Saturday, May 8, 2021

Wake Up -- A Life of the Buddha by Jack Kerouac (1955)

Wow. I has no idea. I did not know that Kerouac wrote this until I found a reference to it in a paper on Gary Snyder a couple of weeks ago.

In 1955 Kerouac was not yet famous or the icon he would become after the publication of "On the Road" in 1957. Kerouac was still in precarious circumstance when he set out to write "A Life of the Buddha" but it doesn't really show in the work itself. There is very little of Kerouac in the book unlike most of his others which are so deeply personal.

No, "Wake Up" is a more or less straightforward retelling of the Life of the Buddha from the Sutras in English for Americans, and as approachable as any number of Catholic "Life of St. So-and-So" pamphlets and books. Or more pertinently, "The Life of Jesus."

In fact, that seemed to me to be the model Kerouac followed in writing his "Life of the Buddha."

And he makes explicit comparisons between Jesus and Sakyamuni Buddha in a few places. He sees them as kindred spirits. 

Which of course many people do. And in a sense they probably were. In their own times and later.

Much is made in Kerouac biographies of his strict Catholic upbringing and strenuous Catholic belief. Yet from my perspective having read some though not all of his books, he had submerged most of his Catholicism in a conceptual Buddhism that encompassed the "good parts" of Catholicism and left the rest behind.

He was a practicing Buddhist but not a practicing Catholic (though he could be).

I'm still not entirely sure where he picked up his Buddhism. It's clear from "Wake Up" and other works that he's studied Buddhism deeply and for quite a long time, too. None of it is unfamiliar to him. He could be a Dharma teacher if he wanted to be, and in some passages of some of his works, that's exactly what he was.

I'm assuming he must have encountered Buddhist teaching in New York in the early '50s, perhaps through Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs, maybe among others of the Early Beats. I don't know. But I feel it had to have been years before he wrote "Wake Up" -- or it wouldn't have been as sensitive and as straightforward a telling as it is. 

I came to Zen in the mid-'60s through Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" (1958), but from all the evidence, Kerouac is not really a Zen practitioner; Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder) in "The Dharma Bums" is. Kerouac's Buddhism is more Indian or Tibetan, Theravada rather than Mahayana, whereas Snyder's is becoming very strict and Japanese in the book. At the end, Snyder has sailed off to Japan to join the Sokoku-Ji temple monastery in Kyoto where he will learn and practice for years, and return to America as a Zen Master --  in I believe 1965. 

And it will change him. I would say not necessarily for the better, but that's just me. 

From "Wake Up" and other works, I get the impression Kerouac was very much a Believer in Buddhism, much as a Catholic or other Christian believes in Christianity. 

From a Buddhist perspective, that's a mistake, perhaps a critical one, because Buddhism is not a religion. You don't believe in Buddhism, you practice it. The Dharma is a path, way, not the end point. Nirvana comes or not, but it doesn't matter. As long as you stay on the Dharma Path (following the precepts, etc.) then you're on the road to Enlightenment, and once Enlightened, you're on the road to Nirvana -- eventually. Don't worry about it. Just follow the Path. Keep going. Don't give up, even if you fail, make mistakes, or get confused. 

As I was taught many years ago, "The Buddha is within you, the Dharma is you, and the Sangha is with whomever you find on the Dharma Path -- even if they don't know it."

So there were times when I was reading "Wake Up" that I felt Kerouac was making an attempt to "own" the Buddha, something like Christians "own" Jesus and the Gospels. It won't work very well, at least not in the form of salvation. There is no salvation as such in Buddhism. As I said to one of the Dharma teachers, my practice is "chopping wood and carrying water." In other words, my practice is my life. ("The Dharma is you.") Whatever I do, day by day, even hour by hour, is practice. And it is never perfect, never ideal, never complete. Whatever is, is. 

I think about Kerouac ("Ti Jean" as he referred to himself from time to time. I think it was his mother's endearing name for him) and how he drank himself to death in 1969, still I imagine believing in Buddhism and probably believing that drinking to excess for as long as he did -- until it killed him -- was a form of practice, and in a sense, of course, it was. Of course he was violating the precepts, but that's what people do. Drinking to excess is a direct violation of the precepts, as were so many of the other things Kerouac did during his brief life. Some Buddhists would say (and I suspect he would say) that he was living out the karma he was born with. Interestingly, the way he presents karma in "Wake Up" is essentially no different than genetic inheritance. He wrote in 1955 at a time when psychological inheritance was being made much of in plays and movies like Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed," essentially arguing that what you inherit from your ancestors -- including your "mind" and its many impulses -- is immutable and inescapable. 

Rhoda Penmark was a murderer because her mother's biological father was a murderer. She had inherited the "psychopath" gene from him. There was nothing (much) she or anyone else could do about it. 

That's as may be. The Buddhist path says there is something you can do about it by following the precepts and the Eightfold Path. In that way it's something like AA or psychotherapy. No matter what your karma -- or genetic inheritance -- you can be in charge of your own life and change what you do and what you leave behind, though it may take many, many lifetimes to work out all that "ancient twisted karma" you're born with.

I don't know what sort of ancient twisted karma Ti Jean may have inherited. I've read that he was alienated from his father, but I know no details. Also that he was very close to his mother and sister, though their relationships were clearly complicated. The loss of his brother when he was a child was very troubling for him. And at least from the time he was at Columbia and soon thereafter, he acted kind of wild and crazy given the conformity of the times. Yet except for his alcoholism and frequent heavy drug use (mostly amphetamines and marijuana), he was never as wild and crazy as some of his Beat friends and colleagues proudly were and as he sometimes says he wishes he could be.

But "Wake Up, A Life of the Buddha" isn't about Kerouac. 

It's about Siddhartha Gautama, Sakyamuni Buddha, World Honored One, as told by the Sutras and commentaries, interpreted "for Americans today" by Jack Kerouac. As I say, I did not know he wrote this until I did some research on Gary Snyder and found a reference to it in a scholarly paper about Snyder. Snyder became an acknowledged Zen master -- as no doubt he still is -- and Kerouac wrote "Wake Up" during the period he and Snyder were palling around and climbing Sierra peaks and such well before Snyder left for Zen studies and practice at a monastery in Japan. 

To me, "Wake Up" follows the standard stories of the Buddha's life, Enlightenment and teachings very closely. It's not any more embellished than the usual stories are, but there are several passages of deeply felt poetics in the work that are more Kerouac than the Sutras. Yet they stick with the story. They are not out of place. 

It's just too bad this is not a more widely known work than it is. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Some Post-Practice Period Ruminations

It was good to get back into regular zazen practice, though my way is not exactly that of the Zen center. Of course, "my way" started with instructions from the San Francisco Zen Center c. 1965 -- before it became hip and trendy, before New Age, before hippies. Zen was still very Japanese in those days. We were followers of Suzuki Roshi's training, and he went way back in Japanese Soto Zen practice. I think he was made a monk when he was 11, and that would have been sometime around 1915 or so. He brought Zen in perhaps its strictest and purest form from Japan to the United States in the late 1950s, but it didn't really catch on until a decade or so later. Even then, it was still very Japanese.

It isn't any more. Not really. And I've struggled with that. Some of the forms are still observed -- robes and chanting in "Sino-Japanese" (the chants transliterated into syllables, but no translation as such). Zendos. Cushions to sit upon. In fact The Cushion seems to have become the central fact of modern Western Zen. Being On the Cushion is sometimes thought of as Everything. Ok. Well. That's interesting.

During practice period, we had three one hour sits a day and then during sesshin, sitting increased to up to 8 hours a day and could go longer. For me? No. 

Sitting is very important in Zen practice, necessary in fact. But... a wealth of caveats are necessary too. 

Remember, I took up Zen based on instructions from San Francisco Zen Center in the mid '60s. I wasn't at the Center, so I couldn't practice the way they did with such rigid and formal discipline. I wasn't a monk, and I couldn't be. Guess what? I was told I didn't have to strictly observe the forms, that learning how to sit and making time to sit regularly, and the study of the Sutras and Paramitas was essentially all a lay practitioner of Zen needed to do. 

Zen appealed to me because it was so lean and straightforward. You could sit zazen anywhere, any time for as long or short a time as needed. By studying the Sutras and Paramitas, by incorporating the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, becoming the Dharma as it were, you were doing all you really needed to do. 

The rituals that Zen monks and officiants engaged in at temples and monasteries and in this country at Zen Centers that weren't either temples or monasteries were akin to Catholic or other church services. Necessary for some -- some of the time -- but rarely appropriate for continual practice by lay-people.

Who have lives to live. The point is to get to a point in practice where "practice" is everything you do in life. 

There is nothing that is Not-Practice. 

So what happens when this rotten old bhikkhu (as I call myself sometimes) enters the more rarefied and ritualized modern Zen world, and I look around and say, "Wait, this isn't Zen."

And yet it's appealing for what it is, a sort of amalgam of psychotherapy, counseling, Tibetan Buddhism, and bits and pieces of a Zen tradition barely recalled or understood mixed with memories of Santa Fe New Age.

OK, fine, let's go with it, see where it leads.

It was a remarkable experience, and an astonishing reminder of not only where I've been in my wandering bhikkhu phase, but where I'm headed, too.

I learned, among other things, that so much I thought I had forgotten was still with me and had been so incorporated into my day-to-day life, I took it for granted and didn't notice.

Very vivid memories were brought back, and I learned that those memories ("Dreams" if you want) are guideposts. They're there to be recollected, yes, but also to point forward: this is where you've been, and where you're going.

None of what I learned over the years has gone away. It's all still there. And for whatever reason or no reason, I'm not quite done yet. 

I've never lacked for teachers or guides. The Void I entered all those years ago showed me a vision of Truth that has never gone away, and it never left me.

