The following is an excerpt from Joshin on the Street Retreat he did in Albuquerque.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This is just a gentle reminder to all of you to practice good self care in these days of transition out of street retreat and back into the realities of your daily lives at Upaya and elsewhere.
I think we all experienced that plunging into homelessness can be very powerful and surprising – I know this retreat in particular was, for me, very intense, intimate, and heart-opening. Processing and integrating it will take time. I suspect that we will share in common some emotional states and thoughts, and yet each of us will also have our own unique way as we work toward making sense of what we experienced and what it all means for our practice going forward. Like toothpaste that comes out of the tube and can never be put back in, these experiences can sometimes radically shift our view and our sense of the world we live in.
You may notice that things pop up at unexpected times. Yesterday one resident shared that eating good bread and our abundance of organic peanut butter brought up interesting feelings related to privilege as well as odd and difficult emotions related to those we encountered so intimately and then, despite our full disclosure to them about our short-term experience of homelessness, left behind to return to our lives here. Another resident felt like she was wandering around with her long list of high-priority things to get done, and yet few of them seemed terribly interesting or important to her now in the context of what we saw on the streets. For myself, I was close to tears all day long. Everything I looked at seemed to be an opportunity for gratitude as well as sorrow for the injustices of our world. The words, facial expressions and body language of the countless people we encountered, and those who joined our councils—Bird, Archie, Raj, and the woman in Triangle Park—continue to reverberate in my own body, heart, and mind.
Maybe you are experiencing some of the same. These are natural emotions, and for some they can be a little disorienting. We attempt to integrate this into our practice of not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. It is all part of the rich, multi-faceted experience of plunge practice. It teaches us about the ways of the human heart and reflects the reality of Indra’s Net.
So, please take care of yourselves as you re-integrate – practice loving kindness and curiosity toward your own emotional states, talk with one another if you are struggling, and keep an eye out for others in our resident community who might be struggling. Don’t be afraid to offer a loving shoulder to lean on if needed, and be gentle with yourselves and one another. And most important – waste nothing…the teacher of your own experience is actively teaching you through this. I really believe this, and I trust it. I invite you to trust it as well.
Exercise and good nutrition are important as you re-integrate, as well as rest and engaging in beautiful things like music, art, dancing, poetry, hiking, gardening, and so on. Please remember that the world is big and includes the heartbreaking realities that we saw in Albuquerque as well as the incredible beauty that we humans are also capable of creating. Our practice is to continue to bear witness to ALL of it – the whole enchilada, nothing left out. Remember that we simultaneously laughed and cried; we found joy and heartbreak standing side by side and folded into each other. No separation. All of it is in the boundless field. As we say, the dharma is vast and subtle. We now have a chance to practice it. We vow to realize its full meaning.
To our modern ears the word “embrace” might seem a bit sentimental. But I like that Dogen used it back in 1243 to talk about the four ways a Bodhisattva caringly engages with suffering in her midst.To embrace something means to encircle, surround, and to wrap your arms around. How do we wrap our arms around our families and community, our workplaces, our enemies, politicians, the nation, the planet, and even our own minds and hearts? Many people like to wrap themselves in the American flag these days. But as aspiring Bodhisattvas, what do we wrap ourselves in and what do we wrap around each other? Bodhisattvas are always learning how to widen our embrace, to include more and more.
Dogen says there are four ways to conduct ourselves that constitute the Bodhisattva’s embrace: Giving, Loving Speech, Beneficial Action, and something he calls Identity Action.
The first and most essential practice of the Bodhisattva is Giving – material aid, our attention, friendship, our acts of service, giving the building of community to others. We even give fearlessness as a way of facing the challenges of life. He writes: “Giving means not being greedy…Even if we rule the continents, in order to offer the teaching of the True Way we must simply and unfailingly not be greedy. We give flowers blooming on the distant mountains…offer treasures accumulated by past lives.”
No matter how much power we have, no matter how far we have to reach for gifts, we always have something to give away: money, time, skills, attention, care, our good luck, even our power. At the highest level, true giving gives and receives the gift of zazen mind – the fearless mind that is not cut off from others, and we offer it freely in our actions. We are embraced by and we embrace all beings in this way – by giving experiential reasons for people to trust their sense of belonging and connection, and trust in their sense of their natural and true selves.
Dogen writes, “To provide a boat or build a bridge is offering as the practice of giving. When we carefully learn the meaning of giving, both receiving our body and giving up our body are offerings (birth and death). Earning our livelihood and managing our business are, from the outset, nothing other than giving. Trusting flowers to the wind, and trusting birds to the season may also be the meritorious action of giving.”
