Moonlit Crane Zendo

I would like to thank everyone for their kind words and sympathy that was offered to me and my family. In difficult times like this it is easy to recognize that one’s Sangha is the true refuge.

I was asked frequently about my ‘unpublishable’ book. I called it ‘unpublishable’ because it is not really a book but rather a collection of thoughts that has managed to escape from the discipline of Zen practice. This is why this book is titled One Hundred and Eight Confessions. In lieu of the weekly Dharma talk, I have decided to share another selection.

Moonlit Crane Zendo

Not knowing what I was doing, some years ago I opened a zendo. Our zendo is just a small room in an old farmhouse on the edge of civilization where farming was always marginal. Today, the fields surrounding the house are overgrown and the forest is reclaiming them back. In a red plastic flower pot by the garden gate, sometimes a morning glory will bloom. Come springtime, the old, disused barn will be taken over by a pair of ravens and in the big hay field east of the house, cranes will come and dance.

It is pastoral and quiet here. The countryside around the zendo is sparsely populated. In this rural setting you will find hunters and fishermen, lumberjacks and cattle ranchers. They are largely oblivious to the presence of our zendo. We are hidden, while being in plain sight. Neighbors go about their lives, family and friends, work and church on Sundays. When we do come across each other, we always wave and smile.

Sometimes people do come and sit with me – two or three, four or five, never a crowd. When people come, it always feels different from when I meditate alone. When they arrive, they come carrying their burdens, and even though our zendo is very small, there is enough space for all of the guests to leave those burdens behind. In the silence of our zendo, it is easy to let go of unnecessary things. Returning home, they return unburdened. However soon enough, the spaciousness that was found in the zendo fades. The ashes of home-spun life weigh us down. We get entangled in the thicket of our days. Any possibility of practice is lost.

When I first opened the zendo, I did not know that zendos are places where we dump and leave behind our worries. The incense that burns there is the scent of relief. I did not know that the door to the zendo always remains hidden no matter how often one has walked through it in the past. As with our practice, this door has to be re-discovered day by day, week by week, season by season.

Passing of my Father

A few days ago my father passed away in Belgrade, Serbia and I thought it appropriate to post something to share with our Sangha. My father’s life wasn’t always the easiest one, having lived through two wars. In the second world war, his older brother was taken to a concentration camp and his father was in the partizan resistance while he stayed at home with his mother and took care of the family farm. He was only ten years old.

While my brother and I were growing up he was a respected physician and together with our mother tried and succeeded in giving us a happy childhood. With the coming of the civil war in the 90s Yugoslavia, he lost his job and never fully regained his footing. Last few years his health gradually declined. He passed away at 88, cared for by my mom and my brother.

In place of a regular Dharma talk, I would also like to share an excerpt from my ‘unpublishable’ book. This short piece is called Death.

Death

Autumn is the most beautiful time of the year to depart, with maples and oaks dressed in yellow and red, air pungent with the scent of wet leaves. One stops sweeping, lets go of the rake and reflects back on what once was. A thousand memories rise up and nothing ever seems gone. You let nature carry you now. It is easy to let go and disappear as forests and fields go to sleep. As the day falls quiet, the harmony of autumn evening appears. In the villages and towns, all around, the first lights are coming on but one does not notice, for in the mind the silent gallop of a hundred black horses fly. Thus, we follow along with the geese into the grayness of the autumn sky.

For those who stay behind, the most surprising thing about death is that nothing happens. After we lose someone we love, the days carry on the same as before. The morning sunshine is still warm and the sounds of the calling birds remain the same. You are yet again as alone with your thoughts as you ever were. The only thing that is different is that there is this gaping hole where a loved one used to be. A stark empty hole.

Our memories of the loved one remain fresh. They are imprinted onto the pattern of our days. We see them in everything we touch and yet behind it all, the dark hole hovers silently. No matter how much we try to fill this gaping emptiness with memories or with sadness and despair, it remains just as dark and void. Death is bottomless. And suddenly we face a wall of fear. What once was is not anymore. Shaken and uprooted we have lost our place in life. We are forced to confront the inconceivable.

How one deals with this inconceivable nature of life and death is a personal matter. A zen way is to see this bottomless chasm of grief as a rip in the veil of our ordinary, everyday confusion. Prompted by the loss of our loved one, we yearn for the simplest way of understanding our grief. If we have the courage to directly stare into the rip in the fabric of our ordinary perceptions we can find the limitless space there. This limitless space is the very essence of life and death. To recognize that is to awaken.

On the other hand if we become afraid when confronted by the vastness of death, we miss this singular opportunity. Instead our minds get overwhelmed with grief. In trying to escape our pain, we gorge ourselves on denials and false certainties, resentments, philosophies, religions or food. Over time we become gradually frozen by this encounter with death and our vitality dries up.

However, we do not need an encounter with death to see that everywhere we look is shot through with holes. This reality is all we’ve ever known. The whole world keeps appearing and disappearing unceasingly, like clouds forming and dissolving against the blue sky. Recognizing and accepting this, we release ourselves into solace, peace, true ease of mind and humor. With our grief diminished, we are now able to recall the joys of the loved one’s life we shared. With the melting of our fear we embrace the warmth of life which gives rise to generosity of spirit and gratitude. Thus we remain.

As for those loved ones who are departing with the geese this fall, as trees shed their leaves year after year, the great northern forests will continue to honor you. This unending change of the seasons will always remind us of the sounds of your footsteps. In the end, let a thousand candles light you on your way.

Monday’s Meditation and Class

We will be continuing our online Dharma class this Monday September 21st. Last week we discussed awareness and how it relates to meditation and mindfulness practice. This week we will extend that discussion to The Four Immeasurables. If you are interested in attending the class, you get get more information and the Zoom links at our Online Zen page.

If you missed the first class but are interested in attending the second class you can catch up and review the material by listening to it here:

Dangers of Kensho

This week’s Dharma talk is a follow up on last week’s where I discussed the need to orient ourselves toward awakening. In this week’s talk I address two dangers of Kensho, namely getting discouraged if we can’t get any insights or getting complacent if we do. As always it will be available for ninety days from the time of this post. You can listen to it here:

Four Kinds of Teachers

This week’s Dharma talk goes over some of the teaching activities for the past six months, since the beginning of the pandemic, and proposes some programs that could be offered for the rest of the year. In the second half of the Dharma talk, we go over Shakyamuni Buddha’s exposition on four kinds of teaching situation we may find ourselves in and examines a fresh approach that may be more appropriate for the Zen practice in this modern society. You can listen to it by following the link below. As always, it will be available for the 90 days from the time of this post: