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Wednesday, 6/29/11

Just now I was out in the back garden, moving the sprinkler, and I paused for a few moments to admire and wonder about some of the mysterious new tree saplings that have appeared under the cheery and nectarine trees this year.  (The new saplings are neither cherries nor nectarines.)

Hearing a slight rustle in the mint bed behind me, I turned and was surprised to see a fairly large toad on the ground about four feet from me, facing away from me.

The main part of its dark grey body was slightly larger than my fist, with its bulbous head and legs extending slightly from that main center lump.  (It didn’t really seem to have a neck to speak of.)  As I watched for a few minutes, the creature — something about it said “toad” to me rather than “frog,” but I don’t know exactly what — hopped a few inches, paused for a minute or so, hopped and paused again, and in this way gradually moved over to another, less exposed part of the garden bed that has all the wild mint in it – the one under the apricot tree.  As the toad passed through and paused in a sunny patch, I could see that its body was covered with irregular bumps and hollows – its skin was actually quite textured, though until it was spotlighted in the sunny patch, it had looked like nothing so much as an undistinguishable, sodden lump of mud.  (Applied mindfulness lessons coming soon to a back yard near you!)

When the toad got to a well-protected, shady spot, it began intermittently rooting around in a desultory fashion, again making a motion or two and then stopping, returning to complete stillness after each minimal motion.  Its stillness was definitely the larger portion of its stillness/motion ratio.  (Maybe it’s a Zen student toad.)

I had the distinct urge to go and find Joe’s binoculars, and to set up an unobtrusive little naturalist’s observation station.  But my day is already planned out with many high-priority activities.

Like many busy people these days, I only have high-priority appointments and activities in my calendar.  In fact, nothing even makes it into my calendar until it becomes a high priority, and all those important intentions take up pretty much every moment of every day.  But my days rarely end up actually looking the way I’ve planned them; so there still seems to be some time and space available for spontaneous prioritizing in the moment.  And yet somehow I don’t feel nearly as in touch as I’d like to be with “the one who is not busy” . . .

Other than the birds high up in the trees (out of Jenna’s immediate reach) and the cockroaches on the ground, I really don’t get many opportunities to observe significant wildlife in our yards.  The roadrunner that hung out with us for a year or two hasn’t been back since Jenna became an outdoor cat.  And even in other people’s yards, the ones that we pass on our way to and from the  co-op or Flying Star or Il Vicino, I’ve never seen a squirrel or even a gopher around here.  So finding a toad in my back yard was pretty exciting!  I wonder whether it will still be there after I get back from my Tai Chi class and my morning’s errands . . . I hope I remember to look.

Love, Russ

The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron recently passed away.  For those who are unfamiliar with his work, he wrote socially aware poems and songs back in the early 1970s that focused especially on racial injustice in the United States.  He is probably best known for his early rap poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, which paints a picture of Americans as a people who are so enamored with television and shallow commercialism that they are completely out of touch with what’s really important, with what’s really going on.  I heard this song recently during a radio segment about his death, and it made me think of our practice.  I wanted to read it for you tonight and talk about how it relates to our Soto Zen practice.

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

So I think the meaning of this is pretty clear, even if you don’t catch all of the 1970 pop-cultural references:   Scott-Heron is talking about the urgent need for real societal transformation in a society that is held completely in thrall to television and shallow commercialism.  The revolution that is needed can only happen outside of the limited, controlled confines of popular culture.  Unlike our everyday life, the Revolution, whatever that is supposed to be, will be real and unmediated.  And because it’s real, it won’t be on television.

This reminds me of an old Zen saying that says  “A painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger”.  Of course, if you are hungry and need food, then a picture of food, no matter how realistic can’t satisfy your hunger.  What this means is that you can’t just read books about Buddhism, or talk about it, or think about it.  Such activities may be OK, but they won’t address your deepest needs.  You have to actually go to the Zendo, put your body into the meditation posture, and do the practice.  And you can’t just do it once and be done with it – you have to practice continually for the rest of your life, just like you can’t just eat once and then be done with it.  The revolution you seek in your own life, the revolution that will end suffering for yourself and for all beings, will not be televised.  It won’t be in a book, or on a podcast.  It will only be realized through practice.

