Saturday, December 10, 2005

I read Zen is not big on compassionate action..but you seem to be at least somewhat in favor....what is going on?

Dear K,

Reading again huh? That can be dangerous. It leads to expectations which leads to ........all kinds of distractions.

I guess I can see where one might think that Zen is not much for compassionate action. One might say that there is a koan in there somewhere....because perhaps to some the definition of what sort of action is truly compassionate might differ.

In many religions there are apparent conflicts when people try to act in real life on some vague philosophy or set of moral principles. There are also those who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. We have such people in Zen too. This is why we are less concerned with what kind of talk you can talk....and more concerned by the kind of walk you walk.

If one sees the ultimate goal of life is to become enlightened, the what might be considered compassionate is something that has in the past proved effective as a means to that end.

In Zen this is a set of activities that includes sitting meditation. If death is seen as a part of the process of living, just keeping people alive may not have the same emphasis as say sitting meditation. If keeping your focus on just this moment is effective towards what is seen as the desired end, then telling someone to just be hungry might be sometimes seen as compassionate. Of course some people miss the idea that in order to have a spiritual life you must first have a life..(thank you Thomas Merton). Some in Zen see just sitting your own meditation as the ultimate bodhisatva action. In order to assist others in their enlightenment you must first be enlightened yourself (other wise how do you know what is truly effective?). Sitting down to do zazen (and don't get me started and what zazen is....even Dai Kai and I who are students of the same teacher ..or were...seem to disagree and what zazen is.....) is to some the be all and end all of all that needs to be taught and all that needs to be done by a compassionate fact some say that is all that can really be done.

There are very few people who have had the opportunity to study in Japan. I am one of the fortunate few. Seeing what Zen is there, and what the perceptions of what Zen is here, is most startling. In a temple in Japan all zazen is dropped if something needs to be done for the Sangha. People find much fault with the "funeral" industry that many see as all that Zen is in Japan any longer, but they forget that helping the grieving was something that needed to be done and no one else was doing it. After WW2 there were many widows with children, and an acute shortage of child care facilities for single parents. Many Zen temples to this day have a day care facility on the grounds......where priests attend to the needs of young children and their parents.

When I was in Japan I asked Narasaki Tsugen Roshi (a fairly famous Zen Teacher and Painter) to paint something on my book cover. I must admit I was a bit disappointed when he painted a quick picture of an abbot's stick, and then wrote "what ever is in front of you is your practice". Time has brought me the eyes to appreciate the teaching.

One can talk about Zen practice as if how you sit, how often you sit, or when and where you sit meditation is the practice. This is not what Tsugen Roshi was pointing to. In Japan if the monks are sitting and a visitor arrives, one monk who's job it is to take care of guests..jumps up from his zazen and goes to make tea and welcome the guest.....(temples are tourist attractions in Japan..there are frequent guests.)....after all the guests questions are answered, and all that they can see that the wish to see has been shown....and all their needs attended to, the monk returns to the schedule of activities with his or her fellow monks....such a receptions would be rare if you happened into an American Zen Center during a meditation period. If you are sitting meditation, and a guest arrives in front of you...your practice is to take care of the guest. If you are engaged in the schedule in the monastery, and a typhoon hits your community, you go and help rescue the survivors, and bury the dead.

Now we come to the hard do not need to go looking for typhoons and guests. Perhaps they are someone else's practice right now. What is here now arising in front of you is your practice. In my case trying to teach a six year old some values for her life is my practice. Children without food in the world might be someone else's practice but in my case my five year old (last year) asked what she could do for other children who did not have food after seeing something on TV about hungry children....She made some crafts and donated over $300 to the heifer project last year...she gave a little more to Oprah's angel network where the children in question were shown. I did not go looking for do gooder projects to ease my mind while I lived what in most countries would be a life of luxury (even though I am well below the poverty line in this country). It arose in front of me as something that needed to be became my practice for that moment. I should completely attend to this task that arises before me in this moment to the best of my ability. This is Tsugen's message. This is the real Zen practice that he was speaking might not even involve sitting

If you are married, then your marriage is arising before is your practice. If you are a parent, then that is arising in front of you and that is your practice. One should not sit in the the temple in New Orleans calmly meditating as the storm blows, and the sewage rises all around you ..not just in front of you. If it is your job to build levees against some future threat...that is your practice too...if as a husband wife or parent, this moment requires planning for the next moments then that planning too is your practice.

Tsugen's message was that there is enough right in front of need not hurry down to the bookstore to seek a practice. Nor travel off to far away places (unless you are told you will need to by your teacher so you can get some old bald guy to write on your book cover a mesaage you will need to share years later.......oh I guess that is part of my job....and what arose before me then and now.)

Sometimes even typing long messages in a manner that is antithetical to Zen is my Zen practice........there is another koan...they just keep popping up. Sometimes heading off to a nice Christian group to package food for starving children (the most effective program in the area) is my Zen practice. Sometimes wrapping presents to help a Sheriff help my child to put smiles on other kids faces is my Zen practice...even if it has nothing to do with Zen, it has everything to do with Zen.......Zen is famously full of such paradox. If you are going to fool around with Zen you better get used to it.

Be Well