Thursday, February 16, 2017

Good luck with that, huh?`

Both Sides / No Sides Zendo
Summer Morning after an Unexpected Rain
Beings are numberless, we vow to save them.    
A Journal Note

(Egad, I wrote the in June 2015, a year and a half ago. I forgot to push the publish button. Oh, well. Better now than never. Things have changed, of course. Polly lives in Las Cruces with her partner Steve, I talk to her and see her from time to time, but we all miss her. I don't see Matthew anymore. I miss seeing him. He's a good guy. I hope he walks through the door again sometime soon. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the post.)

One Tuesday night when I was out of town, Matthew Torres—the young man with the curly hair who comes when he can—brought the Zendo a gift, a little paper dolphin he had made, origami style, from thick paper marbled with many pastel colors. I was out of town and my fellow priest Polly Perez was in charge. Knowing Polly, she received the dolphin with a joyful smile. She placed it in the arms of the bronze teaching Buddha who sits on the altar. But then it was time to ring the bell. She lit the oil lamps and the incense, and the services began, as always, with the voices of those gathered together to sit zazen, atoning for the harm we cause in the world.

So this morning, back in town—the smell of dampness in the air from the little bit of rain we had last night—I went out to the zendo. Lucky me, the zendo is in my backyard. The little building is a 90 year old stone garage that Lee and I, with a little bit of extra cash, transformed 25 years ago into my office. Now it’s the Both Sides / No Sides Zendo, a 12-seater. Buddhism does things like that, letting one thing become another. I bowed to the bronze Buddha. He still carries the dolphin in his arms. This makes me happy. I lit the lamps and a stick of incense. I too recited the Prayer of Atonement for the harm I cause in the world. I bowed to my zafu and began chanting in preparation to sit zazen. Ernie the black cat walked in. He strolled up to me for a scratch behind the ears, and then he slowly went from zabuton to zabuton, sniffing at the wonderful places full of human smell to lay his body down. He chose, finally, the zabutons stacked beneath the altar. He climbed inside the little cave and immediately went to sleep, so black you cannot tell cat from zafu until he opens his golden eyes.

Stephen Batchelor, toward the end of his book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, says Gautama contributed four basic elements to the Dharma, elements that were not derived from the Indian culture of his time.

  1. The principle of “this conditionality, conditioned arising.”
  2. The process of the Four Noble Truths.
  3. The practice of mindful awareness.
  4. The power of self-reliance.
So there we were—the Buddha, the paper dolphin, the black cat and the old man sitting zazen. We felt the breeze seeping into the stone zendo, and we listened to the mockingbirds and the mourning doves. By sitting zazen, Dogen says, we express our true nature. Ideas and words are irrelevant. Just pieces of trash floating past. But the bell does ring, sooner or later. Like always, I recited the Four Great Vows, vowing to save the numberless earth beings, ending all delusions, entering all the boundless Dharma gates, and becoming one with the Buddha’s Way.

Good luck with that, huh? But that’s what we vow. Over the years, the roots of these vows, watered by the daily practice of zazen, grow deeper into our heart-mind. I blew out the lamps, bowed to the Buddha and the dolphin in his arms, scooted Ernie out of the zendo, and went about my life. As one more of the numberless beings, I carried along the little bit of freedom I realized within those old stone walls—the morning light, the open door, the fresh but damp spring breeze and the happily dissonant songs of mockingbirds and mourning doves.

Bobby Kankin Byrd 
June 2015

Ernie, the Dolphin & the Buddha
A lousy photo but you get the picture!

Ernie opens his eyes!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Old Man Winter Morning Zendo Poem

Old Man Winter Morning Zendo Poem

Morning zazen makes no sense at all, 
Absolutely no sense at all.
But I’m happy to be here, after practice,
Alive on my black cushion, bundled up
From a nagging sickness, sipping cold coffee,
Incense burned to ashes in the quiet,
Candles flickering, sunlight shadows
On the brown wall, and those silly pigeons,
They’re eating out of the cat dish again.
Ha! Good for them.
They don’t know right from wrong.
What better time to give thanks,
Thank you, thank you
A single grackle screeches out
Her love for me
And then she flies away.

In celebration of Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi's 70th Birthday

Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher. 
Being just this moment, compassion’s way.  
―The Third and Fourth Principles of Practice as adapted by Charlotte Joko Beck and the Ordinary Mind School from the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths
You know, when you first start reading about Zen practice, you come across two visions of how to sit on a cushion, Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen. These are the two primary Japanese lineages. Each is pigeonholed into its own stereotype. Rinzai is the sterner practice, more martial in observance of all the rules, and Soto Zen is softer and more lenient in many ways. In Rinzai Zen, you sit zazen facing the sangha, you have regular sansen (interview with the teacher), the teacher gives you koans to break the hard walls of psyche, and the aim is to experience “kensho,” or sudden enlightenment. In Soto Zen, you sit facing the wall, you have irregular dokusan (interview with the teacher), and there is no aim, per se. You sit shikantaza, which means “just sitting.” The Soto lineage favors of what is called “gradual enlightenment.” Of course, in actual practice, especially here in the United States, the differences between the two lineages have faded away in some aspects, and really, the only way to find out the real differences, is to go sit with one group or another. If it’s true Zen practice, the foundation will always be zazen, sitting on a cushion (or chair, as your body requires), back straight, eyes open, breathing in and out, bringing the mind to the point of existence. 
Ha! The reason I wrote all of that is because of that little poem up above, “Old Man Winter Morning Zendo Poem.” I consider it a “Zen poem” because it speaks of my daily practice. But in high school and college, when I started reading about Zen poets and artists, I was always intrigued by how they had these sudden blasts of simultaneous insight and expression. Basho and his buddies would sit at the edge of a creek, getting drunk on sake and throwing down haiku and renga at each other in raucous laughter-filled dharma battles. The great calligraphers would approach a blank scroll with brush and ink, there would be a frenzied dervish swirling of arms, perhaps a shout and grunts, then, ZAP! And there it was! Another masterpiece!
Oh, I wanted to be like them. That was my romantic notion. Now I’m almost 75, and I want to say my Zen and writing of poetry is not like that at all. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I write poems. 
Every day I try to write in my journals. Mostly with my illegible (except to me) hand-writing. Sometimes on the computer. Sometimes even on my cell phone, talking, not writing, into the damn thing if I have idea, see or hear something that interests me. Anyway, from time to time I go through my journals and try to harvest poems. When I find something, I fiddle with it some, and, after a while, if I like it, I move it to my “poems in-progress” files.
Several weeks ago, I scribbled in my notebook about the silly pigeons eating out of the cat dish. When I finish my morning zazen, I can see them out there, finishing up what the cats didn’t eat. That irritates Lee and me, them eating the cat food and shitting all over the place. We wish the cats would do their job and harvest the pigeons but the cats don’t care about the pigeons. They are no longer hungry. They just watch the pigeons and dream ferocious cat dreams. That’s why we don’t feed the cats on the front porch anymore. It’s no fun to come home and see pigeon poop on the front porch. But one morning, after zazen, I looked out there at the pigeons and laughed at them. Silly birds, they don’t know right from wrong. Ha! I wrote that down. I took a sip of cold coffee. It was delicious.
Then one day at services, while we were finishing with the tea, one of our members had a question. She said a friend of hers was comparing Zen with another form of Buddhism. In Zen practice, the friend said, we don’t do anything. We just sit there. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.” I had to laugh. Her friend was right, of course, because he was witnessing our practice only from the outside. And that’s what we do. We just sit there, staring at the wall. 
So this comment stuck with me. I wrote that down in my journal too. Then I remembered something I had been working on. I went to my journals and found this little piece about giving thanks for our practice. “Thank you, thank you.” All of this migrated into my “work-in-progess” files. I coupled that with the pigeons, right and wrong, and the idea about “making sense.” Then a few mornings later, a grackle showed up while I was sitting. It was one of those times during zazen when you hear something perfectly―my hearing the bird and the bird’s wild screech wrapped up together into one complete expression of existence. Not two. But one. That’s what Dogen means when he writes, “to be realized by the 10,000 things.” The grackle screeched out her love for me. Why not? She flew away. It all made sense. And I put it all these bits and pieces into this one little poem. 
When the poem was done, I liked it. It satisfied me somehow. And I like how it was made. Like following a mountain trail up and around to no place in particular. Except I need to pay attention. See the world clearly as it is. Otherwise, I’ll get lost for good. This is how I try to lead my life, following that mountain trail through the scrub and the trees, around the rocks, up through the rip-rap, vowing not to squander my life. So I decided to share the poem on our email list. Then yesterday morning, during zazen again, I remembered it was almost Harvey Daiho Hilbert’s birthday. He’ll be 70, so I need to give him thanks too. He was my teacher for all these many years. Thank you, Daiho, thank you, thank you. That’s what I want to say. To Harvey and to all those who have come before us. 

With our practice, 
We honor all those beings, 
Women and men, 
Known and unknown, 
Who have given their lives
To this practice 
For our present benefit. 

So, yes, yes, thank you. Thank you. 
Bobby Kankin Byrd