This is similar to an idea I heard once from Shohaku Okumura, the great contemporary Japanese Zen teacher who now leads the Sanshin Zen Community in Indiana.  He once made the analogy that when we experience the Earth through a map, there is always some distortion because of the map projection.  Our practice, he said, is not to make better maps or to throw away the map, but simply to sit directly on the earth.  When we sit directly on the earth, we may not even completely understand what the earth is because we can only experience it with our minds through the distortions of the map projections.  The real earth, the real revolution, may be outside of our consciousness.  In this context, we see that because the revolution will not be televised, we may not even know that it’s happening!

In Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji says:

The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddha-dharma. Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your intellect. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

In other words, we expect that the revolution will, in fact, be televised, but Dogen is telling us that the fact that it’s not on television doesn’t mean that there isn’t a revolution going on!

In his fascicle Gabyo, Dogen takes this idea further:

You should understand that a painting is all-inclusive, a rice cake is all-inclusive, the dharma is all-inclusive.  In this way, all rice cakes actualized right now are nothing but a painted rice-cake.  If you look for some other kind of painted rice-cake, you will never find it, you will never grasp it. . . since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice-cake.  Without painted hunger, you never become a true person.  There is no understanding other than painted satisfaction.

Anything we experience is limited and distorted by our minds, our karma, our sense organs.  Any rice-cake we encounter is, in this sense, a painted rice cake; all revolutions are televised.  We are only kidding ourselves if we think that we can encounter anything other than painted rice cakes or a televised revolutions.

This is not an abstract philosophical point.  It’s really very practical and helpful.  We can easily get stuck thinking that the experience we are currently having is somehow not real or that it’s not good enough or pure enough.  A thought arises during zazen and we think that this is taking us away from practice, that our practice is somewhere else that is really real, that it’s not just what’s happening here right now.  We can get stuck thinking that we have to find the real rice cake or the untelevised revolution, the pure untainted experience.

Dogen is telling us to start where we are.  This very moment, this deluded, cranky, irritated body and mind, this painted rice cake, is the only gateway to realization.  Start here, now.  Don’t seek for what you think is a real rice cake.  Real revolutions are only televised.  Don’t think that the real revolution is somehow pure and will be untainted by the distortions of our society.  Precisely because the revolution is live and real, it is televised.


Memorial Day, 2011

Today we officially set aside time to pause and remember those in the military who have died while protecting this country.  Many of us also remember our other departed loved ones – all those who have preceded us in the transition from this physical realm to the non-physical beyond.  This dedicated public pause to reflect upon The Great Matter is an important exercise that should not be neglected.

In a Buddhist funeral, as in most Buddhist ceremonies, there is chanting, there are offerings of incense, bows and other ritual elements, and there is an “eko,” which is the Japanese word for dedicating the merit of the efforts made during the ceremony.  Here, offered for the benefit of all who have died — both those now being remembered and those who have been forgotten — is the eko or merit dedication I wrote for the first Buddhist funeral I conducted:

>  May all awakened beings manifest through the three treasures their luminous mirror wisdom.  Having chanted the Great Compassionate Mind Dharani for Removing Hindrance, we dedicate this merit to:

­ To the safety, well-being and peaceful transition of our great abiding friend(s),

<insert name(s) of the departed here>,

To all beings in the transition of death at this time,

To the comfort and equanimity of all those suffering grief, loss and bereavement at this time,

And to all sentient beings.

May the living find solace, strength and nourishment in the vast emptiness of the dharma realm.  May the deceased depart from suffering, receive great joy, and attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect liberation.  May all buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions unceasingly watch over and protect us so that our vows may be fulfilled.  And may we, together with all beings, realize Buddha’s Great Awakened Way.  <


On another, equally reflective note, I read an article today that really captures something I have felt deeply for many years, but could never quite articulate effectively.  My thanks to Jonathan Franzen for his thoughtful and skillful effort, which appeared in the Week in Review section of yesterday’s New York Times:

Sending blessings to all –

:)  Russ

In our zazen practice, we bring our attention back to breath and body over and over again, not with a goal to get good at it, but simply to be present with whatever is going on.  In the same way, we come back to the cushion to practice over and over again, every day, every week, year after year, not with the expectation of finally figuring out how to meditate properly, or resolving anything, but simply because we find it helpful, somehow, to bring this quality of attentiveness to our lives every day.  Some days we may be settled and peaceful, others we may be agitated or distracted, but it doesn’t matter because we are committed to being in our lives, as they are, every day.

