Dharma Talk

Final Discussion of Buddhist Livelihood and Effort. Intention and Value of  Ceremony

May 13, 2020

Eightfold Path and Ceremony

Good morning, everyone. [Gassho] I’m wearing my black rakusu this morning. You haven’t seen this before, this little bib that we wear is a miniature Buddhist robe. I’m wearing this black one, which was my first priest’s ordination because today is the anniversary of the death of Zenkei Blanche Hartman – a wonderful who helped me sew this. [She was a] very senior priest, one of my earliest friends at [SF] Zen Center. Extraordinary woman. So, I had a memorial ceremony for her this morning, and I wore her rakusu.

For those who are curious, this rakusu takes the place of a robe, an okesa that you wear, which is about the size of a bedsheet, and they are always falling off and coming loose, so you can’t work in them. So, we make this miniature one. Do you see this pattern? These patterns are the patterns in a rice patty, of the walkways and they’re very complicated to make. You have to measure to the centimeter [millimeter], sew them over, iron them, pin them, sew them. Each stitch has a prayer with it. It takes a lot of commitment,

When we finish up with the Eightfold Path, which we will certainly do today, I want to talk about ceremony and formality a little bit.

In the meantime, a lot of people have asked me to review meditation. I’m going to do it every week, so if you already know, that’s great.

The most important thing is to have a solid foundation. If you sit in a chair, adjust it so your feet are flat on the floor; so, your back is not leaning against the back of the chair. If you have to put pillows under your feet or under your butt, do it so that you’re solid.

Then remember your ears go back over your shoulders. You pull your head back a little bit. I call it tucking the chin, just enough so that you can feel the back of your neck get long.

I’ll show you the mudra again. If you’re right-handed, put your left hand over your right. You suppress your active side. If you are left-handed, you put your right hand over your left, and this knuckle (where’s the camera?} This knuckle right here, fits in this knuckle [of the other hand]. Your thumbs come together in a nice, soft, fat circle. No tension. You should be able to pull a dollar bill between them, and I rest my forearms on my legs, so that I have no stress on my shoulders.

Then you let your stomach pooch out. Put a little bit of an emphasis on your diaphragm, like just before you were to start to cough – that kind of tightness. But below it your stomach is relaxed so you can breathe.

Then you just breathe naturally. Eyes open. We don’t want to dream. We don’t want to sleep. Darlene Cohen called zazen the perfect posture for sleeping. And, certainly for beginners, even myself, I do the first five or ten minutes of every period counting my breaths. Putting my attention on the exhale, all the way to the end of it. That’s “one”.

You’ll inhale naturally. You don’t have to worry about that. Exhale. The next one is “two”. You are going to try to get to “ten”. Good luck. If you don’t get to “ten”, don’t be uptight with yourself. Just start over. Just imagine that your mind is a little puppy that you are housebreaking.  You want to love it. You want to be kind to it, but you don’t want it to poop on the rug. You don’t want your attention to wander.

That’s about it. That’s what meditating is. If you sit on floor, cross your legs, campfire-wise or one foot on a thigh or if you can do a foot on each thigh, that’s great. I can’t.

Make sure you have a good strong pillow under your butt, so that you can get a curve in your back.

Having said that, we’ll meditate for 10 minutes and then I’ll talk.

I was going to say that’s about the quietest that many people get. That 10 minutes of meditating. Except there are people who are sending verbal mosquitos into the cyberspace.

I’ll say it again, it’s disrespectful to zazen to be sending thumbs up and little hearts, and little smiley faces with their tongues out while people are trying to concentrate. Maybe I’m the only one seeing it, so it’s okay. I certainly don’t care if you do it while I’m talking.

But zazen is kind of sacred space, and so to be texting or sending up little fireworks is not helpful to other people. One of the reasons that we’re quiet is to leave other people the space to be undistracted, to concentrate on what they are working on. Okay. End of “lecture”.

We stopped last time talking about Buddhist Livelihood, and I want to talk about it a little more. Remember, last time I discussed the first three steps on the path – Buddhist Understanding, Buddhist Thought, and Buddhist Speech. And those all relate to morality.

