Walking the Buddha Way
April 29, 2020
How nice that in the midst of the pandemic, spring still comes. In fact, it is “busting out all over.” I am walking every day and am delighted by the wild turkeys showing off their plumage and by the eager chipmunks, by the white trilliums coming up from the forest floor as they always do, and by—let us not forget—the industrious emergence of poison oak. (Maybe I am not “delighted” by the poison oak, but I am awestruck.) Perhaps we are not needed by Earth? I like the sense of the seasons carrying on without any particular regard for the illness that has so changed our human lives. It is a comfort to me, just as the proud presence of the mountains has always been a comfort. I am reminded of the Mary Oliver poem from House of Light.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I didn’t know I was going to do that—begin with a poem. It came to mind and it seems apt so I share it with you. Last Sunday, when our congregation gathered via Zoom, some of you were expressing the same sentiment: the natural world has a lot to say, and some of us have now slowed down enough to begin to hear it.
Just before the virus closed everything down, I adopted a 7-month-old, female kitten. Her name is Zooey. She is a tabby with lovely stripes and a small, light face. In the month that she has been at the Priory, she has gone from being a “scaredy-cat” to being the one who rolls over on her back for cuddles when she sees me in the morning, and who gives me “what for” when she thinks I am not playing with her enough. That is—the perfect companion.
Please, all, continue to take care with yourself and with others.
Oriana, resident priest
(Please respond to: email@example.com)
The Courage of Vulnerability
“There are three types of courage needed to live fully, face death directly and discover true freedom: the courage of the warrior, the courage of a strong heart, and the courage of vulnerability.”
Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
“Vulnerability in the face of constant change is what we share, whatever our present condition.”
In the last two issues of “Walking the Buddha Way,” I wrote about the courage of the warrior and the courage of a strong heart. Now in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to look at the courage of vulnerability.
At spiritual direction, when a monk stands before the abbot and asks a question, I recently asked about vulnerability, saying that I was struggling with vulnerability in relation to aging. The response I was given was that everyone is vulnerable. It is part of being human. At the time, I thought, “Well, duh, that’s not very helpful.” (As in, what about me?) But these months later, I see that I was being pointed in the direction of commonality, being invited to move beyond my little picture. In fact, vulnerability is not personal and I cannot somehow, through my individual effort, learn to sidestep the whole vulnerability question. It is who we are as humans. In light of the transitory nature of our lives, we are vulnerable. It’s a given.
The truth of this vulnerability is that it is the connective tissue that binds us to all beings. One Sunday morning when I was speaking about age and vulnerability to the congregation, someone added, “and then there is the blessing side of vulnerability.” Inside I go, “Eh, what?” And then, “Okay.” I believe she was pointing to the shared common ground of vulnerability that can give rise to empathy and compassion.
Many of us see vulnerability as “weakness.” I must protect myself from being hurt. A wall goes up; we get out our protective armor. I will not let anything in that is painful, challenging, sad. The problem is: when the wall is up, the wall is up. When we close out pain, we also close out compassion, connection, joy. Intuitively, we know this and yet we continue on this path of suffering, attempting to make the impermanent, permanent, the uncertain, certain. I regularly hear people say that they’re this or they’re that. It is as if they are carved in stone. “No, I can’t do that because it is not who I am. Don’t even ask. I am this.” What we are is caught in an idea. Caught. Not free. Caught because we are backing away from vulnerability.
Buddhist practice invites us in another direction. Chogyam Trungpa wrote, “The only true elegance is vulnerability.” In order to live life fully, we must be willing to be seen, and this means understanding that our thoughts, opinions, feelings are just that—thoughts, opinions, and feelings. They don’t belong to us, they don’t define us. Really, they aren’t even that important.
When we let go of relating through this idea of who we think we are, or who we think we should be, then we can be seen and see. This takes the courage of vulnerability because we are being asked to give up striving for perfection, to put down our stories, to let go of our ideas about what makes us happy. This is where meditation brings us: to whole-hearted living, to an understanding that there is no ground beneath our feet, to accepting and moving through that soft, vulnerable spot that we generally try to relegate to the shadows.
To be vulnerable is to allow yourself to be seen. The less defended we are, the more we can be open to what is in front of us. We begin to receive the world rather than trying to control the world. This, alone, takes a load of suffering off our backs. What is happening today? How can I help? We drop the struggle to make everything line up as we wish it to and rest in a state of defenselessness. We are able to do this because we understand that basic essence—Buddha Nature, not my Buddha Nature—is never damaged, never sick, never dies.
A few days ago, I watched an interview with Frank Ostaseski on YouTube. At one point the interviewer, in speaking about vulnerability, offered that sometimes, “I don’t have a story yet. I’m in the middle, inarticulate, confused, pissed. It is a messy, unformed version of, ‘Here I am.’ . . . . Perhaps I am being pulled into deeper dimensions of what it means to be human.” Perhaps. And, perhaps, sometimes, this is the blessing of vulnerability.
The pandemic caught some of us unprepared—as in, we haven’t done the spiritual work and now we have to get to it—and yet, in some ways, it just magnifies what is real and in front of us every day. This magnification makes us more aware of the vulnerability that is always there, our shared vulnerability as humans on this earth. To have the courage of vulnerability is to embrace the truth of impermanence. The pandemic is now our new reality. Be curious and courageous. What can I discover here, where the fragility of my life and those around me becomes so apparent?
Great Master Dogen tells us that it is good to live like a boatman. The constantly changing conditions of the water and the weather carry the boat. It is our job to use skillful means when we handle the boat, keeping in mind what we can steer ‘our way’ and what we cannot. The boat will always be carried by the water and the wind. What can we contribute?
The courage of vulnerability goes beyond what we are used to, beyond what we find comfortable. We cannot choose comfort and courage, as courage asks that we leave comfort behind. What is it that we think we are protecting? What is it that we believe we can protect? In meditation, we are invited over and over again to “give up the fight.” As someone who has a lot of ‘fight,’ I do understand that this is not easy. And, this is where we begin.
Let’s return to Mary Oliver. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Whether you are 17 or 70, please, study this.
February 1, 2020
It is the beginning of February and I am still at Throssel Hole in Northern England. My visit here has been both restful and a challenge. I am again reminded that “wherever you go, there you are.” The same “dark places” and “light places” found me here. I am returning to Eugene Buddhist Priory mid-February, continuing on as resident priest. Spring must be on my mind, as I think about the garden at the Priory and am eager to begin spring pruning. There, as here, winter has been quite mild. When we prune our gardens this spring, let’s also prune out our own deadwood: the ideas, habits, prejudices, and predilections that don’t serve us any longer.
You may recall that in the last issue of “Walking the Buddha Way” I spoke about Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations. I would like to continue looking at the courage he describes as essential to “live life fully, face death directly, and discover true freedom.” These are the courage of the warrior, the courage of a strong heart, and the courage of vulnerability. In this issue, let’s look at the courage of a strong heart.
First, a thought about the courage of a spiritual warrior. When I reread what I had posted in the last issue, I noticed that the examples I gave of the courage of the spiritual warrior involved overcoming “performance anxiety”—when I act in the world, will I get it “right”? Please do not get the impression from this that the courage of the spiritual warrior is about how we perform. In stepping forward each day, performance is much less important than whether we show up for our lives. The courage of a spiritual warrior is about having the courage to refrain from harm and the courage to choose not to be led around by our individual slant on greed, hatred and delusion. This courage can show itself in both small, daily actions and in larger leaps we might take into the unknown.
If you wish, please respond to this issue by writing to me at.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana, resident priest
The Courage of a Strong Heart
“Whenever a true heart exists, the Dharma springs up also.”
From the offertory for the Founder’s Day Festival, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives
On Founder’s Day at Throssel last November, Rev. Jishin began the Dharma talk with the above quotation. She then spoke about how a true heart sees the Dharma and the Dharma sees the true heart. We cannot grasp onto the true heart, as it is not an object or a thing; we can only be quiet and let the true heart enter us. I am reminded of the lines in “Adoration of the Buddha’s Relics”—“The truth enters into us and we enter the truth.” We don’t define the Dharma, we just let it flow without obstructing it with our ideas and concerns. Rev. Jishin goes on to say that “nothing has the significance we give it.” Everything we add to—signify—only obstructs. Can we see this?
When I spoke about the courage of the spiritual warrior last issue, I quoted Rami: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This is the field of emptiness. This is where the courage of a strong heart resides. The true heart, the strong heart, allows itself to be touched by both the “good” and the “evil.” That is, we have the courage to stay with our experience however we may see it. The courage of the strong heart doesn’t reject what is in front of it, but receives what is happening right now. This opens us to compassion for the suffering of all beings—all beings.
