Monday morning was in the mid-fifties and I welcomed the arising day from the back porch glider with my cup of tea and trusty laptop. I do confess to a blanket to warm my legs and wrapping a scarf around my bald head for warmth. But still, it was a treat to write outside for the first time of the season.
Yesterday, I had to look twice to understand that the white blanket on the ground was actually snow and ice.
This morning, it’s cold again. I don my orange down jacket for the ritual Thursday morning walking of the yellow trash bag across the empty parking lot. The luminous and nearly round moon catches my eye through the bare branches of the mighty sugar maple that grace the clear western sky.
Soon enough the leaves will come and the weather will warm. But even now, the birds still sing and the daffodils, though bent, appear to be uncomplaining.
I’ll be preaching this morning at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson. It’s settled down to about four or five times a year that I’m asked to give the sermon at a Unitarian Universalist church in the region. I always say yes when I’m asked. It’s the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
I decided to be a professional cleric when I was five years old. At the time, my Dad had just taken his first ‘call’ as a Presbyterian minister. It was a second career for him. He had dropped out of the Coast Guard to attend Princeton Seminary shortly after his mother died, his young brother-in-law committed suicide and I was born.
We lived in Cambridge, NY, a small farming town forty miles northeast of Albany. Our house, which seemed big and rambling to a small boy, was right across the street from the church. My brother and I had a bottle cap collection and once captured several pollywogs that lived briefly in a gallon jug and eventually shed their tails and began becoming frogs. We had a small black and white TV with rabbit ears that could be adjusted to receive different kinds of static and occasional shadowy moving images.
Every Sunday, my Dad would stand up in the pulpit and talk. I have no memory of anything he said, but I remember that everyone listened. My job, it was made clear to me, was to be quiet and not fidget too much. And then after (or before) the sermon, Dad would join the four or five other people (it wasn’t a big church) and sing in the choir.
It was clear to me then, that this is was the most worthy vocation and that when I grew up, I wanted to be a minister and sing in the choir. Of course a five year old doesn’t really know very much, and yet I marvel at my prescience. Despite my best efforts to avoid a religious career, I am now Abbot of the Zen Temple where I live and participate in daily services (meditation). I consider myself astonishingly lucky to have this as my work and to share it with my wife Melissa Myozen Blacker, Roshi.
And on this lovely April morning, I get to go to a beautiful old New England church, and stand in the pulpit and talk about the good news of the possibility of being a human being. People will sit in the pews and listen. And though I probably won’t sing in the choir, I will join in on my favorite hymns with particular enthusiasm.
This past week, I’ve been back in the garden. The snow is fully gone and the great green engine of life is manifesting once more. But the long winter has left me feeling unsure as I walk the familiar brick pathways. I can’t quite remember what I was thinking before the days of cold and dark.
For its part, the garden is doing fine. The new crocuses we put in last fall have managed to dislodge the leaf litter and proudly display their oval cups of color. The tiny blue chionodoxa (glory of the snow) are once again a blue and green carpet beneath the katsura trees. And the forget-me-nots have appeared as random green clumps amid the brown, still biding their time to send forth their tender pale blue blossoms.
But I’m having some difficulty finding my way. I don’t have my bearings so I keep wandering. I walk slowly and keep my eyes open to see both what is already here and what is emerging. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed. I could be a full-time garden monk and still not come to the end of what I would like to do.
This spring, I’m also aware of needing to tend not only these gardens, but also on this transient sixty-one year old body. The winter and robust case of the flu have left me noticeably weaker than I remember. (Of course, at this point in life, there’s no telling how much is memory and how much is measurable.) So I’ve been building up my time as I do the intimate work of bending and shoveling – of picking up and putting down.
I’m once again in training as a gardener and hoping that my body and the garden can guide me on the journey.
At a private ceremony last night, somewhere near Toledo and midnight, Jay Ryudo Rinsen Weik received Dharma transmission from James Ishmael Ford and entered into the stream of officially recognized Zen teachers. Melissa Myozen Blacker and I were there as part of the ceremony that was witnessed by Karen Doan Wiek and Isabella Weik.
Of course there have been many teachers of the Way who have had no use for organizations and formal transmissions. But, in the Zen tradition, the true heart of understanding is said to have been passed from teacher to student in unbroken succession.
