in the company of good people

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I would like to start with this line from the Shorter Sukavati Sutra on why it is a good idea to cultivate a heartfelt desire to be born in Amitabha’s pure Buddha field.  This Buddha field is an auspicious place where humans and Bodhisattva intermingle. The Buddha says it is good to aspire to be born there,  “ They should do this because in that Buddha-field, they will be in the company of good people such as these bodhisattvas.” To be in the company of good people, that is the benefit, the value, the reason the sutra specifically gives for going to the Pure Land.  I find that rather fascinating.   So what does this transcendent world, this mythic vision of the Pure Land have to do with my mundane everyday life?  I am drawn to this line because it brings to mind the importance of spiritual community, of the sangha. Both the Pure Land and the sangha are places to be supported in our practices, cultivate compassion and gain wisdom and attain enlightenment. There is the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I like to think that it takes a sangha to help me become a  Buddha.

 

For many of us, we come to the Buddha through solitary paths; books, magazines, maybe film and   some of us may even have a “Buddhist” friend.  We live in an unprecedented time, where the Buddha’s teachings are available in all kinds of media. For thousands of years only monks read the Sutras, now a precocious high school kid in Grand Rapids Michigan, on his way to a part time job washing dishes at Denny’s, can be seen reading the Flower Ornament Sutra, or any one of the Nikaya Suttas.  Buddhist books sell well and my first encounter with Buddhism was Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Suzuki & How to Cook our Life by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.  What was your first encounter?  I wonder if it is uniquely western that the first time we set foot in a Temple or Dojo is sometimes years after our first, second or even third encounters with the Buddha. My first entry was 10 years ago and it wasn’t until another 5 years that it became a part of my practice.   Many of those who come to our gatherings have never been and our meeting is their first encounter with communal practice.  I hear from many of them, “it’s like coming home”.  For many we start the path with the first two jewels, the Buddha and the Dharma.  We sit balancing precariously on a two legged stool.  I didn’t even realize that there was a third jewel!.

 

The importance of the sangha should not be undervalued, it is the third thing that Buddhists take refuge in.  As Eshu Martin has written,  “The sangha is where we cultivate relationships with other human beings, coming into genuine relationship with others who are engaged in the activity of awakening.”   The sangha is also an aid, it lights a compassionate light on ourselves to help us grow, to see ourselves as we really are.  It is not a place of simple harmony but also a place of transformation.  Martin sensei  goes on to say,

 

“When we engage … we find that in spite of all of our efforts, again and again we rub up against one another in a way that makes us uncomfortable, in a way that makes us angry or upset. This practice doesn’t steer away from these kinds of interactions but instead binds us together so that by rubbing up against one another we become polished, smooth.

 

We find that by doing this, as we go forward into the world we don’t have so many rough edges. We’ve begun to engage in the practice of instead of making more rough edges, hanging onto our sharp points, we begin to engage in the practice of manifesting harmoniously with whatever it is that we come into contact with.”

 

We interact with each other in the practice and by doing so we are polished, smoothed out, transformed.  This is something that could not be accomplished without the sangha. The importance of the sangha is illustrated from this quote that I love from Thich Nhat Hanh regarding the sangha,

 

“It is said that the next Buddha will be named “Maitreya,” the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.”

 

In my personal practice the Pure Land is Here and now and the Pure Land is also a transcendent Buddha-field.  In both pure lands, it is the company of good people of Kalyāṇa-mittatā, spiritual friendships  in the practice of awakening that I aspire.  The sangha, your sangha, however it manifests, is filled with the perfume of dharma flowers given as offerings in Sukavati.  May we all go in harmony as a sangha to the other side.

 

May it be so.

 

 

 

The Grace of Oneness

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“ This realization of oneness involves the highest type of communication and respect.  IF your life is realized in the this sense…you would see that the whole world supports you.  You exist because others; everything supports your life.  This totality, this oneness evokes a gratitude and a great joy beyond explanation.” Gyomay Kubose

 

We live a life immersed in grace;  the grace of being supported by all things at all times. We are supported by the solar system, by the sun that continually lights our world and drives the processes that help the earth to give us air to breath, water to drink and food to eat, that helps us to see, We are supported by the smallest things, to the largest. We are supported by microbes and bees that help create the food we eat, and by all the trees that help us breathe.   The bees give us grace every day, the trees give us grace, and there is also the grace given by our ancestors down through long passages of time; so much grace given that is still within in us now.  We are all interdependent and existent in this very moment.  In the midst of our diversity and interdependence we can come to direct realization of Oneness and by doing so we can communicate our respect and gratitude for them, for all of life, for all the gifts which in oneness we have received  and which are unmerited.

 

For me, namu amida butsu is an expression of this oneness and grace, an expression of Buddha-nature.  The oneness that Gyomay Sensei is writing about in the above quote, is for me personified as Amida Buddha.  Because of Oneness I exist and therefore I exist because of namu amida butsu. This is how I understand the idea among some teachers, that  the nembutsu is simply an expression of gratitude for all that Amida Buddha has done for us. My practice of chanting the nembutsu is a form of the highest form of  communication and respect. Through this practice I cultivate a recognition / realization of Oneness, and all that Oneness does for me every day, and this brings forth the fruit and joy of gratitude.

 

This reading has tied into something that I have been thinking about gratitude, gratitude as a form of awakening.  A few years ago I had an experience in the midst of great suffering, where something shifted and I was overwhelmed with an intense gratitude for everything I had experienced and everyone I have ever known, even for just a moment.  I spent hours going through my email list send out heart felt thank yous to everyone on my list. I think even companies whose email list I was part of even got a thank you.  I am sure a few who received the emails shook their heads, I called friends, I reached out to as many as I could to share my gratitude for their very existence.   In this space of gratitude, I wept and I laughed.  It was confusing at first because of the amount of tears that fell.  I remember thinking that I am crying so hard, but I am  not sad so why am I crying? I realized that for me that is how deep and profound gratitude expresses itself.  I also realized that for many years I had seen “love” as the highest emotion, the goal of religious practice, that love encompassed all.  I have had moments were I loved everything, even the street sign that I was standing under, and yet that night I experienced something even more expansive and sublime than “love”;  I experience an unbounded gratitude. Writing this and remembering what it was like, the lines from last week’s report are even more profound  “ We should always be ready to die, able to say, “thank you for everything”  In some ways, that is what I experienced that night, the “thank you for everything” and remembering it helps me to understand what Gyomay Sensei was teaching.

 

I like what Jeff Wilson,  a Jodo Shin minister has written,  “in Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspec­tive, but when pursued, it can be transformative.”  This came home to me the other night when I was holding my little boy in my arms, he was cuddled against my chest and I was just feeling him breathe and thinking how much I loved him and I just repeated thank you, thank you, thank you and the love expanded exponentially with the ever expanding gratitude.  I think the cultivation of  gratitude is important because it acts as a catalyst that can expand positive states of consciousness. Cultivating gratitude by recognizing  and by expressing it, manifests more gratitude, and deepens our awareness of Oneness.

 

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

 

May it be so.

My Blind Self: a poem

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vii.

 

My blind self
pierced by Amida’s light
illuminated and dissolved
into the great ocean of compassion

into the Oneness of life –
Palms together, embraced

just as I am.
Each step with the Buddha,
my truest self, my Amida self –

the deep flow of the oneness of realty –
all beings one with me,
palms together

and bowing,
 

“namu amida butsu,”
“namu amida butsu,”

embraced just as I am.

Not knowing is the most intimate.

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From a young age many of us are afraid to be someone who doesn’t know. Maybe we are afraid to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable, so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we actually don’t have a clue. This is not just anecdotal, studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they makeup answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing. This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say. We all know that feeling; usually half way through, when we realize we really have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would have to simply say, “ I don’t know”. Instead we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, again hoping no one will notice.

To act as a “knower” is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. has a tendency to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities. We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions, our world gets smaller and smaller. Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing, is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain. “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.”

To be clear, the knowing I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt and it is not knowing in opposition to not knowing as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska, or even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths. When I say “I don’t know” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity a “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”. For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express and it is coming fast.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply being willing to not know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good or this is bad or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas, it can create curiosity and allows an openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes a way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell…The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.

I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”

Namu Amida Butsu.

We are all Refugees.

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Lately the world seems on fire, with mass shootings, mass migrations and terrorist attacks.  People are more polarized of late, cultural shifts, deep old wounds are festering and all of these are changing the landscape, the earth seems to be moving under their feet and many are taking refuge in nationalism, bigotry and fear.  The rawness and depth of this really hit home with me, especially when the little refugee boy washed up on the beaches of Turkey.  I have a boy about this age…the image haunted me for days.  What would make a father put his child at risk like that.  A picture of the city his family left was published with the caption, “this is why you put your children on a boat.”  The city the boy was from was destroyed; a city of skeletons, torn and broken homes, some burning, desolate and abandoned streets, the same streets that had heard laughter and music, the buzz and honk of rush hour, bird song and the heart beats of lover, now was a city of the dead, with only the sound of distant mortars, more a mausoleum of lost hopes, and dreams.  Looking at the picture I was reminded of the words of the Buddha, “The world is burning.”   And it is not just from war torn areas, there are refugees everywhere, there are spiritual refugees, spiritually homeless who have homes, spiritually friendless who have friends, those who know where they are at is not “right” that something is missing. It seems we are all looking for refuge, looking for a spiritual home.

Thinking of the small child dead on the beach, I wondered if that was my child, where could I find refuge from the pain, disappointment and impermanence of it all.  Refuge is a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble, it’s a coming home. But we don’t have to experience the horror that the family from Syrian experienced to ask for or seek refuge.  I have come to realize that as spiritual refugees many of us have wandered through self-help books, careers, relationships, materialism and addictions to find some home, some sort of refuge but only to be disappointed. The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa explains that anyone who ‘goes for refuge’ must therefore be a ‘refugee’, so that as Buddhists we are ‘refugees from conditioned existence.”

