EKAN ZEN STUDY CENTER

Inspiring the Discovery of a Wiser World

Thoughts on the Bhikkhuni Life

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment
Becky, Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Ahimsa, Anagarika Shannon, Ayya Santacitta, Guiding Teacher Konin

Becky, Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Ahimsa, Anagarika Shannon, Ayya Santacitta, Guiding Teacher Konin

It was a little over a year ago that I wrote to Ayya Santacitta, one of the two founding monastics of Aloka Vihara. We’d known each other for several years, and I had always enjoyed her presence and practice. I wrote telling her of my deep longing to come out for a visit to the Vihara, an unassuming home in Northern California, set at the top of a broad meadow where deer feed in the twilight hours. We agreed that a visit could be arranged for a time before the winter retreat began in January, but the airfares were simply too costly, and I had to defer. Respecting the retreat time of the monastic community, we arranged for me to come in May 2017.

It was so pleasant, the warm familiarity of good Dharma friends Ayyas Santacitta and Anandabodhi contrasted with the newness of meeting (then Samaneri, now) Ayya Ahimsa and later Anagarika Shannon, as well as learning how the details of daily life reflect the pāṭimokkha or monastic rules of early Buddhism. I felt drawn to this way of living Buddhism together with women, and there was something more. I experienced a spaciousness and sincerity about practice at the Vihara, a sense that there is room for a whole human life, room for a practice that is as big as all things.

The three of us were sitting on the floor in Ayya Santacitta’s room, talking quietly about how we were and how my stay was going, when I asked about a longer visit. I knew that my term at Empty Hand Zen Center, in New York, was coming to a close. I thought that three months would give me a taste of this Theravada life governed by the Vinaya, and enough time to plan next steps, whether here or in a Zen practice setting. The Sisters agreed, and I was really pleased. 

Still, I had my doubts. The monastic rules of Theravada Buddhism are very strict. They call for complete sexual abstinence, refraining from all entertainment and alcohol, no meal between Noon and dawn of the next day, and many other forms of renunciation and virtue. Would I be willing to set down everything in order to focus exclusively on practice?

Some of this territory is familiar. I have been celibate for many years now, and practicing brahmacarya for the past two years. I have lived at remote places, like Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery and Hosshinji, where there were no televisions or computers with which to watch any form of entertainment. And I have gone for long periods of time eating only twice per day and not having a drink. Yet the commitment of this entire group of women to these and other renunciate forms of practice as the basis for a peaceful life is an invaluable support.

Now I have been living at the Vihara since October, and the weekly rhythm has become familiar. Just as it is at the Zen monasteries in which I have lived, this life is full. There is early morning and evening community sitting and chanting called puja. There are regular times in which to contemplate the early Buddhist teachings, and to hear a Dharma talk by someone in the community or a recorded talk by someone far away. There are regular gatherings to check in about how we are feeling, and to divvy up the work of cooking and cleaning and maintenance. Visitors come and help out, and then go back to the larger world. Everyone contributes with work. Everyone participates in sitting.

The activities are familiar, but the way in which they are held is quite different. Here there is no wake up bell; each person is responsible for monitoring their own attendance and yet there is no one who forgoes the pujas for more than a day or two. During retreats, 10 day periods of focused practiced with only minimal work, the sitting is arranged in two or three hour blocks of time. People move about as they wish, sometimes sitting with the group, sometimes alone, sometimes walking. The walking meditation is relaxed. People move at a slow but natural pace, without any mudra or pattern, just moving back and forth. It feels as though there is room enough for each person to find their own pace.

Also, I find it interesting and inspiring that, rather than a doctrine, much of what we chant here is appreciation for the Buddha, Dharma and the early Sangha. It is a sharp contrast with the Zen liturgy, which is primarily concerned with teachings about emptiness. The chants and teachings here strongly emphasize ethics as a part of the Buddhist path, and virtue as an attribute of those who have embodied it deeply. I have come to realize that this is an important part of what drew me here. This is a place where there is an understanding of monastic ethics as a support to, and container for the practice of discovering the wisdom of non-self. It feels so right. It has been true for me that each time I have chosen to live a more ethical life, it has led to greater clarity of mind and fewer difficulties in life. Now I can live among women for whom this is also true.

And what of the differences in the teachings of Zen and Theravada Buddhism? First, I must admit to being surprised at how similar these paths are.  For example, although the Mahayana rhetoric is that ours is the stream of Buddhism that concerns itself with practice for the benefit of all beings, my experience of the Theravada is that we chant for the benefit of all beings at meals and other times during the day. Some days we chant the "Loving Kindness Meditation" that I learned at San Francisco Zen Center, which is actually a teaching from early Buddhism, one which predates Zen by centuries.

I often encounter threads like this, that begin with the historical Buddha and continue right through to present day Zen in America. The Buddha said that the sangha should be harmonious, “blending like milk and water,” which was later quoted by Eihei Dogen and later quoted by Shunryu Suzuki, and is now regularly quoted by Greg Fain, the Head of Practice at Tassajara.

I also find that the way that language is used is very different, as you might expect, but what is being described is similar or the same. For example, Tiantong Rujing clarified that Dogen’s “body and mind dropped off,” while Theravadan Teachers say, “there is no one who attains jhana” not because it’s not possible, but because that meditative state does not include the sense of one’s personal body and mind. These are very simple examples but, for me, they are emblematic of the shared values of these two traditions.

One key difference, however, is the emphasis that these Western Theravada practitioners place  on leading a simple, disciplined life, one that steps out of most of the trappings of contemporary America. This is seen as necessary and beneficial, not just for the residents of the monastery, but for everyone with whom they come in contact. That is, the practice of the Vinaya is a demonstration that these monastics are "all in" and have devoted their entire life's energy to the practice of awakening. This gives the rest of the sangha confidence in the leaders of the sangha, and perhaps an appreciation for how much effort they are investing and the Dharma they are sharing.

It is different from the Zen view that even the ordained sangha can participate in secular life, which was particularly strengthened in the mid-1800s by Japan’s “Niku Jiku Sai Tai” law. This law allowed Buddhist clergy to eat meat and marry, and they also began growing their hair and drinking alcohol. Surely there were political reasons behind the passage of the law, but it was also a recognition of the fact that some members of the Japanese Buddhist clergy were already doing those things. As for the value of the renunciate life, so far my experience has borne out its usefulness. The simplicity of this form of monasticism, as structured by early Buddhist texts, brings the practice and one's personal responsibility for it into sharp focus, while ensuring that the lay and ordained sangha clearly understand their inter-dependence. It leads to some lovely relationships.

I wonder why Dogen chose not to bring to Japan the pāṭimokkha rules of the Vinaya that I understand were practiced at Mount Tiantong and other Chan practice places. His teachings that all beings are expressions of Buddhanature, and therefore fundamentally enlightened, did not obstruct his teachings about the necessity for realization of this fact. Thus, at times, Dogen was clearly able to acknowledge the ultimate and the conventional at once. It therefore seems that he could have upheld the conventional value of the Vinaya precepts, just as Chan monastics do up to the present day. However, he chose to create a tradition in which only the 16 Bodhisattva precepts are taken. This is something that I hope to understand better in the future by studying the history of the Zen precepts and the Eihei Shingi, the monastic code of conduct that is specific to Soto Zen.

At this moment I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather be practicing. Aloka Vihara is becoming my new home, in my heart, body and mind. Much more of this path is unfolding too, and there is much for me to learn and to share with my new community. It is my intention that the Noble Eightfold Path continue through me. And it’s my plan to stay on here at the Vihara for a much longer period. The whole community has welcomed me with open arms and I embrace them too. This decision also means that I will be taking the Vinaya precept vows, as a complement to the Zen vows I have been upholding for the past 13 years. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to practice this way, and I look forward to sharing this journey with all of you. May it be of benefit to all beings.
 

The Three Flavors of Awakening

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

A dialogue with Master Changcha, as recorded in the Essentials of the United Lamps of our  [Zen] School and featured in the "Unfathomable Depths," a contemporary Zen text on an ancient Chinese poem.

Snail with raspberry.jpg

Konin’s Introduction:

The Master speaks of the monk’s sword, but it is his own that cuts thoroughly. The monk reveals his inquiring mind, but ends with a thump. All the fog in the world couldn’t soak his robes, so it’s best that he follow the path. How about you? Can you taste all the flavors at once?

Encounter:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.”

The monk asked, “What do you mean?”

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.”

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.”

Konin’s Brief Commentary:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

– Is there ever a wrong opportunity? Get off your duff!

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

– When caught by differences, you will find yourself up to your hips in mud.

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.”

– What’s the use of a sharp tongue when you’ve already bared your backside?

The monk asked, “What do you mean?”

– At least he hopes his breath isn’t wasted.

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.”

– A hot hand won’t help you now. Another kind of rice cake isn’t any more tasty.

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

– He’d better pack a spare pair of sandals.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.”

– There are not two sides to this coin; this delicacy is lost on many.

Konin’s Prose Commentary:

Master Changcha’s student reveals his particular form of delusion in the opening question. It seems this fellow feels there is some magic moment that will arise from his practice. So he’s waiting around for something special, and in the meantime, he happens to encounter the teacher. At least he’s found a clear one. Changcha tries to tell him not to get caught up in differences. That is, though there are people of varying colors and practices, the magic moment is every moment, since all things are expressions of the original function. Experiencing things in this way, just drinking tea is an awakening moment.

The awakened way doesn’t wait for an opportunity that seems right. Still, if it doesn’t feel right, you will always make faces when eating snails.

Even so, it seems the monk is stuck and before he can continue Changcha does him a favor, telling him that he can see the monk’s confusion. In good faith the monk persists, asking about the Master’s teaching, but ends up walking out. It seems his magic moment hasn’t arrived when, in fact, it’s already here. That could be a long road for him. Yet Changcha goes the extra mile, leaving him with one last, skillful word. Three flavors in one, all discernable yet the eyes are closed. This is the flavor of enlightenment in the midst of the bland world, all the while infusing our delusions. with the freshest of scents. At the time of this dialogue I doubt that snails were a delicacy, but Changcha has now made it so.

 

Understanding Dukkha ~ A Foundational Buddhist Teaching

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Guiding Teacher Konin Cardenas recently participated in a panel discussion for the Buddhadharma magazine. The panel included Venerable Thubten Chodron, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Reverend Mark Unno, and covered a wide range of issues related to the teaching of "dukkha" which means dissatisfaction or suffering. It's always a pleasure to have these kinds of talks with Dharma friends, a reminder of how vast the Dharma truly is.

You can find the Buddhadharma article online here.

The Abbot Sets the Robe Down

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & Engagement, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Recently Konin was invited to give a talk at the Aloka Vihara, a Theravada women's Buddhist monastery in Northern California. The talk addresses envy and indignation in the public discourse and in oneself, using a story from the biography of the 6th Chinese Ancestor of Zen Huineng. The talk is entitled, "The Abbot Sets the Robe Down." It's on their talk archive here:

Aloka Vihara Dharma Seed

Please consider making a donation to Ekan Zen Study Center in support of Guiding Teacher Konin Cardenas. Thank you.