The essential teaching of this Zen tradition is that there is nothing to teach. We each have this most precious gift from the very beginning and that no one can ever take it away from us (or give it to us.) This is the not-so-secret teaching that is beyond words and letters.
The true transmission has nothing to do with ceremonies or teachers, students, or even Zen. Never contained or limited in institutional form, none-the-less, the unspeakable essence temporarily incarnates again and again. Though we cannot properly talk about it, human beings have been singing its praises for millennia. Poets, painters, and teachers of all shapes and sizes have pointed directly at it since before the beginning of recorded history.
Last night, a few Zen teachers and family members gathered to re-enact the rites and rituals of this ancient tradition and to recognize the understanding and commitment of someone who has given his life to practice and teaching.
Now, after a public ceremony this morning, we just have to find our way 600 miles through the snow back east.
We spent the night in a faux Italianate hotel just outside of Buffalo, New York. This morning I take my first digital shower, with the readout (and the water temp) refusing to go above 92 degrees. We found the hotel after the crescent moon had descended through the gathering darkness of the western road ahead. The sliver of a moon had briefly appearing to be willing to let us drive right into the slim bowl of itself—just before it disappeared beneath the horizon and the oncoming headlights of the New York State Thruway.
I stayed at this hotel fifteen years ago, on my way back from a kayak expedition to Georgian Bay. Six or seven of us, headed toward Boston, thought we’d find a place near Buffalo on a Saturday night in June. We’d forgotten the romantic attraction of Niagara Falls. Though roadside hotels were abundant, we were rejected by so many for lack of room that we began to feel like the holy parents themselves. Finally a nice clerk at one of the chains called down the road and found one room in ‘Salvitore’s Italian Garden.’ The only room they had was the deluxe bridal sweet – with a king bed, a queen bed – two showers with multiple shower heads and three rooms. We divided up bed space and floor space and were grateful for the showers after seven days of paddling and camping.
Last night, we got two rooms for the three of us – Zen teachers as we fashion ourselves – headed from Worcester, MA to Toledo, OH to conduct a ceremony marking the induction of a student into the lineage of Boundless Way Zen. This lineage business is serious in Zen. It is how the teachings have been handed down since the eighth or ninth century, when the custom was created in medieval China. This was long after Buddhism had come to China in the third century CE causing quite an cultural stir.
I guess we could say Buddhism has caused quite a stir in the US as well – primarily in its secular form of mindfulness and meditation which now nearly everyone knows have been scientifically proven to be good for you. And perhaps a corresponding growth of some minute fraction of the population that is interested in actually practicing the simple but rigorous path of sitting still and paying attention.
But here at the hotel outside of Buffalo, we bedded down last night, happy to be in from the single digit temperatures and the frozen windshield washer lines that meant that our only clean windshield came after we stopped and rubbed the plentiful snow over the salt and dirt spattered surface. Shortly after we turned out the light, we began to hear a woman’s voice – muffled but distinct. At first I thought she was just vocalizing, but I slowly began to suspect something more intimate. Her many exclamations of varying pitches began to make it sound like she was trying out for the Meg Ryan part in that movie where she pretends to have an orgasm in the diner so that Billy Crystal (I think) would believe that women aren’t always honest in their love-making. And after she reached the big affirmation—‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’—things got quieter.
At least until 1:30 a.m. when I woke to sounds of men’s voices and a TV in the next room. I lay in my bed wondering what people do this late at night. What had they been doing? What was their plan? Drinking? Sex? Just talking till all hours so as to avoid the big darkness of slowing down – the moment when, even when someone is in the bed with us, we each one have to disappear into the immeasurableness of our own experience – with our thoughts and feelings of triumph and despair. The woman who advertised her orgasm though the walls – did she drift off to sleep satisfied? Was this what she wanted and would this change her life? How will the world look to her this morning – after the blessed event? Proud, fulfilled, empty, desperate?
In any event, I wake at 6:30 in the morning darkness. It’s quite and my sweet wife and companion is sleeping soundly with ear plugs in the adjacent bed. I wander into the bathroom and try to navigate the digital shower with only meager results. I know now that while it is possible to take a shower with the water temperature at 92 degrees, it is not very satisfying.