Berkeley Buddhist Priory Newsletter

April – June 2014


 


A Bowl of Red

Ben Johnson

 

[reprinted from January-February 1998 Berkeley Buddhist Priory Newsletter]

 

The last time I remember seeing my mother, she was hardly more than a silhouette, back-lit by the bright lights of her room on the second floor of the small university hospital. She weakly but urgently waved to my brother and sisters and me as we stood on the sidewalk below in the growing evening darkness. In 1950, much less was known about cancer than it is today. It was thought that it might be contagious, so my brother and sisters and myself were not allowed to have closer contact than this with her during the last months of her life.

 

After she died, my father made it quite clear that nothing of her death was to be mentioned again. We didn’t talk about it. In fact, he rarely mentioned her again for the rest of his life. When he did, it was only in short retorts to questions one of us children had the temerity to ask. Thus my mother was snatched away from me and my siblings. Her life was wiped off the face of existence. It was only when I was much older that I realized how incredibly difficult the whole episode of her dying must have been. In talking to my brother and sisters I found out there was a great deal of enmity between my father and my mother’s mother all along. I suspect that my grandmother’s presence in the last days of my mother’s life was no doubt full of rancor, with perhaps accusations that my father hadn’t seen to the best of care for my mother. None of us went to the burial, held in my mother’s hometown in the next state. As far as I know, my father never spoke to my mother’s mother again. Death often brings out the best and the worst in people. My mother’s death evoked so much hatred, anguish, and guilt that we could never speak of it without touching those powerful emotions. Even 40 years later, as a grown man, I found I was extremely reluctant to mention to my father that I might like to go to the little town in Illinois to visit my mother’s grave. In fact, it wasn’t until long after his death that I finally did go.

 

My father was a real character. Born and raised in Texas, he reveled in the raucousness of the region. He had prodigious appetites for alcohol, food, arguments, and loud discussions late into the night. His booming voice could be heard all over the neighborhood. Only the bravest or most foolhardy soul would take him on in debate, usually only when they were at least as well-oiled with alcohol as he. As a child, I loved listening to the dinner parties below from the top of the stairs in the dark: the smells of wonderful food, the sounds of music, the happy chatter of the merry-makers, occasionally punctuated by my father’s voice above it all, telling some joke or story. His sense of humor was legendary. He liked to write stories that were full of down-home humor, fun to read. Some of these stories were published in magazines of the day. He was an English professor for 49 years. Unfortunately, he was also full of anger and downright paranoia, getting into nasty arguments with people, leaving a trail of insults and hurt feelings behind.

 

My father remarried a few years after my mother’s death, not successfully. At that age, I didn’t care about my new stepmother’s shortcomings as a wife. All I know is that she was kind and loving to me. I needed that very badly. After one year, incredibly, she disappeared. My father took us children on a little trip. When we came back, she was gone. No explanations given. Nor was she ever spoken of again. I recall asking my father when she was coming back. His blunt retort was, “She’s not.” That was all that was ever said. The brief respite I had after my mother’s death was over. I was grieving for two mothers gone. An ineffable sadness settled over me then, one that has lasted most of the rest of my life.

 

My father married for a third time when I was eleven or twelve. This time it stuck. But my new stepmother and her two daughters walked into a mess. Even though the marriage lasted, it was very difficult.

 

I have thought much about my father. At first I remember only the bad parts: how he would belittle my meager efforts, insult me without awareness of what he was doing. When he was drinking, he would look at me with utter contempt in his eyes, as if I, his young child, were the most vile thing on earth. But this is not a balanced picture. He had his moments of affection. There were the times he would josh me to try to get me to come out of the shell he had helped create. But the other weighed so heavily. After a while I had lost all trust in the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde person who drinks too much.

 

He was ill-prepared to take care of his children after my mother’s death. He had assumed the traditional role of breadwinner, expecting his wife to care for the children. He was clumsy at tenderness. But he tried. As I look back, I can recognize those inept moments, as well as the anger that followed when no one recognized the pure intent of his efforts. I can look back with sympathy for him, for his own brutish efforts at tenderness. I no longer hate him.

