Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Schedule as Teacher

“If everyone wears the same robe and follows the same rules, how can they find out who they truly are?” one student asked during our orientation of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California. 

“When everyone wears and does the same thing,” our practice leader replied, “you can see everyone’s individuality more clearly, like how they walk, bow, talk and carry themselves, rather than judging someone’s shirt choice on a random day.” 

It was the beginning of a five-month apprenticeship at the Soto Zen practice center, and I had arrived in white Feiyue shoes with a multicolored icon, bright red-striped socks, graphic T-shirt, neon green zip-up, and lightning yellow backpack. At the time, the black robe represented an opportunity to let go of my constant desire to choose and to give myself over to the center’s rigid work and practice schedule. My friends and family have deemed me the most indecisive person they know. I struggled with what psychologist Barry Schwartz called the paradox of choice, which he used to describe the way that the variety of options available to consumers increases their anxiety rather than meets their needs.

At Green Gulch, we’re told to think of the “schedule as teacher.” (The phrase predates the center, but I do not know its exact origins.) Since every activity and its start and end time were predetermined, we only had to be concerned with the moment-to-moment experience, or in Zen terms, shikantaza. If I chopped an onion in the kitchen, for example, I did not need to think or do anything except chop the onion with my whole heart and mind and remain aware of my fellow cooks. 

Ending precisely on time was just as important as starting; if I only swept half the floor when the bow-out bell rang, I had to put down the broom and leave the task unfinished. This rule shifted my attention back to the present moment by taking away the feeling that what I was doing was a means to an end. It didn’t matter if I accomplished something, only that I spent the designated time doing the work.

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Acts That Purify Our Existence: Dana, Sila, and Bhavana

Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. This month’s selection is a teaching from the late Theravada monk Sayadaw U Pandita about the Buddhist notions of dana (generosity), sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation). U Pandita, the successor of the influential Burmese teacher Mahāsi Sayādaw, helped the Theravada tradition take root in America and brought a renewed emphasis to the role of ethics in Buddhist practice. The article originally appeared under the title “Dana, Sila & Bhavana—Acts That Purify Our Existence” in Inquiring Mind’s final issue in Spring 2015, one year before U Pandita’s death in April 2016. Be sure to check out the related articles in the archive, like “The Zen of Vipassana,” an interview with Gil Fronsdal and Max Erdstein, and “Faith,” an interview with Sharon Salzberg. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!

One of the most beautiful stories of Sayadaw U Pandita happened about 20 years ago, when Sayadawgyi, as he is affectionately and reverently known, was in his early seventies. Shortly after a three-month rains retreat in Myanmar, he strolled past where a Western nun named Ma Visadañanî was donating medicines. “You’re throwing away the dhamma [dharma],” Sayadawgyi said.

Astonished, Ma Visadañanî said, “What?”

“Aren’t you forgetting the ‘no-death’ medicine?” Sayadawgyi quipped, adding a verse in Pali. “Appamado amatam padam,” he said, quoting the Buddha. “Heedfulness is the way to the deathless.”

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Ancient Buddhist City Becomes World Heritage Site

UNESCO approves Myanmar’s Buddhist temple city of Bagan, Uighur and Tibetan advocates among survivors of religious persecution at Trump meeting, and China sends a warning to India over Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Tricycle looks back at the events of this week in the Buddhist world.

By Karen JensenJul 21, 2019

Bagan, Myanmar. Photo by KX Studio | https://flic.kr/p/gJtbHF

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week. 

Myanmar’s Ancient Buddhist Temple City Bagan Now a World Heritage Site

An ancient city with the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas, and monasteries in the world has just become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to Reuters. Myanmar’s ancient capital of Bagan was first nominated nearly a quarter of a century ago, and the United Nation’s cultural body approved the proposal at a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 6. The 1995 nomination was originally rejected after the military government in power at the time was accused of ignoring the advice of restoration experts. The International Council on Monuments and Sites has since noted that Myanmar had adopted new laws that protect the site by reducing the impact of development and tourism in the area. According to BuddhistDoor, more than 2,200 temples and pagodas survive in Bagan today, although many still remain in disrepair. Many of the ancient structures date to the 10th through 14th centuries, when Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan (849–1297), the first to unify the regions that would later form modern-day Myanmar. 

