Living the Heart’s Aspiration: A Teacher is Born

In our tradition living by vow is the way to truly respect our life potential, cherishing and not taking for granted the brief opportunity of this lifetime.

The monastery schedule is marked by periods of intensive sitting practice, where the collective energy is focused into the one activity of zazen. Strengthening vow, through the direct experience of body/heart/mind. And periods of integration—where the time for “personal practice” is increased and residents have the opportunity to pursue their own unique expression of the dharma; through individual study, body practice, art, music and community service. Allowing the insights opened in zazen to transfer through the regular activities of body, speech and mind. Everybody has a different shape, a different expression that their life will take, a different offering they will make in the world.

Vow is a practice of gathering and distilling our many desires, interests and values and channeling them into a stream of concrete action; moment to moment, day by day, step by step.

This past week, instead of the Life Vow Sesshin, a sesshin offered since the opening of Great Vow Zen Monastery in 2001, Hogen Roshi and Dharma Holder Bansho Patrick Green offered a different kind of workshop/retreat called the Heart’s Aspiration. The sacred stillness of the zendo and grounds of the monastery married a 5-day training in purpose, intention, aspiration and vow.

The workshop began with a review of the fundamental practice of zazen. A practice where we feel the direct, present moment, experience of whatever arises—letting go of judgments, labels and thoughts. Feeling the body, directly, just as it is. A timeless teaching, that is always helpful to be reminded of. Zazen allows for the settling of the mind and opening to the spacious freedom, found in the here & now.

During one period of early morning sitting, Chozen Roshi reminded, “The Heart’s Aspiration is not about some future self, the Heart’s Aspiration is right here.” It is a continuous opening to the guidance of the Heart—opened to in zazen. A trust in the mysterious unfolding of life, a trust that we are prepared to meet whatever is given to us in this life.

Clarifying the Heart’s Aspiration is an unending practice. Clarifying vow is our life.

Hogen Roshi asked us early on to hold the truth “Everything is OK.” A dimension of truth discovered and embodied through direct experience and opening to the true nature of all things, a truth that balances the appropriate concern for the current state of the world. And yet, this truth is simultaneous with the truth that our lives matter, that who we are in any given moment, affects everyone and everything else. But we are not alone. Hogen Roshi often reminds us, we are not some lump in here, we are intimately connected with the rest of creation. And so we must respond to the cries of the world. And probably now, more than ever, we are being asked to care for each other in this period of great uncertainty and confusion in our nation.

We all have many voices inside whispering, shouting, beckoning, calling to us. What is common among them? From where do they source?

As we dig into this work of clarifying purpose, it is common for anger, confusion, doubt and fear to arise. Voices that recognize the state of the world as crazy, complex, overwhelming and/or doomed. And voices blare that blame us for being too lazy, too stupid, too confused, unable to keep up. How do we hold all the pain, suffering, confusion and uncertainty that is in the world right now? What wisdom in contained in these voices?

This is completely normal. There is pain in the world. We are scared. We are overwhelmed. Bansho would say: This is the human experience. And then using caring speech and a soft touch, he would bring us back to the present. Feel the body. Feel the sensations of anger, of frustration, of confusion. How are we meeting our Heart’s Aspiration in this moment? WE must continue. The Heart’s Aspiration is bigger than our overwhelm, our fear, our anxiety for the world.

What do I deeply respect? What do I want to see flourish, in myself and in the world? If I wasn’t fooled by cynicism, despair and the two-faced demon of hope/fear, if these are quieted, what is asked of me? What would I like to build? What should be lovingly destroyed? What direction do I need to put my body and heart in service to so that I am a person that I truly respect?

While vows and aspirations were percolating through the hearts and heads of the monastery grounds, we couldn’t help but recognize that someone was missing. A figment, a ghost, making rounds to all the altars of the monastery 3 times a day, yet remaining mostly hidden from view—where is Jogen?

Sealed in solo retreat in the musical zendo, Adam Jogen Salzberg after ten years of priest training and almost fifteen years of monastic training was completing his transmission ceremony with Chozen and Hogen Roshi. A ceremony recognizing Jogen as a Sensei (or Dharma Teacher) marked by receiving a brown robe (teacher’s robe) which he donned as the officiant during the morning chanting service that is part of our Sunday Program.

This heart aspiration must be vast and particular. It does not have to be grand. It is not about impressing other people, it’s not about “me”, not small. Nothing but a personal, completely unique expression of your life, of my life.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the week chosen for the transmission ceremony coincided with the Sangha undertaking this beautiful, yet at times painful, turning towards and listening to the heart’s aspiration. For it is no small thing to become a teacher in this tradition. It takes years of commitment and practice, thousands of hours of meditation and retreat, an intimate study of the nature of one’s own heart and mind, a dedication and love of the tradition, immersion in the teachings, and a clarity and compassion to meet and teach others. In most cases one does not set out to become a Zen teacher, but practices with the desire to alleviate suffering. And over time, the vow grows in one’s heart, it grows to include all beings, we call this the Great Vow, for it is not personal, it is timeless, it picks us up, and uses us.

Some of us may become teachers, some artists, others will be activists, some will work with the houseless, some will write books, others will develop sustainable food systems, some will raise children, others will care for the elderly—our skills will be used in various ways, through various roles throughout our lives.

May I manifest love for the whole, as the whole. With this attitude of heart—all is redeemed, elevated, all our skills, proclivities, blunders, twists and turns are turned to gold and given as gift, in our everyday, human, mysterious ways.

Poem For My Teachers

By: Kojun Sensei

January 15, 2017

You hadn’t chosen to share with me that I would have a baby brother.
And yet, anyone with an eye could see that you were VERY pregnant.
Any day now…
Any moment now…
Excellent Trees produce Excellent Fruit.

[With congratulations to Jan Chozen Bays and Hogen Bays, Roshis and Adam Jogen Salzberg, Sensei]

Italicized quotes are selected from the Dharma Talk given by Jogen Sensei on Sunday January 15 2017.