Visiting Jikoji

I recently spent a few days at Jikoji Zen Center, nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Jikoji is connected to my home temple, Hakubai, through our founding abbot and teacher, Kobun Chino Otagawa.

Jikoji is situated in a lovely forest grove along a creek, with deer and turkey families wandering about the forest floor and birds fluttering through the sun dappled canopy. It is a place that is very conducive to practice and to unplugging. Trails meander off in a number of directions from the center grounds, and take walkers along ridge tops and into the company of redwoods.

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A bridge over the creek, just downhill from the main Jikoji structures (1)

I noticed while staying at Jikoji that I carry an idealization about monastic living. I often idealize temple or monastery life, believing that if I were able to live in a more monastic setting, that I would sit all the time and practice would be easier. This is a romantic delusion.

Monks living at monasteries typically practice sitting meditation in the morning and evening, going about other business throughout the day – cleaning, working, cooking. Ordinary, everyday activities make up much of a monk’s day. It is only during intensive practice periods, sesshin, that a monk would practice sitting meditation for much of the day.

But sitting practice is not their only practice. Work practice, cleaning practice, cooking practice, walking practice, lying down practice – all activities and non-activities are opportunities for practice. Monastic life is a life of practice, whether sitting, standing, walking, lying down, or  cleaning a toilet.

I realized while at Jikoji that I don’t need to be anywhere to do this. Where would I go to practice? Practice is in the ordinary, the everyday. Sit at home, sit at the temple – it doesn’t matter. Dreaming up some better place to be, where I could finally practice the way that I want to… this is just another way of avoiding the reality of the present moment, with all its pain and discomfort.

Slowly, quietly, dreams slip away.

Notes

(1) The photo is from Jikoji’s website, at http://www.jikoji.org/contact/

Walking the Streets with Ancient Conversations

We Zen monks walk through the deep mountains and valleys, through the brightly lit streets and dark alleys of the cities of this world, with stories of ancient conversations up our sleeves, or in our bosoms, stories of people who enacted buddha’s teaching together and realized the way, stories that encourage us to continue walking the path of devotion to the welfare of all beings. (1)

— Reb Anderson

I read this passage a few nights ago and it touched me deeply. Conversations are ubiquitous in the Zen tradition, conversations between students and teachers, wayseekers and adepts, puffed up egoists and realized peasants. Conversations are the medium through which one’s realization is tested and revealed, and are often paradoxical and bizarre. At least, they appear to be paradoxical and bizarre when viewed from a particular paradigm.

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Monks walk the world with stories of ancient conversations in their hearts, stories that cultivate sincere devotion practice, and devotion to all beings. I realized when I read this passage that I had been viewing conversations from the same paradigm that struggles to understand the apparently odd conversations that make up these stories.

In the next paragraph, Anderson describes bringing the objects and language of breakfast to a guest that is staying with him. In coming to his guest, they enter into a conversation called “breakfast,” a conversation in which he and his guest, “together with all things, dependently coproduce breakfast” (2).

This draws from the Buddhist teaching of dependent co-arising, in which all things arise out of all things, and nothing is separate or independent from anything else. One way to understand this teaching is to consider all the beings who efforted in order to bring you an egg you have for breakfast: the beings who packaged, transported, and stocked the egg; the beings who built the vehicles, roads, and buildings in which that egg was housed; the beings who fed and cared for the chicken that produced the egg; the beings that grew the food that fed all the beings that efforted to bring you this egg. This is one way of looking at dependent co-arising.

And so, when I, following Anderson, come to my guest, we, together with all things, dependently co-produce the conversation that is breakfast. This conversation is beyond-mutual: there are far more than two parties coproducing the conversation. And really, there are no parties. There is no separation between me and my guest and all things. We are the conversation that is breakfast.

There was a moment in which I understood this directly. As I write it now, my understanding is conceptual, intellectual; it is relative knowledge. I must keep practicing to know it directly.

Notes

(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2000) 166.

(2) Anderson, Being Upright, 166.

Researching and Writing Angst

I am now writing my Master’s thesis, a project I have been working on for about 6 months in earnest. Today is the day I stop researching and begin the nitty gritty of putting all my thoughts and research onto paper. It hasn’t been easy to make the shift. I keep stumbling across footnotes, journal articles, and books that I feel I must read in order to bring them into the conversation. Lately I’ve felt like this:

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Another take on a classic image (1)

But this level of zeal isn’t always good for my health. And anyhow, that process can be endless, and the time has come to stop jumping into rabbit holes and to start crawling back out of them.

