Kurt's Blog: Conversations Around the Fire
Since 1994, Kurt has offered contemplative kayaking retreats in Alaska through Inside Passages. His work as a mindfulness teacher now includes regular mindfulness retreats and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes in the Seattle area. Kurt's book "The Circumference of Home", and other essays and writings, are also available on this site. He periodically updates his blog reflections on this page, "Conversations Around the Fire".
Spring has arrived at Sogenji, and almost overnight the cherry blossoms have burst forth, bringing tons of Japanese tourists to the temple grounds looking for the peak-moment photograph. Spring blossoms and fall colors are like Christmas and Easter for the Japanese – real celebratory events.
My 64th birthday came on my last full day at Sogenji. I was hoping to slip it under the radar, but Chisan has a way of knowing about these things. So as tradition here has it, I was expected to offer a poem to commemorate the occasion. My poem was received with the reverent respect that is my due as an elder in the community. I’ll share it with you here:
Curse you Paul McCartney
Long ago you predicted that this would happen.
Now it has come to pass,
And I must learn the painful truth.
‘Will they still need me
Will they still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?’
But I will not give in to fear.
‘On top of Mt. Sogenji I have met the painful stick,
And there is still one more shout coming.’
‘At this moment, what more need I seek?’
I will wander the world as a beggar now,
At least until next Tuesday
When my plane touches down in Seattle
And I wake from this dream,
Wondering . . .
what . . .
happened . . .
(Commentary on the poem for those unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of Zen:
- Paul McCartney is a British singer/songwriter.
- The allusion to “meeting the painful stick” and to “one more shout coming” is from The Preface to the Saying of Zen Master Rinzai, which we recite every morning during sutra service.
- The “painful stick” is a reference to the kyosaku, a flattened wooden rod that the head monk carries around to whack any monk foolish enough to doze off on the cushion.
- “At this moment what more need I seek” is plagiarized from Hakuin Zenki’s Song of Zazen, which we also, unfortunately, recite every morning during the 4:00 hour.
Things changed for me at Sogenji when word got out that I had carpentry skills. I have been plenty busy during the daily work time, which usually lasts three hours. I’ve used my work practice to build two beds and three desks for the guesthouse, putting the final touches on them just as my last work period was drawing to a close today. This work has been a lot of fun, and it has given me the illusion that I am being “useful”.
The monks have generally found my woodworking projects entertaining, and they like to check in on my progress.
In fact, I have decided to start a new line of furniture. I’m calling it Sogenji Shaker. It is guaranteed made with inadequate tools, cheap materials, compressed work time, and no flat surfaces to work on. And it has given me something creative to not think about while I am on the cushion.
Probably two thirds of these students are from Eastern Europe; primarily Hungary, Poland and Russia. When I ask why they think that is, I’ve been given some fascinating answers. In their view, the Eastern European countries came out of the Soviet era spiritually starved, and they have had to reinvent a foundation for spiritual growth and practice. Many of them also carry a strong devotional spirit from their traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox faiths, but without a sense of belonging within those traditions in the new era. Buddhism is turning out to be a compelling place to invest that spirit and passion.
They have also inherited a cultural identity crisis from the Soviet era, along with persistently lousy economies, and are having to rediscover who they are now within the matrix. So for these young people, finding this full-bodied place of practice has given them a new lease on life, along with a stong community of international colleagues. Almost all of them intend to return to their home countries after a few years of training here, and to express the fruits of their training in a life of service there.
Tomorrow I leave Sogenji for Kyoto for two days with my friend Yuho, an American Zen monk who runs a temple there. I am really looking forward to this time in the old capital of Japan, before I fly home on April 1st. Chisan informed me today that Harada is also traveling to Kyoto tomorrow, along with Sho-e, his senior German student, so I will take the bullet train with them. Being with Harada outside of the training environment is a little intimidating. But then being with him in the training environment is intimidating too. That’s just how it is with him. Chisan seems to think its a great idea, and besides, I’m not really being given a choice. So no doubt this will keep the adventure going.