 

As I grew into adolescence, I became more rebellious. Before, I sadly, meekly, accepted the situation. With hormonal changes, I became angry and depressed. My father always seemed to be critical of me. When he was drinking he was verbally abusive. I was no angel either, and I’m sure I drove him up a wall. I think he was genuinely confused about what to do. He didn’t really have a clue as to how to raise children. He just wanted to pursue the things he loved.

 

My depression, anger, and rebellion grew during adolescence. I was more and more at odds with my father. He had less and less of an idea as to what to do. He usually responded to my anger with his own. Children have the peculiar capacity to be in an abusive situation and, while hating the situation, still love the person who is tormenting them. I saw through the abusive behavior to the person underneath. I saw love there, somewhere. Because I still loved my father, I wanted to be like him. This unfortunately meant I started drinking like him, an ambitious undertaking for one so young. He could put away large quantities of alcohol. I attempted to do the same, thinking it would relieve my depression and make me into some sort of cool Southern literary/intellectual type, full of macho and pathos.

 

The results were predictable. I was failing badly at school. I had few friends (except for those who subscribed to my particular delusion!). My depression was becoming so deep that a feeling of utter hopelessness enveloped me. The despair of that kind of depression is so all-consuming it is hard to fathom if you are not in it. It seems so total. The light of life is gone and the only thing you care about is that the blackness ends.

 

Slowly a dim light began to grow in me. There must be something more than this. Maybe there’s something more than what I am seeing. This thought has since carried me a long way. Realizing that my home town was literally a dead-end, I left as quickly as I could. In the months before I left, I stumbled across some books on Zen, and felt an immediate affinity with what I read. Coming to California, I found a Zen Master, Shurnyu Suzuki. My efforts were very modest at the time. I attended lectures, learned to meditate, and read everything I could get my hands on. What was taught was so clear and so true, I felt like I had finally found something I could trust. I had a long way to go before I could trust people. But it was a beginning.

 

My relations with my father were still not very good. I hated talking with him on the phone. I hated even more going to see him. He had little to say that was not contemptuous or critical. At one point I seriously considered cutting off all contact with him, but that little voice kept saying “there could be more”.

 

Over the years I was gradually weaned from my dependence on alcohol and tobacco. In the early 70s, someone mentioned a certain Buddhist monastery in Northern California. Without thinking about it too much, I decided to go for a retreat. I’m surprised now that I did this so readily. Up to this point I had been an “armchair practitioner”, doing my meditation sometimes, but not being involved very deeply with any groups. The teaching that Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett offered was so honest, so unpretentious, and so straightforward that I knew this was where I wanted to be. It was the first time I had ever encountered someone who spoke the truth unequivocally. Here truth was practiced rigorously. Here were people I could trust.

 

So I threw myself into it as best I could. I knew that if I kept up my meditation and practice, no matter how dark or confused I was, I could always turn to the Abbey. I had faith, and I didn’t know it.

 

Back at the time I nearly disowned my father, I made a conscious decision that I was not going to give up on him. That voice, “there’s something more”, prodded me on. I decided that somehow I was going to cross this breach between my father and myself. I had no idea how. After years of being shouted down, I was not very articulate with him, but I did the best I could. I called from time to time. Not often, but I made the painful effort. I refused to get into fights with him, even though on the few visits I actually made back home, I was so angered by insults that I wondered why I had come. I felt I would never come again.

 

In February, 1991, I got a call from my brother telling me that my father was suffering from kidney failure. At his age and condition of health, there was no hope of repair. This was it. Flying back to my hometown, I vowed not to be drawn into the nastiness, no matter what. This was my last chance to have some kind of reconciliation with my father.