As I have keep going on our journey I have found it, and it has always been waiting for me in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha, it was like coming home. I think this makes sense since we go to refuge saraa-gamana which in Pali could be translated as “coming home” we come home to the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha.

It is my hope that faced with such suffering as the refugees from Syria, I could still find my refuge by taking refuge in the Buddha, in the fact of his Awakening: and the three jewels, placing trust that he actually awakened to the truth, that he did so by cultivating qualities that we too can cultivate. That through my understanding of impermanence and the compassion of the Buddha, that awakening can be my ultimate refuge.”

May it be so.

Myoshin Ross-Leibow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Community and Spiritual Ego

339N09319_7XC5Q-1050x700As a fellowship we and focus on similar values and ideals that we see and feel as important, worth while.  We also look for commonalities within and without the group. We find strength and refuge in our common values and ideas.   At the same time in expressing and practicing these commonalities, we also identify those that are different than our own, we separate ourselves and may even set ourselves up to be somehow better than the other group or at least not as “self-righteous”. I think this is what Shinran is speaking about when he talks about us being “foolish beings”  When we  really look at such comparisons, we realize that it is the same type of spiritual egotism  thing that we are trying to distance ourselves from.   Rev. Roland K. Tatsuguchi, in referring to Shinran’s teaching has written that. “Our efforts to do good, upon deep reflection, are constantly tainted by our pretentious spiritual egoism, regardless of whether we be monks or ordinary householders.”   The “ego” separates us from others and is an obstacle to compassion, the same is true of our spiritual egotism.

Let me give an example.  When our Sangha was just starting a friend was participating with us and he and his girl friend really like the community.  Then he stopped coming.  I asked him why and he said in effect,  because you are like all the others, you think your way is the better way and people were disrespectful of others’ Christian’ beliefs, even laughing at some of the things others believe.    I remember being confounded by this comment, then after talking with Linnea I came to realize my own blind spots.  It wasn’t that anyone was being outright mocking or even demeaning, but there was this general attitude that our way is better, and then  there was laughter.  It is good to remember that laughter can heal and laughter can hurt. Remember being laughed at as a child?

I don’t think that anyone meant to come across that way or meant to hurt anyone.   Many of us come from different traditions, and for some it may feel more of an “escape” from a tradition.  Some of us were deeply wounded by the experience and in expressing our own issues, wounds, experiences, our self justifications, our blind passions, we may unknowingly come across as intolerant or even be intolerant.

Honen and Shinran taught us about our foolish natures, that we are full of blind passions.  I think sometimes these can be manifested in our collective group thinking.  We want to be special or at least not like those who have hurt us.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that is helpful to feel a tradition, a  path or belief is the best way to lead one’s life, at the same time it is important to understand that this “path” is not the only way to express the oneness of compassion.

There was a Jodo Shin minister who had the kanji for “fool” engraved on one of his prayer beads to always remember his true state.  I think this is a great example of a humble attitude, to be aware of our “spiritual ego”.  It is hard to see that even our attachment to our  “foolishness” and trusting in Other-power instead of Self-power can also become  a “spiritualized ego”.  The idea that Shinran is better and more humble, because Shinran called himself a fool, and depended only on Other-power instead of hours and hours of meditation can be just as much of an attachment to a “spiritual ego”.  I know that this is something I need to work on.

I want to remember that I too am a foolish being, that I will get it wrong a bunch of times,  and As Jeff Wilson has written

 “  There is one advantage to realizing that you’re never going to get it right: you do begin to stop expecting everyone else to get it right too, which makes for less frustration when other people turn out to be just as human as you are.” 

This can be applied to those outside of our sangha and to each of us within our sangha.

Here is something I found written by Sebo Ebbens.  It expresses what I think is an ideal for a spiritual community and something for us to practice.

“To me what’s important is that I want the sangha to be a spiritual community where we support each other in following our own path, in our practice as well as in our daily lives, while maintaining respect for each other’s personal paths. Our path is a difficult one. It is a solitary path. But if we are members of the sangha, this is the path we have chosen. In that sense the sangha is a spiritual community and not just a social club. The sangha does not function as a spiritual community if we can no longer say what we think because that isn’t done. Or where we can hide behind what is done or not done or behind what someone else says. We develop for ourselves what is done and what is not, within our own tradition. That makes us a living spiritual sangha… The principal characteristic of the community is that it helps you to realize your human potential and to express yourself in the real world, whether within or without the community.

May we honor each and every journey with respect, honor and compassion and may we be compassionate and humble traveling companions.

 Namu Amida Butsu. 

Christopher  “Myoshin”  Ross-Leibow   –  Practice Leader