A Cadre of Change

From a talk delivered at the Zen Center of Denver Oct. 16, 2022. Listen to the talk on the ZCD’s website at https://zencenterofdenver.org/a-cadre-of-change/.

What is the Sangha? I find myself returning to this question over and over. Some people say the Sangha is everything and every person in the whole universe. This idea is correct, but it can be misused – just as Hakuin’s words, ‘This very body is the Buddha,’ can be misused. Personal practice must implement the universal view of Sangha. Actualizing is our work, individually and socially.

Some people say that Sangha is sanctuary. This idea is correct, but it too can be misused. We need a sanctuary for our zazen, just as we need peace in our hearts individually. But ultimately sanctuary is isolation. I am coming to feel that Buddha Sangha, and by that I mean zendo membership, is a cadre of change. It is a community of people secure in their vision of universal Sangha, grounded in their personal sanctuary, who seek to transmute the poisons of the world in organized and coherent ways. (Robert Aitken, Encouraging Words 109.)

These are Robert Aitken’s words, found in his book Encouraging Words, and like the old roshi I find myself returning to this question over and over. What is the sangha? What is its purpose? What, after all, are we doing here together? 

For anyone new to Zen who may be unfamiliar with the term, Sangha is one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism, alongside Buddha and Dharma. Buddha can refer to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or to the many buddhas we meet every day—everyone sitting here and you yourself—and to the irreducible fact of existence, the boundless Buddha-nature of all things. Dharma is the teaching: the Buddhist canon of sutras, koans and commentaries, and the great teaching of the cosmos, the truth of how things actually are. And Sangha is the community: religious communities like this one, and the great network of all beings extending to the farthest reaches of time and space, bound together in an infinite web of interdependence.

As humans we are social animals, living our whole lives within extensive networks of social relationships. Social networks shape virtually everything we do and are, from our most basic motivations to the languages that form our conscious thoughts. In a real sense, we are our communities, and they are us: like fingers of the same hand, or ants in a hive. We are never separate; we are always connected. You are your mother, your father, your siblings and children; you are your friends, your coworkers, the grocery store clerk and the man begging on the side of the road. You are your city, your nation, and the whole human species, present in every cell and neuron, every word and gesture. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

Our communities provide countless benefits, providing us not only companionship but the fundamentals of life—food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and everything else. Wendell Berry wrote, “Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.” This is the virtuous action of sangha: “teaching us to preserve all things needful to make us glad to live.”

But if we reap the benefits of social networks, we also share their dysfunctions. War, violence, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, exploitation and oppression of all kinds are the ever-present shadow of human culture, as extant today as in ancient Egypt.

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Circulating the Gift

From a talk for the Zen Center of Denver, Oct. 30, 2018.

Today we’re investigating the Eighth Grave Precept, Not Withholding Spiritual or Material Aid, also translated as Not Sparing the Dharma Assets. At our center we frequently add, “but giving them freely where needed.”

Robert Aitken Roshi describes the Dharma assets as “energy and its tendencies.” He further notes that this precept is intimately tied to karma, to the cycle of cause and effect. Energy circulates; we give and receive in turn, over and over again. Nowhere is this more evident than in ecological cycles. Trees grow fruit, which is eaten by animals; animals spread the seeds, and more trees are planted. The wind picks up moisture from seas and lakes; the rain falls; the water returns to its source. Dogen said, “This exertion, too, sustains the sun, the moon and the stars.” Everything is part of this circulating gift; nothing is left out.

There are many stories, not just in Buddhism but in nearly all religious traditions, about the generosity of sages. Perhaps the most famous in Zen is how Ryokan, who lived as a hermit in a simple hut, one night was visited by a thief. Of course, Ryokan had nothing to steal. He said, “You may have come a long way to visit me, and shouldn’t return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” Bewildered, the thief left. Afterward, Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused. “How I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

This story may be apocryphal, but I doubt it much exaggerates the paucity of Ryokan’s possessions. Sometimes he would write letters to friends in the winter, begging for a little miso paste or other food, on the edge of starvation. Yet his spirit of generosity knew no limit. Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the genuine, all-pervading Dharma, not being stingy about a single thing is called the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.”

