Parts in bold are from the text of the Bodhisattva Precepts; parts in italics explain how we keep a particular precept during the simple act of zazen.
The Gateway of Contrition
All my past and harmful karma,
Born from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.
A contrite heart is open to the dharma, and finds the gateway to the precepts clear and unobstructed. Bearing this in mind, we should sit up straight in the presence of the buddha and make this act of contrition wholeheartedly. – While we are sitting zazen, we are not running away, keeping ourselves busy, or distracting ourselves; we let our karma catch up with us.
I take refuge in the buddha – This is what buddhas have done, so this is what we are doing.
I take refuge in the dharma – When we stop running away, keeping ourselves busy, or distracting ourselves, the truth becomes clearer; we are opening ourselves up to this possibility by sitting still.
I take refuge in the sangha – We sit with others, or because others have done so and continue to do so.
Cease from harm – release all self-attachment. – We may not know what the right thing is to do, but we have stopped for a time.
Do only good – take selfless action. – We are engaging the activity of just sitting for the sake of all beings – we are not advancing any of our self-interested causes.
Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions. – We give up trying to change anything for a time. Instead, we bear witness. We allow the truth to permeate and change us. We allow wisdom to grow within and inform our future actions.
Do not kill – cultivate and encourage life. – We are not trying to get rid of what we don’t want, what we hate, or what we are afraid of.
Do not steal – honor the gift not yet given. – We are not grasping after what we want.
Do not misuse sexuality – remain faithful in relationships. – We are not doing anything to grasp or avoid intimacy, but instead we make it possible to notice a deeper intimacy with everything.
Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully. – We are not speaking, but are perceiving directly. Our truth of the moment is silent.
Do not become intoxicated – polish clarity, dispel delusion. – We are doing without distraction or extra pleasure.
Do not dwell on past mistakes – create wisdom from ignorance. – Okay, we may be doing this in our minds. However, in this moment we are not making any mistakes. Over time we become more identified with this body, here and now, which is not defined by past mistakes.
Do not praise self or blame others – maintain modesty, extol virtue. – We are not saying or doing anything to build ourselves up or call attention to the faults of others.
Do not be mean with dharma or wealth – share understanding, give freely of self. – Our time of just sitting is completely useless in worldly terms, but it’s still an offering. It’s an offering of listening and looking. It’s an offering of humility and don’t-know mind.
Do not indulge anger – cultivate equanimity. – Sitting still is incompatible with anger. Don’t think so? Just try it!
Do not defame the three treasures – respect the buddha, unfold the dharma, nourish the sangha. – However skeptical we may feel in our minds, our bodies are enacting the buddha way.
Last Sunday we read chapter one, “Zazen as Inquiry,” from Taigen Dan Leighton’s Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry. Leighton writes:
“What are we doing in zazen? Each of us have some question that somewhere back there was behind our wanting to engage in this Buddhist meditation. What question has led you to face the wall in zazen, what is this? There is a question that we each have to explore.
“The point of this practice of questioning, however, is not to discover an answer. We sit upright, centered, with ease and restfulness. And yet there is some problem, some question, something we are looking into. How do we practice with question? There is not just one way to do this, because each have our own version of this question. But we must recognize that there is a question. How do we live this life? How do we take care of this world, face the problems that we each have in our life, the problems that we share together?”
I talked about how most of our heart-felt questions – the ones we don’t just wonder about intellectually, but those we really care about – are related to one another. We may discriminate between “superficial” and “deep” questions, but usually even our superficial, specific, personal questions are related to our version of a very deep, universal question. For example, I may struggle on a daily basis with how to focus my effort efficiently without getting too caught up in striving, but that relates to a very deep question I carry about the nature of effort and action. Who does, if there is no inherent self-nature? How do we exercise choice in guiding the activity of our life?