Being as isolated as I've been during this pandemic was disruptive to what had come to be my routine as "bhikkhu in the world." That's not a bad thing at all. 

I've already seen how my viewpoint and actions have changed since starting the practice period, and how much I've recovered, and how much more I need to get done.

Zen is there as a pivot point, but it's not a whole lot more than that, and by golly, it's not for everyone. Nor is Buddhism. It is simply a way among many to exist in the world and act on our better nature. 

🙏



Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Satori


NOTE: This was written just before the end of the practice period.

One more zazen session this morning, then we're "done." Well, not "done" done, but in the sense that we can return to Normal Life after one last zazen and a final wrap-up council slated to end at noon.

If this practice period and sesshin have had an effect, then we'll continue zazen, study and practice, and it was clear to me that some of the participants are already living practice all the time. 

Some activated bodhicitta at birth if not before. And they have been living the bodhisattva way of life ever since. Maybe they know, maybe not, but I doubt that doing this practice period has changed them in any way or made them better bodhisattvas. They didn't need Shantideva's Guide to tell them what to do. 

But maybe they needed something else, like reinforcement, community, reminders and strength.

Bodhisattvas may be imagined as examples of perfection, but living bodhisattvas generally aren't. They're far from perfect, they fail, they face struggles and heartbreak like anyone else, and they go on. I recognize so many "natural" bodhisattvas who have affected my own life.

At first, I was reluctant to accept Shantideva Bodhisattva's endless plaint as all that worthwhile. Many people reject it in whole or in part because it's just so.... whiny. (Also gravely misogynistic and otherwise offensive to modern sensibility.)

I tried to analyse it from a class perspective, and I think that still needs to be done. Who he was and what environment he came from is, I think, crucial to understanding what and why he wrote. He wasn't "just anyone" (much as Sakyamuni Buddha wasn't "just anyone.") He was a prince, son of a raja if not a maharaja, who, when his father died, was to be placed on the throne himself, and who instead ran way to a Buddhist monastery. Not just any monastery either, but Nalanda, the greatest Buddhist institution the world has ever seen. And there he faced challenges to his very being that he could not imagine.

I know the Dalai Lama has great fondness for Shantideva and his Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life and teaches it often. Why? Could it be that this particular work has special meaning to those whose lives have been turned upside down by choice or circumstance and who need to regularly reinforce their practice (faith, if you will) that they can do and are doing what's right?

Yes, I think that's a big part of it, and it's a big part of why it was being taught during this practice period. The COVID you see has turned all our lives upside down, and we don't yet know when -- or if at this rate -- it will end. 

The psychological and emotional toll has been immense, especially for those in the helping professions -- which seemed to be most of the participants in this practice period, bordering on 90%.

Lives have been ended by the hundreds of thousands, millions world-wide. A horrible period of political unrighteousness has still not completely ended. Isolation and fear and doubt have compounded in so many of us. 

Apart from the clerks at the grocery store and post office, medical professionals are about the only people I've been dealing with face to face regularly for over a year. I know they've been having a hard time, at first really hard, and I've expressed my sympathy, but during this practice period, I've come to a much better understanding of how hard it's been and still is. Worlds turned upside down repeatedly. And much, much worse for many.



I have a wood carved Buddha on an altar that I've bowed to every zazen session. He's modeled on the Kamakura Daibutsu in Japan, I believe the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. I painted him gold  -- the Kamakura Daibutsu was gilded at one point -- so that he would not fade into the mirrored background. The Buddha on my altar appears to be deep in meditation, but his facial expression has always puzzled me (it's even more apparent on the huge bronze original.)  Then it came to me. It's the expression of profound heartbreak that he has not been able to save, deliver, rescue all sentient beings as a Bodhisattva despite what Shantideva tells us a Bodhisattva must vow to do.

Next to him is a wood carving of the Laughing Buddha that was so popular in the West for so many years -- but you don't see him much any more. It was such a popular image that my father had a small one on his bookshelf in Iowa when I was born, and my mother apparently took it with her when she divorced him because I remember it fondly standing on our bookshelf in California, laughing with hands raised high overhead. (Come to think of it, maybe it was hers to begin with...)

On the other side of the Daibutsu is a wood carving of a Chinese mendicant monk smiling at the Buddha.

There are other images: a horse and an elephant, both references to the life of Shakyamuni, a carved wooden zebra, a carved wooden duck (sentient beings) a brass cricket, a bronze dragon, a ceramic tree coming into bloom with tiny birds on its branches, a greenstone carved abstract figure that could be someone practicing zazen, gourd figures that Ms Ché and I made one Christmas at the Cherokee club, flowers, many flowers and flowering branches, and an incense burner. 

We have several other altars in the house. One for dead friends. One for Native figures. All are sites of honor, and the Heartbroken Buddha altar for now has pride of place.

In addition to the other things mentioned on the Daibutsu/Heartbroken Buddha altar, there's a kerosene lamp, an electric candle, five cranberry colored sherry glasses, a photo of Ms Ché smiling at her desk at work 20-30 years ago, and a Midcentury clock to tell the time. These tchotchkes sort of wound up there without great intent, but somehow they seem to belong. 

Behind the Buddha stretching the width of the altar is a Craftsman mirror in an oak frame. It was part of a collection of Craftsman furniture I picked up at a thrift store many years ago. Draped across the top of the mirror is a length of sari silk, deep, deep teal blue, sprinkled with golden embroidery spots that look something like stars.

It's very crowded, this altar, and any critic would point out it's "Not Zen" at all. That's correct. 

As mentioned in another post, I long ago let go of any attempt at emulating Japanese style or adopting the pretense of Going Japanese. It's not who I am.

Yet I still practice zazen? Sure, why not?

But right now, it's time to chop some wood and carry water.

🙏 ॐ

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Ridiculous and Useless

Practicing zazen is ridiculous and useless. That's the point, no?

No.

There is no point. You do it to do it. That's it. Nothing more. The ridiculousness of sitting, the uselessness of sitting simply are. They're not the point of anything, they merely exist. 

When I sit, I sit. I adopt partial posture while sitting on a straightback antique oak kitchen chair with a quilted cushion on the seat. My back is straight-ish, not uncomfortably or rigidly so. My head is slightly down. My hips are solidly placed forward rather than back into the chair. My feet are flat on the floor, legs slightly apart. My hands are placed in the "cosmic mudra" position, palms up, left hand's fingers on top of right hand's fingers, thumbs barely touching, oval space open between thumbs and fingers. The hands land on my lap and rest there, but they can be raised slightly above the lap and come to rest just below the navel. When sitting, my eyes are usually open, gaze somewhat unfocused ahead and down. Not actually looking at anything (most of the time) but not not looking either. 

To the extent I meditate while sitting, three aspects come to the fore. 

First, to concentrate on breathing and body. Counting breaths, but only as a counter to passing thoughts. Otherwise just breathe and be conscious of breathing. Be aware of the body and body sensations. I'm particularly sensitive to joint issues, and when they arise, I note them and also note that body is more than joints; paying attention all the way up and all the way down and inside and out. 

Second, mantras. There are lots of them. At any time, one can pop into consciousness to counter passing thoughts or just be running in the background something like a drone in East Indian music. And then be gone like the thought that might have been countered. Only to come back again.

Third, koans. Insoluble puzzles of words and mind. Nonsense. Paradoxes. Again, as counters to passing thoughts, there and gone.

There are other elements that can happen. Some can become meditations. One that I've feared and consciously avoided is a return to "The Void." A state of emptiness that I encountered many years ago while practicing zazen and did not want to return to without a guide or teacher. 

Well, I've learned that once there, it never leaves. Or rather, you never leave it. Or... It's ever-present, prior to, and everlasting. It is what I called "the Ground State" of everything and nothing simultaneously. All phenomena arise therefrom, but "arise" is not the correct description. Nothing arises, in other words. And there are no phenomena. Everything is Nothing. All the time and everywhere. There is no time, no where. 

And I've always had guides. I've always had teachers. I wasn't always paying attention.

Yes, we live in the material world of consciousness, separateness and phenomena, and yes, they're not "real." They are illusion. The "reality" to the extent we can comprehend it -- imperfectly at best -- is found in that Ground State, which perceptively is Nothing. There's literally Nothing there.

Yet that No-Thing is Every-Thing. And that "there" is not.

Get it?

The paradoxes and contradictions have led to endless commentary on being-no being, Enlightenment, and what the holy hoo-hah this Sakyamuni Buddha character was getting at. 

During this practice period, there's been almost no mention of Sakyamuni. The focus has been on sad, bewildered Santideva and how he overcame the demons of self-doubt and other people's mockery and criticisms to follow the Prajnaparamita and become a Bodhisattva at Nalanda.

They tell us -- maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong -- that most of those who enter the Buddhist monastery never become Enlightened. They don't become Buddhas. Most never become Bodhisattvas. When they die, they don't enter Nirvana. That seems sad. But I believe it.

What then is the point of the monastery, Zen Buddhist or any other?

On the one hand, yes, the monastery is as ridiculous and useless as practicing zazen. There is no point, as it were. 

And yet... and yet...

-------------------------------------------------------------

Oh goody. The Book came, the one I ordered from Indiana. And neat, it's got underlining, check marks and a few comments by its previous owner(s). Yay. The Book: Jack Kerouac's "Wake Up, A Life of the Buddha" (1955) that I didn't know existed until recently when I read about it in a commentary on a book by Gary Snyder. 

This should be interesting.

I suspect one reason bhikkhus, bonzes, and monks fail to reach Enlightenment is because they're always being diverted by things like this.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Around the Place

Order clothing from India, oh India

Suffering so

Oh India.


They come in a big sturdy box, only a week's time, faster than Target's two day delivery which takes a minimum of ten days and quite likely more than two weeks.