 

Passing the Torch at Empty Hand Zen Center

Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

There are many ways to be a sangha, and many ways to lead one. It is, in some ways, a delicate balance of giving and receiving. Recently, the Board of the sangha where I had been living and teaching for the past two years came together to address a problem of financial sustainability. At that time, I made my recommendations, which included a shift to part-time teaching, rather than full-time residential teaching in New Rochelle. Together the Board and I decided that this was the course of action that would be most likely to enable Empty Hand to continue, and to support my desire to pursue more monastic practice. I wrote to the larger group, letting them know about my decision and the context for it, as well as describing basic next steps. That letter is included below, so that you, the sangha of Ekan Zen Study Center, might have a better sense of the events that transpired. This is a new beginning for everyone involved, one that affirms each of our practice visions as valid, and yet different. I hope to share more about the vision for our Ekan Zen Study Center sangha in the coming days, as well as some musings on my travel visiting various sanghas across the country. In the meantime, please remember that I value our practice together as the Ekan ZSC sangha, no matter where we are.

Provision by W. S. Merwin
 
All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
Of rain
From memory
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands
What you do not have you find everywhere

August 29th, 2017 (date this letter was sent to the Empty Hand Zen Center sangha)

Dear Empty Hand Zen Center sangha (the sangha in New Rochelle, NY where I have been living),

First, I offer my sincere gratitude for your generosity and for your practice. Recently you organized a gathering in recognition of my leaving, and it was a joyous event, full of giving and laughter and warmth. Thank you.

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since my arrival from California. Together we have sat, walked, bowed, and chanted. We have spoken to each other and listened to each other. We have welcomed new babies into the world, and we have remembered loved ones who have passed. We have conducted the study of the Way with one body and mind, with many bodies and minds. For this, I am truly, truly grateful.
 
As a teacher, I view my role as one of strengthening and inspiring your practice. During my stay at Empty Hand, I have done my utmost to fulfill that role, no matter how it was received. I have tried to be of service and to lead skillfully. Zen asks a lot of us, that we might give up our limits and be as vast as all things. This time has been no exception.

Now that time is complete, and we can see the results of our practice together. They must be accepted for what they are. At this moment, the Empty Hand sangha has some wonderful attributes, including a group of committed practitioners and a place of its own in which to practice. However, this sangha has been unable to provide the financial and energetic support necessary to keep offering the Dharma as fully as we are presently. Though many people would like it to continue as it is, that is simply not possible.
 
Thus, although I will continue to support you, it is time for me to relieve you of the responsibility of supporting a full-time monastic teacher. This should ease a bit of the financial pressure that is now on the sangha, and open up new possibilities for use of the space. I believe I've fully met the expectations that the Board and I had two years ago. Even so, I hope you will forgive any mistakes I have made. Also, it's important to know that there has not been any abuse or failure by anyone within the sangha or by me. It is simply a matter of having to change the way things are done, so that they can be more appropriate to this sangha's particular practice.

Beyond the basics of having completed my commitment, I feel a deep sense of connection to and hope for all of you, one that is based in the certainty that you can realize the Way. Therefore, my leaving is with the sincere aspiration that it will cause a deep movement in the hearts of you who comprise this sangha. Please let it generate a resounding response, one of greater stability and generosity toward each other. 
 
Will you say, "Yes, I will"?
 
With nine bows,
 
Konin

 

Stepping Onto the Bodhisattva Path

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment
Deborah Silver jukai.jpg

Yesterday was the culmination of months of study and sewing, practice discussion and personal exploration by Deborah Silver. She received her new Dharma name and Buddha's robe in a ceremony called "jukai." It's a joyful event for her, and for me, and the entire sangha.

Deborah's new name is 切 炎 眼 珠 Setsuen Genju, which means Sharp Flame Jewel Eyes.

Of the ceremony someone once said, "It feels very big. Things are the same, and not the same." Indeed.

Congratulations Deborah!

Pedestal Practice: Harmful Student-Teacher Relationships

Sangha & InclusionGuiding Teacher5 Comments

In recent weeks, a very painful situation has come to light in the greater Buddhist sangha. Many practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are upset at allegations of harmful behavior by a very well-known teacher. Similarly, the Abbot of a very large and prestigious Thai Buddhist temple has been accused of breaking the ethical vows of his tradition and of breaking the law. A year ago, a very painful scandal emerged at one of the larger Soto Zen centers in the US. Unfortunately, these are not the first instances of abuse of the relationship between Buddhist teachers and students. These kinds of situations have occurred time and time again, across various traditions and geographic locations.

As I am not personally familiar with any of the situations mentioned above, I don't feel qualified to discuss the details. However, I do want to share my thoughts on possible reasons for how and why these kinds of abuses happen, why they seem to go unaddressed for long periods of time, and how they might be prevented. Each situation is different and complex, but there may be discernable patterns at work.
 

Some people come to Buddhism in search of a more positive sense of self. While a bit ironic, this is natural, since one of the most fundamental messages of Buddhism is each person's innate capacity for and expression of wisdom. People like the idea that Buddhism says, "You can be a kinder, calmer, happier, wiser person, if you just work on discovering your own goodness, your own true nature." In Zen this shows up as the teaching, "All beings are fully endowed with buddhanature." It's a very positive message about the basic goodness of a human being.

However, in the search for a better self, problems sometimes develop as students look for and encounter a teacher. They look up to that person, and begin to see that person as someone special. Of course, if they didn't do a bit of that, that person could not be a teacher to them. Yet, one consequence of this admiration may be that seeing the teacher as special makes the student feel special by association with the special teacher. Whether or not this sentiment is spoken aloud, it also makes the teacher feel special because of the positive messages coming their way. This set of beliefs tends to feel good to both parties, and therefore tends to be reinforced.

Thus, the student feels that the teacher can help them be a better person. And it seems to be true because the teacher expresses confidence in the student, and the student seems to feel better about him or herself. It also seems to be true because usually more than one student is saying these things about the teacher. As for the teacher, he or she begins to believe these positive things students are saying about them, and begins to believe that they are the special person who can help the students to be better people.

If all of this belief and counter-belief is turned toward the goal of keeping teacher and students on the path of wisdom and compassion, then it can be helpful. Students feel motivated to really practice hard, support the teacher and the sangha, and work on discovering self and other. And the teacher works hard to support them to do this for themselves and for all beings. Then they are all working at living the practice, and at fulfilling this idealized vision of themselves.
 

However, a problem can very easily develop with this kind of scenario. If this kind of behavior gets stronger and persists for a while, the student or many students may put the teacher on a pedestal, holding them up much higher than other human beings because of the great respect and appreciation they have for their teacher's teachings. Again, it's important to recognize that one underlying motivation, whether conscious or unconscious, is that the student gains status in their own eyes, and perhaps in the eyes of others, by being associated with the person who is on the pedestal. And the person on the pedestal enjoys a lot of attention, authority, prestige and, often, material comforts because they have been elevated in this way. However, if the teacher begins to believe that they are so special that they stand above the rest of humanity, then naturally problems will arise. I call this “pedestal practice.”

A teacher who has been convinced of the positive beliefs their students have about them may begin to think that they can do no wrong. They may think that no matter how they use their authority, or how they use the teachings and training, it will be beneficial for the students. They may think that they cannot make a mistake, and they may actually convince themselves that to admit a mistake would be harmful to the students.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who is a psychotherapist and long-time Zen practitioner about her teacher, a Rinzai Buddhist with a long history of abuses. She said, "It would crush him to have to admit that he was wrong." This she offered as an explanation for his inability to stop harmful behavior or to apologize to the community. It was then that I realized that when a person sincerely believes that they are so spiritual they cannot possibly make a mistake, harm to other beings in inevitable. The teacher's delusion about self has gotten so big that it blocks out any compassion for the experience of the students. In this teacher's case, pedestal practice cannot be acknowledged even when it has hurt many, many people.
This is truly ironic, and a clear indicator that the teacher's practice is lacking in compassion and wisdom. In Zen there is the practice of reciting the verse of repentance, which is part of the monthly precepts renewal ceremony called the Full Moon Ceremony, or "Ryaku Fusatsu" in Japanese. The repentance vow is this:
 

