Berkeley Buddhist Priory Newsletter
June – August 2011
The Story of My Life
by Ben Johnson
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
Tennyson: In Memoriam
My stomach was queasy and my head hurt. The dark shadows of night slowly transformed into grey shapes in the early morning dawn. Clothes leaked from the open drawers of my massive bureau. Cigarette butts, like little tombstones, had been dumped by an upended ashtray on my bedside table. Books, loose papers, crushed beer cans and dirty laundry strewn about my tiny room revealed the chaos of my life. As the room gradually came into focus a single thought formed in my mind: I was still alive.
As I rose and staggered from the bed I could hear a soft hissing coming from the kitchen. A vague feeling of disappointment crept over me as one by one, I turned off the gas jets of the ancient stove and raised the window to let in the cold, January air. Seeing the rolled towel under the front door, I noted with grim bemusement that in last night’s drunken stupor I had neglected to wet it so it would properly do its job in the drafty apartment. But such details had not been on my mind then, only a tired resignation and single-minded determination to at last quiet the years of anguish and grief that had ached so painfully in my heart.
I was five years old when my mother died of colon cancer. My older brother and sister have said they remember her screams. For me, however, that memory is gone. But even now, when I hear someone cry out in anguish, it is unbearable.
Later, when all the sympathetic friends and relatives had left us alone in the house, my mother’s life evaporated. We never again talked about her or about what had happened. The only evidence of her was a single picture on my father’s dresser. All other pictures had been put away in a closet. It was understood that we should not take them out to look at them.
With the naiveté of a five-year-old, I wondered if she had done something wrong and had been sent away, or even worse that my father had somehow caused her death, and that she was buried in the basement behind the furnace. I toyed with these thoughts for some time, so inexplicable was her disappearance.
We were not allowed to visit her in the hospital during the last days of her life. We could only wave to her from the street below when she appeared in the window of her second story room. On the last night of her life my brother and sisters and were left alone upstairs in our house while my father was at the hospital. We were talking about what was happening when we heard our father come in the front door. We went to the banister overlooking the staircase to see him. He climbed partly up the stairs, and with his back to us his only words were: “She’s dead.”
My father remarried almost exactly a year after my mother’s death. Later I realized it was a marriage of convenience, but I was only six years old and glad to have someone who was affectionate to me and sometimes gave me hugs. Also, I was glad to have her son as a playmate to distract me from my loneliness.
A year later my father took my brother and sisters and me on vacation. My new stepmother and her son stayed behind. When we returned they were nowhere in sight. When I asked my father where they were, all he said was, “They’re gone.” When I asked when they were coming back he said with finality: “They’re not.” We never spoke of them again.
I missed them terribly and prayed every night at bedtime for them to come back. About a year later I called a friend who lived in a nearby neighborhood to ask if we could get together to play. He said, “I can’t,” and after a long pause he said, “Your brother Ernie’s here.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of the phone. I had no idea he and Ernie even knew each other.
A while later I raced over to my friend’s house, thrilled at the chance of seeing them again. My prayers had been answered. Pretending I was ‘just dropping by,’ I knocked on the door. When my stepmother opened the door she cried out in joy and wrapped me in her arms in a big hug. We visited for a half hour or so until it was time for me to leave. That was the last time I ever saw them. I learned recently that they both died a couple of years ago.
After almost five years my father remarried again. It was also a marriage of convenience. This marriage did last, but there was always a certain distance, as if we were just two families sharing the same house.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence I tried to make sense of what had happened. I would read about death. I haunted graveyards and mausoleums trying to imagine the people buried there, as if looking at the cold, mute tombstones could somehow help me to understand where they had gone.
My father was not one to show real affection and kept his distance by being boisterous and hearty, or by turning on us with a severe look or harsh word. He seemed to have a dim and cynical view of most people. He would chide me with ridicule for not doing better in school. I think he was probably doing what he thought best in trying to be tough and firm with his children, to make them stand up to life. But his idea of encouragement was to say to me, “Don’t be stupid, Ben.” To me he was just insensitive and overbearing. He could grind you down by the sheer volume and force of his words, or could cut you to the quick with a sharp look. There were very few who could measure up to my father’s standards, least of all a teenage boy. I will never forget that look in his eyes of utter contempt.
I quietly hoped to somehow find a way to become a ‘person of worth’ to my father. I tried to find some way to win his love and respect, the criteria of which was always vague, even more so during his late night tirades lubricated by generous quantities of whisky.