And then the next three relate to actions, and what we do in the world. I want to talk about Livlihood because it’s a tricky thing. Buddhist Livelihood. We all have to make our livelihood, and none of the money that we earn has our photographs on it. So, it’s printed by the government. There are very stringent laws. We can’t make our own. Once upon a time, people could go out in th wilderness and get enough cowrie shells or enough mother-of-pearl and make long strings of money. There was a connection between diligence and wealth. You could actually make money. Make your own money. You can’t do that anymore.

So, all of us, in some degree, are dependent on jobs. Myself, I’ve never understood the dignity of having to beg for a job, but I have to do it, just like everyone else. It’s always seemed to me that concentrating on “jobs” disguises the original theft of the common goods of the world from the largest part of the population. Behind every king and ‘royal’ we ooh and ahh over, was a handful of armed thugs running a protection racket.

But that’s here nor there. The fact is, we’ve got to get a job. We have got to figure out how to make the money required to live in our world. Furthermore, spiritual practitioners refine  the question further and demand of themselves that it be done in a way consistent with their life practices.

I’ll tell you a quick story. Over a number of years during the 1960’s and the early ‘70s, I was a founding member of a group called the “Diggers.” The Diggers were trying to imagine a culture that wasn’t based on profit and private property, and status. A more generous and equitable world, and we challenged ourself with first imagining it, and then making it real by acting it out. We  fed 600 people a day in Golden Gate Park, didn’t charge anyone. We had the first free medical clinics. We had free stores where you could get food and tools and (not food, excuse me) and clothing and furniture and televisions and bicycles, whatever, for no money. And we would run around, and we would hustle that stuff up or get it donated and repair it and put it in good working order.

We never believed we were going to end poverty, but we wanted to give example of solutions to problems that derived from poverty and lack of resources. If you want to live in a world without money, this is what it might look like and how you might do it. We also did things anonymously becauses we felt that people who weren’t trying to get rich or famous were probably doing things they cared about, and our watchword was authenticity.  We didn’t take personal credit. When Paul Krassner, the editor of a magazine called “The Realist”, gave the Diggers an issue, there were great poets—Allen Ginsberg Michael McClure and Gary Snyder in there, published alongside me and others no one had heard of No one signed their name.

By the time the counterculture had mutated into the mid-Seventies my father had died so far below broke that my inheritance was his fountain pen and his belt, I was a single father, and I had no money, and no land. I got a low-wage government job as a poverty artist, teaching in schools for about $600 a month, which was three times what I had been making annually for the previous eight years. I needed to make some money. My daughter was getting older. I had schooling; I was going to get married; I had to buy a house, wanted to ensure my daughter’s education. It was a real conundrum for me, because the only marketable skill I possessed was as an actor. To enter Hollywood—the world epicenter of ego, wealth, and status, competition seemed like complete hypocrisy for a Digger. I had to think it through.

What arrived at is applicable to this question of Right Livelihood. Buddhist Livelihood. I had by this time, already been studying Buddhism for about five or six years. So, I had a framework.

The first thing I realized was that there’s no pure place to stand outside of the culture that we live in. When we are political people, we always imagine that we can do that. If I criticize something, I may believe then that I’m not a part of that problem. If I criticize you for being greedy, I couldn’t possibly be greedy. We imagine that we are outside the problems that we are criticizing. But that’s a mental pet. It’s not true. We all turn on the same light bulbs; we all have the same refrigerator; we’re all driving some kind of car or using some kind of bus. Heating the house. Using hot water. Using fossil fuels.

We could argue about degree, but unless we are living like mendicants and monks, we are using extraordinary amounts of the world’s goods—-especially when compared to the Third World.  When we have these arguments, we’re not usually arguing about degree, we’re pretending that we’re not participating in the problem. It creates divisions between people and it is not helpful to others. It’s not helpful to us, because it leads us to a kind of self-righteousness and makes us careless about examining what we are doing.

I think I said last week that we assume a computer is “clean”. It doesn’t buzz. It doesn’t hum. It doesn’t throw pollutants into the air. But I recently saw a documentary of mountains being blown up to mine the crystals that computers require. It’s exactly what was happening in West Virginia coal mines – blowing the tops off mountains. We participate in that. We participate in the world and we don’t get to pick and choose much. We get it all.

Understanding that we have no separate place to stand means that our ideas of purity are inevitably soiled. That “purity” is an idea. It’s a nice idea, but there’s nothing that’s pure because everything is made of other things. Dependent origination. If this exists, that exists. My computer exists because the army exists, because the Pentagon exists, because the highways exist, because the trucks exist, because business exists etc. Like it or not. That’s reality.

So, considering the movies, I thought, okay. I’m going to be getting my shoes dirty or my clothes dirty. What can I do to mitigate harm or damage? It occurred to me that if you accept that the world is always an admixture of positive and negative valences, good and bad, if you search in every instant for the most enlightened possibility in that instant, in your life as it actually is,  and if you do that consistently, you are actually doing the best you can.

Every circumstance will bring up wealth of choices for us, and if we want to minimize the damage we causes to self, other, and the planet, if you want to be multi-directionally kind, or you don’t want to be an “exploiter”, you have to review those options before you act.. You do your best at picking the most enlightened options available in that moment. Sometimes there may not appear to be any, but you still have to act. You still must earn your ‘living’ (as someone once coined the odd phrase.)

And if you do that, you’re doing your best. You have to accept the fact that you can’t be as pure as perhaps you would like to be.

You can go to a monastery, and I honestly think that monasteries are extraordinary examples of people living with minimal stuff, minimal possessions, but they are still in the world. And there are many status competitions and jealousies and struggles for power within monasteries.. The buildings are heated. The buildings have electricity. The monks consume an enormous amount of food, but they’re doing their best. Any judgments we make of others is a trick to make it appear that we are separate from their world.

So, I thought, okay, I will go to Hollywood, and I made a couple of  promises to myself. I will show up on time. I’ll always do my best. I’ll treat everyone kindly and equally regardless of their status or importance. So that is an important thing. It actually is called Right Effort. Buddhist Effort. Why is that important?

I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture. My dad was a member of the Nippon Club, which was a Japanese businessman’s Club in New York City. He joined because he used to be and the two men took up the Japanese game of Go in the 1950’s .They became absorbed by the subtlety of this game.  My father’s teacher was a young Japanese artist, whose father was a high ranking official in the Hawaiin Buddhist Church. Consequently, I spent a lot of time around Japanese people. I was fascinated by their restraint, and the manner in wich they are very much “in” their bodies, and posture. Posture is very important to them, as is Form.

And yet, so was drinking, and getting drunk, and having a good time. They really fascinated me. The thing about Japan that I’ve read about and been repeatedly told, (I’ve never been there), is that it’s a culture in which everyone appears to be doing their absolute level best. All the time. That doesn’t mean that you hit the same high-water mark every day, but you have to do your best, that day. And here is the best story I know about doing your best:

There was a fellow at [SF] Zen Center named Harry Roberts for a number of years. He was an agronomist and a biologist, and he’d actually been Ginger Rogers dancing at one point in a crazy life. We became friends when I was there because he’d been raised by a Yurok Indian shaman from his childhood. He trained as a medicine man. The Yuroks were next door neighbors to the Karuks, who were the people that I lived with, up on the Salmon River in Northern California. So, we knew people in common and the cultures were very similar.

Both cultures had a ceremony called “the Brush Dance”. The Brush Dance was performed for sick people. They would put a sick person out in the center of a dancing area, and everybody who came had spent days perfecting their regalia. Making each feather perfect. Cleaning the buckskin and parts.. Making sure the beads where in the perfect place.

Harry said that once, when he was a boy, he was making this effort alongside his father, and they were working and working. He said to his dad, (who was actually a step-dad) “Why do we have to be so perfect, this way? Nobody’s going to know.” He said his stepdad didn’t speak why. Let him sit with the problem. Don’t worry about his little psyche or his comfort. “You said something that made me cross enough to silent for two days. You think on it.”

So, finally when they sat down to talk, his stepdad said, “Look. The only way this ceremony works is because the sick person is completely convinced that every member of the tribe has put out their best effort. Their total effort on their behalf. Now, if you cheat, you’ll imagine that everybody else might be cheating. If you get sick, you’ll be out there. You won’t have that support. You won’t have the evidence that every one of us in this tribe has done their absolute best to help you. To maintain you.”

In a culture where we think of ourselves as individuals. It’s pretty easy to roll off the corner of your best. “Oh, yeah. I’ve got to be someplace in 10 minutes. I’m too busy today to do my best. It’s just me. Who will know?” If that were all there was to it, if it was just us, as individuals, it might be alright. But as we’ve been discussing in these talks, there’s a “both” / ”and” to reality. And the both/and is that we’re also part of one big part of all of it – and what we do contributes to the quality of the whole thing. If we cheat, some part of creation becomes shoddy. When we let our end down, we’re letting the entire world down. We’re letting the entirety of creation down because we’re lazy, we’re tired, we’re sleepy. We’re thinking about ourselves. One of the ways in which we express our affection and respect to the universe that we live in, is doing our best. The best that we can do.

It’s not easy. Because everybody knows it’s not easy, when they see the best, they say, “Oh, yeah. okay. That’s for me. That’s for all of us.” It’s like wearing a mask today. We do it for everybody else.That’s for all of us. That’s what Buddhist practice concentrates on, a lot.

So, we have to get a job. I think I said last week I have native friends who had to cut down redwood trees. They were loggers, and they didn’t like it. They saw these trees as beings being badly treated, but they had mortgages, rent, groceries to buy.. This was the work that they knew. This is all they could do, so they would take the time to cut enough branches and make soft pads on the forest floor, so that when the trees fell, they didn’t split apart.

Then in the rest of their life, they tried to live modestly so they didn’t need to turn more trees than they had to into money. They didn’t make more of a demand, because they knew that the demand on them was a demand translated directly to nature. How many people think that way when they make personal choices? I think if there were more that did, we wouldn’t be in the environmental trouble were in now.

As we all consider global warming, we have to factor into our idead of livelihood, that most of them are hurtful to other life. Maybe we can’t be absolutely clear of all the consequences – I think it’s pretty impossible now because the culture’s been designed so that we need automobiles, or we need some airplanes.

We can’t necessarily avoid that, but we can try to limit it. We can make an effort to do our best in whatever capacity. We can make an effort to reduce the amount of money that we need. As an unconscious individual we just do whatever wecan afford. Buy the best car you can afford. But if it is a 500-horsepower car,we’re actually hurting the rest of us, to satisfy our personal taste..

It’s not easy, and there’s no one else who is going to be your judge, or you shouldn’t allow anyone else to be your judge. But in order for that to be the case, you have to do your best. You have to say, “How much do I really need? What’s enough? What’s my number I’ll need to retire? How much do I need to make to pay for my kid’s school?”and so forth.

If it is just for you,you’ll never have enough. But if it is all of us, just considering that alternative point of view puts us in better balance with the rest of the universe, and with other people.

It’s a little frightening to me that we’re so lax about all this. Because it’s pretty obvious that there will never be enough alternative energy to run a culture that’s not sustainable and highly indulgent. I live in a 1700 square foot house, alone. I could put 25 Guatemalans in it, and they would live that way,in Huehuetenango or Comalapa. Not just because they are poor, but because they have a world view that describes how much they need and to go too far beyond that makes them appear greedy to their neighbors.

So, changing my light bulbs isn’t enough, but I change my light bulbs. Driving an electric car that I charge on solar panels isn’t enough, but I do that. I do that for my granddaughter. I do that for everyone else who’s breathing oxygen. I do it for all the animals who need water, and who need forests, and who need habitat.

It’s not pure, but it’s doing what I can. It’s making Right Effort. Buddhist Effort. Unless you’ve made that effort, you really don’t have a place to judge other people. We can be critical, but it’s not like we’re different from them. We’re just giving ourselves little holidays in different places where they are.One of the reasons to practice is to raise thequality of not only your own game, but of the universe itself, of which we’re a perfect part.

I want to talk a little bit about mindfulness in regard to Effort, because this closes the circle back to Right View, or Buddhist Understanding.

