Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sex, Teachers, and Conduct

In the midst of the recent teacher scandals within the Zen community and at Integral, I encountered a post that seemed to be a good, sober reflection on the interplay of authority, awakening, and conduct, and on why discussion of teacher conduct, or misconduct, seems so confused.  I suggest it as a grounded, calm discussion that illuminates various of the relevant considerations.

Here is the link.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

A meditation on 9/11 ten years later.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I had hoped that somehow, we as Americans would come to see how the terrorists had arrived at what seemed to me a skewed view of this country, and that we would come to see how much of what we had done in the world which seemed well-intentioned from our own socio-centric perspective made them feel that their own socio-centric perspective was threatened.  I hoped that as a consequence, there could be a reaching out over the violence.  But I was disappointed.

Hee Jin Kim writes of Dogen that one of his deepest, felt insights is that "Death is the ultimate companion of impermanence."  Comprehending our individual and collective responses to the 9/11 events, including the resultant intolerance and violence from all sides, requires that we remember that teaching.  It is the path through the events and the path to transcending the clash of perspectives that caused them.  Ten years later we have moved almost no distance toward bridging the gap of mutual cultural understanding that was at the root of 9/11, or the lack of individual self-understanding that is also at the root of our individual actions.  Mutual compassion can arise only when we realize our common fate as individuals and cultures, and then act to create "others" who are worthy of our understanding and compassion, rather than "others" who are the imputed source of our suffering.

I see no large solution to this lack, only the regular practice of meditative awareness, of introspection, and of manifesting in each of our lives the insight that we create the universe each moment, and the universe we create is a direct reflection of who we are in that moment.  There is the next moment.  We are free to change that universe and ourselves.  We have the responsibility to do so.  The consequences of not doing so are before our eyes today.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Political and cultural activism and Buddhist insight

I read a piece in Tricycle today that I though links the insights of East and West.  Well worth the read.

To me, an essential felt insight of meditative practice is that the subjective, phenomenological universe I inhabit is created by me, and it therefore is as I am.  That perspective gives me large freedom and large responsibility from and for my own suffering.  It is not caused by others.

This insight is valid, and it is partial.

This author does a nice job of shifting from the perspective of the psychological suffering of the individual to the perspective of the culture in which the individual is immersed.  Just as the individual co-creates his or her universe, the culture and the individual co-create each other.  This insight necessarily gives rise to a freedom to change the culture and a responsibility for the suffering the culture causes others.

From this larger perspective, it is very difficult to see how one can be a Buddhist and refrain from being culturally and politically active.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What should the City Center program look like? How can it serve your needs?


I attended the Buddhist Geeks conference with Diane (Musho Sensei) over the last weekend in July.  It made a big impression on me.  I came away thinking that those of us who want to make practice and the Dharma relevant to the average lay person need to ask how we can make it more available, more user-friendly to both younger and older, more available both on a personal level and through cyberspace, all without draining it of its vitality. To me, one step is to make the sangha and both its governance and operation more closely mirror our democratic values.  Another is making the practice and teaching more responsive to busy lay people and more accessible through their varying modes of learning and discourse.  (See my blog posts on this general subject at, particularly the post-Ameland set of posts.)  For me, the first step is to ask you what you want from the teacher, the sangha, and the practice center, including our web presence.  How can we make it work better you? 

The City Center has been open for five months now. We are developing a nice community.  Enough of you have visited, either in person or on line, that it seems time to reach out and ask you what you would like to see develop there.  How can the City Center serve you on your personal path? 

I have asked Bill Tokujen Marchand to invite discussion among all of you on this topic.  Please keep watch on Facebook, on my blog on The Boulder Mountain Zendo website, and in your email box.  You will be hearing more shortly. 

Thanks for your support and interest.

Michael Mugaku Zimmerman

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Uchiyama Roshi's "Opening The Hand of Thought"--book for next Tuesday

Finally, we will discuss Uchiyama Roshi's book this coming Tuesday.  I have read it several times in the past few months and find it to be a very lucid, no frills, succinct statement of the essentiality of zazen practice, and of the essence of Zen.  As a teacher who studied Western philosophy and Christianity, he is able to articulate the similarities and differences in a way that is very approachable and helps orient the Western reader.

Often in Buddhist books, there is an implicit or explicit promise that we should practice expecting some smashing insight, hold before ourselves some goal, some promise of an attainment that will get us "there", a "there" on which we project all our hopes and which is something of a terminal, an end point.  It is a seductive prospect.  But to me it is a distorting promise.  Uchiyama Roshi's teaching seems to me more realistic, more consistent with my own experience of practice.  