Sogenji owns several hundred acres of forested mountain behind the monastery, which makes it feel far from the city of Okayama that is actually lapping at its front doorstep. At the top of the hill, about a half mile by trail and scramble up a steep ravine, sits a small hermitage. What a contrast to the great hondo temple at the bottom of the hill!
Students are permitted, by invitation of the roshi, to do a “doku sesshin”, or solitary retreat at the hermitage. The length of the retreat can vary from a few days to a full month. I was invited to do a short, three day doku sesshin this week, during the heart of my time at Sogenji.
During doku sesshin, the student comes down from the mountain morning and evening for sanzen (personal interview) with the roshi, and to retrieve food that has been left for pickup. It is all set up so that there is no contact between the retreatant and the rest of the community during doku sesshin, except for the essential daily meetings with the roshi. Back up at the hermitage, one can use the time for practice in whatever way one chooses, which is a great freedom, and opportunity for integrating practice into daily life, after the tight ritual structure that governs life at the monastery.
My doku sesshin, which ended this morning, was a deeply nourishing time for me. There is an intricate system of trails through the hills, laced with pilgrimage sites and small temples, that have been traveled by pilgrims for centuries. It felt great to include a vigorous hike each day, along with zazen, studying and journaling. It is not a time for zoning out though. The energy of the monastery down below wafts up the hill, and the meetings with Harada twice a day help hold ones feet to the fire.
It has been fifteen years since I was last at Sogenji. In between I have attended many retreats with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island. During much of that time, I have wrestled with strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in my practice. Will I ever be “good” enough. Can I ever come up to this roshi’s standards? I worried a bit, in coming back to Sogenji, whether those old daemons might be here waiting for me.
But a lot has changed for me in the intervening years, and it feels like the tide is turning in the direction of acceptance and self-compassion. Some of that change is probably just the drumbeat of aging. My old habit of refusing to accept things as they are – in myself, in others, and in the world – of swimming against the current of reality, is simply running out of gas. I find myself able to turn toward things as they are these days, with less judgement and resistance, more openness and humility – even the most difficult aspects of my life. Maybe it’s fair to say that I am finally growing up.
Instead of always trying to practice harder, I’m learning to practice softer, as Michael Wenger has put it. “Practicing softer” is not in Harada’s vocabulary or cultural self-understanding. But it is in mine, and that shift toward a softer holding of things has made all the difference. It has even made it possible for me to practice fruitfully again in this difficult training environment that the young monks here like to call “Samurai Boot Camp”.
Working with some really good American teachers over the last decade has helped me soften these sharp edges in myself. Particularly fruitful has been my work with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Norman Fischer and Rodney Smith, who have helped immensely in translating these traditional Asian dharma forms into a vernacular that flows more fluidly, for me at least, as an American lay practitioner.
Teaching MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) has also been hugely beneficial to the integration of my practice into daily life. Learning to meet people where they are within my own culture, to present the basic tools of dharma practice without its traditional Buddhist scaffolding, and with the collaborating perspectives of Western psychology and neuroscience, has given a lot of fresh traction to my understanding of these emerging dharma forms.
The beauty, for me, of this time at Sogenji is its cementing of a “both/and” understanding, in place of the “either/or” approach that had me locked down for so long. The rigors of training here are a reminder that this practice takes strong motivation and commitment, and I can feel how the potency of the Sogenji training model is firming up my core motivation to practice.
But it is also reaffirming my core identity as an American lay practitioner. I am not called to be a monk. I am called to a life in the world, as a teacher, explorer, husband and father, and as a “kayaking guide” who is learning to ride the converging rip tides of many Buddhist tributaries flowing into a new dharma river in the West. It is a wild ride for sure.
Mostly, I’m feeling great gratitude for this time at Sogenji, and for the great good fortune of being able to train with such an extraordinary teacher as Harada, among such gifted and dedicated practitioners from all over the world.
It is the open day after the osesshin here at Sogenji – the intensive retreat that happens one week a month, and I’m enjoying resting up, doing laundry, and visiting with some of the amazing people in training here. There is even internet here now, for these days when the schedule is loosened up a bit. It was pretty rugged having to dive right into osesshin coming straight off the jet, but on the other hand it was a good way to really get here. The osesshin schedule is more intensive that at Tahoma, sitting basically from 4:00 AM to 10:30 PM, with a few short breaks. It is also cold in a way you can’t escape here. There is no central heating in these three hundred year old building, so it is just as cold inside as outside. Temperatures near freezing in the early morning, then more mild into the afternoon. It feels a little like winter camping, but I’m getting used to sitting bundled up, and winter is starting to loosen its grip now. The temple grounds and buildings are drop-dead beautiful, and that beauty helps ease the cold. Now that osesshin is over, the schedule for the rest of my time here will be a bit less rigorous.
The intensity of the quiet, with so much scope given to that silence, penetrates even more deeply than the cold. It is hard to describe, because this scale of silence is so utterly absent from my ordinary life, even as a mindfulness teacher. A training environment like this is very hard find in the culture of distraction that is so rampant in America.
Mostly a younger group of people in training here these days – from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Great Britain and the U.S., as well as a few now from Japan. I am feeling my age for sure. But so far I have been able to find my place in the mix of things where I can work hard without trying to be as macho as the younger ones. The atmosphere in a Rinzai Zen monastery is very competitive by design, so it takes some gumption to let go of that competitive urge. Mostly for me that means sitting some of the time with my feet down in the zendo – chair-like -, or standing, rather than sitting with my legs crossed on the cushion for hours at a spell.
I have been able also to let go of expectations about why I am here, to forget about trying to accomplish anything, and just put myself into the training as best I can. Relaxing and letting go continuously, rather than getting tight and judging myself for being so flawed, as I have always been so good at doing in the past. I can feel the grip of that old habit really starting to let go. What a relief! As challenging as this is, there is also an ease and comfort that comes with being carried along by such a strong and ancient current, having the benefit of a powerful practicing community, and of an intimate routine that I know well from years of practice. The flow of rituals that are the same each day offer a lot of solace.
I have no illusions that this is anything but a short dip into intensive training. Most people have to commit to a full year of training in order to be allowed to come here. But as one of Harada’s students from Tahoma, I can come for a shorter visit, to taste the strong brew of traditional Japanese training. So far I’m glad I followed my hunch to come. It was time. After three and a half decades of dharma practice, I am only beginning to understand – and to feel – how this practice is moving into the marrow of my everyday life. A deep dive like this from time to time can really help to anchor that understanding. Nothing feels more important to me at this point in my life, and at this pivotal time in our shared life on earth.
As I write this, my jet is just lifting off from Seattle-Tacoma, headed for San Francisco and Osaka, Japan. Puget Sound is fading into the mist and fog and rain of this early March morning. It will still be winter when I get to Sogenji.
My final MBSR class with King County employees concluded last night. As always, I was moved by the quality and depth of closing reflections from participants as we went around the circle of twenty-five people, sharing what has been valuable about this eight-week journey into mindfulness. One said, “I used to be caught in my reactivity, and I didn’t even know it. Now I see that I really can turn my reactions into responses – that I have choices – and this has made all the difference.” Another said, “I am so much calmer now. I was really stressed when I started the class. Those stesses are still there, but I don’t get pulled into them nearly as much. It’s hard to put into words.” Another said, “It gives me comfort to run into colleagues from this class now, and to know that we share this bond. I don’t feel so alone, and I feel better able to be present to my work.” Another said, “I was really disconnected from my body before. It was like me and my body were two. Now I do the body scan every day on the bus when I’m riding to work. I feel more calm when I get there, and I am really learning how to listen to my body. It makes a huge difference.”
Watching these insights take root in my students is inspiring. But I have also been feeling a need to take a break from teaching, and to go deeper again into my own practice. This is a trip I’ve been wanting to take for a long time, though I feel some apprehension going into it – a full month of intensive practice, mostly in silence. I’ve never done more that a week-long silent retreat before.