In terms of spiritual practice, mindfulness is pretty specific. We pay attention to what’s going on inside us, because we know that we have the capacity to express anything that any human being can. No matter how spiritual we think we are. Envy floats through us. Rage floats through us.  Disgust floats through us. Judgment floats through us, and it’s up to us to keep our internal house in order. To do the housecleaning. To dust and clean and sweep out all the corners. Not let it out past our teeth. That’s what we can control. The only thing that we can control in this universe is our intention. Our intention to be kind, our intention to be responsible, our intention to be a developed person.

You’ve seen, when you sit zazen, how hard it is to follow your intention.Some of you got to “three” in your counting. Some maybe got to “seven”. Some maybe congratulated themselves on the first round. “Wow, I got to 10!” The next round, you’ll be lost. It’s okay. We’re training our intention. That’s the only thing we can control.

Buddhist mindfulness – we want to be mindful of the body. We want the body to be relaxed. We want it to be strong. We want it to be healthy. Most importantly, we want our intention to be kind and compassionate.

The more you practice, and the more you work at developing that with the force of habit, the more you can be spontaneous. If you haven’t done that, sometimes a quick remark or a rejoinder actually leaks a little jealousy or a little competitiveness, or a little envy. A little anger.

If you don’t know that you can do that, you are a really dangerous person. I do it. I do it all the time. Buddha probably still does it. This is why we call it a “practice”

But we do our best to refine our intention. To be always kind. To be always compassionate. To be always certain about what we are doing with other people. Now, there’s a tendency in this practice in this culture to extract mindfulness out of a spiritual context and sell it as a corporate device to help employees be better employees. That’s actually a perversion of mindfulness. That’s just actually an extension of greed. Let’s get more efficiency out of you in your workplace so we can make more widgets. That’s not what mindfulness is actually dedicated to do.

Finally, the eight step Right Samadhi —right absorption or meditation. The texts refer to this as one-pointed, when the mind is concentrated enough that it’s internal chatter ceases and one might say that one merges with the object of attention. In the same way that the mantra “Gate, Gate, Paragate” serves to remind us of the truth of the Heart Sutra, maintaining a quiet and concentrated attention, even when off our pillows is a prerequisite for a calm and truthful life.

Within about 10 days, I’ll have transcripts of these talks on my website at www.PeterCoyote.com. You can read them if you like, and if they generate questions write to me at   sfzencoyote@gmail.com and I’ll try to be helpful.

I want to talk now  about form and ceremony, and why we do things with such attention placed on form and posture.I have a lot of friends who say, “Yeah, I’m not into organized religion.” Okay, I’m not into organized religion either.(Buddhism isn’t precisely a religion—but that’ll be a discussion for another time.) The “I” who is not into doing what it doesn’t want to do is the “I” that is plaguing you. We’ll just say that as a general principle.

What is “organized religion”?

First and foremost, it is part of the world, so it is never going to be pure. It’s going to have status concerns. It’ll be hierarchical. It’s going to have competitiveness. It’s going to have all the stuff that the world has and if you become a dedicated convert to escape the world you may be disappointed.  It may be disguised, but it’s there. So, if you think that by not being involved in an organized practice of some kind, you are avoiding that, that’s just a mental pet. (It’s not housebroken.} It’s not true.

When people come together and they have a common belief system or a common practice, what did they do? They get together and they have ceremonies. [There are] two parts of that: [first,] they get together. They do things together, and the “together” part of it is what Buddhists call the “sangha”.

The Three Treasures are Buddha, the teacher, the Dharma his [? Pronoun ?Their] teachings, and the Sangha are the practitioners. Because it’s the practitioners who we really practice with. It’s the practitioners who will keep us honest … who, if we are alert and working hard, will tell us when we fail, when we fall off plumb. It is important to spend time with peers.

You can call it organized religion, but it’s spending time with people that are trying to develop a spiritual side. Trying to make their passage through the earth less harmful.

Ceremonies have a particular value. If you think about it, a ceremony is the “physicalizing” of a thought or an intention. It’s putting it into action. By doing that, it changes you. When I became a priest, I had already been practicing 35, maybe nearly 40 years. I had said to my teacher, “I’m never going to be a priest,” but he said, “Well, just go to this three-year training. See what you think about it.”

I went and I was so impressed by the people that I met there and I was practicing with that I thought, “Oh, man. I’ve got to up my game here a little bit.”

