practice where you are – rohatsu, gr’kid & Rafe Martin’s Endless Path

A confluence of events that appear to cancel each other out has left me with a bit of a mash up post. Frank & I are in an Advent pattern awaiting the arrival of our first Grandchild, nominally referred to as The Gr’Kid, Child of The Kid. I suppose that makes us Gr’Pa & Gr’Ma and you psycho-analytic folks can tell me why I refrain from the prefix “Grand.”  Likely “Grand” is quite the misleading handle because my Grandiosity in asking that this child not arrive at a time that disrupted my plans for Summer Practice Ango and Rohatsu were resolutely ignored.

It’s an interesting time, this blossoming of a branch in the ancestral tree. Becoming part of the Elders, adding to the Ancestral Lineage is not quite what I thought I’d be doing at this age and stage. Then again I have no idea what I thought I’d be doing other than continuing to make a delicious mess of my life. And that, my friends, is practice. When it can be done by the book, it’s luxurious. It’s a definite luxury to have a dedicated time to get away and hunker down with like-minded souls for this very special time of the year. I’ve always treasured it. But who knows, given all the special birthdays to come with the Gr-Kid, when I may return to that orbit of sitting with a large sangha, leaning into the rising of the morning star. Time to get creative!

rohatsu1As I write this, I’m sitting cross-legged on a double-bed in a hotel just outside a military base where I will spend this next week working. Across from me, between the TV and the fridge, is a small space in which I’ve placed my zafu on the strip of blanket hotels now use to decorate the beds. There is oatmeal and green tea on the counter. The fridge is filled with food for the week: lunches of couscous and orzo spiced with chorizo-flavoured ground soy. Dinner is set up: veggie biriyani and veggie vindaloo. Keep it simple. No one ever died from eating the same thing everyday for 6 days. (Though my dear friend Barry of Ox Herding had a different story involving lentils on his 100-day solitary retreat!) I’ll be offline from social media and as much as possible off emails. At work, speech and activities will be kept functional (pleasantly so). Meditations are scheduled three times a day or more.

And now, the teachings. The coming of the Gr’Kid opens up a need for stories and my story-telling skills. No, not the story-telling that gets me deluded about my path and practice. The other kind. The kind of story-telling that opens the heart and enlivens the senses. For that we go to Rafe Martin’s Endless Path: Awakening within the Buddhist imagination: Jataka tales, Zen practice, and daily life. How appropriate!

Endless Path is a collection of “original tellings” of the Jataka tales with this compilation reflecting the ten paramitas. This is particularly interesting for me (Gr’Kid notwithstanding) as I was simultaneously slogging through Gombrich’s What the Buddha Thought and his proposal that the Buddha ethicized practice (actually he ethicized karma but practice is karma and vice versa). Rafe Martin is an exquisite story-teller, not only for his transmission of the story itself but for his magical ability to turn us into the storyline. There is no getting away from the ethics that underpin each Jataka tale. And, the amazing artwork by Richard Wehrman is captivating and fires the imagination (also check out Richard’s poetry!).

The first tale is “The Hungry Tigress” and tells of the Buddha’s early incarnation in which he offers himself up to the starving tigress so that her cubs may live. An act of generosity, of selfless giving – dana paramita. Martin’s commentary follows each luscious telling of a Jataka tale. He reaches into a long history of Zen teachings, koans, relationships with his own teachers, and his own practice to draw out the juice of each story. His writing flows like a teisho (some are), it collects in eddies of insights from this experience and then breaks out over that experience. Each chapter, each paramita is a contemplation.

Of course, I have my favourites. The Gentle Heart Jataka taught me aspects of sila (ethics) and informed a talk I gave to our sangha. The Blue Bear Jataka came at just the right time when I needed reminding of forbearance.  Prince Five-Weapons made me laugh out loud (in Starbucks) but I wasn’t too impressed with his stubbornness in defeating the Sticky Hair Monster; maybe I over-identified with him. The Black Hound taught me Upaya or skillful means but I wasn’t too sure how well I’d be greeted threatening to set the pups loose on a village if they didn’t shape up; somehow a bit of street cred would be missing. The Monkey King, Great Joy the Ox, and others gave me cause to re-perceive my practices. Martin’s commentaries offered ways in which that practice could happen anywhere, anytime.

But most of all, what Endless Path teaches is that all the paramitas are but one: dana paramita. We practice to embody dana, to give freely of our time, effort, energy, patience, and love.

