RSS Feed

Category Archives: ritual

caregiver’s curiosity

Posted on

I hosted a jizo ceremony for members of our mediation group yesterday — an occasion to reflect on personal losses, sew little garment, and place them on statues in our meditation garden. All done in silence, except for a couple of chants and poems; solemn, some tears. Afterwards two people wrote to say that “it was more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. We both noticed a sense of lightness ….”

While I guided the proceedings, I also visited my own grief. Once everyone had left, I marvelled at this wonderful practice. How did I get to be so fortunate (blessed?) to have the tools and opportunity to be of service? I felt drained and took to bed; woke up an hour later, refreshed and still.

Many friends are caregivers: nurses, counsellors, health care providers, volunteers, companions, teachers, parents. How do you do it, day in and day out?

What motivates a caregiver’s actions?
Why are we willing to be with another’s pain?
Who can say?
We want to help,
but that’s not the whole story.
We feel obliged,
but that’s not it either.

Beneath the many motives of the conditioned mind
rests the mysterious Tao,
which is the true source of all caring.
We can’t see it or understand it.
We can only trust that it
is the origin of what we do
and the power that helps us see it through.

source: Martin, W. & M. (2011). The caregiver’s Tao te Ching. Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 24. The Tao te Ching is a 2600-year old Chinese text. The term tao can be translated as “way” to mean course of life and its relation to eternal truth. 


fun and games at the zen monastery

Posted on

Four of us are planning a long retreat in the fall. You may think of a zen monastery as a somber place, with bald people scurrying to and fro, sitting for hours on black cushions, chanting in Sanskrit and Japanese, bowing to everyone and every thing, eating out of wooden bowls and drinking the wash water oryoki-style, getting up at 3:40am and collapsing into bunk beds by 10pm, working in the garden, kitchen, housekeeping, or sewing room, and did I mention bowing? Yes to all that, and then some.

Also a fair amount of smiling, laughing, and chatting (except during the monthly week of silence and between lights-out and that nasty wake-up bell). One of the fun activities at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I trained ten years ago, is their marimba band. Go figure. See YouTube of a concert given at a meeting of (dancing) Zen teachers. My spiritual teacher, the monastery’s Oh So Venerable roshi (japanese word for ‘old teacher’) Chozen Bays MD, plays in the second row, starting things off with “a-one, a-two.”


loving eyes

Posted on

Seven of us met for mediation last night: twice 25 minutes of sitting and 15 of slow walking in the garden. Afterwards someone serves sweets and tea, bowing before each cushion, with a bow in return … a simple formality to savour this simple exchange. We end with a brief go-around to share insights or questions. Awaiting my turn, eyes brimming with tears, I resist the habitual urge to analyze. For an instance, the capacity to empathize is boundless. Lingering at the door with good-byes, I notice a gentle intimacy — within me, towards others and every/thing.

I thought no more of this until I saw, just now, the mention of “loving eyes” in a review of my Zen teacher’s new book:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?

source: Review by Bodhipaksa of Jan Chozen Bays. (2011). How to train a wild elephant & other adventures in mindfulness. Boston: Shambhala (due in July). 

why open the gate and ring the bell?

Posted on

After last night’s meditation, two of us stayed to talk about our zendo. Why is it, I wondered, that so many people come to sit for a while and then drop by the wayside? Years ago my monastic teacher told me not to worry, but to announce the times, sweep the walkway, unlock the gate, light a candle, and be ready to receive whoever comes to the door.

If one person shows up, he said, be glad and ring the bell. If ten or twenty come, likewise. But what if no-one comes? Ditto: light incense, bow, ring the bell, and sit. Make sure you meditate regularly and don’t get hung up on numbers. Concern yourself with your own salvation and leave everyone else to attend to theirs. People will come when they need to. 

My zendo friend and I also touched on the weight of having a teacher present, and of following certain forms and rituals. Might that be the reason people flock to centres  where there’s someone in a robe and a title? How is that people spend hundreds of dollars to travel and sit among a large audience to hear someone speak in translation — but won’t sit on a cushion once a week, free of charge? We both agreed that yes, a teacher is important and sooner or later most everyone can benefit from being pointed along a path, but that meditation, the fundamental ‘work’ of awakening from delusions, requires individual effort. The purpose of a sitting group, then, is to bring together a group of people — a sangha in the Buddhist tradition– to support and accompany each other.

are you a real teacher?

