Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dharma and Drinks - 14 January 2015

Interested in discussing Zen? Got lots of questions? Join us for dharma and drinks at Dagny's Coffee Co.

Each gathering will focus on one important, or provocative, or humorous Zen text.

Date: Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Time: 5-6 p.m.
Location: Dagny's, 1600 20th Street, Bakersfield, CA 93301 (map)

For our inaugural meeting, we will discuss a portion of The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Read pages 125-134 of the following pdf manuscript, and bring your thoughts, questions, and insights:

(Note: This particular version contains copious footnotes, which you can choose to ignore entirelythey are not essential to our discussions.)

May we "receive the pivot of the teaching" (126). Over tea and beer? Why not.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Rohatsu Day of Zen - 6 December 2014

In celebration of Rohatsu (holiday commemorating the historical Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment), the Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield will host a Day of Zen Practice at the local George and Millie Ablin House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A Day of Zen, or zazenkai, is a short sesshin, a term which means “to touch the mind.” This is an excellent opportunity to practice sitting concentration, silence, and reflection in a beautiful and architecturally significant setting.

The Day of Zen will be led by Richard Collins, a Zen monk and teacher in the lineage of Taisen Deshimaru and Kodo Sawaki.

Registration includes instruction, a day of practice, breakfast, lunch, and evening hors d'oeuvres.

Those without prior experience of zazen or other meditation practices are welcome.

Early Registration: $45 ($30 for students) before December 3. First, reserve your spot by emailing the retreat coordinator. Once you receive confirmation, you can prepay early registration by visiting the following registration page.

Late Registration: $55 ($40 for students) after December 3. First, reserve your spot by emailing the retreat coordinator. Once you receive confirmation, you can pay the day of the event by credit card, check, or cash.

Day of Zen Early Registration Payment

6 December 2014 - Day of Zen - Early Registration - Regular
Amount: $45
Due: December 3

Before you pay, remember to confirm your spot with the retreat coordinator. Once you have received confirmation, click the PayPal button below to pay.

After the due date, regular registration is $55 and payable the day of the event via credit card, check, or cash.

6 December 2014 - Day of Zen - Early Registration - Student
Amount: $30
Due: December 3

Before you pay, remember to confirm your spot with the retreat coordinator. Once you have received confirmation, click the PayPal button below to pay.

After the due date, student registration is $40 and payable the day of the event via credit card, check, or cash.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Here and Now Newsletter - October 2014

Here and Now October 2014 has arrived. Click the link or image below to read and download this edition of the American Zen Association (AZA) newsletter.

Here and Now - October 2014 - Front Page
The AZA is the umbrella organization of sanghas established in the lineage of Robert Livingston Roshi, Abbot of the New Orleans Zen Temple. Founded in 1983, AZA is devoted to teaching Zen in the tradition of Taisen Deshimaru and Kodo Sawaki. In addition to Robert Livingston, teachers in this lineage are Tony Bland of the Mississippi and Alabama groups and Richard Collins of the Alexandria (Louisiana) and Bakersfield (California) groups.

Included in this edition:
  • Sangha news
  • An interview with Robert Livingston Roshi
  • Bodhisattva testimony
  • Ordination photos
  • Recent book publications 
  • Poems and essays by AZA members around the country
  • More ...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Introduction to Zen Practice - Saturday, October 4

Date and Time
Saturday, October 4: 8:30 am – 11:30 am

The Forum at St. Paul's Episcopal Church
2216 17th St, Bakersfield, CA
(See the "Visit" page for directions and a map)

The Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield will offer an Introduction to Zen. Learn how to practice sitting concentration (zazen) and walking concentration (kinhin), with emphasis on posture, breathing, and attitude of mind. All equipment is provided. Dress in loose, comfortable clothing.

A $25 donation (students $10) includes traditional monk’s breakfast during introduction and weekly participation through the end of the month.

Reservations are required, and space is limited.