As I grew older I became more and more distracted and depressed. I could not focus very well on school or anything else. I would make half-hearted attempts then just let it slip away. This only added to my feeling of despair and worthlessness. Because of my poor performance in school, I think my family thought of me as mentally deficient.
In high school, I too, started drinking heavily, siphoning off some of my father’s whisky each night after he had gone to bed.I knew he would not remember how much he had drunk that night. During those years I drank so much that after I left home and was out of this situation, I could not stand the smell of whiskey, much less the taste of it. There had been too many terrible hangovers, too much waking up to a violent, throbbing pain in my head with the room in a slow, nauseating spin as I tried unsuccessfully to stave off vomiting.
By my senior year I was drinking to the point of passing out several times a week. I had long given up making even a token effort at school. There was a real danger that I would not be able to graduate from high school. I did manage to graduate with the help of the art teacher who was a friendly ally, and with the help of the kindly history teacher who demanded that I let her tutor me. My older brother was the only member of the family who thought the miracle of my high school graduation worthy enough to witness.
After high school I made a stab at college, but lasted only a year and a half. I believe I had the distinction of having the lowest grade point average of anyone at the university at that time. I moved out of my parents’ house and did odd jobs around town to support myself. At night I would go to a local jazz club called The Dark Side. I loved the moodiness of the jazz and the night life at the club, but I drank to the point of passing out nearly every night. My depression grew so deep that I was barely functional during the day.
A few months later a deep sense of resignation set in. I quietly determined to put an end to it. The moment I slipped off the edge into the abyss I really believed it was the end. When I found myself unexpectedly back among the living, a kind of numbness set in and I just kept going on because I didn’t know what else to do. A while later a friend mentioned he was going to California. I joined him and left my hometown for the unknown. When we arrived in California I had no plan. I had only wanted to get away from the miserable situation back home and the mess I had made of my life. I didn’t really believe there was any way to escape my past but I decided to go on anyway because I lacked the courage to again try the alternative.
I quickly ran out of my meager savings and found a job at a bookstore across from the U.C. Berkeley campus. I worked hard not because I was such a diligent, responsible person, but because I was desperately trying to hold my life together and keep from falling back into the pit. I discovered a eucalyptus grove on the campus across from the bookstore. It had a small stream flowing though it and I took to spending my lunch hours just sitting there quietly. I had had no formal instruction in meditation, but by just sitting there I found that all the bad memories and despair would subside for a little while. I became interested in Buddhism. I read everything I could get my hands and went to Dharma talks at the San Francisco Zen Center. Although I didn’t understand a lot of the teaching, there was something about it that was reassuring and seemed grounded in common sense.
At first I thought meditation was a way to escape from the reality of my life, but escape always proved short lived. There seemed to be no end to the cycle of suffering and despair. Eventually I realized I had to face my demons. This was very painful, but there seemed to be little choice. Constantly, moments of despair would wash over me, filling me with dread and fear. All I could do was sit still in the middle of it, gritting my teeth. Gradually I learned that these were just feelings and memories, an echo of the past.
The Buddha’s first teaching was that the cause of suffering is attachment. At first I thought of attachment in terms of addiction, as in being attached to food or intoxicants. But later I realized that attachment could also mean being stuck in the past or in dreams of the future.
I had tried to reconcile what had happened but there was no resolving it, no way to make it better. I was attached to this dream because it was my mother. I wanted her to come back. I longed for her love and warmth, but this could not happen because it was a dream I longed for, and despair was the inevitable result.
Over the years I was able to see that there was more to my father than I had thought. He was not a bad man. He had a great sense of humor and he strove for honesty and integrity, qualities I came to value highly. He had been in a difficult situation and he had tried to make the best of it. Fortunately, towards the end of his life we were able to reconcile, and for that I am very grateful.
We create the world with our thoughts. We build a story of what we think our life is. Past events may seem vivid and painful, but they are just memories that are like a scar from an old wound that is still tender. I learned that no matter how many times it came up, I could let go of the story that I had held so dear. I learned that instead of replacing it with yet another story, I could open up to an unfolding life, learning over and over to let go of expectation and embellishment. And I discovered a whole new world that is much greater than anything I could have imagined.
The Path is open and goes straight to the source.
The Heart is boundless and enfolds everything.
Darkness is a dream since the Light shines everywhere.
Since the whole universe is our home,
how can our hearts ever express our gratitude.