As anyone who has played a musical instrument, or played a sport knows, this spirit of diligent repetition is at the heart of any kind of practice.  Many of us have had some experience of this when we were younger, maybe in high school, if we played sports or danced or were in theater or played a musical instrument.  I think one of the most valuable experiences a young person can have is this feeling of practice – putting in your best, wholehearted effort every day.  Some days are good, some are bad, but we develop the commitment to just continue, more or less, no matter what.  Unfortunately, when we leave school and get involved with our own families and careers, we often set aside this feeling of practice that we had when we were young.

You may have noticed, when you yourself were young or from watching your kids, that when we approach anything with only the wish to be good at it without taking a real joy in the daily practice of it, we tend not to stick with it.  Maybe when we were young we wanted to speak a foreign language fluently.  Wouldn’t it be great to go to college in Paris and talk about existentialism and Camus in French over red wine and cigarettes!  Maybe we could even get a French boyfriend or girlfriend!  But then you go to French 101 and it’s so boring!  All that repetition and those long vocabulary lists!  If I have to go through all of that, then maybe I won’t go to school in Paris after all.  So we just drop it.  Maybe this sounds familiar.

But if you were lucky, sometime in your past you found something you just really loved and you were not worried so much about reaching some distant goal because you really loved the daily practice of it.  You did it for its own sake, not to get somewhere with it.  Maybe when you were in high school, you got up every morning to go to swimming practice, or every afternoon you were out on the practice field for marching band, or you were running, rain or shine, with your cross-country team, or you were in rehearsal with your theater group.  Maybe you had competitions or contests that you would practice for, but underneath it all, at least in hindsight, these goals weren’t really the main thing, and you just really enjoyed making the daily effort with your friends.  A really inspiring and well-developed example of this spirit in the arts is the former New York City ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, who was a protege of the great George Balanchine.  In a wonderful profile in The New Yorker, Farrell said that when she was onstage, she never looked at the audience. “I dance for God,” she said. If others wanted to watch, that was their business.

I’m telling you all of this to remind you that the spirit of practice is already very familiar to us, but many of us lose track of it as we get older.  So how does this spirit translate into our Soto Zen practice?  There’s a wonderful vignette from the Mumonkan that points to this.  The Mumonkan is one of the classical compilations of Zen stories from the golden age of Chinese Zen compiled in the 13th century.  Most of these stories involve an encounter between two people, but this one, case 16, there’s just the teacher asking us a question:

Unmon said, “The world is vast and wide.  Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”

That’s the whole case right there.  If you have been to a larger Zen temple, you probably know that after morning zazen, and before service, the bell sounds and we all recite the Robe Chant and then put on our robes – the priest’s okesa is the seven piece robe Unmon is talking about here.  Unmon is asking, why, when there are so many things going on in the world, do this practice?  Why put on the robe when the bell sounds?

There is no answer to this, really.  Why, when you were in high school, did you get up early to go to swim practice?  Why did you practice the piano?  Why did Suzanne Farrell dance?  We did these things just because we loved them, because that’s just what we did.  We are people who put on our robes when the bell sounds.  We are people who go to soccer practice every afternoon.  We are dancers who simply go to the barre every day to practice.

I think there’s a kind of emotional sickness that we get when everything we do, all of our efforts, are driven by some pressing immediate need or requirement, and unfortunately, this is the modern, middle-class condition.  When we don’t have something that we do just because we love it, it makes us a little bit coo-coo.  I’m not talking about just relaxing or hanging out, although there’s certainly a place for that, even in monasteries.  I’m talking about something that requires real effort, but that we do for the love of the effort itself.  I think that there’s something uplifting about making the pure, sustained, substantial effort of practicing in the sense I am describing here.  This is certainly what I would wish for any young person to experience, and it’s a spirit that is really essential for all of us to cultivate, because when we make this sort of pure effort, it really does lift up everyone around us.  So who knew that high school marching band was a vehicle for enlightenment?