For more information and reservations, email the director from the "Contact" page. For directions to the dojo, see the "Visit" page.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

True Respect, True Compassion: Instruments in the Dojo

Kusen by Richard Collins
Delivered 14 June 2014

Han of the Zen Fellowship
A day like today, when the regulars who usually take charge of the dojo and who play the instruments aren’t here, is a good time for the rest of us to take up the slack, to learn something, to contribute something. And if you’ve been attentive in your zazen, you will have paid attention to the what goes on around you, you will have been sensitive to your surroundings, you will have done more than just sit in your own little universe perched on your zafu. You will have internalized the ceremony, internalized the playing of the instruments, internalized the rhythms of the han, the inkin, the gongs, and the mokugyo. You don’t have to have memorized them, that’s not necessary because they will have become part of your natural rhythm as you enter the dojo. This makes it much easier to step into the role of shusso, inkin player, mokugyo player, or even the godo, the leader.

We can learn a lot from the various things we do in the dojo whether it is bowing, sampai, sitting, chanting, playing the instruments. Zazen comes in many forms. When we say that our practice is just sitting, shikantaza, this can be taken as representative of the way we approach a lot of things that we do, especially in the dojo. We often use the word concentration to describe the necessary attention that is paid to each of the wholehearted activities to be learned in the dojo. But concentration is a problematic word because people associate it with the mental focus and effort of studying, but Zen concentration is not anything like studying. Maybe a better word would be absorption. With proper concentration you become absorbed in the action you are performing, no matter how trivial-seeming or momentous. The object of your action becomes an extension of you; you become an extension of the object of your action, like a sponge absorbing water. Properly played, the sound of the mokugyo fills your limbs the way a plant absorbs moisture or nutrients. When you are in tune with your instrument, your body absorbs the tone and vibrations of the gong the way photosynthesis absorbs sunlight.

How is this done? Naturally, spontaneously, without thinking, without memorizing, without mental effort. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t practice, that you don’t need discipline to make it work, nor that some amount of intelligence or memorization isn’t necessary, especially in the beginning, to make it work. But it can’t be done entirely through mental effort. Study alone won’t take you very far. That’s why we don’t merely memorize the manual on how to do the ceremony, even though we have it written down. We learn by doing with out bodies and minds (or more properly our “body-minds,” through trial and error in the dojo, making mistakes, keeping on going.

Taiko of the Zen Fellowship
One of Robert’s early students, who was ordained as one of his early monks and is now a composer in San Francisco, said that when he first went to the dojo in New Orleans, that first morning when he heard the first boom of the taiko drum near the end of zazen, he wondered what sort of person could have made that sound. It was, he said, the most extraordinary and authentic sound he had ever heard, and he had grown up in a musical family. When he discovered that it was Robert, he decided that Robert would be his teacher so that he could discover the source of that sound. Robert is no musician. But in his hands, the hands of a master, the sound of the drum, the gong, or the kyosaku, is always authentic.

Essentially, the instruments are very similar. They must all be played with the same attitude, an attitude of mushotoku. Pride in playing them will spoil your tone. Ego in playing them will cause you to make mistakes. You must not hit them timidly because your fear will spoil the tone. You must not hit them proudly because your pride will spoil the tone. You should hit them with respect and compassion—and confidence. When you hit them hard enough but not too hard. the sound will ring true and clear. I can’t describe how it will sound, of course. You know it when you hear it, and you will know it when you hit it. You’ll figure out the way to hold the striker for the gong or the mallet for the han so that the sound is clear and solid, not a dull thud or clang or crack, but a clear, candid, appropriate sound.

Each time I start zazen with the three strikes of the small gong it is unique. It doesn’t always sound exactly the same. But you will notice that however the first strike sounds, the other two closely resemble the first. To achieve this you need to pay attention, to be absorbed in the action, not in the performance and its result but in the action itself for its own sake. It’s not about you, it’s not about how well you play, nobody’s going to be impressed. There are no Grammy awards for playing the instruments in the dojo.

