, I find that I learn... this is good. If this is the only benefit derived from Dying Practice, it is well worth the effort and the time! Happily, it is not the only benefit... I am beginning to see some change... both inwardly and outwardly... and this is surprising to me for some reason.

I value everything much more than I had... and I have long been one to appreciate the most simple things in life. So... even in this, I am learning and growing.

I have been told that one of my best characteristics is that I am very childlike. The person who said this went on to say that one of my worst characteristics is that I am very childlike! I am hoping that I will find a way to refine this quality so that the balance tips in favor of this attribute being a quality... and not a fault.

So... all in all, I think the practice is coming along. It is much more difficult than I expected, and in ways that I had not considered. Some part of me recognizes that it will only get more difficult as the practice progresses... but, I am prepared to accept the difficulty... although I do not look forward to it...

I will just have to trust that the practice will help me to prepare to deal with the difficulty by the time I am confronted with it.

In September, I will begin a comprehensive 'Life-Review'. The goal of this practice is to forgive myself and others for wrongs that I have committed, and for wrongs that have been committed against me... to tie up and complete all of my unfinished business... part and parcel with this Life-Review will be some physical exercises; I will be compiling all of the documents that are needful after my actual death, and putting them in an easily accessible place; making a living will, going through my personal belongings and simplifying my life so that I may begin fresh and new once this practice has been successfully completed.

To me, one of the most difficult parts will be facing those things that I consider to have been ill-considered and ill-done acts that I have done in my past... let downs, failures, stupidities, cop-outs, etc.,.. with brutal honesty... and still finding a way to forgive myself and let it go... I don't really look forward to this, but I know it is one of the most crucial parts of this practice.

My mind is already beginning to take stock of my life as it is right now... I am happy with the lion's share of my life... but unhappy with respect to my employment/vocation situation. I truly would love to find some method of earning a living doing something for which I am a good 'fit'. So far, this has eluded me, despite my best efforts... I cannot even begin to determine what this means...

I know what I like to do... but I cannot see anyone paying me a living wage to do it! Other vocations that attract me require education and skills that I do not have... and am beginning to consider out of my reach given my current financial situation.. which is, to be honest, somewhat bleak... this is not meant by way of complaint, but simply by way of illustration.

The very nature of this practice forces me to look closely at how things are, however, and to compare this with what I think would be some positive directions in which I may begin to head... naturally, common sense would dictate that there are limitations that will also dictate what may and may not be reasonably expected...

Another part of me is aware that people accomplish tasks that were deemed to be 'impossible' on a daily basis... so, I am not quite ready to curl up and die just yet...

This biggest problem that I have is an internal one; You see, in order to get from one place to another, you must know how to get there... and in order to do this you must (MUST!) first have two valuable pieces of information; You must know where you are starting from. And, you must know where it is, precisely, that you wish to go! -- And this is where the problem chiefly lies: I have no idea what I would want to do for a living.. so, I am relegated at the moment to accepting a 'job' that at least assists in getting some bills paid.

So.. this practice has at least helped me to take the first step in solving that problem, which is 'Identifying the Problem'. Its a start, at least.

I like writing, but I don't have the education or the skill, I think, to make a living at it...

I am an artist, but, same problem with that.... folks want to see a piece of paper showing that you graduated from a University... although I tend to wonder at this.. either you are able to create beauty... or you are not??

I think I would be a good counselor, but, again, the education problem rears its head....

Other times, I feel that I would do best at working on a job that does not involve interacting with others.. where I can simply focus entirely on my task...

As you can see, in this respect, my thoughts are scattered, ethereal, and maddeningly vague when it comes to figuring out 'what I want to be when I grow up'... and I have no idea why. Part of this problem, I believe, goes hand in hand with my monastic practice. To be a monk is to renounce the world as it is.. and to choose to live a lifestyle that is somewhat different and apart from mainstream society.. Part of me simply doesn't buy into the whole 'amassing wealth' focus that so many other people have... intellectually I understand the necessity.. but, in my heart.. I just don't 'get it'. This is a problem, and it reflects a portion of my personality and character that very badly need to find and achieve balance.. so I will have to work on this. I live in the world... I engage others on a daily basis... This creates financial responsibilities... so, I have to confront this and work it out. Period.

This practice brings many things to the surface... and this is one of the benefits.

Once you uncover something that is a problem, however, you are more or less forced to deal with it, or to endure it... which is also a benefit, I suppose...

Without problems.. we cannot progress.

I think I am slowly beginning to make some headway.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What are you waiting for?!

As the fact of my own mortality sinks in and becomes more and more internalized, I am beginning to notice the fleeting nature of everything, and everyone, around me.

Frankly, this is sort of weird.. a little disturbing... but, in its own perfect way, I find it to be achingly beautiful.

Knowing and accepting that this life of mine will end, and that I mostly likely (almost certainly, actually..) have less time to go before I die than I have already lived brings this into focus in a way that is so clear-cut, and so inarguable that I actually find it difficult to put it aside.

What I come away with when I do, see, hear, taste, smell, think or feel anything... is that this is important!

I was walking home from work last week (my vehicle was in the shop.. and I didn't have much in the way of options...) I was shocked to find that instead of being miserable due to the heat (it was nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit), fatigue (I had worked a full day, on my feet all day... and it was about a 5 or 6 mile walk..), or pain (I had a full compliment of blisters on my feet from the previous day's stroll... and my muscles were stiff and sore... I hadn't walked any great distance in a good while...) I was actually grateful. This struck me as an odd emotion under the circumstances... but there it was.... The sky was incredibly blue... the sun was shining... I was seeing plants and birds and insects that I usually miss as I drive past... My body was working.. but I felt very much alive. Rather than viewing it as some sort of punishment, or as a torment to simply get through, I allowed myself to simply be.. to be completely present... and to let things unfold, without judging, without ruminating, and without wishing that things were somehow different than they were.

I was still hot, tired, and in pain... but I was happy. I was here... and I was very much aware that this is a priceless and precious gift... because I will not always be here... and with that realization, I felt a deep and abiding appreciation for everything... the act of breathing... the feel of the breeze on my skin... the dragonflies, plovers, thistles and sorrel... the smell of the grass.. the physical sensation of walking... and of being able to push through the discomfort and continue on..

Appreciation is a very, very important attribute, I think.

So important that without it .... we suffer.

As a matter of fact, I will go so far as to say that in the very moment we stop appreciating; we begin to suffer.

If we find ourselves in a situation that we don't like or didn't plan on, very often our response is to feel aversion, dislike, discomfort, or some other emotion that leads to a desire to escape. We so desire to be elsewhere, or in a different situation, that we cease being present in the moment...thereby losing our appreciation for the present moment.. and we begin to suffer.

We want to be relaxing on the couch, watching TV, or out with our friends... or doing whatever it happens to be that we want to be doing. However, we must do the dishes, or homework, or pay the bills... or some other chore that we don't want to do....

So. Although we are doing the dishes, we are not there while we are doing the dishes; we are thinking about where we want to be... or what we want to do... so we just try to get through doing the dishes so that we can be where we want to be. How many people live almost their entire lives not appreciating the moment... and just getting through the now in order to get to some imagined future that they will very likely also miss by not being there when it comes?! This strikes me as a very sad and regretful waste of life. Even a mediocre authentic life must be better than a non-existent wished-for exciting life... whatever it is... is what it is. You can only have an effect upon your future by acting in the present. In any case, it happens to be the only real moment that we ever have... and we always seem to let it slip through our fingers. We have an experience... a true and authentic experience; and then we have a thought about that experience... and we are removed from the moment.. the experience is past.. the thought is a thought. A picture of a tiger is not a tiger. A photograph of food will not fill you when you are hungry. In order to live... you have to live. Thats all.

The problem that we create is twofold; firstly, we create a situation in our mind of what we would like to be doing... and we have expectations of how it should go, or how it should make us feel when we are finally where we would like to be; and if what actually occurs is different from our expectations.. we suffer. Secondly, while we are doing the dishes in the present... our mind is in the future; planning how things are going to be, or thinking about how they should be... or in the past, remembering how it was the last time that we were doing what we enjoy.

But we live here.. now... in the present. So... why sacrifice living now, for a memory of the past... or a plan for the future??

Why suffer now... wishing we were elsewhere.. or that things were different, when we could, instead, simply accept that now is the time when we must wash the dishes, or pay the bills, or what have you... and remain fully present, and completely mindful as we do whatever it is that we must do??

Whether we are washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or out with our friends; this is our life.. just as it is!

My suggestion is to learn to accept the moment that life unfolds and reveals to you with an open and gracious heart. If we must do the dishes, then why not DO THE DISHES?? This is a task that displays a great deal of optimism; we must have some hope of eating again in the future, or why care whether we have clean plates?? This task is a perfect task for teaching appreciation and gratitude. You can feel the water on your skin... how many people put forth great effort to treat and purify that water so that it can reach your faucet? How many hours of work and toil were involved in designing and laying the pipes and valves and tanks?? There had to have been a meal in order for the plates and implements to have gotten dirty in the first place.... each and every meal is a gift of the Universe; for every morsel of food represents a sacrifice of life for some organism. The fact that you are still in the same place where you ate indicates that you were safe and secure; you didn't have to flee scavengers or predators... or marauders... or invading armies. How many people give everything they have in order to keep us safe and secure? The dishes had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, transported, stocked, and sold.

Just doing the dishes gives us a window in the thousands and thousands of hours of effort and work by thousands of other people just so that you would be able to have a dish to eat off of.

This is surely something that shouldn't be taken for granted...

If you take this meditation a step further, each one of the people involved in the production of only one dish had to have clothing, tools, supplies, vehicles, materials, and a workspace... each of them had to be administered in order to be paid, supplied, etc. (they were employees of some company, or they own their own, I am assuming...) - and this is just for the dish!! What about the flatware, glasses, cups, pans, pots, potholders, implements, counters, stove, refrigerator, cabinets, table, ... house... and so on?? What about the garbage?? That has to be taken away and properly disposed of....