A strong commitment, a strong intention is necessary.  Diligent practice is necessary, discipline.  And yet we remain fully human, never free from our mind's tendency to grasp, to hold onto ideas as they arise, or our tendency to slip into inattention.  Never free from pain or pleasure.  He tells us that these are simply aspects of who we are as humans,  that we should not distain, should not try to reject them, to transcend them.  Rather, we should simply hold them in our larger self's awareness, like all other phenomena, holding them in a universal perspective.  Return to our zazen, to the very physical act of sitting, of being in this moment with our breath and body, knowing that we will surely wander off, and yet bring ourselves back again, and again, and again.  All of it is the life of the true self, and realizing that cannot help but give rise to all the phenomena that arise within each of our phenomenological universe.

I find his teaching concrete, realistic, and inspiring without holding out promises of fireworks.  Just a broader and more compassionate awareness of our larger lives, and of the deep necessity of zazen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Uchiyama's "Opening the Hand of Thought"


I posted this as a book we would read and discuss mid August.  Some have noted that it is out of print and on Amazon, listed for about $45 used.  Clearly not within reach.

For your information, on Powell's Bookstore's website (my favorite place in all of Portland), they offer an Adobe version of the book for $15.  It can be downloaded and read on any computer or handheld that opens Adobe.  While reading on a computer may not be the world's best option, I think you will find this book well worth the effort.  (It is also available on a Kindle from Amazon for about $9, but if you don't have a Kindle the Adobe option is best.)



Friday, July 8, 2011

The next book: Uchiyama Roshi's "Opening the Hand of Thought"


Kosho Uchiyama Roshi's book, "Opening the Hand of Thought", is one that Ottmar Liebert first brought to my attention five or six years ago.  Since then I have read it several times and find Uchiyama Roshi amazingly accessible for Westerners.  Direct zazen, without elaborate levels, ranks, koan systems. or other appurtenances.  Yet cutting to the essence.  He explains the Zen practice and insight as clearly as anyone.  A man very much aware of Western rational philosophical traditions, including existentialism, he nicely bridges Eastern and Western thought, putting each in relation to the other.

Our first discussion of this book will be on August 16th.  Kosho Uchimama, "Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice."


Next Tuesday: the last discussion of The Heart Sutra.

The discussion of the Heart Sutra these past weeks has been stimulating.  Red Pine does a great job taking it apart and in giving its historical and philosophical context.  He makes a sutra chanted sometimes mechanically into a very penetrating tool to break up our conceptualizations.  This coming Tuesday we'll finish with the last lines, those relating to the mantra "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate.  Bodhi sattva." Join us.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Student-teacher relationships from a psychological standpoint: A booklet


Here is a link to a booklet Jikyo Roshi, a therapist, produced some ten years ago on the psychological aspects of student-teacher relationships.  It was circulated to all White Plum Asanga teachers at the recent annual meeting.  I am posting this link here because I think the information it contains should be available to anyone contemplating entering into such a relationship.  Many of the ethically problematic issues that arise within spiritual communities can be traced to a lack of awareness on the part of teachers and students of these dynamics.



Friday, June 10, 2011

The Last Word From The White Plum Asanga--Addressing Shadow in the Lineage.


On June 2, 2011, the Board of The White Plum Asanga issued a statement that addressed in general terms certain unspoken shadow elements in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi, announced the resolve of the WPA to move to address such issues in the future more openly and resolutely, and distanced the WPA from the actions of its former President, Dennis Genpo Merzel, who had resigned from the WPA in early February of this year.  That statement can be found at  This statement was issued only after extensive and prolonged discussion within the WPA Board and the general membership, extensive communications with Genpo and with the board of the Kanzeon Zen Center (now Big Mind Center), and a meeting between Genpo and a designated group WPA members.  As a member of the Board of the WPA and of the group that met with Genpo, I have participated in all these deliberations and joined in the statement of the Board.  As a successor of Genpo's, and a friend, I feel a need to make my own position on all this known, without adding any fuel to what I hope is a dying fire.

These discussions, meetings, and actions have been difficult and painful for me.  It is a daunting task to be in a position where you are must consider whether to censure a teacher, much less your own teacher.  Yet this process has had positive consequences for me personally and, I think, for the WPA.  I have had to face my own projections, my own tendency to idealize my teacher, and my own willingness to turn a blind eye to situations rife with ethical issues.  I have also had to be willing to look at my teacher as a peer.

As for the WPA, the process now extending over four months has seen a gradual shift in tone.  At the end, it was less about Genpo and more about the larger issues his situation represents for the WPA, about certain patterns going back decades within the lineage that have given rise to abuses of power by more than a few, abuses that have been treated as anomalies, rather than manifestations of deeper issues.  The discussions over the past months have produced a new-found resolve within the WPA to work toward a consensus statement of core values to which all members can subscribe, and as well the establishment of processes for considering complaints about member teachers alleged to have departed from those values and to have caused harm.

These deliberations may take some time to reach fruition.  The WPA is a voluntary membership affinity group, not a sanctioning or licensing organization.  But the fact that the membership is engaging in these discussions is a positive step for the organization, the lineage, and for Zen in general.  The acknowledgment that certain cultural and structural elements within the institutions of Zen in general, and within this lineage in particular, have permitted unhealthy patterns of behavior to repeatedly manifest in teachers, in students, and in sanghas, is important.  And it is also important that the WPA membership is acting on these insights.  If if this Zen lineage is to continue to grow and prosper, it must accomodate the political and psychological insights of the soil in which it has been planted.  A consequence should be the development of a sangha culture and correlative governance structures that will be premised on a more  sophisticated understanding of the psychological dynamics that tend to develop between teacher and student and sangha, and the perils of those dynamics.

As hard as this entire process has been, as painful as it has been for me personally because of my teacher's unfortunate role as a catalytic agent, I am heartened by what appears to be the consequent developing willingness of the WPA membership to take on these broader issues.  And I am personally relieved to be able to move on with the development of our own sangha, hopefully alert to the challenges that it represents.



Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Next book--Red Pine, "The Heart Sutra"

We discussed Chogam Trungpa's Myth of Freedom last night.  Of course, you can't really discuss a book with that many valuable insights in one evening.  So we had a discussion inspired by a small part of that book.  This experience suggests to me that in the future, we should spend more than one evening on a book, perhaps using it to tee up discussions for several weeks.

The next book we will read is The Heart Sutra by Red Pine.  We will discuss it first on June 21st.  This is a lovely book, one filled with interesting scholarship for those interested in the evolution of Chan and Buddhism in China, and critical discussion of the essence of Zen.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Tuesday night class--change of Trungpa book to "Myth of Freedom"


Those of you who are planning on reading the Chogam Trungpa book for the mid-May discussion should switch from "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" to Trungpa's earlier book, "The Myth of Fredom".  I apologize for the change, but after discussion with several veteran Vajriyana practitioners, I have concluded that "The Myth of Freedom" is a better choice.  It is directed at the fundamental practice of meditation--a common ground of Vajriyana and Zen practice, and it was the assigned foundational book at Naropa Institute during Trungpa's life. 

To compensate for changing the book, and for my being in Israel the week of May 2d and returning on May 9th, we'll push back the book discussion to May 17th. 

I look forward to seeing you, and discussing this book.



Sunday, March 27, 2011

The lay person and the sangha--Can I be valued if I don't seek transmission?


As Diane (Musho) and I have opened our new City Center and welcomed an eclectic mix of visitors to the space, a question constantly stirring just below the surface is what should we build in this space?  What will be the culture of this sangha?  We have a space, but we have not in place a set of forms beyond simply lighting incense, sounding the gong, and sitting silently, with regular Dharma talks and occasional daisan.  In effect, we have a blank sheet of paper and have drawn very little on it at present.  There is a lot of open, white space.  What should go there?  What will the Dharma practice limned there look like?

In the three post-Ameland blogposts I put up in February, I sketched out what seems to me to be the imperatives for a healthy sangha.  Those posts are very conceptual.  They don't reflect any particularity.  But our new space, in which people are coming to sit and to interact, demands the particular.  So, how much should we emphasize ritual, what ritual, how much chanting, reciting and taking of vows, how important is it to offer Jukai, Shukke Tokudo, use Japanese language and terms, forms?  

My aspiration for our City Center is that it becomes a place that is comfortable for lay people, for house- holders with jobs and children who are seeking a refuge, a place where they can work with the causes of the stress of their lives and with their existential dissatisfactions through Zen practice, primarily zazen augmented by koans.  That refuge and workspace is what I sought when I came to the Kanzeon Zen Center as a widower and a single parent with a full lay life.  I suspect that this is what many coming to the City Center will be seeking.  It is not my aspiration that the City Center become a pale shadow of a monastery, a place oriented toward "monks" who have day jobs only to support their dharmic aspirations.  Rather, I envision a place for people whose lay lives are honored and valued, and who want support for a practice that enhances the totality of their lives.  I remain a lay person.  I am a priest, a "monk", but fundamentally a lay person, a lawyer with an active law practice, who spends hours a day in the zendo and loves making it available to others.  I know how Zen practice has enhanced my everyday life and has also softened, widened my sense of self so as to permit me to more honestly face my family, my life and my death.  I want to make that available to others, to people who are committedly lay people.

To develop the welcoming and yet deep culture we envision will require consciously addressing what seems to be a relatively common but unspoken Zen center model in which a pseudo-monastic hierarchy unreflectingly mimics the rituals and practice environment in which our Asian predecessors were trained, one that implicitly values most those who have dedicated their career lives to the Dharma, often while turning away from secular life and even family.  This may be an entirely natural model but I do not think it is one well-designed to accomodate most of the audience we seek at the City Center.  Such a sangha culture has a high potential to make the center a place that actually denies support for lay practice, that has a climate that can make lay practitioners feel valued only to the extent they manifest an aspiration to become what the sangha culture inherently values--the overtly religious, ultimately the teacher.  Instead of creating a psychological refuge, a place of safe questioning in the midst of a world of material and social wants, we create one more place where people feel somehow "not enough," judged, needing to adopt others preferences in order to be valued.  

The challenge of building a welcoming lay sangha is how to minimize the emphasis on individual spiritual attainment, which can manifest as monastic mimicry that implicitly demeans lay life, while stressing the ways that practice leads to an awakening that eases attachments and the suffering which inevitably follows, an awakening that ripens into an equanimity that can be deployed in a daily lay world filled with preferences and that ultimately leads to a profound peace.  This is our task and our opportunity.  

With palms together,


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Maps and Terrain: Beliefs and the Wondering Mind.

The group discussed Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs".  A wide-ranging discussion about beliefs, and how they serve us as guides, as maps, and how they have the potential to limit experience by freezing permissible perspectives on reality.

It seems to me that Batchelor's preference for what he refers to as "agnosticism" is motivated by his desire to eschew belief and to embrace a not-knowing that allows, no, requires that I keep a wondering mind.  A wondering mind is one that he finds most open to an interaction with reality that eliminates the separation between the perceiver and the perceived, resulting only in perceiving.  To use another metaphor, a map held agnostically, without attachment, has the potential to dissolve in the user's encounter with the terrain, leaving only the sacred encounter and its consequences.

Whatever the value of maps, of beliefs, it seems to me that Batchelor exquisitely touches the need for every map to have a large space marked "terra incognita", the unknown land, to remind us that maps need always to be held loosely if they are not to separate us from the terrain that is our lives.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Future readings: "Instructions to the Cook" and "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism."


In the Tuesday night group, we decided to pick two more books so that people could be reading ahead once they finished the current selection, "Buddhism Without Beliefs", set to be discussed on March 15th.  So, the April selection will be Bernie Glassman's  (Tetsugen Roshi's) book, "Instructions to the Cook", which brings us into touch with socially engaged Buddhism in America against the framework of Dogen Zenji's classic work by the same name.  For May we will read Chogam Trungpa Rinpoche's book, "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism", which addresses the tendency to use spirituality as just one more thing to accomplish, to achieve, to attain. 

As a note to those in the group:  Musho Sensei suggested to me that rather than discussing a book on only one evening, it might make more sense to discuss sections of each book each week during the month it is assigned.  It would change the nature of the Tuesday night group a bit, but it would also bring more depth to the discussions and more focus, while incentivizing everyone to be up to speed on the reading each week.  Please consider this suggestion for next week's meeting. 

Gassho to all for coming. 


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Buddhism Without Beliefs"--a critique

For those reading Buddhism Without Beliefs for the Tuesday night group, I suggest these critiques.  One presents a more traditional view of some of the issues discussed by Stephen Batchelor in his book, the other is more supportive of Batchelor and surveys several different critiques.  These may be helpful to readers in considering the broader issues arising from the Dharma's coming into Western culture.;


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Barry Magid, "There is No Zen, Only Zen Teachers"

Barry Magid, a successor of Charlotte Joko Beck, wrote a thoughtful piece about Zen that is well worth reading.  In the context of the current discussions which attempt to separate teacher "misconduct" from Zen, he suggests that there is no separating Zen from Zen teachers, and no separating the good from the bad in teachers.  They are to be taken whole, like life.  We cannot expect Zen without any harming because Zen is a human artifact;  we should not anticipate an "Enlightenment" that will free us from our human existential dilemma.

His piece rings true to me.  Wanting Zen teachers to be magicians will not make them so, but it will certainly make the students seeking an escape disappointed when the curtain is inevitably pulled back.  And wanting the impossible may seduce both the teacher and the student in the process.  See


Thursday, February 24, 2011

History and the White Plum Asanga

George Santayana said, "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it".   To avoid repeating history, one has to know it first.  The current situation surrounding Genpo Roshi suggests that the Salt Lake City Kanzeon Zen Center community did not know its history, through the fault of no one in particular.  That lack is being cured, if painfully.

There has been much fervent commentary on the web following Genpo's public revelation, some of it obviously the settling of old scores that are obscure.  To me, the most sober and helpful exchange, one that brings the lessons of history crisply into focus, is that between Chozen Roshi and the eldest daughter of Maezumi Roshi, Mimi. Their exchange is posted at  It started with Mimi's initial letter to Chozen, detailing how the open sexual atmosphere at Zen Center of Los Angeles in the 70's affected her family.  (In the most recent Genpo Roshi situation, Chozen was a prime mover behind the letter to Kanzeon's board from 44 Zen teachers, which together with the board's reply is posted at  Chozen then responds, and Mimi rejoins.  I recommend a reading of these exchanges as well as the letter from the 44 Zen teachers and Kanzeon's response.