Take your time, don’t rush through the instrument’s role. It’s like chanting. Chanting is our first lesson in how to play the instruments. Our voices are an instrument, the primal instrument, especially the torso where the chant arises and vibrates like the shapely and sonorous box of a cello. When we chant the Hannya Shingyo we don’t rush through it—there are no prizes for getting to the end before everyone else—we chant it together to get the right rhythm and harmony. Once we have internalized the rhythm, memorizing the syllables—even if we don’t know what they mean—is easy.

For any of the instruments to be played correctly, we must understand what they are saying. We don’t need to know the meaning of the syllables of the Hannya Shingyo but we do need to realize that what they are saying is what they are doing: namely, embodying the complex meaning of the Heart Sutra. Meanwhile, the mokugyo keeps time. The han, which often has an inscription that says something like “don’t waste time!”, calls us to zazen, urging us to practice right here and now. The taiko drum that booms just before the end of zazen marks the hour of day and wakes you up if you’re drowsing. The small and large gongs have the job of announcing the beginnings and endings of zazen and kinhin, as well as providing ceremonial marks of punctuation and emphasis. More complicated is the meaning of the inkin, which seems to be conducting (or protecting) the godo, but is actually being conducted by the godo, who in this way instructs the assembly, through movement and sound, on what to do during the ceremony.

People usually start learning the instruments by playing the han and the mokugyo. The three simple accelerations of the han, that block of wood that calls us to zazen, give us time to transition from the world into the dojo. Don’t rush it. Let the discrete strikes breathe, all the way to the end. Find the sweet spot on the wood that produces the right tone. It should not sound hard like a crack, nor soft like a tap. It should have a voice of authority, neither strident nor arrogant, neither timid nor reticent, but clear and confident. This includes the final coda after the three accelerations, which consists of two additional strikes and a third “thunk” on the side or edge of the han.

Like the han with its simple accelerations, the mokugyo lets you concentrate on an unchanging melody, setting the tempo of the chanting of the Hannya Shingyo. A blind person can play the mokugyo because you don’t have to follow what everyone else is doing. The rhythm is regular, even monotonous, at least as it is played in our lineage’s dojos, a strike for each syllable or each set so syllables in the Hannya Shingyo. This is fairly easy when we chant the sutra just once, but during the longer ceremony, when we chant it three times, it gets a little harder because you have to increase the tempo the second time around, and then increase it even more with the third repetition.

After getting comfortable with playing the mokugyo, you can move on to the inkin. The inkin is very different than the mokugyo because instead of leading the chant, you are being led by the movements of the godo. In effect, the godo is playing the inkin with his body. On the approach to the dojo, he plays it with his walk. As he steps into the dojo, he plays it with his feet. Bowing during sampai, he plays it with his waist, and with his head as it rises from the mat. So it is very important that the inkin player pay attention to the movements of the godo and be sure that the ringing of the bell is synchronized with these movements. A good way to practice playing the inkin is to play godo, going through the motions with your own body, approaching the dojo, stepping into the dojo, bowing after entering the dojo, bowing to the shusso, stepping up to the altar, offering incense, coming around the mat and laying out the zagu, knowing with your body that the last strike of the inkin coincides with the dropping of the edges of the zagu on the mat, and so on through sampai.

The instrument that most of us learn to play last is the gong, usually played by the shusso, the head monk or assistant to the godo. A common error in playing the gong is to strike it on top or on the side of the metal instead of at a forty-five degree angle on the edge. Another common error is to strike it too hard. The powerful sound of the gong, one might assume, comes from a powerful hand, but actually the powerful sound of the gong comes from the power of a steady hand. You need not strike the gong any harder than you would tap the skull of a child to get its attention. Then, space the strokes, especially at the beginning of an acceleration, so that you get a good sense of the clarity of sound. Don’t rush it. The acceleration should cut the timing of the strokes almost in half, each time you hit it, a little faster each time, but not so fast that you can’t distinguish the final strikes. The last strikes should remain as clear and distinct as all the others, all the way to the end of the acceleration. Then, after the last strike in the acceleration, let the vibration of the gong die out before you put the period on the acceleration with the pause and then the final strike, which should sound as clear that first one that began the series.

There is one more instrument that we don’t always think of as an instrument, but it too is part of the ceremony and we should treat it very much as we treat any other instrument, play it as we play any other instrument. That is the kysosaku. We should treat the kyosaku with the same care that we treat the other instruments, with the absorption of mushotoku. With the strike of the kyosaku on the shoulders, the shusso plays your bodies like an instrument so that you can feel the vibrations that the gong or the mokugyo feels, so that you can resound to the cosmos and identify with the instruments that you play in the ceremony. The kyosaku is the final instrument we learn to play.

What makes playing the instruments difficult is if we get too concerned with what we’re doing. We sometimes think that concentrating and being in the moment here and now is concentrating on what we are doing. But being too concerning with what we are doing is not true concentration, not true attention to your environment, not true absorption in your action. The problem only comes if you have not been paying attention until now. You should always be aware of everything that’s going on around you. Someday the other instrument players won’t be here and you’ll need to step up. Someday I won’t be here and someone will need to step up. Same thing in life. In everyday life, at home, in your job, one day everything changes. You have your routine down to a system, everything is going smoothly, and then something happens, something changes, and you have to adjust. You step up. The reason we don’t change the ceremony or the dojo etiquette is so that we can recognize the small changes when they occur, and they always occur. Even when everything looks the same it’s different. We need to appreciate those differences.

Playing the instruments is not just some ancient ritual that we perpetuate because it provides some sort of spiritual nonsense. It’s part of the practice, part of the discipline. It’s the way we humble ourselves, not before tradition or religion but before these instruments, before the altar, not because there’s a Buddha on it or because we think we’re Buddhists, but because the altar is there, because the flowers are there, because the kyosaku is there. All of these things we need to take care of just as we need to take care of all beings in our realm of influence. These are some of the beings, however numerous, that we vow to take care of as one of the four bodhisattva vows. These are some of the “all existences” that we are paying respect to when we put our hands together in gassho.

So don’t get caught up in your own small and self-centered ideas of what ceremony is, what playing the instruments means, and most of all what the significance of what all these things are. Don’t worry about what concentration is or what absorption is because these are just words pointing at the right attitude which, like the sound of a well-struck gong, you will know when you hear it. Just let yourself relate to the things around you so that you can take care of them in these simple ways, and they’ll take care of you. This is true respect, true compassion.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Mushotoku Mind by Richard Collins

by Paul Cooper of Two Rivers Zen Community, Honesdale, PA. for Sweeping Zen

Writings on the Heart Sutra are extensive ranging from highly academic scholarly treatments to compilations of dharma talks for the lay practitioner. This is understandable considering that the Heart Sutra functions as a terse and concise distillation of an extensive body of writing along with the central place the Heart Sutra holds in the “emptiness literature” of  the Perfection of Wisdom tradition in Mahayana Buddhism. This edition is, in my opinion, one of the most outstanding contributions to the subject. It is balanced, thorough, beautifully presented and highly accessible for both the dharma practitioner, the student of comparative religion and for the curious casual reader.

The book is based on a series of talks given on the Heart Sutra by Taisen Deshimaru, Roshi in Paris between 1977 and 1978. Deshimaru, a student of Kodo Sawaki, was instrumental to introducing Zen study and practice to Europe. While originally presented as a series of oral teachings the book maintains a good level of continuity. Deshimaru conveys a strong sense of scholarship without a loss of directness. I believe that this is the result of careful and sensitive editing of this new edition by Richard Collins who is both a dharma teacher and an English scholar, holding the Ph.D. in English literature. His thoughtful introduction sets the tone for the book and captures its essence.  For instance, he writes:
As a Soto sangha in the tradition of Dogen Zenji, the New Orleans Zen Temple asked something else of me: simply to empty my preconceptions and to live in the here and now, doing what needed to be done, with a mushotoku attitude, with no thought of personal profit or gain (pp. xi-xii).
To read the rest of the review, visit Sweeping Zen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Oxherding Pictures

Ox-Herding: Stages of Zen Practice
Compiled by John M. Koller, Department of Cognitive Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Prints by Master Gyokusei Jikihara

Ten Oxherding Pictures
By Zen Master Kakuan, China, 12th C. A sequence of ten illustrations depicting the levels of realization in Zen, these ancient drawings with Verse and Comments are presented in two new English translations along with contemporary commentary.

The Ten Oxherding Pictures
From The Manual of Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki. Prints by Shubun (15th Century)

Oxherding Pictures in Buddhism Now
The following pictures come from Songgwangsa, Korea, and are found on the outside walls of a meditation hall.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Day of Zen - 10 May 2014

The Zen Fellowship will host a Day of Zen May 10 at the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Bakersfield. This one-day sesshin (meaning "touch the mind") offers intensive Zen practice of zazen (sitting concentration), kinhin (walking concentration), and samu (work practice). Registration includes meals and instruction. Beginners are welcome.

This event will be led by Richard Collins, Zen monk and teacher in the lineage of Kodo Sawaki, Taisen Deshimaru, and Robert Livingston Roshi of the New Orleans Zen Temple.


To reserve your spot now via PayPal on the Donation page. You can also email to reserve your spot and then pay by cash, check, or credit card at the event.

Further instructions will be sent to registrants as we near the event date.

If you have any questions about registration or the event itself, email via the Contact page of this website.

We look forward to practicing with you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sitting Behind Bars in Tehachapi

By Richard Collins

Photo by meesh via Flickr under a CC-BY license.
I visited the prison in Tehachapi last week as a guest chaplain for some inmates who requested a Buddhist priest to conduct services for them. As the director of the Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield, I was contacted through the Prison Dharma Network, a group that coordinates visits to prisoners throughout the U.S. It took several months of paperwork and delay, but at last I was entering the first of many gates.

About forty miles from Bakersfield lies the dry, stark, windblown Cummings Valley of the Tehachapi mountains, high enough for scrub oak but too low for evergreens. Among a scattering of houses and vineyards sprawls the cement and steel compounds of the eighty-year-old California Correctional Institute, the third oldest prison in California after Folsom (1880) and San Quentin (1852).

The prison opened in 1933 as the California Institution for Women, Tehachapi, the first women’s prison in the state, with 28 inmates transferred from San Quentin where they had been housed side-by-side with men with predictable results. The new women’s prison was run on progressive lines with the idea that these women (those who were not hanged) could be returned to society better than they came in. They were allowed to make “colorful frocks” fashioned after what was chic in the magazines and even to wear red shoes if they liked, rather than the drab prison garb and dull boots they had sported in San Quentin.

It was into that environment that Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade sent Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaunessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941): “Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” James M. Cain also referenced the prison in Double Indemnity (1943) when he mentioned a wife who was cleaning her gun when her husband “got in the way.”
Excerpted. To read the rest of the article, visit Sweeping Zen.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Introduction to Zen Practice - Saturday, March 8

Date and Time
Saturday, March 8: 8:30 am – 11:30 am

The Forum at St. Paul's Episcopal Church
2216 17th St, Bakersfield, CA
(See the "Visit" page for directions and a map)

The Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield will offer an Introduction to Zen. Learn how to practice sitting concentration (zazen) and walking concentration (kinhin), with emphasis on posture, breathing, and attitude of mind. All equipment is provided. Dress in loose, comfortable clothing.

A $25 donation (students $10) includes traditional monk’s breakfast during introduction and weekly participation through the end of the month.

Reservations are required, and space is limited.

