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Dear friends, The essay below was written by one of our Zen students “behind the fence.” He has been a long time student and friend of mine.  I hope you will be enlightened by Jakuho’s writing, passion, and understanding of the teachings of Zen Buddhism.  I hope, as well, that you will take his sage advice in the last paragraph it could change your life forever.

In gassho, Shokai

gassho

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I am reading from the book you sent me, titled, “What is Zen?.”   My simple answer is that Zen is Zen Buddhism, an Asian religion now practiced all over the world.  Broadly, there are three forms of Buddhism: Theravada, which emphasizes the earliest scriptures that seems be mostly about individual liberation; Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and social concern as much or more than individual liberation; and Vajrayana Buddhism (the Buddhism of Tibet), which adds detailed, esoteric, ritualistic practices.   

Zazen is very much a physical practice: the body is never an insignificant detail, as if meditation were a matter of mind and spirit apart from body.  Why do we walk so slowly during kinhin?  So slow that I often feel I will lose my balance?  The point is to pay close attention to body, breath, and mind when you are walking just as when you are sitting.    

Can you tell when a person is “more spiritually developed”?   Does it show?   I guess I have just defined an enlightened person as someone with wisdom and a good heart.   Wisdom in Zen means the capacity to see that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” as the Heart Sutra teaches.   What would this “wisdom ad good heart” look like?   Probably like the spiritual qualities that all our great traditions have always prized: humility, kindness love, patience, forgiveness, understanding.  

The important thing about the teaching of rebirth, the part that seems true and that matters a great deal is that life continues.   That is, there is more to our lives than the little span of time between birth and death.   The teaching of rebirth tells us that our life and death are significant beyond their appearances, more significant than we know. 

To most Zen students, at first the teachings might seem odd or nonsensical though also at the same time intriguing, because you sense that there is something to them, but after you have practiced and studied a while, they do make sense, and you can discuss and think about them reasonably.   Our lives include many paradoxical and contradictory elements.   Things are usually not just one way, they are many ways at once.

How will Zen practice affect my family relationship?  My work relationships?   The effectiveness of your practice will show up at home.  I believe and have seen much corroborating evidence, that Zen practice makes you a better husband or wife, father, or mother.   It makes you more attuned emotionally, kinder, more patient, more caring and loving, more able to be present, even when the going gets tough, even when you have an impulse not to be.

Why does Zen have such a close connection to various art forms, like haiku and flower arranging, for example?   As Zen developed in China, it co-evolved with Taoism and the Chinese arts, most notably calligraphy, painting, and poetry.   Zen priests always wrote poetry and did calligraphy.   Some experts claim that in the West, art depicts the external, while in Asia, art evokes the inner sense of things, their spirit or soul.

Doshin, I am finishing this book.   There is much work to do about the tremendous suffering in this world: poverty, social injustice, war, environmental destruction.   Isn’t it selfish to spend a lot of time just sitting and staring at the wall without helping anybody else?    Thank you for sending me this book and for your compassion, kindness, and love.   

In gassho, Jakuho

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  1. Sit early in the morning before you begin your day. It will set your mood and tone bhante-gunaratanaand can open your mind to great ideas and solutions for a situation that you are dealing with.
  2. Find a quiet place even if the only place is the bathroom with the door locked.
  3. Sit in a way where you are comfortable be it in a chair, or on the floor with a cushion in half or full lotus, on a meditation bench, sitting up in bed with your pillows behind your back, outside in your garden, on the veranda, on the back porch, or in the tub in a bubble bath. Regardless of where you sit make it a priority and sit on a regular basis in the same place, if at all possible.
  4. Set a specific amount of time, start slow and work your up to longer and longer times. I suggest 5 minutes at first and when 5 minutes feels like it flew by like a jet airplane, move to 10 and then 20 minutes. Simply focus your attention on your breath, in and out, when your mind wanders bring it back to your in breath and out breath.
  5. Some days are better then others when sitting. Thus, if you have a day that you can’t seem to quiet your mind don’t get mad and put yourself down.  Just know that everything takes time to learn, including meditation.  Remember growing up when you tried to learn how to ride a bike, or ice skate, or roller skate, or play baseball, or dance. You did not lace up those skates and fly around the ice like an Olympic skater! You started and stopped and fell down, and got up with help, and started again.  Before long you were skating with your friends with ease and grace or dancing with your favorite partner at the school dance.  Such is life and sitting in meditation.
  6. Finally, start by setting a goal such as I will do this for one month and if nothing happens and I don’t feel any difference in my life then I will stop. But to be sure that you really did or did not feel any changes you might want to keep a little notebook by your sitting place and jot down a note after your time sitting.  Write down both good and bad experiences.  During the day you might even notice something that you’ll want to add to your notebook such as “I really was calm at work today as I worked on a very difficult project.  In the past I would have gotten upset and angry at myself or taken my anger or frustration out on my co-workers or my family.”
  7. Finally, after all that I hope you’ll continue sitting and meditating and living a life of peace, love, and compassion for self and others. Try it I think you’ll like it and so will the people around you in your daily life!  They will love the new you!

