One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Showing posts with label Zenshin Philip Whalen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zenshin Philip Whalen. Show all posts

Thursday, March 3, 2022

All of You Are Gobblers of Dregs!

Blue Cliff Record, Case 11 (the long version)

One day Huangbo went up in the hall and said, "What do you people want to look for?" 
And he chased them with his staff. 
The assembly didn't disperse, so he said, "The Great Master Nintou Farong [594-657, 5th gen] of Ox Head Mountain spoke horizontally and spoke vertically, but he still didn't know the key of transcendence. These days the followers after Shitou [700-790, 8th gen] and Mazu [709-88, 8th gen] speak of Zen and speak of the Way most voluminously. 

All of you are gobblers of dregs. 
If you travel around like this, you'll get laughed at by people. As soon as you hear of a place with eight hundred or a thousand people, you immediately go there. It won't do just to seek out the hubbub. 
When I was traveling, if I found there was someone at the roots of the grasses, I would stick him in the head and watch to see if he knew the feeling of pain. If he did, I could give him a cloth bag full of rice as an offering. 
If you always take things this easy here, then where else would there be this matter of Today? Since you're called pilgrims, you should concentrate a bit. 
Do you know there are no teachers of Zen in all of China?"

There is a lively on-going debate in an online Buddhist group about the nature of practice and enlightenment. Dosho Port published a piece on August 18th called “The Showa Dispute About True Faith.” He describes the efforts beginning in 1928 to make Soto Zen more compatible with “modernism,” including Christianity, by reframing its belief system. A dispute ensued. One side organized their material under the slogan, ‘Original Enlightenment, mysterious practice.’ The other side, the monk establishment, wanted actual practice verification.

I am vaguely familiar with this dispute about modernization in Japanese Soto Zen before the Second War, and the attempts to "translate" the doctrine, if I can use the word, to make it more understandable. There was an attempt to take a portion of Buddhist literature in Japanese, but also Chinese, and free it from its Medieval encapsulation. I went to Masao Abe's amazing classes when he was teaching in San Francisco at CIIS. He definitely comes from this school. I’m a former Jesuit so I also delved into Kitarō Nishida and the Kyoto School’s adoption of Western philosophical discourse. 40 years ago, we all immersed ourselves in the extensive writings of D. T. Suzuki, who, I have to say, comes across more like an apologist or evangelist.

This may be a bare minimum to butt into this conversation, but I will. These efforts to strip the vehicle down to its essential parts leave just enough to work with. To begin, let me take the debate one step further, and remove the parochial underpinnings.

My pared down augment runs like this: an experience of liberation is possible for humans. We don’t quite know what it is because of the current condition of our minds: our mental acuity, the quality of our perceptive apparatus, a balanced or afflicted emotional state, plus I think we have to throw a good dose of fancy, magical thinking, cultural mythology, plus translation difficulties and the vagaries of language into the mix. My list is not complete--there’s a lot to sort out, but I think we can establish, or posit, three hypotheses:

  • Such a state or quality of freedom exists and can transform our experience as humans.
  • It is possible, even desirable, to achieve it.
  • We recognize that it will take effort, education, what we commonly call meditation, and possibly recalibration to achieve this experience.

We believe that certain people have had this experience, most notably the Buddha, but others too, for example Eihei Dōgen, Linji Yixuan, Hakuin Ekaku, Je Tsongkhapa, Shinran, but perhaps we could stretch our imaginations to include the current Dalai Lama, and maybe that auntie whom Red Pine encountered sitting in a cave in China who never heard of Mao Tse Tung but, forget about her, she never wrote anything down. We’re stuck with the guys, they’re all guys, who wrote, had secretaries, or disciples who took extensive lecture notes.

What did they write: of course we have the Sutras, plus other stories of the Buddha and his disciples; the enlightened guys also wrote descriptions of their experiences, some of which seem to be in coded language; thankfully there’s lots of poetry, balanced with carefully reasoned philosophy of mind and analysis of perception and experience; we have to include the myths, and what we call practice manuals, “how to” lists; there are some riddles that purport to point to the experience; then extensive records of the mental and yogic disciplines that practitioners used to achieve this state of liberation plus prescriptive injunctions and admonitions that have even been codified. There is also a large body of instruction material that has not been written down that is generally reserved for advanced levels of practice.

But there are huge problems with all this literature. First is the language and translation. We're blessed to have an army of very well trained and literate translators, but cultural and archaic understandings of the texts remain. Then there is the sheer volume and diversity of the materials. Even if we could determine their authenticity, be sure we have an accurate translation, and be able to determine their precise meaning, we‘d still be stuck with the question of how to use it, actually lots of questions.