The second practice is Loving Speech: Buddha suggested that before we speak we consider whether our words are true, useful, and timely. All three have to be present. Will my words be heard, and will they have a good effect? Classical teachings remind us that words once spoken can’t really be taken back. They have the capacity to wound, or to heal, so their use calls for great care.
Dogen says, “Loving speech means, first of all, to arouse compassionate mind when meeting living beings, and to offer caring and loving words. In general, we should not use any violent or harmful words…. To speak with a mind that compassionately cares for living beings as if they were our own babies is loving speech.”
And he leaves us with this provocative thought: “We should study how loving speech has the ability to turn the destiny of a nation” and transform the world.
The third embrace is Beneficial Action. This is the work of harmonizing self and the whole world through acts of service. Beneficial action means looking, listening, and helping without thinking about what we will get out of it. Dogen says, “Ignorant people [those who don’t realize that we are truly connected to one another] may think that if we benefit others too much, our own benefit will be excluded. This is not the case. Beneficial action is the whole of the dharma; it benefits both self and other widely.”
Martin Luther King Jr. once preached: “Discover the element of good in one’s enemy. And every time you begin to hate that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad point….” Dogen similarly says: “We should equally benefit friends and enemies alike; we should benefit self and others alike. If we attain such a mind we can perform beneficial action even for grass, trees, wind and water.”
Zazen itself is beneficial action – although it is often said that it is activity that exists beyond the limitations of good and bad. We are not adding to or taking away from the facts of life or the way things unfold. We are simple bearing witness to life, naturally. In this way, we touch and even rest in the natural inner peace and silence from which everything else ripples out. Zazen harmonizes our body and mind, and in doing so, it harmonizes the world.
Dogen’s Fourth embrace is Identity Action. Alan Senauke Sensei writes: “A great bodhisattva lives in the suffering world with a vow to save all beings. She may appear as a street person, a soldier, a politician, a bank teller, a mechanic, a prostitute, a short order cook, a musician, preacher, mail-carrier, or monk. The practice of identity action means that we are in continuous re-invention of self – skillful means – to meet suffering people where they are, as them, within their lives.” We have an identity that we share with others, and we act from the place of common identity to benefit them.
Dogen says: “Identity action means not to be different – neither different from self nor from others. For example, it is how, in the human world, the Tathagata [Buddha] identifies himself with human beings. Because he identifies himself in the human world, we know that he must be the same in other worlds. When we realize Identity Action, self and others are one suchness.”
And finally, our Dharma Great-Grandfather Maezumi Roshi captured it like this: “To see everything else as part of ourselves is wisdom. And when wisdom is truly realized, then compassion and lovingkindness spontaneously arise as the functioning of that wisdom.”
If Dogen was a 21stcentury dharma teacher and technology geek, I wonder if he might have considered calling this essay the Four Disruptive Technologies of the Bodhisattva. Disruptive technologies transform global processes. Do Giving, Loving Speech, Beneficial Action and Identity Action disrupt th economy of suffering, the politics of inequality and injustice, and the culture of common-enemy intimacy? Can these four practice bring about joy, justice and happiness? Disruption awakens us from our collective slumber, shakes us out of our blind habits, and out of the status quo, in order to help all of us, individually and collectively to flourish. Do these practices offer something disruptive to your own habits of mind?
Here is a set of questions you might consider for a meditation on the Four Embracing Dharmas. Get comfortable, feel into your breath and the natural stillness of your body, and consider each of these carefully:
May it be so.
Zen Master Dogen says that “Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” Every moment and everything is included in it. Of course, this means all the things and people that we love. Right now, I love summer in Vermont!
The intimacy of all things also includes those who are out of sight, the forgotten ones and those who are left behind. I just returned from my 15th street retreat. Two years ago it was is Rutland; this time in Philadelphia. I was reminded once again that our practice, however many times we may forget it, is about allowing everything and everyone in to the circle of intimacy, into True Belonging.
Over the past month, I’ve been giving a series of Dharma talks on this idea of True Belonging. Brene Brown seems to have made it popular lately, but I think the idea of True Belonging opens an interesting and fruitful perspective on what Dogen and other Zen masters call intimacy – the natural way things are, interdependent and connected, the Oneness of Life.
At BLMZC, our aim is to build a community of commonplace humans who practice with what it means to act in this world as if we all truly belonged to one another. This is especially challenging as we think about the people who reside mostly in the margins of our communities – those we may not see or hear from in the activities of our daily lives.
