Friday, October 26, 2012

The Path Has Its Own Intelligence

I've been reading David Chadwick's Thank You and OK!, An American Zen Failure in Japan. Chadwick was a close student to Suzuki Roshi, and after his teacher's death, he wrote the wonderful biography Crooked Cucumber. Anyway, I came upon this wonderful quote which is for me a perfect description about what Zazen is about. An unusual description for sure, but one which ties together the history of our practice to the ongoing history of humanity. 

Hunter from the Lascaux Caves in Southern France

Sitting zazen for hours a day may seem like a lot of nothing when there’s so much to do, but it’s the Buddhist treasure hunt and the reason we still keep in this search is that the treasure is supposedly always right there waiting for us to find it. Suzuki, my old teacher, once said we find our treasure by watching and waiting. Gary Snyder, a teacher of the Buddhist hunters that prowl the Sierra Nevada in California, has suggested that hunting is one of the experiential origins of meditation. Indeed, throughout human history human hunters had to sit and wait motionless, even for days at a time. And Dutchananda, another sportsman on the track of this timeless snark, once pointed out that “marga” (aka “the Way,” “the Path”, in Sanskrit) is not a regular old trail or street, but is a word that originally meant the hunter’s path. The course is unknown is ahead of time to the hunter, who must sniff and look for signs and watch and wait. [Thank You and Okay, page 109-110]

This reminds me: In the 80s, I was just learning to sit and was reading, besides Zen books, all sorts of Native American books, especially about the Plains Indians. One day I was hiking in the Franklin Mountains along a creek bed. Even though the creek was dry, the rugged gash in the side of the mountain was lush with grasses, scrub oaks, all sorts of desert flowers and plants. It was easy to imagine a slow seep of water finding its way down through the cracked seams in the mountain. It was a perfect place to practice my new art of zazen. I found a nice place, bowed, straightened my back and began to sit. The breeze. The bird song. The crackle of twigs and leaves. My breath. I sat quiet for 20 minutes or so, and then I heard (or felt) a tweeting rustling in the leaves. I opened my eyes wider, and strutting quietly maybe five feet in front of me--almost close enough to touch--was a family of scaled quail The mother hen followed by six little ones. They marched right by me, paying me no nevermind. 

My best to you all.
Bobby Kankin Byrd

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Sangha member Susan Feeny is starting the El Paso Roots of Change Study Group. As a steady Zen Buddhist practitioner, she's become inspired by the ideas and practical actions of the International Society for Ecology and Culture. ISEC is quite an organization. Just note its Advisory Board: Wendell Berry, Frijof Capra, Peter Matthiessen, Diana Rose, Jonathan Rose, Vandana Shiva, David Suzuki and Alice Waters. ISEC developed the outline for The Roots of Change Study Study Circles like the one Susan is developing. It's a program to help folks like Susan--like all of us--make change on the ground where we live. 

Susan, a retired high school art teacher and a long-time Zen practitioner. Her home zendo is Prajna Zendo outside Santa Fe. Just recently Susan took Jukai, taking the Buddhist Precepts and receiving her Buddhist name, Esho, Wisdom Flowering. It's an apt name, considering the project she has chosen for herself. Although Prajna Zendo is her home, she is a strong member of Both Sides / No Sides Zen Community, and a valued and steady presence in our zendo on Louisville Street.

Below is Susan's description of the El Paso Roots of Change Study Group, along with several clips from ISEC/Roots of Change films that Susan will be showing early on. You can follow the evolution of their group at their facebook page here.  

Join the El Paso Roots of Change Study Circle

Hardly a day goes by without news of accelerating ecological decline, increasing depression and anxiety, or the widening of inequality in tandem with concentration of corporate power. The present ecological, social, and economic crises are unprecedented. And yet, an equally unprecedented movement is surging from the grassroots. Across the world people are joining hands in the spirit of resistance & renewal. Millions are engaged in the urgent, though joyful and enriching process of renewing just & sustainable communities.

The process of building a better world starts by rethinking basic assumptions and exploring root causes. We’re started a Roots of Change Study Circle in the area. Please join us!


Roots of Change is a ground-breaking study circle program. The curriculum includes voices of the world’s leading political, economic and ecological thinkers. The readings explore the origins and workings of today’s globalized economy and promote discussion of the impacts of corporate globalization on communities around the world. The emphasis is on education for action: helping participants see the big picture, unearth root causes and identify strategic positive actions.