Our Western Zen practice stems to some degree from these efforts to modernize. Harada Sogaku Roshi, and after him, Hakuun Yasutani, Kuon Yamada and the Jesuit Roshis, Bob Aitken and the rest of my crowd come from another strain of that same impulse to modernize so that's what I was handed.

Schools of thought are schools of thought. What do we do with them? Again, for better or worse, they inform our practice.

First I think that there's a logical fallacy in the way we understand these efforts at modernization. Following (any) time-honored system of training that we’ve been handed, we believe that if we accurately recreate the logic of the thinking, the order of the steps, the lineage of the teachers, then we can access the authentic experience of liberation. If we fail, then we did something wrong. Perhaps it is a road map, but we want it to be Google Maps, with the blue dot moving across the dashboard screen. Good luck with that. I will set up a dharma combat: can algorithms become enlightened?

Another knot appears when we identify the criteria for validating the credentials of a teacher from within this arcane body of knowledge, whether it’s inka or transmission or tulku. The checklist resides in experience outside ourselves and muddies the teaching as well as opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Call the dharma police to testify before the High Court.

Is this even good practice? I remember working on the koan “Mu” for years with Bob Aitken. I kept complaining in my very Jesuit way that it was all just a self-referential exercise in a closed system. He'd say, yes, it appears that way, and then he’d encourage me to continue. I did. In 1996 I was living with Maylie Scott on Ashby in Berkeley and still doing sesshin with Aitken and John Tarrant. One Sunday morning I had to drive a rented truck back to Santa Rosa. As I was returning to where I’d parked it the night before, POW. All that self-referential mind swirling stopped and I got it. It didn't matter if it came via some well-intentioned modernization efforts in a Soto Shu University in the 20's. It hit me. There was no turning back.

Of course that experience faded soon enough which presented its own dilemma, but it was enough to set me on my own path. I remember saying to Phil Whalen once what a shame it was that the library at Nalanda was destroyed--all that knowledge lost. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. Enough remains. Just enough.” I feel the same about any attempts to update our practice and make it modern or palatable or whatever. Enough remains, Just enough. And, as thanks to Phil I’ll add: “With any luck if we’re lucky.”

I don't want to take a path based on pious dreams and hopes, magical thinking, myth or wild speculation. When coupled with a few token morsels of experience that we might be able to recognize in ourselves if we’ve spent any time on the cushion, we enter dangerous territory. I was lucky to be able to see something authentic in several teachers, among them Issan Dorsey, Phil Whalen, Maylie Scott, Bob Aitken, John Tarrant. I trusted them, and was able to just stick with it until I began to catch a glimpse for myself that something else is possible.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.


Now Phil was dying. Perhaps as long as a year before, he’d reached back for his chair which wasn’t there and fell breaking his assbone. Thus began a slow decline. I was alarmed. It’s hard to say that a Zen Master, especially one that I loved, had given up on life, so I won't. But progressive blindness had stolen the delight of seeing words on a page, physical pain made the formal posture of zazen impossible and now immobility obliterated the comforting routine of meditation, gabbing, study, jokes, and food. Not physical therapy with Baker Roshi’s student Joe Muscles, not Chinese food with taro root, not even gummy bears, could turn the tide. The ever present good cheer, except when it suddenly disappeared, felt concocted. The veneer was wearing thin. I didn’t feel the bitter resignation of a person fed up with life. It was more a sense that he’d just had enough. He invited the dying to begin, and the invitation had been accepted. It would be long and slow.


Some sages claim that this was a good way for a meditator to die, as if waving a long slow goodbye to everything that had been assembled to make you--a precious death. In a way I feel that this is a bit like sticking a smiley face on a Hallmark condolence card. It masks the uncertainty of each piece tumbling into oblivion. Phil was always so kind to those who were helping him, but on the other hand he couldn’t hide the day to day frustrations. 


He would rail at the dying steps prescribed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, saying "I have to decide if I’m at the bargaining stage or the resignation stage.” But he seemed to be following them exactly, or at least that was the framework that I carried into my conversations with him. I actually felt that he’d only taken baby steps away from the anger stage, but all that is extremely subjective. Perhaps I was still angry with him for ending the Maitri experiment, or screaming at me in the hallway, or harping on that old time religion. 


Zenshin’s mind had always been clear as a bell, much clearer than his vision. His memory for words, phrases, even pages in a book, had been almost photographic. I wonder how much of this was compensatory.