 

With kidney failure, the body is slowly poisoned as the kidneys no longer do their work of filtering out toxins. The person becomes more and more lethargic, gradually slipping into a coma and dying. I knew this because my beloved dog, Sam, had died of the same thing ten years earlier. I remembered how Sam would try to raise himself up to be back with the living, even though each time he would then sink deeper into a stupor. Not really knowing what to do, I tried what I could. One thing was to help prop my father up as I had done with Sam so that he too could be with the living as long as possible. My brother and sisters and other friends and family had come to the house. There was a pall of a death watch in the air. I could see my father hated this. Bad enough to find out you are dying, but to have people standing around wringing their hands over you was awful. When we were alone, he said to me in anguish, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.” It’s hard to know how to respond to someone in such a situation. I simply said, very gently, “Just be still. Just rest.”

 

At one point I was struck with an idea. My father loved food and drink, and as a Son of Texas, loved chili. Though he had not been able to eat anything for some time, a voice in my head said quietly: “make some chili.” So I set about with great fanfare, banging pots and pans, cooking up onion and garlic. My family looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. My father asked what was going on. Finally the chili was ready. My father, his voice very weak, said, I’d like just a little of that chili. And maybe a little beer to go with it.” He hadn’t been able to keep anything down,’ but now he took a taste, followed by a sip of beer. He pronounced it “excellent chili”.

 

We believe that a reconciliation should be some great proclamation. This act, so simple, was so eloquent. My father and I looked at each other with such love in our eyes. After that, words would never have been able to express the love, regret, and forgiveness we both felt. A few days later my Dad slipped into a coma and died.

 

Although I felt relief and a great resolution, there was that small voice again. There was something more. Sometime later in meditation, it occurred to me to offer merit for my father at Segaki. I did so twice a year from then on. I also remembered him on Memorial Day. I thought that with all the anger of his life, he was not at peace. I did this for 4 or 5 years, offering merit for my mother, too. I do not often dream of my father, but about a year and a half ago I had a dream in which he appeared. There was no story, nothing “happened”. There was just my father, smiling radiantly with a simple joy I had never seen in life. I knew he had found peace.

 

This past summer my wife, myself, and our two children took a trip back East. We finally made that pilgrimage to my mother’s hometown. As we drove through the rolling landscape of central Illinois, east of the Missisippi, it occurred to me that maybe this was just a gesture. It had been so long, it almost seemed like I was just indulging myself, performing an obligatory function because I had talked of it for so long. As we drove into the very small town with its one-story red brick buildings, no doubt the same my mother knew in the 1920s, I was glad I had come. Here she had grown up and lived. I saw the high school she had attended, now the local historical society. I met the owners of her childhood home. They very kindly let me walk through her house, the house in which she had grown up. From the looks of it, little had changed in the appearance of the town since she lived there.

 

Later, at the graveyard where her family plot was, I knelt next to her grave, my hand resting on the ground where she was buried as if on herself. And then there was a presence of love. It was not that I felt love, or that love was directed at me, but just this presence of love at that spot. I was content to sit with her like this for a long, long time.

 

“...Monks, there is a not-born, a not-become, a not-made, a not-com-pounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this here that is born, become, made compounded. But since, monks, there is an unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded therefore the escape from this here that is born, become, made, compounded is apparent...”

 

Udana: Verses of Uplift

from One of the Discourses of the Buddha

The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon. Part II

(London: Oxford University Press, 1935, pp.97-98)

 

Priory News

This winter, the Priory did some major work in our kitchen. On the Priory work day on February 1, we painted the kitchen, brightening up the room with a fresh coat of white paint. Then a few weeks later, we replaced all the kitchen counters with wood butcher block counter tops. The existing formica countertops were very worn, and, in some places, had completely lost its finish. Sanding staining and finishing all these new wood countertops was a time consuming project and a large number of sangha members all helped with this work. The new countertops are a noticeable improvement. We also put in a new and large kitchen sink, which was also a big upgrade over our very worn porcelain kitchen sink. This work was a large task, but it went surprisingly smoothly due to all the willing help we were given. We still need to do some work on the walls around the counters but hopefully that will be completed within the next month or two.