Traditionally Zen monks own almost nothing, just a robe and a set of bowls. Everything else is shared; at the same time, all one’s physical needs are cared for. This is, I think, a beautiful model – everyone giving and receiving as one.

Yet as anyone can see, we also have individual needs, and in our lay lives, those needs are rather more complex than in a monastery. If you give away your car, you may not be able to get to work; give away your house, and you’ll be on the street. No doubt you can live without a job or a house; but what about those depending on you for support? So, we create boundaries. We say, “This is mine, and that’s yours.” But be careful. Build up your borders too much, and you’ll find you’re trapped within them. This is the delusion of self and other.

If we have a national failing, I’d say this is it. We have enormous wealth, yet perennially seem unwilling to provide for those less fortunate. What we think we need for ourselves expands forever outward, while what we are willing to give shrinks accordingly. We build walls around ourselves, trying to protect an entirely illusory security. Comfortable circumstances too often result in hard hearts. Who hasn’t observed tycoons who hoard their wealth, while the homeless on the street share their last crust of bread with their neighbor? It’s for this reason that Zengetsu said, “Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.”

Once on TV I saw a comedian interviewing a Muslim imam. Islam has a strong tradition of giving, especially to guests; testing this, the comedian grabbed a book at random off a shelf and said, “What about this book? It’s mine now.” And without a trace of hesitation, instantly, the imam said, “Yes, it’s yours. It’s a gift.”

Some say that all religions are the same; and while I don’t really believe this myself, it does seem to me that most religions are alike in at least one way: they all encourage a sense of devotion in their followers, which is to say, a sense of combined generosity and gratitude. This is both critical to cultivate in spiritual practice, and is the natural fruit of that practice. In giving and in giving thanks, we reflect and encourage the generosity of others, the generosity of the whole universe. In our iconography, this is depicted as the Bodhisattva Kannon, endlessly pouring out the waters of compassion upon the seas of the world, endlessly giving.

Please don’t think, also, that materialism is the sole concern of this precept. It’s just as easy to be stingy with our time, our empathy, or our effort. We may be stingy with ourselves – failing to recognize our own needs, or allowing our fear of failure or fatigue to prevent us from really exerting ourselves. Don’t hold back!

Dogen said: “One phrase, one verse – that is the ten thousand things and one hundred grasses; one dharma, one realization – that is the Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers. Therefore, from the beginning, there has been no stinginess at all.” What is there to hold onto, after all? Seeing this clearly, we are free to respond to others unreservedly, without a single thought of you or me.

This is Dana Paramita, the perfection of giving, of generosity. Dana is relinquishment, and as such is at the heart of our practice. Every day we sit down, straighten our backs, calm our breathing, and let go of everything. We loosen our grip; we give ourselves to the practice; and in giving ourselves, we give everything. Then we find that the universe gives back; it fills us up to the brim and more, it overflows with gifts: the sweetness of an orange, the clatter of the autumn leaves, a smile from a friend. Really, everything is a gift, all life is a gift. In this light, even our pain and discomfort are transfigured. If you can see this clearly, then as Dogen said, “The treasure-house will open of itself, and you will be able to enjoy it to your heart’s content.”

Robert Aitken Roshi’s Great Mu

Last Sunday at the Zen Center of Denver, we played a recorded talk by Robert Aitken Roshi, the well-known Zen teacher, author and founder of the Diamond Sangha. I was asked to give a brief introduction to the talk, as I served (along with my ex-wife, Lindsey Trout) as Aitken Roshi’s personal attendant, caregiver and secretary from Nov. 1999 – April 2001 in Kaimu, on the coast of Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The first time I went to dokusan with Robert Aitken Roshi, I was working on Mu. I sat there, breathing Mu quietly, until finally Roshi said, in his precise way, “Settle into Mu. Sink into Mu, and let everything else go.”