So, I asked my teacher if I could work for ordination. It took a long time. I had to sew this rakusu. I had to sew a robe on the same pattern, like a bedsheet. It took me a year. I went through this ceremony, and finally received my a black robe ceremonially. But  it was not until about 6 months after I’d been through the ceremony, that I began to realize I’d become a priest and began to feel up to the job. The implications of it began to grow roots in my psyche..

As a priest, I do a lot of weddings. Weddings are a ceremony that is familiar to all of us, but we never stop to analyze it too much.

Two worlds come together. The bride and groom’s worlds merge.  Their families may have barely known each other, but now they’ve come together to witness this ceremony.

Why couldn’t they just go in the living room and say, “Mom, Doug and I are hooking up! See ya”?

It is because of the seriousness with which these kinds of commitments really do alter reality. It is serious business. It’s not just that they’re going to have children and new genes are going to be created, but a new organism has been created. The bride’s family, the groom’s family – they are coming together and they are offering their children to each other.

A vow is really different than a promise. A promise is pretty easy to break. A vow is something you do with the totality of your body, and you do it in front of witnesses, always.Even in the cheesiest Las Vegas, open-24-hour-a-day marriage factory, if they have to go out in the street and get a wino to bring in as a witness, they do bring in a witness. And why?

Because in a marriage, not only are the bride and groom being married, but they are also joining that community. They are being married to the community. The community has to witness because the community has responsibilities. She’s a bride now. This means the men must stop “hitting on her”. They have to treat her with more respect. The women can’t be flirting with this guy and can’t be trying to seduce him. By participating in the ceremony they are obligated to help this marriage.  They have to help this couple, as a community, they must support their marriage.

When these vows are taken, in front of witnesses, what makes them so binding and so formal is the witnessing. The witnesses are a critical part of the ceremony. When I perform a marriage, I have a big [pillar] candle in the center and then I have two straight [taper] candles on either side, which are lit. At a certain time, just before the the bride and groom take their vows, I have them light the central pillar candle from the tapers. The central candle is the candle of the marriage. They light this candle together, and then they set their tapers, still lit, on either side of it, because you do not extinguish yourself in a good marriage. You’re making something new from new parts.

I don’t lose my left hand under my right hand, when I put them together in the mudra we use meditating. I have made something else.

Ceremony actually changes people. It changes you by literally moving you through certain levels of awareness, without which, everything remains casual. If everything is casual, everything is completely mutable. It’s hard to fix your intention.

If you are just living together, and you get in a fight, it’s pretty easy to say, “Oh, I don’t have to put up with this crap. I’m out of here!” But if you are married, if you have been through this ceremony, if you have taken these vows in front of witnesses and family, you tend to think, “I do have to put up with this. I do have to change this situation somehow.”

It makes us go deeper. It doesn’t always work. I’ve been divorced twice. My first marriage was a formal Buddhist ceremony in a Buddhist temple in front of 80 chanting monks in their robes. I took these vows publicly. The single most difficult thing I ever had to do (other than sending my daughter to Boarding School) was telling the widow of the Zen master that I was getting divorced.

Anyone who’s ever been through a divorce will tell you, it damn near kills you. Part of what kills you is not just the minutia of carving up the who-gets-the-kids, who-gets-the-dog, but the fact that you are severing these ties of community and breaking promises you made with the totality of your being that you were unable to keep. You are severing these vows, and they exact a terrible penalty.

I’m saying this today to invite you to look at form and ceremony and coming together to practice – to have some spiritual worship in a different light. Less sobjectively, from some imagined objective point of view, and simultaneously, less individualistically oriented. The more appropriate concerns are “What am I delivering myself to? What am I helping to make here? What is my intention?”

If your intention is right, you can let a certain amount of stuff go right off your back. You know, water off a duck. You just keep your intention fixed.

I’d like you to think about what your  intention might be. What is your intention? What is your fundamental intention? The kind of thing you do without thinking it, while breathing in and out. What’s always on the back burner? If you put yourself in harmony with that fundamental intention, your life will go really smoothly.  If you don’t, things can be a little rough.

Maybe that’s enough for now.