start with the seed

 “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

Leonard Cohen – prelude to Ain’t No Cure for Love, Live in London Disc I

There was a time during which I woke up every morning, and in that waking felt intense anger that I had woken up. Physically and mentally, that is. Not deeply in any sense of the word. Woken up to the reality that I had not died in the night – quietly, softly, without fanfare. When people ask me if meditation has helped or why they should practice mindfulness (secular, therapeutic or otherwise), I veer away from this story because it’s just not that believable. What can I say to them? “Oh well, I felt profoundly suicidal all my life until one day I didn’t. Gee, I think that was the meditation! Well, it could have been psychotherapy but heck, the therapist had transference/attachment issues which really sank that ship.”

Let’s face it, friends. We all know our share of dharma teachers and longtime practitioners with serious Icky Disorders that we should be careful about assuming meditation/mindfulness is sufficient for insight and transformation. I’ll leave this here for the moment. Let’s go back to a time before pandemics and mindfulness wars.

The last few years have been a heady journey into the bowels of the many worlds of mindfulness. I mean that deliberately to point to the challenges of taking a path without a clarity of intention and insight to the consequences of our actions. Shit can happen and does. And the mindfulness worlds are no different in containing the good, bad, and ugly. More than that, I discovered it is a landscape in which the good needs the the bad and ugly in order to germinate, sprout, and bear fruit. I’m not naive – being a survivor of decades of throat-cutting academic studies, employment in highly competitive venues, and just plain dealing with toxic family issues. And yet. And yet, I fell into the hell realms with an ease that was impressive!

Good things happened though. I think – I’m told – our work made a contribution to setting a course towards the role and importance of sila in teaching mindfulness. More than that, thanks to the evolving conversations around intersectionality, uncovering our biases, and decolonizing our perspectives, the zeitgeist of mindfulness now seems to curve our life towards compassionate care for each other. The core intention of mindfulness is the arc of opening our heart/mind and with that we can let go of the dualistic discussions of mindfulness.

But… there is still the issue of practice and transformation. Practicing good intentions is not sufficient for cultivating wisdom and insight. Our transformation is firmly rooted in our ability to feel the consequences of our action. As skillful as we may believe we are, the fruit of our action informs us of our skillfulness – and the honesty of our intentions. Our willingness to experience the bitter taste of (hopefully unintended) consequences or the sweetness of wholesome outcomes is the teaching, is karma. It fuels our willingness to change our actions, evolve through the lessons of experiential consequences, and learn the nuances of being blameworthy.

Because each of you has his or her own death, you carry it with you in a secret place from the moment you’re born, it belongs to you and you belong to it.

Jose Saramago, Death with Interruptions

Now let’s return to those waking moments when I felt betrayed by Death. Honestly, to hope that death would be an extension of falling asleep is a misunderstanding of responsibility and a vast ignorance of belongingness. This sense that my practice was in cultivating belongingness wasn’t some great insight or a jolt of connection. In fact, it arose from the pain of all the not-belonging I felt day by day, moment-by-moment. As our dear Leonard Cohen did, I tried everything – meditation groups, sanghas, sesshins, dokusans, mindful self-compassion, teaching, reading, learning, writing, and way too many talks. Through all the disappointments, it came back to practice.

Practice – call it meditation, zazen, koans, what have you – has been a continuous thread of saying mu, no, neti-neti, slowly eroding away that craving to belong to be proven worthy of the tribe. And slowly, slowly “cheerfulness” kept surprising me. One morning I woke up, not just literally and caught my breath in the silence, in the empty space when anger had been. One day, I felt the gut punch of someone saying to me, “It hurts when I hurt myself.” One night, I fell asleep without expectations of living or dying.

There’s no magic in practice or prostrations. There’s only the embodied feeling of the consequences when they don’t align with my intentions to be kind, supportive, compassionate, caring, loving. Therein is the seed of liberation and the transformation of our unskillfulness.

I’ve missed you all. Thank you for being here waiting.

For an incredible ride into the world of transformation and insight, give C.W. Huntington’s powerful novel Maya a whirl.