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This post is dedicated to those who lived and died. Especially, on this day, those who died in the name of politics, fear, and hatred of the other.

My dear friend and mentor Father John McNeill told me a story about being in the war and when he tried to give food to a starving so-called “enemy” he was chastised and punished heavily and tagged an enemy of the state.  But it never deterred him from being the kind and loving man he was. Thus, for me he was the epitome of peace, love, and compassion on planet Earth.  If only all people treated each other as Father John did there would be NO wars, hatred, or killing.

My fiancé Dennis Cama died in Viet Nam he too was a kind and loving man who was forced to kill and die for the politicians of the world.  May they both be in peace on this Memorial Day 2019. My mom and dad both served in the Army Air Corp during WWII and dad earned the Silver Star as a belly gunner on a B17 bomber.

More thoughts on the passing of my mentor and friend: Father John J. McNeill

Wednesday September 22, 2015 Father John J. McNeill went to meet his friend and guide, Jesus.  When I heard the news I thought it was just what Father John would have wanted—to make his transition the day that Pope Francis was in the country voicing his support for the LGBT community around the world.  Good going John!

Father John was silenced, sanctioned, and finally asked to leave the Jesuit Order by the former Pope Ratzinger because of his support for the LGBT community and for living a life of truth and compassion as a gay man with a wonderful supportive and loving partner Charles Chiarelli.

Father John has written many books and counseled many people in and out of the LGBT community.  He was my mentor and friend for many years as I worked as an associate pastor at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, FL and as a hospice chaplain.  As one of the founders of an interfaith clergy group for those serving congregations in the Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach Counties I had the pleasure of picking Father John up for our meetings and events when he needed a ride.

To be with him and hear him talk was an amazing thing.  It did not matter what topic he was speaking about or even if it was just a causal conversation about life–I was blessed simply by being in his presence.  If you have not had the opportunity to read any of his books I recommend them highly.  His knowledge of scripture and Christianity was amazing.  Two of my favorite books by Father John are Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey and Sex as God Intended.gassho

In memory of Father John, Dennis, my Dad and Mom and all those who have died in war I would like to leave you all with this poem by Kuan Hsiu, Zen Buddhist monk and master poet who lived from 832-912.

This is for you my dear friends…

So, say my way differs from yours,
We both have old men’s hair and beards.
They say words can kill faith.
I like to arrange spring blossoms in a rough old
  funeral jar.
In gassho, Shokai

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one-world-family-logo-jpgIn Zen Buddhism there are so many wonderful teachers and writers that you could spend the rest of your life reading their original books and their translations of the ancient writers. Plus, we have the current teachers and writers taking a particular point of view or sutra or teaching and creating a blog or a book or a lecture from the information.  I, of course, happen to be one of them.

Today I begin my new workbook on the world of “peace” as envisioned in my head.  The current world is creating peace, love, hatred and fear at an amazingly fast pace due to the internet and social media. Regardless of where others may stand, I stand for peace and love.

Dharmachari Abhaya writes in the preface of Sangharakshite: A Guide to the Buddhist Path, these words:

A fact that is often glossed over in books on Buddhism is that there are two basic modes of conditionality, not just one: two ways in which we can act, one unskillful, the other skillful.  The first is known as the circular or, in Sangharakshita’s term, ‘reactive’ mode.  This is the mode in which we operate for much of the time, and it is the cause of all our suffering. But there is also a spiral or ‘creative mode,’ in which we can make spiritual progress experience ever-expanding states of happiness and bliss.[1]

For me bliss is the kissing cousin of peace!  I’ve never heard anyone say after a meditation where they went in to samadhi…  I felt such anger or hatred or fear!  No, they haven’t, but they sure do say I felt peaceful, alive, happy, joyous, content, and as many positive descriptive adjectives as you can think of.