In collaboration with the Internationals Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), we are setting up a study circle in this area. Study circles usually meet once or twice a month to discuss readings and forge strategies for effective local action. The program promises to be enjoyable, educational and life-affirming. Why not join us?



an essay by Bobby Byrd
Cup of Coffee (Ink on Paper) by Harvey Daiho Hilbert, Roshi

I confess. For the last several years I've become Stephen Batchelor fan (the Buddhist writer, not the field hockey player). In Living with the Devil: A Buddhist Take on Good and Evil, he says this early on:
What is striking about the Buddhist approach is that rather than positing an immortal or transcendent self that is immune to the vicissitudes of the world, Buddha insisted that salvation lies in discarding such consoling fantasies and embracing instead the very stuff of life that will destroy you. (Page 10) 
I agree totally with that. But I can also listen to, and agree, with differing points of view. When I read the Batchelor quote, I remembered at the same time this wonderful little story in the 2nd volume of Soyu Matsuoka Roshi collection of teachings Moku-Rai:

Zen Master and Catholic Priest
An American Catholic priest, who had founded a Zen Center in Japan, visited the abbot of a large Zen Monastery. The priest had studied Zen in Japan for a number of years and was known for his diligence.
The abbot asked over tea: “Even though you are a Catholic priest you practice zazen. What do you feel, when you practice?” The priest replied: “I feel God all around me. I am guided by him and I am in his power.”
Without hesitation, the abbot said: “If you continually practice zazen, God will disappear.” The abbot’s statement perplexed the priest. He was concerned over the possible loss of his supervision. The priest in response said: “God won’t disappear. I will disappear.” The abbot replied: “Whether God or you disappear, it makes no difference.” (Page 70)
The stories seem to contradict each other. But zazen is a big tent with different ways to resolve the questions before you. Each of us is different, and so we sit zazen together in our zendo (so many “z’s” we have). We don’t ask for membership cards and affiliations when a person walks into our little zendo on Louisville Street. Atheists and agnostics, Catholics and Jews, Baptists and Republicans and Democrats—they’ve all walked through the door one time or another. Some stick around, others disappear, saying they will be back soon, smiles on their faces. Most times, they don’t. That’s okay. We keep sitting and staring at the wall.

Strange how Zen gets so many different people coming through the door. Why does that happen?

We use much of the paraphernalia of religion. We have an altar with flowers, a stick of incense is usually burning, a bronze statue of the Buddha is perched atop the altar like a god, we have our prayers and chants, and we do our dance steps. But we don’t worship a God. Our practice is dharma practice, the study of the dharma, the study of the self. In other words, What is this? Why must we suffer? It’s a good question. Buddha asked the same question. And then Dogen says, when you sit, the self disappears. Poof. Because it’s contingent, second to second, it’s constantly arising as something new and different.

If you believe in God, that’s cool. We want you to come and sit with us. Sitting zazen will be your study of God and God’s relation to you. God. No God. All this is only words. We have faith in the practice of zazen—shikantaza, just sitting—and the study of ourselves through zazen.

If God is your koan, go for it.
Sit down and shut up.
Like the rest of us.

The other night I had dinner with a friend at Kiki’s Mexican Food on Piedras. My friend is a nice guy. He has a temper. He knows it. He’s troubled, but, without trouble, there’s no story. I like stories. I tell him he needs to sit zazen more, but he doesn’t have time to sit more zazen. He has more important things to do. Important things always get in the way. That’s how we are.

We were splitting a small pitcher of beer, but we talked about coffee. Good coffee. Bad coffee. He told me a story about having breakfast at an I-HOP with his girlfriend and getting pissed at the waitress. She was serving bad coffee. It was stale and burnt. He told her so. He could feel the anger in his voice and in his throat. The waitress didn’t understand why he was angry with her. It wasn’t her fault. She only worked there. He seethed for a while, his girlfriend was embarrassed and sad, he realized he had made a fool of himself, and later he apologized to the waitress. But it still pissed him off. I laughed at my friend. After a while, he laughed at himself too. He had the chicken tacos. I had a black bean burrito. We shared some guacamole and finished our beer.

The next morning Lee and I were walking up the hill on Elm, our Tuesday morning walk (other days Lee walks with her good friend Martha). October mornings in El Paso are cool and beautiful, the sun rising up out of the distant east. Tuesdays is garbage day, and the trucks rumble up the streets like ravenous animals. Their job is to pick up the useless bits and pieces of our lives. They also carry away stories and daydreams. They stop in front of the houses and, with a huge mechanical hand, grab the garbage cans and empty them head over heels into their bellies. They make a huge racket. I like that noise. It keeps me awake. I try to pay attention to my walking, sometimes counting my breaths. My mind comes and goes. Thoughts arise.

