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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Prelude to Initiation

Just a note of resolution to the petty angst of the previous post. As it turned out, Rev. Sunim's visit has turned out to be productive in a lot of ways, and even if the bulk of the Nashville Zen Center can't see it to do more than attend some Saturday meetings, the one I attended last Saturday with Sunim and a larger-than-usual group (including one new guy who definitely came on the right day) was very good and helped ameliorate my previous gripes and reservations. Plus, I got a chance to spend some time with the monk himself, and came to appreciate his sincerity and experience. It doesn't hurt that he came to be and made a point of personally approving my Atlanta connection, and asked me to try to make the connection for the rest of the group, which has been my agenda for the last four or five months anyway.

Plus, this weekend's Labor Day sesshin in Atlanta is all sorted out, at least for me, and I have resolved to go ahead with my Zaike Tokudo ceremony at 11 a.m. Sunday morning, September 3. The Tokudo ceremony is a Buddhist lay initiation ceremony at which the initiate formally enters the Buddhist path by taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and adopting the Three Pure Precepts and the first five of the Boddhisattva Precepts. There's also some symbolic shaving of the head and such. The ASZC page on this ceremony can be found here:, and the text of the ceremony is

This ceremony will formally enter me into a Zen community at long last, although it is a community which is geographically over four hours away. That's OK; I've been around them enough to know that it's a community I want to belong to. I probably should be a little antsy-er than I am about taking vows. I got lucky enough never to take the one most people take, after all. But I have taken a couple of sets of "religious" vows I didn't adhere to, and while I'm not exactly consumed by guilt, I'm entering into these with a sense of conviction I haven't had before.

First, please realize I've been baptized into the United Methodist Church, twice, and even joined the damned thing in junior high or high school, I don't remember. I'm not sure why I ever went back to church for a while in adolescence, since I'd known that their beliefs were a crock of shit since I was no older than nine. I still have no idea how anyone with a rational mind could ever swallow that garbage, and I never did. Peer pressure, I guess.

Then in 1986 I went through the formal initiation into Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism and joined the Nichiren Shoshu of America, which after my departure in 1988 became the Soka Gakkai of America after its leader was excommunicated by the priests of Nichiren Shoshu. At that time I received the Gohonzon, or great object of worship, which I still have around here somewhere. Looking back on it, I don't know why I embraced that Buddhism of nam-myoho-renge-kyo as I did; I don't think I ever believed that stuff either, but I was so unconsciously eager to embrace some form of Buddhism that I jumped at the chance to become involved. I think I had some sense of having abandoned Zen in San Francisco earlier in the decade and being unable to go back to it. I don't know why I didn't find a local Zen group or the Tibetans; they were surely there. I did take a stab at Tibetan Buddhism in 2004 before I found the Nashville Zen Center, but by that time my appetite for that kind of silliness had diminished. That's all been covered in earlier entries, and I'll leave it alone.

Anyway, a couple of my friends from Nashville should be in Atlanta for my ceremony which is nice, and I only regret that the Hojo (abbott) will be unable to meet them, and vice versa. However, I get initiated without having to return to Atlanta the next weekend, and I trust the students. They have built a nice Buddhist community, and both Sunim and Brad Warner have recommended that I pursue the connection for the whole group. So I will.

Anyway, these vows. What do they mean? I won't analyze them in detail here, though I may do so later. Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are obvious. The three Pure Precepts are to not do bad, to do good, and do good for others. Okay. and the first five Boddhisattva precepts are don't kill, don't steal, don't engage in sexual misconduct (as if that were a problem), don't lie, and don't cloud the mind with intoxicants (that one actually translates, I understand, as don't live by selling liquor).

As opposed to the Christian Commandments, violating these precepts will not win me a ticket to hell. The precepts are meant to serve as guidelines for social rules in a Buddhist community to make it work, and in the individual sphere to keep out conflicts that will interfere with the benefits of practice. But vows are vows, and I don't do that kind of thing lightly anymore.

I think I mentioned before my friend with 25 years in AA who ventured his opinion that a lot of people who succeed in AA do so by using AA as an excuse not to drink. Unless you've been close to the situation, you won't understand what that means. But the analogy for the instant situation is that if you want to change your behavior and live differently, taking public vows to that effect may be a very effective crutch. We'll see.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More on the Twisted Path

Posted by Picasa It just doesn't get easy, does it?

This photo was taken at the same time as the one which introduced my March 13, 2006 entry that I called "The Empty Well." If you're new to this blog, you might want to read that one; in my opinion, it's one of the better ones, and a good intro to this piece, as it concerns my frustration with the current state of Zen Buddhism in Nashville and in my life.

Luckily for me, things changed after that. About three weeks after that I took it upon my self to visit the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, and found a sangha and an environment which better suited my appetites to go a little deeper into living with Zen that the weekly coffee klatsch that NZC seemed to me to have become. All this has has been chronicled herein; this is the update.

