Just Good Company
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Two Zen Dialogues:
Change Your Mind Day – June 7, 2003 – Ciudad de Los Angeles
Distant & Close

Morgan Zo Callahan

"I make each person I meet the object of my reverence" – Buddha

Change Your Mind Day

Around the speedy, glowing globe – including here in L.A. – thirty-eight Buddhist-sponsored events are available for people so enticed, of whatever myriad persuasions: music, poetry, dance, contemplative exercises, yoga, T’ai Chi, meditation practices, talk and interchange, in relaxed, out-of-doors environs, informal, recalling the time of the Buddha’s generous, open, respecting-all 45 year teaching.

Talking with Roshi Jiyu-Kennett, 1983: My First Exposure to Zen

MZC: What is Buddhism for you? What was its attraction for you, as a young lady in England who would later go to the Japanese Soto Zen Soji-ji monastery (’62-’68) to study and practice with your teacher Koho Zenji to whom you offer such admiration and affection; and then start in Northern California, Mount Shasta Monastery in ’71?  How did you come to understand the Buddhist teachings regarding the cultivation of insight and wisdom, founded in moral and character development, heart-connected in compassion? And secondly, we are mostly Catholics here, and we tend to shy away from Buddhism as “atheist.” Would you clarify how we can see through this misconception of Buddhism and reveal for us its purpose and heart, which you said in your talk, is “to find the Eternal,” an aspiration appreciated by us Catholics who are theists?

RJK: Yes, it is the being intimate with the Eternal that both attracts me and puts my own practice into perspective, even with the incredibly varying expressions of what Buddhism is. I acknowledge that some Buddhists teachers don’t agree with me. You are a Catholic, yet there are significant places where we can meet in our two traditions, as well as acknowledge our theological-philosophical-ritual differences. So I will start by quoting an ancient sutta, attributed to Buddha shortly after his own experiential finding of the Eternal: “O monks, there is an unborn, undying, unchanging, uncreated. If it were not true, there would be no point to life and no point to our training.” This is the nearest Buddhism comes to God; it is the “apophatic” way of stating that there is something, as opposed to the “ cataphatic” way which gives specifics of what that Reality is. Negatively, we say that the great Reality is not changing, not dying, not being born, not being created; so we are far from being atheists. Zen just refuses to say what it doesn’t know for sure and encourages people to find out for themselves rather than rely on doctrine, including Buddhist doctrine.

MZC: Yes, thanks for conveying that we are in this together, as Buddhists and Catholics; I appreciate being with you here in Santa Barbara. I’ve been adjusting my own notion of sin, both original and personal, from observing the possibility that we can experience basic goodness in ourselves and others, by not covering it up so much with all our thinking and hurtfulness. I know you speak of moral precepts, which we, Catholics, also try to embrace as essential to spiritual practice along with our prayer, worship, meditation, reflection, service.

The Five Precepts: don’t kill, don’t steal; don’t practice hurtful sexual practices; don’t lie; don’t abuse intoxicants – expressed positively as, practice compassion, generosity, sexual responsibility, truthfulness & listening, mindful consumption.

RJK: There’s a famous Buddhist scripture which says that the most important human challenge is to understand birth, life and death completely. Life and death should not be avoided but embraced, lived, met completely; being detached does not mean being disinterested. Life and death themselves will be found to be nirvana, with your sincere involvement. Practice and taste for yourself. If we find the Eternal in life and death, then we are no longer so afraid. Even death is another moment in the Now. Life becomes a sharing in the Eternal and that’s why we meditate, to stay in that beautiful, peaceful place with the Eternal. That’s why we strengthen our ability to concentrate and to discipline ourselves to be morally straight. The kingdom of heaven is within each of us. This teaching can be used by you, as a Catholic, or by one from any religion or without a religion, because we’re talking essences of what great religion is, rather than all the “-isms” themselves. Buddhism does not require any doctrine. Prove it true for your self. Your questioning of sin is an instructive example. In Buddhism we say, “Refrain from,” not “You shall not.” Your unskillful intentions, speech, and actions are covering up the original goodness to be discovered. You do not, in our view, have some outside God giving you a command, but you find out that if you do good, refrain from being hurtful and jealous and mean, you will then know a peace and happiness. You only let yourself and others down if you break a precept; but you don’t feel shame and guilt before a God. You just dust yourself off and start to practice again; you don’t feel a fear of a supreme being who will condemn and punish and judge you. You yourself carry the consequences.


Expectantly I drive up the pretty green Puente Hills of the largest cemetery in the world: Rose Hills, formerly Rancho Paso de Bartolo, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. On a rare, clear day you can view downtown’s skyscrapers, silhouetted further west by the abundant blue and white foaming Pacific. I pass purple-flowering jacarandas, liquid ambers, oaks, spruces. “Remember Death” whispers profoundly from shiny gray grave markers and tender memorials. I’m told deer and coyote run around in the upper brush.