The second time I went to dokusan with Aitken Roshi, I did the very same thing. This time he said, “You must question Mu. Ask ‘Mu?’ with all your inquiring spirit.”

I often reflect that there is a sort of balance here. Aitken Roshi really was a practitioner of the Middle Way. He had certainly experienced the spiritual-samurai approach common to some Japanese monasteries, but that wasn’t his way. Where other teachers might exhort their students to stay up all night in sesshin doing zazen, Aitken Roshi was as likely to encourage us to get a good night’s sleep, since we would be up early in the morning. He was by no means slack; he was just precisely centered, settled in his life and practice, like a great mountain rising gently from the sea.

And at the same time, as he wrote in his book Encouraging Words: “You often hear me say, ‘Sink into Mu, settle into Mu,’ and it may seem that the important words are ‘sink’ and ‘settle.’ They are important, but more important is the question, ‘What is Mu?'”

Japanese visitors to Kaimu, where we lived when I was there, liked to observe that “kai” in Japanese means “great,” and so Kaimu would translate as “great Mu.” Roshi would always just sort of nod politely, having heard it one too many times, but you can understand why his visitors felt compelled to say it. This was his practice: a gentle but constant inquiry, a great Mu that suffused his whole life.

We often received visitors there at Kaimu, some of whom would stay just for a meal, some for weeks or even months. Danan Henry Roshi (our former teacher at the ZCD) came for a long stay, as he had for many years; Peggy Sheehan and Karin Kempe (now teachers at the ZCD) visited, as did many others, including many prominent Zen teachers, who came one and all for Aitken Roshi’s insight, instruction, and sound counsel.

Life at Kaimu followed a simple schedule. Each weekday morning we would have zazen, and Roshi would offer dokusan. Morning was for work, with Roshi parking himself at his computer to tap away at whatever writing project he was working on. Lunch was fairly informal and eaten in the guest house. Afternoon was for other chores, such as driving into town, though often, especially on the weekends, Lindsey and I, along with our guests, might pop off to the beach for a quick swim. But not to be missed was Aitken Roshi’s daily constitutional around 4 p.m., when he would walk down to the end of the road with whoever joined him, talking quietly, pointing out different kinds of trees, flowers and birds, and waving to each and every passing car. At 5 or 5:30 we would have supper, marked of course by the high quality of conversation at the table, with many a lively guest. Toward evening, finally, there would be informal zazen, sitting quietly in the little zendo, hearing the ceaseless crash of waves upon the lava. Saturdays were for rest, and on Sunday mornings we would be joined in the zendo by our small local sangha for zazen, teisho, and a question-and-answer period.

In delivery and message both, Aitken Roshi was precise and carefully considered. His voice is really inimitable. Once he told a story of meeting a man who prided himself on recognizing accents. Going around the room, this expert correctly placed each individual there in the state and sometimes even the county of their origin; but when he got to Roshi, he was stumped. He finally guessed California, which was not totally incorrect. In fact Robert Aitken was born in Pennsylvania, moved to Hawaii when he was five, and did live in California at various times in his life, along with Japan. These places shaped him, as did the voices of his family, his friends, his beloved wife Anne, his many formidable teachers, and the vast universe.

If you listen closely to the recording, you may hear birdsong in the background. Perhaps it was the cardinals continually flitting around Kaimu; or perhaps it was the melodious laughing thrush, a bird Aitken Roshi would name with a particular relish, as of one uttering a felicitous phrase. And if you listen still more closely, perhaps you may hear Roshi speaking as the thrush – singing still, all these years later.

A Birthday in Bodhgaya

From my journal, Nov. 24, 2016.

I am forty years old today, and here I am in Bodhgaya, the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It has a beautiful symmetry, I think: a marker at the mid-point of my life, honoring that which is most important to me, this ongoing inquiry into fundamental nature, into ultimate reality.

Recently Peggy Sensei asked if we (Zen Center of Denver members) would write a paragraph answering the question “How has Zen changed you?” And as it happens, in Varanasi someone asked much the same question in person. I explained how Zen had made me calmer, more aware, more centered, and how ultimately it was about seeing one’s connection to all things, and actually experiencing that connection in the moment.