Currently two events which could either or both be major are affecting (or not affecting) the Nashville Zen Center. First (from my perspective), the NZC has cancelled its fall retreat, based primarily on its belated realization of its poor showing last March and the unwillingness of a sufficient number of members to commit to anything (and upon the unavailability of its usual leader, Sandy Stewart of the North Carolina Zen Center, an excellent teacher who perceptively has found something better to do with his time). In lieu, it appears or has appeared that a number of NZC members are to accompany me or themselves to the ASZC for its September sesshin, September 1 - 3. Problems here, too; the main point of this trip was to meet the abbot of the ASZC, Michael Elliston, who has just returned from a 90-day or so stint in Austin, for reasons to0 complex to go into here. Now it appears the abbot will be out of town again, which doesn't bode well for the interface I had hoped to finally begin between the two groups.

At any rate, at the request of the ASZC tenzo I posted a couple of days ago on the NZC Yahoo group for confirmations for the Atlanta trip. No responses so far. So we'll see. As you might guess, my expectations are low.

To recap my March experience and blog entry, at the spring retreat for the NZC, exactly three regular NZC members (and one occasional member, who visited for part of a day) showed up; there were three other visitors. This was for the retreat led by Brad Warner, the man I credit with bringing me back into Zen after about 25 years, whom we brought in from California. The three members who attended were Nat, Jennye and I, who all busted our butts to make the retreat work for the members who didn't bother to attend. I won't beat that dead horse any more.

But now Jennye is having a similar experience with a guest she has invited in. Each year (until this year) the NZC has participated in Nashville's Buddhist Fair, which is or was a cooperative effort between the Zen group, the Tibetan group (actually, two of them) and a Vipassana group.
It seems to have been the tendency for each group to invite an out-of-town speaker to the group, and last year we lucked into having a Zen teacher in town who represented us. The Rev. Hye Sunim, a monk trained in Korean Zen as well as in other traditions, appeared and spoke for us, and met with us for a dharma talk at our next meeting. Sunim (as he likes to be called) has been teaching in Los Angeles, and is at this time again in Nashville and available to the NZC.

So everybody at NZC was excited that Sunim was coming. Everyone wanted to meet with him. He sat with us (with them; I was out of town) last Saturday at our only remaining weekly meeting, and will do so again this Saturday; reports are that the meeting has slightly more than usual attendance. Yet as of yesterday, NZC members had failed to attend any other functions with him, despite intensive and repeated notification. Luckily, members of another Buddhist group, ironically an offshoot of our group and with members also interested in Vipassana, have been attending. [An odd sidenote: the NZC when it meets is at least 90% male. I dropped by to see Sunim Tuesday night after work, and was the only male in attendance. Buddhism for women? I don't know what it means, if anything, just found it interesting.

On the other front, I am scheduled to finally undergo an initiation ceremony in Atlanta on either Sunday, Sept. 3 or 10. At that time I will finally, after years of practice off and on, adopt the precepts and the layman's vows appropriate to Zen. Obviously this is something I am looking forward to, as in case it means not just formally committing to Buddhism but also adopting or being adopted by a sangha. But even this has gotten complicated. The ASZC normally holds the ceremony twice a year, in September and March. I am told that traditionally the ceremony is held at the end of a monthly sesshin, at which time the initiates and the sangha have been sitting fairly intensively for a day or two. Next month, the sesshin is scheduled for the first weekend of the month as usual, but the ceremony was scheduled for the second Sunday. None of the senior teachers seemed to know why.

Now of course we know why; the abbot was scheduled to be out of town, which was apparently unknown to some or all of the students. I had had some discussions with the tenzo (innkeeper) to the effect that it would be nice to have the initiation on Sunday, Sept. 3 so that I didn't have to come to Atlanta two weekends in a row, and so that should any NZC members really make it to Atlanta, they could be there for it. To shorten this up a bit, it appears that largely for my benefit, there are now two initiation ceremonies scheduled, one for the third and one for the tenth. I'm honored, of course.

When I first started writing this blog entry yesterday morning, I had written the abbot and the tenzo and not yet gotten responses; after hearing from them, I'm going ahead with the initiation on Sept. 3, which will be performed by one of the students. I don't want to insult the students, and hey, it's just an initiation, not a dharma transmission or something. I'm just proud after all this time to be taking official vows and refuge.

I'm quite aware that this entry loses focus at the end; sort of like a real blog entry, huh? Yesterday I was agonizing a bit over whether I had insinuated the ASZC into compromising their schedule, and if my connection with the abbot and the school had been thereby compromised somehow. Today, I'm not worried about it.

Hey, and night before last my AC went out, and now it's fixed. Maybe that was the whole point after all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Not Ready to Make Nice

It's hard to find an artist with integrity these days. Here are three.

It just shows you how shallow country music radio and country music fans are, to think that a group featuring the best female voice in the industry would be blacklisted for making one honest and perceptive comment about the Nazi whore who is the titular head of the US government.