 

Wesak Celebration – Sunday, May 18

On Wesak, Buddhists throughout the world commemorate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is the most spiritually significant day of the Buddhist calendar, and it is helpful for Buddhists to join together as a Sangha and express their

gratitude and joy for the existence and transmission of the Three Treasures.

 

On Sunday, May 18, we will have the usual 9:30 am meditation, followed by the Wesak ceremony at 10 am. The Wesak ceremony is a particularly joyous service. The altar is covered with silk flowers, and a statue of the Buddha as a baby stands on the front altar. During the ceremony we pour water over the head of the baby Buddha, representing the water of compassion abundantly flowing over all beings.

 

After the ceremony, there will be a Dharma talk. At around 12:15 pm, we will have a vegetarian potluck lunch. All family

and friends of our Sangha are welcome to come to Wesak or just the potluck and share in our celebration of the birth of the Buddha. The Priory potlucks provide a wonderful offering of foods, and allow us to deepen our contact and friendship with our fellow members of the Sangha.

 

Buddhist Reading Group

The Priory Sangha has recently begun a reading group. The group meet once a month, on the first Thursday, for an hour and a half. The group’s first book is Buddha Recognized Buddha by Rev. Daishin Morgan. The first meetings have been well attended with many people expressing appreciation for the group. For more information, please contact the Priory.

 

Introductory Workshop April 26 (10 am—1 pm)

This workshop is designed to be a follow-up to the basic meditation instruction that we offer every Thursday evening. It will include a talk on meditation practice, periods of meditation and then another talk on bringing mindfulness and compassion into our daily lives. There is no charge for the workshop but we ask that people register in advance.

 

Helping the Priory and Work Days

Buddhist training is based not just on receiving the spiritual benefits that Dharma practice provides, but also our own willingness to cultivate gratitude and find ways to make offerings. Giving our valuable time to help with the work of the Priory is very much needed if the Priory is to flourish. During the past few months, Sangha members came by the Priory and helped with many different tasks such as painting, yard work, gardening, cleaning, cooking, construction, computer work and bookkeeping. Please contact the Priory if you wish to help; we always have plenty of work that needs doing. In addition, the Priory has been having regular work days which have been a great help with fixing up and maintaining the Priory and its grounds. You are welcome to come to the Priory whenever you can and offer your help. The next work days are scheduled for Saturday, March 29, May 31 and July 26, from 9:30 to 3:00, but we welcome everyone to help for whatever part of the day they can come.

 

With Gratitude

Charity is one of the four wisdoms and demonstrates the Bodhisattva’s aspiration. Deep appreciation and gratitude is

offered to all those who contribute their spiritual practice, money, time, energy, and various gifts to the Priory. The generosity of the entire Priory Sangha is what makes it possible for the Priory to exist and for the Dharma to be freely offered to whomever is interested.

 

In recent months, we have been given many generous gifts, a large donation of bedding linens, a beautiful painting of Avalokitesvara, potted orchids for our altars, flower pots, water filter, meditation benches, books, wood stain, sandpaper, paper towels, toilet paper, and napkins.

 

Providing monks with food is the traditional offering given when coming to a Buddhist temple, and we appreciate all the generous food offerings we have been given, which provide most of the food for the Priory. During the past few months we have been given food donations of various vegetables and fruit, soy milk, eggs, tofu, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian meats, pizza, noodle meals, peanut butter, cheese, beans, soups, salads, salad dressing, vegetable oil, chili sauce, oats, rice, coffee, muffins, bagels, bread, herbal and black teas, granola, salsa, fruit juice, crackers, pasta, nuts, chips, dried fruit, fruit preserves, chocolates, cookies, candy, pies, and cakes. You are always welcome to check with the Priory on what foods are currently needed.