A box of sherwani, dhoti, kurta, all of silk and cotton and brilliant colors, trimmed in gold braid and shiny buttons and intricate embroidery. Fascinating. Unbelievable. Where did this come from? Who made it? How did they manage to do it so quickly and so well?

Oh India.


Order a book from a bookseller in Indiana, oh Indiana

Suffering so

Oh Indiana.


Book goes from Indiana to Las Vegas to Salt Lake City and now sits in Albuquerque out for delivery sometime tomorrow. Or later. Eventually. Only 10 days since order placed.

The Life of the Buddha, Wake Up! Yet another Kerouac to add to the growing pile. 

I wonder what he had to say.

Suffering so

Oh Kerouac 


As he writes of himself, Ti Jean.

C'est vrais, c'est lui.

--------------------------------------------

Trees have been losing their deadwood, day by day, branch by branch. Slow, methodical, somewhat tedious work. Samu. The lower branches are mostly done now, the higher ones will take some time and planning and preparation. The cut and broken off lower dead limbs are mostly destined for the burn barrel where they form a nice fluffy ash and cobs of charcoal, the ash to spread over the ground, the charcoal for later barbecues and such if there will be any.

Birds will miss some of the higher dead limbs when they're gone. Birds perch and poop on the dead limbs and in the mornings they chirp and sing happily. When the dead limbs are gone, they'll find new perches and they'll poop and sing and warble as birds will do. The ravens will come and perch on the very top limbs and caw and call and chitter and yak at folks passing by. "Tok-tok-tok-tok-tok" These ravens around here are very conversational. 

From time to time, flocks of grackle will assemble in the trees. If anything, they are more conversational with one another and with people passing by than even the ravens. Their vocabulary is complex and detailed. They tell one another stories of grackle love and longing and mock the humans underneath.

An owl. A hawk. Another owl. Perhaps an eagle unseen. Woodpeckers. Robins and wrens. Our trees host so many bird varieties, and a few have broken into the house to raise their babies in the attic. Swallows are due back pretty soon. As noted by a friend, "Swallows are damned messy." Well yes. Yes they are.

In late fall and through the winter sandhill cranes spot on our house, one of the oldest if not the oldest in the area. They circle high or low deciding where to land for the morning or afternoon feeding. Usually they take over the stubble field of the farmer down the road, roosting by the hundreds, lifting off, swooping down, chattering among themselves, prodding for grub-life in the soil, nibbling at the stubble left by the farmer for the cranes.

Once we thought at least a few of them would land on our place, they were so close. But no. We had no stubble. They flew on.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Refuge

 "I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha."

The simplicity is stunning. The Three Jewels of Buddhism:  Sakyamuni Buddha himself, a real person who lived and died 2500 years ago, who came to Enlightenment, renounced his titles and status, lived as a Bodhisattva and taught, died and entered Nirvana. The Dharma is composed of his teachings and those of other Buddhist teachers. At their core, these teachings consist of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and pretty much that's it.  The Sangha is the community -- any community -- of practicing Buddhists.

I was taught many years ago that "The Buddha is within you, the Dharma is you, and the Sangha is with whomever you find on the Dharma Path, even if they don't know it."

In other words, the trappings of Buddhist belief and practice are nice but not necessary, because everything which constitutes "Buddhism" is already there, present and potential, within the container you call "Me" and I call "You" and immediately adjacent to it.

You don't need Zen; Zen doesn't need you. 

I'm nearing the conclusion of this practice period, and there were a number of times when I was about to quit and didn't. At this point, my intention is to stick with it to the end -- and beyond. Not so much as a Zen practitioner, although once started, it never really goes away, but as someone on a Bodhisattva path nearing the end of his journey in the material world.

I was asked what brought me to this particular virtual place at this time? I could point to a specific individual with this institution I'd encountered online with whom I felt both compassion and communion. That aside, though, my interest was spurred by my isolation over the last year and more due to the virus. I am high-risk and cannot be vaccinated before May at the earliest, probably not till June because the medications I'm given interact with the vaccine to essentially neutralize it until such time as the strength of the medication diminishes sufficiently to allow the vaccine's anti-body production to function. Etc.

In practice, this means that no matter what, I cannot socialize or otherwise engage with other people more than very quickly and at a distance. Mostly not at all. So I've been essentially homebound for more than a year, and I didn't realize how socially active I'd been previously and how important those interactions were to fulfilling Bodhisattva vows, no matter how imperfectly.

Hm.

So if I had to declare a "purpose" to participating in this (virtual) practice period, it would be renewal and restoration of a sense of sangha, community of fellow practitioners on the Dharma Path.

Hm.

How do you practice the Bodhisattva's way of life under these conditions? You can to a very limited extent, but not much beyond that. And that's OK. You do what you can within those confines. And if it means breaking free in some ways, you do that.

Zen, at least the Zen I encountered decades and decades ago, is very precise, simple, yes, but precise, and the precision is part of the practice. Suzuki Roshi would probably say precision is the whole of the practice. Get the forms right, which isn't easy at all, and you're Zenning, doing Zen. Are Zen. You see that even now, getting the forms right, practicing, practicing, practicing, to get the forms right, the signs right, the precise Japanese style, words or rather syllables, just the right arrangements of flowers and candles and bowls and statuary of just the right colors on just the right height tables. I could go on and on. Getting the style just right is practice.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Manjushri's Zamboni

Manjushri Bodhisattva is the prominent image in the zendo. While not focusing on him, he has sometimes Bollywood danced for us, been the squire of an Imperial Walker, and today was driving the Zamboni of the Paramitas. 

Smoothing the way, eh?

Buddhism without laughter is like Revolution without dancing😂

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Beginning of Wisdom

 Perfection of Wisdom

CATS!

 "A few" of the outdoor ferals moved into the house for the winter at the invitation of Herself, the Lady of the House and Catlady of the region.

Two of them have been buddies outdoors for many years, and they came inside together and made a nest together on one of the chairs in the livingroom. They sleep there now. Often they are wrapped in one another's arms in sweet repose, and when they are awake they will say to one another "Do me!" and a vast licking frenzy will commence, the one licking the other while the other licks the one, both of them falling into bliss and then to sleep wrapped in one another's arms in sweet repose. 

Cats.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Derek Chauvin Murder Trial

 Finally justice?

No.

When Practicing Zazen

When I sit, I usually let thoughts just come and go the way they do, as someone said, "Like clouds in a clear blue sky." And as I've sat through this practice period, thoughts have gradually diminished to the point where almost an entire sit will take place thought-free. Hard to describe what that's like, but it happens. 

I don't sit generally more than 15-20 minutes at a time, though on occasion, I have sat longer. The shorter sits are for me the more positive, I guess. Practicing zazen is by its nature both ridiculous and useless. So we do it anyway, and sitting is itself the point, not any great gain or accomplishment. You just sit. 

A shorter sit is for me the more positive because like in the Old Days, I've been getting closer and closer to The Void (as I call it) when I sit, and I'm not going back there without a guide or teacher, and that hasn't happened yet in this practice period. 

But this morning's sit that I was late for made me think more about where I've been and where I'm going with this ridiculous and useless sitting. An image came to me early in my late sit. 

More like a movie clip, really. As I tend to do, I just let it come. At some point I figured it would go. Away.

Oh. 

I was walking toward Union Square on Geary, not far from my apartment between Leavenworth and Hyde. I got to the square and saw space on a bench facing I. Magnin and the City of Paris (tells you how long ago it was), and I sat down on the bench.

At the other end was a craggy old Chinese man in clean but somewhat tattered gray pants and jacket and we nodded and smiled at one another, and after a moment or two, I assumed the sitting zazen pose, and he saw and assumed it too, and we sat. He was my sangha for the moment, I was his.

For I don't know how long, we sat together-apart on the bench in Union Square facing I Magnin and the City of Paris while pigeons and people swirled around us, the cloudless bright blue sky overhead, and the sun somewhere shone into the Square. 

After a time, I don't know how long, I got up from my sit and bowed to the Chinese elder sitting in his gray tatters at the other end of the bench. He continued his sit, he didn't bow back. And I walked around the Square, counterclockwise, feeling strangely integrated with everything, everyone, even the pigeons all a part of me, I was a part of them, even the Square itself and all around it, out into the Bay and vastly beyond.

I walked around the Square to Powell, in front of the St. Francis and walked down Powell through the flower sellers and crowds and smelly trash in the street by the curb, down to Market and I thought of taking the cable car to North Beach Fisherman's Wharf but the line was so long and the day was so nice, I decided to keep walking down Market as far as Taylor then up Taylor through the Tenderloin to Geary and back to my apartment between Leavenworth and Hyde. 

As I got to the wrought iron gate of my apartment house, the clip stopped and started over.

It was in a loop and it was going to keep playing, over and over, and it wouldn't let go of me or I wouldn't let go of it, so I stopped the sit and went into the other room and had some coffee and sat for a few minutes before I started writing this. 

That was a memory, strangely complete and colorful and lively, of something that happened when I was living in San Francisco in 1976 or maybe a bit later. That day stayed with me for sometime, and then it faded and eventually was gone, and this morning there it was again.

In my mind and memory, not in "reality."

Buddhism teaches that we create reality in our minds, and that is the only reality most of us ever know. Buddhism teaches us ways to penetrate the mind's reality to reach what I'd call a "ground state." The truth behind the mind's reality. And I've been there. 

It happened in San Francisco, and in a sense it's never left me -- on the principle that once "there" you can't go back. But then the principle is also that you're always "there" -- you just don't know it.

And this movie-like clip that started playing during this morning's sit that I was late for was a kick from behind reminder. As so many things are these days.

---------------------------------

So I mentioned this episode from my morning sit to one of the Dharma teachers that afternoon, someone not quite of my age but close enough who knows San Francisco well enough and saw, in her own mind, some of what I saw, and after some consideration, she said, "You know, that story of what happened during your morning sit sounds more like a dream."