(Rev. Kinrei Bassis)
On the Resolve to Become a Buddha
by Rev. Master Seikai Luebke and Rev. Master Phoebe van Woerden
At the time of taking the Precepts, a person publicly commits him or herself to “train myself to refrain from killing, stealing, saying that which is not true, etc. At the end of the ceremony, the celebrant, who has witnessed this commitment, together with all present, says: “You will become a Buddha in the future because of the merit of this resolve.” Most of the time, for us, this seems quite far away, and perhaps even an intimidating prospect. We just want to get through life and learn to get a handle on our temper, or our addictions, or our laziness. But even this entails training ourselves, and is a project that will go on for the rest of our lives. Once the coarser aspects of the untamed self have been smoothed, the deeper and more subtle things will become visible, and often that is the time when it is hard to continue. Are we going to be satisfied with a little progress, or are we going to keep up the practice and Be Buddha, on the long road to Buddhahood? A Chinese meditation master in the Qing Dynasty, X’ing, an Shixian, wrote a lovely exhortation to those who have started on the Bodhisattva Path, to not give up when the going gets rough:
Do not, fearing difficulty, shrink back in timidity.
Do not, regarding this matter as easy, take it but lightly.
Do not, seeking a swift conclusion, fail to make a longenduring commitment.
Do not, through indolence, remain bereft of heroic bravery.
Do not, on account of being shiftless and spiritless, fail to incite yourself to bold action.
Do not, drifting along in customary fashion, continue to put it off for another time.
Do not, judging yourself to be foolish and dull witted, continue depriving yourself of resolve.
Do not, possessing only shallow roots of goodness, consider yourself to be an inferior person with no share in this.
(On Generating the Resolve to Become a Buddha, Kalavinka Press.)
The old master gave these exhortations in recognition of the basic human shortcoming of starting things, getting bored, lazy or lacking commitment, half forgetting it and eventually giving up what we’ve started. We’ve all done it; we’ve all made promises to ourselves, New Year resolutions and the like, and promptly failed to keep them. Practicing meditation and the resolve to train oneself to refrain from acts which have an unwholesome effect is no different: we have to dig deep without ourselves and decide that this is so important that we simply cannot afford to let it slide.
A remarkable change comes about in people who get over the initial hump of finding out that meditation is not easy, and that keeping the Buddhist Precepts is not something to be taken lightly. We all encounter that resistance, and we all have to push through it. It requires grasping the will, and persistence, and in the process we start to exhibit something very deep and precious that other people notice: solidity of character, integrity, and generosity of spirit. These are human attributes that are not easily, acquired; they are gained slowly but surely by means of practice itself over long periods of time. They cannot be faked for long, and this genuineness of character is far more valuable than money or other forms of worldly success.
Can all of us become Buddhas? The answer to that is a definite ‘yes’. How do we do it? By practicing. It is actually that simple, but we tend to lack sufficient faith that it is the absolute truth, thinking instead that there must be some shortcut, there must be something that we’re missing, and need to look for in another religious path, or another kind of Buddhist practice than the one we are currently engaged in.
Zen Master Dogen’s statement that “training and enlightenment are one” is a way of stating that by just training oneself, one manifests Buddhahood and exhibits enlightened activity. Wherever we might happen to be on the path of training, this is still true; we can have spent many years on the Bodhisattva path of training, or we can have just taken the Precepts last week, and it is equally true in both cases. Dogen also states that “enlightenment ranges from time immemorial and is even now.” This statement reaffirms that Buddhahood is ours for the taking in the present, if we will only just put down whatever we cling to or push away in our hearts, and just sit still within the truth.
Our Master taught us that the way to Buddhahood is gained through the purification of past evil karma, through the purification of mind and heart. To accomplish this is the work of a lifetime, and one must be determined to make it ones life’s work and not think that it can wait for some other more favorable time that the one which is here and now. We all have something to give, some talent or attribute that can bring happiness to others, some ability to rescue or help living beings. By making that offering of helping others, giving love and kindness, supporting 8 those around us with positivity and generosity of spirit, we set ourselves on the Bodhisattva path. By practicing meditation every day, we continue to work on ourselves and do not get stuck with the idea that selfless giving is the be-all and end-all of the spiritual life.
I wrote to an old school friend of mine a few years ago, just to say hello and get back in touch with him. He wrote back, was very warm, and even went as far as looking at our website and reading some articles that I had written. He said that while he found much of what I had to say resonated with him – he is devoted to his religion – the problem he saw with Buddhism is that it was too focused on the SELF. This is a common misunderstanding, which derives from simply not knowing what it means to deeply and thoroughly train the self as the means to awakening a deeper awareness of the truth of existence and how we can truly be of use to others.