In his book, Ostaseski gives an example of the courage of the heart that I would like to share with you. A 14-year-old American student brought his parents’ gun to school and began randomly shooting, wounding 2 students. Jencie Fagan, a teacher at the school, approached him, speaking calmly, and talked him into giving her the gun. This is the courage of a spiritual warrior who engages in “the mindful practice of touching with mercy and tenderness that which we previously touched only with fear.” Then she held the boy, continuing to talk to him, promising to stay with him through the arrest process. This is the courage of a strong heart. No separation. This is what Ostaseski calls “fearless receptivity.” I like that very much: “fearless receptivity.” Yet there is something in me that encourages us to be receptive even in the presence of fear. Isn’t that what we do? In the moment, we overcome the fear. This is what is happening. Right now, what is it good to do? Let your heart and body move, trusting that a true response can arise even in the midst of fear.
In The Transmission of the Mind, Huang Po, 9th century Zen monk, speaks of the courage of the heart.
“By the Dharma is meant the heart, for there is no Dharma apart from heart. Heart is no other than the Dharma, for there is no heart apart from the Dharma. This heart in itself is empty, and there is no empty heart either. When the empty heart is sought after by the heart, this is making it a particular object of thought. There is only testimony of silence, it goes beyond thinking. Therefore it is said that the Dharma cuts off the passage to words and puts an end to all forms of mental activities.”
There is only testimony of silence, unobstructed by words, striving, or belief.
I am reminded of Vimalakirti’s “tremendous silence.” In the Vimalakirti Sutra, written around the 3rd century, wise layman, Vimalakirti, invites bodhisattvas to describe how they became fully aware of the reality of non-duality. Each bodhisattva gives an account of how they transcend various dualities: happiness and misery; purity and impurity; distraction and attention; birth and death and on and on. Then Manjusri, the bodhisattva of great wisdom, asks Vimalakirti how he overcomes duality and Vimalakirti remains silent. In the literature, this is often referred to as Vimalakirti’s “thunderous silence.” Anything that Vimalakirti says, any words, will divide the truth—it is this and it is not that.
When we move beyond ideas of good and evil, we are moving beyond seeing the world in a dualistic way. Here we find the courage of the heart, the true heart that is not apart from the Dharma and, in the end, cannot be expressed in words.
November 9, 2020
I am writing this in my room at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, here for an extended visit and rest. It was good to be at Throssel for our monastic gathering in September—meditating, meeting together, and relaxing with members of the Order. Now the monastery has become quieter and we will soon have the monks’ winter sesshin, a week-long meditation retreat.
Finishing Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations, on the plane trip over led me to reflect on the importance of spiritual courage. I share some thoughts with you below.
May you have a peaceful holiday season.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana, resident priest
The Courage of the Warrior
This autumn at the Priory we are reading Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. Ostaseski is one of the founders of San Francisco Zen Center’s “Zen Hospice Project” established in the late 80s during the AIDS crisis. In his book, Ostaseski talks about three types of courage that he sees as necessary in order to “live life fully, face death directly and discover true freedom.” These are the courage of the warrior, the courage of a strong heart, and the courage of vulnerability. Since reading The Five Invitations, I find myself reflecting on courage and how it (or the lack of it) shows itself in our Buddhist practice and in how we move in the world.
Let’s look at the courage of the warrior. What is a spiritual warrior? Traditional Buddhist understanding is that a spiritual warrior combats their own greed, hatred, and delusion—that is, their ignorance of the true nature of the world. If you have difficulty with the word “combat,” yes, I sometimes do as well. We don’t combat as in beat down, fight, or destroy. We combat the three poisons through studying our own ignorance, through awareness, persistence, patience, and through accepting all things. Ostaseski writes that spiritual warriors engage in “the mindful practice of touching with mercy and tenderness that which we previously touched only with fear.” This description definitely works for me. Are we able to respond with mercy towards others and towards ourselves rather than responding from fear? This doesn’t mean we are beyond fear or act as if our fear isn’t there. It means that in spite of the fear—perhaps even arising from the fear—we show tenderness.
A current example has come up for me during my visit at Throssel. Being part of a ceremony—whether chaplain or celebrant—is generally a challenge for me. Possibly because it highlights self-absorption and the fear of appearing awkward or stupid. During my years as resident priest at the Priory, this concern for how I do my part in ceremonies has almost disappeared. Then I return to my home monastery and I’m nervous and overly-concerned again. Eh, what? I thought I had worked this one out. My temptation is to avoid being celebrant, bell ringer, chaplain altogether while at Throssel. However, seeing the fear, I understand it is important to do this. Bow to the fear, show mercy and tenderness towards the fear and towards the ceremony. Just get on with it.
Please understand that I am not “special” in this “just getting on.” I watch monks and lay guests at Throssel, and in our congregation at Eugene, regularly bow to fear and then move and act as spiritual warriors. A few days ago, I heard a lay guest talking about her reluctance to offer to be a server at formal meals. Then she was asked to do it, said yes, and was so glad she had the experience. She said that “even mistakes were not mistakes.” This makes sense to me.
The courage of a warrior doesn’t require grand gestures; it requires moving on each day with and through what presents itself with some perspective—as in, it isn’t all about me and my story. From this, we learn compassion. From this, we begin to understand that there are times when getting out of bed in the morning is the act of a spiritual warrior.
Most of us are unable to be spiritual warriors all the time. It is more that there are moments when we can dig down and act from the courage of a warrior. When you see this, encourage it, learn from it. Pema Chodron speaks of the warrior when she describes three circles of practice. The first circle is the circle of comfort and ease, the known—no new territory here. The next circle beyond the circle of comfort is the circle of challenge. We stick our toes into unknown waters and learn what it is to stretch ourselves, to extend ourselves beyond the habitual. The third circle is that of risk—to leap into the unknown with faith and trust. Do we have the courage to become familiar with the second and third circles? Not just to dabble in, but to come to find our strength there.
The spiritual warrior shows up for life, leans into life, rather than moving away. The warrior is not trying to become somebody else; they befriend who they already are. They befriend their fear and loneliness, their awkwardness, their embarrassment.
When we face life directly in this way, we allow room for all of the eight worldly concerns: praise and blame; pleasure and pain; gain and lose; fame and disgrace. Wherever we are, we can train as a warrior. Wherever we are, we find ourselves in the midst of the eight worldly concerns. The warrior bows to them all, recognizing that each is fleeting. Why push away or chase after? Why view yourself as somehow getting it wrong, if this moment you experience pain or disgrace?
In his poem, “A Great Wagon,” Rumi speaks about the spiritual warrior:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
It takes the courage of a spiritual warrior to disregard habit, belief, judgment and to show up for life. Today, this day, let’s wake up.
August 4, 2019
The beginnings of these “missives” are generally a bit awkward for me. Sometimes I fall back on writing about the weather. Let’s not do that this time. Having said that, look at the flowers below on our Lavantera Barnsley (mallow) this summer! So lovely and so transient.
In September I am going to Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northern England to spend five months at my home monastery. The Priory will follow its regular calendar of events with the help of Rev. Master Hugh Gould, who is acting as resident priest while I am away. I will return to the position of Prior in mid-February. Thank you to Rev. Master Haryo and to Rev. Master Hugh for making this respite from the responsibilities of Prior possible.
The past few years I have been watching how I respond to stress, how it arises and shows itself and how I am a complicit partner in this dance with stress. I share some thoughts on stress and “stress management” in this issue. Perhaps they will encourage you to see how you invite stress into your life.
If you wish, please respond to this issue by writing to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana, resident priest
Welcoming Rev. Master Hugh Gould
As many of you know, Rev. Hugh will be our resident priest while I am at Throssel Hole from mid-September until mid-February. Rev. Hugh began his Buddhist practice in Eugene many years ago while he was a student at the University of Oregon. A long-time congregation member offered up that she gave meditation instruction to Rev. Hugh on his first visit to the Priory. Rev. Hugh was transmitted by Rev. Master Daizui Macphillamy—then Head of the Order—in 1997. He has spent the last 13 years at Throssel Hole, serving as extern sacristan, treasurer, chaplain to the abbot, Buddhist chaplain at Newcastle University and many other functions. We are quite pleased to welcome Rev. Hugh back to the US and to our circle in Eugene.
This has been a year of “many things” coming from left field to disturb whatever equilibrium I can manage. I recently remarked to a congregation member that sometimes I feel that all I do is “trouble shoot.” I commented to a fellow monk that my first response to everything that comes up that needs my attention is, “How much of my time is this going to take?” Not particularly helpful to me or to anyone else.
Lately, I have begun to carefully watch how frequently and easily I feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of my day. And what occurred to me—and as time went on what became more and more clear—is that whatever is arising in my life, no matter how busy I might be, “busyness” is not the issue. What is at issue is my own mind (not again). I often live with a basic attitude of everything that comes up that I cannot control (like most things) is a problem. Yes, I am conjuring up problems with my mind. The problem part is only my particular spin on things. What arises is not by nature a problem; I see it as a problem. I have an opinion about it and am actually, if I look closely, a bit outraged. At what, for what? For the world not being subject to my individual will?
