Autumn Moonrise over NYC
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
It’s Halloween this month, which has me thinking about masks and costumes and that eternal, terrifying question, Who are you? Well, as Whitman reminds us, the answer is not always so singular and simple. After all, each one of us contains multitudes—one moment we are happy, the next we are sad; one instant we are compassionate, the next full of rage. We are angel and demon, hero and coward, lover and hater. We change costumes, one to the next, swiftly and often with little to no consciousness about it. And beneath these ever-shifting masks, what? Who?
My own honest answer to this age-old question—I don’t know—is not a very satisfying one (at least not for me it’s not). In fact, it only serves to heighten the question itself, and to deepen the terror inherent in my lack of a response. Zen’s apparent answer to this question doesn’t seem to help much either (or at least for me it doesn’t). After all, our practice maintains that the idea of a permanent or abiding self—a solid internal “you”—is just an illusion.
Great, thanks, Zen. Very comforting stuff.
I do, however, love Sensei Tokuyu’s take on the subject, which he expounds upon below in an interview about the intersection of his work as a jazz musician and his Zen practice: “I've learned that who I am, whatever it is that I am, is okay, is good, and is worthy of having an expression, which I don't think I believed before.”
There’s something so reassuring in his response. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter who we are—only that we find a way through our practice to trust that we are worthy. That whoever we are, we are enough.
Sunday, October 1: Online: Practice and Inquiry with Joshin Roshi
In-Person: Body, Breath, and Mind—Intro to Zen
Wednesday, October 4: Liturgy Training and Service, 6 pm
Thursday, October 5: Dharma Talk by Soten
Sunday, October 8: Dharma Talk by Fusho
Monday, October 9: Zendo closed for Federal Holiday
Thursday, October 12: Dharma Talk by Yugetsu
Saturday, October 14: Zazenkai with Dharma Talk by Jo An Sensei
Sunday, October 15: Dharma Talk by Ryoshin
Thursday, October 19: Dharma Talk by Ryotan Roshi
Saturday, October 21: Four Vows Workshop—Mastering Dharmas
Sunday, October 22: Dharma Talk by Enkyo Roshi
Thursday, October 26: Fusatsu, with Precepts Talk by Shinryu Roshi
Saturday, October 28: Grit and Grace Workshop, Film Showing
Sunday, October 29: Dharma Talk by Jisei
The Bolivian Sitting Group meets Saturday mornings, 8 am
Bolivia Zoom Meeting ID: 297 525 8394; Password: 1234
The People of Color Sitting Group meets Saturday mornings, 10:30 am
How to Meditate meets Monday evenings (except holidays) at 6:30 pm
Sorting Out Your Stuff meets Tuesdays at 10 am
Liturgy Training: 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of each month at 6 pm
On Work and Practice
An Interview with Tokuyu Sensei,
Jazz Pianist, Composer, and Music Teacher
By Iris Ryusho Höger
We continue the VZ Bulletin's series of interviews with Sangha members whose work intersects with their practice.
Tokuyu Sensei, thank you so much for making time for this today. I'd love to learn a bit about your work and how it informs your Zen practice—and vice versa. Maybe you could start by giving us a short introduction to what you do for a living?
I live and work in New York City, as you can hear [laughs as sirens go off]. I'm a musician and a music teacher. The majority of my work used to be playing and performing; now the majority has shifted to teaching. I teach way more than I perform now, which maybe is just kind of a natural thing with age. I'm much happier to be home at night and waking up early than to be still awake early from working very late [laughs]. It's a somewhat recent shift that's happened over the past few years, but in both cases, Zen has definitely played an integral role.
Is there something you learned on the cushion that has felt helpful with your work?
When it comes down to it, I realize that Zen practice for me has been a lot about healing. It's been about being able to really see who I am. Most of the music that I play is improvisatory. And I think my main concern and main goal as a musician has always been authenticity—finding my authentic voice and being able to speak it. And I think Zen is a wonderful practice and tool for that. I've learned that who I am, whatever it is that I am, is okay, is good, and is worthy of having an expression, which I don't think I believed before.