What does this tell you?

Mainly, that although we often consider ourselves as self-sufficient islands who need little or nothing from others, simply washing the dishes mindfully can illustrate that we are inextricably bound to every other being on this planet... our lives not only dance with and around the lives of others... but are dependent upon the efforts of others.. and they are equally dependent upon us.

If you pull the camera back and look at everything around you.. at everything that you use each and every day... roads, signs, glass, doors, medicine, soap, cosmetics, electronics, chemicals, what have you... you begin to see that we owe a great deal to many, many people... and they also owe a debt of gratitude to us.

Pull still further back, and we begin to realize that we fit in to a greater reality than we ever even considered....

How can we afford to miss such a realization by being stuck in the past, or reaching for a future that will either come anyway, or, which we will not survive to experience... which renders it a moot point in the long run??

As a monk, I spend a great deal of time in meditation. Not as much as I would prefer, but, nevertheless a great deal of time. When I began this practice, (I am speaking of Zen practice in general... rather than 'Dying Practice' specifically in this case.) I was often waiting for it to happen... When I would spend time sitting Zazen, and nothing happened, I found it frustrating. I felt that I was doing something wrong.....

On the other hand, when I was out and about and actually doing things that involved action and moving and effort; I found that I was holding back... conserving my strength for ..... something.

After a number of years of practicing, I finally realized that that something that I was hoping would happen during meditation was very much the same thing that I was saving my strength for everywhere else... and that it never was going to happen.

In Zazen, we sit... completely still. Very quietly.

We breathe in. We breathe out.

In Rinzai Zen, we often sit with our 'koan', which is a question or phrase that defies logical, intellectual understanding.

So we sit there... and nothing happens. We just sit.

Clouds don't part. Angels don't sing. Lightning doesn't strike (well... not yet).

Nothing. Zip. Nada. Bupkiss.

Often, one's feet and legs go to sleep... and pain begins to gnaw at us. Ankles and knees scream. Backs howl. Rear ends go numb.

And we sit.

Eventually, however... it begins to dawn on us that we don't have to do anything. We are already doing it... there is no big 'SOMETHING' that will happen.

Zazen is a microcosm of life... you see.

When we are doing the dishes... we can be completely present, and appreciative of doing the dishes... of being alive... of being HERE... doing THIS... right NOW.

There is a subtle perfection in doing something... anything... when we do it completely... giving it all we've got. No matter what we are doing.

What is the most important thing? Whatever we happen to be doing at the moment. That is the correct answer.

Death is coming. There is no way to avoid it. We are human beings, and as such we are of the nature to grow old, to grow sick, and to die. We cannot escape this fate.

Running around, treating one another like crap so that we can gather more and more stuff, or have more power than others, or point out other people's weaknesses.. this does not bring happiness. It only numbs our own suffering temporarily. There is no filling the mouth of desire... desire expands faster than we can feed it. There is always a bigger, shinier, faster, more powerful, thing.. and we will never be happy with what we have so long as we are constantly looking towards the new thing. Controlling others, judging others; well.. this is simply projecting our own weaknesses and hiding them beneath indifference, ignorance, brutality, cruelty, or hate. And this brings no lasting happiness either. We can run around as fast as we like... but we all end up the same way... so why rush it?

As I practice "Soft Belly" meditation and work on bringing it into my daily life, and as I practice "Noting & Observing" I am finding that I can calmly enjoy the simple act of being.

Being alive. Breathing. Loving my family and friends. Loving and showing compassion and kindness to those around me; even the difficult people who are acting out of their own sense of pain and confusion... this is a gift. I wont have it forever. I wont have it for a very long time. I may not have it for very long at all. But I have it now.

Are you so very different than I am in this respect?

Start appreciating... or start suffering. Every breath is a choice. So... what are you waiting for??

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Don't Turn Your Back

It is important while following this practice to ensure that although facing one's mortality is important, it is more important to face one's life. All the while.. whatever we happen to be engaged in... or, whether or not we are engaged at all... life is taking place... every moment of every day... and we wouldn't want to miss it!

I recently had an email conversation with a young female acquaintance who is/was/is/was a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. While I am not a practitioner of this tradition, and while I don't pretend to know very much about it at all.. other than what I have read... I made a leap of faith in my opinion that it most likely isn't all that different from my own order; The Nyorai-Nyoko (Tathagata)Sect of Rinzai Zen Buddhism; at least not at its heart. I am sure that the bells and whistles are different... but, down at the important parts, I think there is much more similarity than difference... and this probably carries over to many other (if not all) religious traditions... we are all human... and we all live in the same 'belly-button'.. so it stands to reason that share at least some commonality.. even in this. In any case, the conversation more or less centered around her feelings of guilt over not being able to find the time to follow her practice on a regular basis, and not being able to attend retreats, meditate, etc., etc.

I advised her not to beat herself up over this... everything comes... and everything goes... and then everything comes back again!! This is the way the universe works. Life sometimes throws a great deal at us, and, while it is true that if we simply threw everything to the winds and made the time to meditate, or what have you, we would be able to do it... it is, often, simply a question of priorities... however, it is equally true that in some periods of our lives, to do this would be to invite a great deal of trouble at a later date by shirking our responsibilities. So, I suggested that she use her daily activities as practice... you don't have to sit on a cushion to meditate... it is the most optimal form of practice, but when it isn't available to us, we must use what we have at hand.

One of my duties as a monk is to serve as Tenzo for my Zen Center (we are a very small center, with a very small Sangha.. so we all serve as multiple capacity monks.. HA!). The term Tenzo is made up of two Chinese ideographs, the first character 'Ten'(典)* (as pronounced by the Japanese) (Jun in Korean) means 'Law' 'Documents' or 'Control' (these are some of the meanings..) the second character 'Zo'(座) (Japanese pronunciation) (Jo-WAH in Korean) (Hangul: 전좌)** - One would think that the position involves being some sort of judge, lawyer, or magistrate... but this is not what the Tenzo does in his monastery. The Tenzo is the Kitchen, and the Monk who runs the kitchen (So: just to be clear, Tenzo is the kitchen AND the cook.. there!) (and by extension is in charge of the garden as well).

* Asian Characters will only show for those of you who have them enabled. My apologies to those of you who are forced to look at gobbledy-gook; I put the characters here for any readers who may have an interest in the etymology, and I make the assumption that the configuration of their computers will allow them to view the characters.
** The characters are Chinese. The pronunciation in Chinese will differ according to the regional dialect of the reader/speaker. The Japanese and Korean people use Chinese characters as well as their own writing systems; each have their own unique way of pronouncing the character (this will be, essentially, a corrupted pronunciation of the original Chinese pronunciation for the most part) and each country will also, I assume, utilize the characters in their own unique way (in many cases using characters that have become obsolete elsewhere, or using derived meanings that other countries who also use the characters will not recognize). While the meanings of the Characters remain essentially the same, they are very likely used somewhat differently by each country as I have said, but for the most part they are intelligible by all.. at least to some extent. Confused? Good! It doesn't pay to understand everything! HA! Usual disclaimer applies here: Individual mileage may vary.

By now you will be starting to recover from your shock, dismay and confusion at the sudden conversational leap... but have no fear!! I will explain... its relevant (sort of).. I promise!

In each office that we hold, we are trained in our duties. This isn't like the training that one receives at a job with an hourly wage where someone dismissively points you in the general direction of your work area and gives you vague to incomprehensible instructions and then beats feet... leaving you to sink or swim.

In the Zen Monastic Community (Sangha) as an Un-Sui or; Monk in training (Un-Sui - It means Clouds & Rain.. I will touch on this another time..) you are taken under the tutelage of a Monk who has already served in the office that you are being assigned to, and taught everything that you must know. Then, every single senior Monk who has ever served in that office has free reign to make corrections on what you do.. and how you do it. In Zen, every action, every movement, every single thing you do is deliberate.. and significant. How you stand, how you sit, how you speak, how you move... and how you think. Everything. Little by little, each task, each office, each assignment eventually teaches you a great deal about the history, tradition, discipline, and all of the whys and wherefores of what we do and why we do it that way. We all eventually serve in every capacity... more than once... and we all learn more and more and more each time we do it. Traditionally, you serve in a particular office for a period of three months... but it generally holds true that you serve in the same office for many subsequent 'terms' resulting in years of experience in each office.

The Tenzo is normally the oldest and most respected monk in the monastery. In my case this is very, very far from the truth. I happen to be a fairly skillful cook however, and people like to eat tasty and nutritious food! So... I am Tenzo.

When the Tenzo begins his (or her - I happen to be a male, so I will use 'him' 'he' and 'his' for simplicity's sake) work in the kitchen, the very first thing that he does is to clean the entire kitchen. By doing this, we ensure that the workspace is clean, we show respect to our work space and to all of our tools and implements; without which we could not effectively do our work... and most of which are the product of the work of many, many individuals -- so we give our tools respect and we express our gratitude for having them and to those individuals who had a part in producing them by way of their work, by treating them properly, maintaining them, and keeping them clean and serviceable. Another reason for starting out by cleaning is that it allows us to settle our mind, find our center, and cultivate a proper mental state; tranquil, calm, serene, focused, and mindful. Lastly, as we clean, we are forced to touch and inspect everything within the purview of our kitchen. By doing this, we silently and efficiently inventory all of our supplies, taking note of what must be used before it spoils, what we have too much of (not much of this!) and what we are almost out of... also, we inspect all of the tools and surfaces for proper order and condition... mentally creating a 'repair list' if we find things needing attention.