 

Priory Meditation Retreats

April 12       May 10       June 14      July 12

 

Retreats are an excellent way to deepen our meditation and

training. The retreat begins at 8am and the day is a mixture of meditation, Dharma talks and Buddhist services. The retreat is over at 5pm. Please register in advance for all the retreats.

 

Shasta Abbey Retreats

Attending a retreat at Shasta Abbey is an excellent way to deepen one’s Buddhist life by living and practicing together with a large community of monastic and lay members of the Sangha. The introductory retreats are the recommended first step in practicing at the Abbey. For more information, you can go to their website at www.shastaabbey.org or contact the Guestmaster at (530) 926-4208 or guestmaster@shastaabbey.org.

 

Introductory Retreat April 11-13 June 6-8

Continuing Practice Retreat May 23-25

Awakening the Heart of a Bodhisattva Retreat June 22-29

 

Spiritual Counseling

Rev. Kinrei is available to discuss your spiritual practice and to help you to better apply the Dharma to your life. Taking refuge in a senior member of the Sangha is an important aid in gaining a better perspective and deeper insight into our spiritual life. It is also helpful in learning to cultivate openness and trust. You are welcome to contact the Priory and arrange a time to meet.

 

Meditation Instruction

Meditation instruction and an orientation to the practice at the Priory are offered each Thursday at 6:45 pm. Please arrive a few minutes early so that we can begin promptly at 6:45. The instruction is followed by a 7:30-8:05 pm meditation period. We ask all people new to our practice to attend this instruction. The meditation instruction is free, as are all the activities at the Priory. If your schedule will not allow you to come on Thursday evening, you are welcome to call the Priory to try to arrange a different time for the instruction.

 

Priory Support and Membership

The word dana is an ancient Buddhist term meaning generosity—giving and receiving, from heart to heart. The Buddha highly recommended this as one of the most important Buddhist virtues, because it truly benefits the giver as well as the receiver. It is through simple acts of giving that we can begin to build a foundation for our religious training. Whether we live the life of monks or the life of a lay person, generosity makes the heart grow brighter. It helps us to overcome selfishness and attachment, and to open our hearts. It is a necessary element in the growth of kindness and compassion, which, in turn, are necessary for real peace of mind, as well as for deepening any religious practice.

The Buddha established a practice of mutual dependence between the monastic and lay Sangha. To oversimplify, the monks offer the Dharma, to all who ask, and the lay people offer material support to the monks. This helps all involved in Buddhist training, whether monastic or lay, to experience the benefits of dana for ourselves and thus grow our faith and trust in the Buddha-Dharma.

 

In an act of faith and in keeping with the monastic part of this commitment, the Priory is willingly dependent for its existence on the generosity of our friends and congregation. We receive no support from any other source, there are no fees of any kind for instruction or participation in Priory activities. Your gifts of support, whether financial, material, labor, or of any other kind, are deeply appreciated, and they assist the Priory in continuing to offer the Dharma. Your greatest support is simply your continued presence and practice.

 

One of the best ways to help the Priory is to make the commitment to be a Priory Member. What this involves is making a pledge to contribute a certain amount of money to the Priory each month. There is no set or recommended amount as we leave it up to each individual to offer what he or she feels is appropriate. This commitment is a tremendous help to the Priory because it gives us a stable financial base. More importantly, deciding to become a member has deep spiritual significance. It means you are choosing to help take responsibility for the continued existence of the Priory. Some of you may only be able to pledge a few dollars a month and think it is not worth making such an insignificant commitment. Yet it is important to offer whatever you can and be willing to make a formal commitment to be part of the Priory. The most important help members bring to the Priory and the Sangha is not their donations but their Buddhist training. By being willing to come to the Priory and train with others, we help make the Priory a true refuge of the Sangha.

 

However, we are not suggesting that everyone who occasionally attends the Priory or gives us donations should become a member. For many people, it is not appropriate to make such a commitment, and we welcome them to join us whenever they wish, to help us in the manner they feel appropriate, and to be valued friends of the Priory.

 

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The Priory Altar for the Avalokitesvara ceremony on February 16.