Saturday, August 27, 2011

Unexpected Adventure

I-285 (that's the road running from bottom-left to top-right) is being repaved is being repaved on weekends right now and so I had to take an alternate path to my Buddhist Homiletics class at Red Clay Sangha the past two weekends. Unfortunately, I can't seem to remember this fact in time to take the usual alternate. Last week I spent 15 minutes going one mile in Doraville which made late.

This morning I realized a little sooner (when I saw the sign saying that I-285 was going at 10mph) and so I took a much better alternate that had the added benefit of letting me drive on the highest bridge of the interchange known as "Spaghetti Junction". That would be the bridge closest to the bottom left corner in the picture. Look at the picture closely to realize just how huge this interchange is. Those little dots are cars and trucks.

It was really exciting. OK, so maybe I live a boring life. But actually I remember that interchange being built and have lived with it a long time, mostly going on pretty boring parts of it in terms of height and curves because of where I live. So this was oddly enough a real treat even though it has been sitting right here in my back yard.

How many more of these are just sitting here waiting? And we are being angry and pass right by because we are busy being angry about having to change our path.

Life is full of wonderful new adventures and I for one intend to start taking more of them. Life is simply too long to be so boring all the time.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Looking for a Zen Teacher (again)

So it seems that I'm back looking for a Zen Teacher. Life would be so much simpler if I were to just decide not to have one. But that isn't really fair to me and everyone else. So I'm in the market.

Lost the last one when I realized that I couldn't trust him. Probably never could, but that goes without saying. Didn't realize it until he became such a bully. Can't have a Zen Teacher you can't trust. Can't be around a bully.

I'm going in October to practice sesshin with another group. Don't want to post the name 'cause bullies have a knack of finding these things out. So, we wait until October.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Buddhist Homiletics 101 at Red Clay Sangha Homework

I'm attending Buddhist Homiletics 101 at the Red Clay Sangha starting this weekend. I sure hope the class is not as hard as the preparatory work we've been assigned. This looks really simple, but the instructor is not a Buddhist - pretty cool idea really, using the local seminary school folks to learn these things, but the language just doesn't match. I had something else to write about but I guess I'll do that tomorrow.

What is in your heart as you approach dharma talks: why are you a Buddhist, and why do you take on this role of speaker?
The simple answer to why I'm a Buddhist is that I learned about it and it looked like me. Which would mean explaining all of Buddhism, I guess to answer that. In many ways I am a Buddhist because it doesn't tell you the whole answer, but points you towards it and gives you the technique for finding your own answer. Buddhism also doesn't require me to believe anything. Nothing. Not even six impossible things before breakfast! Of course before I was a Buddhist I was an existentialist, which didn't require me to believe anything either, but also didn't give me a lot of anything else. Being a Buddhist has allowed by to embrace suffering, understand it fully, and see how joy dependently co-arises with it. Which is to say "no suffering, no joy".

I take on the role of speaker because I can?

What is truly in my heart is the desire to bring forth the wonder of life that this practice brings forth (and the wonder of practice that this life brings forth) as a moment by moment expression of me.

Give examples of topics that you think might be suitable for dharma talks:

  • Precepts (pretty much need to have these once a month when we do renewal), 
  • Various bits of Buddhist philosophy (such as the Four Noble Truths) if they can be related to NOW or I can offer a new perspective that I think folks will find interesting,
  • Koans,
  • Current events wrapped up in Buddhist philosophy,
  • Most sutras,
  • My life struggles,
  • Buddhist practices,

What are some of your current sources for dharma talks:

  • Whatever is giving me difficulty at the time,
  • Sutras and Koans,
  • Commentaries and talks,

Identify your personal barriers to delivering good dharma talks:

  • Lack of any formal training in doing so,
  • Lack of any feedback from my prior teacher and so having no idea whether what I was doing was good or whether anyone cared, 
  • Choosing a topic (only once),
  • Preparing the talk without tearing it up and "just winging it",
  • Thinking that most folks just want to discuss and/or don't want a lot of stuff that they could look up themselves if that want to and so skimping on the preparations,
  • Really not wanting to record myself and watch it,

What do you hope to get out of the class:
I'd like to learn how to do this right.

I'm sure there are methodologies out there that other folks use and that I could benefit from them. I'm sure that good preachers didn't just wake up one morning knowing how to do it, but so far that's all I've gotten. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Precepts as Liberation: The Freedom of Boundaries

Precepts Renewal Ceremony at the Red Clay Sangha
Please join me this morning in the renewal of the sixteen (16) Bodhisattva Precepts. Ryaku Fusatsu from San Francisco Zen Center

Precepts as Liberations
Precepts have been somewhat neglected in the early establishment of Buddhism in America (with the exception of the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage where they are paramount). This is especially true in Zen schools where they are treated as metaphysical expressions of reality and even koans, but is also true in the true in the Theravada schools, which tend to be more literal. In a recent Buddhadharma magazine discussion panel of Zen/Tibetan/Theravada on precepts it was the Theravada practitioner who replaced the words “morality” and “ethics” with “integrity” as a less menacing word. It is even common to take them only for the duration of a retreat.