Did you ever think how easy it would have been for the Chicks to dump Natalie after her comment? But they stuck together, and thereby earned my perpetual respect and affection.

Anyway, for those of you who are tired of talentless whores like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, here is some real music. If you don't like it, go find another hobby.

Monday, August 14, 2006

OK, Here's That Poster

Posted by Picasa Hey, guys, this is the poster I wanted to include with the blog entry entitled, Fear, etc., below. I have no idea why Blogger's photo upload feature stopped working all of a sudden; in fact, apparently they don't either, or they don't care, or are just plain stupid.

Thanks to Dennis at warpspasm for suggesting this (picasa2). Anyway, go rent or buy this movie. Then talk to me.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Deuce and Billie

Das ol Deuce

Friday, August 11, 2006

Fear (and Some Random Thoughts)

"One man's terrorist is another man's Freedom Fighter." Ronald Reagan (?) (somebody find me the source of this quote).

I just finished watching V for Vendetta on DVD (if you didn't read my March 26 post, go to the archives for my first "review" of it. As lie builds on lie in the media, the movie seems more true-to-life than it did at first viewing at the Imax; as usual when I watch a big-screen movie for the second time on a smaller screen, when I already know the plot and won't be so overwhelmed by the visual effects, I appreciate a great movie even more. I still wonder why Alan Moore wanted his name removed from the final production. Is it because his graphic novel's backstory was in Thatcher-era Britain and the movie's begins in our present time? Or have his political views changed? Is he a Blair-ish toady kissing Bush's ass by proxy? Or is he just afraid of possible repercussions if the government clampdown is successful across boundaries? There's just no way to know.

There are other things I caught tonight that I missed the first time. Parallels, foreshadowings etc., but maybe if I don't say too much you'll be inspired to watch it twice, yourself. I may have more to say about the movie after I finish watching the special features on the second disc, but I doubt it. If you haven't seen it, go rent it. Now.

I occasionally find myself not blogging because I think that by now you must already know what I think about everything from what I've already said, but then I realize that's an idiotic position. That's just me thinking my perceptions and trains of thought must be universal, but in rational moments I realize that's really not the case. So I need to point out some things which you may or may not have thought already, and may or may not agree with. Obviously, just about all that's on the news these days is about the supposed terrorist plot in London which was supposed to result in many American planes being bombed into the ocean. Although that's all we hear (or you hear, since I avoid watching the news as much as possible), I really don't have much to say about it. Frankly that's because I don't believe a word of it. Now, I'm not saying it's not all true, or at least based on a real incident. I'm just saying that as far as I'm concerned, the mainstream news has become little more than a voice for government propoganda, and I have no idea which is true or false if that's my only source. OK, I believe the sports scores. Usually.

In the movie, one of the more dramatic (and frankly problematic) plot arcs has to do with V's rescuing/kidnapping Evie, then imprisoning and torturing her until she loses all fear and thus becomes free. That whole fear/freedom thing is sticking with me. It occasionally becomes uncomfortably clear to me that I'm writing about the growth of New Fascism in America, and those Fascists can read this, and that this is exactly the kind of thing people get hauled away for when the Boot come Down. I try to take comfort in the fact that there are a lot of people out there speaking out and writing against the growing oppression, and then I remember that America has a lot more room for camps than Germany ever did. So at some point it comes down to using what talents I have to do the right thing. If there's one thing my Zen sitting has taught me as much as V for Vendetta has (heheh), it's that that last inch of integrity is all you have in the long run. Yes, if one speaks out against the oppression, one risks the loss of all one has. But hell, I don't have that much, and we have to remember that all our property and possessions and accomplishments, all that constitutes the social platform on which our existence (or the existence of our personal indentity) stands depends on the continuted existence of a free society. Do you want to live as a scared little rat in a Nazi state? I've decided that I don't. Your decision is yours to make.

Fear keeps us from living meaningful lives. Fear that we'll go to hell if we don't choose the right religion. Fear that unknow enemies, be they "terrorists" or whatever will kill us all if we don't give up all our rights in the name of Security.

Sometimes Fear wakes me up in the middle of the night. That only happens when I don't feel right about myself. It happens when I don't do the right thing, and when I'm worried about paying the inevitable consequences. Because when I do what's right, I have nothing to fear, because I've done what I need to do to preserve that last inch of integrity, that make me me, that keeps me truly alive. Now, no one does what's right all the time. If we always did what's right, we'd never eat the flesh of animals. We'd never pollute our consciousnesses with drugs or alcohol. Most of us would weigh less. But some things are more important than others. Going to another country to kill people who've never hurt you, that's an important decision. Backing the invasion of yet another country by Israel, a country we set up in the 1940's (in the wrong place in the first place; more on that later), that's an important decision.

So how do you know what's important and what's not? Check your fear. Check yourself from the inside out. Draw an imaginary line from the base of your spine to the crown of your head, and see how far from that bowstring your fear resonates.

See how you sleep. Then you'll know.