Once this is done, we are prepared to start the preparation of our meal. In a Zen kitchen, (the Tenzo), much of the food that we use is donated, and is sometimes not the most fresh produce around... but this is the duty of the Tenzo.. to use what he has and create a meal that is tasty and nutritious. The Tenzo is charged with keeping the Monks in his charge, as well as any lay practitioners and guests, healthy and energetic so that they may practice and progress!! Ah-HA! Now we come to understand the meaning of Tenzo - the seat of the law (In Buddhist terminology, 'Dharma' is often translated as 'Law' (or sometimes 'Way'..but usually 'Law') -- If the Monks are not healthy in their body, their mind also loses its health and vitality... this is simple cause and effect... And this is where it begins in may respects. Healthy food, Healthy Monks.. very simple!

This nurturing by way of feeding others and oneself (that's me.. the Tenzo.. feeding myself...) healthy food is a physical manifestation of being kind and compassionate to all beings ... oneself included! (Here you are expected to make the leap from my implication that beating oneself up for not being able to find the time for formal practice would be unkind to oneself... and that being kind is somehow better... well, it just is! I will continue..)

Tenzo takes whatever he has, mostly because that is all that he has (and therefore hasn't much choice in the matter...) and uses his skill and knowledge to prepare a meal that is delicious and that will keep everyone healthy... in life, we often wait before we do things for the conditions to become perfect.. but, conditions are never perfect.. so, many of us spend a great deal of time waiting... and not so much time doing!! So... not much gets done... and we have no time... and then we bludgeon ourselves for not getting things done! Its a vicious circle.

Often, we think about what we have to do, and we realize that it mostly sucks.. that its a big pain in the neck, and that we would prefer to be doing something else.. or nothing in particular.. but not this!! -- aaannnnd; it doesn't get done. Vicious circle.. out comes the mental bludgeon.

Not only do we bludgeon ourselves... but, since everything is connected on some level.. particularly those of us that are self-aware and living... we tend to start taking whacks at others, too.

Here's a secret: NOBODY can live up to our expectations. Not us. Not you. Not them. NOBODY. It's an impossible task. It causes great suffering.. and everybody gets a headache. The aspirin companies make money.. and then the executives go home and get bawled out by their spouses for not getting stuff done.. go figure.

As Tenzo, we are expected to face facts and realize that we will never have the perfect ingredients. We will never have the perfect tools and implements. And.. we will never have all the time that we would like to get everything done that must be done. So, what does one do when one is Tenzo and must get the meal prepared??

You know, as Monks, when we walk; we just walk. When we sit; we just sit. And when we work; we just work. (Now what the hell does that mean?)

In a nutshell, it means simply this; "Thinking about doing something is very often much more difficult than actually just DOING it." - so, we take the most important, or the most time-appropriate task, and we begin. That's all. We take what we have, we figure out the best way that we can get started under the circumstances... and we give it all we've got. If you have to cut one thousand onions, cut onions like Mozart composed music! If you have to peel a million potatoes, peel potatoes like Shakespeare wrote poetry.

Most of the time, we end up with food that is tasty and nutritious.

Sometimes, we end up with a big bowl of slop. But, as Monks, everyone still has to eat it. They can't all be winners.

Good comes. Bad comes. Good comes again. Bad comes again. Then good comes. This is life. It is of value to develop a degree of equanimity. We sometimes can control how things turn out.. and we often cannot. So, in many cases, what we have is simply one more damned thing to get used to... so we get used to it. If we can change it or improve it, we do. If we can't, we try to go around it. If we can't go around it, we try to go over it, under it, through it, or away from it... and if we cannot do any of those, ...well, we try to accept it. It is only with an open heart that we can eventually find release.. and peace.

In the case of the Tenzo, when you make some sort of nasty beet/pineapple/asparagus porridge that looks, smells, and tastes pretty awful.. the Monks of your Sangha will still eat it.. though they may not accept seconds.. (in which case, guess what is served again at the next meal! HA!) - but, you won't get dirty looks, nobody will hate you, and you won't get fired as Tenzo. It is just accepted as the meal that helps us to appreciate every single other meal we have ever been lucky to eat other than this one.

After the food is served, the Tenzo continues his work by cleaning the kitchen once more. During this time, we learn from any mistakes or miscalculations that we have made... and then we simply let it go. We retain the knowledge.. but we don't allow the mistake to stick. Mistakes happen. You learn from mistakes. You learn nothing from doing everything right every time... you learn from doing it wrong, and from figuring out how that happened. This is a microcosm of life. This is why pencils come with erasers on the other end at no extra charge. So, we end our work the very same way that we started... by cleaning the kitchen, taking stock of our supplies and tools, and settling our mind.

When we start the next meal, we will start by cleaning the kitchen..

If we approach each day like a meal prepared by the Tenzo, we would probably avoid a great deal of pain, and suffering over the gap between "How we wish it would be" and "How it actually is" - this gap may be very small... or very large, but either way, as humans, we tend to hate it - and it causes us to forego entirely, or to at least curtail enjoying what life is unfolding for us. Whatever happens, that is our story... regardless of how we think it should be. We are here. Not there. We can only ever get there by starting out where we are. We will only be able to improve what will be by doing it in the present moment - because that is the only moment in time that we have access to.