They say in this process you will encounter satori "sudden enlightenment" over and over and over again, and in the past I certainly did until it became almost routine, subliminal. Almost any encounter was an encounter with satori, to the point where I didn't notice it any more.

And then when she said, "You know, that story of what happened during your morning sit sounds more like a dream," it hit me, hard, that's exactly what it was. I was dreaming-awake. I was/am quite sure the incident and others like it actually happened, but at this great distance in time, it doesn't matter whether it had a physical "reality" or not. It was something I dreamed while awake, while sitting zazen that morning, and the instant of that realization, I could start to let it go. I haven't completely let go of it, obviously, because I'm still writing about it, but I don't relive it. 

We talked about many other things and she asked if I had practiced zazen since the morning sit, and I said I had, and it was fine. She just nodded, sagely. Then we shared stories about her brother and my sister, and we both might have choked up a bit. 

Later that evening another Dharma teacher Zoomed in from Illinois, not only an ordained Zen priest but an ordained and working Unitarian Universalist reverend, and she spoke movingly about many of the things I had spoken with the other Dharma teacher in the afternoon. Her topic was ostensibly "Meditation."

I'll leave it at that.

Late For Zazen

 

Harder than I thought and much easier than I expected to change the habits, good and bad, of this crusty, rotten old bhikku. 

I'm late for morning zazen. Oh well. Have some coffee, strong and hot.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

No Title

 Robins chatter and poop in the budding elm tree. "Where's the catfood?!"

"What is accomplished practicing zazen?" Nothing. 

Feed the robins.

Monday, April 19, 2021

A Twig Sits on a Book

 My sits get shorter and shorter.

No Void without a guide this time.

Horse Hay and Deadwood

Some of the dead branches came down the other day and they're in piles here and there around the place. A few of them got burned in the burn barrel, but there's been too much wind for much of that. Yesterday, there was snow, not much, and another cold wind from somewhere. Only went out to check on things. Sat mostly for the sesshin. Too many observations and realizations to mention. There are demons afoot.

A horse trailer stacked with hay passed by on the way to somewhere. Then another with two horses in tow. Nice looking animals.

I'm not supposed to be doing this.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sesshin

We are not supposed to do internet or blog stuff ("journaling") during this intense period of study and practice nor wear strong perfumes, speak, or otherwise distract from our primary task. Which is? 

So what am I doing? Blogging, journaling, distracting as it were. Is that my task?

I've learned enough so far in this practice period, and remembered enough of my previous practice and how things sometimes went awry to -- I think -- make good use of this intense period of Sesshin to reinforce lessons learned and stay focused on what needs doing, reality vs illusion (hint: there's no not-illusion, no not-reality), and carry on.

I have a ton of text to study and restudy. There is a whole long list of neglected things to get done. There is a frequent schedule of zazen and liturgy practice. Because I'm not cloistered -- but of course am under travel and other restrictions because of the COVID -- I still have day-to-day household duties and chores that can't be set aside for Sesshin. And Ms. Ché is having some trouble with controlling her diabetes -- we don't know what's going on -- and has to be monitored closely for signs of either extremely low or extremely high blood sugar. 

In other words, I'll be adapting to the schedule of the Sesshin, and I'll be continuing most day-to-day requirements, and I'll be studying intently. 

One of the teachers used the metaphor (analogy?) of metamorphosis. We come out of the cocoon of Sesshin a different and arguably more beautiful being, no need to force it, it just happens on its own. 

Having been through the process a time or two, I'd say yes, but take care. I never did it in community before, nor did I have a Zen Master teacher to guide me. Even with them, there may be plenty of bumps o the road ahead. Take heed.

Future posts -- until the end of the Sesshin period -- may be very brief or there may be none at all.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Visions of Gary

Japhy Ryder, a character based on poet-environmentalist and man of letters Gary Snyder, figures prominently in Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums (1958). He's presented as the epitome of the Zen Lunatic, a frequently encountered order of beings in the book. Japhy is Zen, he is a lunatic, and wiser than a god and more down to earth than cornpone. He can do anything. He can be anything. He is the center of Ray Smith's (Jack Kerouac's) world in the book, and Ray/Jack cries when Japhy sails off to Japan to become a Zen monk -- on a foundation grant.

I've been asked "Did you know Gary Snyder? Did you ever meet him?" And the short answer is "No," but then someone will tap me on the shoulder and say, "Actually, you did. You just don't remember."

OK. Where, when, how?

In the mid '80s I was deeply involved in the Sacramento arts and cultural community, and part of that meant I was going to meetings and receptions and such practically every day and night that I wasn't involved in rehearsals. 

Gary Snyder at the time was a member of the California Arts Council and if I recall correctly (ha!) he was teaching writing at UC Davis, and that meant that from time to time he would come down to the Valley from his ranch up in the Sierra foothills and mingle a bit with us lowlanders. What I can visualize are the flyers and ads for the retreats he would hold for writers and Zen bhikkhus at his place up the hill, and how they seemed at the time to be wildly expensive ($150 for a week? Ack!) 

But he was a celebrity, a major literary celebrity in our midst, and some people said he was worth every penny. 

I still say "No," but I'm told "Yes." 

I was colleagues with some of the staff of the Arts Council and knew a member or two, and I was sometimes invited to their events. I worked on projects with some of the faculty at UC Davis. And what is suggested is that my contact with Gary Snyder happened at a couple of receptions for artists and writers sponsored by the Arts Council or UC Davis. Those events are something of a blur to me these days. There were often hundreds of people drinking and mixing and mingling and laughing and carrying on the way they do. Apparently Gary Snyder was pointed out to me, surrounded by a cloud of worshipful fans, very barely visible, blondish bangs, crusty hooded eyes, and a toothy grin flashing now and then. "Don't you want to meet him?" "Not really," said I. "He seems to be having a good time, though. Loves that adulation."

Apparently I was taken over to the cloud and introduced to him, apparently we nodded to one another and maybe shook hands, and that, as far as I can tell, was that. We retreated to our corners. It may have happened pretty much the same way a time or two after that, but I honestly don't recall. 

Let's say we didn't hit it off. Part of it, I know, is that I was very anti-celebrity in those days. I was much more interested in helping to build up the talents of the many folks who weren't celebrities but who were creative and eager and had much to offer -- if only somebody would pay attention. Of course, then as now the conundrum was that if you're not a celebrity no one will pay attention. I had no inclination to fawn over any celebrity in those days and tended to try to avoid them as much as I could, and when I couldn't, I kept any contact to a minimum. "Hullo, howareya, nice to meecha, bye." 

I knew who Gary Snyder was, knew some of what he was famous for, and I knew he was the inspiration for the character Japhy Ryder in "Dharma Bums."  I would learn later that he really didn't care for Jack Kerouac's depiction of him in the book and he was annoyed that he had to dispel misconceptions about himself and his Zen lunacy based on what Kerouac had written. He wasn't really like that. You see. Kerouac wrote a novel not a first person non-fiction report. It wasn't journalism. It was a story, much of it invented. 

And I think maybe he was annoyed that Kerouac became obsessed with him. It went well beyond friendship into realms that are hard to quantify. I don't know what was going on in Jack's mind, but from the novel, there's a suggestion that Ray/Jack wanted to become Japhy/Gary. And so maybe Gary Snyder couldn't escape to Japan soon enough. 

Leaving Ray/Jack on the dock to cry bitter tears of loss and longing.

This was always the thing with Kerouac's writing. There is some deep-seated longing for... something unnamed, even unmentionable... in the characters Jack bases on himself. There is someone else who exemplifies what he wants to be, particularly Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder. They are these bigger-than-life shining, incredible characters who completely dominate Jack's character. They take over everything, life itself, they are life itself, and Jack's character wonders why he isn't like them, can't be like them, and who made them this way in the first place.

Japhy/Gary is wild, untamed, gritty, funny, and wicked. Wicked smart to a New Englander like Kerouac, but wicked bad too, given Kerouac's strict Catholic upbringing. Was it the Zen that made him that way? 

Japhy/Gary is wild and uninhibited and would drink and do drugs and get naked and sing and dance and fuck with abandon right there in front of everybody, and Jack's character would be amazed and wish he could be like him and would try and fail and be mortified. How does a Zen lunatic do it?

Snyder insists he was not like that, not really, though there may be pictures and receipts. The issue is that Kerouac was writing a novel about events in the mid 1950s, while Gary was still a graduate student at UC Berkeley. The wild man, the untamed Zen lunatic that he describes Japhy to be is almost an impossibility in that context. That kind of non-conformity would have been stamped out almost instantly in those days; it could not have happened. Period. 

Just look what happened to Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley a decade later. There could not have been something even wilder in Japhy's time. 

The Gary Snyder I must have seen 30 years later was diminutive, smartly-casually dressed like the professor he was (with a twist, like monk's cloth wide britches and huaraches or hiking boots.) He laughed easily among his cloud of fans, he drank the way most people did in those days, and he adored being adored. He was used to it. 

In other words, there was nothing really abnormal or particularly noteworthy about him at all.

I still say I never met Gary Snyder, never knew him, but memories get jogged and come back and I find out that things I was sure never happened actually did. Things I had forgotten were still vivid in other people's memories. Life once led but left behind is still the active narrative in some minds.

Gary is 90-something now and I assume still lives up at his ranch or outpost or retreat in the Sierra foothills. He will probably live forever at this rate.

---------------------------------------

Little bit of an Update: 

After I wrote this post I went to the Google Machine to see if I could pin down any real memories of Gary Snyder, and I came across a link to a story in the Nevada County Press or whatever about a film of a conversation between Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison. The story was from 2019. I found the film, made by Will Hearst III in 2009, "Practice of the Wild", and I was more or less stunned. Yes, I had memories and visions of Gary from way back, but mostly in the mid-'80s when he was actually around in the same places I was quite a bit. I recalled several times we met, despite his cloud of worshipful fans, and even without them when they weren't there, and I managed to recall who among my friends and colleagues were his friends or colleagues. And no, we didn't get along.