Okay, so I began to entertain the idea that whatever arises is just life happening. This is what needs my attention now, so do this. Can I see that whatever arises is inherently neutral? Isn’t this what we learn from sitting zazen? It’s all scenery. We don’t need to use it as feed for our ongoing story line about how overwhelmed we are. We don’t need to make judgments about whether we like it or dislike it. Just get on and do the next thing.
Am I able to do the next thing without that harassed, pushing energy? It isn’t the activity that exhausts us. It is the pushing to get it done or get it right or get it, get it, get it that exhausts us. Aware of this, now when I see myself pushing, I back away, slow down, ask myself, “Can I do this without pushing?” Yes, you can and more smoothly, more happily, and even more efficiently. Understand this is definitely a work in progress for me. Sometimes I put it all down and sometimes I don’t. I do note the difference: pushing is the cause that leads to the effect of stress.
Here’s a simple example. A year or so after I came to Eugene Priory, I noticed that before I set out to do errands in town I would look at my watch and determine that I should be back by a given time. This meant all the errands had a rushed, desperate quality. No relaxing here. When I saw this I realized that I usually came home tired because of the pushing, the trying to accomplish, not because of the errands themselves. So I stopped predicting when I should return and the whole quality of the errands went through a change. Just do this now, then do this now. When I catch myself looking at my watch or rushing, I stop for a moment, relax. It is mind that trips us up, not the number of errands. You don’t have time to slow down? It is interesting that it generally doesn’t take any longer to do errands with this mind set, and it is so much more pleasant.
Am I giving you a lesson in mindfulness training and stress? Well, partly. But let’s take it a bit further. Really, I am giving you an example of how we use our mind to create our own suffering, and that understanding has Buddhist underpinnings.
Let’s look at Shantideva’s, The Way of the Bodhisattva. In the 8th century, Shantideva tells us:
“Wandering where it will, the elephant of mind will bring us down to pains of deepest hell. No worldly beast however wild could bring upon us such calamities.”
No worldly beast—no external thing—can bring us to such dire consequences as our own state of mind. The good news is that we can do something about this. We can’t do anything about many of the things that happen in our lives, but we can stop contributing to our own suffering with the ideas, beliefs, expectations, prejudices and limited perspective of our mind.
“If with mindfulness’ rope, the elephant of the mind is tethered all around, our fears will come to nothing, every virtue drop into our hands. Tigers, lions, elephants and bears, snakes and every hostile beast, those who guard the prisoners in hell, all ghosts and ghouls and every evil phantom, by simple binding of this mind alone, all these things are likewise bound. By simple taming of this mind alone, all these things are likewise tamed. For all anxiety and fear, all sufferings in boundless measure, their source and wellspring is the mind itself.”
Who can we blame? Only ourselves and our rampaging minds. And don’t forget the good news: this is in our hands.
May 16, 2019
I am sitting at my desk looking out at spring bursting forth: leaves are opening on the Japanese Maples and the old and venerable wild cherry trees that grow throughout the property are in full blossom. With the windows open, I can smell the deep smell of new soil and of Douglas Fir mulch. And what is on my mind? Old age and death (in spring?)—not separate from the cherry trees with their informal charm. In this issue I share some thoughts on old age and death. Please know that these are thoughts, musings. You may experience your own aging in a different way.
You may also be interested in “Expanding Our Understanding” at the end of this issue where talks and videos are shared that may be helpful in your practice.
As always, you are invited to respond to this issue of “Walking the Buddha Way” at email@example.com.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana, resident priest
Some Thoughts on Old Age and Death:
Does a ‘Good’ Buddhist Grieve?
For the last few years, old age has been an ‘underground’ recurring theme of my practice. Recently, I was speaking with another monk about this and we began to talk about loss: of our senses (literally); of words and concepts; of people we are close to; of physical strength and endurance; of imagined new beginnings. Old age seems to bring this sense of loss. In expressing this, the word that comes to me is “grief.” Generally, though, when I bring up this grief, people tend to move away. They respond in an optimistic, positive way: it is not like that for them; they are happier than they have ever been; and, of course, old age confirms that all is change and impermanence so what’s to get upset about, right? That doesn’t mean all is easy. There can be grief. It is not that we ‘should not’ grieve about the changes that come with old age, but more that we might embrace this grief with a deep understanding and acceptance.
I remember talking during a Sunday morning discussion about how I sometimes struggle with aging. What it seemed to me I got back was denial, was a pushing away with platitudes about impermanence. Also, an implied, “If we are ‘good’ Buddhists, then we take old age and death in stride.” My response to this was a quiet retreat, and inside a loneliness. If we are ‘good’ Buddhists, then we look at what is in front of us and our response to it without judgment about how it should be or should not be.
I understand that we do not all have the same experience of aging. This is just my particular slant on it. There are some things that I am relieved to put down as I age: ambition; competition; feeling a need to accomplish something; being driven to prove myself; caring what I look like when I run out to the store (the positive side of becoming invisible as you age). There are other things that are painful because I didn’t know I was doing them for the last time. I have regular images of hiking familiar and loved trails that I took for granted I would always be able to visit, or at least the loss would be “later.” And there are dear friends who died before I had an opportunity to say good-bye. I didn’t know it would be the last time. There is loss.
A few weeks ago I came across an advance directive about what should be done, specifically, if you have dementia and cannot express your wishes when you are dying. Reading the directive I felt this sadness at the lack of trust or faith–that we think we must cover all contingencies, that we believe we can cover all contingencies. Over and over in our lives we can observe our inability to be in control and, if we look, the suffering this desire for control brings. To believe that we can control how we die is a sadness. I have an advance directive for health and a brief letter about funeral arrangements. I also understand that, truly, none of it matters, that suffering comes from all these opinions and decisions about how things must be in order to have a ‘good death’ (or a good life). Anything that we can imagine can’t possibly be as full as the reality of the transformation that may come with death. Can we just trust that? Can we just put it all down and take part in the unfolding of the unknown?
In a 2017 documentary, “Going Home,” Ram Dass talks about his living and dying, and advises us to “make friends with change.” Yes, make friends with change. This doesn’t mean we become indifferent to what is in front of us or hold off any sense of loss. What is actually happening, right now? That’s all. There is a freedom in this. When Ram Dass is asked what he learned in his life, he responds, “What did I learn in this life? Considerable joy.” We can get so caught up in the impermanence in/of our lives that we miss the joy. In fact, impermanence can be the joy. In this world of impermanence, there is also the eternal embrace of the unknown. In The Mountains and Waters Sutra, Shohaku Okumura expresses it like this:
This present moment is the intersection of impermanence and eternity, discontinuation and continuation, phenomenal beings and ultimate truth. Interpenetration of these opposite pairs is the expression of the way of ancient Buddha. It is also the reality of our life…. Everything is always abiding, always there; at the same time, everything is always changing, always coming and going.
Okumura goes on to say:
For now, and for always, this is my koan: How can I manifest the constant, peacefully abiding reality of life, within the reality of impermanence, which is always changing? How can we live awakening to both sides of reality?…. I have to find how I can use the rest of my life to express this reality, the reality before separation of impermanence and eternity.
Uchiyama Roshi expresses this in a poem he wrote shortly before his death:
Samadhi of the Treasury of Radiant Light
Though poor, never poor,
Though sick, never sick,
Though aging, never aging,
Though dying, never dying.
Reality prior to division—
Herein lies unlimited depth.
When we are with someone who is dying, many of us witness the gradual dropping away of all that binds us. It seems a kind of deep, impersonal liberation. What was all the fussing and drama in our lives about? This liberation being so, why the grief? Because, also, there is a loss. It is not that we grieve or don’t grieve, but what we do with grief—or joy—when it comes. Hold it. Don’t close it out. Don’t pick and choose: I want pleasure but not pain; I want joy but not sorrow. One might say that Buddhist practice is about giving everything that comes equal weight (equanimity), and we can only do this if we don’t turn away. Turn toward and welcome everything. Loss is good. Grief is good. It is all good.
Expanding Our Understanding
The items below are helpful reflections of spiritual practice. My wish is that they may contribute to opening up our world and our intention to live according to the Precepts.
Rev. Vivian Gruenenfelder, senior monk of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives,“No Birth, No Death.”
“This talk begins with the opening lines from Dogen’s Shushogi, ‘The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand birth and death completely,’ and then investigates ways of living that derive from our Buddhist practice which help us to know living and dying as one seamless reality.” (from Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey website)
Joan Halifax, Abbot at Upaya Institute and Zen Center, “Dogen’s Koan 152 on Continuous Failure.”
“Roshi Joan Halifax discusses the teachings surrounding the Zen phrase, ‘continuous mistake,’ and explores how it relates to blame and being lost. In a culture of control, Roshi says, ‘We depend on being perfect,’ and yet, in reality, we face ‘continuous failure moment after moment.’” (from Upaya website)
Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Soto Zen priest, “Impermanence Is Buddha Nature.”