I asked the other people present on Sunday to write down at least one real question they were holding, and said I would post them. Here they are, the raw and precious material people in our sangha are practicing and sitting with. It is important to hold these kinds of questions with reverence. They cannot be answered simply, or no one would be holding them. We may be inspired or influenced in our work with questions by things we hear, read, or see, but ultimately our answer is something we manifest within our being and it cannot be given to us by anyone else.
Please feel free to add your own question(s) by leaving a comment! (I think it would have been very helpful and encouraging to me as a child to read this kind of list of questions from adults, so I would understand that adults were still trying to figure things out and the world they were presenting to me was not the best they could come up with.)
Why do some people suffer so much?
How do I push beyond my limits?
When should I stop?
Why do I become anxious when asked to write down my question?
What is anxiety?
How do I respond to climate change?
How do I stay awake to my life?
What is the relationship between inner work and working for social change?
What should my practice look like?
Am I engaged enough? What if I get this question wrong?
What do I do now?
How can I best live my life? How will I know if I’ve succeeded in the best living of my life?
What will give the most meaning to my life?
How can I best serve?
Why am I here?
Would Shakyamuni Buddha have been sad if he were to die before being able to teach?
When one has no attachments, on what does one act?
How do we maintain the will to move forward with optimism and creative energy in the face of the pointless suffering that humanity must endure? Is this why “enlightenment” is so important?
Is compassion (love) real? Can everybody feel it? Does one have to work on accessing it? Why does it not arise spontaneously? Were we born just to realize it?
How should I be living my life?
If the answers have no certainty, why the need for question? Is faith embracing uncertainty? Can I embrace uncertainty?
Thanks everyone! – Domyo
Photo by Marco Bellucci
When the shit first really hits the fan, denial is a natural human response. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they care so much. The possibility that there’s nothing they can do to help the situation is too terrible to face. This is at least partly why so little has changed since the incomprehensible slaughter of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, even though random violence continues and is probably even increasing.
Widespread random violence should be considered a conclusive sign that a society is suffering from a fatal illness. A society is coming apart at the seams when it contains a growing number of people who are so disconnected, lonely, and desperate they find gratification in seeking out and destroying completely innocent beings. Think about this. Sure, guns make the violence worse and need to be regulated. But for a moment, contemplate the internal hell that makes someone believe their best hope of relief is to see the life of child snuffed out in front of them – for no other reason than to see that life end. This isn’t about incidental killing during war, or being overcome with anger or aggression, or taking lives to make a political point. This is about a carefully contemplated hatred of life.
It’s a tragic mistake to vilify the individuals who commit random violence. Sure, every individual must be held accountable for their actions or placed where they can’t do further harm. But those who have acted out their hatred of life by killing are only the weakest among us and therefore the first to manifest the symptoms of our societal illness. When we simply label the perpetrators of random violence as “mentally ill,” we think we’ve solved the problem by placing it outside of ourselves, outside of our society. Instead, we create prejudice against a diverse group of people who suffer from mental illness, almost all of whom find random violence as unfathomable as everyone else does. We also create more alienation, hatred, and fear just when we need to be asking ourselves what is causing the most emotionally fragile and volatile among us to snap, and what we can do to help them.
What is our societal illness? We are so used to it we can hardly see it, so I’ll project our situation out a few decades.
Imagine this as an entry in history text:
The Industrial Growth Society
In the Industrial Growth Society, the comfort, pleasure, and freedom of individuals was prioritized over the health and long-term existence of the social and ecological systems on which all of life depended. Greater and greater material and technological productivity and ingenuity was encouraged by requiring individuals to compete with one another. People and nations who were successful in this competition ended up with more and more of the resources, and social systems were allowed to disintegrate because they ran counter to the self-interest of individuals. This resulted in a growing number of desperate people in extreme material or social poverty, some of whom committed extreme acts of random violence that demoralized whole nations. Inevitably, the industrial growth society self-destructed.