It is not easy in America today to live a peaceful life.  With what is going on in our politics, wars around the world, poverty and prejudice in America increasing daily and I could go on.  It could make you mad, sad, or revengeful and thus not at PEACE!  So how do we handle this?  By balancing our lives with Buddhist principles, meditation, and mindfulness.  By living the teaching, not just by teaching it or reading about it.

Dharmachari Abhaya goes on:

…one should approach Buddhism with one’s total being. One should not just try to feel and not understand, nor just try to understand and not feel.  One should not always look within and never look without, nor, on the other hand, always look without, never pausing to look within, there is a time and place for all these things. If possible, we should try to do all of these things all the time.  As we ascend higher and higher in our spiritual development, we shall tend more and more to think and feel, act and not act, simultaneously.  It sounds impossible, but that is only because of the limitations of our present way of thinking.[2]

What way are you thinking? Will it bring you to a peaceful life and world or bring you to a world of anxiety, hatred, and fear?  It’s all up to you.  You shape your world by your thoughts, words, and actions…what shape is your personal world in? Love filled or Hate filled…or somewhere in between?

[1] Sangharakshita, (1990). Windhorse Publications: Birmingham, England. page 11
[2] Ibid. page 22
[3] The picture is the logo from an interfaith organization in Fort Lauderdale, FL to which I belonged they have merged with another organization JAM & All where I am a board member. Check out their Facebook page at JAM and All Interfaith.

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In the The Little Book of Zen the editors have taken this wonderful yet simpperson eating reading newspaperle koan to illustrate the importance of being mindful all day—even when you are eating. I might say “especially” when you are eating since this is a series on food.

Joshu’s koan goes like this:

A monk said to Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery.  Please teach me”
“Have you eaten your rice porridge?” asked Joshu. “Yes, I have, “replied the monk.
“Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Joshu. With this the monk gained enlightenment.[1]

It seems that the young monk was to start each day with a good bowl of porridge eaten quietly and then begin his meditation time.  So what was the motivation for Joshu to ask that question to the young man? The editors indicate that Joshu was saying since the monk was no longer eating, he should be paying attention to the now moment or his meditation or his breath, and not that sometime in the past he had eaten breakfast.

As silly as that may seem one of the great teachings in Buddhism is “being here now!”  Once your breakfast has been eaten, or dishes washed, or relationship has ended keep moving forward. You do this by staying in the now moment and experiencing what is in the here and NOW.

Alas, we spend so much time going backwards in our lives ruminating over the failures of the past or bragging about the successes we’ll have in the future.  When we do this we are not enjoying this current moment hearing the sounds around us, smelling the smells, tasting the food that is in our mouth, or feeling the touch of our friends’ hand in ours.

Stop for a minute and close your eyes: can you hear the voice of someone that you love, feel their laughter vibrating the air, or hear them praising the cook for the fabulous meal? Were you really there or were you simply thinking about the past or the future during your time with them?

We miss so much each and every day because we are not being present in this now moment. What have you missed today when eating with your friends and family?

Now go wash your bowl.

[1]Manuela Dunn Mascetti (editor). The Little Book of Zen. Fall River Press, New York, 2001

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round white and blue ceramic bowl with cooked ball soup and brown wooden chopsticks

Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com

I really believe that first I eat with my nose!  Yes, with my nose.  Whether I am doing the cooking or someone else is doing the cooking when I get near the kitchen or the dinning room or the restaurant the first sense that inspires me is the things that I smell.  When I walked into my house as a kid if my dad was making a big pot of stuffed cabbage I could smell that great aroma all the way from the front door.  If mom was cooking a batch of cookies, we’d run down stairs to get the first hot cookie that came out of the oven.  These are wonderful memories triggered by smell. I’m sure you have hundreds of them in your life that you respond to without even thinking about it.

Jan Chozen Bays in her book How to Train A Wild Elephant writes a whole section #31 titled “Notice Smells.”  She says that “…smell can evoke emotion, desire, and aversion (page 130).[1] Chozen reminds us that not all smells bring happy feelings and thus some remind us of painful life experiences like a fire in your home, or the burnt smell of your first and last batch of cookies that you ever made.  For some it could be the smell of a perfume or aftershave of a person that was either a light in your life or darkness.  So when you encounter a particular smell the visual begins to appear right along with the smell.

Chozen goes on to write: “One reason incense is used in meditation halls is that over time a strong link is forged between the fragrance of incense and a quiet concentrated state of mind.  As you enter the scented hall, your mind automatically settles (page 132).”[2]

Foods are famous for having wonderful smells and bringing wonderful memories.  Let’s stop for a moment and take a deep breath.  Close your eyes and think of some wonderful smell that has made you happy, or giddy, or glad.  What comes to mind for me is our family dinners when growing up.

On Sunday we would have a special family outing—going to the Chinese restaurant for dinner.  Dad would choose one item from column A and two from column B and we all waited with great expectations for the food to begin to arrive. I just loved the smell of the wonton soup and the fried rice. But most of all I loved those almond fortune cookies that I used as an edible spoon to scoop up the delicious chocolate ice cream!  What a great ending to a great food adventure—I experienced a beautiful harmony of fantastic smells indeed! How about you….

 

[1] Bays MD, Jan Chozen. How to Train a Wild and Other Adventures in Mindfulness Elephant. Shambhala, Boston & London, 2011

[2] Ibid.

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tea and typewriterWhen I was growing up my mother would never allow us to have coffee, not sure why, but she said not until we were in high school? Hmmmm

So we could have water, milk, juice, soda, and yes tea!  Hot tea or cold tea and Lipton tea, of course.  I learned a lot about tea, as I’ve said, from Aaron Fisher’s book The Way of Tea Reflections on a Life with Tea.  Thus this blog post…

Once I was allowed to drink coffee, I decided that I would try it.  Mom had an old metal coffee pot with a glass window in the top so you could see the coffee perking.  Not sure why that was there but it was fun watching the coffee going up and down in the pot.  Kept me out of trouble for a few minutes anyway!

The day finally came, and I got the coffee cup and the hot pot of coffee off the stove and poured some into the cup.  I saw mom put cream and sugar in her coffee so I figured that was how it was to be fixed before drinking it.  It was very hot and so I figured I’d better blow on it a little before taking my first sip and finally I jumped into the coffee with great expectations.  Yikes!  Was I shocked it was awful, it tasted like mud to me.  It was not light and flavorful like the tea or transparent enough to see to the bottom of the cup. It’s kind of like life our “great expectations” don’t always turn out as we had expected…

Thus I did not drink coffee until I was grown up…I mean really grown up!  I was working in the Emergency Room in the local hospital as a Unit Secretary.  My shift was 3-11 PM on weekends and holidays.  Thus the cafeteria closed at 7 pm and if I wanted a hot drink, I had to drink what was in the nurse’s lounge.  Yes, you guessed it!  A giant old coffee pot filled with that nasty dark concoction!

Such is life and how it affects our eating, drinking, and way of living.  Fisher writes, “The Chinese, always so fond of making lists—of virtues, of bests and worsts, and even of benefits—made a list of the ten virtues of tea and it became common knowledge:

  1. Tea is beneficial to health, as the “Qi” clears all blockages and cures ailments.
  2. Tea helps refresh one after a night of drinking alcohol.
  3. Tea, mixed with other things like nuts or even milk can provide nourishment.
  4. Tea can cool one off in the heat of summer.
  5. Tea helps one slough off all fatigue and drowsiness, promoting an awakened mindset.
  6. Tea purifies the spirit, removes anxiety and nervousness and brings ease and comfort, conducive to meditation.
  7. Tea aids in the digestion of food.
  8. Tea removes all toxins from the body, flushing out the blood and urinary system.
  9. Tea is conducive to longevity, promoting longer, healthier life.
  10. Tea invigorates the body and inspires the mind to creativity (page 54).”[1]

So for me I’m going to drink more TEA!  Can’t wait to see if the benefits of tea can make me healthier, live longer, be more creative and inspired by life!  How about you? Care to join me!?

 

[1] Fisher, Arron, The Way of Tea Reflections on a Life with Tea, Tuttle Publishing, North Clarendon, Vermont, 2010

[2] Picture is from Pixabay website

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