Village Zendo Home
April 08 Journal Contents
Dharma Talk
Making a Difference
A Blade of Grass
Shuso Talk
Zen at War
Beginner's Mind
Found Dharma
Whimsy Buddha

Roshi reminds us that we are always expressing. To practice is to become conscious of our expression and thus to serve the world with compassion and wisdom.

I'd like to dedicate what I have to say tonight in honor of my teachers: my root teacher, my heart teacher Maezumi Roshi, who passed away in 1995; and to my transmission teacher Bernie Glassman, who is still thriving up in Massachusetts. They both taught me the value of community, of Sangha.  Like so many people, when I began to practice I thought it was all about me and that I alone was going to manage to find wisdom so that I could be compassionate and so that I could serve. And having discovered that that was true in every other area of my life, there was no reason for me to think that it wasn't true here also.

I really didn't truly appreciate the value of the third  of the Three Treasures: the Buddha—the Treasure of Awakening; the Treasure of the Dharma—the Treasure of the Wisdom Teachings; and the Treasure of the Sangha—the Community of Practitioners. And what I have learned through my years of practice is that it is the Sangha that holds us together; it is the Sangha that is the woof that allows us to weave our lives through it.

Tonight we're having a Sangha party to celebrate our annual effort to raise money through what we call "Work for Dharma Day". It's Shinko's brainchild.  It is the day on which all of us try to offer a certain portion of our earnings for that day's work to the Zendo so that we can maintain it and our Sangha. Each of us, whether a student or a wealthy merchant or a retired person—no matter what our situation, we can offer a little bit of what we earned today. I earned a bit on Social Security—so I can even offer that day's worth of Social Security. So, today is a day of celebration for that.

I've thought about community, about Sangha, a great deal. It is in Sangha that we develop the skills to allow us to be of use to the greater community, to the commons. In fact, if you look at the core teachings of Buddhism—the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Ten Grave Precepts—all of them are ways for us to organize ourselves in a compassionate and wise and skillful manner in order to be together. It is a map of how to get along with each other. We can use that map in our families, at work and in the world.

As I looked over the various maps that are offered in the Buddhist tradition, I noticed how much "unskillful speech" comes up; actually four of the Ten Precepts have to do with speech, with  how we speak: not to gossip, not to lie, not to elevate ourselves, not to speak ill of the Three Treasures. There's a very strong emphasis on speech. For what reason? Because that kind of speech closes our hearts down. Whether in a family, with a loved one, or in a community—speech is very strong and can be used so unskillfully.

I want to share with you something a student told me last night. He's been coming for a year or so and talked about his experience of sitting Zazen here. It was a kind of an experience of what we call "dropping off body and mind."  It was an experience of being extremely comfortable. He said he wasn't usually so comfortable when he was sitting Zazen, but suddenly he was feeling a sense of well-being and complete comfort in his sitting. And just letting go of his preoccupation with "Am I doing this right?" and all that kind of chatter that goes on in our minds when we begin to meditate. He just felt good. This was at a midday sit, and when it was over he went downstairs and began walking down Broadway, still feeling very at ease; very at home in himself and his body and mind. He said that what struck him was the vividness of the words and speech of others around him; he could hear all these conversations and what all these people were saying. And he realized that most of the time he was attending so much to the conversations going on inside his own head that he had been depriving himself of this vividness, of this world that was around him.

It sounds familiar to me. We get so caught up with these words in our heads that we are not awake. These dialogues and debates going on inside our head: story telling!
It's no wonder we don't hear others well, that we distort what someone is saying to us; and that we miss an opportunity to connect, to open our hearts, to be human, to wake up.

And that's why we practice: to notice that, to wake ourselves up.

You know, we're called the Village Zendo but we have another name which is a Buddhist name, a temple name: Dotokuji. "Ji" just means temple. But dotoku is freely translated as "true expression"—"The Temple of True Expression." The inspiration came from a famous fascicle of Dogen's which is called "dotoku."  But the character of "do" is a character you're all very  familiar with—it looks like a foot stool and it's Tao—The Way—just a different way of pronouncing this Japanese character "do". It means "The Way" but it also means "to say"—a double meaning. It means "The Way" and "to say", "to express". The second character, "toku" means "to be able to" or "to attain".  So: "to be able to say the Way"; to be able to say, to be able to be the Way, to attain the Way, to express the Way…to express the expressible way. And how do you express the way? A good question for all of us.

Certainly we express ourselves with the words that we use.  So, sometimes we express the Way and we express this "not way". But we also are expressing all the time — in the way we move, the way we walk, how we chant, how we write, painting, how we hold our hands —  all of it is an expression.  Are we able to look another person in the eye or not? Just that is a complete expression: can you look them in the eye? Eye-to-eye?  Can you do that? That is an expression.
It's not something that we're always aware of or that we can control. A lot of the time it's bubbling up; just bubbling up. So our practice is to observe that.

You know, in Zen we don't have a lot of rules, "shoulds", "don'ts". We are confident that if you sit and if you observe you will transform yourself. If you see it you will change it. Delusion by delusion, you will break it apart. It may seem that it takes time, but it really works!

We can describe this process with a poem. Marie Howe just gave me her new book of poetry, and one of the poems in it perfectly expresses what I'm trying to say. The title of the poem is "Government"—so think of government, how we govern.

