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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Finding Your Middle Way

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Finding Your Middle Way

  • Thursday, May 09, 2024

Nomon Tim continues to offer reflections on his pilgrimage to Japan, the forms of Buddhist practice encountered, and how practices have evolved over the millennia, particularly as they have come to us in the West.  What is right practice?  What is your right practice?

Stream audio:

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Tim's talk notes:

Link to the photos

I've been hearing from people that some really like shorter talks with time for discussion and I've been doing better actually offering that regularly. But I'm also hearing from some folks that they absolutely prefer being quiet, staying in their own experience, listening and breathing and leaving quietly. No discussion. And ideally mellower with the socializing after. Different strokes for different folks. We do our best at Red Cedar to be as inclusive and welcoming as we can. I've always wanted it to be okay actually to come to sit without saying a word to anyone if that's what is best for you. Not many community spaces are inclusive of that possibility. 

So anyway tonight talk I think not super long but now that I've received this feedback in both directions I'm going to try to alternate forms - so no small groups at the end. A few minutes for questions and comments and lots of room for just being quiet if that's what suits you. There will more Japan pictures and stories too.

This evening I want to muse together a bit about intense practice and accessible practice.

We met a few living examples of people who've practiced with great intensity in Japan and our Zen tradition in general has a reputation for intensity and even harshness.

And this has had, and still has, it's downsides. Big time. People get hurt, people leave, plenty of people can't access the benefit of practice presented as strict, intense, or harsh.

The simple story is when Buddhist practice was brought to the Euroamerican mainstream of our culture, almost exclusively by men, the harsh, pushing, trying, breaking-through part was overemphasized and valorized. Breakthroughs for awakening require intense effort.

And one ingredient there was that the teacher, the roshi, the rinpoche, the guru, by definition has clear insight into everything and is always right even if he does something weird or apparently unethical that was a manifestation of transcendental wisdom that maybe you just don't understand.

And then after a long series of scandals, some people being seriously harmed, a lot of soul searching and institutional changes, therapy and reparations the way the practice is done has softened in a very good way. Now it's gentler, more caring, and more inclusive. Now it has a little bit of a clue about being trauma sensitive, about powerful dynamic, about how systemic injustice around gender, race, sexual orientation and identification play out in the sangha just like they do in the dominant culture. There is still plenty far to go in this journey but that's the journey and it's a good thing.

And I agree completely - this is all a good thing. A few good thing. I do not want people to be harmed in any way taking up Zen practice.

And the question to hold there is does anything get lost in the process of making things safer, gentler, and more inclusive? And what actually are the benefits of intense practice and gentle practice. Of course so much is hard to really know for sure but it's valuable to hold this curiosity I think. Not to assume any one way.

So it was really fascinating to go to Japan and see both plenty of gentleness and kindness and some very intense ways of practicing too.

On the whole Japanese culture appears, at least to us visitors in the people we met, extremely kind. Polite, respectful and considerate to an amazing degree.

And from within that culture, Buddhisms have formed that include very intense hard practices and we met some of the practitioners and we experienced the outcomes at least as embodied in these individuals. They weren't intense and foreboding at all. They we kind and warm. And clear and insightful. And very humble.

So my talk today is a kind of first draft exploration of how do we treasure complimentary but different expressions of enlightened practice. The enlightenment from understanding trauma, power dynamics and inclusion and being gentle and nuanced and understanding in how we practice; and the enlightenment of strict narrow practice forms that you stick to with every fiber of your being until the end of the course of training - going beyond what you think even possible in some ways.

How do we honor both ways? The open way and the deep way? The inclusive way and the specialized way? The problem with distinguishing them is all of the descriptive words I can think of have implied judgment to them. If one is deep the other is shallow. If one is inclusive the other is exclusive. My best idea so far is the broad way and the deep way.

Here's a story from the deep way.

We met a 48-year old monk named Mitsunaga Endo who is now known as Dai Ajari after completing the deep way practice of Kaihogyo - the practice of the marathon monks of Mt. Hiei above Kyoto. Dai means great and Ajari is the Japanese voicing of arhat - and awakened one. Sounds like sounds to use "dai aja ri" but to be called Great Awakened One all the time would be interesting no?

The Buddhism his sect is a part of is called Tendai Buddhism. They have a broad range of practices and subsects and were the dominant Buddhism in Japan from about year 800 to the 1300's or 1400's when Zen and Pure Land divided up the pie and reduced them down to primarily keeping their traditions going on their sacred mountain called Mt. Hiei. Which they have done for the last 700 years or so. So that's another aspect of the deep way: those who are a part of it are deeply committed to keep it going.