I have been surprised at the level of angst this process arouses in me. I don’t consider myself a very anxious person, but when it comes to research and writing, I get gripped. I read and I read and I read, feeling like I know nothing. Then after a while, I start to get it and begin creating critical ideas of my own. This feels good, even groovy at times. Then I read something that has ideas similar to my own, and the groove is gone. Despair comes in: how have I been reading all this material and I still have nothing original to say??? So I dive even more fervently into reading and note-taking, until I start to feel alright again, and the cycle continues.

I have a hypothesis as to what’s going on here: I attach my self-worth to my work. If my work is good, then I am good. If my work is shit, then I am shit. Producing high quality work means that I am a worthwhile person, and so any inkling that the work is not perfect arouses anxiety. Of course, this paradigm is problematic in many ways. No amount or quality of work can ever repair a feeling of worthlessness. Feeling worthless is a delusion that must be worked through via other means.

One way I try to break through this angsty business is to keep a shrine righManjusrit next to my desk. The shrine consists of images of two bodhisattvas (2), an incense holder and a candle. The two bodhisattvas are Manjusri (3), the bodhisattva of wisdom who wields a sword to cut through delusion, and a second bodhisattva, whose name I do not know, who is sitting in steadfast meditation. Whenever I sit down to work, I light the candle, offer incense, and ask that I may cultivate wisdom, cut through delusion, and be steadfast in my practice. Building this ritual into my work is slowly transforming my work into work practice, in Zen called samu. Instead of multiplying my suffering through work, I am trying to understand it.

How do you deal with anxiety in your work, academic or otherwise?

Notes

(1) This image is originally from the fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half. I created this image with the help of Meme Generator.

(2) A bodhisattva is a being who has committed to staying in the world of suffering lifetime after lifetime until all beings realize their true nature.

(3) The image to the right is of Manjusri. I obtained this image from http://www.buddhamuseum.com/sm-manjusri_52.html

Monks Get Up Early

Monks get up early. This is one of those things that my teacher told me matter-of-factly. He regularly describes doing what’s needed in the moment in the same fashion: if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, rest; if you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up. So, monks get up early.

He expanded on it a little with an example. On Black Friday, people get up early to wait in line at department stores to get the best deals. They are motivated to get up early so that they can be at the front of the line, ahead of all the other shoppers, and therefore have the best selection of things to buy at the best prices. They get up early, and they wait in line.

Monks get up early to wait in line, too. But they are not interested in getting the best spot. They are not interested in getting the best prices. They get up early to wait in line because that’s where the people are. The people are in line, waiting.

Monks get up early so that they can be at the front of the line. They are not interested in getting through first. Actually, they aren’t trying to get through at all. At the front of the line, monks can help others through the door.

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There is another reason monks get up early, and that is because it is a conducive time to meditate, while the rest of the world is still sleeping or just waking up. I was reminded of this today while reading the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, having just healed a woman with a fever the day before, goes out into the pre-dawn darkness, to a place in the wilderness, and prays.

Early in the morning, at a remote spot, Jesus makes time for his practice. He starts his day with prayer. Then, when he is done, he can be at the front of the line, helping people through the door.

This was a helpful reminder for me. When I live my life in the world, my tendency is to get to bed later and then sleep a little later to get sufficient rest. This has been the pattern for me over the past month. I had forgotten that monks get up early. Now I remember.

The Issue of Institutions

I feel most comfortable at the edge of institutions. On the outskirts, I can remain free of the interpersonal drama and bureaucracy that so often exist within institutional structures, but I can still benefit from the things that these structures offer: education, networking, employment, and other opportunities. The edge is a comfortable place to be.

Locating myself at this margin has worked for a long time, but is now being challenged. Monks are ordained by institutions. Scholars receive their degrees, funding, and employment from institutions. Seeing as I am heading in both these directions, it seems that I am on a necessary collision course.

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Iliff School of Theology, an institution on whose margins I hang out

I don’t like being told what to do. Organized bodies specialize in rules, charters, guidelines, protocols, mission statements, and ethical standards. This all feels rather stuffy and claustrophobic to me. I like to wander freely, think and do what I want, have flexibility, be independent. At least, this is how I’d largely led my life until a few years ago.