How do we find our way to this kind of intimacy? Bernie Glassman says that the first step is to stop thinking that we have answers. We think we know what is going on in the margins or we think we know how these people are and what their joys and hardships are. But really, this “knowledge” is like armor against the seeming impossibility of the pain of the situation. It is a way to protect ourselves from coming into a felt sense of True Belonging. “Knowing” is a way of objectifying and othering, even if our motives are virtuous, like a goal to fix “those poor folks.” Before we can help well, we need stop living a life of answers and simply open our view.
We also find our way to True Belonging by dropping into each others lives. This can be hard, and I’m not recommending that everyone do a street retreat plunge. But as we move through our day to day lives, could we begin to let go of our projections and stories about the world we see and just let the world in? From this perspective, there are no strangers, they are not “they.” Instead others become our own self. “Forgetting the [small] self is openness,” says Dogen. Consider this.
Having integrated all beings into your heart and mind – just as your hand and foot are integrated into your one body – we can’t help but do something. Shantideva, the ancient Buddhist monk from India, says that it is like the hand removing a thorn from the foot. Our hand naturally pulls the thorn out. The hand doesn’t ask the foot if it needs help. The hand doesn’t say to the foot, “this is not my pain.” Nor does the hand need to be thanked by the foot. They are part of the one body.
True Belonging is like the hand and the foot and the thorn. Sit with that idea and see if you can embody it in your life in some way.
I’m pragmatic about this stuff. The way we bring dignity to people’s lives is to stand with those whose dignity has been denied; this is the same for those who have been demonized by society (whether the poor, mentally ill, or addicted in our midst, or those attempting to cross into our country to find safety, wellbeing, and opportunity.)
Greg Boyle says, “you don’t go to the margins to make a difference because that is about you. You go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make you different.” This seems very close to what Dogen has to say when he tells us, “to drop the self is to be penetrated by the ten-thousand things.”
Perhaps enlightenment is nothing more than this simple thing: the intimacy of all things. True Belonging.
“When you paint Spring, do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots – just paint Spring.”
The giant and ancient willow and dozens of wise old apple trees that bear witness to our practice here at Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community are bursting open with life. Taking it all in with a single breath, we are simply enveloped within the beauty of everything being fresh and new. After a long Vermont winter, the sap runs strong, and moment by moment the willow weeps more heavily with joy, and the pink and white apple blossoms can’t restrain themselves. The totality of Spring teaches us, once again, of the natural interconnectedness of all life. All the pieces belong to one another and Spring unfolds.
It is a beautiful time to be here, not only for the stunning beauty of Spring, but also because the rare beauty of Sangha is also being painted. Peg Reishin Murray and Johny Daishin Widell took up residence at Bread Loaf Mountain – and are just terrific at getting us more settled, taking care of our beautiful land and buildings, and getting to know the neighbors. Thanks to them, we now have cleaned-up flowerbeds, a flock of chickens, and most importantly, a daily meditation schedule. Each day the sangha is sitting together.
Also, please read about our bearing witness to hunger practice, and consider joining us in your own way.
And mark your calendars to come to one of the upcoming events at BLMZC. Everyone is always welcome.
Bread Loaf Mountain Monastery is open for meditation. Come as you are and when you can:
Daily Meditation Schedule:
7:00-7:40 am Monday through Sunday
6:00-7:00 pm Monday through Saturday
For meditation, please try to arrive at the Zendo at least 5 minutes early. If you arrive late, you are still welcome. One of our residents will greet you.
Information about chanting practice and Zen liturgy will be posted on the website.
Meditation instruction is offered by request. Email Joshin or call us at (802) 462-2138
Sunday evening we are closed because we sit with the CVUUS Sangha in Middlebury on Sunday evening at 7:00.
Perhaps you’ve been hearing about the Poor People’s Campaign. Starting May 14th, many communities in the US will be engaging in 40 days of nonviolent actions and organizing around poverty, inspired by the original campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In solidarity with that movement, Peg, Daishin and I will engage in a 40 day practice of bearing witness to the issues of hunger and food insecurity as they are experienced by people who depend on government-issued food stamps to buy their food. We will limit our food budget to the average food stamp allotment in the US. We will consider ourselves a family of three, which qualifies for a total of $511 a month for food.
The purpose of the practice is to get an embodied experience of the challenges of living on a strict food-stamp budget. We recognize that we are privileged and will not actually experience the physical and psychological impact of chronic poverty. Our practice during this time, however, is to do our best to bear witness and bring attention to this issue. We will periodically document our experience on our website and Facebook.
We want to invite others to join us. If you can’t commit to the whole 40 days, you can bear witness for a week, a day, or even a meal by budgeting yourself to $37 per week, $5.29 a day or $1.76 per meal, if you are single. Please share your experience with us.
Taking Up Residency!
Peg Reishin Murray, M.Ed., has been committed to practicing the Eightfold Path since 1995. Originally a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, she received the precepts with Thāy in October 1997 and lay ordination in September 2007. In October 2007, she moved to Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe where she received jukai from Joan Halifax, Roshi and lived in residency as a personal and administrative assistant to Roshi for 6 years. While at Upaya, Peg served as coordinator for the annual Being With Dying contemplative end-of- life-care (CEOLC) clinician training program, the Nepal Nomad Medical Clinic, and the Prajna Mt Forest Refuge. From May 2013-August 2014 she studied Early Buddhist (Pali Canon) teachings through Bodhi College Committed Dharma Practitioner Program based in Devon, England. In 2015 she served as the workshop coordinator for Sakyadhita’s international conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Prior to her arrival at BLMZC, Peg was cooking regularly in Crestone, CO for Dharma Ocean retreats, sitting with Eon Zen in Boulder, CO and sharing Brahmavihara teachings as part of Willow Farm Contemplative Center’s Cause to Pause CEOLC volunteer training program. Peg has two children, Caite who lives in Boulder, and Justin and his wife Ellen and their children Jude and Mose, who live in Ashland, OR.
Johny Daishin Widell has been connected to Upaya for about three years. In March of this year, he received jukai from Roshi Joan Halifax and currently studies formally with Joshin’s Dharma brother, Sensei Genzan Quennell. In 2007, after many years of practicing law in Seattle, Daishin took a big step back from his busy commercial litigation practice and moved to Santa Fe to write songs and start what he calls a “Zen-inspired Americana band,” the Broomdust Caravan. He has two children – Phoebe who lives in San Francisco, and Hunter who lives in Hokkaido, Japan with his wife Shino. Daishin is an awesome musician – and for sure, we’ll get him playing some of his Zen-inspired folk music for us in the red barn at Bread Loaf Mountain Monastery very soon.
Other residents will be joining us soon – Kyodo, Joe, and our first family, Laura, Willie, and daughter Felicity. Please come to Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community on Thursday, June 21st, when all of our residents will be here. We’ll have a community supper as a way to welcome them.
If you or someone you know is interested in residency at Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me at email@example.com
Some of our needs are small and some are larger. Your giving will help us continue to open our doors wider and to fully live into the name of our temple, “No Barriers.”
From the very first moments of Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community, heartfelt generosity has been the beginning, middle, and the end of the practice. All who come to our Zen Community, or who are touched by the bodhisattvas who practice here, have benefited from many kinds of giving: giving of one’s time, attention, concern, care, things, money, and the sharing of skills and abilities. We are so grateful for all that you have given.
Click here to give online or to find out where to send your gift. All financial gifts are tax deductible.
I write with the hope that you are enjoying the height of winter with what Soen calls in his haiku, “lucid serenity.” I’ve been enjoying reading his extraordinary works recently, which influenced so may western socially engaged Zen practitioners, including many in our own lineage. He was a “Wild Zen” kind of teacher, willing to push at the edges of the known and the comfortable.
I also couldn’t help but notice that he was not experiencing the serenity of high winter every day. Like for all of us, it was elusive; somedays were better than others. He was troubled by the greed, ill will, and delusions of the 20th century world he was a part of. And yet, he responded with tremendous creativity – even to the point of hilarious and status-quo-challenging eccentricity. One story is that, in order to counteract the sometimes stinky preciousness and unskillful enactment of Zen practice, he would host formal Japanese “tea ceremony” where instant coffee would be served in styrofoam cups. Undoing convention with clear purpose, not lightly, he sends the important message to remember not to take ourselves too seriously or we will miss something essential. It reminded me of our ceremonies on Street Retreat! Reading about his tea ceremony was also a good reminder, as Dogen puts it in his Instructions to the Cook, that there is no garbage!
Reading Soen’s further, I also was stopped in my tracks and forced to reflect on my own motivations by this haiku warning to monks:
in real estate —
as shaky as raw tofu!
Gulp! But upon reflection, I think he is saying what we have said about Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community from the beginning – that owning the buildings, as beautiful as they are, are not our end goal and purpose, but rather are our means for reaching deeper into the community, healing the wounds and bridging the divisions that exist there. This firm vision is how we will avoid becoming shaky raw tofu!
I’m returning to Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community on Monday, February 19. It’s my hope that we’ll use this time to strengthen our vision and deepen our training and practice. I’ll be having a lot of meetings during this time with various groups and students who are interested in deepening their relationship with Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community. We will also offer a number of opportunities for community practice. Here is a list meditation times, dharma talks, and workshops that you are more than welcome to come to. Please mark your calendars and come as you are!
In addition to all of these events, which are open to the public, I also hope to meet with some of you about how you would like to get involved at BLMZC, and your practice. If you would like to schedule a one-on-one or small group meeting while I’m there, please let me know and I’ll do my best to make it happen.
I very much look forward to seeing many of the Vermonters and the others of you who will be traveling to Bread Loaf Mountain in the coming weeks. It is great joy to see our sangha developing the way it has been.
In closing, a small diary entry and one last haiku of Soen to encourage our practice:
I traveled around the globe picking up pebbles from all the different countries and placing them in one bag. Now I swing it around, contemplating the sound.
Touching one another
a pebble of the world
Warm and loving bows to all,
I returned to Santa Fe and Upaya Zen Center to ring in the New Year still glowing after our December 27th dedication and precepts ceremony at Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community. To end 2017 with such a hopeful event brought so much light to the shortest days and energized the slide into 2018. I have heard from many of you who attended or sent good wishes from afar how glad you are to be a part of this new sangha. Practicing with you to create BLMZC is a great and amazing gift. A rare and warming treasure during these unusually cold midwinter days. I sincerely hope that you stay safe as winter rolls on, and find a little time to be still, drop into the breath, and enjoy some nourishing sitting that warms you deeply from the inside.
I wrote to you last week about our online study group. I am happy to say that we have fully enrolled, with 35 participants from Vermont and around the world. I am looking forward to learning how to use the medium of video-conferencing to stay connected to the Dharma and to each other.
In the other upcoming in-person programs this winter, our aim will be to introduce Zen fundamentals and to standardize the temple culture of Bread Loaf Mountain Zen. In doing this we create together a stable container of sitting practice that encourages focused attention, calm minds, and radical inclusion. Please join us for one or all of these gatherings. You can sign up through the website by clicking on “Events” above. As always, you can also reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope to see all of you soon, either online or at our Zendo.
Zen Master Dogen goes on to say that, “Even when people do not know that fetching water is a miracle, fetching water is undeniably a miracle.”
Getting to this point in the purchasing of Bread Loaf Mountain Monastery and Zen Community is “undeniably a miracle” too! On Bodhi Day, December 8th, the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment, we were able to release the final contingency for the sale and commit to closing on the property on December 20th!
We will dedicate the temple at 4:00 on December 27th, and two of our members, Sue Grigg and Colleen Brown, will receive the precepts! Please plan to come to this opening celebration (see info below). There is no better way for us to embark on this life of practice together than by saturating our new temple with our common heart of a vowed life of service to others.
Dogen’s quote about undeniable miracles really strikes me today as I take in what has happened over the past two months since this idea of starting a practice community sparked in us. The many people who worked on making this happen do not know that they are themselves miracles – it has been like working with the many hands of Avalokiteshvara – an eye and a tool in the palm of every hand, each one seeing what needs to be done, doing it right, with skill, with great care, joy and love. They navigated through this complicated purchase just as they endeavor to show up for this complicated world. It is undeniably a miracle.
My heart is full of gratitude for the practice – and the trust – of the donors and funders, the volunteer advisors, the architects, engineers, and inspectors, the neighbors and encouraging community members, and Minh and her family who are selling their beloved and well-cared-for home to our little Buddhist group.
This week we are preparing the closing documents. Paperwork is the name of the game most days! But yesterday we also purchased Vermont-made meditation cushions and Japanese temple bells so that we can start to practice together in a beautiful and comfortable space. We can now shift our focus toward creating a practice environment that is conducive to sitting, study, and service.
Friends, I hope you will dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to our practice together. Our awakening unfolds in the midst of everyday and ordinary activities like fetching water and carrying firewood – stripping wall paper, painting walls, re-arranging furniture, setting up a zendo for meditation, bookkeeping, building a library, doing administration, and of course, sitting and serving the community together. Many of you have offered, and very soon, we will organize work parties. I am really looking forward to these – getting to know one another in the midst of our shared project.
