The Spiritual Path
by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
The whole purpose of Buddhism is to teach us how we can transform our lives. Buddhist training is actually a step by step process in which we are trying to see better what we are doing in our thoughts, in our speech and in our actions and then adjusting what we are doing in an effort to be in harmony with the teachings of the Dharma. The first step on a spiritual path is to first recognize our need to make real changes in ourselves and then finding the commitment to pursue that transformation. It is normal to begin Buddhist practice with just the wish to make our lives a bit better. We hope for more peace and happiness and less fear, worry and anxiety. Often people will find that doing some meditation, studying the Dharma, doing some Buddhist practice, does help them. However, this usually only has limited value as it will not deal with deeper underlying causes of our discontent and suffering. Real progress happens when we begin seeing our Buddhist practice in a more broader context. Buddhist activities such as meditating, spiritual reading, hearing the Dharma, attending a temple, going on retreats, are all positive activities that can help us. Yet the real progress will not be made until we recognize our deep need to change and take responsibility for how we are choosing to live our lives and how we are actually causing ourselves to suffer.
Spiritual life requires us to see that there is a better approach than just try to grasp as much happiness as we can and trying to avoid all conditions that make us suffer. In Mahayana Buddhism they sometimes describe the beginning of spiritual path as Awakening the Mind that seeks the Heart of Buddha. It is growing our awareness that there is a positive spiritual direction that we can take our lives. Great Master Dogen gave this very essential teaching on the spiritual path:
“One who would train in Buddhism must first believe completely therein and, in order to do so, one must believe that one has already found the Way, never having been lost, deluded, upside down, increasing or mistaken in the first place.”
The way we make spiritual progress is trying to find full acceptance of wherever we find ourselves and then the willingness to do whatever seems to be right and take the next step. The problem is often the next step may be something we find hard and painful and we all have the normal human tendency to want to do that which feels good, to do that which is comfortable and easy. Practicing in this Sangha for so many years, I have had the opportunity to speak with many people who tried being a Buddhist monk and left after a short time. Frequently, years later, they describe to me having this same difficulty. They had felt clear and certain about becoming a monk but then they found that after they became a monk, that their Buddhist training had became harder and they had found themselves less willing. They lost their faith that being a Buddhist monk is what they wanted to do. Doubts had filled them rather than faith and they usually doubted both their ability to be a Buddhist monk and doubted that this Dharma teaching would work for them. Instead of feeling like they were making progress, they would sometimes tell me how everything went wrong when they became a monk. Naturally, for some people becoming a monk is not right for them and their specific karma. Yet I felt it was a shame that some of these former monks had clearly not taken refuge in their teachers and understood the reality of what it felt like to be following the Buddhist path. Buddhist training should help us to come face to face with all our difficult karma. To see all that is wrong with us, our selfishness, our burning desires, our fears and our inadequacies, can feel like it is all too much. It is complete normal that at times, we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what we need to change in ourselves. It is an expression that is used in Buddhist teaching that we have a mountain of karma. It would be unusual not to feel overwhelmed at times.
When I was in college, one summer job I had was in a summer camp in which I took children on hiking and backpacking trips. I quickly recognized that it made the hike much more difficult if I gave an overly optimistic report on how soon we will reach the mountain top. It always seemed helpful to keep saying that the summit was still distant and then when we did finally reach the summit, everyone was then surprised and pleased. Climbing a mountain is used in all spiritual traditions as a symbol of the spiritual journey. When we are climbing a mountain, we need to have confidence that the path will take us to the summit. Then we can relax, just concentrate on taking the next step and have faith that our efforts will take us to the summit. I have experienced the difficulty of wondering if I had wandered off the hiking path and then a few minutes seemed like a long time and I would be filled with worry.
It makes the spiritual journey hard if we are spending a lot of time and energy wondering if we are on the right path or if we are capable of climbing this spiritual mountain. The monks who left, they had doubted the path they were on. This problem is not unique to monks as we all need to trust the path if we want to make real spiritual progress and deeply transform our lives. One of the main ways we get stuck is getting caught up in how we are feeling. An idea that we often hold and do not question is that spiritual progress should mean that we will be happier and more peaceful. That is true in the long term sense just as climbing a mountain means we should eventually be getting higher. Yet when I hiked up many mountains, the path may take you on long stretches of going downhill in order to get to the best path to ascend the mountain. The following teaching is from the Sandokai: “Light goes with darkness as the sequence does of steps in walking.” This has definitely been my experience. At times I can experience feeling deep faith, peace and gratitude. Yet at other times, I can be experiencing spiritual darkness, filled with doubts and finding my Buddhist training and my life difficult and depressing. Yet it is vital to realize that when I find my training and my life easy and straight forward, this will change. It is just a passing state, flowing through my life like the weather. When I am happy I have not attained anything I can grasp, rather I am just experiencing something that is the product of my good karma, the merit of my past right actions. The Buddha taught “Volition is the doer of karma, feelings are the reaper of karma.” It is good when we experience our good karma and feel better about ourselves and our life yet from a Buddhist perspective, all these feelings are transient and all our positive feeling will flow out of our life like a dream. When spiritual darkness fills us, we need to recognize it is just passing feelings and thoughts and if we do not cling to them, they will also pass through our life just like a day or a week of gloomy weather. The darkness in our lives is actually flowing out of our unenlightened way of viewing ourselves and the world and this often causes us to make the wrong volitional choices. Whenever I am finding life difficult and I am feeling bad, this is a Dharma teaching for me, directing me to look at what is causing me to envelope myself in darkness and what changes I need to make so that I can keep walking on the path and follow my real heart. Unlike the metaphor of the path up the mountain, the Buddhist path is how we deal with our own personal difficult karma. When we take the Dharma to heart and follow the Dharma, we are then pointing ourselves to that which will solve our suffering. We need to see that suffering is telling us that in some ways, we are not fully following the Dharma.
In the Sandokai, it teaches us, “Should you lost become, there will arise obstructing mountains and great rivers.” Suffering is not getting in our way, it is directing us to look at how we are relating to our life and gain a better understanding of how we are creating this suffering. And although it seems unfortunate, our suffering will keep arising in various ways until we learn how we are generating this difficulty. Our suffering is always giving us a Dharma lesson. Unfortunately, often we do not want to hear what it is teaching.
Our whole life and how we relate to everything we encounter, is the ground of the Buddhist path. Zen Buddhism has always put great emphasis on developing the proper spiritual relationship to all our mundane and worldly activities of our daily life. How we work, how we eat our food, how we wash ourselves, how we clean our home; how we interact with the people in our life, they all have deep spiritual significance. The true source of our suffering comes from the way we do not embrace the whole of our lives, but instead we cut our lives into pieces, grasping the parts we like and pushing away that parts we dislike. The worldly mind is often lost in our loves and our hates. The Dharma is not telling us that we should not have preferences, but rather, we should not to cling to our preferences. The Dharma is pointing us to fully recognize the transient nature and to see that in the deepest sense, the relative unimportance of whatever we are trying to grasp.
The spiritual path is seeing that our whole life is a Dharma lesson. I want this. This bothers me. I fear this happening and I am filled with desire for that to happen. The Christian mystic, Saint John of the Cross drew a famous drawing of how to ascend the spiritual mountain. Whatever you encounter, all things of the world and all various spiritual experiences; they should all be seen as ephemeral and without the deep importance we give it. That is the only we we can ascend the spiritual mountain. We become stuck wherever we are, whenever we choose to grasp what is happening. Saint John said we must see everything we encounter in life as fundamentally empty, as nothing, in order to keep going up the mountain. It is like when we go through some great difficulty or when we have some experience that went wonderfully. When we look back, they both now can have the substance of a dream. Intense suffering always makes our difficulties seem so real and solid. Yet when we look back on our lives, much of the great suffering we had experienced can now be seen, with older and wiser eyes, as ephemeral and without the importance we gave them. If I am hungry today, a good meal last week will not feed me. The emptiness that Saint John of the Cross is pointing us to seeking, is that which allows us to let go of our grasping and open ourselves to what is unbounded, the Buddha Heart. The path to Buddhahood is open, we just need to see what is getting in our way from following the path.