Standing next to my old friend

      I sense that his soldiers have retreated.

And mine?

They're resting their guns on their shoulders,

Talking quietly.

"I'm hungry," one says.

"Cheeseburger," says another.

And they all decide to go and find some dinner.


But the next day,

negotiating the two narrow aisles at the Health and Harmony Food Store,

when I say, "Excuse me" to the woman and her cart of organic chicken and green grapes,

she pulls her cart not quite far back enough for me to pass,

and a small mob in me begins to pick up the fruit to throw.


So many kingdoms, and in each kingdom

So many people:

The disinherited son, the corrupt counselor, the courtesan, the fool.

And so many gods arguing among themselves over toast,

 through the lunch salad,

and on into the long hours of the mild spring afternoon.

"I'm the god."

"No, I'm the god."

"No, I'm the god!"


I can hardly hear myself over their muttering.

How can I discipline my army?

They're exhausted and want more money.

How can I disarm when my enemies seem so intent?

I love this poem.  We can just see the soldiers inside of us, protecting us. I particularly have an issue when I'm walking down the street and someone jostles me and pushes me out of the way — my soldiers jump to attention, and this wonderful image of the small mob that begins to take over. Any time we feel threatened we tend to do that: we bring all those forces to bear. But the clarity with which Marie Howe is showing us this process is marvelous, and if we could see that in ourselves and not believe our stories, not believe the mob or the soldiers, but just, "There I go again!" wouldn't we be clear? Wouldn't we have a much greater sense of well-being? Wouldn't we be a much better part of the whole if we were able to see that the pie is big enough for all of us, that there's nothing to fear.

So here, what we do is we sit Zazen. And we also work together; we have little projects and so of course issues can arise. And here's where we can begin to transform ourselves, because we know that in this community we all have the same goal. We do want to transform ourselves. And it's almost like a playground when issues arise, because there's a good feeling that everyone really wants to take care of this community, even though we have some very different ideas about how to do that!

We have a formal ritualized way to do it called "Council – it is one of the deepest practices we do here. I like it when somebody brings something up that I have a different opinion about, because then I can work! It's an opportunity for me to really soften myself around something, to watch my little gods jump up, my little soldiers move into formation, and to let them relax. We take care of community in so many ways — in the cloakroom, on our committees — for the benefit of all of us. This is truly the Sangha Treasure, when we begin to express and embody that which we seek.

Dogen says in his commentary on Right Speech: "The Dharma Wheel unceasingly turns. Sweet dew permeates the universe."

The wheel of life turns. We meet someone, we work together, there is difference—we hope there is difference, otherwise it would be very boring—and then there's opinion, sides are drawn…and yet with the realization all the time that the Dharma Wheel is turning. Then we can experience this "sweet dew" which Dogen says permeates the universe:  sweet, pleasant, gratifying, lovable sweetness. And what is dew but a momentary thing? It's only there for a moment; then it's gone. It's precious, a drop of dew; it's so small and so temporary—like our lives. It is like our own truth. Just as we are, we are each like a drop of dew, sweet dew. Just as we are; before our soldiers take formation there is sweet dew everywhere.

"So," Dogen says, "if even just one person at one time sits in Zazen, that person becomes imperceptibly one with each and all the myriad things and permeates completely all space and time; so that within the limitless universe throughout past, future and present, this person is performing the eternal and ceaseless work of guiding beings to enlightenment."

One person at one time sits in Zazen.

And that's what I think this community is dedicated to ensuring: that down here in the boot of Manhattan there is one person sitting Zazen at one time. That's the simple mission of the Zendo. It may be too simple, and people never seem to understand it, but that is the simple mission of this place. If we have complete confidence in Zazen, then it is enough to offer: a place, a community, a teacher, a teaching, so that the transformation can take place.

So let me end with a short story about Tao-wu, who was sitting on a high seat—and in China the high seats are really high – about as high as our altar, in a funny little chair. So when they say, "He came down from the high seat" it's a really big deal. So Tao-wu was sitting on the high seat and a monk came in and said, "What is the greatest depth of the teaching? What is the core? What is it?"

Tao-wu looked at him, got down from the high seat, went over, knelt next to him and said, "You're here after traveling from so far, but I'm sorry I have nothing to give you." Perfectly expressing the truth; perfectly answering the question.

What is the deepest truth of Buddhism?

I'm sorry, you've come from so far and I have nothing, nothing to give you.

Isn't that wonderful?

You might not think it's wonderful. You may have to take my word for it!

Six or seven hundred years later, in 17th century Japan, a man by the name of Genro wrote about this incident:

The great and deep sea. No boundary in the four directions. When Tao Wu comes down from his high seat, there is no depth, there is no water.

Then Genro's student, Fugai, wrote something—

It is beyond great and small, it is above shallow and deep. I fear my beloved teacher is in danger of drowning because he has a big heart and loves all sentient beings.

Oh, that we all can open our hearts! There's nothing to give, there's nothing to say. And yet we express ourselves all the time, all our lives! Let's be awake about that, and truly appreciate how the Sangha, the community that has gathered, is the place where we truly learn to practice this marvelous nothingness.

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