Tending the Flame, Not Worshiping the Ashes — Lee Shields, May 8, 2022

Posted by on May 13, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Tending the Flame, Not Worshiping the Ashes — Lee Shields, May 8, 2022

Last week I attended the Diamond Sangha Teachers Circle gathering by Zoom. There were teachers from many countries and time zones, from New Zealand and Australia, to London and Germany. It was my first time participating in this august group of sincere people, dedicated to carrying Zen forward in gratitude. Rather than a talk on koans, I’d like to share some of the discussion that I think will be of interest to our Sangha.

Some of the topics discussed included thoughtful innovations to our form and practice, and the inclusion and exclusion of social action, and if included, how. There will be time for discussion after my recollections and reflections.

During one discussion, I think it was Daniel Terragno from Southern California, who held a calligraphy in Japanese characters up to his camera. He said it read, “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes.” (I looked for attribution of this quote; many but not all pointed to Gustav Mahler.) This quote was offered at the end of a discussion about our integration of an ancient and foreign form to the world today, and where we are.

One person nicely summarized the importance in recognizing the value in what has been passed down to us and tending the flame. The form is a container which many find brings safety in exploring the unmarked territory of Zen mind. Within the container of our form, on a good day, there is freedom to take all things as they are, without constraint of the concepts we carry.

Yet there is also a need for adaptation, to avoid worshipping the ashes. If intemperate in adaptation, we risk taking our current (Western) perspectives and infusing them with some Zen. On the other side of the balance: to maintain vitality, we seek the beating heart of Zen here, without unnecessary cultural overlays. Though a whole sect of Judaism would disagree with me, the example vivid to me is in Jewish Orthodox tradition. Judaism started in the hot middle eastern climate, was transplanted for centuries to cold eastern Europe. European traditions included heavy black coats and hats. When it returned to Israel, wearing of black coats and hats remained as integral to the orthodox tradition.

Within our group over the years, it seems to me we have had a bell curve of sensibility about the value of maintaining the ancient ways as received. Greg Smith of Portland shared an image that our form is like a dance, unfamiliar to most when joining; we awkwardly learn the steps at first. Then when more familiar, we can bring our own artful expression to the movements. Personally I love to dance, but have never had interest in learning ballet. This image of dance does not require that we learn every dance. But the slow dance of Zen, set in rooms of simple lines and accents of color from ikebana, appealed to me, as do the steps marked by musical instruments on the beat every 25 minutes, then 5 minutes.

Madelon brought one modification we have incorporated at TTS; we include group discussion of koans rather than restricting word of them to the interview/dokusan room. That change was not particularly controversial, as far as I know. Dropping the use of the kyosaku for encouragement did evoke strong feelings and discord. Some who practiced long with it found the sound and feel of it to be of great encouragement, and it’s use involved a human-to-human interaction with the tanto walking with the stick.

Others found it to be a reminder of abuse, unrelentingly jarring. I think we gave it up in the 90’s. I was interested to hear that most Diamond Sangha groups have stopped using it.

What we call our tradition is not only the ancient and foreign. Our twentieth century Western ancestors gave us translations of koans which some of us used in our growing up in Zen. At DSTC some folks had questions about translations that didn’t seem to fit for individuals in some way, so they looked back at the Chinese, and found the original was discrepant to what we’ve worked with in our lineage. How these changes will be shared among Diamond Sangha groups was not yet clear.

I was surprised to hear that some Australian groups incorporated not only breath and koan practices, but silent illumination, and metta. I may speak more about these in a future talk. I also appreciated that the DSTC discussion recognized both the value of tradition, and consideration of its limits; we need both preservation and creativity.

As you take in my words, please also honor your own differences in what you observe that supports tending the flame of your practice.

Another lively topic was whether to, and how to incorporate social action in our Sanghas. It seemed to me everyone present perceived the needs of this troubled world to be profound in these years in particular. In my breakout group, we all shared concern, and believed it ethical for each to have a response.

For some, including me, Blue Cliff Record 14 is helpful here.