Genju

Book Review: Grass Flute Master Yokoyama & the fragrance that spread a thousand ri

I saw zazen as a posture bestowed upon me by the Buddha
Sodo Yokoyama

The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama is a long-awaited work by American author and translator, Arthur Braverman. Epitomizing the essentialist philosophy of Zen, Yokoyama is known for his ascetic life, living in a bamboo grove of Kaikoen Park in Komoro City, Japan, writing calligraphic teachings for any passerby who wanted to receive them. Braverman wrote of his connection to Yokoyama in 2005 and the undertones of his longing to pass on the ineffable beauty of Yokoyama’s life are compelling.

“I sit here every day with the exception of three, when I go to Antaiji in Kyoto for my teacher’s memorial ceremony,” he told me when I visited him at the park some thirty years ago, and he added, “It’s an easy life.” I never forgot that “It’s an easy life.” His zazen was “easy” because he left everything to the posture. He said, “Zazen is an ordinary person as he always is, becoming a buddha.” (Lion’s Roar, July 1, 2005)

Later Braverman’s interview with Yokoyama’s only student Jôkô Shibata offered further insight into his diligent if austere practice.

Antaiji, a small temple in the northeast corner of Kyoto, was under the charge of Uchiyama Kôshô Roshi, a long time disciple and dharma heir of Sawaki Roshi, when Jôkô joined the practice there. He had read Uchiyama’s first book and decided to become a monk and study under the master. Yokoyama Roshi had lived together with his younger brother disciple Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji for eight years and then in 1957 moved to Komoro. He visited Antaiji once a year from then on for the memorial celebration for Sawaki Roshi. It was during one of these visits that Jôkô met his future teacher for the first time. ‘I saw my teacher in zazen posture,’ he said, ‘and made up my mind immediately to study under him.’ (from: Hey Bro! Can You Spare Some Change)

Yokoyama appears to have this effect as both Braverman and Shibata feel drawn to him because of the utter simplicity of his life. I wrote about this attraction in a review of The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications).

Yokoyama and (his teacher) Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies. (108 Zen Books, June 17, 2015)

Braverman’s book begins his arranged meeting with Shibata in Komoro City and in good zen style, he begins with the waiting. Waiting for his order of noodles as he waits for Jôkô. Waiting for the memories to flow in their typical unordered way, waiting for pockets of sensibility to fall into. Waiting for a teacher is the underlying theme, running parallel with the searching and the longing. In Braverman’s words there is a longing to understand – how was Yokoyama influenced by his own teachers, by artists and poets of his time – and to understand only that the wanting is neither sufficient nor satisfactory. However, the side trips to the poet Toson and the various people who populate the surroundings of Kaikoen Park give life to the container in which Yokoyama lived his practice, literally outside in the park and outside of the institutions of Zen. In that, Yokoyama is not different from his teacher, “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki and other lineage teachers Hakuin and Bankei. For them, the marrow of practice is the only requirement for living. Braverman writes:

Truly creative teachers can do nothing else. So it was with other great teachers like Hakuin and Bankei, to name two from the other major Zen sect in Japan. What eventually happens, once institutions are formed to follow the ways of these masters, is a slow decline of the original spirit and a dependence on forms and dogmas that water down the true teaching of the founders (p. 39).

The Grass Flute Zen Master is a slowly winding journey through Braverman’s connections and memories of Yokoyama, interspersed with his views of Zen. However, the heart of the book is in his reproductions and exploration of Yokoyama’s waka.

Years ago
meditating in the mountains
a pheasant appeared
and stared
at my zazen.
p. 83

Braverman notes that “my”, being assumed in the Japanese version, is an insertion for (Western) clarity. I wondered if that is the subtle cause of the myriad problems Western Buddhism has.

Yokoyama also brushed poems for his dharma brother, Kosho Uchiyama, a poignant humbling of what he may have felt were his shortcomings

Mother and Father
Brothers and Sisters 
Forgive me
A child without a home

More than mother
More than father
More than brothers and sisters
I love the mountains and rivers
How pitiful!
p. 85-86

Still, the question Braverman takes us to, the question that hangs over all our heads as we sit zazen in all our postures, is perhaps the heart of practice: Why bother? What does a homeless monk, an itinerant teacher in a park, a wandering mendicant contribute? It is reassuring to see the answer is no different from Bodhidharma’s to the Emperor: No merit.

And yet… there is a fragrance that spreads a thousand ri – everywhere.

Zazen is becoming a Buddha while you are a deluded person.
Sodo Yokoyama