I want to conclude with one of my favorite passages from Dogen Zenji’s Genjo Koan, and as I read it, let’s think about ‘practice’ in the sense that I’ve been talking about:

When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find you way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past and it is not merely arising now.  Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it–doing one practice is practicing completely.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This is Russ typing.  Following up on last night’s post regarding the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I came across this Katagiri-Roshi quote today.  It explains my feelings much better than I was able to:

“All sentient beings are allowed to live and are, from the beginning, forgiven for living their lives in this world. Everything, whatever it is, has some reason why it exists: evil, good, even something neither evil nor good. You cannot destroy devils just because you don’t like them. Even though you don’t like monsters, still there is some reason why they exist. Everything is entitled to live in the world in peace and harmony beyond our judgment, our evaluation. This is the first condition we have to realize: Everything is Buddha.”

—  Dainin Katagiri-Roshi

Monday, May 9th, 2011

A week ago this evening, President Obama announced to the world that American special forces had tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden.  There was rejoicing in the streets.  I understood why this would be so, but it made me uncomfortable.

But what made me even more uncomfortable was learning that President Obama has since said that anyone who disagrees with Bin Laden’s murder needs to have their head examined.  I was quite disappointed with this statement.  Again, I understand why Bin Laden had to die; but I can never rejoice at the killing of any human being.  And I cannot be proud of officially state-sanctioned murder, even of someone like Bin Laden.

For me to be proud of our country in this situation, we would have had to demonstrate to the world how our values differ from Bin Laden’s. I don’t want to second-guess the soldiers in the situation; I will never know what happened or what could have happened.  I would not have wanted to be in their position, and I’m grateful for their service, bravery and skill.  I am proud of them for minimizing the number of deaths in the operation, for only wounding — rather than killing — Bin Laden’s wife.

Here is what our teacher, Everyday Zen founder Zoketsu Norman Fischer, had to say about Bin Laden’s death:

–  Russ

Monday, April 25, 2011

In each moment, each of us experiences a gap between whatever is going on, whatever the actual situation is, and what we would prefer to have happening. This can range from mundane things like wanting the lettuce in our salad to be less soggy, or the feeling of time pressure at the end of a busy day when we want to get a few more things done, to really difficult things like chronic pain or deep grief. This gap is pretty much there all the time, for all of us, and our dissatisfaction in any given moment seems to be more or less proportional to the size of this gap.

For most of us, we are very clear from a young age that the best way to reduce our dissatisfaction is to reduce or eliminate this gap.  If we could just make that gap go away completely, we think we could finally be happy.  And we do this by making the effort to bring about whatever situation we prefer, or — if the gap isn’t too big — maybe we ignore it for the time being.  But even when we do that, we are still really sure that if we could just eliminate that gap, our dissatisfaction would be eliminated. This approach is so basic that we hardly even notice it, and most of us spend our whole lives trying to reduce the size of this gap between what is and what we would prefer.

Sometimes we may find ourselves in really difficult situations in which there is no possibility for closing the gap. Chronic pain can go on for years, and we want that pain to go away more than anything, but none of the medical treatments or special diets or exercises help very much. Or someone very dear to us dies, and there’s nothing we can do to remove the grief.

If we’re not in such dire circumstances and if we are reasonably lucky, we can get pretty good with this gap-reduction strategy: maybe we are successful in our careers, we are savvy consumers, we have learned from our previous relationships. We can get pretty good at being in the world and getting what we want most of the time. But even if we are one of these fortunate souls, we find that as soon as we close the gap between what is and what we would prefer, it immediately re-opens as the situation changes and our attention is drawn to something else that we would prefer over what’s actually going on.

So this whole business of trying to get what we want seems to be a losing strategy, because no matter how good we get at bringing about our preferences, the gap never seems to close for very long. In fact, we may find that the very effort of continually trying to get what we want just makes us sick, because we see that we are trapped in this endless round of unfulfilled desire that never ends. This is samsara.