Why does it seem so troubling to us in America to come upon rules in our supposed new and improved spiritual paradigm? And why should we rail against the very thought of our wonderful new spiritual power and freedom including boundaries? Perhaps it is in our very DNA to rebel against this as we all recent descendents of those who gave up everything to come here in search of a new life and way of living. The very concept of externally-imposed morality and ethics makes us cringe.

So as rebellious and revolutionary Buddhists in a Judeo-Christian society we find ourselves back in the same difficulty of having a set of rules passed down to us by an unseen master. We also have great ceremony and liturgy surrounding these to give them a sense of devotion. What gives?
Trust in the Community

If we are to trust in the teachings of the Buddha and practice together as an harmonious community we must have shared values and rules. Even the simplest actions such as walking in a circle require a rule if we are to avoid bumping into each other. We have many of these conditional rules (how to walk, how to boil water, on which side of the road to drive) and an exhaustive list would be infinite. The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts form a compact grouping that we can use to inform our actions in accord with our intentions.

By promising to each other that we will observe these precepts (and atoning when we fail to keep them) we are free to express our humanity completely within the community. We know that, even if we make mistakes, this is our shared vow of being a refuge, a place of safety and community of intentional action. Specific atonement is especially important as it can help everyone learn more about the workings of Karma and the Precepts.

This can be particularly helpful when we seek to exact revenge for injury or create stories to justify harmful actions. Most of us know by the time we reach adulthood that revenge only makes us feel worse and creating justification simply feeds delusions and creates more suffering. This liberation from the snowball effect of karma can be wondrous if we let it manifest.

Choosing a Path
Precepts are in some ways the roadmap to the Path leading to Liberation and Cessation of Suffering. While we should not mistake the map for the territory, neither do we want to negotiate it without a map. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will do.” Placing bounds on our path lets us move freely within it while still making our way towards the destination.

Staying on the Path with Difficulties
Their very existence as Precepts gives us a type of liberation in knowing that they aren’t that simple (otherwise they wouldn’t need to be spelled out). Which is not to say that we can simply let them slide, but must forgive ourselves when we try but fail (and try again). Shunru Suzuki said that life is a long series of mistakes. But no one would know that they were mistakes without the aspiration.

How We Really Want to Live
If we look closely at the Bodhisattva Precepts of Zen Buddhism, we see that they are all something we actually want to do anyway. The first three – the Treasure Refuges – give us safety and protection in an unsure world and declare our direction and path. The second three – the Pure Precepts – simply declare our intention to act in the direction of goodness without leaving us stranded in indecision. And the final ten – the Grave Precepts – give us some signposts and reminders for how to manifest those intentions in reality.

When I look at any of these precepts from an abstract point of view, I can easily say “of course I don’t want to lie”. Then I do something dumb, and want to avoid looking foolish, and trip over the precept (usually compounding the error by adding in the seventh). Then I wind up needing to atone for not only the something dumb but the lie as well.

If I can allow myself to look foolish at times (as is warranted by any normal human who makes mistakes), while I cannot escape the consequence of the mistake, I can avoid the karma of the lie. Many Buddhist teachings suggest that intention does count as regards karma. So the lie creates even larger consequences than the original mistake. And who is it that doesn’t want to look foolish here?

Imagine how free you would feel if you simply had no inclination to see anyone else’s faults or praise yourself while putting them down. Imagine anger not being present. Desire removed from its pivotal point of control of your life.

By observing the precepts we can be “liberated” from ourselves, freed from the effects of ego attachment, clinging, craving, greed, anger and delusion.

Baizhang’s Fox
I’d like to leave you with a koan commonly associated with the precepts (this can be found in The Heart of Being by John Daido Lori):
“Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"
The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"

Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."

Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, could you perform the usual services for a deceased monk for me?"

Baizhang asked the head of the monks' hall to inform the assembly that funeral services for a monk would be held after the midday meal. The monks asked one another, "What's going on? Everyone is well; there is no one sick in the Nirvana Hall." After their meal, Baizhang led the assembly to a large rock behind the monastery and showed them a dead fox at the rock's base. Following the customary procedure, they cremated the body. 
That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo asked him, "A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn't given a wrong answer?"

Baizhang said, "Come closer and I will tell you." Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang's face.

Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, "I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!”