All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

This vow is key to Zen practice, because it begins with the acknowledgment that one has taken intentional action, “karma,” based on the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Reciting the vow is only possible if one has the humility to admit to oneself and others that one is still impacted by the poisons, and by the workings of karma and its results, called “vipāka.” The power of the vow comes from the fact that being able to clearly discern the harmful or less skillful ways in which one has acted, means being able to more skillfully deal with the consequences of those actions and with future conditions. It is a powerful practice. Any teacher who is truly wise and compassionate will be able to admit that they too are subject to karma.

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What about when students know that their teacher has been abusing their power or breaking their ethical vows, but they choose not to address it? This is actually a very complex question. It may be that the student cannot take the teacher off the pedestal because then they would have to take themselves down a notch as well, and they are not willing to do that. Or it may be that the student believes that the teacher is someone who is leading them on a special journey that does not fit within the boundaries of normal ethical and practice standards. Sometimes students simply feel ashamed of having broken their own vows, or of having believed in someone who turns out to be flawed. For all of these reasons, and more, students may be very reluctant to speak out against a teacher of high standing.

Supported by these inter- and intra-personal dynamics, pedestal practice can go on for a long time. In fact, students who have not yet experienced any harmful behavior may pressure the students who have to keep quiet, because they do not want to see the problem or deal with its repercussions. Teachers have been known to get angry, and to threaten or to abandon students who question their authority or their wisdom. Whole communities have kept secrets about harmful behavior for decades rather than go through the painful process of bringing them to light and addressing them.

Fortunately, there are things can be done to prevent this situation from reaching such a harmful state. First, it is critically important for Buddhist communities to structure opportunities for teachers to have input from their peers. Ideally this can happen among teachers, away from a public setting, so that there is no need to keep up appearances for the students’ sake. Often teachers can be seen more objectively by other teachers. This helps to keep a teacher from getting put on such a high pedestal that they fall off their practice of wisdom and compassion. It also provides a place and time for sharing the joys and challenges of the teaching role, helping the teacher feel more connected to, and more identified with other teachers. These kinds of relationships can remind the teachers that their situation is not one of a special being above humanity, but of a human being devoting their entire life to the well-being of their students.

Second, students need to be aware of and take responsibility for the ways they relate to their teacher. They must deeply study their motivations. They must hold their behavior and their teacher's behavior to a high ethical standard. This is simply an expression of the Dharma, which has always been based on a foundation of compassion as ethical action. Students need to investigate their views of self. If they feel that they are leaning on a relationship with a teacher to bolster themselves, they can turn toward the teaching that practice is something only you can do for yourself. Practicing with a recognized teacher can be a great support, but ultimately the student is responsible for their own ethics. Choosing to practice in an upright manner is always in accord with the Dharma. That is true fearlessness.

Lastly, teachers would also do well to study their motivations regarding students. If a teacher's motivation is to use students to satisfy their own physical or emotional needs, or to keep students perpetually in a position of subservience, this is a sign that the teacher is using their position to bolster their self-esteem. Any teacher with a deep understanding and practice of the Dharma wants their students to discover their own deep expression of compassion and wisdom. When teachers acknowledge students' capacity, ability, and expression, this is expounding the Dharma of “endowed with buddhanature.”

The Way of Buddhism has brought forth many, many wonderful teachers. Still, any teaching, any practice, no matter how profound, can be twisted into something harmful by delusion and the frailties of human beings. When students and teachers build up each other’s self-esteem at the expense of ethics and compassion, deep harm is the natural result. Complex relational dynamics are at play, and can perpetuate even harmful relationships. Yet, working together toward the manifestation of the Way of compassion and ethics, teachers and students can support each other to move beyond pedestal practice and be an embodiment of the fearless Dharma.