If we are going to develop a healthy sangha at The Boulder Mountain Zendo along the lines that I wrote of in my Ameland Reflections, then we have to know our history and learn from it.  We cannot flinch when confronted with our lineage's past.


Friday, February 18, 2011

New book to read--Stephen Batchelor, "Buddhism Without Beliefs"


At our last Tuesday night group, we discussed Steven Hagen's "Meditation--Now or Never".  Most people there seemed to like the clean quality of his emphasis on simply following the breath and letting things arise and pass away.  Straight Soto sitting meditation.  No bells, whistles, no big deal about openings, about kensho.  Just gradually transforming as we see more clearly what arises and passes away, as we experience the one who sees.  While quite different in praxis that the modern version of Theravadan practice described in "Unlimiting Mind", the feeling is much the same.  The intensity of attention, the rigor of the mental and emotional awareness, the focus on non-judgment, and the importance of others.

For the next book, I have settled on Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs".  This is a book I first read in 1997, shortly after it came out.  It made a big impression on me then.  Here was a modern Buddhism, a "liberal" Buddhism with which I could feel comfortable.  In the years since, I have attended two retreats with Stephen at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.  I enjoy him personally, and I enjoy his skeptical, his "agnostic" Buddhism.

I selected this book because as I browsed my bookshelf and paged through it, I noticed in it some of the same rigor, the same precision of thought and expression, the same emphasis on the simplicity of practice that I found in Hagen and in Olendzki.  Here is someone from yet another part of the Buddhist tradition who can help us triangulate in on the soul of the Buddhadharma--not its ideas, but its enactment.  Hagen is Soto Zen,  Olendzki is Theravadan, and Batchelor spent years in the Tibetan and then Korean Zen traditions.  While all three have different perspectives on the practice, and nominally different praxis, their approach feels quite similar.  What I come away with from all three is a comfortable feeling that we are all on the same path, even if we describe it in different terms.

We'll discuss this book on the evening of March 15th.  Join us.



Thursday, February 17, 2011

The broader issues raised by the Genpo Roshi controversy


I have refrained from directly commenting on recent events surrounding Genpo Roshi's separation from the White Plum Asanga, an affinity group for teachers in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi, and his "disrobing" as a Zen teacher.  I am a member of the Board of the White Plum Asanga and do not think it appropriate for me to speak out here on this matter.  Instead, I have put my energy into working with the Board in its effort to help all those affected navigate these difficult waters.  It has been both emotionally challenging and extraordinarily time consuming.

Recently, I came upon a blog of another Zen teacher whom I do not know personally but who appears to have taken a considered approach to the matter.  In a recent post he reflects on the larger issues that this controversy presents for American Zen in specific, and Zen in general.  I encourage you to read it.  It is entitled "A Little About Genpo, Zen Teachers, and Sex."  The issues discussed are ones that every conscious sangha should consider calmly and reflectively, without excessive piety but with eyes wide open to the problems to which our practice can give rise. 



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

First night in Jerusalem--Steven Hagen's "Meditation--Now or Never"

Last night we held the Tuesday night group in the new City Center space for the first time.  As seems always the case with construction projects, nothing but a deadline gets the contractor close to finished.  The day felt harried.  The glass contractor hanging glass panels over the windows, Sears employees replacing the dented refrigerator door, Becky Colwell and her sister unloading zafus and zabutons and ritual objects from the Torrey zendo and shopping for cleaning supplies, me running between the law office and stores buying last minute items for the kitchen, Jim Bilski and I mopping the floor, wiping the tables and chairs, and laying the grass rugs that define the meditation area, then early-arrivers vacuuming dusty zafus and zabutons and setting up the zendo.

Finally, in place of the yet-to-be-completed altar, under a spotlight that needs adjusting, a small table from home upon which I placed a vase with Diane's Valentine's Day roses and lilies, a small buddha with a tiny golden bundle of sticks which had been Diane's when we first met, and a candle and incense bowl from my personal make-shift altar/bookshelf.  

People arrived.  They became very quiet as they sat down.  Far less chatting than in our living room.  The space seemed to absorb their energy.  They felt calmed by the space, made reverent; the space made reverent by their calm.  Jim served as my jisha.  For the first time the space heard an inkin, a gong, smelled offered incense, held a community.