Please RSVP to me if you are planning to come to the Temple Dedication and Precepts Ceremony on December 27th at 4:00. Please plan to arrive a little early. We will also offer a pot luck dinner in the space at 6:00 – so if you are coming please bring a nutritious dish to share with others! We’ll want to get a general head count, so RSVP TO ME VIA EMAIL AT email@example.com.
The address for BLMZC is 3958 Rte 30, Cornwall, VT. Please park in our parking lot and behind the red barn, not on the street, being mindful of traffic. Carpool if you can! If you need to reach me by phone, call (505) 500-7838.
With a loving heart,
Dear Beloved Sangha!
This simple instruction for walking meditation has been my constant mantra since Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community started to consider purchasing a home for our practice. It has come in handy in the past two weeks especially, as a very active team of friends and sangha members have been navigating the winding way through the complex inspections, permitting issues, and ongoing negotiations. Thank you for being patient – I’m sure many of you have been wondering how it has been going. We still aren’t all the way home yet on this endeavor, but we are getting very close.
Here are a few updates:
The next update you will get from me, barring no major developments or twists of fate before then, is December 8th (auspiciously, the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day). By then we will know if all of the pieces of the puzzle have come together – inspections, town regulatory assurances, and funding. We hope to report on that day that we can sail into the closing, which is scheduled for December 20th.
A final reflection: Last week I completed a period of voluntary homelessness leading a street retreat in San Francisco. A group of us lived on the sidewalks, relying on the kindness of passersby, eating at the soup kitchens in the Tenderloin, and making friends with some of the 7,500 people in San Francisco who are chronically unsheltered. As you might expect, the juxtaposition of these two realities – homelessness and buying a home for Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community – was really something to work with. It seemed at times like a dividing line between worlds that will never meet one another.
One’s mind wanders during practice, whether on the cushion or on the streets. Sometimes during the cold wet nights on the sidewalk, when I would be awake and talking to other “travelers” – people who live this way every day, wearing hefty bags as raincoats and torn shoes, walking aimlessly up and down the block or on a mission looking for a conversation with another human being, a smile from someone, a reassurance, a bite to eat, or something to ease their pain – I would often flash on complicated thoughts. But one that stuck with me was this: that living the Dharma is about choosing to live in an ever-widening circle of inclusion – making the dividing line permeable, letting worlds leak into one another. It is about dismantling the barriers that exclude.
Relationship, kinship, sangha, or whatever you want to call that sense of belonging to every part of the world we inhabit, is a game-changer. It is the jewel in the pocket that we talked about a few weeks ago at the Dharma Talk in Middlebury. We think that this kind of connection is beyond our reach, yet the Dharma challenges this status quo way of thinking. It pushes against complacency that keeps us from knowing that we all belong together. It nourishes the realization that worlds can come together, that our lives can leak into one another, that we inhabit a world of oneness, holding unimaginable diversity, and where oneness and diversity are in harmony with one another. In the famous Zen koan that asks about dogs and Buddha Nature – two seemingly separate things – the answer is “Mu”… endless dimensions, universal love.
Dogen writes: “Do not ask me where I am going as I travel this limitless world, where every step I take is home.”
I titled this update, One Step One Breath. Every step we take in this limitless world is a step toward making everyplace our home. Endless dimensions. Universal love. Imagine any place – Cornwall Vermont and the streets of San Francisco or New York; the trailer homes that dot the rural landscape of the Champlain Valley as well as the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen campus; the beauty of the Green Mountains as well as the giant island of plastic floating in the ocean; the many places of refuge as well as the Texas congregation that endured unbearable gun violence last week; the places where love abides and where it doesn’t; the rich and the poor that are our neighbors; the halls of the town select board, the Statehouse, Congress and the White House; the bright spots and the dark places of our own own minds. It is a limitless world, and every step we take is home.
May it be so.
We came off the streets of New York City on Sunday after our final council in Washington Square Park under the same ginkgo tree of our opening council a few days before.
People with dogs, cellphones, and cardboard coffee cups rushed by, great street jazz blared a few yards away from us, birds picked up crumbs and insects around our circle, a variety of unsheltered people took refuge on the benches that outlined the little green we were occupying, families with children played in the urban oasis playground nearby, seemingly poor or lonely people fed pigeons, fit and handsome dads kicked soccer balls with their young sons—a dense mix of life.
Kosho and I had been on the sidewalks since last Tuesday and our fellow practitioners arrived on Thursday after an unseasonably cold Wednesday night in Manhattan. Now, on a hot and sunny Sunday morning, we gathered our daily council circle for the last time on this retreat. We were all a little tired but, luckily, caffeinated enough, thanks to the generosity of passerby donors the day before.
The week was very full—dramatic weather changes and the countless sights, sounds, and smells of the Big Apple. There was abundant generosity everywhere—offerings from people, garbage cans, soup kitchens, the sky, a playful puppy joining council circle, a cooling breeze at just the right moment, a half smoked cigar stub found in front of Trump Towers, a clean bathroom and a rare working soap dispenser at Starbucks, money shared with us from other homeless people, Snickers bars from the housed, and the sheltering shade of buildings. There are endless sources of generosity on the streets.
And of course, there is also so much that one can’t help but experience as troubling. Words cannot quite express this part, so I won’t attempt it here. I’ll assume you know what I mean.
New York is a special place for me. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I found myself thinking of my childhood often, and of my father who was homeless in these very neighborhoods for about 15 years. I remembered, too, my days in graduate school at New York University, the Gay Pride shrine of the Stonewall Inn, and the early years of the AIDS epidemic in Greenwich Village, my indescribable fear and horror during that decade, and the brave people who taught me to find and use my activist voice. At times I was flooded with memories and uncomfortable emotions, seeing in my mind’s eye many long-gone faces as I walked the streets and saw these old familiar places.
There were comical and amusing memories, too. During our closing council in the park yesterday, I found myself recalling a dessert that was popular and fascinating to me as a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a boxed powdery substance of some sort that when mixed with boiling water and poured into parfait glasses became, by some mysterious chemical reaction (!), a three layer colorful jello-like dessert unlike anything found in nature. Perhaps some of you from my generation remember this strange treat. I no longer remember the name, but the image and the flavors are burned into my stored memories and my taste buds. There was magic in that parfait glass.
The three layers of this confection are a metaphor for the street retreat experience for me. I hope you’ll indulge me in this strange image as I do the work of crossing back over the threshold into our middle class world of abundant shelter, fine food, adequate clothing, and compassionate care. Metaphors help express things that can be a bit beyond the reach of conversational language. I wish this wasn’t a dessert metaphor though, because I don’t want to leave the impression that it was all sweetness and pleasure—it was more complicated than that. Nevertheless, this is the image that came to mind, so I’ll share it despite its obvious shortcomings.
If you know it, you’ll remember that the top layer of that unearthly dessert was frothy and light, like beaten egg whites. There were many times during the retreat, especially near the beginning, when I couldn’t help but feel the frothy top layer of my own outrage and anger at our civilization, culture, and economy, and this situation we’ve created. We—I‘m including myself in this—make active choices that create this kind of suffering. Amazingly, it seems that we have come to accept it as though it was business as usual, as if this is the natural state of things, fixtures on the street like the ubiquitous garbage cans and beeping horns and police sirens. I forget this sometimes, that we’ve created and normalized this kind of suffering, and when I do remember and am woken up from my denial about it, even if for just a moment, I find that I foam up and froth with the uncomfortable feelings of anger and, to be honest, the unblendable flavors of guilt for my own role in it, blaming others for their role with perhaps more than a hint of stinky and sticky smug self-righteousness.
This feeling is really frothy for me at times, bubbling up like vinegar and baking soda. But with time, like all chemical reactions, if I let myself be with it for a while, it quiets down. The anger, guilt, and smugness become less dense, volatile, noisy, and blinding. The feelings and critiques can start to change shape, thin out, and even liquefy or melt away a bit. And despite the strange mysterious composition of this whipped up outrage, I can at times find nourishment in it, if I allow it to reveal what is underneath.
This froth gives way to a set of unlikely twins— despair and hope. There is something somewhat more dense just beneath the surface— thicker, with the consistency of a chocolate mousse, but so over-flavored that it can make my teeth hurt. This layer provides me with another metaphor, the pleasure and pain of mousse—pain in the teeth and pleasure on the tongue. It contains seeming opposites that reside next to each other, and just beneath the layer of anger and outrage. On the one hand it is a dark, thick, and cynical belief that we lack—and, I tell myself, will always lack—the will, passion, and energy to change this unbearable situation. Corporate interests seem too strong, a values system based on productivity too deeply embedded, and a civilization that has normalized the response of looking away, sometimes with hostility, or broken heartedness, or just indifference.