It wasn’t terrible, as answers went, but afterward I felt dissatisfied. Because I don’t practice just to gain some balance. If that was all I sought, I could probably accomplish something similar by exercising for an hour a day; certainly that will improve your mood. No, I don’t practice to improve myself. Nor do I practice to obtain some experience, however grand. I practice to reach the root, to touch the firmament, to live beyond the reach of petty doubt.

And this is Zen’s great strength, this direct approach in addressing the roots of suffering and separation. It refuses to become lost in the leaves and branches; it moves straight down the trunk into the black earth.

“Wonder of wonders! From the very beginning all beings are by nature whole and complete.” The Buddha’s words, spoken in this very place, perhaps the most profound words ever spoken.

How have I changed? It isn’t necessarily much on the outside. I look much the same, I speak much the same, my mannerisms and even my faults are much the same. But these are only the outward appearance, the leaves and branches; it’s what lies at the root that is different.

This is hard to see in another. It takes real perception and insight. Often, we look at someone else and say, “Oh, it’s the same old John. He still curses like a sailor, and eats too much, and watches football on the weekends.” Because outward change is slow, we miss the inner transformation, which may happen in an instant.

And if you could stand in my shoes, you would see that I am irrevocably changed from when I was a teenager, before I began this practice. The difference lies not in a change of any habit, not in whether I watch television or not, eat meat or not, wear certain clothes, change my hairstyle, expand my vocabulary, gain a job or lose one, gain a partner or lose them, nor in any circumstance or condition; because all these are transient. It lies rather in the timeless, the unceasing, the limitless and vast, an understanding that reaches beyond the stars and down to the very core.

This is what Zen offers: a truth beyond the reach of opposites, of you and me, here and there, knowing and not knowing. It offers a certainty not found in words – including these – but only in reality itself. This is why Zen teachers so often seem to present such randomness: because they are guided by the reality of this moment, with all its particularities, and no other.

So forget what you think you know. True knowledge isn’t found by knowing. I’ll do the same, and tell you instead about this moment, this place and time:

This room is on the fourth floor of an out-of-the-way guest house in Bodhgaya, India. The concrete walls are painted the color of straw, and the floor is a dusty red. There is a desk, some shelves and a nightstand, all painted lavender. There is a flatscreen TV on the wall opposite the bed, its plug dangling because its status light was shining in my eyes at night.

There is a strong smell of indefinite origin, perhaps from the many cookfires outside, that reminds me of pot resin. On the wall, around the spiral of the light bulb, many small insects are gathering. I’m not sure what they are – some kind of aphid? – nor how they are finding their way inside. This reminds me to touch my neck, where a previously enormous mosquito bite is slowly subsiding.

Bodhgaya isn’t quiet; far from it. Just now an auto-rickshaw honks outside; two men are speaking in Hindi outside my door; some children are playing in the courtyard; someone is chopping vegetables in the rooftop restaurant, a hollow wooden rhythm; a dog barks; a door slams; a pot clangs; my pencil scratches on the page.

The place of enlightenment isn’t quiet. It is full of noise, cacophonous, complex. But none of this is a stumbling block; it is, just as it is, the living truth.

Now forget all this, crumple up the page, turn off the computer. Where are you now? What is this place? What’s really happening here?

New Year’s Resolutions

Often when I ask someone about their New Year’s resolutions, I get a negative response. “Why should New Year’s be special?” they say. “I feel like everyone makes resolutions on New Year’s and then forgets them a month later.”

On the one hand, the date is arbitrary, and of course you might fail to stick with your resolution. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity to gather up your gumption, your energy and will, which is to say, your resolve, and embark on an endeavor you may well have been dreaming about your whole life. If you fail, so what? There’s always next year – until there isn’t. As Goethe wrote, “Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

My 2016 resolutions are the same resolutions I’ve made for years now: Write another novel. Exercise regularly. Do more zazen. Listen carefully. Be less arrogant and more receptive. Support my community however I can. Love those close to me and far away. Stoke the fire of attention until every moment burns incandescent.