My motivation for going to Sogenji is still a bit murky. I’m a little surprised that I’m actually doing it. Mostly, my decision stems from my retreat with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island last September, when I felt a fresh connection to my teacher – fresh motivation to stay within the Zen stream. For the next month I will go by the name that Harada gave me. I will be “Shinkai”, which means “mind of ocean”. Chisan emailed me from Sogenji yesterday that Harada has mentioned several times to her that, “Shinkai is coming,” each time with a smile. The story I have been telling myself for so many years that I am a lousy Zen student, that Harada doesn’t take me seriously as a student, is obviously not true. Harada takes me much more seriously than I take myself. My job on this trip, and in moving forward from here, is to get out of my own way, so that the deep possibilities that Harada sees in me, and that are in everyone, can find freer and more heartfelt epression in my life. This is important not just for me, but for everyone that my life comes in contact with.
As both a Zen student and MBSR teacher, I feel myself perched on a rich, fertile intersection between traditional Buddhist training, and the exploding world of applied mindfulness in Western culture. It is messy and chaotic and beautiful and absolutely necessary. The discontinuities between the two feel much smaller to me than they used to. Could it be that all this elegant form and effort comes down to simply learning how to do this continuously in our everyday lives? I think so. But as the “mindfulness revolution” kicks into high gear, the question of integrity looms large. It is not nearly as easy to do this as pop culture is prone to suggest. Through my own ongoing practice and teaching, I have developed a more visceral understanding of how challenging it is to bring mindfulness into the marrow of our everyday lives, because I see how hard it is for me to do it skillfully and continuously. The layers of resistance and delusion never give way to clarity for long.
I have no idea if this trip to Japan will yield fruit, and what form that fruit will take. I’m simply following a hunch that this is what I need to do right now. I am trying to enter this time, as Suzuki Roshi used to suggest, “without a gaining idea.” And while reading and writing will mostly be on the back burner during this time, I’ll try to weigh in a couple times in the coming weeks with some of what I am learning.
In addition to some excellent skiing, and my ongoing work as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher at Seattle’s VA Hospital and the Samaritan Center of Puget Sound, I am teaching a first-ever MBSR class for King County employees in Seattle this winter through Mindfulness Northwest. The work of bringing mindfulness training into such a rich diversity of settings is continually engaging and energizing for me.
I have put my four MBSR practice CD’s into podcast format now on my website, which is available here to either listen directly, or to download. The CD’s include a body scan, a simple yoga routine, a qi gong movement series, and several tracks of mindful sitting. If you are not a part of one of my classes, you will probably find the mindful sitting tracks to be most accessible.
I am also actively involved as a founding member of the Cascadia Climate Collaborative, in partnership with the Whidbey Institute. Our planning team is getting ready for a climate conference this April 11-12 at the Whidbey Institute, designed for climate leaders and community activists within the Cascadia region. We have a powerful cast of visionary speakers lined up, including Kathleen Dean Moore, KC Golden, Alec Loorz and Tzeporah Berman. While this is an invitational conference, there will be a public talk given by Kathleen Dean Moore at the Whidbey Institute on Saturday evening, April 12, 2014.
Our planning team has also released an inspiring nine-minute video on the theme of “Moral Power for Climate Action”, produced by the award winning PBS documentary filmmaker Phil Walker. This film can be freely accessed here.
I will be stepping back from this work for the month of March, during which time I will be doing an intensive Zen training period with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Sogenji Zen Monastery in Okayama, Japan. During that time I will have very limited access to email and internet, so I apologize if that makes it difficult to contact me during that month. It is my longstanding conviction that the kind of work I feel called to do, as both a teacher and an activist, requires periods of deep restoration and resilience training, if we are to be fully present to those we serve, and if we are going to sustain our commitments over time. I look forward to this time at Sogenji, and to all the wonderful opportunities for collaborative work that have been given me to do.