A monk asked Yunmen, “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?”
Yunmen said, “An appropriate statement.”
Cleary, T. (translator), The Blue Cliff Record, p. 94

I prefer the translation of Yunmen’s reply as, “A fitting response.” Yunmen is pointing each of us, all the time, back to our own response, which is to say our own responsibility. That response and responsibility is true individually, within our Sangha, family, and greater community.

In the DSTC group discussion, on one day the inclination across groups was to encourage members to engage in social action parallel to the sangha activities, but not as sangha sponsored. Folks expressed concern that if done as sponsored activities we would lose inclusiveness to all beliefs. Some teachers found their energy and time limited, and chose to prioritize teaching duties as central to the sangha. Also, many felt it was foundational to Zen, to offer perspective and responses that did not exacerbate investment in my side versus your side. What actions can we take that do not give another turn to the dharma wheel of divisiveness? This challenge is ubiquitous in our koan tradition.

The pointer to Blue Cliff Record case 51, Hsueh Feng’s case, “What is It?,” goes like this:
As soon there is affirmation and denial, you lose your mind in confusion. If you don’t fall into grades and stages, then there is no seeking.
Cleary, T. (translator), The Blue Cliff Record, p. 297.

One’s appropriate response isn’t passive – it does cut through affirmation and denial.

As an example of our practice working in parallel to social action, I recall a story of Aitken Roshi being asked by a person if he could practice Zen, disclosing that he worked in a liquor store. Aitken told him anyone could practice Zen, but he predicted that in a year either the person would not be practicing Zen, or not working in a liquor store. Aitken told this story with confidence, and said he was right in his prediction. I understood this as Aitken trusting in the compassion evolving from this practice, of setting aside the distance of concepts and doctrine, and to see ourselves and others, and our place in the world. Looking around TTS, I believe we can likewise trust in our Sangha members, in each finding a fitting response, here.

I appreciate Aitken’s story for the point it makes, taking it at face value. Though I’m distant from the individual he spoke of, I can also imagine the outcome was biased by Aitken’s answer to the question. With the authority of “teacher,” Aitken’s response communicated his perception of an incompatibility between Zen practice and working in a liquor store. I can’t help but wonder whether that drove the choice of the student as much as the arising of compassion.

I’ve also seen groups in agreement with compassionate action, and still spending hours in disagreement about the approach to take, and how far to take it. In one joint board meeting with MCPS, everyone agreed we wanted to help the homeless, even those leaving feces in our Dharma Gate garden and lawn, and lighting fires under the deck. All appreciated members who brought in a homeless support group to advise us and for outreach to the homeless who were Dharma Gate.

We did not agree on whether or not we should discourage homeless folks from sleeping on our porch, by using such measures as installing a light that would shine on the porch from a position that couldn’t be disabled without a ladder. I didn’t find the meeting to be satisfying, and I expect I was not alone in that. Even all saying “yes” to action led to some level of division. Truthfully, the example was mild, brought out today because it’s close to home. I would be surprised if anyone here found it difficult to recall a discussion in a group, or family, where polarizing perspectives led to deep discord. How much harder it is with the bigger group that is an organization, city, or nation.

In the last retreat, I included this passage from the Tao de Ching in a talk:

The Tao gives birth to one
one gives birth to two
two gives birth to three
three gives birth to ten thousand things
ten thousand things with yin at their backs
yang in their embrace
and breath between for harmony…

Lao Tzu, Red Pine (trans.). Lao-tzu’s Taoteching (p. 84). Copper Canyon Press. Kindle Edition.

Highlighting a few words:

ten thousand things with yin at their backs
yang in their embrace
and breath between for harmony…

Before my own remarks, I’ll share a bit of commentary on these words, from 12th century Taoist master, Lu Hui-Ch’ing :

Dark and unfathomable is yin. Bright and perceptible is yang. As soon as we are born, we all turn our back on the dark and unfathomable yin and turn toward the bright and perceptible yang. Fortunately, we keep ourselves in harmony with the breath between them.

Lao Tzu, Red Pine (trans.). Lao-tzu’s Taoteching (pp. 84-85). Copper Canyon Press. Kindle Edition.

The Taoists have lovely expression of something inherent in what we’ve come to know as Zen. Unless including harmonizing breath, however we choose to act, whatever we find is our appropriate response, we surely default to bright certainty in our own yang perspective. Standing with certainty, we believe there is no doubt we must act, nor is there doubt about the action to take. Using breath, who hears, we harmonize our certainty with recognition of the unfathomable which we can’t know. With known and unknown, we have salty, sour, and a curry of flavors beyond description.

Sitting down Thursday morning, I knew I was going to work on this talk and knew the topic, but not what I would write. Vitality would not have been necessary if I already knew what I would say. With this in mind I was struck recently when I heard a pianist talking about a piece of Mozart’s music having been written improvisationally, so I asked a classical composer friend about improvisation in classical composition. He said in one way, all composition is improvisational, until the piece is declared finished, and fixed in its form. Even then, each musician must bring it to life each time it is played.

Writing a talk is improvisational as well, including arms open to a response not yet recognized, and recognition beyond doubt of a response to a topic or phrase. What serves for you to open your arms in embrace of harmony? It’s one thing to have open arms when exploring alone, how about when talking politics to others with whom you disagree?

As we turn toward what we think we know, breath, sound, mu, help us harmonize with affirmative doubt – doubt that allows me to look again before writing the next sentence. Doubt that will open me to listen to all you find to disagree with in these very words.

Wendell Berry elegantly expressed this in his poem, “To Know the Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
(The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, NY, Counterpoint, 1998, p.68)

None of this is intended to dismiss or limit the need for action; Lao Tzu and Wendell Berry are addressing “how,” not “if.”

Returning to the DSTC, all those present felt compelled to their own efforts in the world, and to include the cries of the world in talks and interactions. Another discussion on a subsequent day was more poignant. Ellen Davison told us of the severe flooding in her town of Lismore, Australia. One news report I found after the end of the meeting, said three weeks after the flooding, “There is no power, the shops are boarded up, hundreds of homes are empty and the stench of decay is thick in the air.” Ellen said their dojo, it’s cushions and Buddha, were all lost. The floods, draughts, and fires ravaged much of the country. This was the second major flooding of Lismore in five years. Even so, before the recent flooding, Lismore Sangha members met for a time to talk about climate action, then fell away rather than taking actions together.

Subhana and Mary hosted classes through the Sidney Zen Center on Eco-Resilience. These should be posted online sometime soon. Nelson Foster gave a talk in Honolulu on unprecedented uncertainty. It should be available, but I haven’t put hands on it yet. Many wrestled to find what actions are effective, losing trust in demonstrating, and letter writing.

The consensus of the group was that we’re all trying very, very hard to navigate these important issues around us and respond, though folks were not sure what was the best ways are. There was a lot of variation on ways being tried.

Zen tradition is alive as long as we find an appropriate response to our own living it, now, today, and tomorrow. Practicing Zen together we have the mutual support of being knee to knee physically and virtually. For each of us when sitting for long days, but for the companionship we share here, there would be times we’d say, “ah, what the heck,” and do something else for a while. We sit tending our own flame, and in doing so we support the flame of the ones to our left, and right.

I’m also convinced that in sitting together, each of us makes compromises in what might be the ideal practice for me and you. There are many axes of differences we all manage. There are times I have sat alone for periods to best support my practice, and I’ve always returned. TTS has had several folks recently find their way to us after practicing on their own for periods of years, now wanting the stimulation of others in tending the flame.

I heard a comedian one time say he ran into a guy who in conversation said to him, “’Oh, you’re a Christian – I am too. How wonderful. What church do you attend?’. When I said a Baptist church, he said, ‘Me too! What kind of Baptist church?’ I said a Southern Baptist church. He said, fantastic! That’s my church too! What kind of Southern Baptist church?’ I said a Contemporary Church. He said, ‘Rot in hell, you spawn of the devil!’”

Clearly the delight in finding kinship, and dismay in our differences is part of the human experience.

In times of unprecedented uncertainty, our meditation practice is particularly important for our own resilience – to foster persistence independent of results, and steadily follow our vows to save all being in our own ways, by hour and by year.