“Change isn’t just a fact of life we have to accept and work with, says Norman Fischer. To feel the pain of impermanence and loss can be a profoundly beautiful reminder of what it means to exist.” (from Lion’s Roar website)
Ram Dass, “Going Home,” Netflix documentary, 2017.
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass was paralyzed on one side in 1997 as the result of a stroke. This is a delightful and moving short documentary with Ram Dass at his home in Maui, showing how he lives with grace and equanimity as his life falls away.
And Just Because It’s Spring
A pair of Peregrine Falcons is nesting at the top of the campanile on the UC Berkeley campus. Two chicks have hatched. If you happen to check the live cam at the right time, you may see them come out to be fed.
January 19, 2019
It has been more than 6 months since I sent out an issue of “Walking the Buddha Way.” My intention was for it to be sporadic—as and when—but this is a bit much. Many of you know that I was in a car accident in late August, and it has taken these months to heal, both emotionally and physically. As things begin to settle, I have become aware that there is the initial healing and then there is the emotional and physical “residue” also requiring careful attention. This is where I am now: bones have healed, or are healing, I begin to get my strength back, then muscular and more subtle physical and psychological dimensions show themselves.
The aftermath of the accident has given me much to look at, to let be in the picture, but not take over as the picture. I have an ongoing sense that I should have something profound to say—and I don’t. I can offer that when something comes into your life from left field—loss of job, illness, divorce—proceed carefully. Please do not just “react.” This seems to be a time to move very slowly and deliberately, to allow everything into your awareness, but not to feel a need to act upon or decide anything. Just acknowledge, “Yes, yes, yes,” and continue to put one foot in front of the other.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana LaChance, chief priest
(I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
First, Thank You
I would like to thank all those who helped me and supported the priory during my recovery from the car accident. There are too many of you to mention individually, but I remember in particular being brought lovely vegan meals when I was in rehab, having regular visitors who helped me through the day, and—no small thing—all those who kept our weekly schedule at the priory going as much as possible.
A particular thank you to Rev. Leon Kackman, prior at Portland Buddhist Priory, who visited me several times in hospital and came down to stay the first night I was home from rehab, responding to my anxiety and sense of loss with skill and grace.
A thank you to Ernie Rimerman who took on the responsibility of seeing what needed to be done at the priory while I was away, and of making sure that there was someone to do it. Not an easy task. Also for spending 3 nights at the priory in my early days home while I continued to regain my strength and confidence.
The priory’s 25-year-old Geo Prism (still reliable at 170,000 miles) was totaled in the accident. We had already decided to replace the car in late 2019, but the accident required us to act a bit earlier. Thank you to the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, Pamela Wright, Martha Welches, Linda and Doug Carnine, and Ernie Rimerman for additional funds that gave us the means to replace our car with an immaculate, mechanic-approved 2016 Subaru Impreza.
Shall We Receive the Life We Are Given, Just As It Is?
“In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called ‘the backward step.’ Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step. If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we are taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. [and no nothing.] We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.” —Tara Brach
Sitting down to write, several hours have been spent hopelessly entangled in ideas of who I think I am and should be, underlined by my expectations. Seemingly unwilling to let go of my decision to write about “the backward step,” I kept ignoring what was in front of me: life—uncontrolled, non-judgmental, offering me something, bidding me to look, inviting me to learn the backward step. If I would just release my foothold on the stories and feelings and ideas that sustain my sense of self, I could move by not moving. Can we stop creating the stories, ideals, demands, that shore up our sense of self, can we stop ignoring the voice saying “cease, cease, cease”? Can we receive life just as it is? Receive it, joyfully.
What is clear to me is that our expectations and ideas of who we think we—and everybody else—are prevents us from seeing. “Always doing, never being” comes to mind. I come upon this because I realize that since the accident, I have put this enormous pressure on myself to “perform” or “produce.” You must get better quickly, you must give Dharma talks, you must have something to say for “Walking the Buddha Way.” Perhaps there are times to say nothing. Are we strong enough to do that? Perhaps the authentic self is no self, just call and response; perhaps it is authentic to say nothing, do nothing at this moment in time. (Yes, I am aware of the irony of me, here, gabbing away.) So why the push to produce results? Do I teach by not performing? Do I fail by performing? Do I have it backwards? Perhaps there is no backwards. Learn the backward step.
Words from Eihei Dogen’s “Recommending Zazen to All People” (our Order knows it as “Rules for Meditation”) translated by Kaz Tanahashi, “Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away, and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.”
I don’t believe that learning the backward step means that we step back from something to gain greater perspective, or that we step “within” to a greater self. It is more radical than that. It is more a stepping back and resting in the unknown—wanting nothing, doing nothing, explaining nothing—trusting that the unknown will hold us. We don’t need to be on guard, to plot, manipulate or judge. We don’t need to perform. In the dropping away of body and mind, in the backward step, the light is turned to shine within. Not within to this individual self, within to a spaciousness like the sky. When through our attention we recognize the awake space that holds everything—the sky rather than the bird, pure being rather than me, me, me—we are learning the backward step.
In the quotation cited above, Tara Brach writes, “remember the presence that’s here.” Remember the presence that is here; take the backward step and receive the presence that is here, giving up our ideas about who we think we are (I am very productive!).
Dainin Katagiri puts it like this: “The real present is the full aliveness that exists at the pivot of nothingness, before your conceptual thinking creates an imaginary world through human consciousness. Naming thoughts and feelings is nothing more than a fabrication of consciousness, an attempt of the mind to remain on more familiar ground, holding onto a self.”
I like this very much: “the pivot of nothingness.” You cannot find it; you cannot catch it; you cannot hold it.
Each time we enter the meditation hall and allow “the self to empty the self,” each time we are not dragged around by our thoughts, ideas, opinions, and expectations, we rest in the unknown. We take the backward step and relinquish the self, moment by moment. Then the light shines forth.
In gassho, Oriana
August 14, 2018
It seems to me that this summer is speeding on by—more and more quickly each year (as I get older). I have been watching the last few weeks as the light begins to recede and dawn appear at a later hour. Autumn can bring up a familiar and inexpressible longing that I have come to see as a good and loyal companion.
Rev. Master Meian of Shasta Abbey has invited me to spend some time at “Compassionate Friend,” their Northern California hermitage. All activities on our calendar (the Sept. calendar will be on our website soon), except for Friday morning meditation, will continue while I am away from Sept. 8th until Sept. 21st. We will be closed on Sept. 21st and 22nd and reopen with our usual Sunday morning schedule on Sept. 23rd.
In my life as priest at Eugene Buddhist Priory, I am aware of how “rigid mind” and “flexible mind” both invite themselves in on a daily basis, and how flexible mind can ease our frustrations, disappointments, and fears. Below are some thoughts on how important flexible mind is to deepening the spiritual ground of our lives.
If you have any thoughts or questions, please do contact me by clicking on the email envelope at the bottom of this issue. Thank you.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana LaChance, chief priest
The more years of meditation and Buddhist practice I experience, the more I am aware of the essential nature of flexible mind. Is there acceptance without flexible mind? Can we act with compassion and wisdom without flexible mind? Can we actually listen without flexible mind? In the end, the lack of flexible mind appears to be a large stumbling block to giving up the idea of separation of self and other and to spiritual awakening.
In studying how we learn, scientists sometimes use the term “cognitive flexibility,” which has been broadly described as “the ability to adjust one’s thinking from old situations to new situations, as well as the ability to overcome responses or thinking that have become habitual and adapt to new situations.” We do not need to carry old habits and old stories and old views on right and wrong, good and bad, intelligent and stupid around with us. These habits and views are not us.
In Zen, cognitive flexibility is akin to shoshin, original mind or beginner’s mind, or the mind that doesn’t already have everything figured out—“That’s my story and I’m going to stick to it.” What I see here is rigid mind and the truth of impermanence working at cross purposes. All things are in flux all the time, and our rigid mind wants things to be like this. Since we cannot control like this, frustration and unhappiness result. We have a choice: we can be immovable (and unhappy) or we can accept the transience of all things and move along with everything else.
A key difference I have experienced between flexible mind and rigid mind is that rigid mind tends toward resistance and “no,” while flexible mind is curious and open. Rigid mind says “I know what I know.” Because we won’t let anything into our world that may challenge us, the world where we “know what we know” becomes smaller and smaller.
If having a flexible mind is one of the key elements in moving toward the end of suffering, then why is it so difficult to come by? Self is entrenched in self. When we talk about letting go or dropping something that comes up in meditation or in our daily practice, it occurs to me that it isn’t the thought or feeling so much that we are letting go—it is the self. Over and over again. And that is hard work. Self wants its own way and is most comfortable going along as it always has even though this only heightens our sense of separation.
In being aware of my own “entrenched self,” I have found that the following help me to encourage flexible mind:
- See the rigidity, the hardening, the tightness when it arises. Watch what it does to your body, your heart. Let your body teach you.