Bring Forth What is Within You

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

I ran across this maxim in Robert Aitken’s book The Mind of Clover, and was immediately struck by it. It reminds us that if you do not act according to a conscious dynamic, you will invariably act according to an unconscious dynamic. Repression is truly dangerous because it implies a refusal of knowledge, which leaves us subject to all kinds of negative forces inherited from our personal and collective pasts.

I have a certain interest in dreams, and often in discussing them, I run across the opinion that they’re just meaningless garbage spewed forth by the sleeping brain, a sort of psychological excretion. I can understand this viewpoint, but in the same way that biological feces can reveal a great deal about an individual’s health and diet, so too are our dreams composed of material rich with meaning. After all, nothing in a dream is accidental. Unlike the waking world, every detail of our dreamscapes is generated by our own minds. To dismiss them as meaningless is to ignore the subtle promptings of our unconscious, which desires ultimate union with the universe.

One time years ago, I was arguing just this point with someone, a young man who almost violently rejected the notion that his dreams were meaningful. “I have dreams about sharks a lot,” he said to me in challenge. “I’ll be in the ocean, or in a swimming pool, and I’ll know there’s a shark coming for me, and it scares the hell out of me. I’ve never even seen a shark outside of an aquarium. What does that mean?”

I had to stop myself from chuckling, because his dream was so to the point. In dreams, water invariably signifies the unconscious, and living creatures within the water indicate hidden or emerging impulses. Thus a whale might indicate a significant impending transformation or need for it, or perhaps repressed experiences coming to the surface. A shark, on the other hand, indicates precisely a fear of the unconscious, the belief that if he were to give his unconscious doubts about his life free rein, it would precipitate a painful transformation. So the very example he gave as evidence his dreams were meaningless showed instead his fear that his dreams were meaningful, and the depth of that trepidation was in exact proportion to the need to acknowledge these inner impulses.

This is also the dark side of many religions (and this person was religious). By acceding their beliefs to an external dogma inherited from past generations, and amputating their own natural curiosity, believers fail to recognize the real reasons behind their behaviors, and thus open themselves to all kinds of harmful impulses. Often they lead double lives, one day an upright churchgoer, the next a dissolute drunk.

Even when the offenses appear minor, there remains a cognitive dissonance between their religious and secular lives. Many religious followers find no problem liking, say, both a sermon and a football game; but in fact these two activities are worlds apart, the viewpoints inherent in them separated by enormous chasms of time, geography, economics and history. What relationship, after all, does a Biblical text handed down from a Middle Eastern tribe thousands of years ago have with a twentieth-century sporting event viewed on an LCD television? Virtually none, of course, but even so they coexist in the minds of their followers, the tension between them unacknowledged, its pressure building and building like water behind a poorly built dam. How long before cracks appear? How long before it bursts? Better by far to let the river flow free.

Drugs, Addiction, and Honoring the Great Light

From a talk I gave at the Zen Center of Denver, Oct. 1, 2006.

Our guide as Buddhists to drug use is the Fifth Precept, the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs. At this temple we add the phrase, “…that dull the mind,” and so we say, “I take up the way of not giving or taking drugs that dull the mind,” and vow also to keep the mind clear at all times. I think these are useful clarifications that pose the question: Is your mind clear, or has the drug interfered with your naturally clear consciousness?

In my own life, I’ve gone through many phases of drug use. I won’t go into the sordid details, because I don’t want to unintentionally glorify drug use, but with that said, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, I took most recreational drugs that came my way. Understand, though, that this wasn’t part of an addictive pattern. It seems to me that people most often do drugs for three reasons: first, to gain social acceptance; second, to fulfill emotional needs; and third, to discover meaning as part of a spiritual search. This last was true for me. I took drugs because I was looking for something genuine in the world, and when I finally discovered Zen practice, I stopped doing drugs so intensely.

I’ve often heard zazen compared to drug experiences, and in some ways this is understandable, but in others it’s completely mistaken. People compare the two, I think, because of the separation between their everyday lives and their zazen. They regard zazen as something out of the ordinary, and their experiences of samadhi or kensho as “altered” states of consciousness. Yet zazen is not an altered state of consciousness. It is pure, unaltered consciousness itself. 

There is a relationship here, though, in that we must be careful not to cling to any experience at all. In this respect, any experience or state that we cling to may be regarded as a drug. Television can be a powerful drug, as can video games, Internet pornography, trashy novels, or whatever we do to escape reality. Even peak experiences during zazen can be a terrible obstacle to practice, because we often look to re-create those experiences.

One may see meditation vs. drug use as being analogous to the Zen concepts of joriki and tariki. Joriki is self-power or self-reliance, and this is the type of energy cultivated by Zen practice and meditation. There are no crutches in zazen. Nobody can do this practice for us. We sit upright, under our own power.

Tariki is other-power, reliance on external spiritual power. Most often this term is used in reference to religious sects that pray to external powers—deities and such—in the hope that those powers will favor the petitioner. However, tariki is perfectly reflective of drug usage. Rather than cultivating wisdom through long and difficult spiritual practice, one instead seeks an emotional state or insight through the drug.

I would like to be clear that these insights and states are not necessarily false or delusive. I say this to avoid the dichotomy often seen in public discourse and government policy. There’s no doubt that drugs can be extremely harmful, even deadly, but it’s also true that drugs sometimes help people to overcome psychological blockages and become more insightful and open.

Still, these experiences come at a price. There’s a catch to using drugs, and it’s that whatever other effects they cause, drugs most often encourage continued reliance on the drug, and that reliance is often in proportion to the degree of positive emotions or insights that the drug provides.

So you get caught in this cycle. You want happiness and turn to the drug to provide it, but once that state fades, you turn again and again to the drug to recreate it.

This is clinging to a state of mind. You feel dukkha, lack, that life is out of joint, and you take a drug and experience of sense of well-being. Then the feeling fades, and you find that your sense of lack has actually become more acute.

And the more you cling to this state, the worse your suffering becomes, because clinging causes suffering. And the more you suffer, the more you want to escape. This is the downward spiral of addiction.

I have a friend who calls using drugs getting twisted. This is an interesting expression and very descriptive of drug effects. You take the drug and it twists your mind, and because you’re in a different state, sometimes you can see things about your life that you didn’t see before, or you can temporarily escape whatever state you were in. But when the drug wears off, you don’t return to the same place; you’re somewhere different than where you started, and with continued drug use it becomes difficult to see how off-center you’ve become.

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs.”

In any case, after discovering Zen, I cooled off and stopped taking psychedelic drugs. I actually cooled off all the way a couple years later when Lindsey (my ex-wife) and I went to Hawaii to train with Robert Aitken there. The entire time we lived with Aitken Roshi, I took no drugs whatsoever, including alcohol and coffee. I took nothing stronger than black tea for about a year and a half. This was also instructive. There’s no doubt that it helped to drive me into my practice, and I’d come there to practice, and that’s what I did.

However, I also learned that complete abstinence didn’t altogether suit me. It made me rigid, uptight, and inflexible, and kept me separate from people, kept me from connecting with them.

Zen also has the archetype depicted in the tenth ox-herding picture: entering the marketplace with helping hands. The picture shows the spiritual traveler with a wine gourd over one shoulder, ready to share it with whoever comes along, completely open.

So when I came back to Denver, I gave up abstinence too. Since then, I drink alcohol socially, though even that tends to slowly escalate. I’ve also smoked marijuana a few times—maybe a couple of times a year—which is something I continue to examine. It seems that I do it to feel close to old friends, but every time I do I conclude that I really shouldn’t again. Until the next time.

Dogen said: “Drugs are not brought in yet. Don’t let them invade. That is the great light.” Our minds are naturally bright. We are naturally full and complete and aware. How do you honor that great light while remaining open to the people around you?