Sunday 16 June 2024

No zazen on 24 June or 1 July

 Hi all

Just a quick note about our regular Monday zazen. This upcoming Monday (June 17th), we will meet as usual at 7.30pm.

However, due to a family situation that requires my presence out of the country, I will be unable to host the group for the following two Mondays (June 24th and July 1st). During this time, we will unfortunately need to take a short break.

Sorry for stepping away on such short notice... I appreciate your understanding. We will resume our weekly zazen on Monday, July 8th. I look forward to sitting with you all again soon.

I wish you all a peaceful couple of weeks!

All the best,  

Alasdair

Tuesday 30 April 2024

What is the purpose of Zen monks wearing robes?

This was posted a couple of weeks ago on the main StoneWater Zen blog, so now that it's been up there for a bit I thought I'd post it here too.

The title of this is a question I was asked online about a year ago, and I’ve just stumbled across my answer to it. We touch on the idea of ritual, ceremony and ‘the form’ from time to time in Northampton, especially when people come to their first sit with a service! Usually, I answer in various ways depending on the context and the person asking. On this occasion, not knowing the questioner, this is how I responded:

My answer is from the viewpoint of a Western Zen priest/monk who lives a lay life and yet still wears robes on meditation retreats (sesshin) and for a few other meditation sessions during the year (usually when also conducting service). My reasons for wearing my robe are complex and I don’t claim to have thought them out fully, but for what it’s worth…

  1. Because it’s expected of me. I put this first just to get it out of the way – it’s probably the least important, but that being said, if I pitch up to a meditation period on retreat without wearing my robes, I’d be asked to explain why (I might even have a good reason!). All that said, there’s a remarkable freedom in the restrictions of the monastic regime we maintain during sesshin, as contradictory as that might sound. A freedom from having to choose what to do, what to wear, what to say, what to eat… we voluntarily submit to such a strict regime and find ourselves frequently surprised by how free we feel from the tyranny of everyday decisions!
  2. Tradition. I practice Zen in a lineage that, like most Zen groups, traces our ‘bloodline’ back through generations of teachers all the way to the Buddha (and yes, I’m fully aware that some of this is mythological, some hagiographical, and some outright lies for political purposes in ancient China!). Part of this is that we’ve been handed down this practice in a particular form - we sit in a certain way, we chant certain texts, we conduct ourselves in the meditation hall in a certain way… and we dress in a certain way. Again, this ‘mere tradition’ is not terribly important to me, but expands into…
  3. Gratitude. I keep the traditions, including wearing the robes, mainly as an expression of my ongoing gratitude to teachers and my dharma ancestors. My robes, for me, are a material expression of that gratitude, and a determination to continue the endless work to fulfil our vows, to end suffering and to save all sentient beings. I cannot express how important this aspect of robe wearing is for me.
  4. Other people’s projections. We wear the robes not just for ourselves but also for other people. Putting on the robe for the first time during my tokudo ceremony was very moving: it was an outward expression of my commitment to service to the sangha - both in the local and universal sense. When I wear the robes, I represent not myself but something else, and ideal I suppose, and it’s very interesting to observe others’ responses to this. I’ve seen responses from surprised (“What the f*** is that?” – inmate during prison visit!) to respect (being called ‘father’ by a well-meaning Catholic lady at a public interfaith event was memorable) to outright veneration. I was surprised and initially very uncomfortable when visiting a Thai patient in a mental health hospital who bowed down and touched her head to my feet – until I realised it was nothing to do with me but the robes and what they meant to her, even if not the saffron robes she was probably used to seeing. On a more prosaic level, wearing the robes within our own sangha marks one out as, I hope, someone who’s been in the practice for a while and who can provide support and spiritual friendship.
  5. As part of my practice. My jukai preceptor has often talked about the robes as teaching us – physically wearing them, all those layers and ridiculously long sleeves etc, with the kesa arranged just so over the top, is demanding! You can’t wander about mindlessly in robes like you can in a t-shirt and trackie bottoms. You can’t even hang your hands down by your side, but must be continually in shasshu, hands clasped in front of you, to keep your kesa and koromo sleeves off the ground. Even walking through a door mindlessly can be a hazard – the number of times my sleeve has caught in a doorhandle as I’ve passed through and spun me around…! Especially in the Zendo, making sure your kesa doesn’t touch the ground, trying to move quietly and nobly through this special space while managing metres and metres of material… it’s fascinating how much I’ve learned about the way I normally move because of wearing the robes.

Bound to be others… think I’ve probably bored you enough by now. But I hope that I’ve given you the impression that wearing the robes is a psychologically rich and complex matter, and not something that one enters into lightly.



Tuesday 26 March 2024

Easter(ish) opening...

Hi everyone - just a quick note about our zazen evenings for the next couple of weeks...

This coming Monday is the Easter Monday Bank Holiday... but we won't let that stop us! We'll be meeting for zazen at the same time & place as ever, so if you can make it on Monday (1st April), we'll see you then.

However, the next Monday (8th April) we won't be meeting, as I'll be away on sesshin (meditation retreat). Sit at home that day! We'll meet again the following week (15th) as per usual.

I asked AI to make me an Easter-themed Buddhist image, and it came up with this...


If you're taking some time off over the Easter hols, have a great time!

Wednesday 28 February 2024

The method of no-method

 There's some discussion about whether the terms "silent illumination" and "shikanatza" mean the same thing - but at the very least they're similar! Today's quote is from Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method by Rebecca Li that resonated strongly with me:

Silent Illumination is often called the method of no-method because it does not ask us to focus the mind on any particular object such as the breath. There is nothing to do, but you can’t do nothing, so you have to start with something. It is a way of clear and total open awareness, moment-to-moment experience that simultaneously reveals our intrinsic enlightenment. Silent Illumination is a relaxing into the present that allows us to shed our habits of self-centered attachment—and consequently our suffering—without force, like leaves falling from a tree in autumn.

AI-generated image: watercolor painting of a single
purple viola wittrockiana flower on a plain background

 

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Zen "the direct expression of our true nature"

Today's quote comes from the remarkable Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by renowned teacher Shunryu Suzuki, whose Zen legacy is alive and well around the world. In ZMBM he writes:

Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life.

This indivisibility of our practice and our life is crucial, though it should never be taken as encouragement not to do formal practice! Rather, as both our practice and our lives arise, our true nature inevitably expresses itself moment-by-moment. And as our practice matures, our responses to each moment come more from that true nature, unfiltered by our small selves. 

So: join us for a spot of zazen on Monday evening!



Saturday 10 February 2024

Exploring the Ten Fetters with a Zen eye

At the start of this year, I started to discuss the Ten Fetters in our weekly Zen meetings in Northampton, and I did a condensed reprise of them in our online Saturday meeting today. In the end, I had to race to finish on time (didn't quite make it!), so as a challenge to myself to be more brief, I'm giving myself one last chance to explore the Ten Fetters concisely!

The Ten Fetters are outlined in the Sangiti Sutta (DN33), part of the earliest surviving canonical Buddhist scriptures. They're not often talked about in Zen circles,  but being aware of these mental hindrances can offer valuable insights and guidance for Zennies, allowing us to deepen our practice and move more freely in the world.

The Ten Fetters, or Samyojana, are described as mental obstacles that bind individuals to the cycle of suffering (samsara). They include fundamental misconceptions such as identity view, doubt, attachment to rituals, sensual desire, ill will, attachment to form, attachment to formless realms, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. Each fetter represents a layer of delusion that obscures our innate wisdom and prevents us from realizing our true nature. I won't go into detail on each of these as I'm aiming for conciseness here. I'll save that for the book...! [Lol the thought of me writing a book on Zen or Buddhism!!!]

It's not part of normal Zen practice to analyse the contents or processes of our consciousness in detail. I'm sure, though, that part of the fruit of Zen practice is precisely the sort of clarity and wisdom that can give us a good place to stand in considering these, becoming aware of our own mental states and tendencies. Such insight is crucial for spotting the arising and the effects of these Fetters in our practice, our relationships, our work lives, and in all of our lives. 

Zen often demands we let go of fixed views, desires, and attachments, and this is very much in the spirit of overcoming the fetters. Considering the Fetters allows us to deepen our insight into the impermanence and insubstantiality of all phenomena through the study of the Ten Fetters. For me, this is the heart of the tenth Fetter, ignorance (avidya), and as I said this morning, if we could only keep one from the list it would be this one, as it encapsulates all the others. 

The breaking of these chains that bind us to our storied selves is not a simple one-off process but a lifetime's graft, and I see myself fail at it all the time. But fail again, try again, I tell myself. Don't be attached to the results, just get used to seeing the world as it stands before us, before we impose upon it our own desires, conceits, doubts, fixed views and all the rest.

Gassho,

Alasdair Taisen



Tuesday 6 February 2024

Inspiration...

 This is from the late Thich Nhat Hanh:

Don’t underestimate yourself. You have the ability to wake up. You have the ability to be compassionate. You just need a little bit of practice to be able to touch the best that is in you. Enlightenment, mindfulness, understanding, and compassion are in you. Very simple practices—such as meditative walking, mindful breathing, or washing dishes mindfully—make it possible for you to leave hell and touch the positive seeds that are within you.