Once when I was entertaining some weird questions about presumed Kundalini energy in meditation, what Phil called the “squigglies,” he said, “Ol’ Luk Luk has something to say about that.  ”Middle case, third shelf, second from the left. (I think it was Charles Luk’s “Secrets of Chinese Meditation, but it might have been “Empty Cloud.”) Page 63, middle paragraph, beginning at the forth sentence. That’s the interesting part. Read back to me. Then he gently told me that focusing on the heart might be good practice rather than chasing swirling whirling wisps of energy all over the place.


Another time when we were reading “Scenes from the Capital,” we got to a part where he talks about Gerald Manley Hopkins. He started to recite “The Windhover” not with his flat voice, not with his whimsical voice, but reverently, almost like plainchant. When he stumbled, he pointed to the first case, second shelf, 12th book from the right, page 43, “Just start reading.” 


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.



When I was sitting with him in a bright room of the Zen Center Hospice on Page Street, he asked me, “Do you see them?”

“Who?”

“The angels.

“No actually, I don’t. Where are they?”

“Right there, floating around,” pointing towards the upper corner to the left of his bed.

“No, I still don’t see them.”

“Look, goddamn it.” His voice sounded plaintive, perhaps wistful.

“What do they look like?”

“Just like the ones on the Macy’s gift bags.”

I can’t see them Phil, what would you like me to do?”

“Call the police, they’re reliable.”


Together we looked. I could see nothing while at the same time I wondered where his mind had gone. The Mind is a terrible thing to waste, he used to joke. What mind? Here we were using what was left to search for angels.

The angels on the Macy’s bag too “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”


When he died I arrived late to the crematorium in South City. Baker Roshi read from one of his poems a line about eating delicious raspberries. Then we filed past, bowed and placed a raspberry in the plain box that held his body. 


Contrary to Zen custom, I visualized dumping buckets of crimson raspberries gashing gold-vermillion. I couldn’t stop myself.


Sunday, December 12, 2021

"One day not work, one day not eat," 一日不做一日不食

The renowned revolutionary Chinese Master Baizhang Huaihai ( 百丈懷海; Hyakujō Ekai) is perhaps most well known for introducing manual labor to Zen Monasticism. From his rule book comes the oft-quoted phrase, “One day not work, one day not eat.” Modern western students can thank him for samu, chopping vegetables and cleaning toilets during our retreats.

 

Legendary teachers create legends. Some of Suzuki’s students came upon him cleaning the public toilets at Zen Center. Not exactly what they expected. Perhaps their surprise was at least partially the result of some lingering guilt for leaving a dirty job undone.

 

One asked, “Roshi, what are you doing? Why are you cleaning the toilets?”

 

“Because they needed to be cleaned.” And there was still time before meditation and dinner.

 

It is said that Suzuki gave Issan his name during samu. Someone tells the story of Richard Baker climbing the stairs at the Page Street Center with Suzuki Roshi and coming upon Issan balancing a large industrial floor polisher, keeping it close to the floor to do its work. Machines have a mind of their own. Suzuki Roshi admired his tenacity, and said “Issan, One Mountain,” I think pointing to some determination to quell the bumpy forces at work in our nature, or that is my story.

 

There are several versions of both these stories floating around to amuse, edify or even prod us. Zen students love a pious yarn. They circulate like the wind, picking up little particles from each teller, sometimes veering so far from the facts that they become jokes or even lies. That is the nature of stories. I will add a few more.

 

Issan loved to cook and clean. We have to learn to sit zazen correctly but Issan knew samu in his bones.

 

At Christmas the first year I lived at Hartford Street, I wandered into the kitchen to find him carefully inserting cloves of garlic into a pork loin. There must have been 50 shiny white slivers obeying Issan’s careful, meticulous thumb. Raw pork, raw garlic—meat was only allowed in the kitchen on special occasions; I thought I caught a fierce look of concentration as if to wrap it more quickly in aluminum foil.

 

“What are you doing?” along with the unasked question, what is it? “Oh” he said, “I’m trying a roast Cuban pork with mojo sauce for JD (the first resident of the hospice). He told me that he loved it, and it is Christmas.” He could never say No to JD. Many people complained that he was just continuing to spoil a spoiled child. But in my heart I feel that Issan knew there'd be no miracles in the last few months of the young man's life. It was just cooking a tricky Cuban dish with a lot of garlic. 

 

For most of us in the Castro, “Come out the the closet” meant to be honest about our sexuality, to banish all secrets about being gay. It had connotations of a difficult process for most white middle class gay men of that era, difficult conversations with backward, prejudiced families, about why we weren’t going to marry. Coming out of the closet opened the possibility of losing not only family but long time friends, jobs, inheritance. I certainly had to deal with all those scenarios. It took years. So when Issan told me that if he was depressed, he cleaned out the closet and almost immediately felt better, my mind immediately latched onto every Gay Liberation catch phrase.

 

At the bottom of the stairs that led up to my attic room, there was a shallow closet with shelves next to the door to Issan’s room. One morning I came rushing down the stairs, probably late for a meeting. The door of the closet stood open; Issan stood behind his ironing board, neatly pressing his worn underwear. He smiled and said, “Oh, I feel so much better.” He really meant cleaning out the closet. Just that. No time for my middle class preoccupations, well maybe the nanosecond between jokes.

 

Issan often said that Maitri was difficult work, taxing, and demanding. Once he even compared it to war, telling me that he’s been to war, on a ship during the Korean conflict, and it was not fun. But he also said that what made it bearable was to laugh a little and have some parties, tell a few jokes between the deadly serious bits. One of the most delightful samu tasks was baking chocolate chip cookies for the parties, wigs and skirts optional.

 

I came into the living room looking for Issan, needing to ask about some mundane detail. I asked Phil where he was.

 

“Probably cleaning the toilet with a toothbrush.” Yes, just cleaning a toilet bowl can be that difficult. I saved the joke for last. And I'm not lying.

Below is Ken MacDonald, Issan's heart student, joking, I hope. But he has an important environmental message which might help inform our samu.

Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about 2 million die each year because of it. By 2025 nearly ⅔ will live in water-stressed countries.Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about 2 million die each year because of it. By 2025 nearly ⅔ will live in water-stressed countries.

In the developed world we take our supply for granted, flushing it away mindlessly. But BRITA’s latest ads seem to imply that since the water we use for all our purposes “comes from the same source,” it’s as if we are drinking sewer water. Do you think that’s tasteless?

But if you do buy a BRITA filter, don’t expect it to protect you from anything…it doesn’t filter bacteria,

Friday, December 10, 2021

Q and A Zen

A cautionary tale plus a koanor two.

A friend recently told me about some advice from a Taoist master. I admit that I automatically distrust some Western dude with an ancient Chinese title. It feels like a label to make him credible. I don’t fully understand what Daoism is, and certainly haven’t the faintest idea of what it might have meant in 6th century BCE China. The friend didn’t actually repeat his Taoist teacher’s advice. I think I might be required to fork over some cash before I had the pleasure. We are a gullible lot.

I investigated my initial response and discovered two basic questions: What are the prejudices that spark my immediate response? And what would be the criteria for me to trust a teacher and what he or she teaches? These are separate questions. It is important for me not to discover one answer and think that it provides a solution to both investigations. It is easy to conflate and confuse the answers: because I have discovered that I am distrustful for X reason, the teacher and his or her teaching must be trustworthy.

Sometimes in Zen circles we western practitioners get lost in a lot of talk about our way, the Rinzai Way, the Soto way, the right way. This kind of jabber is barely distinguishable from cultish blabber.

The questions this raises are really the same: How can we recognize what we call “authentic” practice; and what makes a teacher trustworthy?

These questions bite their own tails. Some people, even trusted teachers, counsel us to trust our feelings. But when we honestly examine them, we find a twisted mess. We are told to just sit and they will sort themselves out. We sit. Perhaps a few of the knots disentangle, but there is no guarantee that a clear direction will emerge. Judge by the solutions that appear in real time, there are no easy answers.

In 1990 when nearly 100 men were dying from AIDS in San Francisco every week, I remember talking with a bright, engaging woman who came to sit zazen at Hartford Street. She asked questions about the Hospice and Issan. I invited her to come back, perhaps become a hospice volunteer. She begged off, explaining that she was very involved in her practice at “the big Zen Center.” I remember her words exactly. “We do the real Japanese Buddhism: we bow at everything every time we turn around.” That is one choice.

I never saw the woman again. What stopped her? Did I get in the way? Perhaps there was something about the dying, knowing that you’re dying, and the emotions that stirs up. I cannot say. Several of Issan’s close students didn’t visit. When he started to get sick, they actually disappeared, later explaining that they couldn’t bear to see him suffer or they preferred to remember him as the Pastor of Castro Street. Many were also gay and themselves HIV positive. There was such pain and suffering in the community, facing death head on was hard for all of us. I met Issan when HIV started to ravage his body and mind so that is really the only Issan I knew. It was his gift and my luck. But when I listened to stories of Issan at Tassajara or at Zen Center, Green Gulch or Santa Fe, I knew that dying Issan was the same man dedicating himself diligently and completely to the practice.