Marriage changed things for me. My marriage vows were the first vows I had ever taken. Upon speaking them, I committed myself to something bigger than me, something that spread out, not only to my partner, but even further than the two of us. This process of expansion continued when I received the Zen Bodhisattva precepts, which are vows for living, being, and doing.

I now feel myself being drawn into the institutions I had always avoided. My scholarly and monkish tendencies are one force. My vows are another. And yet another force is our current political climate. I feel compelled to act and be involved when I witness the kind of widespread suffering I see around me today. Hanging out on the edge no longer feels right. So I am gingerly dipping my toe into the institutional sea.

I have started this process by becoming more involved in my temple and at my university. I received training in Sustained Dialogue a few weeks back, which is a model of dialogue that aims to build relationships, be changed by what you hear, and work toward action in the community. Through this training, I hope to help people and groups in conflict come together, understand one another, and move toward change, both on the University of Denver campus and in the greater Denver area.

In what ways are you getting more involved? Or not? And why?

Concerning Monks, Part 1

Perhaps my deep interest and draw to monasticism originates from the fact that the two traditions I most identify with – Christianity as my family and cultural religion and Buddhism as my chosen religion – also contain the largest monastic traditions in the world. These are by no means the only monastic traditions (and I will treat some of the insights from other traditions in future posts), but they are a useful place to start.

In the wonderfully rich Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Mathieu Boisvert analyzes the monastic practices of early Christian and Buddhist monks and finds an essential thread in both: the single-minded dedication to a goal (1). For Christian monks, that goal is union with God; for Buddhists, it is realizing nirvana.

Boisvert also notes some similarities between traditions on how this commitment manifests. Both traditions value celibacy as a means to remove relational distractions from one’s life. Similarly, there is an emphasis on seclusion so one can focus on practice and avoid attachments to worldly things – this includes physical seclusion and wandering from place to place, though becoming internally solitary and cultivating a feeling of being a stranger in the world and to oneself is even more important. Contemplation of death and dead bodies was practiced by both traditions as one means to realize these ends. Monks aimed to experience a “harmonious and undivided mind” on the path to realizing the primary goal, which ultimately led to a falling away of cognition and full contemplation of that goal.

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St. Simeon the Stylite, who sat atop a pillar for 25 years in practice (2)

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Ananda, one of Buddha’s first disciples and personal attendant (3)

Single-minded focus is an important aspect of meditation, and runs contrary to our contemporary value of multi-tasking. But the single-minded commitment that Boisvert points to is greater than a focus of attention. It is a full-bodied, full-minded, and full-emotioned dedication to realizing ultimate truth or ultimate divinity. Full-bodied, meaning it takes work of the body to achieve, working with the body’s mortality, its desires and its limitations, as well as it gifts, such as its capacity to wander. Full-minded, meaning it takes mental dedication to work through cognitive distractions and ultimately through cognition itself. And full-emotioned in that the emotions must be understood and dealt-with in a way that they don’t keep the monk from attaining their goal.

It is important to remember (and remind myself, always) that this commitment is not to anything of the world. Early Christian and Buddhist monks gave up their homes, families, possessions, relationships, and often their names and other parts of their identities, in their aim to realize union or nirvana. The monk is not committed to a career, to financial stability, to recognition.

I am forever practicing this, reminding myself that there is nothing fulfilling in the world, and that I am, indeed, unfulfillable. The Buddhist teachings that there is nothing permanent in the world, including the self, and that life is suffering, elucidate these truths.

As is the tradition in Soto Zen, I will depart with a gassho, in which I bow to you with my hands pressed together. One way it has been described to me is, “buddha bowing to buddha.” Or roughly, the Buddha nature in me bows to the Buddha nature in you, understanding that there is no real me, no real you, and no real separation between us.

Please share any thoughts or comments you may have, or contact me directly if you have ideas for future posts.

Notes

(1) Mathieu Boisvert, “Origins: Comparative Perspectives,” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston and Claire Renkin (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 2:967.

(2) Image from http://belosticalle.blogspot.com/2016_01_01_archive.html

(3) Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ananda

Scholar Monks: Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” (1)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most notable scholar monk in the history of the United States. He came from a family of ministers and was himself ordained during his undergraduate studies, where the president of the college impressed upon King the power of Christianity to enact social change. King went on to complete doctoral work in systematic theology seven years later and became a minister-scholar. He considered continuing in the academy but accepted a position as a pastor in Alabama instead.