So I ask you to take this week, this time that is a time for ripening our practice. Sit where and as you can. Sit even when it seems impossible – because that’s just a story of why we sit. And I’ll see you all on the other side of the rising morning star.

master the 24 hours

Counting the strikes on the han - 7-5-3, 5-3, 3

From Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield, p 72

“As Gary Snyder says,

All of us are apprentices to the same teacher that all masters have worked with – reality.  Reality says: Master the twenty-four hours.  Do it well without self-pity.  It is as hard to get children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha Hall on a cold morning.  One is not better than the other.  Each can be quite boring.  They both have the virtuous quality of repetition.  Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms: changing the car filters, wiping noses, going to meetings, sitting in meditation, picking up around the house, washing the dishes, checking the dipstick.  Don’t let yourself think that one or more of these distracts you from the serious pursuits.  Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties to escape so that we may do our practice that will put us on the path.  It IS our path.”

the work of practice

Standing at the han every morning of Rohatsu was a practice of noting the preferential mind.  This is a North-facing door and when one side was open the wind ripped through the little room.  Thankfully, I was protected by the door directly in front which kept the wind from blowing onto me.  I’m not sure I really noticed the cold anyway; I was so focused on the sequence and timing of the strikes that a troop of marauding yeti would have got pass me.  One morning, one of the teachers came by and gently closed the door  saying, “It doesn’t have to be open all the way in this cold.  It’s too cold for you.”  I bowed gratefully and stood there as the wind bounced off the door and funneled directly onto me.  Good intentions.  I did open the door fully when the teacher left and later we had a good laugh about helping hands.

Kornfield explains in Bringing Home the Dharma that we can get stuck on the pleasant aspects of our experience.  Freedom only comes when we fully experience and then release whatever is present, “no matter how beautiful or how painful.”

As we stay present with mindful and wise attention, we notice three things will happen to our experience: it will go away, it will stay the same for a while, or it will get more intense.  Which of these occurs is none (of) our business! Our job is to allow the experience of the phenomenal world to unfold in all its infinite richness — to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, to rest in mindfulness and freedom at the center of it all.  (pp. 88-89)

This is really helpful, when I’m stuck in these awkward or painful experiences, to know that the shifting is not my job.  Or more correctly, preventing the shift is not in my job description.  Staying present to it is, and while you may wonder at the wisdom of standing in a North wind, being present allowed me to “think” calmly and act skillfully.  A rare moment, I’m sure will not shake up the universe too soon again.  But seriously, my other bag of tricks is to get angry or frustrated or to wish everyone could see how much I’m suffering and for them to launch a rescue effort.  It was just so much easier to note that the teacher was trying to help and that I could simply open the door again – close it fully.

Choices.  Just a quiet way of not giving away my power.

enter the rhino

We’re back with the rhinoceros-horn fan.  The fan in the picture is special; it is dyed peacock feathers and was my grandmother’s.  That’s the story anyway though I have serious doubts about the material.  The feathers are lush and I recall drawing the tip of the fan over my face, relishing the soft tingle.  In my grandmother’s hands, the fan was a material expression of her moods.  By turns, it would project coyness, affect joy, arrogantly dismiss, or capriciously summon.  The fan was special and she believed that by extension she was too.  I, as a child on the other hand, only worried about the butt-naked peacocks running around in the jungles.

One of the learned men in Yen Kuan’s presence, upon hearing Yen Kuan’s call for the rhino, said, “The rhino is still there.”

Hsueh Tou’s prodding is fascinating; he reminds us that the rhino is right there in the room.  The horn, cut away from the animal, is no less a rhino than the beast itself intact with horn.  But we are so very willing to cleave things off and pretend that cutting away generates a whole new thing, separate and unique to itself.  In fact, it’s this very willingness to cleave off things we deem as special that has resulted in the extinction of the Northern white rhino and the Western black rhino.  Soon I suspect we can add polar bears, frogs, sharks, seals, elephants, bears, lions and tigers – oh my!

It happens in relationships too.  I enshrine those parts of my relationships that I declare special.  By that I mean those parts that declare ME special.  Like my grandmother’s peacock fan, these disembodied chunks of interactions serve to draw people closer, hold them in some purgatory, or (and?) dismiss them with a flick of a wrist.  And it’s all enabled by a deeper delusion that these portions of my relationship have nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood, heart-and-soul sentient being in whose true presence they were born.