For more information and reservations, email the director from the "Contact" page. For directions to the dojo, see the "Visit" page.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore

Review by Gary Enns
Excerpted. To read the rest of the review, visit Sweeping Zen.
The Mindful Writer by Dinty. W. Moore
The paradox of a good inspirational wisdom book is that the moment you finish a page or two, you are compelled to put the book down, to stop reading and just live life. And what about a good wisdom book—on writing? It screams through its implications—throw me down! Why are you even reading me right now when you could be living the life of the writer?

In the case of The Mindful Writer (2012), which I consider just such a book, Moore and the well-known authors he quotes and explicates compel us to just drop the book and live the moment—to notice the surroundings, to sit down at the writing desk, to catch a thought on the page and see where it might lead.

Moore’s central assertion is that mindfulness is essential for a fruitful, truly satisfying writing life. Writing is life, and life is writing, and so it follows that what is true of every other aspect of life is also true of writing.

Moore establishes this assertion by defining the mindful writer as one who remains “attentive to the task at hand, seeing the words that are before you, hearing the possibilities in your mind, not succumbing to the thousands of other willing and ready distractions” (7).

Book Review of The Mindful Writer on Sweeping ZenTo further clarify, he adapts the Four Noble Truths to the life of the writer: 
The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.

There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.

The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes. (8)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Nishijima is Dead, Are You More Alive Than He?

by Richard Collins
1 February 2014

Gudo Wafu Nishijima
I almost didn’t come to zazen today. I had considered going to Santa Monica where Brad Warner’s group is having zazen as they always do at 10 o’clock, to be followed by a memorial service for his master, Gudo Nishijima, who died earlier this week.

I never knew Nishijima, but he was a contemporary of Taisen Deshimaru and like Deshimaru a student of Kodo Sawaki. So he was a very important teacher in a lineage very closely related to ours, and very similar to ours in the reliance on the fundamentals of the practice: on zazen and a pared down ritual. All three were known as rebels in the Zen world, especially in the official world of Soto Zen, and yet they were very much recognized by the Sotoshu, the governing body of Soto Zen in Japan.

Kodo Sawaki was known for restoring zazen to Zen practice in Japan, which had largely fallen out of favor. Monks, often the sons of village priests, would go through their training for a few years at one of the larger training temples, and then when they received their “diplomas,” you might say, they would return to their family temples to make their living performing primarily funerary rites, continuing the family business. But they wouldn’t do zazen much. This is why Kodo Sawaki was known as a rebel and a reformer, going back to the basics. No toys, he would say. Just sit. He didn’t like the use of koans. Just sit. He didn’t like the overreliance on ceremony. Just sit. He didn’t even want to have his own temple, refusing for many years to accept the position of abbot anywhere, until his later years at Antaiji. Just sit.

Sometimes this “just sit” is over-interpreted. Just sit doesn’t mean just sit. It means that whatever you do you undertake with the same attitude of mind that you use when you are sitting in zazen. It doesn’t mean not reading or thinking or studying, much less not working with your hands or practicing an art. Kodo Sawaki and Nishijima and Deshimaru, all were deeply learned. Kodo Sawaki may have been called Homeless Kodo because he did not have a temple of his own, but when he traveled he was never without his case of books, an attachment his friends made fun of. You know the depth of Deshimaru’s learning from my edition of his commentaries on the Heart Sutra. And when I first read Dogen’s Shobogenzo it was in Nishijima’s four-volume translation.

So I thought it might be a nice gesture to show up at the memorial in Santa Monica. A nice gesture, but to impress whom? Maybe if I hadn’t anything else to do. It is more appropriate that I am here for the first sitting in our new space. This is a much better way of memorializing and remembering a master who is no longer here. After all, he is just as not here in Bakersfield as he is not there in Santa Monica. And after all, our zazen is the best way of embodying what Nishijima and Deshimaru and their teacher Kodo Sawaki were all about.