- Don’t act or shut down. Slow down, be still, turn inward rather than reacting. When you have the option, wait at least 24 hrs. until rigid mind has softened a bit before speaking or acting. (Do hold off on those instantaneous, reactive texts and emails.)
- Turn toward the feeling or thought that has triggered rigid mind and observe it. What is this feeling or thought? What is it doing for me? My personal favorite: Is any good going to come from this? (If not, do your best to cease and desist.)
- Understand that what has arisen is only a feeling or thought. It’s not you and it’s not “the truth.” It is a cloud passing through a clear sky. No big deal.
- Give rigid mind some space and compassion. Reside in it but don’t be it.
- Relax and loosen your grip. Rigid mind generally comes from wanting something or someone to be a certain way. Relax and look around rather than being lost in your story. What is actually going on? What are we covering over or hiding from when we invite in rigid mind? Do we believe/act as if rigid mind will protect us, keep us from harm? Will it? Study that.
- Say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know how things are now; I don’t know how things should be. What would it be like to to allow the future to unfold without knowing?
When our mind is empty—flexible mind, beginners mind—we are ready to be aware, to observe, to learn, to invite and to not-know. This is where separate self begins to dissolve and where awakening arises.
May 8, 2018
In March, I sent out the priory’s first blog, following our new, more relaxed format. I was eager to get it out before I left Eugene to visit Throssel Hole (see below) and just called it: “From Eugene Buddhist Priory.” Original, right? Now having time to give it some thought, our blog is called “Walking the Buddha Way.” This seems appropriate to me, as each one of us walks the Buddha Way whether we are aware of it or not. A line from our Order’s Lotus Ceremony comes to mind: “Blessed be the Buddha Who wanders step by step to grow the Precious Blossom.”
Below are some thoughts on what it means to walk the Buddha Way.
–Rev. Oriana LaChance, chief priest
Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, United Kingdom
“When We Respect Something”
I recently returned from a month’s visit to Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, the monastery where I lived and trained as a monk from 1997 until 2012. In the time preceding my visit, I had been giving a lot of thought to respect and authenticity in the Buddha Way. My time at Throssel gave me the opportunity to see my life there, and my life here in Eugene, with fresh eyes.
Suzuki Roshi, the founding abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, said, “When we respect something, we will find the true life of it.” When we treat whatever is in front of us—our own delusions, thoughts, feelings, our family and friends, ideas and views we may or may not subscribe to—with respect and do not assume that we already know everything about it, then its life—and our life—can open in surprising and unexpected ways.
Too often, rather than treating everything with respect, we are more interested in reaching and maintaining a supposed secure, fixed position, and in doing so attempt to fix everything and everyone around us in position as well. We also tend to do this in our Buddhist practice—tell me what to do, what to believe, tell me how to be. Truthfully, if we are to have a spiritually mature understanding of the Way, we each must find it for ourselves. The Precepts and the wisdom of Shakyamuni Buddha are a guide, there is the intention to refrain from harm, then we do our very best. Please don’t try to write everything in stone. There is no fixed position; there is doing the best we can with this body in this place at this time. This is the offering that we make. Then we let it go.
In the Kyojukaimon, Great Master Dogen comments on the 10th Precept: “Do not defame the Three Treasures. To do something by ourselves, without copying others, is to be an example to the world and the merit of doing such a thing becomes the source of all wisdom: do not criticize, accept everything.” Dogen is not bowing here to the rugged individualism of “I Did It My Way” (come hell or high water). Rather, we each take refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as they are expressed through this being in this time and place. We are able to do this only when we completely accept what is in front of us—no distinctions.
When something arises—whether it is an illness that will radically change your life or tension between you and a good friend—how do you meet it? Can you respect everything that comes? By respect I mean: listen, let it express itself, dwell with it and get to know the true life of it. We are better able to do this if we are still, rather than jumping to conclusions and reacting from our fixed position—our typical conditioned, automatic reaction/response (which need not be writ in stone).
It is also important to respect our own thoughts and feelings. A good way to encourage this is to ask what is present in our mind, our body, our heart. Listen to it, bow to it, and then express appreciation and gratitude for it. For every bit of it. Dwell there. One Buddhist teacher describes this as, “Stay close and do nothing.” When we hold and respond to what is in front of us in this way, both our experience and our response to the experience may change, and we can come to recognize the impermanent nature of all things.
Great Master Dogen said that “the other shore is already reached.” In other words, this shore and the other shore are the same. We can only stand on one shore—the shore we are standing on right now. This life that we are living and the life of the buddhas are the same. We can realize this by forgetting the self—or the perspective of me, me, me—and when we forget the self, the Buddha’s life is our life.
Each of us can practice only as this being. We begin by respecting this being in this body in this place and time. That is all we have. Living at Throssel, I frequently saw myself as a “problem monk” or an imposter hiding in monk’s clothing. I was trying to mold myself into a form that wasn’t a true expression—repressing, suppressing, stuffing myself in. That is until everything would burst out in a way that was harmful to myself and others. This only magnifies what we view as our separation from the truth and can result in despair and feelings of being unworthy or stained. The abbot at Throssel recently referred to this sense of unworthiness as “the tyranny of good.”
Whether monk or lay Buddhist, let us learn to practice as this being in this body and time. Then: how do I best express Buddha, embody Buddha? When we are able to respect ourselves and others in this way, we can know our true life.
March 6, 2018
Do you remember how the Peanuts cartoon character, Snoopy the beagle, sits on top of his dog house wearing his aviator gear, scarf caught up by the wind, typing fiercely on his typewriter, “It was a dark and stormy night.”? So it seems to me, here, as I sit in front of my iMac and begin to put down some thoughts. Of course, a dark and stormy night is never the full picture—both Snoopy and I dramatize.
January and February have been months for turning inward and for being aware of the ebb and flow of life and death. We are always within the ebb and flow of life and death; it is our place to deeply engage with and know the completeness of this.
On January 3rd our sangha friend, Marilyn Kratt, died at the age of 93. Marilyn would tell stories about going to the first priory building in Oakland, CA—right by the freeway overpass—for meditation and talks with Rev. Master Jiyu. She also spoke about her first trip to the newly-purchased property in Mt. Shasta, now Shasta Abbey. Eager for some kind of wisdom to show her a way out of her suffering, Marilyn—as many of us—was hampered by her opinions, her demands of herself and others, and by her complaining mind. Aware of this, Marilyn did her best to use these obstacles as spurs to encourage her in her thirst for the truth.
Watching Marilyn gradually “fade away” in the last few years of her life, and seeing her become more and more content as memories, old grudges and longings dropped away, was a teaching in the koan of life and death.
In Zen Is Eternal Life, RM Jiyu wrote of koans as “any problem in one’s training which one needs to face, penetrate, clarify and transcend. . . . Whether the koan appears as a simple problem—a seeming obstacle which needs to be sorted out—or as a fundamental question of life and death, it can only be understood through meditation.” What I have been observing in myself and others is that although the koan appears naturally in daily life, there are times we will do most anything to avoid it, fight it, or take a very wide berth around it. It takes faith to welcome “our” koan, to say yes to it. It is not a question of answering a koan, but rather of looking at what arises in us out of the koan.
To watch someone die slowly, to gradually ebb away, is a lesson in no-self. All those adjectives that I may have used to describe Marilyn, and she to describe herself, fell away. When I sat with Marilyn, the question arose for me, “Who is the Marilyn that is not time-bound?” or, more succinctly, “Where is Marilyn?” I cannot quite capture it, and perhaps we never can capture it: “Who, what is this being in front of me?” As Marilyn approached death, it seemed there wasn’t a being at all, only essence. Put in other words, as the individual died away, the universal, Buddha Nature shone through.
When Marilyn’s memories were all but erased, she remarked, “Now I have to live in the present, because that’s all I have.” And what I witnessed was Marilyn becoming lighter and lighter. The present was enough—clear and unblemished by the past or future. The grievances? No longer important; no longer there at all. What remains? Freedom, gratitude.
On February 26 our dear priory cat, Raja, died of kidney disease. Raja was our temple cat for 17 plus years. He was much beloved by the congregation and by myself and had a most engaging way of teaching us how to meet his slightest request. He was a very vocal cat (at times annoyingly so) and had particular sounds to indicate particular things—mainly desires, excitement, or objections of some sort. His excitement cry was my favorite—sort of like the high-pitched squeal of a 2-year-old. He was truly a good and gentle companion and, in his later years, a primo lap cat.
A congregation member asked about the phrase in the animal funeral, “Discard this karmic body quickly and enter the world of purity.” He wanted to know how that jived with “cats there are some kinds…that perfect are just as they are” in the Most Excellent Mirror–Samadhi. It seems to me there is no contradiction here: leave this karmic body quickly and perfect as they are. So, too, for each of us, as for all beings.