So, I suggested to this young lady that she practice while doing the dishes, or while cleaning, dressing, during personal hygiene, or what have you (but probably not while driving!). This is bringing one's practice into daily life...

Daily life is what you are doing... even now.

It may be easier, or preferable to be able to have time put aside for our practice. It will most likely be 'better', if 'better' is a word that one would use for describing our practice... but, if life is expanding and giving us all sorts of things that we must do... then, we must contract and get those things done... you cannot take the next breath without exhaling this one.. plain and simple.

So.. don't turn your back on life, in order to practice.

After all.. we are practicing for 'life' - even though we call it dying practice.

Also, try to remember; Being kind and compassionate to all beings means being kind to yourself! You must learn to love and be kind to yourself, to accept yourself, just as you are, flaws and strengths, perfections and weaknesses...

You need an inbreath and an outbreath. Night and Day. Good and Bad. Contraction and expansion. Positive AND negative; if you are to achieve any sort of balance in your life. You can't force it... you have to simply let it happen... remember; "Soft Belly".

With Palms Joined... I hope this helps your practice in some small way...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Artificial Flowers

I am more or less fully into this practice at this point... or, more accurately; fully into this stage of the practice. Until 15 September, the practice will remain more or less as it is right now - comprised of "Soft-Belly" practice and "Noting & Observing Practice". This isn't to say that the practice will stagnate, or that there can be no 'forward motion' or progress; quite the opposite. The task now is to deepen this practice, and to bring it into everyday life, rather than only holding it when 'on the cushion'.

In Zen, we include simple physical tasks and activities as part of each day's practice in order to be afforded the chance to 'carry' the mental state achieved during Zazen into daily life. We walk, we drink tea, we eat meals, and we do simple work tasks - all while attempting to maintain our mindfulness and mental clarity. Why is this so?? Well... what use is Zazen if it can only be done while sitting on a cushion?? This would be a stagnant practice, but life is dynamic! And in order to live it, you have to be capable of moving along with it in order to be able to respond to what is before you NOW rather then to what was or what is yet to occur. Life takes place in the only moment to which you have access; the present moment. Living in the past.. or in the future.. is to completely miss the point! (This is not to say that you should not take the past into account, or plan for the future... but you must remain in the present when you look inward to find the past, or outward to plan for the future. It is only by way of your actions in the present moment that you may influence the future by using the wisdom that was gained through past experience.)

It is this idea of 'carrying forward' the practice that we are focusing on now in Dying Practice.

Applying 'Soft-Belly' practice during daily life... in true-life circumstances. This is the aim. The first milestone is even remembering that Soft-Belly exists when we are sad, angry, fearful, or overwhelmed.

Once we can remember that such a thing as 'Soft Belly' exists... we can attempt to practice it 'on-site' in some semblance of a timely fashion.

At first, naturally, this will take place pretty much after the fact. We will have some incident or circumstance take place, and then, thirty minutes, an hour, or a day later the thought will hit us; "OH!! I should have practiced Soft-Belly!!" When that thought arises, that is the time to practice Soft-Belly.

Little by little, we work to decrease the time lag between the actual incident and the practice, until we seamlessly practice Soft-Belly whenever it is appropriate - such as when we blink in response to something coming to close to our eyes.

Naturally, the long-term goal would be to exist in a 'Soft-Belly' state at all times... but for now, we take bite-sized problems and work on them... little by little.

One of the problems, of course, is realizing that a situation is occurring where Soft-Belly practice is appropriate. How do we deal with this??

This is where 'Noting & Observation' practice becomes beneficial. By monitoring the body patterns of various emotions (particularly afflictive emotions) we can come to recognize them earlier and earlier in the process... further 'upstream' and closer to the source of the emotion. Once we are mindful enough to recognize these patterns beginning to take shape, we can begin our Soft-Belly practice immediately, effectively cutting the afflictive emotions short.

By working with these two practices diligently, and mastering the skills that they afford us, we are learning to 'respond FROM' rather than 'react TO' these difficult and trying situations that life presents to us each day.

By learning how to effectively deal with life, we can learn how to face perhaps the most difficult fear; the fear of dying. In turn, by conquering our fear of dying; and in so doing by learning to die properly and skillfully... we learn to LIVE properly and skillfully!!

So. I can present you with an assurance at this point: If, just if, when we die... that is IT. If we simply cease to exist and there is NOTHING afterwards... and all of the talk and words and belief concerning an afterlife, of any kind are completely incorrect... this practice will still be beneficial to you while you are alive. And.. by learning to live more fully, without fear, and by learning to approach life's inevitable difficulties with skill and equanimity... calmly, serenely, and with mental clarity... you make much, much better use of whatever time you do have left before the end of your life. Naturally, most of us would prefer to think that dying is simply a change in our journey, which continues after this current life... but now you have an assurance that even if this belief is inaccurate, we can still improve our condition RIGHT NOW.

When people ask me about an afterlife, I generally point out that I am still learning about this one, and that I can't afford to worry about the next one while this one is still being figured out. And when they ask me "Why are we here?", I ask, in turn, "ARE you really here?? Are you fully and completely HERE?? Rather than letting your mind wander amongst such questions as "Why are we here?" - perhaps it would be a better practice to simply BE HERE... and let the why work itself out."

I want to briefly point out that for the purposes of this practice, I make a definite distinction between "Dying" and "Death". To my mind, they are two different states. Just as "Being Born" and "Being Alive" are two different states. We are all born... after which we are alive. We all die... after which we are dead. So. This is not "Death" practice... Once we die, we will be dead. Death will take care of itself. I am concerned with the process that takes us between the stages of Life and Death.

If you enjoy going to the beach, you notice that there are cycles in the tides... the waves come in... go out... a series of them will come in somewhat further... then a series will recede.... Overlaying that are cycles of the tides.... and encapsulating these cycles are cycles of day and night... the seasons... and so on.

If we turn our attention inward, we have cycles also... breathing in... breathing out.... heartbeats.... sleeping, waking... and so on. Nature works in cycles. Nearly everything has a cycle of some sort or another... and the nature of cyclical behavior is change. This is the song of creation... everything is constantly changing...

If this is true of life and death, as well.... then the process of dying would be very important... it may very well be so that the mental and emotional state that we have as we die influences our next life... or whatever comes next. If this is true.. and I'm not saying that it is.. only that it would stand to reason to be so given my observations of everything else... anyway, if this is true, then it is vitally important to cultivate a mental/emotional state that would be conducive to a calm, serene, tranquil and mindfully present existence during whatever comes next. And this is what Dying Practice addresses insofar as dying is concerned.

I have explained how Dying Practice benefits us if dying/death is the END of everything, and how it may benefit us if dying/death is simply another beginning. Since we don't know which case we are dealing with, it is my preference to deal with it as though it were a sleeping tiger on the lawn; The tiger may be the kindest, gentlest, and most affectionate tiger in the world, and it may be possible to cuddle up to it and read a book. Or; it may be the most dangerous, cruel, bloodthirsty tiger that has ever existed. Our problem is that whichever tiger it turns out to be; there is not much we can do about it once we are too close to it to get safely away. So we have to deal with the problem before it becomes a problem that we are incapable of dealing with. We have to consider our options and take appropriate steps from a safe vantage point, from which we are able to respond quickly and effectively whichever tiger it turns out to be.

Luckily, however, the description of a tiger isn't a tiger... and many of our problems are of this nature... purely problems that arise in our minds. Doing something is usually much easier than thinking about doing it... and it is the same with Dying Practice. This is not something to consider... to think about... to ruminate over... it is something that must be directly experienced... directly faced.... its personal. Nobody can die for you. You have to do it all alone.

Practice makes perfect.

We are pressured to practice by the unyielding certainty of our impending death. While some people prefer not to think about it.. to push it aside and avoid contemplating this eventuality there are yet some who take solace in the ability to stand up and face it squarely. This won't change the fact of our death. We we will still die. I will still die. And, unless there are some anomalous circumstances surrounding our death, the time is uncertain. Nevertheless.. its coming. You can be assured of that. And it is most likely coming somewhat quicker than we hope or expect. So, in this seemingly insurmountable problem we can find a gift.. a grace of sorts.

(What the hell is the crazy monk yammering on about, you are probably wondering..)

I know of at least two readers of this blog who were stationed with me in Korea. Neither of which will remember the 12:00AM curfew, I think (I was stationed in Korea on a previous tour when the curfew existed, and I met both of these individuals on a subsequent tour after the curfew had been abolished).

When I first arrived in Korea, the country was under martial law, and it was unlawful to be out on the streets between midnight and, I think, 4:00AM.

This created a certain 'pressure' on everybody to take care of their business.. whatever that happened to be, before curfew put an end to the evening.

The partiers partied their asses off... the shoppers shopped like there was no tomorrow... the lovers loved with all of the passion that they could muster... and the fighters knocked the living shit out one another.

Every. Single. Night.

Everyone.. me included.. would comment that it would be *SO* great if they would abolish the curfew so that the night could be longer!! The fun would go on incessently!! The partiers would have a never ending party!!..... the fighters could beat each other to within an inch of their life!!.... the shoppers could buy EVERYthing!! The lovers could embrace until the end of time....

Except that... although the lovers truly loved one another and wanted to embrace forever... there is a problem; Somebody always has to go to the bathroom!

They *DID* lift the curfew... and the party DID continue all night long...

Exactly TWICE.

.. and Korea was never quite the same after that... the force that put everything into motion weakened... there was no drive to make the best out of the night... there was no tension... no pressure.... and the magic simply fizzled away... and Korea..

um.. I mean...


...became korea after a fashion... this is not strictly so... I always loved Korea.. but something vital did get taken away.