Like “good coffee / bad coffee.”

Oh, yeah. That was fun, listening to my friend talking about the waitress and her bad coffee. Then I remembered something else—“There’s no place to spit.” It’s an old Soto Zen adage. I love it. It means that everything is sacred. You spit anywhere, you’re spitting on sacred ground. Ground made sacred by our attention to it.

But sometimes I need to spit.
Where am I going to spit if there’s nowhere to spit?
Zen is littered with paradox.
Like God and No God. Like self and no self.

That’s what I like about Zen. There’s always something to do. And there’s always something to pay attention to. That’s why there’s no place to spit. Because we are asked each moment to pay attention to what we are doing—internally and externally. Driving the car. Turning on the computer. Answering the phone. Watering the yard. Making love. Spitting and shitting. The same ball of wax. It’s the dharma. We are studying the self. Every day we teach ourselves this lesson—through the practice of zazen, through taking this understanding off the zafu and lugging it happily, like old Hotei , out into the world. We want to live a balanced life—avoiding evil, doing good and bringing about abundant good for all beings. Some days we do better than other days. Some days we tip the waitress. Some days we get pissed at the waitress, but we remember to leave a tip anyway. The bad coffee really wasn’t her fault. It takes a while to understand. And we always come home to sit on our zafus. That's how we practice our faith--with effort and doubt. We sit zazen in the big tent.

Here’s a poem/story I wrote last year. It’s about good coffee and bad coffee.

"The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences."
—Seng-T’san, the 3rd Chinese Patriarch  

I got a Zen friend eats a vegetarian breakfast at MacDonald’s sometimes. He likes the cheap coffee. He says, “Don’t be a snob, Bobby. What difference does it make?” And he gives me a wise Buddhist smile.

I tell my friend if I’m going to eat fast food, then I’m going to eat at some local place. Like the H&H Carwash over on Yandell. The Haddads own the place, Kenny and Maynard. 4th generation Lebanese Christian immigrants. Both right wingers, but they leave me alone.

I tell my friend that the 3rd Patriarch eats there too. He likes the spinning stools at the counter. He’s a vegetarian so he orders the chili relleno plate. Two rellenos, rice and beans. It’s way too much food of course. He wants just enough, so he takes his leftovers to the bum in the alley.

The bum’s name is Chuy, short for Jesus. Kenny doesn’t like the Chinaman feeding Chuy. It’s like attracting flies. Seng-T’san smiles at Kenny’s rant but he will do as he pleases. Chuy needs to eat. “Yeah, yeah,” Kenny says and walks away.

The rellenos are delicious as always. Likewise the refried beans and rice. A couple of tortillas de maiz. On the side a glass of water and a cup of coffee.

Seng-T’san is no dummy of course. Gloria the cook fries the rellenos and everything else in a little bit of lard. Oh well. He eats what’s set before him. Gloria is a tiny woman, a juarense and every morning she walks across the border to cook rellenos at the H&H. Sent-T’san smiles at Gloria, his hands in gassho.

Then he gives thanks to all the other many beings who have brought this food to his table. Even the pig who provided the lard. In his thanksgiving, he saves Artemisa the waitress for last. She’s his favorite and he knows he’s not supposed to have favorites. Artemisa has such a beautiful big smile.

She says “De nada” and “Quieres más?” She always pours extra coffee to keep his cup warm and makes sure everything is perfect. Then she leaves him alone while he eats. She likes gringos okay and a Chinaman is just another kind of gringo. He eats everything and always leaves a big tip.

The coffee was lousy but that’s okay.

—in memory of Artemisa Salinas (1932-2011)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Teaching Suzuki Roshi How to Swim

The Han at Tassajara
Here’s a story I lifted from David Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber, the biography of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. The time was sometime in the late 1960s. Although Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind would not be published for a few years, Suzuki Roshi was well-known for his accomplishments--The San Francisco Zen Center, the Tassajara Monastery and his legions of students and admirers. He was coast-to-coast famous among the Cool. The King of Enlightenment. The Johnny Appleseed of Zen. But the day this story happened Suzuki Roshi was at Tassajara, and the place was zapped alive with students earnestly sitting Zazen, studying themselves and being good Zensters. They knew the Roshi was on the premises. He brought the place energy and th\at energy radiated through their practice. No telephones, no electricity. What else can you do but be alive? The mountain flowers were blooming. And the Sierra is always so beautiful.