And, Finally. I will be at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northern England from March 20 until April 20. While I am away, there will be no scheduled morning meditation periods. All other calendar events will continue with the help of congregation members. Please see the calendar on our website: eugenebuddhistpriory.org
Expanding Our Understanding
I am reading a new book by Mark Epstein, a Buddhist in the Insight Meditation tradition and psychiatrist practicing in Manhattan. Over the past 30 years, he has written five books about psychotherapy and Buddhism. The most well-known is Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. The book I am reading now is Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. Epstein calls it Advice Not Given because for many years he has refrained from explicitly “mixing” therapy and Buddhism. What is his “Guide to Getting Over Yourself?” It is the Eightfold Path, and he writes about each one from both the perspective of Buddhist practice and of therapeutic healing. I may not understand the teaching in quite the same way that he does, yet found this pretty interesting. I particularly recommend it to those of you who are therapists.
Rev. Oriana, chief priest
Winter Newsletter 2017
Writing on a cold, frosty December day, I am aware that the ice storm that did so much damage to the priory property last year was on December 14th. It has taken almost a year for cleanup to be completed, and over 200 trees are still to be planted in January. Thank you, again, to all who have helped with the property this year through your financial donations and hard, physical work.
For some months, I have been considering changing the nature of our quarterly newsletter. Beginning in 2018 there will no longer be a newsletter per se, but rather a more informal, more frequent blog that doesn’t have the constraints of being “news.” What this means is that I may give you some news or underline upcoming events; I could also send out some thoughts on Buddhist practice, or a discussion of something I have read, viewed or listened to on various media. My idea is that the blog will be informal, short, and wide-ranging in content. The first such blog will be sent out some time in February. This will be our format for 2018 and I will watch where it leads and if it seems useful as an aid to our practice. Any feedback from you will be much appreciated.
In this issue the thoughts I share with you are on the phrase “the mind of poverty.” A potent phrase for the idea of impoverishment—what I have is not enough—and how a gratitude that is not dependent on externals moves us beyond “enough” or “not enough.”
My best wishes for a quiet and healing winter season.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana, chief priest
The fall and winter months are a time of ceremony and festivals. We have celebrated Segaki (Feeding of the Hungry Ghosts) on Oct. 22nd, and on December 10th had our Enlightenment Day festival and potluck. These festival days underline the continuity of our lives as Buddhists and mark our practice and commitment through the years. They also nurture the history and life of the Sangha.
We had a lovely, autumn day for our November Founder’s Memorial for Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett. Because the weather invited us out, we began the memorial in the meditation hall and then moved to the priory’s stupa for a recitation of “Adoration of the Buddha’s Relics,” as we circumambulated the stupa commemorating Rev. Master Jiyu. In November we also had a Sunday Remembrance Day for all who have died “throughout all time and space” as the result of war or terrorism.
It was lovely to get a visit from Rev. Master Leandra Robertshaw, vice-abbot at Throssel, in mid-August. She was on her way to visit Shasta Abbey, have some renewal time and attend the 2017 Order Conclave. We had a relaxed time walking various parts of Eugene and sharing our days together. Later in August we had a visit from Rev. Master Seikai Luebke of Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple in Southern California. He was visiting family who live in Eugene and also made time to join us on a Sunday morning for a Dharma talk and tea. Many of the priory congregation have known Rev. Seikai for some years. Finally, Rev. Wilfrid Powell, Rev. Jishin Kinson, and Rev. Elinore Agnew stopped in Eugene for three days on their way from Throssel Hole to Shasta Abbey to attend the Order Conclave. It was lovely to have their company at the priory and to introduce them to the congregation and to our temple.
2017 Order of Buddhist Contemplatives Conclave
The latter two weeks of September I attended the Order Conclave, along with more than 30 other monks of the Order from our temples in North America and Europe. These conclaves are held every 5 years to look at existing rules and procedures of the Order and to put in place operating rules that may not yet have been ratified by the community. This can be seen as an exercise in tedium, but I came away aware of the value of looking communally at our lives as monks of the Order and coming together to draw a picture of our common understanding of what that life entails. For myself, I went from being impatient with all the “procedure” to a sense of common ground and support among temples of the Order. I also gained an appreciation of the value of consensus decision-making, where the group is required to look for acceptable resolutions that can be supported by each participant even though they might not choose to “vote for” that resolution. Rather than putting things to a vote, participants seek to reach general agreement. What this means is that we must talk to each other—seems that this can only be to the good.
I recently came across the phrase “the mind of poverty” and was struck by its power. It is the mind that is impoverished. We are not speaking about material poverty, but rather emotional and spiritual poverty. The sense that we can have of lacking something, of somehow being shut out, or of being unable to give or receive love. Along with this sense, there is frequently a wish to be anywhere other than where we are, an idea that if we could just get a hold of our life, if we could be “over there” rather than “here,” we could be content, full rather than impoverished. This desire to be somewhere other than where we are is often the root of our suffering and augments our inability to be right here, to do what is in front of us with a degree of integrity and grace.
One of Webster’s definitions of “integrity” is “the quality or state of being complete or undivided.” Undivided. The mind of poverty seems to be based on division: me and them; having and not having; what I have and what I want; or what I have and what I believe I deserve. Many of us attempt to feel better by telling ourselves that at least we are fed and clothed, or at least we have our mental capacities, or at least we are not as bad off as our good friend who has cancer or our neighbor who lost their job. Comfort by comparison. Superficially, this way of thinking may comfort us in the short run, yet in the end it only reinforces our division. We want to be on the “good side” of this division, the “comfortable side.” We still haven’t addressed the cause of the mind of poverty—that is, our inability or unwillingness to accept the natural ebb and flow and impermanence of any state in which we find ourselves. Instead, we scramble to stay on the “right side” of the line, the side that offers ease and pleasure and a happy ending. When we fall onto the “wrong side” of the line—even by the circumstances of any given day—we may have a day (or a life) of complaining and despair.
It is gratitude that brings us back to the undivided. Not gratitude that arises from being on the comfortable side of the divide, but rather gratitude that arises from life itself. To be grateful for this or that, to count our blessings is a beginning, but such gratitude is dependent on things going the way we wish them to. There is a gratitude that is not based on anything external or temporal, on any accounting that balances out on the pleasure side. Such gratitude can always be withdrawn or diminished by the circumstances of our life. The gratitude that arises from the ground of being cannot be diminished. It just is. No this or that, just immensity. Just, yes.
I am recalling the poem “Thanks” by W.S. Merwin that I read to our congregation a few years ago. (See https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/thanks for the complete poem). The poem was well-liked and, at the same time, there were objections. Of course you can be thankful for the night sky and the water, but “for wars and the police at the door, and the beatings on stairs”? There is a gratitude that hums along, not always recognized or heard, that is not dependent on does this make me feel good or not, or do I like this or not, or even is this just or not. It is beyond any duality and extends deeper than any mind of poverty in which we may mistakenly seek to find comfort.
Merwin’s poem ends:
“we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is”
Expanding Our Understanding
What recommends the items below is their reflection of spiritual practice. My wish is that they may contribute to expanding our world and our intention to live according to the Precepts.
Documentary: Chef’s Table, Season 3, Episode 1: Jeong Kwan (Netflix).
Zen Buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan, is chief cook at Baegyangsa Temple, South Korea. Her meals have left some of the world’s best chefs in awe. For Jeong Kwan, cooking is a central part of her spiritual practice and a powerful way of spreading the Dharma. The priory community watched this together on Thanksgiving weekend. Lovely teaching, gorgeous forest hermitage. (Thank you to Collette for the recommendation.)
Dharma Talks: Four talks on “intimacy” in the Soto Zen tradition from Rev. Master Daishin Morgan’s August sesshin at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Talk three on “Aloneness and Intimacy” is given by Rev. Berwyn Watson.
Essay: Joan Halifax, “Compassion in the Charnel Ground.”
A selection from Roshi Joan Halifax’s upcoming book in which she writes about practicing in the midst of suffering. Joan Halifax is Abbess of Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“We don’t have to go to Tibet or into a war zone to practice in a charnel ground. The charnel ground is a metaphor for any environment where suffering is present—a Japanese hospital, a school room, a violent home, a mental institution, a homeless shelter, a refugee camp. Even a space of privilege, like the corporate boardroom or Wall Street trading floor, can be a charnel ground. Really, any place that is tainted by fear, depression, anger, despair, disrespect, or deceit is a charnel ground—including our own mind.”
Summer Newsletter 2017
We are having a lovely summer in Eugene. I was hoping to see our resident fox from last summer, but she hasn’t been around. We do have a doe who gave birth on the side drive and she and her fawn come through most days, sometimes spending the afternoon lying in the shade on one of our few patches of grass.
I am introducing a new feature to our newsletter—“Expanding Our Understanding,” which you will find at the end of this issue. This new contribution may list books, movies, speeches, Dharma talks, newspaper articles, etc. that I have found helpful and encouraging in my practice. Sometimes I say a bit about the entry, sometimes the title alone is explanation enough. For most of the items listed, I have included a link. I will appreciate your response to this newsletter feature. Any suggestions for a better title for this feature?
The thoughts I share with you in this newsletter are on the question, “Aren’t I entitled to have an opinion?”–challenging question with a lot to mull over.
In gassho, Rev. Oriana, chief priest
Wesak. On April 30th we celebrated the Birth of the Buddha with our yearly Wesak ceremony and potluck meal. We take a photo each year of the community in front of the altar, as you see above.
Rev. Leon Kackman’s Induction Ceremony. The first Sunday in May, Rev. Vivian, who came up from Shasta Abbey, and I went to Portland Priory to take part in Rev. Leon’s formal induction as Prior. It was a lovely day with children and family present, and I had the opportunity to meet and visit with a handful of Rev. Leon’s family. It was also enjoyable to see congregation members that I know from my time at Portland Priory in spring of 2012.
Lay Ordination. On Sunday, July 9th, Mick Wahal was given lay ordination at the Priory. Mick has been a regular participant at the Priory for over 2 years and we are pleased to support his commitment to Buddhist practice. Ernie Rimerman acted as precentor and Nancy Fletcher as chaplain. Following the ceremony, there was a Dharma talk on what it means to undertake Zen practice and many of our long-time sangha offered their thoughts on Buddhism in daily life. It was a lovely day, and we all appreciated the opportunity to renew our vows to live as Buddhists, doing our best to refrain from harm and to show compassion to ourselves and others.
I was pleased to have a handful of monastic visitors from Shasta Abbey this spring. Rev. Master Meiko arrived on April 30th and stayed for 4 nights so that we could get in a good visit and a bit of rest time together. She passed through for the night on her way back to the Abbey a few weeks later. Rev. Vivian was here for the nights before and after Rev. Leon’s induction in early May which gave us the opportunity to “walk and talk.”
Rev. Master Haryo visited on May 11th for 4 nights. Conversation and relaxed time together were much appreciated, as well as all the “maintenance work” Rev. Haryo accomplished while he was here. He pretty much worked through the Priory’s “A list” and much of our “B list,” as well as repairing various additional things he noted while he was here that hadn’t yet made it to any list! Particularly helpful was his look at our phone system and setting up the Priory’s voice mail, and the troubleshooting he did on our outside lighting.
Laura Dowsing English and her husband, Tygh, are moving to Kauai, Hawaii this July. They were both feeling a need for a change in their work and environment; Laura has a job in Kauai working with special needs children and Tygh is ready for a possible change in his profession. Laura was given lay ordination by Rev. Master Oswin Hollenbeck in 2012, and I performed their marriage ceremony two summers ago. We wish them both a peaceful and rewarding transition to their life in Hawaii.
Marilyn Kratt, a long-time lay Buddhist and active in Shasta Abbey retreats for decades, is now residing at Sheldon Park in Eugene. At 92 years of age, Marilyn was weakened by a fall in May and the following surgery, and requires the care of an assisted living facility. She has been a valued congregation member at the Priory for 5 years and will appreciate the thoughts and support of the sangha at this challenging time in her life.
The Priory community would like to thank the following sangha members who have offered work and services to the Priory:
- Martha Welches for taking on our sacristy cleaning. She has been keeping the meditation hall altars clean and the candle and water offerings fresh.
- Colette Hestbeck continues to come by one Wednesday morning each month to do whatever work is helpful at the time. She has pruned trees, transplanted in the garden, cleaned bathrooms, and various other tasks that contribute to the life of the Priory.
- Mick Wahal is here again this spring and summer regularly offering his services on Wednesday mornings. He has kept the stupa and surrounding area clean, used a power washer on buildings, walkways, and statues, done “weed wacking” numerous times and experimented with burning weeds along walks with a propane torch (pretty successful).
- Talbot Bielefeldt, who spent a morning giving the carpet in our common room a thorough clean—much needed with our old cat, Raja, in residence.
In June, the Priory received the donation of a Buddha statue from Laura and Tygh English. The statue had belonged to Laura’s mother, who introduced her to Buddhism and to the Priory. They also donated a wooden, outdoor bench and another lovely wooden bench made by Tygh, and numerous household and food items.
Thank you Martha, Colette, Mick, Talbot, Laura, and Tygh for the contributions you make to our community.
“Aren’t I entitled to have an opinion?”
A few weeks ago, I was questioning something a relative said to me and she responded, “Aren’t I entitled to have an opinion?” Being raised in my family—opinions are how we relate to one another (the one who states their opinion the loudest and most consistently “wins”)—and being American—the land of “free speech”—my initial response was, “of course.” Doesn’t freedom mean I can express myself in any way I please and you can’t stop me, thank you very much? Okay, but something in me was uncomfortable with that and I carried the question, “Aren’t I entitled to have an opinion?” around for several weeks. And what came up for me was, “No, actually, you are not entitled to have an opinion.” What a surprise!
Part of the issue for me is the word entitled. It is our right to go around having opinions all over the place without any information, understanding, curiosity? Without any consideration of the effect our opinions might have on others, basically wrecking havoc and causing division, taking sides with our opinions. Why so? Because our opinions are who we are? For myself, and I believe for most of us, our opinions are frequently just a spewing out of habitual and conditioned responses without much thought, without listening, and without looking at the particular situation or person in front of us right now. And we are entitled to do this?
Things are not helped in this regard with the internet’s culture of review and comment, encouraging us to have something to say about everything. And we lap it up, and (frequently) out of ignorance and delusion suddenly we are authorities. Why do we believe that what we have to say is so important, or that it will be helpful in any way? For my part, I desist. Well, once I did break my resolve and commented on how absolutely fantastic a mushroom-chard enchilada recipe is on one of my favorite vegetarian blogs. Not much harm done there. But, it does give me that addictive feeling of my opinion matters, the world cares what I think, and the belief that I have something to say. And, yes, it can be addictive.
As part of my Buddhist practice I encourage myself to have fewer opinions, not to take them too seriously, and to understand that they are only opinions, not “truth.” When I look at my life, and some of the opinions—most likely born of ignorance—I have expressed with great conviction and certainty, I am deeply embarrassed. Am I the only one? I see insecurity, fear, stubbornness, delusion. I don’t see a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. Let’s look at this squarely: opinions are just as likely (I want to say more likely) to be a prison that holds us in than an expression of liberation or freedom.
Okay, we are human beings with thinking minds, we are going to have opinions. What do we do with all these “if I ran the zoo” opinions?
One, let’s hold our opinions lightly, not taking them so seriously as if our very life depends upon them, and upon others’ agreement with them. Opinions can be the beginning of a much-needed and helpful dialogue, if we are able to drop our belief that our opinions are truth, and if we can listen.
Two, let’s acknowledge that we do not run the zoo and that we can save a lot of energy and grief by just dropping our opinions. We don’t need to make everyone/everything be the way we want them to be—in fact, we can’t.
Three, when we have an opinion, do we need to express it? Let’s look at the Buddha’s five questions to ask before we speak: “Do I speak at the right time? Do I speak the truth? Do I speak gently? Do I speak helpful words? Do I speak with a kind heart?” This will shut a lot of us up a lot of the time. I assure you, you will not die if you keep your mouth shut. I know, sometimes it feels like it.
Four, when we have an opinion—particularly a strong, ingrained, habitual opinion—does it hold up to the Precepts? By this I mean, is the opinion itself harmful? Does it flow from compassion or from the desire to be right? Is it born from ignorance, fear, desire? If it comes from the “I want what I want when I want it” perspective (some people call that freedom) then the potential for harm is great. Does it adhere to right thought, right speech, right action? We might also ask ourselves, “Is this an informed opinion or am I just spouting off?”
Yes, you can come back to me with, “Well, everything you say here is opinion.” True, and I can be fairly insistent about it. (When I become aware of my tendency to insist, I do my best to step back.) I trust that there is teaching here for your life. It is not my teaching; it is Buddhist practice, arising from a wish to live by the Precepts. Look at your own life. Try it for yourself.
I don’t wish to get too carried away here so let me bring this to an end with a reality check. Every day we make choices, decisions, discriminate between this and that, and this is an integral and essential part of our lives. It is so automatic that generally we aren’t even aware that we are making choices. Let’s base these choices and decisions on an understanding of the Precepts, on what it is good to do, on an ability to look at the big picture. We don’t need to base our choices on fly-by-night opinions that arise from our karmic tendencies or from our ingrained, habitual responses that do more to confine us than to free us. Let’s be aware of our opinions and the consequences—to us and to others—of our opinions. In particular, let’s ask, “Do they cause harm? Are they helpful?” That’s all. Lightly, lightly, lightly.
Expanding Our Understanding
As I am enthused about this new feature in the Priory’s newsletter, I am including quite a bit this first time. What recommends the items below is that they teach us about spiritual practice in the world. They also elicited a “Wow, that’s beautiful,” or “Here’s something to think about,” or “What a wonderful way to express this teaching” or “I hadn’t quite looked at it this way before,” from me. I hope that they will also contribute to expanding your world and your daily practice. The recommendations I include here reflect my particular slant on things; please don’t assume that they represent the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.