Then, maybe we read a magazine article about meditation or a friend tells us about it, and for some reason we decide to give it a try. We sit still and just bring simple mindful attention to what is actually going on in each moment. We feel our breathing, we notice our thoughts coming and going, and we don’t get too caught up in them. We find that meditation brings us some relief from the endless round of desire that we have been trapped in, and that it sort of gets us out of the whole business of continually, compulsively working to get what we want.

After practicing in this way for a while, we may feel really enthusiastic and decide to do a one-day meditation retreat, or even a week-long meditation retreat. This is often a rude awakening, because we find that when we try to meditate for a whole day, our minds and bodies start to rebel. Our legs fall asleep. Our backs and knees hurt. We are so sleepy! We want our meditation to be clear and peaceful, and it’s not, so we fall back on our gap-reduction strategies: If we can find the right zafu or maybe a bench, or the right height in a zabutan, then our knees or back won’t hurt. If we drink the right amount of coffee at the right time, we can stay awake during zazen. If we can just shift our posture slightly, then our legs won’t fall asleep. But eventually we see that this is just another way of playing into this business of trying to get our preferences met, and eventually we can let go of this and just be present with whatever the difficulty of the moment is, without trying to change it or make it go away.

Over time, we continue the practice.  And maybe we’re not sure if it’s helping, but we do feel a little more ease in our life; we seem to be tossed around by our emotions a bit less than we were before we started practicing. We find that we’re still able to make important life decisions – should we change jobs, what kind of car should we get – but we find that we can hold all of these decisions more lightly than we did before.  And we see that things will more or less work out fine and that getting all worked up about things doesn’t really seem to help much.

This seems to be what happens when ordinary people continue the practice of meditation day after day, year after year. I don’t know if it’s the unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment of the Buddhas; but I have no doubt at all that it can bring some peace into our lives, and that when we are peaceful, it can really help those around us – our family, friends, and co-workers.


by Sengtsan
Third Zen Ancestor of China (d. 606 AD)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things are not understood, the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

Wednesday, April 13, 2001

On Wednesday evenings, my Zen practice is to proofread or “second edit” the talks of my teacher, Zoketsu Norman Fischer. I am sitting in my living room right now, while hubby Joe and a few others are sitting in the zendo. Sometimes this separation from the Desert Mirror sangha feels a little weird to me, and sometimes it feels OK.

Lately – for months now – I haven’t been in the zendo hardly at all, even on Monday nights, because I have been and continue to be pretty sick. I have a damaged immune system, and we have ordinary mold and fungus living in our heating/cooling ductwork, and the combination is not a pleasant one. My symptoms are kind of like a combination of having the flu, bronchitis, asthma, chronic fatigue, and bad allergies, all at the same time. It’s a real roller coaster ride, not only from one day to the next, but even from one moment to the next. Talk about your major practice opportunities!

This evening I’ve been proofing a very interesting and important talk, on gender dynamics in our practice. This particular talk of Norman’s was motivated by the two big sex scandals in our national American Zen community, and by some much subtler gender issues that have been raised by women in our Everyday Zen sangha. For the record, although I feel embarrassed by these very public scandals being associated with American Zen, I know that sex and power issues almost always go along with charismatic leadership, religious or otherwise. And I am proud of the conduct of my current lineage peers and teachers.

The great talk that Norman gave on gender dynamics (which hopefully will be posted soon on the Everyday Zen website) also gave quite a bit of focus to our overall intentions as a practice community. In our Soto Zen tradition, Norman said, “warm and personal relationship is at the heart of our practice. Trust in one another. Affection for one another and mutual commitment together is at the heart of our practice . . . Our way is a simple, warm-hearted way. I think it is the way of love. We become really close to one another in the dharma. We become good friends as we go forward practicing together.”

But, he continued, “with this emphasis on love and warmth and human relationship, maybe there are also some problems. Sometimes when people love one another, we can hurt each other more. Maybe the possibilities for misunderstanding actually increase when you have expectations of one another in love and warm relationship. Maybe we don’t intend these misunderstandings, but sometimes they happen anyway.”

So Norman is acknowledging both the joy and the sorrow inherent in human relationships. This is what we try to do in Zen: When we talk about one side of something, we try to also hold up and give attention to the other side. We do our best to include all aspects in our view of things; but we know that we are always leaving something out.

The talk culminated with Norman quoting part of another talk given by Chris Fortin, a woman Everyday Zen priest who will soon be receiving dharma transmission (full teaching authority). The last paragraph of the Chris Fortin quote kind of sums up our whole practice intention:

“With a faith that makes us vulnerable, that humanizes and connects us, we vow not to turn away from what is uncomfortable. This is ferocious vulnerability. Practice awakens our hearts and minds to the wisdom and compassion of the buddhas. It cuts through limiting discriminations and self-centered views – the root cause of human suffering.”

Let us practice this way together, shall we?

Love, Russ

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

It’s a windy afternoon here in Albuquerque. The settee on our front patio has blown over, and you can hardly see the mountains through the haze of dust blowing all over the city. But from my back bedroom window I can see many beautiful flowers blooming in the Desert Mirror meditation garden:

plump wisteria shaped like bunches of grapes; deep purple irises, bright red and white tulips; the creamy magenta of the red bud tree; blue hyacinths; and the bright yellow blossoms of the bush whose name I don’t know, the one in front of the Guest House library/community room window. (Can anyone local help me identify it?)

Yesterday (Saturday, April 2nd) was our first Sangha Day of 2011. In Buddhism, the sangha is the community of people who practice together, and Sangha Day is what we call the special day when we gather to do mindful work around the temple and grounds.

As we immerse ourselves fully in the task and feeling of the moment, these applied mindfulness efforts are completely an end in themselves. And they are also a helpful means of maintaining the formal practice environment, for our community of practitioners, and for the benefit of all beings.

Maia Duerr of Upaya Zen Center drove all the way down from Santa Fe to join Carol Hobart, Joe and Russ in the garden, and together we made very noticeable progress on the spring garden clean-up process. Much of the detritus from last year was cleared from about half of the garden, lots of debris was bagged up for disposal, and new plantings went in. In place of the old, dead geraniums along the walkway to the zendo, we transplanted about a dozen iris bulbs, several columbine, and some coreopsis, plus we put in a few brand new Peter’s Gold Carpet [Bidens ferulaefolia], a relative of our dear friend, Coreopsis.

There are still several other proposed new garden residents waiting to join our pleasing profusion – primarily ground cover for the areas near the walking meditation paths. But it was just a half-day event, and there were only four of us; so we did very well to make as much progress as we did!

Big bows of gratitude to Maia and Carol!

Love, Russ and Joe

She was elderly and alone, injured and in pain. When the massive earthquake struck, a heavy bookshelf toppled onto Hiroko Yamashita, pinning her down and shattering her ankle. As her son recounted later, when paramedics finally reached her, agonizing hours later, Yamashita did what she said any “normal” person would do: She apologized to them for the inconvenience, and asked if there weren’t others they should be attending to first.

— Laura King, Los Angeles Times, March 13th, 2011


“Don’t kill” is a dead precept. “Excuse me” is an actual working precept.

— Suzuki Roshi, June 25th, 1970

A perennial question for Zen students involves how we bring our practice off of the meditation cushion and out into the world.  Even though we have taken the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings, when we see the immense suffering unfolding in Japan today, it’s hard to know what can really help.

There have been many stories in the media about how peaceful, kind, and mutually respectful the Japanese people have been in the wake of the terrible tragedies of the last week.  Suzuki Roshi’s comments about the precepts are rather surprising to most Westerners, who tend to see precepts simply as rules to be obeyed (or not).  He’s pointing to the way that we really live our Bodhisattva Vow in the world: in relationship.  At first, it may seem that being polite and mutually respectful is a trivial, rote response.  But as we have seen in Japan,  a culture steeped in Buddhism for centuries, the practice of ‘excuse me’ brings a profound and inspiring dignity to our deepest anguish.  And that may be the closest we can get to a living example of how to bring the Bodhisattva Vow into the world.


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