A Good Day

By Karin Ryuku Kempe

Winnie the Pooh, a bear of little brain, had a friend who was a donkey. His name was Eeyore, and he was a confirmed pessimist. He used to say, “If it is a good day… which I doubt.” When I was a young girl, Eeyore was my nickname in my family. I was a serious little girl, sensitive to the negative; there was a sense of unspoken and dark suffering in the world which I absorbed from a young age. As the oldest child of a man who had fled the holocaust at age fifteen and carried significant survivor guilt, perhaps some of this was second generation trauma—I don’t know. But in this you will also easily recognize our old friend, the negativity bias, the way we are as human beings wired to look for potential problems and danger, and to prepare for them.

We all have this tendency, some more than others. Scientists at the University of Glasgow have identified four distinct basic expressions across cultures associated with primary emotions: fear/surprise, anger/disgust, sadness/grief and happiness/joy—a bit more developed on the negative side. This bias has evolutionary benefit, keeps us safe and prepared, but can undermine our natural sense of joy, confidence and satisfaction. All of us have different personalities and early conditioning, of course, but for those of us who tend to the negative, there are specific exercises to help us to stay in balance. I’ll just mention one: the Three Blessings, or Three Good Things. Within two hours before bedtime, bring to mind three things that went well, that gave you pleasure, that you enjoyed or are grateful for. Doing this regularly for a few weeks helps to reframe our negative bias, and the effects can be long lasting. And we sleep better too.

But at a deeper level, an optimist who imagines and counts on positive outcomes is just as deluded as a pessimist… because we actually don’t know the future; we can’t even fully know the present. Our practice is not to hold onto our ideas of the future or the past but to meet today. Our path is not concerned with cultivating a particular bias but is the absence of bias; it’s the discovery of our Not-knowing Mind, the mind that has not already decided. Our Beginner’s Mind, fresh and open and unlimited, is the antidote to despair and indifference; it is attentive, interested and awake in each moment our real life offers us, and it’s always available.

Master Yunmen said, “Every day is a good day.” This “good” is lived as we enter into this day today, as a mystery, as the unique day which it is—letting our judging, our hopes and our fears slip away by bringing our actual experience to the fore. Rachel Carson wrote: “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” Because each day is a new day, we haven’t seen it before, and of course, we won’t see it again. It’s unique, a gift. A pale yellow tulip standing straight in a mound of snow, the dialogue of morning bird calls. Our glasses fogging up above our mask. Hopeful dreams and dreadful fears arise but float away in the crisp air. It’s a good day.

Stay Where You Are

By Peggy Metta Sheehan

Case 5 in the Wu-men kuan:

Hsiang-yen said, “It’s as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch by your teeth. Your hands can’t grasp a branch and your feet can’t touch one. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What’s the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?’ If you do not answer, you fail the questioner and evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?”

I suspect and hope that we can relate to this koan quite intimately right now. Many of our fellow beings are hanging by a breath to their lives. Many are without jobs, frightened for the future, and many are without enough food and supplies. All of us feel a deep concern, caring and grief. We are indeed together hanging from a branch by our teeth. We are united in a vast field of uncertainty and unknowing. Can you sense it, recognize it, and STAY right there?

“What’s the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” What’s the meaning of this virus? Of my life? Of love and loss? What is it? Where is it? What should I do? Where should I turn? STAY right where you are! And you will see. There is nothing hidden and nowhere to go. DO what is right in front of you and only that.

Make yourself available to the gentle recognition of what is True, always true: the clang of the dishes, the smell of rice, steam hitting your face, sore knuckles as you wash your hands again and again. Each time the only time, each time inviting you to let go of your life, your hopes and dreams. For if you do not, you fail the questioner and evade your responsibility! It is your responsibility to STAY. How wonderful. Hold your seat, look deeply and STAY. Please STAY for the benefit of all beings. And find right there an unfathomable mystery, a gift that opens and unfolds.

It is your responsibility to stay and to respond. In so doing you may lose your life. What do you do? What are your willing to give your life for or to? Health care workers are pretty clear about this. Sure, there may be times of doubt, of overwhelm and fear, even outrage and anger, but there is an unwavering dedication to something larger. This, too, we share.

Be still and listen. Do not fail the questioner. Step into your VERY life, as it IS. Call your neighbors, sew face masks, appreciate your morning tea and the hot water that comes out of the shower head, laugh as your dog rolls in the grass, let your breath be taken by colors of spring popping forth, carefully clean your home and tenderly place your hand on your own heart while listening to news. Give up your life in each and every moment and you will have no regrets whether hanging or falling.

Message from Karin Roshi: The Whole Universe is Medicine

In the Vimalakirti sutra, the great layman Vimalakirti transformed his house into an empty room and lay upon a solitary invalid’s couch. The Buddha asked Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, to visit him. Although a myriad of goddesses and gods, bodhisattvas and disciples all accompanied Manjusri, they were all able to fit in this empty room as Manjusri met Vimalakirti.

Manjushri asked: “This illness of yours – can you endure it? Is the treatment perhaps not making it worse rather than better? Good layperson, what is the cause of this illness? How long will it continue? And how can it be alleviated?”

Vimalakirti replied: “Manjushri, this illness of mine comes from ignorance and clinging and the thirst for existence. Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. It will last as long as do the sicknesses of all living beings. If all living beings were free from sickness, I also would not be sick.”

Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. Never in my lifetime, in our lifetime, has this been so obvious. Our earth has been also sick for some time, overrun by the stress of our growth, consumption and self -centeredness. We are not separate from our earth and all beings, all the myriad things, and so their distress is ours. The virus which is ravaging so many is also part of our natural connection. We will all meet it eventually, and it will become part of us for better or worse. The declining health of our economy also is a challenge we all will share for many years to come. We are together in this.

But that is one face of our life today. Master Yunmen said: “Medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other. The whole universe is medicine.” Vimilakirti lay on his couch sick and yet at the same time was completely healthy, whole and complete, manifesting in that moment as a fever chill, a dry cough, a pain in the chest and a great fatigue.

All the unseen forces working to help us continue to live together, our neighbors going to the store for us, our doctors working long hours, even our politicians struggling to get supplies and equipment and financial support, are helping us to heal. And all of our individual efforts, even if it’s staying home so that we delay our own need, also are helping us to heal. And the earth too is breathing again, the waters clearing, the fish returning. When we sit together and touch that original place of quiet, when we hold our Mu, even through clouds of uncertainty and confusion, we take care of the one who is not sick, has never been sick.

Master Yunmen said: “Medicine and sickness mutually correspond to each other. The whole universe is medicine.” But then he asked us: “Where do you find the self?” Can you find your self in the openness of not knowing, settling into that groundlessness which is each day? In being open to “what is this?” In the crocuses, yellow and purple, one block away? In the light reflecting off water in your glass? In one breath at a time? In every aspect of our experience as medicine, even doubt, uncertainty, fear, discouragement?

Our practice is independent of causes and conditions, and yet lives as we meet them. The best medicine.

– Karin Ryuku Kempe Roshi

A Message to Bodhisattvas & Online Practice Opportunities

A monk asked Baizhang, “What’s the most extraordinary thing?”
Baizhang said, “Sitting alone on this sublime peak.”
The monk bowed, whereupon Baizhang hit him.

– Case 26 in the Blue Cliff Record

To misquote Thomas Paine: These are the times that try our souls.

Nothing like this has happened before, not in American history, not in the history of the entire world. Why? The world has become one through electronic communications, the internet, and mass air travel.

For the very first time it can be said of the whole world, “We are all in this together.” And yet, paradoxically, many feel more isolated and alone. How do we deal with this as citizens and as a sangha? Where is our practice in a time of fear and scarcity? It’s really very simple. It doesn’t require any great insight to respond with common human decency. The opposite of fear is courage. The opposite of scarcity is generosity.

We have, willy-nilly, been thrown into a virtual cyber-universe. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be real. After all, the human mind creates its own virtual reality all the time. And if we truly understand our virtual realities, we can make good use of them, for in the end, even they are nothing but the Truth itself. It’s all in how you look at it.

I’ve seen news stories of young people banding together to offer food and transport to the elderly. We have young people in our sangha, and we have older people. Most of us have computers and smart phones. There are many of us in this sangha who will be financially strapped from loss of jobs and income. There those who are at high risk because of age and underlying health conditions.

Let us be sensitive to Baizhang’s blow. Moving off the 100-foot pole and reaching out, making contact has never been easier. Let’s not be shy in offering help or in asking for help. On the internet there is no “social distancing.”

When Baizhang says, “I sit alone,” he is expressing this great truth: He is All-in-All. Each of us is All-in-All. Alone, we nonetheless sit, stand and walk with each other.

Finally, recall the story of the Sultan’s Ring: A great sultan commanded his court magician to create a magic spell that would turn sorrow into joy and joy into sorrow. So after much thought, the magician created a simple gold ring on which were inscribed the words: “In time, this too shall pass.”

Regarding that cyber-universe, we are rolling out several new avenues for practice and sangha connection online. First, members should have already received invites to a new sangha listserve and web forum on Google Groups. Please read that email for more details; if you did not receive an invite to the listserve and would like one, contact the office.

Second, we will be having our first online sangha circle meeting this Sunday from 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. via Zoom. To join the meeting on Sunday, just click the link: https://zoom.us/j/4261850389 . Note that you will have to install Zoom and permit it to access your camera and microphone (installation only takes a minute).

Third, we will be conducting dokusan (and daisan with Dennis Sienko) via phone and Skype. We will be using Signupgenius to make fifteen-minute appointments for dokusan; invitations for members will follow.

Ken Tetsuzan