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King soon found himself at the head of a civil rights movement in which his academic acumen and religious leadership skills were exceptionally well suited and effectively deployed. He integrated Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence with Christian social action to undertake powerful social action toward the recognition of the rights of African-American people in the U.S. and the rights of all people within and outside of the U.S.

King’s social leadership contributed significantly to changes in national civil rights legislation in the U.S. Toward the end of his life, he included efforts against poverty and American militarism in his mission, continuing to draw on Christian social gospel principles and nonviolent practices.

As the only American scholar monk, and indeed the only non-president, to have a national holiday that honors him, I feel it important and appropriate to examine King’s life and work within the context of our discussion about scholar monks in the world today. King’s religious beliefs, training, and leadership, and his academic knowledge and abilities were regularly deployed together in his public speaking, preaching, and writings. From what I have read, it seems that King’s higher studies were an extension of his ministry and were deeply integrated into his ministry.

Precision with words and knowledge were utilized by King to do the good work that he deemed necessary as a follower of Christ and God. For King, this good work was the work of social action and social change. Similar to Xuanzang, in a different time, place, and in different ways, King worked toward the well-being of many, for the benefit of others, motivated and guided by his faith and his role as an ordained person.

I think all of us who live by vows, who have committed to a way that is larger than ourselves, have much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. His teaching, his work, and his way of life is as relevant as ever in this time of racial conflict, violence, and institutional oppression. Let us continue to consider King’s words, those that I have quoted above and the many others that he spoke and penned, as we usher in a new political era this Friday.

As always, please share your voice and your words through comments here or by contacting me personally.

Notes

(1) These words were spoken during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. All of the biographical information for this post comes from The King Center website: “About Dr. King: Overview.” TheKingCenter.org. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://thekingcenter.org/about-dr-king

(2) Image from http://www.uky.edu/mlk/content/about-dr-king

The Benefits of Being a Monk

There is a New Year’s sesshin each year at Hakubai Temple in Boulder, Colorado. A sesshin is an intensive practice period that mimics monastic life and involves a lot of sitting and walking meditation, work practice, eating practice, chantings, and dharma talks. Dharma talks are given by a teacher, in our case the abbot of the temple, Hakubai Zenji, and cover various themes, including Buddhist doctrine and how to live in the world.

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The lotus pond at Hakubai in summer

The theme of this year’s sesshin was “how to make meaning in a purposeless universe” and the dharma talks followed this thread. The benefits of being a monk came up a couple times in our talks about worldly meaning. I found both references to be puzzling, though relevant to our discussion on this blog, and so I am sharing them with you here in order to think through them.

First, Hakubai Zenji talked of someone slapping you in the face. If you’re a monk, he said, that’s great! You think: look at this, they’re slapping a monk in the face. I took this to mean that since you are a monk, you don’t care what other people think of you, because you are not attached to your worldly person. Of course, this is easier said than done! It may be easy to not get ruffled when someone you don’t know says something nasty to you, but a slap in the face is a bit more intimate.

One of the currents of our talks over the course of the sesshin was that meaning may not be important in the realm of the absolute but that it is important in the relative realm. In Zen, it is said that there is no birth, no death; no beginning, no end; no meaning, no meaninglessness. But clearly in the world of objects, the world of space-time, beings are born and die, things come to an end, and people constantly struggle with meaning and meaninglessness.

When we talk about scholarship, this is an activity of the relative realm. Conceptual knowledge and discourse requires a subject and object, observer and observed. And therefore it would seem that making meaning is also something worth considering in the world of the scholar.

When a scholar is slapped in the face, how do they react? With polemics? A nasty review of the slapper’s next book? From what little experience I have, the Academy cultivates bloated egos, and bloated egos tend to burst when they are slapped. Would the reaction look different if the scholar was not attached to their scholarship? I think so. But getting to that place in an academic ecosystem of intense attachment and identification takes work.

The second statement: one of the benefits of being a monk is that no one expects anything of you. Later on, Hajubai Zenji added that when you are sitting all the time, doing nothing, people think you’re crazy or useless. As I get ready to launch myself into further academic work, I find I keep falling into this pit of other people’s expectations. Publish like a mad person! Sacrifice your marriage for your PhD! Present papers everywhere! I don’t care about any of this stuff, nor am I interested in playing these games. Yet I get sucked in time and time again to believing that the expectations of others are my own. They’re not. I’ll just keep on sitting, doing my best to do nothing, if that’s what needs doing.