Posted on

From time to time the question arises with people coming to my house for meditation (Fernwood Zendo). Having heard about dharma transmission and lineages, they wonder whether I am “a real, you know, Zen Teacher.” Over hundreds of years, as zen moved from China to Japan to the West — bringing with it robes and statues, elaborate ceremonies and arcane language, acquiring occasional scandals and a predominately white middle-class membership — an unwritten code has laid claim to the word teacher.

Today there’s no seminary or university I know of where one can study to become a zen teacher, there’s no set curriculum on how and what to study, and there’s no formal examination or certifying authority. Only certified teachers may certify other teachers: genetically not the healthiest way to propagate.

Yet we’re all teachers — we teach our children, coworkers, and team mates. Life is a teacher — we learn from experience, by observation and trial-and-error. Just about any topic is taught and certified — just check online or ask the nearest school. For 25 years I taught others ‘how to teach’ in corporate and university settings, earned master’s and doctorate degrees, and wrote about teaching … but after 11 years of earnest study and practice, calling myself a meditation teacher is frowned upon. When I mentioned that I hosted two weekly meditation groups, offered daylong retreats, worked in end-of-life care, and helped others on their spiritual path, a “transmitted” teacher told me that host was right, since you’re not a teacher.

Is that what the Buddha had in mind? As best as I can determine, he wasn’t interested in a hierarchical religion, nor did he want the sangha (community of followers) depend on him and other teachers for their salvation. Based on heresay — his words weren’t written down for 200 years after his death — his dying guidance is significant:

“Therefore be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves.”

In short: there’s no absolute need for teachers — authorized, certified, or otherwise. Teach yourself. Trust your innate wisdom. As to me: yes, I’m a teacher but don’t make me your teacher.

source: Mahaaparinibbaana Suttanta. Burtt, E. A. (1955). (ed.). The teachings of the compassionate Buddha. New York: The New American Library, p. 49.

unborn babies

Posted on

Babies have been rearing their little heads in my life recently — metaphorically and otherwise. Two weeks ago someone contacted me to arrange a Jizo ceremony* for friends who’d had a miscarriage and wanted to honour and let go of their little one. Last night, while passing a towel to ~P~ as she stepped out of the shower, I said something about “thirty years from now” to which she replied, “I’ll be well into menopause and you’ll be dead.” No babies for us, alas. Then this morning after a breakfast of French toast, ~C~ spoke of her own miscarriage four years ago, one that even her parents don’t know about.

Tears come easily. My friend’s loss, kept as a secret. The couple who’ll soon gather at our zendo to sew red garments in remembrance. And the realization that I’ll never be a father and a startling reminder of old age and missed opportunities.

* This old post describes a previous Jizo ceremony I did. I’ll soon be offering a similar one in Victoria BC for anyone who’s lost anyone, not just babies. My teacher Jan Chozen Bays MD is the author of the definitive Jizo Bodhisattva: modern healing and traditional Buddhist practice. She regularly offers Jizo ceremonies at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon. image:

alternative new year’s eve celebration

Adapted from the Japanese custom Joya no Kane, the year-end ringing of the temple bell. I’ve been doing this for several years and invite you to join me. Ingredients: close to midnight, sit in silence for an hour. Then strike a bell 108* times — ideally outside — and with each measured ring remember someone in your life: near and far, dead and alive, friend and foe. Then write on a piece of paper “One thing I want to let go off” and burn it. Then bow and drink a glass of sparkling beverage. Cheers!

The zendo will be open on Friday, December 31, at 10:45 pm (22:45). Bells and gongs to be supplied, also sparkling cider. May all beings be happy.

*According to Buddhist beliefs, 108 is the number of passions and desires entrapping us in the cycle of suffering and awakening (saṃsāra). The 108 bell chimes symbolize the purification from the 108 delusions and sufferings accumulated in the past year. image: Japanese temple bell