I’ll tell the story my own way.

● ● ●

So one day Suzuki Roshi is walking down a path with a number of his senior students. They are chatting about this and that, telling stories, laughing, but always alert in the presence of their teacher. The path follows Tassajara Creek that wanders through the rocks and forest, and around a bend is a favorite swimming hole. Hot dog! The students strip down and jump in. The mountain water is cold and it swirls around them. Suzuki, though, never learned how to swim. He climbs up on a big rock overlooking the pool and sits down to watch the merriment. The students forget all about him. After a while, one of the students looks up. The Roshi isn’t there. Where’s the Roshi, he shouts. Then they see Suzuki—such a small man—struggling in the water, gasping for air. He’s drowning. They pull him to the bank, dry him off and warm him up with their clothes. What happened, they ask him? He had gotten up to move so he could see better and he had toppled head-first into the pool. They half-carry him back to his cottage. 

That evening Suzuki Roshi gives a dharma talk. He goes to his high seat in the practice hall. The students are all quiet. The Master is in the Hall. He tells this same story, how he tumbled head-first into the water. He is afraid of water, he said, and he doesn’t know how to swim. He was sure he was going to drown, so he fought desperately to stay alive. His lungs filled up with water. He couldn’t breathe. And, of course, as he realized later, he had done everything wrong. He should have relaxed and he would have floated to the surface. If it hadn’t been for his students, he would surely have died. 

Then he said that he was disappointed in his practice. He had decided to start from the beginning again and to sit zazen counting his breaths. He asked that his students do the same. And they all went back to their zazen, counting their breaths. 

● ● ●

I love this story. I’ve told it several times during my own dharma talks. It’s a very important story for me. For me the story speaks of Suzuki’s honesty, transparency and wisdom. It’s a good reminder for personal practice. I am always thinking that maybe I've achieved this or that in my practice. Patting myself on my back. I think I understand. I think I've “evolved” (whatever that means) and then something happens (something big, like almost drowning, or something small, like stubbing my toe or getting a speeding ticket in a school zone like I did today). Well, shit on all those voices in my head (the “me,” the false self, the “Mara,” whatever)—they’ve fooled me again.

Like the other night at exactly 2:47am. I had got up to pee. (Old men always seem to be pissing at about that time. Listen in the night. You can hear us. Legions of us old men off to pee in the darkness.) Done but not empty, I lay back down. But I couldn't get to sleep. I was thrashing away. Poor Lee. I woke her up with my ups and downs and roll-overs. You gotta understand. I'm an old-time political junkie, I've walked in marches and protests, I've always voted democrat, and just that evening Romney had hammered Obama in the debate. I hadn't even seen the debate. This was all second-hand news. I tried to ignore it. I was cool. I sat zazen, I paid attention to my breath, I celebrated my daughter-in-law's birthday. My worry was a mirage, puffs of smoke.

But sleep does its own thing to our minds. I had a dream. Anxiety set in between the bathroom and my bed.  Now Romney was going to become President. The Republicans were going to take over. Poets would be hung by the neck until dead!

All silly daydreams. Pure insanity. Craving at its most comical. What could I do anyway? Send money? Make telephone calls? It was the middle of the night. None of it mattered. None of it was real. But logic didn’t help. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tossed and turned. I got up again to pee. But I didn’t need to pee. I needed to sleep. But I got up one more time.

Then I remembered Suzuki flailing at the water, gasping for breath. I remembered his dharma talk afterwards. Another gift from the dead roshi. Oh, yeah.

I went and sat zazen 10 minutes in the darkness. I lay back down next to Lee and started counting my breaths. I got to 10 and started again. I don’t think I got to 10 again. I slept until 6am, floating on the pool of sleep. The alarm bonged. Suzuki admonished, “Get up when the bell rings.” This morning I had to listen to the old dead man. He had given me another gift in the middle of the night. I got up, made the coffee for Lee and me, fed the cats and the birds and sat zazen. The morning was beautiful. Bird song. A train whistled and echoed through the mountain. Still a bit of moonlight from a waning moon.

Lucky me. I have my practice. I have these stories. I have Zazen.

And I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

—Bobby Kankin Byrd