The Path is open and goes straight to the Source.
The Real 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.
Sweeping the Stupa
by Margie Siegal
I recently stayed at Shasta Abbey for a few days and was asked to help Rev. Astor in the Buddha Hall. A lot of what I ended up doing was sweeping. There are brooms along the walkway in addition to brooms and sweepers inside the buildings. I swept the Buddha Hall and once that was done, I was asked to clear the pine needle covered path to Reverend Master Jiyu’s stupa.
Pine needles have a good smell, and are clearly part of the natural world. Sweeping pine needles, it is much easier to see that ‘dirt’ is not bad, or disgusting, just something not in the right place. The dirt belongs someplace else besides the pavers that make up the path, and I am helping the dirt to get to where it belongs – under the trees, where it will eventually break down into soil.
Thinking about pine needles, I can also see that I can similarly sweep my mind of stuff that is not in the right place. Too often, when I sit down, I rehearse something I am going to say to some- one. I rehearse something I am going to do. I think over something I have done. “Think of neither good nor evil, consider neither right nor wrong.” All the thinking I do is good in its place, which is not when I am on the meditation cushion. Sweep, sweep, the mental pine needles in the place where they belong.
There are a lot of pine needles around the stupa. There are a lot of mental pine needles in my mind. I only have a limited time to sweep. I only have a limited time – during each day, or during this lifetime – to sit. I am not going to be able to get all of the pine needles off the path before the work period is over. The wind will shortly blow more needles where I have swept. I may not be able to sweep out one set of thoughts before the next set of thoughts appears, and my mind tries to grab onto them. Sweeping can feel endless. Meditation can feel endless. As one inscription on the stupa says, “There is only endless training.” “It’s OK,” says Reverend Astor. “You just do what you can, and what you have done is appreciated. Reverend Master Meian goes out every morning to the stupa and offers incense and bows. You have cleared the path for her.”
“It’s OK,” says Reverend Astor. “You just do what you can, and what you have done is appreciated. Reverend Master Meian goes out every morning to the stupa and offers incense and bows. You have cleared the path for her.”
At the end of the day’s work periods, I have not finished sweeping around the stupa. I come back the next day, and find that someone else has swept up all the pinecones. The Self pops up, “That was MY JOB.” It’s not my job, sweeping or working on the mind is everyone’s job and I should be grateful that others – the Sangha – both work on sweeping the pathways and on their minds.
by Rev. Kinrei
The Priory has ended all specific pandemic restrictions and activities at the temple have gone back to normal. It is fine to keep wearing masks but it is no longer required. People are welcome to meditate outside or in other rooms of the Priory if they wish. We will still continue to also offer Sunday activities, Dharma talks and retreats on Zoom.
We had a memorial for Hava Mazureak, Ronit Hertz’s sister, on February 1. We are always grateful for the opportunity to provide Buddhist memorials and offer sympathy, merit and the Dharma to those who have died.
Wesak Celebration ~ Sunday, May 7
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 Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
On Sunday, May 7, we will have the usual 9:30 am meditation, followed by the Wesak ceremony at 10 am. Weather permitting, we plan to celebrate our Wesak ceremony outside in the Priory backyard. 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 plan to have a vegetarian potluck lunch in our garden or inside the temple. All family and friends of our Sangha are welcome to come to Wesak or just join us for the potluck and share in our celebration of the birth of the Buddha.
Introductory Retreat: April 29 (10 am–5 pm)
This introductory meditation retreat will provide an introduction to the sitting meditation and the basic teachings of the Soto Zen tradition. It will include meditation instruction, several period of meditation and a Dharma talks on how to practice meditation and integrate Buddhist teaching with our lives. A vegan lunch is included with the retreat.
Priory Meditation Retreats: April 15, May 13, June 17, July 15
Retreats are an excellent way to deepen our meditation and training. The retreat is 8am to 5pm and the day is a mixture of meditation, Dharma talks, spiritual reading and Buddhist services.
Helping the Priory and Work Day: Saturday, June 4
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 yard work, gardening, cleaning, cooking, 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.
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.
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