It was a strange feeling, very strange. How very much I have forgotten. I'm reluctant to say that whole phase of my life is gone, but realistically, without a trigger, it is.

 Hm.


A video that won't embed:

https://youtu.be/oFg7K4vAGnk?t=880


Another addendum:

From Jack Kerouac's long letter to Gary Snyder, December 1957:

.have no time now, just adding p.s. to Allen’s letter, I haven’t written to you for the odd Mexico reasons of no post offices and stamp facilities for overseas etc. and couldn’t get up in time …….but I think of you all the time….more than you know—— On Desolation, well I’ll tell you later, it’s a long beautiful tale quietude….Meanwhile I have been writing furious, for this  year for instance I have three new novels and new perms (poems??) and now all of a sudden 2 contracts with publishers in NY here this very day it’s taking place…..have great new way of transliterating Diamond Sutra that will at last spread the diamond sutra in the west and maybe even in the east, all Sanskrit terms out of it, but translated into simple English, I cry when I read it sometimes and I read it every day……that too I’ll send you later….meanwhile be you the Gary Snyder of my dreams…be you sad deep Gary, sad funny crazy Gary, and be bejesus god we’ll go climb mountains again soon              Jack

Emphasis mine. I just sit with that in wonder.

 Further noting: A) One of my tasks during this practice period and Sesshin is learning to be less judgmental of others. I have a long way to go. 

B) Reading Jack's letter to Gary, however, brings forth some judgement. 

If I were a Zen master receiving this letter, as Gary Snyder was in the budding stages of becoming, I would be alarmed. I mentioned earlier that Jack had become obsessed with Gary, almost as if he were determined to become Gary Snyder somehow, absorb him, devour him. And this letter is, I think, proof. What is a bhikku to do with something like this, let alone a Zen master? Would it even be possible for Gary to (gently) guide Jack away from this obsession? Maybe. I don't think so. I'm not at all sure Gary had it in him -- even as a Zen master -- in any case. The course of gentle guidance was always in conflict with Gary's determined forcefulness. I can well imagine Gary giving Jack the back of his hand, hard, with no explanation and storming away. 

This brings forth so much sadness and compassion for both of them within me. It's hard to bear without breaking down completely. It wasn't long after this that Jack went on his long drunken bender into madness and death. 

And Gary became the iconic Man of Letters he is today and likely always was or saw himself to be. An image, perhaps, not a being. 

Which is what I encountered in the person thirty-forty twenty-five-thirty years ago and... found wanting.

This is one of those rounds of the Dharma wheel I continue to work with/on. For-ever.

-------------------------------

On the other hand (remember, Zen is contradiction) if I were a Zen master, which I have no intention of being, I wouldn't be alarmed by that letter from Jack at all. No, I'd figure instead that he was making progress and his expressions of devotion to Gary were positive signs of immanence and Awakening. Or maybe not. People come to the Awakened Mind in their own way and their own time. Expressions of devotion to someone else can be over the top and it's OK. Like everything else, that too will pass. 

If Jack would sit for a while... just sit with no expectations... he'd come around to see what he needed to.


Friday, April 16, 2021

So... Another Bite At the Apple So To Speak

Chapter 5 of A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life (Guarding Alertness) was the study we were engaged in when we were treated to... The Man Who Knows Everything the other day. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who had, shall we say, a negative reaction to his presentation and had to work through some things during and afterwards to guard their own altertness in the face of his onslaught. Hm. Well, anyway, last evening we had another Dharma talk on the same chapter, this time from one of the center's own staff a teacher, prison counselor and priest, the same one with whom I had practice interview a few days ago, and his focus was on one aspect of the chapter, an aspect I really hadn't noticed previously (no surprise):

Procrastination

A very commonplace human trait, no? Well, yes. Oh yes. How well I know! We put off tasks -- or a least I do -- sometimes over and over again because..... ? Well, why? 

I thought of one of many things I've been procrastinating over, this one for more than a year: trimming some of the dead branches from the trees around our place.

It's a complicated, potentially dangerous task that requires:

  • planning
  • preparation
  • proper tools
  • right state of mind
  • agility
  • confidence
  • determination
  • energy
  • skill
Hopefully a helper, too. Well, my helper hasn't been around for quite some time. Exactly what happened to him, I'm not sure. But I haven't seen him, and I'm afraid he may have passed away. The last time I saw him he was not well, and what with the COVID and all... He stopped coming around and no one I've talked to has seen him for months.

As for the other things, I have assembled tools, done some planning, but I'm not very good with much of the rest. I cut down one branch last year that was touching an electric line, and I wouldn't say it went exactly well. I think I missed getting brained by the falling branch by a couple of inches probably because I'd miscalculated where I should place the ladder. As it was, the falling branch ripped my shirt and put a welt on my back. It wasn't a serious wound, but it gave me pause. 

I don't have a lot of agility because my joints have stiffened, but I can get around and climb a ladder and such. I may be slow, but I get there eventually. My confidence level -- that I can do these things -- is not quite as high as it once was, but as a rule, if I set out to accomplish a task I believe I can get it done. If I start, I am generally determined to finish and usually do so unless something completely unexpected interferes. 

My energy level is better since I started taking prednisone again last fall when I was feeling immense fatigue almost all the time. It's a consequence of my condition and the medications I take, and there's not a lot I can do about it. Low doses of prednisone, though, help. Fatigue is going to dog me no matter what. But we learn to cope with it -- well, that's something of a stretch. Let's say I make do.

My skills are so-so. I can do the task, but not as well as a professional might. This has been my way through thick and thin most of my life with pretty much anything. I can do things. But do them well? Enh. Maybe. Maybe not.

State of mind is the one that has kept me procrastinating, I think more than anything. If I don't feel I'm ready, I'm not going to do it, whatever it is, and getting ready can take a long time. Or readiness may never come.

I'm procrastinating. I admit it. It's no shame in my view. I'm simply not ready to take on this important task of trimming dead branches yet. I may never be. My intent may be there, but if I don't feel I can mentally and physically accomplish it with relative safety for myself and others, I won't do it. Some would call that "wisdom." Others might say "cowardice."

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Huh. Back to the Beginning Again

That's pretty much how this practice period has been going. I keep circling around, not to start over so much as remember the shreds and tatters of the Dharma I lost along the way, go back and pick up some of and then some more of what I left behind, not to have it as in possession but to  recall and incorporate it into my present being. 

Sitting Zen opens the doorway you might say, and my sits are just to sit. Doorways open or they don't but when a doorway is opened, there's no need for a longer sit at that time. That's why they vary in length, up to an hour but usually much shorter. And more frequent than the zazen schedule at the zendo. Chopping wood and carrying water is practice just as sitting is. "Chopping wood and carrying water" is a metaphor for daily activities, doing what needs to be done, while practicing Zen; in fact, the activity itself becomes  practice. Eventually, your life and being, my life and being, is practice. 

Years ago, I was there, or as nearly there as I think I was able to get. I'd absorbed as much of the sutras and the Dharma and the Buddha nature of all beings and non-beings as I was going to at the time, and in my sits I had entered The Void, where there was nothing, no thoughts, images, plans, desires, distractions, or delusions. Just pure emptiness. 

If I had had a teacher at the time, I have little doubt that I would have been told that "The Void" I encountered was a delusion. Quite likely dangerous. And I should let go of it. In fact, I may have encountered that idea in my studies without a teacher. At any rate, whenever I sat in those days, I would immediately go to Void state, whether or not it was a delusion, and from my perspective, it wouldn't let go of me. 

This happened toward the end of my year or so residence in San Francisco. I'm not well-adapted to living in cities at all, and at the time (mid-late '70s) San Francisco had a distinctly odd vibe. There was all this alternative New Age pseudo spirituality going on, and there were hustlers everywhere of every kind imaginable. It was a cacophony of yada yada all the time. The Counterculture had mostly imploded, but its echoes lingered and San Francisco was still the heart-center of what could be, what ought to be. The City was filthy, deteriorating and unhealthy, however. Not at all the image it liked to project. That perception may have been a factor of where I was living, too, on the border between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill, a territory filled with dregs and aspirations and desires.  I tried to keep my path narrow, but I couldn't keep it narrow enough, and in the end, it was simply more than I could bear with any kind of equanimity to be there. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Mantra

 "All equally empty; all equally to be loved; all come a Buddha"


This is the "prayer" Jack Kerouac (as Ray Smith) gives Gary Snyder (as Japhy Ryder) in "Dharma Bums".

It has become my go-to mantra during this practice period somewhat randomly as well as intentionally when I get all judgmental about others as I sometimes do. As I did yesterday. Oh my.

There was a Dharma talk by a big Sanskrit scholar from out of town, and it got me so, shall we say wound up that I clicked off the Zoom, went to the other room and fumed for a while. And then when I clicked on the Zoom again, he was still there with his "I know everything about everything, and you don't" attitude and presentation, and I just wanted to push him off the engawa into the mud in the hopes that he'd come to recognize a scrap of reality for once in his life. (There's a story about a Zen master in Japan whose disciple asked a question and in answer, the master pushed him off the veranda of the zendo and into the mud after a rainstorm. The disciple gained enlightenment at that moment: "Mud is better than words." It may be a subtle thing, but it is very Zen.)

This scholar much beloved at the Zen center hosting this practice period went on and on using several trillions of words an hour and seemed to say... well, approximately nothing. The text of A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is not so much opaque as it is indirect as I alluded to in a previous post. This makes it useful to some, not so much to others, but not something that needs or benefits from having every jot and tittle dissected, examined, and then re-animated "correctly". But dude is a PhD scholar. In the academy, it's what they do, it's what they have to do to make a living. And then there will be endless arguments over what constitutes "correct." So on and so on and so forth and so forth, endlessly. But... but... dude reads and speaks Sanskrit; reads and speaks Pali. He knows whereof he speaks. And you, benighted ones, don't. 

