What is the method that allows us to be “brutally” honest with ourselves in zazen practice? How honest are we willing to be? Are we willing to encounter the confusion of not getting what we seek on our own terms? Asking the question: What is it that separates our deluded life from our Buddha life? Shoan quotes Huang Po, who tells us that “All Buddhas and ordinary beings are one Mind… There is no distinction between the Buddha and ordinary beings, except that ordinary beings are attached to forms and thus seek Buddhahood outside themselves.” Various traditions tell us to “practice mind essence” and “rest in unfabricated and innate naturalness.” How do we “rest” in the display right before us, while avoiding getting lost in the “quicksand of the conceptual mind” where we attempt to replicate the Buddha’s experience through our intellect, ideas and perceptions?
Perhaps all of us can relate to the experience of being alone, when we hear a branch snapping, or leaves rustling, and we find ourselves full of fear and dread. Although sometimes it is appropriate to be alert and ready, how often are we just building up nightmares in our mind? Do we have the same reaction to work or individuals we don’t like? The Buddha spoke of this experience 2500 years ago “I considered thus: if I dwell in such frightening places as woods and forest I might encounter fear and dread. And later I dwelt in such frightening places as woods and forests and while I dwelt there a wild animal would approach, or a peacock would break a twig, or the wind would rustle the leaves and I’d think is fear and dread coming? Then it occurred to me, why do I just keep waiting for fear and dread to come, what if I, in whatever state i’m in, when fear and dread come, where to subdue that fear and dread…” Using this teaching and his personal experience, Senior lay student Gikon, shows us how to step into our experience of fear as practice and realization.
Senior monastic Shoan delivers an impassioned and intimately relatable teaching on our Ango theme of the Bodhisattva path. Speaking from a place of inspiring humility she dives into the predictable stumbling blocks on our path to liberation. At the core, we are often tripped up by the anxiety of the perceived challenge, and the fear of vulnerability. But with piercing wisdom and unbounded compassion Shoan shows us that these mental afflictions can be released. Simply by allowing our experience to be, as it is, we become tender and receptive to reality. Seeing reality, our frantic attempts to protect our “self” begins to dissolve.
Senior Lay Student Yosha brings up the Buddha’s wise words to guide us: “Let not a person revive the past, or on the future build his hopes, for the past has been left behind and the future has not yet been reached”. An amazingly simple teaching, that many of us may have heard before, but how deeply have we felt this truth? Have we given reverence to this fundamental instruction? Yosha asks us, perhaps our challenge in letting go of past and future is the delight in our fantasies? The pleasurable fantasy of “fixing” the future, getting it all right. Or perhaps the sublime feeling of old memories. Yet we know, that as we cling to these mental constructions, we are separated from our lives. Recognizing these temptations we seek to uncover the root of our attachment.
Senior Lay Student Yunen discusses his development of practice through the framework of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma (hinayana, mayahana, and vajrayana) and within our current social crisis. Yunen touches on the intimate and vulnerable experience that is possibly universal to all Buddhist practitioners. The experience of coming to practice for ourselves and our own liberation, only to find that our liberation is deeply connected with all sentient beings. Yet upon this realization of interconnectedness, we find no burden but true inspiration and meaning.
In this talk, senior monastic Gokan digs into the Buddha’s first noble truth, that life is marked by suffering. In the stillness of zazen, we can directly encounter the many forms of suffering, subtle and dramatic, that our mind engages. “Are we ready to let that go?”, Gokan asks, urging us to remember that our habitual distractions will not satisfy us.
Each year the Monastery gardener, Yukon, says he makes a deal with the seed packets he’s planting to ask for their commitment: he will nurture them tirelessly, and they just have to put down good roots and then give themselves away, entirely. This is our practice too—when we sit down and make an “ancient body connection” with zazen, with our buddha nature—we ground ourselves in goodness so that we can give ourselves away entirely, for the benefit of all beings. Keeping alive our wonder and curiosity is the garden dharma, says Yukon, which we can live in any place we are.
Delivered to Zen Mountain Monastery from New Zealand, via Zoom, 8/19/2020
How the Buddhadharma came to Aotearoa/New Zealand is part of Kaido’s story. Another important aspect is how this now 32-year old sangha reflects its own place and time. The sangha made a collective decision to incorporate the cultural restoration of the Mauri people, the native New Zealanders, within their own practice and liturgy along with what has been transmitted from the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. With contemporary writings and relationships, Kaido finds the spiritual teachers of Maori ancestry speaking of this “formless field of benefaction” as the welcoming nurturance and integrity in which we and all creatures are completely enveloped.
For a moving reflection on the development of our Kiwi sangha over the years, watch this short film made for the 30th anniversary, celebrated in 2018.
Unconditional love is the kind that leads dharma teacher angel Kyodo williams to declare her aspiration, “To love those who want me to be invisible.” Along with James Baldwin’s instructions to his nephew on radical acceptance and teachings from the Pali canon on the Three Poisons, Gikon poses the questions: what would it be like to receive this kind of love? As we live into this time of deep division based on our nation’s history of injustice and our collective failure to reckon with that, we can take up this practice wholeheartedly, as the labor of love.
“All dharmas are ultimately liberated, they have no abode. We should realize that although they are liberated, without any bonds, all dharmas are abiding in their own state,” Dogen writes in the Mountains and Rivers Sutra. Shoan speaks eloquently about the reality that this profound statement evokes, noting the ways that the river’s constant flow is mirrored in the swift passage of time, the changing of the seasons, and life’s intractable uncertainty. Our suffering, she explains, is a result of our determination to remain on the bank of the river, observing and judging what passes by. She encourages us to “dive in!”, recognizing that we, like the river, are in a constant state of free movement and remarkable transformation.
“If no wind blows, nothing stirs,” says Shantideva: effort, virya, is needed if our practice is to progress. Here, senior monastic Gokan reflects on how we learn to bring forth joyful effort in periods of intensive practice, even when we feel pulled by rest, comfort, dullness, or discouragement. By cultivating faith, he suggests, we can persist with enthusiasm even when the benefits of practice are difficult to see.
In the teaching of the Five Remembrances, the Buddha urges us to recall that we are subject to old age, illness, death, and loss, and that our only power to shift our karmic experience is through our actions. Speaking from her home via Zoom, senior lay practitioner Seien Wilder takes up this great matter, reminding us that the truth of impermanence, however painful or frightening it may at first seem, is ultimately the root of our liberation.
“Vast ocean of dazzling light, marked by the waves of birth and death.” Shoan uses this powerful line from the memorial service liturgy to speak about how we can trust our connection to the whole, although we appear to manifest as separate beings. Because it is difficult to see our wave-selves as completely one with the ocean, sometimes it is skillful to address enlightened mind as if it is outside of ourselves. Shoan speaks of the importance of this devotional attitude, highlighting the invocations of the sacred feminine already present in our daily liturgy.
In this talk, Gokan investigates the Buddha’s teachings on “knowing how to be satisfied,” taking up these instructions as guidance in letting go of the self-critical voice. He cites Maezumi Roshi’s commentary: “If we know how to be satisfied with ourselves exactly as we are right now, that’s all there is to know.” The solitude of zazen gives up this opportunity to offer ourselves complete acceptance, which is not different, Gokan suggests, from letting go.
Our minds project shape and meaning on all things in the world, and also offer ways to understand how our bodies manifest in the world: how our senses give us entry but also obscure. It is our work to dismantle the thoughts which cause restriction, harm ourselves and others, and to do so in reliance on the Buddha’s teachings can ground us in how we manifest the antidote to suffering and offer it to others in our lives.
Delving into the opening lines of Hongzhi’s Cultivating the Empty Field, senior monastic Bear Gokan Bonebakker reflects on how we purify, cure, grind down, or brush away our habits and attachments. He reminds us that practice will not turn us into a different person – the imperative instead is to meet the whole of ourselves directly, to come to know our own mind and body intimately and lovingly.
In this talk, Frank Kyosho Fallon, a senior student in the MRO, examines the suffering caused by the mind of self-righteousness. Invoking the final lines of the Metta Sutta, “By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world”, Kyosho offers practical guidance in practicing harmony by trusting “the basic peace that doesn’t rely on winning an argument”.
What is it to recognize every being as having been at one time your mother? Senior lay student Seigei explores the practice of gratitude and wonder from the perspective of the interdependence of all beings. Awakening to kindness and deep compassion through a small shift in perspective, we can also recognize that we give birth to goodness and compassion all the time through our own thoughts, words and actions.
How can we create space when everything feels tight and solid, and when emotional reactions have their sway? Senior monastic Shoan brings poetry and practical spiritual practices to help us shift. Following a 18th century Zen master, we can “clarify the way that the illusory mind melts” in zazen and contemplation. And we can cultivate openness by calling to mind gratitude—even for the smallest thing—to express and nourish this intimate, caring mind.
“It’s important how we practice.” With these simple words, senior monastic Gokan urges us to carefully consider what it is we are cultivating as we practice. We need not blame ourselves for our thoughts and emotions, particularly within our grief and uncertainty, and the imperative is to meet them gently and diligently. Offering a powerful reflection on the new life emerging continuously emerging around us, we’re encouraged to look and feel the deep comfort we are always offered there.