I remarked on the feelings that come with change, good or bad, of transition.  The feeling of being at sea, unmoored.  Grasping for the familiar, and finding that what is there is not the same, that the familiar is unfamiliar, and that the new is foreign.  My teacher is the same yet not; my practice place is lovely, yet strange.  And lacking familiar, comfortable referents, I am not the same.  I cannot find the self to which I am accustomed.  Around me the whole sangha seems to manifest the same feelings.  To each of them, "we"are not who we were, so they each are not who they were.  Disorientation reigns.  Each of us wants to blame someone for this discomfort.  Whom?  First another, then ourselves, then the teachings.  But then our practice settles in.

There is no comfort in that which is sought-after.  As Steven Hagen says in the book for the evening's discussion, from a meta-perspective, everything is permanently perfect in its constant change.  Meditation, practice, reveals this slowly as we are transformed by it.  I exhale and feel present in my breath even as it is constantly different, a moving space of calm that is the hub of the wheel of existence.  We mutually exhale and we are jointly comforted by our constantly changing interrelationships.  Buddha is found.  Sangha is reestablished.  The Dharma is known.  Then we move on.

A night in a rented space in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011-Next Year in Jerusalem/ Welcome, Taido Sensei

There is an old Jewish parting, "Next year in Jerusalem".  Well, that is in effect what we said last night at the conclusion of our last Tuesday Night Group meeting in our living room.  I have been teaching in the living room since I left Kanzeon in July.  Next week we will gather not in Jerusalem, but in the new Boulder Mountain Zendo City Center space.  Diane, Musho, will inaugurate the space this coming Saturday with a Lotus Lounge gathering.  And my group will meet there on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.  Come a bit early if you would like a cup of coffee or tea and some conversation.  (We still need a coffee pot and tea kettle and cups, but they'll materialize.)  I am sure you will like the space Diane designed.  Urban, a bit hip, and intimate.  Intimate is most important.

Our subject will be Steven Hagen's book, Meditation--Now or Never.  You can check it out on my "Books" tab under "Teachers" at the BMZ website.  It is a wonderfully accessible primer on Zen meditation, meditation that is your practice each moment of your life.

Finally, in this transitional moment in the lives of so many Salt Lake City Zen practitioners, I want to welcome the news that Rich Taido Christofferson, Sensei will be returning to what was and I believe will once again be Kanzeon Zen Center.  With Genpo's announcement of his intention to disrobe and step back from teaching, Taido will be assuming the responsibility for the center and the sangha.  He was a steady practitioner long before I walked into Kanzeon, and his return will bring a much needed sense of stability to that community.  Diane and I look forward to working with him as we broaden the reach of Zen in Utah.  Deep bows, Rich.

Thank you all for your support in this bardo.


Monday, January 31, 2011

Ameland Reflection III--The Role of Individual Practice in Healthy Sangha

It seems appropriate to round out these reflections with a discussion of the place of the individual practitioner.  How does our individual practice relate to the building and maintenance of a healthy, conscious sangha?  

In my first pose I wrote that "[E]ach member of the sangha has a responsibility to be aware of the inside and the outside of the container, of the culture and the structures, to continuously monitor their relationship to it as individuals, and to note when and where dissonance arises.  That place can be a rich edge for our practice.”  It is also the place from which we can and should act as practitioners of the Buddha dharma.

Our primary practice is meditation in large part because our world is so oriented toward exteriors, yet much of my suffering is has its source in my interior.  My meditation is a practice of looking deeply into the interiority of the world of my experience and seeking to understand how my moment to moment response to that world causes me suffering, how much I act in response to a world that I wish for, rather than the one that I live within and that I am not separate from.  My practice shows me that I co-create much of the world I inhabit through the perspectives I take, and that I can change that world by taking a different perspective. 

But my meditation cannot be responsibly limited to this.  The Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal is to save not just myself from suffering, but all suffering beings, and the suffering of each of us is not caused solely by our interiors.  The world within which I live may be largely co-constructed by me, but it also consists of concrete realities that I do not co-construct, including the very real interiors and exteriors of the communities of which I am a member. 

I extend my meditative awareness to include the ways in which my encounter with the culture and structure of my community, my sangha, may cause me and others pain because of dissonance between the declared values and structures for the distribution of power which I endorse with my continued membership in the community and the way people actually treat each other and power is actually exercised.  My practice, my Bodhisattva activity, includes thoughtfully and compassionately manifesting my insights into the causes of this dissonance.  A conscious sangha values such expression and provides structures within which they can occur.  In this way, each individual practitioner’s meditation is a support for the continuous co-creation of a healthy container within which all of us can practice with mutual awareness, mutual respect, and mutual compassion.

With palms together.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Ameland Reflections II--Relationships and Roles Within the Sangha.

This is a second reflection on sangha as an organism which arises out of my anticipation of the opening of our new space in Salt Lake City, sharpened by this year's Ameland gathering. 

