Monday, May 23, 2011

How A Job Ends


From the beginning, my case was "different." Already had a master's in fine arts, but not in education. So my teaching credential hinged on an "alternative pathway." There was this pathway, or maybe this other pathway, or this pathway that was sort of right but not really.

A long way down my dimly-lit pathway, which was rife with potholes and puddles and alligators, I came to suspect this was not the right program and began questioning the process. My Ph.D. advisors at the Western New Mexico University School of Education told me to shut up. I continued, but kept asking questions, kept getting told to shut up. So it went. I brought in the district. They were very sympathetic but did not have many answers. On it went.

Finally, confirmation that I was not on the right pathway, there was this other pathway I was supposed to be in, the one I described at the beginning, the one that Western denied even existed. Now they said, "Here, try this pathway. And shut up."

But there is a clock on the process, you see, and I no longer had time to complete it before the blade came down on my neck. Back to the district. A long conference call with the state government. What could be done? The state said, try this and that, and you can finish it.

So we arranged for this and that, and weeks later the state changed the story again, saying this and that would not cut it, instead we would have to do A-through-Z in a few days' time, which was not possible short of disturbing the time-space continuum. No extensions. Lacking a cell phone number for Doctor Who, nothing could be done. No license, no teach.

On the very day it became clear that I would lose my job over other people's negligence and lack of interest, I was told that my name had come up at a school board meeting. The district had won an arts grant in large part because of its innovative elementary theatre program, which had (among other things) gotten fifth-grade English language learners reading and arguing about Shakespeare. A credit to the district!

That's how this job ends. It presents a problem for me, but the biggest cost is to my school's principal (who is losing a good program for reasons that are not her fault) and, of course, to those who come first: our kids.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Silly Monkey Bowing


They changed the way we bow.

No, seriously. When Judy Roitman visited Deming Zen Center this month, she informed me that the school had met to discuss how we move our hands during a standing bow. The way we have been doing it since Zen Master Seung Sahn was teaching us is reportedly considered to be somewhat "ostentatious" in Korea and I suppose it was causing some tension over there. So they modified the bow.

It is only a minor change to a form, but my body has a habit of bowing the old way -- the way I was shown to do it back in 1993. So when I bow -- at my cushion, towards the old tree, to the Gila Mountains which I see from the north playground -- I often do it the old way and start laughing at myself. Silly, trained monkey! Small wonder Saint Francis called this body "brother ass."

Bad enough when people see me bowing to the mountain. When I do that and start cracking up, somebody is going to take me away!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Leaps of Don't-Know


Good morning.

The school year is winding down to its conclusion next week, and the summer is booking up already. Sarah and I will be running a performing arts camp for Deming's children for the third year in a row. Then there will be a theatre course to teach for Western New Mexico University. I'm also under contract to turn in a radio play for AudioComics. Gabriel's third birthday arrived yesterday, and Lucca (at two months) is trying to sit up on his own.

Then there is the emerging Deming Zen Center, which signed a lease this week for a small commercial building in town. We will be moving our regular practice and one-day retreats to the location pictured above, and adding classes and workshops to help us grow (and help with the rent, too). I'm also rolling out some local acting classes to help Deming's theater company step up its artistic achievement.

The common thread here is "leaps of faith," as the figure of speech goes. We might call them "leaps of don't-know," since there is no particular object of faith involved here. If there is a God, I think She's got more important things on her agenda than my self-centered anxieties. So, as when stepping on a stage: take a breath, believe in what you're doing, and do. The outer situation probably won't look the way I expect, or want; but it will take care of itself.

Step bravely onto the tilting platform.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pungent Roots [CORRECTED]


In response to the previous post about the bodhisattva precepts, a dear friend and dharma brother wrote on Facebook:

So no more garlic and onions?! What's up with that? I never understood that one.


Ah, the one about five pungent roots. Onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and something I never heard of but I'm told it sometimes shows up in curry.

The Surangama explains this a little bit. If you ate these foods raw, it was thought to stir up bad temper. Cooked, they were believed to be aphrodisiacs. So these foods were blamed for making people argumentative or horny. For monks, this would present obvious problems, and so the Brahmajala forbids them.

I've met Buddhist monks and even laypeople who observe this precept strictly, along with other dietary restrictions (including vegetarianism). When I was doing a lot of cooking at Providence Zen Center, I bought a cookbook full of vegetarian recipes that excluded onions and garlic. This was regarded as a little bit weird: truth is, you will find onions and garlic, et al, in frequent use in PZC's kitchen.

This precept has given me many questions in numerous interviews with our school's teachers. How does this precept function? Does not desire arise in the mind? If we have no mind, is garlic in the hummus really a problem? It looks like many people just ignore the precept, is that correct? Are we lying when we shout that this precept "can be so kept" during the ceremony? Assuming we deal with it, how?

Even further, what about the Buddha, who ate anything that was offered to him on his begging rounds? There is even a legend he ate the finger of a leper after it fell into his bowl. (I think maybe that did not really happen.) What about Seng-T'San and his famous poem, in which he said, "The Great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing?"

My best conversation about this precept took place a while ago with Judy Roitman, JDPSN. Judy is a practicing Jew who also practices and teaches Zen. She shared with me how she relates to some of the very old and challenging aspects of Judaism, like having to read all of that harsh stuff about homosexuality on the day of atonement. She described several things that are still in use, yet do not have quite the same meaning or practical function today that they did in their own era. She described this as a "dialogue with our ancestors," in which there is respect and deep listening -- but we also are allowed to talk back.