All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The mid-day plenary today at the American Academy of Religion National Conference was a conversation between Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander, and the work in their respective books Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness.

Michelle Alexander told a moving personal story about the first few years following the release of The New Jim Crow, before it was widely read and transforming perceptions across the United States. She described presenting the material from her research, and after each presentation she heard an internal voice say, “All sound and fury, signifying nothing.” She found this extremely jarring, and it followed her as she continued to speak nationally.

It changed for her when, while visiting the University of Denver, Professor Vincent Harding (1) told her, “I read your book, and I hear what you’re saying. But I feel like what you’re really saying here is, ‘What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.'” For Alexander, this changed everything.

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Michelle Alexander (2)

She told of how she realized that railing against the institutions and systems contributing to mass incarceration was all sound and fury, signifying nothing, when it was not spiritually grounded and directed toward action. She spoke of needing to honor and remember the divinity of every person.

Alexander’s experiences reveal, I think, a turn toward practice. She clearly cared about the work she was doing, fighting for racial justice against police departments in California and then digging into the prison industrial complex. But what was it rooted in? I ask the same question when I think about scholarship than is not rooted in practice. If I engage in study that I deem important, what is determining for me that it is important? Desire for acceptance? Prestige? Love?

I am not suggesting that Michelle Alexander was motivated by any of these things, nor do I pretend that I could uncover her motivation. Rather I want to turn a light upon the change that occurred for her once the divinity of every person became a foundation, a grounding rod for her work. Did her words at that point of change then signify everything, rather than nothing? Did it radically transform the important work she was already doing? Did people start turning en masse toward her work and her message once her words carried the new meaning of her spiritual orientation?

So I wonder: is scholarship that is not grounded in spiritual practice and spiritual perspectives all sound and fury? I am not so sure, but I sure am wondering.

I would like to thank Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander for inviting me, and many others here at the conference, into their important and insightful conversation.

Notes

(1) I began my studies at Iliff School of Theology, where Dr. Harding taught for 33 years, in 2014, the same year that he died. I feel his legacy around me through the many people he touched and transformed, though I never met him.

(2) Image from http://dy00k1db5oznd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/M-Alexander-0410_021_bw_r.jpg

Beginnings

“Were it the case that a fly had reason and could rationally seek out the eternal abyss of divine being, from which it came forth, we say that God, insofar as he is God, could not fulfill or satisfy the fly. Therefore pray God that we may be free of God.”

– Meister Eckhart (1)

Quotes like these leave me with more questions than answers, and this is why I am starting this blog. I am a student of many things: spirituality, psychology, theology, social work, religion, geography, humanity. Whenever my inquiry takes me deeper into something, I often find both clarity and incomprehension at the same time. My questions are met by more questions and more questions. In the face of these questions, I often ground myself in practice.

And hence the title of this blog: Scholar Monk. There are traditions among world religions in which the stewards of the knowledge of a tradition are also dedicated practitioners (more on this in a later blog). They are both scholars and monks, intellectuals and priests, researching and studying their belief systems while ministering to others. I have long been attracted to the idea of the scholar monk, and, not surprisingly, have sort of become one.

I find for myself that knowledge and practice must go together. Too much knowledge and I become detached from reality, stuck in my head, intellectualizing everything. Too much practice and I lose touch with the world of space and time, a world in which egos often interact with each other, rather than souls. This is the world in which we live and work. In losing touch with this world, I lose my capacity to engage with it.

And so I will do my best to follow in the footsteps of scholar monks of old, engaging in the world of egos while remaining grounded in my knowledge and practice, and doing my best to serve truth along the way. As I undertake this life, I continue to find more and more questions along the way, questions that I will wonder at together, with you, through this blog. Questions that I don’t expect to find answers to, and yet I find value in the inquiry iteself.

In closing, Meister Eckhart seems to be a fitting person with whom to begin this dialogue, since, as Etienne Gilson put it, “One never feels safe in talking about Meister Eckhart. He seldom speaks twice un identically the same way, and the problem always is to know whether he is saying the same thing in a different way or if he is saying different things” (2). An appropriate guide, I think, for exploring the paradoxes of the world and wandering through questions upon questions. I ask that you join me in this space of inquiry, seeking understanding and a way to be in the world.

 

Notes

(1) As translated by Michael A. Sells in his Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1.

(2) Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Toronto, Ontario: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952), 38.