Face it!

Well, by the end of his... talk... yes he did end it because he had to go on to another very important meeting... I was laughing so hard. I know it's bad. My whole reaction to this talk ran counter to our teachings of equanimity, charity and wisdom. Among other things. And not judging or bad mouthing another. But there I was, laughing my fool head off as he prattled endlessly and so many of the other participants (a number of whom are PhDs themselves) cooed and bowed before him. Not me. Nope.

So bad I was. And the more I held on to this reaction of mine, the more it seemed to eat at me. Why? I was outside doing some work-practice putting the side yard back together after a succession of wind-storms, and I was still thinking about this talk-waste-of-time, rolling it over and over in my mind, while I was supposed to be in Zen space doing the work that needed doing, and I sat down in a chair in the yard to catch my breath and practice zazen for a moment, pondering how stupid I was to hold onto, to be attached to my reaction to this Dharma talk, and almost immediately came the mantra:

All equally empty; all equally to be loved; all equally come a Buddha

It's obvious how spare and lean that is. It's very Zen. Also, words are left out and the mantra is a question, too... "all" what? for example. And for me, it is a nearly perfect distillation of the teachings over the ages, starting -- but not starting -- with the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha himself. It's like the whole of the rule and the law of the Bodhisattva way of life. Shantideva's instructions boil down to just about that. But sometimes it might take a whack over the head, a sudden toss into the mud, or a trillion words to get to that realization.

And with the mantra, my reaction was gone -- not gone, because I can still conjure it up as I had to do to write this. The point is, my reaction isn't in control of my mind any more. And that, dear friends, is what all of us are getting at one way or another in our Zen or other Buddhist practice.

May we live long enough to bring all beings to Awakening on the path to Buddhahood.






Monday, April 12, 2021

And So...

Round and round. The enso is the image of a usually incomplete circle rooted in the Zen conception of our path on earth. A Dharma Wheel of sorts, but not exactly. It doesn't have spokes. Just a void in the center and a circular path around it. And another void on the outside of the path.

 It's the image of the circle I've been going round for ages. I'm about to take another lap.

Study, yes much study this time around, and all of it, well almost all, reminds me of just how much study of the sutras and the Prajnaparamita I've already done. Is there anything I haven't already read? Any talk I haven't already heard? Any awakening I haven't already experienced?

Of course there are plenty of them. Oh, so many. But at some point the Zen master pushes the student off the veranda and into the mud. Mud is better than words. That's satori.

My study texts this practice period are growing in number. Good thing most of them are online and I don't have to carry around a rucksack full of books, which, back in the day, I basically did. There were so many books, so many sutras, so many commentaries on the sutras, so many practice manuals and so many commentaries on the practice of Zen, so many haiku expressing the essence of Zen, and on and on and on, words, words, words.

Texts:

Before I started this practice period, I read Big Sur by Jack Kerouac and saw the movie of the book several times. It's the somewhat fictionalized story of Jack's deterioration into alcoholism and madness after the success of On the Road. This bhikkhu, Jack, went to pieces. Success made him crazy. Or did it? 

The expectations that others placed on him because of his success with On the Road were closer to the source of his mental and physical collapse. But those expectations weren't exactly the reason why. 

Perhaps unknowingly, he'd created an image of himself in the book (On the Road) that was nothing (much) like him. In some strange reversal of roles, many people seemed to believe he, Jack, was like the character Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) which is just completely backwards. I didn't read On the Road back in the day; I can't say why. What I can say is that I purchased three Jack Kerouac novels one summer day in 1964 or 65 at Tower Books. They were: Dharma Bums, Big Sur, and Desolation Angels. 

Why those and not others? Who can say? By the mid-'60s, Kerouac had published a fairly large body of work, but I remember on the shelf at Tower there weren't that many of his books. It's possible only those were there at the time, though I imagine that as his most popular work, On the Road  was also there.

Whatever the case, I read -- no, I practically devoured -- Dharma Bums first. My god, what a story, what a tale, what astonishing journey, upanddown California, mountains, valleys and coastline, and back again. Scenes of endless parties in Bay Area shacks, Oakland, Berkeley, Marin. Trails to nowhere and the sea, mountain climbing in the highest high Sierras; tramping on freight trains to the moon.

Hiding out in a fire lookout shack in the Cascades, cruising through the Skid Row of Seattle. What a tale, what an amazing adventure. Throughout, Jack (called Ray) and Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder) commit Zen lunacy, practice Buddhism, become Bodhisattvas, and revel in their Awakenness and eccentricity. Wow. Where did this come from? Zen? What's Zen? I had only vague notions of Buddhism at the time, but Zen? Nah. Nothing. 

Practically everyone from that Beat era is dead now, but Gary Snyder is still alive, and supposedly he doesn't like being categorized as a Beat poet, though he is an acknowledged Zen Master. If it hadn't been for him, it's unlikely many of the Beat writers would have delved into Buddhism as deeply as they did.

But in my adolescence, none of this was known to me. I wanted to find out. What is Zen?

I started reading Big Sur and I stopped and didn't pick it up for a long time because it was tough, hard, hard, hard on the psyche and the emotions, and still there was Zen, which I realize now was what kept Jack from going completely over the edge at the time, but later it wouldn't/couldn't save him.

Finally, Desolation Angels: I may have got only five pages into it. It's something of a sequel/continuation/ expansion of Dharma Bums, focused on Jack's time at the fire lookout shack on Desolation Peak in Washington. I've figured out this was in 1955 or 56 (but I'm sure adepts know exactly when Jack went up to Desolation Peak). So it wasn't long before he hit it big in the literary firmament. Zen is not only still there, it is at the core of his being on top of the mountain.

So OK, I've said many times now how important Kerouac was to my interest in and discovery of Zen and the Bodhisattva Way and all that. 

For this practice period, Dharma Bums became one of my texts, and I finished re-reading it a couple of days ago. It's as inspirational, aspirational, and as moving now as it ever was back in the day. A Zen lunatic bhikkhu wandering, wandering and never quite finding what was already there. When I finished the book, I realized, perhaps for the first time, how closely my own wandering mirrored his. Perhaps it was for the same purpose. I don't know. 

Other texts: Shantideva's A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, the primary text assignment that we were given. I've read it in the Stephen Batchelor translation and listened to two versions in audiobooks. I had only read excerpts in the past, and having now read and heard the whole thing, I'm not sure it's particularly helpful. Setting aside the florid language, it seems to have been written to avoid the point rather than to make it. To hide it, if you will behind a screen of beautifully carved marble and gem encrusted draperies, Not unlike Indian architecture, often very beautiful but very concealing. And, too, it's not unlike the way I've experienced how East Indians avoid direct statements when speaking about pretty much anything, always curving around or sidling into whatever it is. Shantideva does that too, and for me, it's annoying and frustrating. But that's my Western mind putting up barriers.

When you can sit with two of my other texts this practice period, the Diamond Sutra, and The Platform Sutra, and be relieved by their utter simplicity and straightforwardness, Shantideva's indirection is perhaps unnecessarily burdensome. Although both sutras have extensive commentaries, you don't really need them to grasp the meaning of the texts. It's right there, unhidden, though complete understanding takes some effort. Both Sakyamuni (as the World Honored One in the Diamond Sutra) and Hui-neng (as The Master) in The Platform Sutra make it if not easy, at least comprehensible and direct. 

There are probably a dozen other Buddhist texts I'm using as guides and helps during this practice period, and I'll be meeting with another Dharma teacher later this week so there might be more texts added to the pile, but that's OK. Mud is still better than words, but the words are there -- and are still needed -- so long as we are thought-ruled creatures. 

Other realizations (satori): the sentient beings we as Bodhisattva vow to Awaken and liberate: nearly all of them are already Awakened and liberated. They can teach us, and many do if we pay attention. Those who aren't and need our help are becoming more and more difficult to reach. (I might expand on that another time.)

Another: Bodhisattva's deep compassion for all sentient beings is not fundamentally in the material world. It is a matter of mind-Awakening more than anything else, so that in many cases, Bodhisattva compassion, bodhicitta, doesn't involve physical charity or even concern for physical/emotional well-being at all. Satori:  I've been doing it wrong all these years. And I, praise be, am not the only one. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Buddhism Without Laughter is Like Revolution Without Dancing

So. 

Did my first "Practice Interview" yesterday with one of the Dharma teachers for this practice period. I told him he was the reason I was there because I'd listened to a podcast of a Dharma talk he did about a year and a half ago. The topic was the Diamond Sutra -- which I'd been googling for information -- and his talk had been enlightening partly for what wasn't said rather than what was directly stated. It wasn't a particularly organized talk, it was more spontaneous and was just what I needed at that moment. 

When I got an email about this practice period, I said to myself, "All right, why not? It's time." So here I am.

I told him the brief version of my many years of practice, how I came to the practice, where I was in the practice, and some of what I was gaining and hoped to gain from this practice period. We talked about Kerouac and Dharma Bums and I said that it was probably time for me to have a teacher and join an active sangha. He saw that it was probably so.

I asked how his mother was doing. It seemed to startle him. When the practice period began he said he'd just come back from Los Angeles where he'd been with his mother through surgery, and I'd thought about him and his mother from that point on. Even when you are detached in the Buddhist sense, the loss or well being of your mother and those closest to you is going to be felt. Compassion and concern and respect are called for from those who are aware.

He thanked me and said she was doing well, and I told him I was glad for that, and we moved on. 

He suggested I read the Platform Sutra if I hadn't already. Best, he thought, if I came to it fresh without advance conceptions or knowledge. If I hadn't read it before its effect would be greater.