So in treating the precepts with this spirit, receiving teaching from long-departed ancestors, what use can we make of this precept? For my own situation, it seems impractical to go to my mother-in-law's house and pick at the dinner she serves me for garlic or scallions. As it is, she is very accommodating about my preference for vegetarian food. Since we are using these precepts as part of Zen practice, we might ask -- not to introspect too much, but ask -- what is the so-called "behind meaning" of this precept and what are clear and compassionate ways to use it?

Seems to me what is useful here is to pay attention to what we ingest into our bodies, and note the cause and effect. What behaviors do I present when I skip lunch? How about when I eat junk food? If I have a glass of wine the moment I come home from work, do I get sleepy earlier? How does that affect my relationship with my spouse?

You can even move on from this and look at other stimuli. Erotic media? News programs that editorialize rather than dispense new information? That probably stimulates more foul temper in me than the leeks in my soup! How about gossip? (There are precepts about gossip, too.) Gambling? Do these things alter your behavior, and are you aware of the shift?

LinkThere is a middle way between ignoring this ancient precept and observing it so strictly that it creates new problems. For me personally, yes: my diet is changing, but not because some sutra tells me to eat this and not that; it is changing by itself as I vow to pay attention to food, drink, and stimuli, as it passes through this body. In Zen, we take these precepts not for our own purification, but for the benefit of all beings (which includes us).

* * *

[Note: This post has been updated to correct a sloppy error on my part. There is a key difference between a practicing Jew and an observant Jew. I know better than that but was sloppy this morning.]

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On the Bodhisattva Precepts


Some readers will already be familiar with the 64 bodhisattva precepts, or at least their source.

For those less familiar, these precepts are found in the Brahmajala, or Brahma Net Sutra also known as "The Supreme Net (What the Teaching is Not)." It starts with this amusing story about a cranky guy named Suppiya following the Buddha and his followers around, relentlessly criticizing them. The dude just never shuts up. Buddha's followers get annoyed, and Buddha tells them not to worry about praise or blame.

Then, like a lot of sutras, it starts in with the long lists: 62 types of wrong view, based on the six gates (the senses, including mind) and whatever objects they find.

He also lists the primary and secondary precepts, and this is where the precepts I took on Saturday are found.

My initial encounter with this sutra was through Maurice Walshe's translation, but there are many others. I found this one online that looks pretty good, though I know nothing about the website. Reading the sutra on this page is nice because it has lots of hyperlinks to a glossary, so you can click on unfamiliar terms.

Enjoy, if this interests you.



[Photo: a sutra written on palm leaf manuscript]

Monday, May 09, 2011

Folklore: New Trailer

A new, longer trailer for the upcoming release, Folklore.

I'm in this one, though it may be difficult to recognize me.


Folklore from Folklore on Vimeo.

Precepts at Deming Zen Center

On Saturday, May 7, Deming Zen Center held its first precepts ceremony.

Sometimes people who have been practicing for a while decide to solidify their commitment to practice at a public ceremony. Precepts are vows which are used in Zen practice as guidelines for conducting ones daily life in a clear, compassionate direction. To do this, the precepts cannot always be taken as literal commandments. Using the precepts becomes a practice of applying spontaneous wisdom in weird situations.

In our school, one takes five precepts at first. Those five precepts are:

I vow to abstain from taking life.
I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
I vow to abstain from lying.
I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.


The person taking precepts then receives a Buddhist name. One of our members took five precepts this weekend and received the name Hye Chung, meaning "Wisdom Sky."

In later years, it is possible to take more precepts. In our school, when you take more precepts you are also taking on responsibilities for helping the Zen Center by leading practice, learning to give meditation instruction to beginners, and so forth. There are 10 precepts, and later 16 precepts.

At this ceremony, our abbot took on an additional 48 precepts to make 64 precepts. These bodhisattva precepts are very old lay precepts in Buddhism. In our school, one who takes these precepts is called a "Bodhisattva Teacher." Their responsibilities include teaching and leading practice, giving consulting interviews (similar to daisan in Japanese Zen schools), and giving public talks on Zen.

Our precepts teacher was Judy Roitman, JDPSN, who is also the guiding teacher of our baby Zen Center.

When our group photo comes back, we will be sure to post it.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Painful News Day


Blogger Adam has a heartfelt explanation as to why the assassination of a notorious terrorist, an event that has an air of inevitability around it, might not be a cause to celebrate. Well put, Adam.

Accounts that are coming out (note: released by our government) have Osama Bin Laden firing on the soldiers who broke into his house. If true, it is hardly surprising they killed him. Either way, I don't believe it was really a "capture or kill" mission. Obama was not going to take this man alive. During the 2008 campaign, at a debate with John McCain, he called for killing Osama Bin Laden even if it meant crossing into Pakistan. This was an assassination squad, and Bin Laden would be dead whatever he did.

The emotions I feel about the event are complex, as they are for Adam, and my friend Lori. Nathan's reaction is here.

And, violence is also truth. An analogy that comes to mind is of a police officer who must kill or disable a violent suspect. Is it glamorous? Is it glory? Is it an occasion for high fives, as if one had scored a difficult soccer goal?

This world seethes with hatred, lust, and delusion. Violent men often come to a violent end, and so it was with Osama Bin Laden. This may have been the inevitable end for him. I feel no obligation to pretend it is a happy ending.