There are no simple answers because the answer is everything has to change. The whole way our society functions has to change. That said, we have to start somewhere, so lets get to work and help the following scenario come about:
The Life-Sustaining Society
The Industrial Growth Society was survived by the Life-Sustaining Society. It took a few decades to mature into full function, but its development was inevitable when people remembered that they could not function independently of one another, or of the systems in which they participated. People realized that the comfort, pleasure, and freedom of individuals had to be balanced with care for one another and for all living systems. They realized that the need for such care wasn’t an idealistic dream or an outdated spiritual idea, it was a real and practical necessity. Fortunately, much of the energy that individuals had previously spent competing with one another for resources was channeled into ingenious ways to restructure the society into a life-sustaining one.
The religious elements with which Zen is often presented may prevent many people from hearing what it has to offer them. This is unfortunate. Most people, religious or not, hold at an intention to learn and grow throughout their lives. Yet few people are aware that there exists a well-developed course of training and study that can support their intention and give focus, substance and intensity to their efforts to become the best human being they can possibly be. This course of study is Zen practice, but if people can only access a Zen practice enveloped in a religion, they may avoid the practice altogether.
At a relatively shallow level Zen is palatable in a popular context; basic meditation, mindfulness, calm and an appreciation of simplicity have seeped out of the religion into western culture. However, anyone seeking to engage Zen practice at a deep level is likely to be surprised at the full-blown religion they find at their local Zen Center (although many Zen Centers try to dial the religiosity down to be more accessible). Many Zen practitioners feel some disinterest or aversion to Zen as a religion at first, but end up embracing it because Zen practice is so rich and rewarding. I hope that continues to happen, because I believe religion has a great deal to offer people and we should try to make positive changes to its well-deserved bad reputation.
By “religion” I refer to a coherent set of traditions, resources and institutions human beings create around a particular approach to spiritual questions. The official definition of religion, “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity,” has become more associated with the word “spiritual” for most people, I believe. When someone describes themselves as “spiritual but not religious” they usually mean that they pay attention to issues beyond their immediate and personal physical, emotional and mental concerns – issues such as universal truths, morality, or the existence of God – but they do not identify with an established tradition, set of beliefs, or institution. If we use this popular understanding of religion, we might use the term “Zen practice” to refer to the Zen teachings and practices that address our relationship to ultimate reality, and the term “Zen Buddhism” to refer to the set of traditions, resources and institutions that people have created to support and convey those teachings and practices. Zen Buddhism includes writings, a special vocabulary, history, mythology, rituals, devotional practices, imagery, religious objects, clergy, institutions and – most important of all – many groups of people, now and over the course of the last thousand years, consciously practicing Zen Buddhism together.
Unlike some people, I don’t think Zen is necessarily better without religion. I have trained in Zen as a religion and I am a Zen priest that usually teaches Zen as a religion. However, many people have reasons to forgo being religious, or have another religious faith and don’t want to add another one to their life, and I believe these choices deserve respect. Some people identify as non-religious with the same level of conviction as the most devout Buddhist or Christian identifies with their faith. While I love Zen Buddhism and can make a good argument for how almost every aspect of the religion is an invaluable support or venue for Zen practice, it pains me to think of someone who could benefit from Zen practice, but who cannot embrace it because of religion.
I hope non-religious folks, or people of another religion, can find a way to practice Zen, because I believe that in its essence Zen is about training to master the art of living a human life. I want people to have access to that training no matter what they feel about religion. I see this training as a wonderful opportunity to take full advantage of having a human life, but even more I see it as a fundamental human responsibility. Should we not work to master the art of our human life as we would work to master a skill, a trade, or another kind of art? Should we not diligently train ourselves throughout our lives toward greater wisdom, compassion and facility with using this tool of a human body-mind?