The Kaihogyo sect of Tendai is seen as starting soon after Tendei was established by it's founder Saicho about year 800. Like with Zen it's a Japanese expression of a Buddhism transplanted from China where the same characters are called Tien-tai. Just like the character for Zen is called Chan in Chinese.

The Wikipedia page sums it up as:

Part of Tendai Buddhism's teaching is that enlightenment can be attained in the current life. It is through the process of selfless service and devotion that this can be achieved, and the kaihōgyō is seen as the ultimate expression of this desire.

The core of their practice is for 100 day stretches the kaihogyo practitioner, called a gyōja, gets up at 2am puts on the traditional garb of white robes, straw sandals, a staff, and an oil lamp. Then they run a 25 mile circuit up and down and around their sacred mountain with 260 or so stops at shrines and sacred spots to chant, do mudras, and make offerings. This needs to all be completed by when the temple starts it's regular practice day with morning service, meals, cleaning, and the usual monk's routine which the gyōja is expected to participate in just like the rest of the monks. They are doing this intense thing and the white robes are a big deal - that's the color of death in Japanese culture - so everyone knows but they are expected to be humble and not be treated in any special way.

The importance of the practice is not seen as the physical intensity of doing a nightly marathon but in the way the kaihogyo monk meets the spirits and powers of the mountains with respect and appreciation. It's sending him - and they have all been men so far - around the mountain on behalf of the rest of the monks and lay people to pay respects.

I just learned that part of the origin story of kaihogyo is the story in the Lotus Sutra of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging. He was a character who was unflinchingly respectful to everyone regardless of how they treated him and ended up deciding the only wise thing to ever say to anyone is a phrase that gets translated as "I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance."

Some or our Western Zen colleagues translated this into a delightful folk song which has him saying:

I would never disparage you or keep you at arm’s length

Where you only see your weaknesses, I only see your strength

I would never despise you or put you down in any way

Because it’s clear to me

I can plainly see

You’ll be a buddha someday

I love you

So that's the inspiration for this arduous practice: loving respect for all beings. 

Somehow they do a round of nightly ritualized marathons 100 days in a row this annually for the first three years. It takes seven years to accomplish the whole practice.

And then it amps up. Years 4 and 5 you do the nightly marathons for 200 days in a row instead of 100. In year 6 the route is extended to 35 miles. In the 7th year the start leaving the mountain in their nightly-into-daily run to go down to Kyoto below and include shrines and site in the city in their route  - Dai Ajari said this was a "recent addition" which turns out to mean in the 1800's

or so and then he's doing 50 miles and he's also navigating - with a group of lay supporters - going through a busy modern city. Waiting at stop lights and stuff. It sounds like became a kind of daily religious pagent that grew each day as he did those 100 days through Kyoto.

50 miles a day with ritual stop - also that's 2500 feet of elevation loss and gain too - every day for 100 days. Yes it's hard to understand how that's possible, but it wasn't the most challenging thing in the training.

During the 5th year he does an intense meditation retreat called Dōiri "Entering the Temple" - for 9 days he recites the mantra of the protector protector of the Dharma called Fudo Myoo. And that's it. No other kinds of practice. No sleeping or rest periods. No food. No water even. Two support monks sit on both sides of him the whole time to help him stay upright. Once a day he gets up and walks up the trail a little bit to special well where he collects a bucket of water as an offering to Fudo. He's allowed to rinse his mouth out with the water but not drink any. And that one variation to the day happens at 2am - maybe that's the most mystical time of day to do it. We saw some pictures of how much the support monks have to help him walk several days in.

He said that actually rinsing out his mouth made it harder in the last days. That you get used to no moisture and the water just reminds you of drinking and is actually painful. But that's the tradition.

He said he figures a human can survive maybe 7 days of that kind of practice and the only way he survived it was by totally putting his trust in Fudo Myoo. That it was Fudo's energy (or love, I forget what word he used) that kept him alive especially at the end.

We asked him if he ever thought about giving up during this 7 year process and he just kind of shook his head like the question didn't make sense to him.

And coming out the other side of that what we experienced was a kind, humble guy. A little reserved maybe. I sat across from him at lunch and there was zero small talk or even particularly looking at me until I thought of another question to ask him. All through a translator which adds a layer of awkardness anyway.