This flavor hurts—it is a brand of despair that has me thinking about running away from the whole thing and closing my eyes in cave meditation. In this state of mind, half the world or more has become the enemy… my enemy. I’ve divided up the world into good guys and bad guys, victims and perpetrators. Of course, I’m always one of the good guys in this scenario. At this layer, I’ve constructed in my mind an unseen, anonymous, and yet pervasive enemy. Who is this dangerous enemy out there? Can anything be done to stop it? In my cynicism, I think not.
Also in this layer, however, I feel something of the opposite—perhaps also a delusion, but an easier one to bear. I think about how close we are—or can be—to making a course correction, to responding collectively with just a little more altruism and care, and to finally ending this travesty.
It seems to me that it would take just one simple new way of thinking, one new meme, one click of the dial, one collective action to shift things in a new direction toward sharing our wealth, wisdom, compassion, and resources more evenly. Just one fresh thought, one new conviction, one small act of redistribution would build houses, provide adequate care and treatment of mental illness and addiction, would stabilize people who have themselves forgotten what stability feels like. It can seem so close at times—that we can easily provide what we Buddhists call “the four requisites” of housing, food, clothing, and medical care. I know that there is enough money, enough food, and there are enough people of good will to do this, and I can find myself believing that we can do it, and we are doing it. This is, in contrast to the hopelessness that sits on the next cushion, a place of great hopefulness for me, to remember what Sensei Kaz often says, that the truth of impermanence means that change is possible. So, I think to myself that I should just work on making that one little adjustment happen. Change my own mind and take the one action that matters. Sometimes I deeply believe this to be possible. But I have to be careful here, too. It has been Pema Chodron’s words that remind me that hope is also a form of delusion, and that an over investment in it can be as blinding to what is really happening as despair and cynicism can be.
Then, beneath that layer of mousse, there is the densest layer in the parfait glass—the solid foundation of the whole strange thing. I don’t know what to call this—maybe the Dharma, or love, or the divine—but it is stable and foundational. If I let myself sink into that, to rest on it, it is a resource. It can allow me to show up for whatever else is in that glass, sitting on top of my shoulders. In fact, like the Four Noble Truths suggest, this base layer settles out of the rest of the concoction, not separate from it all, but it becomes the new foundation that was always there in the powdery mix anyway. When I can touch it, it seems to have settled out from a kind of gentle effort in my practice to see the terrain of my own mind and feel the outrage, hope, and hopelessness that hovers above the foundation and gives birth to it. I can’t help but think here about the four foundations of mindfulness—body, sensations, mind, and all things. Roshi Joan might say that this layer begins to look like and manifests the strong back and the open front of our practice.
I’ve probably overworked this parfait analogy by a far stretch. I apologize for that, but I’ll take the liberty of going one more step. By the end of the retreat, I realize that street practice allows me to dip the spoon all the way to the bottom of that parfait glass, pulling up the layers and, like we are instructed to do with koans, eat them whole and let them both consume and nourish me. It is, to call up Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook, the dessert to the supreme meal. The Oneness of life.
During our days on the street our hodgepodge spontaneous sangha participated in a number of religious traditions. Kosho and I spent a pleasant morning in silence with Enkyo Roshi at the Village Zendo, where she lovingly slipped her phone number into my hand, “in case we needed anything.” We slept on cardboard that night in the shelter of a Hebrew School. Later, our group prayed and danced to an evening zikr with the Sufis during Ramadan in TriBeCa. There, a child and his mother came around to each of us as we concluded chanting the Quran and offered a sweet dried date from a bowl, and a glass of water to break the day of fasting. I’ve never tasted a date so good.
The next day, sitting in the basement chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, we were lovingly fed eggs and hash, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a much-coveted cup of strong coffee. Love was there, too, both across the serving line and within it as we waited our turn with the others who had spent the night on the hot sidewalks. After that breakfast we decided to attend Catholic Mass at the small chapel next door, and there we were offered the eucharist—bread for the world.
At every meal we had abundant food, not always the most healthy or fresh, but always abundant. And then, after we begged for our final meal on the streets at the farmer’s market at Union Square Park, we chanted the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy. A young man joined us named One Love, as did a vibrant holy man named Geo. Many others gathered around to share this meal. After dancing during the Gate, we were taught how to hula hoop in the park and we smoked the cigar we found at Trump Tower together like a peace offering. In the end, we all ate from the multi-layered dessert, the supreme meal.
Calling out to hungry hearts,
Everywhere through endless time.
You who wander, you who thirst,
I offer you this Bodhi Mind.
Calling out to hungry spirits,
Everywhere through endless time,
Calling all to hungry hearts,
All the lost and left behind.
Gather round and share this meal,
Your joy and your sorrow, I make it mine.