China Warns India Not to Interrupt Dalai Lama’s Reincarnation

The office of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama rejected a recent statement by the Chinese government instructing India, the current homebase of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, not to interrupt the reincarnation process. According to the Times of India, China stated that the next Dalai Lama would be chosen within China, in accordance with historical precedent. Tseten Samdup, the secretary at the Office of the Dalai Lama, responded that a person who reincarnates has sole authority over his or her rebirth. “It is a reality that no one can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her,”  Samdrup said, quoting His Holiness. In the past, the Dalai Lama has indicated that he may decide not to have a successor

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Emptiness and Filling Out Forms: A Practical Approach to Death

As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I am constantly reminded that we never know when death might approach, but for years, I’d avoided dealing with one of the most practical aspects of death—the paperwork. I was not alone: Roughly half of all adults in North America do not have a living will. Then recently, I suffered a near-fatal illness that left me viscerally aware of how unprepared for death I was, and I made a pledge with two of my friends to get ready to leave our bodies behind for both ourselves and the people who survive us.

Bridging the end of December 2017 and the beginning of January 2018, I spent a month in a Vancouver, British Columbia hospital with a bacterial lung infection that had also invaded my pleural cavity—the first time I’d come down with a severe illness. After ten days in an intensive-care unit, I was moved to a recovery ward where I suffered a relapse. I spent my 62nd birthday, Christmas, and New Years with strangers in the hospital.

One night in the ICU, while I was partly delirious and falling in and out of sleep, I had a vision of a deceased friend reaching out to me. From what felt like disengaged consciousness, I looked down at my body on the hospital bed and realized I wasn’t ready to die. I hadn’t studied my lama’s [teacher’s] bardo teachings to navigate the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and did not want to take that journey without a road map. It didn’t matter whether this was a drug-fueled hallucination or an actual near-death experience. The important thing is that I rejected death, not out of fear, but through a recognition of the dreamlike nature of reality. After this experience, I felt that my attachment to this life and the things in it had diminished. I no longer wanted to ignore what came next. I wanted to be prepared. 

When I told my friends Liv and Rosie about this vision, we agreed to study the bardo teachings together once I’d had a couple of months of recuperation. By March, however, our plans shifted. Rosie had heard about a man (I’ll call him Ben) who had died on Lasqueti Island, an off-the-grid enclave in Canada’s Southern Gulf Islands that a local cookbook once described as “somewhere between Dogpatch and Shangri-La.” He had left his closest friends without any instructions. They had no idea if he had a family or where they might be.

“And he left an old dog behind!” Rosie said, “Can you imagine?”

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“You Have a Church for Cats?” The Service of an Animal Chaplain

When interfaith chaplain Sarah Bowen tells people that she is also an animal chaplain, the reaction is often the same: “You have a church for cats?” 

Even though we can all agree that would be incredibly cute, Bowen and other animal chaplains primarily help people with end of life care and the grieving process for the animals who often become an integral part of our families but whose deaths we tend to not process as fully. The job can also entail working with animals in shelters, addressing behavioral problems through interspecies spiritual practices, and animal advocacy. 

Bowen, a faculty member at the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York, has been a Buddhist practitioner for 20 years, though she has branched out to draw inspiration from and cater to all faiths. Her blend of influences and chaplaincy work is the subject of her latest book, Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose (June 2019, Monkfish Publishing).

Sarah Bowen

Here, Bowen speaks with Tricycle about what being an animal chaplain entails, the importance of including non-humans when we talk about all sentient beings, and how we can meditate with cats.

What is the day-to-day work of being an animal chaplain?
There are four different areas that I’m working in. The first one is supporting animals. We have eight million dogs and cats that are surrendered to shelters each year. Those animals have needs, including spiritual needs. They’re lonely. They’re confused. Many of them have been abandoned. So I spend time with those animals at shelters, sanctuaries, and pet stores, and I address their need for love, for touch, for attention, for being seen, for being cared for. That’s one way to ease the suffering of the animals themselves. 

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