We live in the here and now. Much better to do something for the living than for the dead. That doesn’t mean though that we throw out the past. It doesn’t mean we throw out the past masters of the lineage. On the contrary: Nishijima, Deshimaru, Kodo Sawaki, they were just like the Buddha, just like Bodhidharma, just men, just people, just human beings, just like us. The best way to remember them is to live our lives. The best way to live our lives is to do zazen. The best way to do zazen is as nothing special.

This is our first day in this new space but it is always the first day. Every zazen is the first zazen in a new space. Always remember: posture, breathing, attitude of mind. Mushotoku attitude of mind, no personal profit, no personal gain. That’s the entire formula for zazen, the entire secret to Zen practice, very simple. Don’t complicate it. Complications are an expression of the ego, the very opposite attitude of mushotoku. We want things to be more complex so that we can figure them out, like Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx. We want our lives to be more tangled, more neurotic, like Woody Allen, because we think that makes us more interesting. We want our reactions to be more extreme because we think that makes us more passionate and therefore more alive. But that’s not true. More complexity, more neuroses, more extreme emotions really show us how desensitized we are to the subtleties of others and involve us in our own delusions. See for yourself, though. Drop off these delusions in zazen and see for yourself whether that makes life more interesting and you more alive, or duller and deader. That’s the only test.

Nishijima is dead. The question is: are you more alive than he?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ordination Testimony - Bodhi Ryoji

I used to see pictures of bodhisattvas, and I wanted to be one. I thought that it was an extraordinary person and took extraordinary effort to be a bodhisattva. I did not think that I could attain “bodhisattva-hood” until at Zen Fellowship Bakersfield I was told that all it took was the willingness to save-help-care for all beings. Also, a bodhisattva could live in the world, outside of the temple. This was important as I had a family and was working.

I wanted to be a bodhisattva, very much, but felt that I was not ready. I had started to memorize the “Heart Sutra” which is in Japanese; and I memorized the sounds without knowing the meaning over several months. I thought if I made the effort and could memorize the sutra, I could make the effort to practice the Way of a bodhisattva. The ordination ceremony was beautiful, outdoors among tall, stately pines in Bakersfield. I was deeply moved by my new name, Ryoji Bodhi, which means “compassionate healing.” My family and friends were at the ordination. I continue in the usual relationships with them.

Since the ordination, I listen to persons more intently, and listen with the mind of caring for them. This way of listening allows the other person to speak genuinely. This practice has also helped me. I get anxious in new situations with new people. I now convince myself that all I have to do is to listen and visualize taking the person(s) across to the other side. So simple. I am at ease and practice the Way.

Bodhi Ryoji

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Dojo

by Richard Collins

Dojo at Ablin House, Bakersfield
The place where we do zazen is called the dojo. Dojo means the place where we practice the Way. Some people use it interchangeably with zendo, which actually means “Zen way.” But my master was adamant that the dojo not be called a zendo. Dojo is the same word used for the place where they practice martial arts. It’s a workshop for the heart, a gym for the brain, a studio for the work of the mind, the body-mind. Calling this place the dojo reminds us that Zen is a whole-person discipline not an idea, nor a technique. It is much more than that. Zen practice is nothing less than putting oneself—one’s whole self—in harmony with the cosmic order, and the dojo is where we do this together.

Confucius, a long time before Zen existed in its present form, said, “The Way does not glorify the man, the man glorifies the Way.” (Because this word “glorify” has religious baggage, we might substitute “dignify,” so we can say, “Zen practice does not dignify the person, the person dignifies Zen practice.”)

A lot of people who come to the dojo expect to be glorified by Zen practice, improved by it, turned into something extraordinary. And it does improve most people who practice diligently, but that’s not the point. If it is the point for you, it won’t work. Most people don’t stick around long enough to get past the idea that Zen is going to glorify them, that they’re going to reach enlightenment, or they’re going to have a big breakthrough. They are impatient; they think they already grasp the idea of Zen so they walk away with just a taste and none of the sustenance of a strong Zen practice. They don’t stick around long enough to realize that the point is not for Zen to glorify them but for them to glorify the way of Zen.