I wonder what would happen if the rhino entered the room.  What might happen if we were able to see the whole being, the entire gnarly, smelly, grumbly beast?  The whole body crevassed by skin, hair spiking out of pores, stinking of  life and death.  Would Yen Kuan look into the eye of the rhino and see the unreality of his fan?  If we bring the whole smelly mess of our lives into the room and look into its eyes, would we too see the uselessness of the bits and pieces we hacked off to prove our worthiness?

Roshi Enkyo said in dokusan that shikantaza is the most difficult practice.  I took away the understanding that it is an unrelenting awareness of the entirety of my life moment-by-moment, not just those moments on the cushion.  It is the whole rhino lumbering kinhin through the halls and rooms of my being, leaving behind it a trail of poop and pee.

Not a comfortable thought.  But it beats visions of all those butt-naked peacocks in the jungle.

bring me the rhino virus

Yen Kuan called to his attendant, “Bring me my rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”

Yen Kuan said, “If the fan is broken, bring the rhinoceros back to me.”

The attendant had no reply.

I brought you back the rhinoceros from Rohatsu.  Interesting creature, isn’t he?  As you know, I’m a koan study drop-out however, lately, these little blithers keep creeping into my field of practice.  This one became quite the insistent bug during Rohatsu, likely riding in on the back of the other bug – the flu.

But first, let’s look at Yen Kuan and his fan.   In the various renditions of this koan, he sounds to varying degrees, insistent, petulant, dismissing.  Perhaps my experience was coloured by the air burbling up into my snot-filled nostrils because to me, he seemed to be testing his poor attendant as much as all the various practices of trying to sit Rohatsu with a cold and fever were testing mine.  Yen Kuan seems to be asking his attendant: Well?  What have you created that is refined and special out of all this practice with me?  Show me!  Bring it here!

I felt like that in dokusan.  What is your practice, Genju?   How is your practice going, Genju?  Questions like that get me focused on the cushion-life of practice.  That’s the jewel for most of us, I think.  The hours spent following the breath, letting thoughts come and go.  Butt to zafu is surely proof of our dedication to this path!  It certainly can be and it is so much more heightened in times like a sesshin when we are called upon to exert all that physical presence for hours and hours.  And I have.  Until this one where the chills, low-grade fever, sprained knee and other aches and pains brought me face-to-face to a very quiet phobia I’ve nursed all my life.

The attendant says the fan is broken.  What is he saying?  I’ve tried to shape a practice, master, but it hasn’t worked?  That thing you think is special just isn’t.  It doesn’t always work; it isn’t always of service to me or to the numberless creations I am trying to free.  I’m lost.  I don’t get it.  But Yen Kuan is merciless.  None of this backing out and running away, whining and whingeing about your problems!  Get back to the raw materials.  Bring me back the rhinoceros.   We’ll start over with the raw materials of your life.

The days were exhausting, not only because my system was struggling with several challenges but there was no way to replenish.  I watched hot oatmeal served into the Buddha bowl during oryoki congeal into a cool mass as we waited for the entire hall to be served and then bowed and chanted before eating.  It was vaguely manageable until I watched the hot polenta with cheese harden to a sticky mess that only reluctantly gave way to the edge of my spoon.  Then the fan broke.

I have no fear of dying.  In fact, my life has been so rich being filled with the gifts of so many beloved ones that should I drop right now on the next keystroke, I would be just fine with it.  Being ill, however, is altogether another issue.  Ill, alone, isolated from all that sustains me.  That’s a brokenness, the fear of which, I have never been able to bear in thought or action.  For years, I watched my grandmother – and now my mother – deteriorate in their health, dying neuron by neuron.  My father, over eight years, succumbed to one cancerous virus after another.  Ironically, in Burma all three lived in terror of contracting and dying from even a simple cold.  I was imbued with a psycho-genetic anxiety of getting sick and I thought I had overcome it with all my practice on the impermanence of life.  Yet, there I was, feeling broken and facing the choice of giving up or giving in.