“Beloved Wife, Mother, Grandmother. Rest in Peace, ’08-‘98”
“Adored Son, Be With God, ’89-‘98”

We set up chairs, cushions, two tents, the main one flagged on each side by descending blue-yellow-red-orange stripes. We place a white samadhi-sitting Buddha amidst flowers, shaking pink-yellow-red-white petals. A golden brass bowl burns three fragrant sticks between two red candles. Behind, tall green plant leaves blow across Buddha’s head and juicy-ear-lobed face – joyful, serene.

Just Sit: With Ken Ireland, Zen Priest, November 4, 2000

MZC: I met you, Ken, in San Francisco last year at your Tender Zendo in the YMCA where you were teaching meditation. Would you tell us about what led you through the process of becoming a Zen priest, what practices prepared you, what teachers you met and contrast your life with that of a Catholic priest?

KI: I want to say that I’ve been really blessed. We‘ve been reminiscing over the number of people I’ve met over the last 30 years of being a Buddhist practitioner. The traditional Buddhist would say “blessing”; I’d say the “great luck” to meet some really wonderful teachers, to talk, ask questions, listen, practice, to sit with them. My first teacher was the Chinese Yogi Chen (1906-87). He had been in Tibet for 40 years and left with the Karmapa before the Dalai Lama; he ended up in a little apartment on Shattuck Avenue near Cal Berkeley. Claudio Naranjo and a Jesuit priest named Bob Ochs introduced me. We would go and sit and talk with him about meditation.

I also did psychological groundwork, namely transformational personal development, by looking at parts of my mind that were troubling and being able to slowly handle it in a responsible way. T’ai Chi also prepared me to sit by allowing me to be aware that my body was something other than a thing I carried around which sat in a car and drove to work and did whatever else I did with it. I discovered there’s energy that moves the body.

I don’t think there’s much difference between a Zen and Catholic priest. Buddhism went to China from India and the Japanese went to China and brought Zen back to Japan, as did the Koreans to their country. They all transformed it in terms of their culture. So we see how some of the Japanese Zen comes to America and it’s not always dharma; it’s Japanese “dharma.” So we need to begin here in the U.S. to invent the priesthood and lay priesthood and people who take precepts and people who are in service and practice in one form or another. The short answer to your question is that it’s actually no different at all from the function of a Catholic priest; because it means that you’re in service to the community. The longer answer is that in some other ways, it’s also not different. It is signifying a commitment to a kind of intensive practice which you allow into all of your life. A certain layperson may come to the Zen priest for instruction or ceremonies. I’ve developed welcoming ceremonies for babies and, living in San Francisco through the AIDS epidemic spending a lot of time with people who were dying, I’ve done ceremonies at the end of life: cremation, completion ceremonies, ordination for people when they’re dying. Priests are people picked out of the community to mark these events in life; of course they are Buddhist ceremonies and have a different flavor than a Catholic priest or minister’s ceremony.

MZC: Ken, would you comment about meditation? The teacher says, well, just sit. Can you expand upon that?

KI: (Laughing) No, I can’t. When you begin your meditation, you just sit and you find any way you can to convince yourself that sitting down is a good idea. You have to get beyond being discomfort-able, uncomfortable (“discomfortable” – I made up a new word!) – yet not bullying or criticizing yourself. There’s something about the whole interaction of your body with what we in the West call the soul or the spirit or consciousness that you can explore while sitting. But it isn’t that your mind explores it. It’s your body, “all of you.”

MZC: Since you’ve studied the life of Jesus and the life and teaching of the Buddha, do you relate to Jesus and to Buddha in any way, in your practice and considerations?

KI: Sure. Both of these figures exist as historical figures and they exist as mythological figures. So there are things that they might have said and things that people make up about what they said. Yogi Chen said he was very interested in Catholicism and that he heard that there were people in the world who have the wounds of Jesus in their hands, in their feet, the stigmata. He said he’d like such a person to be pope. He’d look for somebody who has the real signs of embodying the teaching of Jesus in her/his person, in life.

MZC: So Buddhism says there’s some soul, yet it’s not immortal. It doesn’t have its own essential, independent existence. Does your theology of a soul make any difference in how you relate to a dying person? Secondly, how do you personally relate to someone who’s dying?

KI: The second question is far more interesting to me. I never work with dying people; they work with me. (Laughing) The first thing that you become aware of when you work with people who have a grave diagnosis is that when those considerations of soul and what’s going to happen in the future fall away, the real selves start to come out. You have to get yourself ready to be the subject of totally unreasonable demands and requests. Somehow you wind up fulfilling those. You know, “I want to have my relationship with my family straightened out before I die. I want to make peace with so and so; I want to die in a particular way.” On the other hand, the process of dying has its own agenda. It’s nature and the body begins to shut down in its own way. You have to give up control of it. You say, I’ve committed myself to be of service, to ease the transition, to alleviate the pain and you do what’s necessary. The award is enormous and it’s incredibly difficult from the point of view of your ideas about what things should be like. You don’t hold on, you can’t.

MZC: Let’s finish our conversation with a poem of Nyogen Senzaki (1876-1958):

early in the morning
in the western sky
one star blinks at me
I love its green light

KI: (Weeping) Why did N. Senzaki come to California from Japan? Why did he come to wash dishes in a restaurant? He came to set up folding chairs in his apartment to teach zazen. He came to teach Robert Aitken meditation. He came to be our ancestor. I’m incredibly moved by this man’s life. Robert Aitken told me how this guy had a little apartment near Japantown and, at the end of his workday, he’d set up chairs in his apartment and teach basic meditation. And that’s the dharma opening in this country.

(The full interview is available at: www.westcoastcompanions.org/ken_ireland.htm)

Illuminating Mind-Heart: L.A.’s Occasion

Bespectacled, Rev. Brett Cowles, Alaskan, in a black robe with shaved head, welcomes us warmly, a group which would grow to 28. He describes Buddhist meditation as “mind-heart” cultivation by our own right effort, as the whole persons we are, actively, morally, spiritually, with wisdom, attention and perspective – you, yourself, growing patiently, the seeds for a propitious flowering of understanding and compassion. Find a quiet place. Count your exhaled breaths up to 10. See how you get distracted. Come back to your breath. Practice. Pursue the joy of overcoming the narrow self, so habituated to react.

Brilliantly in tune, birds chirp loudly and sing as we say the Annatalakkhana Sutta:
The body is not the self…so it is subject to suffering. Feeling, perception, thought, consciousness are not the self, but by nature changing and impermanent…the body must be treated with right understanding, so do not cling to forms, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness…Be free from clinging and so be liberated from within your self…

Next, the Sri Lankan abbot of Rosemead Monastery, Bhante Chao Chu, orange-robed, round-faced, cheerful, large open eyes, speaks of two forms of meditation: one-pointed concentration and focus – peaceful-abiding – upon an object of contemplation (samatha) and secondly, insightful seeing – being present in the moment to see clearly the way it is, now and now (vipassana). Direct your mind, yet do not force or try to control your mind. Relax and don’t struggle. There are no strict rules for sitting. Its purpose is to find out what’s going on deep in yourself with compassion, not blaming ourselves and others.

The word “meditation” does not occur in our Buddhist tradition; rather one speaks of “bhavana”, a term of wider meaning indicating a holistic program of self-cultivation of which meditation techniques are a part. Meditation practices themselves are known as “samadhi” the development of concentration with the goal of purifying and strengthening the mind. At the same time we musts attain a degree of right understanding, knowing what we are doing while cultivating moral purity in our lives, so meditation can produce beneficial results. It is taught that we are not born in sin, but rather that one’s own natural, divine virtue is temporarily obscured by unskillful thoughts, words, actions. When a meditator has gotten his/her body to sit, relaxed but poised and attentive, the vital energies will also begin to “sit” as one continues to follow the breath. Then, as the conscious and unconscious begin to integrate, the mind at last will begin to sit. A sense of collectedness grows, with peace and feelings of bliss, even possibly mystical experiences-absorptions (jhanas), states of greater subtlety, spheres of infinite space, infinite consciousness, “no-thing-ness.” One who may perfect the attainment of such states without clinging to them or being seduced by psychic powers which might arise, is said to have achieved liberation. Of course, such experiences are impermanent and not necessary for one’s liberation.

Yogi Pat Collins and two lady compañeras lead us in some yoga (the stretching Sun Salutation) and belly- and alternate-nostril breathing, followed by a break where we enjoy Sandy’s scrumptious wheat bread-tofu-lettuce-and-apple sandwiches and conversations in rich silences – and the pines smelling so sweet in the breezy, dark overcast air.

Wispy, 80 year old T’ai Chi Master Yong Nian Miao, pony-tailed, in faded dark suit, with brown sweater-vest, black-and-yellow tie, leads us in slow fluid-motion dance and breath, pushing rhythmically our arms out and to alternating sides, our hands turning over, as in a hula, scooping and circulating chi, hips swiveling, eyes following the tips of our fingers. Finishing, Yong Miao demonstrates his hard body and control by forcefully punching his own belly, whacking his shoulders and back with a wooden pole, isolating and twitching his pectoral muscles, then to surprise us, spinning around and shaking his buns, as if a buff senior Chippendale dancer.

Bhante and Brett close with questions, discussion. Let’s loosen the pressures from our lives. Our minds-hearts are our sixth sense, so we can see that when we have any effects, there are causes-conditions to be inquired into. We can be aware of what comes and goes, not figuring it out necessarily, but by making it fully conscious. Some psychologists may say to scream out frustrations, pound fat pillows, express our repressions in the mind. That may be an appropriate catharsis for some, yet, more gently, watch and listen to what arise as conditions of the mind, rather than as personal problems or failures. They are arising conditions which are not satisfactory (“dukkha”); which are changing (“anicca”); and which are not the person (“anatta”).

We recite the Metta Sutta: “One should be balanced…humble. Let no one deceive another nor despise another anywhere. Cultivate a heart of loving kindness.”

Clean up: pack, carry chairs, chop wooden hearts, say-shake-hug grateful good-byes.

Morgan Zo Callahan, who entered the California Province of the Society of Jesus in 1962 and left in 1972, is now a public school teacher in Southern California. He takes frequent trips to provide aid -- and a good pair of ears -- to the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico.