Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reflections: Self – The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Someone not too long ago asked me the question “What is self?” It’s an important question, because ‘self’, either directly or indirectly, is behind our motivation for just about everything. So after mulling it over, here are a few pieces that may frame part of an answer.

1) ‘Self’ is a set of physical, mental, and emotional reflexes we acquire at birth and these reflexes evolve as we grow older.
2) ‘Self’ is what perceives, interprets, judges, and reacts to the external world.
3) Our sense of ‘self’ is the cause of our suffering, in the Buddhist sense of suffering. But ‘self’ is also what will experience 'enlightenment' (whatever that is) if we’re lucky enough.
4) We should try to be true, honest, and compassionate with our ‘selves’, because if we aren’t, it’s a big drain on our resources – physical, psychological, and emotional. Our ‘selves’ can become our own worst critic. It’s from a healthy or free self that we can most compassionately answer to our responsibilities and cope with the external circumstances and changes that arise in our lives. I should add that, right now, I really don’t know what a healthy or free self is, except that in my personal dictionary it may be equated with enlightenment, and that while I’ve always said I’ve never been in the practice for the end-gaining of enlightenment, I do, very much, want to be psychologically healthy and free.

Several years ago now, I moved beyond occasionally meditating primarily for stress relief and ‘energy clearing', began a personal daily meditation practice and joined a local Sangha. That transition was accompanied by a belief in the concept of ‘no self’, because allowing my inner critic and bag of reactive mental and emotional reflexes to continue unchecked was no longer an option. In contrast, now that some years have passed, an indirect effect of zazen (sitting meditation) has been an expanding sense of ‘self’ that more and more seems to include other people and the world. Is this one possible interpretation of ‘not self', as opposed to ‘no self’?

A concept likely involved in this transition, for me, was: “Don’t take things personally.” I began to see that most people were acting and responding from a bag of mental and emotional reflexes, much like, though obviously separate, from my own. I began to see through their actions and responses to where they might be coming from, and that became more important or, at least interesting, than responding reactively. There was ‘self’ in others, and I could feel their suffering and wanted to help. But how? In most cases, there’s very little that actually falls into the ‘help’ category that people want from me. I don’t know where this gets me, other than feeling helpless. What I do know, at this particular moment, is that I find myself drawn to helping people in dire indisputable need; hoping to be alert enough, and not so lost in my routine and my 'self'-centered thinking, to be helpful in daily encounters (yeah, the 'self'-centered thinking is still there to some extent); and, most of all, drawn back to the cushion for zazen. Right now? No, right now it's time for dinner.

Many thanks to my Twitter Sangha, those who prompted the question, and those who were around while I was mulling this over.

Fine tendrils of sun
eased through the gray fog, lighting
beauty this morning.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Shobogenzo Haiku (Chapters 1-7)

I am only beginning my journey through the Shobogenzo, but it has already ascended to a high place in my list of 'favorites'. I originally intended to write these haiku to side-step my tendency to over-analyze things. I have found that Dōgen's Shobogenzo is poetry already. Many of the phases in the haiku below are taken directly from the text. As a result the credit for these haiku goes to Dōgen, and Nishijima and Cross who worked to preserve the original phrasing and share it with us. I have merely assembled the phrases into a haiku, much like a jigsaw puzzle, and I hope correctly. These haiku are by no means a complete representation of each Chapter and are works in progress. My humble understanding could change at any moment!

Chapter 1- Bendōwa (A Talk about Pursuing the Truth)
Zazen Samadhi -
The Dharma blooms forth, anchored
By this floating stem

Breath ringing the bell,
The worlds in ten directions
Resonate Dharma

Chapter 2 – Maka-hannya-haramitsu (Mahāprajnāpāramitā)
Holding all the threads
Of wisdom, having to do
With a tender heart

Cloaking the body
With prajnā-pāramitā –
Radiant mantra

Chapter 3 – Genjō-kōan (The Realized Universe)
The whole moon and sky
Reflected in just one drop
Not knowing it's dew

In dust, out of frame,
Innumerable dharmas
Past my single shape

Chapter 4 – Ikka-no-myōju (One Bright Pearl)
Floating downriver,
Not fishing for gold-scaled fish --
Gensha, the layman

A ceaseless stirring,
Ten directions held within
One shimmering pearl

Chapter 5 – Ju-undō-shiki (Rules for Accumulated Cloud Hall)
The hall of clouds -- home
To Buddha's truth and harmony
Like milk in water

Chapter 6 – Soku-shin-ze-butsu (Mind Here and Now is Buddha)
Clear, no mist or mud,
Mind's original essence --
Shared and eternal

Coming home to truth --
Relaxing into the arms
Of the infinite

Chapter 7 – Senjō (Washing)
Essence purified --
Not a goal, but the doing --
Washing is Buddha

Wash body like mind
Til water runs clear, so all
Retain the Dharma

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Luke House

Sandbar at the junction of the Magdelina & Bogota Rivers, Colombia (2005)
The drink offered is Chicha, in this case yucca, chewed by the local women, fermented, & brewed.
(Note: I did not partake. Today, I would and probably laugh.
I sense a post about Colombia in the near future.)

Menzan's Kinhin

What are words, but a broken structure
that we try to build into something
that remotely resembles
what we feel?
The words are not enough,
there is so much more to sound.
So take the words apart,
their syllables in pieces then,
laid out on the floor
to be mixed
and matched
by some sixth sense towards
a meaning.

And still the meanings escape us.
So we go and break it down
some more,
into the individual
vowels and consonants.
The 'O' of glory, or the smaller 'o',
a sound of pain.
The 'i' of infinity
breaking into the 'I' of individuals.
Each separate sound
distinctly held
against the harsh sounds of consonants
that snap,
like the trunk of a tree.

These sounds we can comprehend
and in slow motion,
though it may take days or years
to sink in.
To re-assemble
the sounds, syllables and words,
so that sentences
once again flow smoothly
from our mouths.

Last Tuesday I took the opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Madison, where I live. The Madison Zen Center, along with 30-40 other local organizations contribute food and their services, one day a month each, to provide meals for the homeless in our area. We all encounter homeless people on a daily basis as we go about our lives. My reactions differ depending on the person and circumstance, but I am usually confused as to what to do. Should I look them in the eye and smile? Should I give them money? Do they want the money for food, transportation, or drink? Should I just walk by pretending I don't see them when I really do?, etc. One thing that is pretty consistent though, is that I get a "There but by the grace of God go I" feeling (~ John Bradford quote). While I was living in New Haven in the 90's, there were a lot of homeless around. In the downtown area, they acted as guardians for those of us at the University who walked by them on a regular basis. They were guardians, or maybe just witnesses, against a more dangerous criminal element. Some of them became friends of a sort, to exchange a smile or a few words with now and then.

"You must look into people as well as at them," -Philip Chesterfield

"But I know that I love thee, whatever thou art." -Thomas Moore

Luke House: 3 'rules' of operation:
#1) The harder everyone works, the poorer people become.
#2) Service reinforces privilege,
#3) Never do a job alone.
There was a fourth in retrospect, #4) only do the job you are given.

When I arrived at the Luke House, full of enthusiasm, a member of my Sangha gave me bags of salad fixings to mix together. That job quickly finished, I was at a loss. I was searching for things to do and getting frustrated, until I was introduced to the Director who explained the rules of operation. The 'don't work too hard', suggested by #1 is contrary to everything I have been taught. It doesn't make sense to me even now, except in the context of #2 and a Buddhist concept 'doing less, is sometimes more' or 'let the doing do itself.' To keep myself from helping out with other things (#4) while I was standing around was also tough having done my share of waitressing in my teen years. The third rule, 'Never do a job alone", may have its exceptions, but the joy of sharing work with others is something I learned early in my childhood and resonates strongly for me.

The most humbling experience of the evening entailed sitting down to eat. Volunteers take turns sitting down to eat as people get served, one or two volunteers per table. Before folks sit down, a concierge asks them about portion sizes for the main dish, signals the servers and food is brought out. Then everyone is seated. Two designated servers walk around serving milk, bread, and later, desert. I got to serve the desert, which was fun, and gave me a chance to interact a bit with those willing. Then all of a sudden it was my turn to sit down and eat. I was asked my perferred portion size and directed to a table just like everyone else. At the table, I didn't know what to say or ask. The fellow sitting on my right offered me milk, bread, salad dressing, etc. and I accepted and thanked him. But immediately after, he got up out of his seat and asked to be moved to another table -- the only instance of this I saw all night. I have no idea what I did wrong. After this, I did not try to speak anymore -- decided to think of this more like a meal during sesshin or other type of meditation retreat.

As simple as the evening was all-in-all, I was contented when I left Luke House that evening. I think it had to do with the minimal, but pleasant exchanges between people while eating and the occasional smiles on many of faces at various points through the night. There were families there, parents, babies and toddlers, and I have never seen them so well behaved. I include the parents in that statement. And yes, the homeless include babies and toddlers, especially in this economy. I don't know where these families keep themselves, I normally don't encounter them here in Madison, so I have to admit this was a big wake-up call for me.

*Luke House 310 S Ingersoll St Madison, WI 53703-3739 is run on donations and is a real community builder. After reading this review, I cried:

"No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks." -Saint Ambrose

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Girl Wind Burning Acquired

photo by Becci Erickson, 2009

Weather Vein

All I remember is the girl
blown clean off the prairie,
and just that wind
going for days now
like it wants to tear
you loose, wipe you fresh

clean out of commodity.

The bulging air releases
into this. A tension spins
and slips, plunging
earthward. Someone
(the girl the ghost the shape
that passes through us?)
reminds us there is someone
else (and a wind to tack into
a lofted direction).

(the blood rushing our ears?)
rattles up our insides
right along the spine,
to remind us we can be captured
yet, mid-sentence, can be swayed,
and my small grammar lifts
and folds,
hardly heard

in the vein of It.

- originally published in The Ohio Review

Tonight I initiated the first step of what is likely to be a big change in my life. As my practice has intensified over the last few months, I have come to realize that the contentment I was hoping for in my life just wasn't there, even though I have worked awfully hard to reach it. Intriguingly, I don't know where the winds are taking me yet, but know that my roots are in my practice and that the practice is my guide. To be honest, there is some fear, but not as much as you might think. This is a bit of a surprise to me, given that I've always had a clear sense of where I was heading since I was 17. The posting of this blog is my way of recognizing and honoring this first step on a new journey. At this particular moment, I am enjoying the not knowing, a sense of hope, the smell of a fresh breeze. Well, maybe "breeze" isn't quite the term for it, but it's close enough.

For fun, while visiting another website a few days ago, I decided to click on the link below to find out what my buddhist name is. I'm not actually qualified to have a Buddhist name, but this site generates them randomly. My Buddhist name is The Girl Wind Burning Acquired. What's yours? If you try it and get the same thing let me know. Maybe the site was rigged.

Note: I'll be polishing up the site in the next couple of weeks. Adding widgets, improving. For now, I just wanted to post.