How do I explain that? Well... people in New York very seldom go to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty... or, while they existed, the World Trade Center. I grew up here... I have been to the top of the Empire State building exactly twice, the Statue of Liberty once, and I have never been to the top of the World Trade Center even though I watched them being built.. and watched them fall. Why?? Well... what's the hurry?? They are THERE ... and on some level, I suppose I feel (or felt...) that they would always be there... so why should I go do that when I have to do this?? Of course, in light of recent events, we are all painfully aware that they will NOT always be THERE.... and, if we are wise, we can extrapolate that knowledge to realize that neither will we. So if we are going to live... we have to do it NOW.

Once the curfew was lifted in Korea... there was no need to push things.. there was no pressure to enjoy life while we could. We could always do it later.. but later never comes.. until it is much later than we realized and staring us in the face... and, I suppose, in many cases... it is too late by then.

We don't value artificial flowers, contrary to what logic and common sense would dictate. Artificial flowers nowadays often are virtually indistinguishable from real flowers... we have to actually touch them to discern whether we are confronted with a real flower or a synthetic flower. They last almost forever... certainly longer than we will... you only ever have to pay for them one time, you don't have to water them or care for them... there is no water that goes skanky after a few days.... and they don't wither and die. It would seem that the synthetic flower is the better choice. But... we prefer real flowers.

Why is that, do you think??

To my mind, the very fact that a real flower does wither and die is the key.

We are pressured to enjoy them while they last... there very ethereal quality is what we most value it would seem....

We are aware that this flower in front of us has blossomed, is gifting us (very temporarily) with its delicate beauty and perfection, with its wonderful aroma.. but mostly with the knowledge that this flower will only be available for us to appreciate for a relatively short period of time...

.. and then... there will be another flower!!

Perhaps it is this unconscious recognition of the cyclic nature of existence that gives us heart and that makes us love the beauty of a flower.

In this way, we are not so very different from flowers... are we?

The wisdom that we can take from this realization is that an authentic life is a life that we will value much, much more than an artificial one. Once we have internalized the reality of of own impending mortality, we can gather the courage to put aside pre-conceived notions, conditioned responses, and the expectations of others... and inject our own meaning into our lives... thereby living a life that is vibrant, and full, and dynamic.

By facing our fears, and putting them to rest, and by picking up the reins of our own life, standing upon our own two feet, and taking responsibility for living... we can realize our inheritance, wake up to our true nature... and, at least for as long as we have left in this world we can finally LIVE!

Life is the common thread all creatures share... no matter how insignificant they may seem to us.. we are all part of a greater totality... we are all part of the one great family under the sky... and the sooner each of us comes to this realization; the better for all of us.

We really, truly are ONE. Just wake up!! You'll see. You can do it.. right now!!


Thursday, July 17, 2008


I have been noticing that no matter how ardently I try to fully accept the premise of my own impending death for this practice, there is some incorrigible portion of my mind, languidly leaning against the wall saying "Oh, Puh-LEEZE!" and "C'mon... get real!" and other such assorted comments...

The thing is this; That border between life and death is also a border that excludes any type of information from returning to us from those who have already passed from this life. The very moment of death renders the subject of that death utterly incapable of communicating the experience to those of us who are still living.

So.. we simply don't know what to expect.... we dont know what it is to die. We don't even know precisely what death is, or the exact moment when it occurs... we only just sorta, kinda know.... and that isn't enough.

And *this* my friends, is the very definition of horror.

At its most fundamental level, Horror is, to my best understanding, the inability to communicate... period! Without this isolation from other human beings, there IS NO horror story.

You are buried alive, pounded and tearing at the inside of your coffin... but nobody can hear you scream.

You are trapped within a building/house/dungeon/laboratory/spaceship/what-have-you... probably being stalked by something (something bad!) - and either; a. You cannot communicate with others, or; b. They refuse to believe you.

This is horror.

Death, at least insomuch as I can apprehend it, intellectually, is, at a very basic level, an inability to communicate. And yet, here I am.. communicating each day...

.. so... what do I do with that??

I think that I must simply recognize that a practice is a practice... and an experience is an experience. Furthermore, when an experience is a singularity (so far as we now know..) such as death... well, you can only come so close to your mark.

I don't think that my problem is with my practice... just as so often our problems are not with our life, or our circumstances; but with the way that we are perceiving our life, or our circumstances, and in the way that we are comparing the reality of our life, or of our current circumstances with our pre-conceived notions and expectations of how those circumstances, or how our life should be playing out. It is in the gap between the two that we create our own suffering.

My problem is not my practice, but my expectations regarding what my practice should or should not be. So, once again, I must open my heart to the reality of the circumstances precisely as they are in all of their flawed actuality.

The practice is working just fine... it is my mind that throwing blocks in front of me. I suspect that my mind is appalled and repulsed at the very notion of its own mortality... or at least of the mortality of the physical body in which it exists.

Horror is the mind being confined to itself... without the benefit of communicating with other minds.....

... sounds a little bit like Zazen to me!

I wonder if that's why so many first time visitors to the Zendo are never seen again??