I feel that the bowing woman missed an opportunity to experience a man who lived out the teaching until his last breath, but I also know that Issan would never have faulted her for avoiding him and bowing every time she turned around. He was so non-judgement and tolerant not to mention how much he loved to bow. I admit to applying a little pressure on the woman—I needed help at the hospice—and I also admit to feeling slightly superior in my role running the hospice which was of course real practice. I can’t set my experience center stage for applause, but on the other hand, I need to avoid rote answers, or getting caught up in some cultural forms that I don’t understand as if they unlock some esoteric secret.

Quick change of scene

Listening in on a recent discussion bemoaning the death of Zen in Japan—so many first-son priests escaping the lifeless tedium of administering the family's temple business, my mind went back to a morning I spent looking over the library at Hartford Street, searching for a book that might unlock the mystery of the universe. Trained as a Jesuit, I hoped to find an answer, even a coded one, recorded by someone at some time in some place that might point me in the right direction.

I picked up a volume and read about the third and final destruction of Nalanda, including its vast library, and tried to start a conversation with Phil Whalen. I was more horrified at the loss of the the sutras, the Mahayana texts and commentaries, including all the works, the notes and who knows what else, of the pivotal scholar Nāgārjuna than I was by the wanton murder of thousands of monks and teachers. I blurted out something about the horror of burning books to Phil who was sitting in his chair across from me. He just looked up, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. They left us enough, just enough.”

Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji is not alone in trying to destroy the dharma by burning books and killing monks and nuns. Beginning in 1950 Mao and the People’s Liberation Army systematically destroyed monasteries and burned as many sacred texts as they could lay their hands on in Tibet. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration began the campaign of Haibutsu kishaku (廃仏毀釈), literally "abolish Buddhism and destroy Shākyamuni," which led to the wholesale destruction of Buddhist temples and monasteries as well as sacred texts. The Taliban destroyed huge ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan Afghanistan early 2001 which shocked the world and was soon followed by the regime’s defeat, but it did not prevent them from reasserting their hardline earlier this year.

haibutsu-kishaku01.jpg

The burning of sūtras during the Haibutsu kishaku (unknown source).


So while I deplore book-burning or destruction of religious art, their preservation is not a necessary condition for our practice. The loss of cultural Japanese Buddhism, centuries old beauty and tradition, including bowing to everything all the time, is a real loss, but it might have already disappeared.

How much remains? Just enough.

Issan is dying.

In the early morning of September 6th, 1990, Issan’s breaths had become very labored. Someone woke me. My room was directly above his. I went downstairs and joined the others. There were perhaps ten people in the room, most of whom had shared the last difficult months of his journey, his doctor Rick Levine, Steve Allen, Shunko Jamvold, Angel Farrow, David Bulloch, David Sunseri, Kai Harper Lee, Jakushu Gregory Wood, myself—I can’t really remember who else was present. Most of us were sitting as best we could in the posture of meditation. Phil Whalen sat in a chair.

The time had come. We waited for the end. I actually don’t know if it felt so dramatic to others, but to me it did. We were told that certain endorphins naturally kicked in to numb the pain, and of course there was palliative medication, but it was almost painful to hear the sound of his struggling for breath. His body jerked and trembled. Steve got up, lay down beside him, and held him gently. At first I was shocked. I was sure that Steve had never held Issan in that way before, but then it seemed like a perfect, spontaneous response—Issan loved the reassuring caress of another man. Gradually his breath became calm but more shallow. I tried to follow my own breath, to remain present and focused. It was difficult. There was a cascade of thoughts and emotions realizing how much I’d come to love Issan and how deeply I would miss him.

The room became very quiet. Then Phil got up from his chair and bowed one last time to his old friend. Was he leaving? I was startled. It felt important to me to stay to the end. In a soft voice Phil said, “I’m sorry but I have to excuse myself. I will open the Zendo in the morning, and I need to sleep.” Then he left while life remained.
  

Love rides on the breath,

Labored, easy, 

When the breath ends 

It stands up, walks out,

And saves itself.


An Unauthorized Death

When Maylie Scott’s mother died at home in Berkeley, she called me. Apparently after my stint at Maitri Hospice, I had the reputation as the...