The student-teacher-sangha interrelationship is central to Zen practice, and critical to the constitution of a healthy sangha.

Ananda asked the Buddha who would lead the sangha when he had died.  Ananda was concerned the community would be leaderless.  Buddha responded that the sangha did not need to be concerned about having a leader.  He said, in effect, that we each are our own refuge, we are each our own light unto ourselves, we are each the vehicle of our own awakening.  To me, this means no teacher is going to save us from our craving, from our delusion.  We are responsible for our own awakening.

Yet Zen posits a strong role for others in our practice.  Members of the sangha join together to create the container within which we practice, they provide mutual support.  And the teacher provides the direction for the group's practice and assures that the sangha's culture and structure, the  interior and exterior of the sangha, are maintained.  Here, as I wrote yesterday, it is critical that the members of the sangha and the teacher have a shared understanding of its values, its culture, as well as of the necessarily congruent structure that provides the container for the practice.  Part of the culture, and of the structure, is the definition of the roles to be occupied by each member of the sangha, including the teacher.

I said I see the teacher as responsible for maintaining the direction of the sangha's practice and assuring its continuity.  But the teacher does more.  The teacher has a relationship to each member of the sangha.  At its best, a close and confidential relationship that supports the unique practice of each member and its manifestation, both the interior and the exterior of the individual practitioner.  To me, the teacher's role is to be a supportive guide, someone who assists the student in working toward their own awakening and who works to make the accumulated wisdom of the lineage available in a way that is accessible and that furthers a particular student's practice.  This is an intimate relationship, one that has perils for both the student and the teacher because of its intimacy.  As I see it, the perils are of role confusion.

The teacher and student have a defined set of roles.  In fact, the very terms "teacher" and "student" mean nothing without a definition of their respective roles within the context of an institution.  These definitions limn the relative powers and responsibilities of each.  Only if both have a shared understanding of those definitions can each function smoothly in their role.  In turn, those definitions are the reference point for determining what constitutes ethical behavior for each.  If either acts outside the scope of their role, they invite confusion, both on their part and on the part of the other, with the potential for resulting ethical problems.  These problems will not be only the concern of the teacher and the student, but will reverberate through the sangha because they will result from conduct inconsistent with the sangha's self-definition.

Both the student and the teacher share responsibility for assuring that role confusion does not occur, but the teacher's responsibility is paramount.  In fulfilling their responsibilities, it seems to me that both teacher and student should be aware of the teachings of western psychology about the problems posed by transference and counter-transference, as well as the universal tendency, as Lord Acton put it, "of power to corrupt, and of absolute power to corrupt absolutely". The power given to the teacher by the sangha, and by the student as his or her spiritual guide, is perhaps the teacher's greatest aid in doing their work, and their greatest challenge.

My years in the judicial system, and of working for and with those who exercise political and financial power, have firmly convinced me that the most difficult challenge confronting those with power is to avoid being seduced by it, to avoid coming to think that the power is given to me because of personal entitlement, rather than institutional or role-related entitlement.  The difference is profound.  For if I see power as a personal entitlement, then there is no aspect of my personality, no egoic preference, that is not a legitimate criteria for the exercise of the power.  But if the power is seen as invested in the office, in the role I occupy, then that role's definition circumscribes that legitimate scope of the exercise of that power.  And importantly, the limits of that power are relatively clear for all to see.

A spiritual teacher is no different than any other human being when operating in an institutional role in which power is vested, and no more immune to the seductions of that power.  It is for this reason that it seems so critical that a sangha have a shared and clearly understood culture and a set of congruent structures, both of which are regularly revisited.  This assures that all know the parameters of their joint venture. The challenge of putting these in place, and of maintaining them, is apparent from the troubled history of a number of religious communities over the past forty years.  I do not minimize those challenges, but if  those who seek their own emancipation through the Dharma are to be well-served, we must take this challenge seriously.  It is our mutual responsibility.

Student-teacher-sangha: the interrelationships within which our practice is contained and refined, and through which we manifest its fruits.  A healthy sangha requires their constant conscious cultivation.

With palms together,


Ameland Reflection I--The Elements of a Healthy Sangha

I had a strong experience in Ameland this year, at the gathering of the larger Kanzeon sangha.  It prompted me to reflect on the nature of and prerequisites for healthy sangha.  Because Diane and I will be opening a practice place in Salt Lake soon, it is an issue that has been on my mind over the past months.  I suspect I will be posting on this subject in the future as my thoughts clarify.

First, to have a strong, ethical, and honest sangha, it seems essential that all participants, from the oldest teacher to the newest student, explicitly join in a shared set of values that express why we are practicing together and what it means to be a member of the sangha.  Those values, which represent the culture of the sangha, need to be expressed clearly and regularly.  They are the interior of the container that holds each of our practices as well as our shared practice.