It's not something that just snaps like this. It's something that has been a process. But it's taught me that my unique expression is what I'm actually looking for and not something outside of myself.
I wouldn't say that I've arrived at the, I don't know, conclusion or highest point of this. I mean, I still feel I struggle with this. There's good days and bad days. But in general, the bad days are not so bad anymore. So Zen practice has had a tremendous effect on my life and for my art. And as you might imagine, also with teaching, Zen practice has just made me such a better listener and observer.
Is there also something you learned on the piano stool that informed your Zen practice?
Absolutely. When I was much younger and I used to have a very strong and lengthy practice routine on the piano, I would always begin with a little meditation. This was long before I actually had a practice. But I was given this meditation by someone. Every time I would sit down to practice the piano, I was getting to know my breath and getting to know my body. When I first came to Zen practice, it didn't feel so foreign to me because I already had a practice that was based on sitting down and holding a posture for an extended amount of time. It was kind of like: “Oh yeah, I know this, I know this from a different avenue, but it's something I know.”
Do you remember a situation at work that felt significant for your Zen practice?
I had this one experience where I was playing at a club that was prestigious—I was really excited to play and I was going to be playing with someone that I had looked up to for a long time. I was excited and I guess also a little bit nervous about this show. In the first set I felt like I fell back into some really old habitual places in my mind where it was very hard for me to be present. And I felt like I was going down so many of the same routes that I had gone down in the past, that were dead ends. I noticed myself completely judging my playing and not feeling connected with the band. So during the break I was distraught and frustrated and kind of angry about it and I don't know how it happened, but I just went off by myself and was sitting for a minute and I had this thought of: “You know what, fuck it! I don't really give a shit anymore. I'm not going to go out there and try to impress anyone. I'm not going to go out there and try to do anything. I'm just going to follow my instincts.” I like to say that I flicked the “fuck-it-switch” [laughs], and I went out there in the next set and I don't know what happened, but at some point in the middle of the performance, I looked up and I realized that I was in it with my body. And at that moment when I looked up and felt that way, I had some eye contact and communication with everyone else in the band. And everybody was just smiling. It was like we were all in it together, and it was a profound experience.
And it's the same lesson that I think Zen keeps hammering home for me all the time, which I think is a very difficult lesson to just swallow immediately. And that is that it's about being in your body instead of being in your mind. So both of these practices, music and Zen, call for it and have really helped each other.
Zen has given the space for the idea that “me judging myself” and “me feeling bad about myself” is part of my Buddha nature. All of that is also a part of my musical expression. That's a very difficult one to swallow and to really digest. But the more that I practice, the more I believe it in my body. It's something that I've believed in my head and has made sense for years. But when it comes to putting it into practice, you have to believe it in your body.
Is this something you also try to teach your music students, to be in their body?
Do you have a technique or a helpful tool you would recommend to somebody who struggles with being in their body?
You know, I think zazen is a great practice, but at the same time, it is something that could be very fertile ground for the mind to just go off, right? I mean, I think that all of us have experienced zazen periods where the bell rings and we realize that we've just been daydreaming the whole time. So I think that bodily practices are very important. Whether it's taking a walk, doing exercise, doing yoga, getting a massage, acupuncture—just things that are engaging your body. With my students I found that in some situations, taking their phones away is a big aid. And sometimes I will just do a simple breathing and body-scanning practice.
I think that body practice is a very slow process. It's not something that you learn and you have it. You need to keep going back and showing your body that it's safe. And the more you do that, the more comfortable you get with it. I don't try to reach the peak of the mountain in just one year with a student. I understand that the peak for them might come many, many years later, as it did for me. When I think of the music teachers I had, a lot of times I feel that the lessons that I learned from them, I ended up learning ten or fifteen years later when it was like: “That's what they meant!” But it took that long for it to really sink in.
But the seed was planted. And then it was nourished by time.
I think that's a great analogy. It's planting seeds. And the other analogy that I think of a lot, I heard from Enkyo Roshi. She said it's her job to just open the door. As a teacher, it's not my job to walk you into the door or push you into the other room or even open the door all the way. It's my job to just kind of crack it open a little bit so that it will pique the curiosity of the student.
I've heard you talk about authenticity, about finding your distinct, unique voice and then also about the healing potential of repetition. I found this quote by cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson: “Jazz exemplifies artistic activity that is at once individual and communal, performance that is both repetitive and innovative, each participant sometimes providing background support and sometimes flying free.” I was wondering, could you say a few words about ritual and self-expression, repetition and improvisation from your unique perspective as both a Zen priest and a jazz musician?
Yeah, I have to say that being a jazz musician really informed a lot of my practice. I was the VZ’s liturgy master for many years, and there’s always this kind of push and pull between a form that exists that we intend to follow, and the form that actually happens in the moment. And it has been a great learning experience for me, especially as a liturgy master, where you feel that you’re carrying all the “mistakes” that might happen during a service on your shoulders. And it took me a while to be able to let go of that and to just go in the flow with what happens. Historically, in jazz, what was demanded from the performer was your authentic expression of self, whether or not they called it that. If somebody was a masterful player, but they were repeating what someone else did, even if it was virtuosic, it would not be really regarded and upheld within the community. Someone who was maybe much less of a technician but was openly expressive and showing themselves was the person that would be upheld. The performance in jazz is supposed to be a very authentic expression of communication and relationship in that moment. And that’s also what’s happening in a Zen service. It’s all about communication, and it’s all about being aware and being with everyone who is involved. And then you all move together.
Thank you very much, Tokuyu Sensei.
Tokuyu’s YouTube channel:
Saturday, October 21
2:00pm – 3:45pm
Four Vows Workshop:
Please join us for the third part of a four part series
of workshops on the Four Vows:
The Four Bodhisattva Vows are chanted at the end of services at the Village Zendo and in most Mahayana Buddhist centers around the world. They express our profound vows as Bodhisattvas – to save beings from suffering, to let go of delusion, to master the Buddha’s teachings, and to awaken in each moment of our lives. But the language used to express these Great Vows is paradoxical and mysterious. How can we possibly save all sentient beings? Do we really want to end all desire? The Four Vows are seemingly impossible. It’s their impossibility that gives them their power.
In this four part workshop series, we’ll delve into each of the four vows in turn, examining what they mean to us, and how they work in our lives. The workshops are an intimate and experiential journey into our own life and practice, giving each of us an opportunity to renew our vows as Bodhisattvas.
In the third workshop, we will explore the third of the Four Great Vows, our vow to follow the Buddha’s teaching. What does it mean that the Dharmas are boundless? Is it the Precepts, the Sutras or something else?
September 16, Saving All Beings, Leaders: Gessho and Ryoshin
September 30, Ending Desires, Leaders: Ryoshin and Mukei
October 21, Mastering Dharmas, Leaders: Mukei and Fusho
November 4, Being Buddha, Leaders: Fusho and Gessho
Registration is not required to participate in the workshop.
This workshop involves small group discussion and sharing among participants. As such it will not be recorded.
Suggested donation $15 / workshop (or $50 for all four workshops). Donate at the link below.
Image by Rodney Musho Greenblat
Saturday, October 28, 3 pm – 5 pm
GRACE AND GRIT
WORSHOPS ON AGING
After last Fall’s two “Grace and Grit” workshops, many sangha members voiced deep interest in additional substantive programming on aging, illness and dying. Many also asked for an ongoing safe Zendo space to talk freely about their experience, questions and fears in these areas.
This Fall, the Zendo is offering two workshops to address the expressed need, and is considering an ongoing discussion group for the new year.
Grace and Grit:
One Body/One Heart
Saturday, October 28, 3-5 pm
On Saturday October 28, from 3-5 pm, we will have an online viewing and discussion of the 2017 documentary One Body/One Heart. The film tells the moving story of the journey of our beloved Robert Kaku Gunn Sensei in the year following his 2015 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Enkyo Roshi figures prominently in the documentary, and other dear sangha members who touched us in their living and dying are remembered.
There will be time for discussion and questions.
Grace and Grit:
Necessary Conversations and Decisions
Saturday, November 18, 3 – 6 pm
On Saturday November 18, from 3-6 pm, the Zendo will present a workshop on how to discern, articulate and document one’s wishes regarding end of life care. Led by David Jimon Kunin, a retired hospice nurse, the workshop will create a safe container to explore planning for old age, sickness and death. Awareness of the changes we may go through as we age is essential to any reality-based plans we wish to make. Jimon’s essay titled “The Tree of Acceptance of Death,” explains his approach to this topic and will form the foundation for the workshop. https://offthecushion.substack.com/p/the-tree-of-acceptance-of-dying. Marjorie ChoGaku McCoy, an interfaith chaplain and retired attorney and hospice volunteer, will talk about identifying who might be considered for the roles of one’s health care proxy and power of attorney. She will provide practical resources on this topic, as well.
Once again, there will be ample time for discussion and questions.
Please note that no individualized professional advice will be given in this workshop.
Registration for each workshop is required. A suggested donation of $25 is appreciated.
For information, contact Mukei at email@example.com or ChoGaku at firstname.lastname@example.org
An excerpt from an unpublished essay, “Dinosaurs and Other Apparitions”
by Taylor Plimpton
A Covid Halloween
I keep on thinking about Halloween. I’ve always loved how in this shadowed part of the year, we light candles in hollowed out pumpkins, dress up as ghosts, throw parties, dance. There’s such spirit at this time, such a wonderful response to death in the air. Because that’s what’s at the root of the day, of course—death. And in the face of it, we put on masks and celebrate.
Actually, throughout the whole pandemic, people have been dressing up. I think again of the way Batman showed up at that protest—but there have been other apparitions, too. Down in North Carolina, a mail lady has been delivering her letters and packages as a pirate, a unicorn, a shark. Here in my village of Pleasantville, a dinosaur has been jogging the streets—his big tail wagging back and forth as he goes.
For Halloween proper this year, planning to be a werewolf, I grow my beard for more than a month into a ridiculous bushy-looking thing. Of course, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that, necessarily wearing a COVID mask, this beast-like beard would be concealed, and thus basically useless as a part of the costume.
Actually, the beard was most useless because we didn’t even dress up in the end anyway. Ollie did—he was a vampire, complete with a cape, a black COVID mask with fangs on it, and a skeleton t-shirt with a big red heart beneath the ribcage—but we decided against trick-or-treating, just to be on the safe side. Except at the last minute, Lizzy came up with the idea that Ollie could do it at our place—ring our own doorbell and get candy, which admittedly sounds sort of sad.
Even that almost didn’t happen—Ollie’d been hopped up on sugar all day and over dinner he was crying about candy-related injustices, and Lizzy was crabby and so was I, and Halloween seemed a bust, like the rest of life. But we decided to do the trick-or-treating thing anyway, and Ollie took his little glow in the dark candy-collecting bucket and he and I went out the back door and circled around to the front door and Ollie rang the doorbell and said, “Trick or Treat!” and the door opened, and behind it was a cowgirl with a pink cowboy hat—“Howdy, partner: Have some candy!” and she gave Ollie some candy and he and I ran off and then came back and rang the doorbell again and this time it was a superhero, Captain America, complete with mask and cape. Again and again, we ran off and then gleefully back, and again and again Lizzy magically manifested another costume, donned another mask—fox, secret agent, witch complete with a pointy hat and the house broom—saving Halloween as she went. “Come closer, little boy, come inside, I have more candy for you.” “It’s a trick, Ollie, she’s a witch, don’t trust her. Run, Ollie, run!” But Ollie was bewitched, and so was I.
We communicate in three places online:
our email list, a Facebook page, and a Groups.io list
where we share events and information among the whole
Sangha. Explore these various ways of staying connected and
up to date here: https://villagezendo.org/connect-with-us/
Editor: Taylor Plimpton
Editor-at-Large: Nina Shuka Klippel
Managing Editor/ Design & Production: Howard Thoresen
In these trying times, the Village Zendo still relies on your support.
If you are able, please make a donation.