Many people who follow a spiritual path make the assumption that the self, or selfish behavior is something to be gotten rid of at all costs, since it is that which prevents us from knowing the truth, or prevents us from drawing closer to God. Hence, over the centuries, people have practiced asceticism as a means of defeating the self, or devoted themselves so completely to selfless giving that they have nothing left, in the end, for themselves and the cultivation of their own inner spiritual lives. It is easy to see that these two approaches derive from a good motivation and a desire to find the deeper meaning of life. They fall off the mark because they are one-sided approaches which are a bit too idealistic and leave the practitioner with an imbalanced view and understanding. The Buddha actually taught the Middle Path, which in this instance implies that we not drain ourselves by means of an idealistic concept of selfless giving, and not try to defeat the self through extreme measures, but rather to take good care of the self, and to slowly but surely convert it by means of a balanced life, using primarily love and acceptance as the means of conversion.
This is something we can all do. It is within our individual capacities as human beings, whether we are young and strong, or older and correspondingly weaker. It takes steady effort, but it is a balanced effort which does not go to extremes. From one day to the next, it is the offering we make of our lives, the work we do, the kindness we show to people, and the time we spend in silent contemplation on ourselves, looking inwards to find the deeper truths that can be found in the center of our being, and whichare awakened through the right balance of selfless giving and self purification.
I often think to myself that every day that I live is the same day; that is not to say that every day is the same old boring routine, or that there is no linear movement of time, or that on some level time does not exist (which is more of an abstract philosophical idea). Rather every day is a good day, as Zen Master Keizan wrote. Every day is the same in that all days are the opportunity to practice being a Buddha, to give of oneself, to purify ones own heart, and exhibit Buddhahood. As time goes on, we can start to realize that this is IT, there is nothing more to realize and understand than this. Then we are well on our way to full Buddhahood
The Priory had some upgrades done to our interior during the the past few months. The upstairs bathroom had a very badly worn linoleum floor and it was replaced with a new vinyl floor. We also replaced the toilets in both the downstairs bathroom and the upstairs bathroom, putting in some impressively efficient toilets. We also replaced the carpet in the small upstairs bedroom with laminate flooring. We plan to replace all the carpets on the second floor with wood laminate flooring. It will make the Priory much easier to clean and be helpful to the many people who come to the Priory with allergy problems which include myself, Rev. Kinrei.
The head of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, Reverend Master Haryo Young, visited the Priory from May 3 to May 12. Rev. Master Mugo, also visited the Priory during that same period, arriving from England on May 4. Rev. Master Mugo’s primary job is overseeing the lay ministry on behalf of the Order. They both shared the giving of the Sunday Dharma talk on May 8, and offered important teaching on both the Dharma and how our religious Order functions. It is an honor and pleasure to have these visitors.
We celebrated the Buddha’s birth at our yearly Wesak ceremony on May 15. There was heavy rain that weekend and instead of having the Wesak ceremony outside, we held the ceremony in the Meditation Hall. Wesak was well attended so the hall was crowded but everything went well. The morning ended with a potluck lunch which many additional family members and friends attending. It was wonderful to have the Sangha together to express our gratitude to the Buddha and enjoy this Buddhist holiday.
Charity is one of the four wisdoms and demonstrates the Bodhisattva’s aspiration. Deep appreciation and gratitude is extended 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, including books, dish detergent, paper towels, tissues and toilet paper. . 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 a number of prepared and takeout meals. The Priory received these food donations of quiches, pizza, vegetables, fruit, soups, soy milk, salad, salad dressing, eggs, vegetarian burgers, rice, coffee, bread, teas, breakfast cereals, olive oil, tofu, vegetarian meats, fruit juice, crackers, pasta, nuts, cheese, chips, peanut butter, jam, sugar, raisins, chocolate, cookies, candy, pies, and cakes. You are always welcome to check with the Priory on what foods are currently needed.
Priory Meditation Retreats
June 18 July 16 August 13 September 10
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.
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 finding 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 gardening, cleaning, cooking, construction, computer work, bookkeeping and laundry. Please contact Rev. Kinrei if you wish to help; the Priory always has 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, June 25 and August 27, from 9:30 to 3:00, but we welcome everyone to help for whatever part of the day they can come.
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.
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 Web site at www.shastaabbey.org or contact the Shasta Abbey Guestmaster at (530) 926-4208 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 3–5, August 5–7
Silent Illumination: The Teaching of Great Master Hongzhi
June 19 – 26
Introduction to Serene Reflection Meditation Retreat
July 10 – 17
Meditation Retreat July 27 – 31
The Surangama Sutra Retreat August 21– 28