Movie: “Taking Chance” with Kevin Bacon (available on Amazon Prime). This movie shows the formal steps taken by the American military to bring the bodies of those who have died in war back to their families. This was a real education for me. Guiding a body home takes the support of many beings and reflects humility, generosity, and service.
Documentary: “White Helmets” (available on Netflix). Best short documentary at 2017 Academy Awards. The White Helmets is a non-partisan, humanitarian organization of “first responders” in the ongoing war in Syria who are dedicated to saving as many lives as possible after bombings. What is a bodhisattva? Watch this for clear and moving examples from people who are asking, “What is it good to do?”
Three Dharma Talks from Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey and Shasta Abbey
“Great Master Dogen and Buddha Nature,” Rev. Master Daishin Morgan
“Intuition,” Rev. Master Leandra Robertshaw
“Internal Disarmament,” Rev. Margaret Clyde
Pope Francis, “Why the Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone.”
“What Makes a Good Life?” Robert Waldinger discusses a 75-year-study at Harvard Medical School. Waldinger is the current researcher of 4 generations of scientists to guide this study. He is also a Zen Buddhist. What makes a good life? In a nutshell: connection, cooperation, compassion.
From The New York Times
Mitch Landrieu’s Speech on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans.
An excellent example of right speech, right action and skillful means from the mayor of New Orleans. What is impressive here is that Landrieu excludes no one, showing empathy and understanding for all viewpoints. I highly recommend reading or watching the full address (link within article).
Winter Newsletter 2017
On December 12th we celebrated the Buddha’s Enlightenment at our Enlightenment Day Festival. Earlier in the week we sang invocations and did recitations as an offering to Shakyamuni Buddha and to show gratitude for His teaching. The festival was followed with a potluck meal and lively discussion.
On New Year’s Eve we celebrated with a traditional Buddhist ceremony and a social tea to see in the New Year. There was a drop-in open house on New Year’s Day in the afternoon to offer congregation members the opportunity to do bows in our meditation hall—a traditional practice in the Buddhist world—and to share an informal tea.
The priory closed on January 2nd for three weeks in order to give me a period of rest and reflection at the beginning of the year.
In mid-January, Rev. Leon, prior at Portland Buddhist Priory, and Rev. Allard of Shasta Abbey stopped by on their way down to Shasta. It was enjoyable to see them both, and we engaged in a lively discussion about what we as priests can offer and how to take part in bridging the widening political divide in the United States.
The Priory Grounds
I had imagined that there would be no entry on the Priory grounds in this newsletter, as my intention was to take a break from my focus on the property and to spend more quiet time inside this winter. Instead, we had a severe ice storm on December 16th—expectation trips me up again—that did significant damage to our grounds with the loss of uncountable trees. Except for minor damage to several structures, the buildings were spared.
I decided not to begin cleanup until we reopened in late January so that I could have a retreat period. We are now in the throes of cleaning up the storm damage and, at the same time, looking at fire danger and other concerns. There was a section of property with a significant number of dead Douglas fir and with the storm damage on top of that, it became pretty much a tangle of ground cover (mostly poison oak and black berry bushes), fallen branches and dead trees. With the advice of a forester who walked through the Priory property with me, the decision was made to remove all the trees and dead plants from the area (pretty much “clear cut”) and to replant it in the fall with cedar and Ponderosa pine, as well as some native deciduous trees. It is rather a shock, and disheartening, to see the bare land and to imagine the animals who once lived there. Yet when I revisit the decision, I still end with “this needed doing.”
Service to the Eugene Community
At our last community meeting in 2016, we decided to explore making an offering of service to the Eugene community. This decision came partly from a wish to take part in a positive activity of support in light of the negativity and “name-calling” from both sides during the presidential election. A group of those interested met in early February and discussed in more detail possible directions for contributing to the community. The following three opportunities for service were highlighted:
- Food for Lane County, volunteering at their central office, in “The Dining Room” which serves meals at no charge, or working in the garden that provides fresh vegetables and fruits for their meals.
- Community Supported Shelters, offers temporary housing for up to 85 homeless people and aims to find training, employment and/or more permanent housing for residents. There are many different types of volunteer work—from office work to counseling to cleanup–through this organization.
- Ann’s Heart Women’s Shelter, a new transitional housing unit for homeless women jointly supported by Ebbert Memorial United Methodist Church and St. Vincent de Paul.
Various members of the sangha offered to gather further information on each of the above and the community service “team” will meet again in the near future.
If you have interest in working with the Priory on service to Eugene–or have an interest in remaining in the loop about our service–and your name is not yet on our email list, please let Talbot Bielefeldt at email@example.com know and he will add you to the list.
A Thank You
I wish to thank those who were of help to me during the storm and following 5 days without electricity or water, in particular: Nancy Fletcher who—even though her house had significant damage from fallen trees—came to check on me the day following the storm when she couldn’t get through by phone; Dixie Feiner who offered the use of her shower and bought me a warm lunch at a nearby restaurant; Ernie Rimerman who brought food and water to the priory; Wendy Schwall who left four, 5-gallon bright red (cheered me up immensely) buckets filled with water on our porch when I was out so that I could flush the toilet and also other helpful LED lights to be used when the electricity is out.
I would also like to thank Mick Wahal, who found the services of a logger and covered the cost; and to Ernie Rimerman, Myron Cook and Al LePage for their very generous financial donations in response to the expense of cleanup and other work on the grounds. My deep gratitude to you and to everyone who made offerings of help during this time.
Further donations toward the cleanup and care of our 4-plus acres will be received with gratitude.
A Bit More About “Welcome”
You may recall that in our last newsletter I talked about welcoming what comes to us each day. Finding openness in our hearts to our difficulties and empathy for the difficulties of others, are we able to say “this is what is here now” without complaint or judgment? Yes, we have preferences. Can we lay our preferences aside and do what needs to be done?
This has been on my mind the last few months because of the ice storm that occurred in Eugene in mid-December—on-the-ground training in “welcome.” Due to several drought years, trees competing for limited light and then an ice storm that put great strain and weight on trees and branches that were already growing “sideways,” we lost many, many trees in the storm. This requires a major cleanup—figuring out what needs doing and in what order, hiring people, looking at the financial side.
So the question I asked myself was, “Am I able to welcome this demand, coming in from left field, on my time and energy and on the priory’s finances?” Too, there is a grief at losing so many fine trees and the wild life they helped to support. This has been difficult for me to do. I will gain and then lose equilibrium, gain and lose perspective—I want to say, gain and lose control, but I never had control.
And yet, and yet, as I watch the process in me and am aware of how I respond as each thing comes up, I have learned that welcoming comes more easily in bits. Not can I welcome the whole mess, but how about what is happening today: can I welcome the insurance adjuster, the estimate for stump grinding, the various and often conflicting suggestions on how to proceed? So I am doing my best to welcome in bits—moment to moment—and some days I do better than others. And that’s okay. If I am feeling overwhelmed, I try to back up and take smaller bites (or bits).
I can put a great deal of effort into trying to make things happen now, when they just are not going to happen now. The sense of always pushing, chasing after and not accomplishing a lot—that is what wears me out. Can I drop all that? What is it good to do today, or even right now? Maybe it is good to make lots of arrangements, and maybe it is good to take a day off from the mess, step away.
What tires me, what is stressful is not trusting that everything is okay, and everything will be okay. Learning that “even when I’m not okay, I’m okay.” Yes, I can see that. There is something below the whole process that hums along, that is okay. Be quiet enough to recognize that place, act from that place.
A congregation member recently remarked that it is difficult enough to accept some things, particularly difficulties, let alone to actually welcome them. Yet what a load off if we can just open the door every day and say welcome, regardless of what is knocking. That can certainly lead to an end of suffering. At the same time, it doesn’t work to use welcome as an exercise or strategy because we think then life will be easier. (A begrudging, “Hey, I don’t like you, but welcome, since welcome will help to reduce the stress.”)
My teacher, Rev. Master Daishin Morgan, recently said to me that acceptance is much deeper than resignation or accommodation. This keeps floating through my mind. I can almost reach it. I tend to look at things in a practical way, acceptance as a way to “manage my life,” to convince myself that everything is fine. I understand this is not what is meant. A deep acceptance or welcome arises from a ground of sufficiency, a trust that we already have what we seek. It is not as if we need to “find” welcome; it is always with us, we are just asked to open the door.
So perhaps at this moment I cannot welcome, and I just want to stay in bed and listen to the rain and comfort myself. Good. See that desire and bow to it. I don’t need to follow. And perhaps tomorrow, bit-by-bit I can welcome with a lightness. Hello, what’s up today? Good. See that and be thankful for the teaching. I have learned more about suffering and the cessation of suffering by watching the consequences of being batted back and forth by circumstances like a ping pong ball. It’s the “mess” in our lives that teaches us, when we are ready to listen.
— In gassho, Rev. Oriana