So I'm reading it now, and it's fascinating. I didn't read it before. No. But I'd heard the story, it's often used as a metaphor. And much of the Dharma teaching is very familiar. For the most part, it is the Zen practice I've been engaged in for so many, many years. There are some gems, real gems that'd I'd missed, and I was delighted to find them in the Sutra.

He suggested I arrange for interviews with other Dharma teachers during the practice period as well, which I've done with one other so far. Slots fill quickly. 

We chatted some more and he said he'd like to take it up with me some more at another time, and I was agreeable, and after our time was up for this interview we bowed said goodbye for now. 

What was striking to me was that we laughed, genuinely, at our foibles among other things, and to me that is a core and necessary feature of Buddhism. For without laughter, what's the point, eh?

Without dancing, why bother with Revolution?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Zen Not Zen -- Another Approach

 I don't know what Zen is. It's a contradiction.


I'm becoming convinced that the Zen practice period I'm participating in is not all that Zen when you strip away some of the Japanese-ish names, robes, forms and rituals. It's more in the Tibetan tradition with a large helping of Western counseling and psychological conditioning thrown in. 

It'a a hell of a lot more complicated than Zen -- which I understand is a distillation of Mahayana Buddhism passed from  India through China to Japan and from there to the West where it has.... hmmm, mutated?

Tibetan Buddhism is more of an elaboration than a distillation of Mahayana Buddhism with some other elements added. 

In other words, Zen is lean, very lean.Tibetan Buddhism is not. And Mahayana, as it developed in India after Sakyamuni's Enlightenment and Buddhahood, is extremely complex to the point of nearly incomprehensibility to Westerners. As a side note, there are now proportionately more Buddhists in the United States than there are in India. Go figure. Oh, and about 3/4 of the US Buddhists are not Zen.

Zen practice in the context of this practice period is actually not that important to the program. One of the indications, for example, is the usual near-emptiness of the zendo during practice. I understand there are people sitting behind the camera, but we don't see them on the Zoom and don't know they're there unless they come forward to participate in formal ritual. Otherwise there may be no more than two or three people visible in the zendo during zazen. On occasion there's only been one.

There's been a big fall-off in zazen practice participation by those of us on Zoom, largely because, I think, there is little visible participation at the zendo. 

Sitting Zen is critically important; it's the key to the practice, and if it is not being done, as it appears it is not, at least by many of those participating in this practice period, then it's not Zen. Study is important, receiving teaching is important, samu (righteous community work) is important and all the forms and rituals are important, but none of it matters much if you're not sitting Zen. For it is through sitting Zen that you open up to the contradictions and the coherence of the practice and instruction as a whole and to the Bodhisattva way that is the purpose and practice you're bound for. 

I can't tell you how much of a difference my own sits have made in my ability to absorb and comprehend the teachings. Samu too. All of the Zen stuff is bringing me back to where I was in my practice before I "entered the void" -- which I will try to get into at some other point. 

I'm not terribly rigorous about sitting, but I do try to make at least three sits a day for varying lengths of time, and I witness nearly all the rituals, chants and liturgy. I was very moved by the Buddha Birthday ceremony the other day, as it was almost the first time Sakyamuni Buddha had made a physical/spiritual appearance in the zendo. And then as soon as the ceremony was over, he  was taken away. How transitory we all are!

I have not yet taken the four Bodhisattva Vows, and won't until I am ready. Which may or may not come by the end of this practice period. 

Our text is The Bodhisattva Way of Life by Shantideva, c. 800AD. I've read it in the Stephen Batchelor translation and listened to two other translation in audiobooks. Condensed, it's pretty straightforward about righteousness as a Bodhisattva or becoming a Bodhisattva in the material world. Which is one's purpose as a Mahayana Buddhist. 

Soto Zen which we are sort of practicing is Mahayana Buddhist, and Bodhisattva living is what the Zen practitioner is meant to do. Shantideva makes the argument for it in rather florid Old Indian style, but it is up to the lean Zen practitioner to do it. 

To do it and to fit the Bodhisattva way into a contemporary context is perhaps the central problem. In medieval Japan, that context was dominated by samurai and shoguns and whatnot. The life of the common people was largely devalued -- as was the case in India during Shantideva's time and during Sakyamuni Buddha's time as well. The Bodhisattva's way is intended as a means to convince primarily the aristocracy to be better toward all sentient beings, rabble in the streets included, than they were or than they necessarily wanted to be.

Of course we aren't living in Old India or medieval Japan. We live in a contemporary and often quite vile world of pandemics and exploitation to the point of ruin of the earth and the people in it, the collapse of reliable institutions and systems, and widespread grief and despair. The need for Bodhisattvas could hardly be greater,

A Zen approach would ordinarily be the simplest and most direct. But that's seemingly not the way this practice period is going about it. "Round about" is more like it. 

The Bodhisattva way is to deliver or "save" all sentient beings before the Bodhisattva achieves Buddhahood for him or her self. In other words to help and serve before being served. Many have expanded the call to save all sentient beings to include the Earth as a whole, sentient and non-sentient beings and all living beings together with the earth, the air, the water, and everything necessary for living beings on Earth.

That's a big task, an impossible task, but a Bodhisattva vows to do it to the best of his or her ability come what may.

And so here we are, Not-Zenning or Zenning our way to Bodhisattva-ing in the world as it is.

Bluntly --- and not boastfully --- I've been doing this for nearly all my life. At some point, I stopped regular sitting Zen practice (and I know when it was and to an extent why) but continued to live Zen and the Bodhisattva Way, as imperfectly as I did, whether I was sitting Zen or no.

Once you're in that space or frame of mind, you can't really stop. You'll continue to do it, no matter. 

But here I am nearly back to the beginning of my Zen practice, in a somewhat not-Zen context, relearning or learning for the first time some of the deeper meanings of the teachings.

Living as a proto-Bodhisattva without the vows and without a teacher has had its hazards and many missteps along the way. I know I'm not much longer for this world, but what time I have left is needed for that Bodhisattva task ahead.

How it will manifest remains to be seen.


Friday, April 9, 2021

Restoring Bodhicitta

So, like I said, I started Zen practice nearly 60 years ago, inspired by curiosity about it from reading Jack Kerouac's novels (I bought Dharma Bums, Big Sur, and Desolation Angels at Tower Books) one summer, either 1964 or 65, I forget which now, and looking around for some kind of information/insight to what this "Zen" might be. 

Realistically, there wasn't much information available back then. After all, there was no internet, no Google, no YouTube, no Zoom. no videos, no email. I could go to the library and seek out books, if there were any, or I could contact one of the few Zen centers then in the United States and hope to receive some information and enlightenment.

I don't remember the exact process I went through. If it was the summer of 1964, I didn't have a car and couldn't drive, so it was difficult for me to get around. In 1965, I did have a driver's licence and access to a car sometimes. I only had my own car the next year, 1966. What I remember doing is contacting the San Francisco Zen Center by letter, asking for information/guidance and receiving a booklet about Buddhism in more or less general layman terms, and some specific information about Zen practice and nice hand-written letter from somebody named Richard or Robert or something with an invitation to come to the Center for more direct experience. And don't hesitate to contact the Center if I had any questions.

I wrote back saying I was in high school and was not able to come to San Francisco on my own nor could I possibly live there. Was there a way for me to learn and practice Zen from a distance? Apart from actually being at the Center?

The answer came back yes. With provisos. I could learn the practice, ie: how to do it, and I could learn the precepts and vows, and the Life of Buddha, on my own with minimal instruction, as it was very simple just to sit in meditation (as it was referred to then), and as long as I could read and follow instructions I would at least be able to begin. But unless I was prepared for the rigors of Zen practice and unless I was guided by experienced teachers, the best I could do would be an initial and maybe momentary enlightenment, maybe not even that. Yet the sitting itself and the intention was often enough to spark a real difference in perception and life. Did I want to try?

I said yes. 

Instruction came via US Mail. Brief life of the Buddha. Precepts, vows, the Three Treasures, etc. And references to other books and works I was to seek out. But most important was to sit. Just sit.

And sit I did.

I set up a corner of my bedroom with a cushion on the floor, an Oriental scroll on the wall, and a footstool on which I placed some Chinese and Japanese knick-knacks we had in the house. The scroll, I think, came from a visit to Chinatown in San Francisco some years previously.

And I sat. Well, at first I tried to, but it was difficult. It was particularly difficult to master the right position and posture on the cushion. Wrestling with legs going every which way, sitting up straight without a back rest, wondering what to do with my hands, whether to have my eyes closed or open, and just taking the time to sit rather than not was a challenge. Letting thoughts come and go while sitting was a challenge. All of this was taking place without a teacher at hand, no guided meditation recordings, and in a somewhat chaotic home environment in the heat of a Sacramento summer without air conditioning, or if I remember correctly, without even a fan in my room. 

Let me tell you, this was not a project or practice for the faint hearted. 

After the initial challenges though, I found I was able to do at least one 20 minute sitting session every day. My intention was that these sits would lead to enlightenment. In the Buddhist sense. 

Which I didn't understand.

Oh my no. I had essentially no idea what this "Enlightenment" was supposed to be. And was "satori" the same thing? Yes, no, maybe? 

Yes, I experienced satori, or what I thought satori might be, sudden insight into the deeper nature of things that I hadn't realized before. But was this Enlightenment the way the Buddha was enlightened? I didn't think so, and it wasn't possible to find out. So I went with satori and didn't worry a whole lot about Enlightenment because it would come or not on its own. Right?

One of the precepts was that of regular practice, sitting without an end to be gained, just to sit and by sitting possibly clear your mind. The mind was both the enemy and the primary resource, necessary and deceptive. Deceptions and delusions arose in your mind and could only be tamed by training your mind to recognize the illusory nature of thoughts and the often destructive nature of emotions. 

You don't become enlightened by sitting in meditation (not referred to as meditation any more) but sitting can be a pathway toward enlightenment. It can help open the door as it were. Enlightenment comes on its own because in essence you're already enlightened, already a Buddha, you just don't know it. 

 And so on. 

The rigor of Zen comes from constant and consistent practice, study and work. Zen is simple but demanding. You can do it on your own, but it will be more difficult, at some points impossible without a teacher and sangha.

At the time, Zen was very strongly linked and tied to traditional Japanese culture, art and architecture. Zen Buddhism wasn't as widely practiced in Japan as Shinto and other forms of Buddhism, but it was perhaps the most influential practice because of its adoption by members of the Imperial Household and much of the Samurai class during the feudal period. It was still an important and influential Buddhist practice in Japan.

For me, learning Zen meant learning about and adopting portions of that Japanese cultural and artistic framework, the "style" if you will, which at the time was considered eccentric and exotic to many western eyes. 

So I did what I could to "be Japanese" but ultimately understood that the style was perhaps the least of the Zen characteristics. 

Neither Zen nor any other Buddhist practice was widely known in the United States at the time, and Zen being the practice of the upper classes and elites it was perhaps the least known because most of the immigrants from Japan were not Samurai, were not of the highest rank, were not royal. Far from it. Most did not bring Zen with them, and most did not adopt it once they were in the United States.

What appealed to me about Zen was not any of that, any of the deeper social significance of Zen and Zen practice, or anything about social stratification in medieval Japan. It was, perhaps in the back of my mind, but not paramount. No, what I was looking for and what I saw in Zen early on was a spiritual means to "calm my mind." Given largely chaotic adolescence and home life, I saw Zen as a practical and spiritual means to shut it down, withdraw, and restore or come to an Awakened Mind -- Bodhicitta (not, however, knowing what that meant.) 

At the lowest level, it worked. Almost like magic. A Zen master would say that was a sign of danger. That I was probably straying too far from the Dharma Path. But that, in a sense, heading off in whatever direction I found was what I needed to do. 

The Buddha was within me, the Dharma was me, the Sangha was with whomever I found on the Dharma Path even if they didn't know it.

And so, close to 60 years later, I'm back near the beginning of that journey. 

Not starting over but renewing. Restoring. Re-committing. 



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Soooo.....

Nearly every Buddhist teacher I've ever seen or listened to starts most talks with the extended "Sooooo...." often followed by a long pause before offering something along the lines of a koan, a puzzling but universal truth, or contrary-wise, a generous welcome and asking for a count of one sort or another. "How many of you have done X, Y, or Z? Hands?" Usually all three in sequence.

This is standard. It's what you do when sitting on the raised cushion before an assembly of disciples and students. "Soooo........" Even the Dalai Lama does this. Or even especially he does it...

We've been studying the Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life which I recall reading some excerpts from many years ago, but I had never read the whole thing, and now that I have, I understand why it was excerped rather than presented whole back in the day. Shantideva wrote in the 800s AD in India, and his audience was pretty clearly other privileged princelings of the region and era like his former self. He wasn't writing for the rabble in the streets -- who couldn't read anyway, so what would be the point, right?

So when we approach this work, we're approaching as if he'd written it for us -- we, the equivalent of the street rabble yet we who believe we are as high and mighty as the princelings of Old India -- when he didn't. I'm struck by how often Shantideva lards his work with line after line of praise and flattery and images of showers of gold and jewels and scented waters that would appeal to the vanity and pecuniary interest of the princes and kings of yore. For us today, this is nonsense, this is bullshit. Manjushri Bodhisattva would cut through all the not necessary bullshit, no? Yet line after line, there goes Shantideva again. What is he doing?

In a flash of insight (sometimes called satori, but maybe it wasn't) it occurred to me he was trying his best to appeal those myriad princes, kings and potentates of Old India and convince them to be better, behave better toward that rabble, themselves and one another and learn to act in the Bodhisattva Way, the way of compassion for all sentient beings (and later, for some, non-sentient and non-beings) and the way of complete dedication to bodhicitta -- bringing enlightenment and end to suffering for all beings and the whole wide world. The basis of Mahayana Buddhism of which Zen claims to be a part.

Shantideva was trying to argue, persuade, and cajole his peers to be better, show themselves as better than they had been, to learn, grow, and unselfishly give and be bodhisattvas themselves.

We are not his peers. This does not diminish his teaching or argument in any way. What it means is that our approach to the Bodhisattva Way of Life must be from a different direction. Most of us are not in charge of much of anything. Few of us have power over many others. For the most part we do not determine conditions of life or death for someone else. Therefore we do not live the lives of princes and potentates -- though our egos may tell us otherwise (smile emoji).

So how should we approach it? What does bodhicitta mean from the bottom up rather than the other way around? What does it mean to bring enlightenment and an end to suffering for all beings when you're not a prince or king or potentate -- and you don't have the power to do it?

So what do you do when you're functionally powerless even over most aspects of your own life, yet you are called upon to adopt the Bodhisattva Way and act on bodhicitta on behalf of everyone and the whole globe?

Especially what do you do when your betters, if you want to call them that, those who do have power and responsibility, act as if they don't. And in many cases behave worse than the worst of the potentates of old?

This is a consideration that I have yet to see enter into this practice period or indeed into much of Zen practice at all. Often enough, even Sakyamuni Buddha doesn't enter into it, either. The Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are usually everywhere. Oft-times I wonder if I'm practicing Buddhism without Buddha. Or rather All-Buddhas/No-Buddha. (When someone asks me, "What is Zen?" I might say, "I don't know what Zen is. It's a contradiction.")

The class issue, I think, is important, and it runs through Buddhism and every branch of Buddhism from the outset, though often it's ignored today. Or rather it is pretended not to matter. 

After all, Sakyamuni Buddha was a prince, groomed to be king. His rivals and most of his followers were of the ruling class of his time and place as well; according to tradition, he learned from and opposed the Brahmans of his era (though others contend there was no such class in those days).  He may have wanted Enlightenment to be shared by all, and he may have sometimes been seen among the Lesser Orders, but he was not one of them, nor were most of his followers. They were aristocrats. 

Shantideva's situation parallels the Buddha's. He lived many hundreds of years after the Buddha and in a different part of India, but he, too, was a prince groomed to be king who renounced his titles and temporal authority to become a mendicant monk like the Buddha. He wrote extensively, which the Buddha (apparently) did not. He wrote what look like appeals to his aristocratic peers to become Bodhisattvas, Awakened Minds and Hearts, compassionate toward all beings. On the way to Buddhahood.

"All equally empty; all equally to be loved; all equally come a Buddha." The prayer given by Jack Kerouac to Gary Snyder as recorded fictionally in "Dharma Bums" (1958).

That is as concise a distillation of the Bodhisattva Way as I've seen. 

Sakyamuni and Shantideva were arguing strenuously for their aristocratic class to be better, to become bodhisattvas and act with humility and compassion toward "all sentient beings" which includes the rabble in the streets, but except in the abstract, do not become "of" them. The abstract being the realization that all are equal because all are One-NotOne.

And I look around at the others I am among in the Zoom practice period and I see that the vast majority are professional women of a certain age, mostly in the helping/caring professions, and, from what I've seen over time, that is the class (if you will) that this center focuses on. They are the ones to be reached and persuaded to be like bodhisattvas. To follow the Bodhisattva Way and become Buddhas.

They aren't aristocrats in the sense of having much temporal power in the political sense. But actually, they do have a lot of power, indeed power of life and death if they want to use it, in their capacity as healthcare professionals. 

And as I have listened to them talk in Enso meetings, oh, do I hear the same arguments over and over, the same woe is me, the same lack of understanding or rather lack of Enlightenment when they argue with themselves and their beliefs too much. Roshi advises "Don't overthink it..." but I'm not sure that's heard. Or if it's heard, it's not understood, not yet. For the rational argument is often a refuge when the Three Gems aren't enough. 

In my early practice days, I was instructed those precepts ("Buddam saranam gacchami, Dhanam saranam gacchami, Sangam saranam gacchami," or "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha") could be interpreted this way: "The Buddha is within you, the Dharma is you, the Sangha is with anyone you find on the Dharma Path, even if they don't know it."

For me, much of this is old hat. I learned a great deal -- sometimes unknowingly -- as a wandering bhikkhu for so many years. Some of the people in this practice period have long experience practicing zazen -- one of the teachers said she was taught zazen practice at the Berkeley Zen Center in 1971 when she was 19. And she's been doing it ever since. 

Another has talked about her experience at the San Francisco Zen Center beginning shortly after Suzuki Roshi died, also in 1971 I believe.

I go back before that, 1964-65, also through contact with the San Francisco Zen Center, but not through physical presence at the SFZC. No. Even when I lived in San Francisco, I chose not to visit the Center, in fact, I consciously stayed away, though I continued to practice. It had become a very fashionable and "hip" religious institution in the city, as had at the time the People's Temple and other New Age, New Consciousness institutions of Spiritual Growth and Perpetual Development (yada yada.) I saw them all as money-making businesses, some of them outright scams. Cynical, I know. But something had really changed from the early days, pre-hippie, pre-New Age, etc. of Zen in San Francisco and what it became and what it was by the mid-70s when I lived there. It had become so fashionable that people jockeyed to sit zazen at the new location because, you know what, they might be sitting next to someone famous! Damn, at the time, I was working with famous people every day, and I was not inclined to sit with them in the zendo.

So I continued regular practice on my own until I left San Francisco just before the People's Temple disaster.

Then I continued wandering and intermittent practice. Satori. Another instance of sudden "enlightenment:" I realized why I stopped regular practice once I moved out of San Francisco and went roaming all over the country. A long strange trip.

Which is off track and not the subject of these posts... (wide grin emoji)