In dokusan, Roshi Joan said, rest deeply.  Roshi Enkyo encouraged me to dive into the cold because I was the only one who could truly experience it completely.  To me, they were asking: what have you crafted from this life of practice that sustains you?  I struggled with the confusion of knowing this was not fatal, that nothing was permanent and wanting this fatiguing series of hacking coughs and snotty-sounding blowing of my nose to go away.  What was I missing in my practice that this situation had become so complicated in my mind?  I watched myself rise at 5 o’clock every morning.  Wash.  Dress.  Walk to the genkan and prepare to sound the han.  Despite the foggy thinking and the open door facing a brutal North wind, I managed to keep steady the pace and rhythm of the striker on the wood slab for the 15 minutes of gathering everyone into the zendo.  No two rounds were the same and the weak strikes, I realized, were like the brush strokes of the enso, irretrievably broken.

And suddenly, I realized my health insofar as I ever believed I had health, has always been broken.  Chicken pox, measles, colds, flu, fevers, sprains, and a myriad of arrows have struck this body.  Fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue have all cracked and fissured this panel I thought I was keeping whole and unblemished.  I didn’t have to worry that the fan might break; it already was broken.  Perhaps Yen Kuan’s attendant had this realization too.  It is the nature of fans to break.  (I think that rascal Yen Kuan knew this all along and was messing with our minds!)  

Yet, despite its brokenness, we have found some usefulness in it.  Or we might have begun again and again with the raw materials of our life to craft another and another.  And those too have broken because that is the nature of all things.  So I said to my fear-filled attendant, Bring me the rhino virus!  We will work with it, craft another practice of fearlessness from it!

But there’s more than just an individual process pointed to in this koan.  Yen Kuan says, Then bring me back the rhinoceros.  He didn’t say, Well, go out and get another beast and start over!  Asking his attendant to bring him back the rhinoceros might suggest they will work on it together.  Koans, after all, are relational; they point to what transpires in the space between you and me, all the roshis and their students, Yen Kuan and his attendant.  Between me and all the 10, 000-armed bodhisattvas who held and carried me through the week.

You can fit a nice-sized rhino in that space.

Later this week:  Another take on the rhino

getting my bearings


Tonight Rohatsu retreat begins and for the next 7 days we will sit, eat, work, and sleep in this container of practice. At the literal level, Rohatsu is the period of days leading up to the day we commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment – the moment he saw the star at dawn. It is also quite literally 7 days of practice (although ro-hatsu means literally 8th day of 12th month in Japanese).  Just seven days, no different from any other 7 days in our lives. Being that, even Rohatsu, for all its rituals and ceremony, can become just another seven days unless we set our compass to that morning star.

As an act of boundless compassion, Rohatsu is a period during which we willingly cleave off from our regular schedule, our routine of sliding in and out of autopilot. It’s like Hui’ke slicing off his arm to prove his devotion to the dharma – and I suppose to Bodhidharma too. As apocryphal as that story may be, it does point us to the level of devotion necessary to nourish a deep and steady practice. Rohatsu reminds us of other forms of slicing away as well. We, can without ever leaving the comfort of our shelter and relationships, slice away our smallness, our meanness, our dark projections onto the world that persists in disappointing us. We can choose to slice away metaphoric hearts and lungs so that those we love can love and breathe too. (And sometimes, those slicings away are quite real too.)

So wherever you are over the next 7 days, set your compass, fire up that GPS, drag out the old, neglected maps of your life and join me. Let’s set our course together so that whatever storms arise, whatever heart-opening sunrises and sunsets we encounter, we met them together as an interconnected net of beings whose only purpose is to practice relentlessly.

rohatsu highlights 3: raising the net

When you lift a net, notice how the holes come up with it.

This one has been bouncing around my head for a few weeks.  I can’t find it on the dharma talks and can’t recall the context.  But it doesn’t matter, I suppose.  Rohatsu is a blur of transitions and I had entered it with the intention of simply moving in and out of the spaciousness that is created in retreat.  Time/space is a challenge in my life, as is geographic/space.  Just before writing this post, I was on the phone with a manager in a police agency and chatting about the various things we will be working on together.  She commented that my schedule sounded intensely busy, to which I chuckled and said I was worried that I didn’t find it so.  “What’s your secret!” she laughed.  Lift the net; the holes come up with it.

It’s not really that conscious though.  For the most part, I tend to thrash around in the net strings, caught in the structure and concepts of my work and practice.  Once in a while when I lose my balance, I fall into the space between the strands.  Hardly a conscientious, intentional practice.  And that’s fine because it’s in the accidental revelations that opportunity for transformation arises.

So in this season of transitions from dark to light, from holding to releasing, from calm to chaos, I wonder if we can lift this net and fall together into the spaciousness that is always and already waiting for us.

Thank you for practising,