This is the essence of mushotoku, practicing with no goal. It’s very difficult for us in the West. We are always thinking about outcomes, always measuring ourselves, always saying “How am I doing now?” It’s as though we never grew up and are always looking for approval from our mother, our father, our teacher, our boss.

Better to think, as my Tai-chi teacher told me, you have already lost the fight; then you have nothing to worry about. Or as Hakuin said, “Young people! Are you afraid of death? Then die now!”

Alter at UUFKC dojo, Bakersfield
The Way is not something that can be measured. It’s much more than enlightenment. It’s much more than mere mindfulness. There’s nothing wrong with mindfulness, but don’t mistake mindfulness for the goal. It’s not the goal—there is no goal. To mistake mindfulness for the goal is to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Mindfulness is just a byproduct of Zen practice. Enlightenment, too, is just a byproduct of Zen practice; it is not the point of Zen practice. Zen practice is itself enlightenment, said Dogen; Zen practice is itself mindfulness—but only if that is not your goal.

Just practice with mushotoku attitude. When we come to the dojo, we just have to practice the Way with no thought of “How am I doing now?” That’s all. Concentrate on what we’re doing each moment. Concentrate on bowing. Concentrate on posture. Concentrate on breathing. Concentrate on chanting. Concentrate on playing the instruments or on whatever role you’re asked to play. Then, gradually, over time, we expand the dojo so that the dojo is not just this room but everywhere you go, and the whole world becomes your dojo. It is the same with samu (work practice): gradually, over time, everything you do becomes samu, and there is no separation between what you do for yourself and what you do for a living and what you do for the Way. It is all Zen practice. Then the Way is not just what we do here in the dojo—our little ceremonies peculiar to our lineage, our quaint etiquettes peculiar to ourselves—but what we do everywhere, respecting each place with its own etiquette peculiar to itself.

Thus we glorify, or dignify, the Way.

Unlike Eihei-ji or the New Orleans Zen Temple, our dojo here in Bakersfield happens to be temporary, which shows the changeableness of our lives. It is borrowed space, which shows the interrelatedness of our existences. Our dojo can be broken down and set up in just a few minutes, and yet it is no less a sacred space where we practice the Way without leaving a trace, except perhaps for the scent of incense. This shows us we can practice anywhere; we don’t need a building or a church. We call it the Dust Bowl Dojo, in part to recognize the Dust Bowl migration to this area, and in part quoting a Cold Mountain poem about how we humans are like insects skittering in a bowl of dust. As much as I might like to have a place of our own, a temple as a permanent space for our practice, I’m thankful we have this moveable dojo. I’m often glad we don’t have the responsibilities that go with a permanent place of practice. After all, it’s not the walls and floors that make a dojo but people together practicing the Way.

What is our practice? It comes in many forms: samu (work practice), ceremony (ritual practice), and above all zazen (sitting practice). Each part of our practice dignifies the Way. We could also say that our practice “certifies” the Way, and the dojo is the workshop where we practice the Way together, where we sometimes take baby steps, sometimes great leaps.

How does our practice work? My master always said, “I don’t know how zazen works, but it does.” If you want to know how zazen works chemically and biologically, you might read James Austin’s Zen and the Brain, a huge book published by MIT Press. There you can find out a lot about the thalamus and the hypothalamus, about the chemistry and the electrical system of the brain. But it is much better to just practice. It is the same with work practice and ritual practice—I don’t know how they work, but they do. I don’t know why we need a dojo, but we do.

So come to the dojo and practice earnestly—with mushotoku mind, with no thought of your own profit or gain. The reward is nothing less than putting yourself in harmony with the cosmic order. This is what it means to glorify the Way in the dojo. Where you take the dojo from there is up to you. But remember to take your Zen practice into the world gingerly. Don’t rush it. Don’t stink of Zen.