But humble. And the organizational structure there seems to support that too. Although the abbots of the temple complex do have to do a mini version of kaihogyo - just the one set of 100 day marathon practices - "just!" - as a full Dai Ajari he basically just gets more responsibility to teach young monks. He's not made super abbot. He doesn't get wealthy or go on a book tour or start teaching motivational workshops or anything. I'm sure there's a reasonable amount of support for him though. What he did was move down off the mountain and take over a rundown abandoned temple, fix it up, and learn how to grow rice so he can relate to the people in that village. There are small holding rice farmers all over central Japan. The whole culture is a fascinating mix of ancient and modern but that's another topic.

And he'll spend a day with tourists from time to time. The ladies who organized it said usually the groups are mostly athletes who want to understand how he did that part and we were their first Buddhist group which was kind of fun.

So intense practice. The deep way. Accessible only to a few but those few really do something.

Last week I mentioned Tom Kirchner an American who's lived in Kyoto since the 1970's and trained as a Rinzai Monk. He did tons of intense Zen practice. For years. Longer than most of the Japanese monks running the temples. Like being on a continuous sesshin with a much harder schedule than ours for 3 month stretches year after year. In their case living together in the zendo too - no little cabins to go hole up in.

So are these just extreme examples that doesn't have relevance to us beyond being interesting and amazing - kind of arm's length things to know about? Or does this all have relevance for us?

And when I started formal practice in the late 1980's and early 1990's at San Francisco Zen Center the practice that had been transplanted from Japan was more strict and intense than what we do here - and I'm pretty sure they've gentled up a little since then too if not as much.

The first sesshin I sat in San Francisco in 1987 I don't remember the full schedule but something like 4am to 9am and a dozen or so 40 minute zazen periods. Long Dharma talks. Brief breaks. They asked us not to bathe too. It felt like the hardest thing I'd ever done. Intense physical discomfort linked into a deep pattern I wasn't really understanding of trying trying trying too hard. When it ended and feeling so much of that tension just woooosh release with the final bell was a revelantion. It was hard but I feel like I learned something important.

I remember telling myself, wow that was the hardest thing I've ever done and the best thing I've ever done. I'm not sure now why I felt "best" but I did. And how do we evaluate anything anyway? But I sure had a deep intuition that there was value there.

And there are plenty of verified stories of hard practice and intense schedules triggering all kinds of harm. There's at least one suicide associated with the string 10-day Vipassana retreats run here and there by the followers of the teacher Goenka. An interesting phenomena by all accounts how they do those but what they don't have, it sounds like, is the idea that teachers can support students in deciding whether to stick it out.

Maybe in the end it comes down to being fully supported to be in choice. To work with a teacher with some experience of both intense/deep practice and gentle/broad practice to help you discern what's right for you and support you in feeling your way.

In the early days a stock phrase as "just sit with it" - almost no matter what the problem was. That's obviously a bit nuts. Sometimes it's better to move away from something. To take a break. For self care.

And there are times when "just sit with it" is absolutely the best thing. To hang in there.

And we need plenty of support for how to "just sit with it" to notice how you are in whatever practice or situation, to become wiser about the ways one can close down and grit your teeth and add suffering and the sometimes surprising ways you can just open up and accept whatever it is in the moment it's happening.

Some of my colleagues have suggested another apparent dichotomy that matches up. That sometimes what our practice is about is as a path of healing. Sometimes it's time for a path of transformation.

The path of healing best served by gentler and more accommodating practices.

And the path of transformation generally best served by the stronger deeper stick-with-it practices.

And to let these two ways support each other.

Sometimes on the path of healing with gentler more flexible approaches there's real value to saying, "you know I can stick with this a bit longer, I'm choosing to breathe with that, let's see how it goes"

And sometimes on the path of transformation we see that while there's value you to stick-to-it there are also times when stick-to-it-no-matter-what is just too much. Is not good. We may need to take a step back, feel our approach, and take another run at it. It doesn't mean we failed, it means we're getting wiser.

So I don't know if Dai Ajari was thinking about any of this kind of thing as he worked his way around the dark mountain with his lantern. He grew up in the monastic environment and I assume it was all sort of fundamentally a normal thing to do. I don’t think he was in denial of how challenging it was but that he deeply deeply just put himself in it, one step at a time literally.

Supposedly by the time they're done they've ran the equivalent of around the entire earth. Amazing.

And what we do here is also amazing.

Link to the photos

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