Unfortunately for those looking for secular Zen teaching and community, most of us qualified to teach Zen Practice “grew up” in Zen Buddhism the religion. For many Zen teachers, the religion has become inextricably woven into their Zen Practice; for them, Zen is a religion. It can be a tough world out there for the aspiring secular Zen practitioner because engagement with a teacher and sangha (the community of people practicing together) is arguably essential to one’s Zen practice – religious or not. There aren’t many places to practice Zen without religion, but with other people, with a full depth of Zen teaching (not teaching limited to meditation and mindfulness). This is why I have decided to offer Secular Zen meetings where people can come together to sit zazen and study Zen, without any of the “religious” elements we use at Bright Way Zen at other times. How this group will evolve and relate to the rest of the Bright Way Zen sangha over time will be very interesting to watch! On Mondays I will teach at Bright Way without my priest’s robes, and will put a screen in front of our altar. I’ll do anything I can to make the zendo (meditation hall) inviting to anyone interested in Zen. Then, on Tuesdays, I’ll get to appreciate the beauty of the bell calling us to meditation, and the familiar ritual of offering incense and bowing at our altar. All of this reminds me of a sweet poem by the 16th century Japanese Zen master Rikyu (although I can’t remember the source, or the exact quote, unfortunately) that goes something like this:
The Buddha’s robe –
putting it on
taking it off
If religion’s purpose is to help people find peace and strength and to live good lives, which I believe it is, it makes sense that people would turn to religion to explain why terrible things happen in the world – particularly terrible things that happen to individuals that apparently didn’t do anything to deserve it.
Read the rest of this post on Domyo’s blog at Patheos.com.
I spent last week at a conference for Soto Zen priests. There were 90 of us at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) gathering. We were defined as much, or more, by our differences as by what we held in common. In the 45 years or so that Soto Zen has been developing amongst western converts in America, priests and lineages have stayed quite true to the American ideal of individualism, freedom and innovation. Within lineages there has been some degree of conformity, but between lineages there are often vast differences, especially regarding priest training. For example, in one lineage it is expected that an ordained person will spend at least 7 years in a monastery before becoming an independent priest. In another lineage ordained people typically stay in the monastery for their entire lives. In yet another lineage, lay practitioners with jobs and families are ordained and become independent priests without ever living in a monastery or residential practice community. We are like a herd of cats.
This is why it is so remarkable that this group of priests is striving so hard to stay together – to find out what we hold in common, or what we want to hold in common. At first glance the only thing we could find was this: we all feel passionately about being priests. We all feel that we deserve to be priests, that being priests is one of the most important things in our lives, and that priests are vital to the flourishing of Soto Zen.
This is not much to start with, in one way. All of this passion could just be ego-delusion. We might just be clinging to a role or a label without much to substantiate our claim.
Nonetheless we keep up the dialogue with one another, constantly seeking for things we agree on and trying to minimize the divisiveness caused by the many things we passionately disagree about. Why? Why don’t we all just go our separate ways? It’s a free country. Nothing is stopping any of us from calling ourselves Soto Zen priests and functioning as religious leaders for anyone who cares to come practice with us.
The longer I am involved with the SZBA the more deeply I understand why we stay together. It is a difficult thing to describe, but this starts to get at the heart of the matter: together we can create something greater than any of us could create by ourselves. Or together we can create something greater than any of the lineages could create by themselves.
Exactly what this “greater thing” we are creating will be we don’t even know at this point. Nonetheless we can sense its character when we taste the satisfaction of completing a communal project – one that required us to speak up for our positions but also listen to others and find a creative way to function together. We can sense the character of this “greater thing” when we grudgingly learn to respect and even like colleagues that hold views very different from our own. We especially sense the character of what we are creating together when we feel the growing power and stability present in a group of peers that has tested, questioned and come to understand and trust one another.
Frankly there have been times when I wish I could simply set the agenda and the standards and force everyone else to comply. At other times I wanted to give up and take my toys home, feeling like whatever is being created together is so far from my ideals that it is irrelevant to me. I am grateful that I have not done any of these things. Even though at times I find myself thinking of a phrase I learned from a friend of mine, “It takes all kinds. Unfortunately.”
I imagine this is something like what the founding father felt when they created the United States of America against all odds. It’s really pretty amazing.