Second, that culture can be sustained only if the exterior of the container which embodies it--the structures which distribute power--manifest those values.  For this congruence to be maintained, both the values and the structures need to be regularly examined to assure their continuing capacity to promote, and not hinder, our separate and shared awakening.

Third, each member of the sangha has a responsibility to be aware of the inside and the outside of the container, of the culture and the structures, to continuously monitor their relationship to it as individuals, and to note when and where dissonance arises.  That place can be a rich edge for our practice.  And awareness of that edge can also tell us when the dissonance is intolerable and we no longer can comfortably be a "member" of that sangha.  Members who reach that point should be free to leave the sangha without pain or penalty.

It is my intention to strive to assure that these tenants are reflected in The Boulder Mountain Zendo's sangha.

With palms together,


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New book chosen to read, and no meeting on January 25th.

Tonight we discussed Andrew Olendzki's Unlimiting Mind--The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism.  The group consensus was it is a good treatment of the essential teachings of the Buddha from the earliest sources, couched in thoroughly modern phenomenological and psychological terminology with no mythical or mystical elements and no sectarian kant.  The treatments of karma and of the mechanism by which craving gives rise to the self were highlighted, as well as the manner in which the book brings the teachings into every day life.  One person noted that because the book is a collection of essays, it can be picked up and read in increments without losing any of its impact.  I think it is refreshing in its presentation of the earliest teachings without any of the anachronistic elements that might put off a modern or post-moder reader.  Overall, highly recommended.

We selected a new book to read.  Steven Hagen's Meditation: Now or Never.  We will discuss this on February 15th.  (The projected date for our soft opening of the new City Center.  Keep your fingers crossed.)

Finally, because I am attending the Kanzeon Sangha gathering in Ameland, Netherlands next week, we will not meet again until February 1st.  I will be jet-lagged, but present.



Saturday, January 8, 2011

Integral Spiritual Experience 2--return

Diane and I returned from ISE2 on Monday.  I am still digesting the experience.  If you are curious about it, Goggle "Integral Spiritual Experience 2" and browse the web.  The full program was recorded and should be available sometime from Integral Life.

About 500 people attended this second in a promised five-year series of events.  The best way to describe it is an ecumenical gathering of people from many spiritual traditions, and of many from no particular tradition, most of whom have some familiarity with Ken Wilber's integral philosophic approach to truth claims and some of whom are complete Wilber wonks.  Diane Musho Hamilton, my amazing partner, along with Rabbi Marc Gafni and Sally Kempton, f.k.a. Swami Durgananda, are the design team.  My take on the events is that they are creating a container within which people with spiritual interests (whatever you take "spiritual" to mean) and strong cognitive inclinations can come together and be exposed to an eclectic mix of teachings and practices from an incredible range of traditions and non-traditions.  As a consequence, all leave with a broader appreciation of other approaches to teachings and practices, and a clearer view of our own. The result necessarily is a more sophisticated and more whole view of our small "self" and of its relation to all that is.

The range I personally experienced ran from being in a session where a talented pianist would invite anyone who wanted to noodle on the piano to come forward and then together would produce both an  amazing "holding" experience for the one accompanied and a stunning listening experience for the audience (Willie, our son, played with her to greater effect than I), to listening to translator Coleman Barks read the Sufi poet Rumi accompanied by a Grammy Award winning cellist, and then sitting with him far into the night discussing his mystical experiences, poetry, and our common Presbyterian upbringing, to sitting early morning silent zazen, to participating in a discussion of the ways each of us in our seeking must be alert to the ethical issues raised by our encounter with the personal characteristics of those who would be our teachers, to listening to a Jesuit with a Ph.D. in psychology discuss St. Ignatius of Loyola's personal meditation methods, to hearing Depak Chopra describe the elaborate conceptualization of the non-dual as taught in the Advaita Vedanta strain of Hinduism.   That is only a small sampling of the offerings.  And it went on for five days.

For anyone interested in taking a perspective on their perspectives, I highly recommend the event.  Both the attendees and the teachers are an amazing collection of talents, the atmosphere is open, friendly, and completely supportive, and the location--Asilomar conference center in Monterey, California--a stunningly beautiful spot on the coast.  Whatever the goals of the organizers, the event itself is developing its own momentum.  I have a very strong feeling that this commodious container is an essentially new development in American spirituality, indeed in world spirituality.  (The gathering had attendees from over 30 countries.)  A place for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and non-sectarians of all stripes who are interested in the interior life and its manifold manifestations to come together and discuss and experience both the exteriors and interiors of each others' teachings and practices.  The whole leading edge of Western spirituality will be affected by this series of events in powerful ways that cannot help but lead to a deepening of individual traditions and an expansion of their horizons.

Not a bad way to spend a week between Christmas and New Years!