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1. Sex: Practicing with the Motherlode of Desire
2. Money and Our Unconscious Assumptions
3. Gossip
4. The Middle Way Is Not the Average
5. What to Look for in a Spiritual Teacher
6. The Only Way I Know to Alleviate Suffering

7. The Samadhi of Nourishment
8. Zazen as a Basis for Social Action
9. Working People's Samadhi
10. Shimmering Suchness

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Sex: Practicing with the Motherlode of Desire

So why do I take issue with Thich Nhat Hanh's words (quoting from his Third Precept)? While I believe that the intimate sex relationship he advocates is among the most wonderful experience available to humans, I also believe that experimentation with sex and with sexual relationships is very important, not only to aid the choice of a long-term partner, if that is what will happen -- and it will for many of us -- but for the development of skillful means. Through intimate relationships, we learn how crucial honesty is; we cultivate the ability to observe and even temper desire right in the middle of desire; and we learn how to recognize and satisfy our own needs while at the same time respecting another person's needs to the same degree we do our own. This is the basic art of living . . . . .

For Buddhists, sex is the chief expression of craving which brings on suffering. Sex is the epitome of pure craving. Not only does it override just about anything in its path preventing its satisfaction, but unlike some cravings -- when you eat you're full --- sexual satisfaction immediately turns into craving again. If you have bad sex, then you keep trying until you have good sex; if you have good sex, you keep doing it over and over again because it was good sex. Satisfaction makes you want it more. Our duukha, our feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration, is rooted in our desires and cravings. Buddhist practice aims to bring about the cessation of craving. There is in the Buddhist view nothing inherently wicked about sexual offenses or failings, unlike the Judeo-Christian traditions. Failure to be kind to others in sexual relationships is neither more or less serious than a failure to live up to any other precept. Buddhism doesn't get involved in whether sex is wicked or indulgent or anything like that. The problem for Buddhists is not the drive itself but the attachments that arise out of it. There is no other reason for sexual restraint than preventing harm to others: either causing great emotional suffering and/or bringing unwanted children into the world.

So not misusing sexuality is a rule of training like any other precept. It's an undertaking by you for yourself. As a Buddhist, you do your best to observe your impulses and desires and consider each situation, not just charge ahead. If you honor the precept but worry about your ability to follow it, then you do your best with sincerity and effort. This is a tough precept about a tough craving. You will fail sometimes and succeed sometimes and you will learn from it all. The sex drive is so very strong. Since sex is the epitome of tanha, I regard figuring out how to conduct yourself in the sexual realm as the epitome of Buddhist training.

. . . . . So then how do we practice in the midst of great desire? Buddhism would advocate neither extreme puritanism, nor extreme permissiveness, but this admonition without further exposition may not seem sufficiently helpful for most people. The one is merely an inadequate reaction to the other. What we have to do is map out a sane course. If we follow the Middle Way, each situation calls for the appropriate response. How do you know what that is? I don't believe in specific policies, that whenver you're in trouble, you whip out your policy to cover the situation. That seems too lazy to me. While we don't want to get into a particular stance, there are guidelines that are extremely useful to us when we must make decisions about our behavior. They are: Right Speech, Right Action and the Bodhisattva Vow . . . . .
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Money and Our Unconscious Assumptions

I think it's extremely important for every one of us to understand what we think about money and what it brings. What are our unconscious assumptions about the taint or the comfort of money? Do we feel shame about our own needs, any stirrings we have toward acquisitiveness, and do we judge others if we have successfully denied our own yearnings? And if we give up material things and just shift our greed and acquisitiveness to the spiritual world, single-mindedly pursuing certain states of mind, what's that?

So we've inherited this split between materialism/spirituality, but we don't have to continue it. As zen practitioners, we study the interdependence of all things. We understand that any polarization like materialsm/spirituality is conceptual and is just for convenience in discussion; it's not an accurate description of reality. So starting from that informed place, how do we fulfill or satisfy our spiritual natures while participating rightly and truly in the relative world of gaining and losing? We must give money its respect and due; we must take money seriously. We must allow all the forces of life to participate in ourselves, to be embraced by our consciousness. When we have spiritual ideals which prevent us from facing our financial needs with intelligence and care, these spiritual ideals remain ideals, never entering into the details of life. We may develop all the compassion in the world but we can only really manifest it when we attend to the material realm of people and their needs, wants and cares. . . . . .

In order to practice with these questions we must encounter in ourselves the One who doesn't care about winning or losing. We need to understand the difference between money and wealth, need and want. When we practice, we acknowledge our frantic clinging to whatever means security to us and averting from fear in the name of our solid selves. This includes recognizing our neurotic attitudes toward money and what it takes for us to feel in financial equilibrium. We become familar with and accept the neurotic, acquisitive and jealous mind, the mind that watches what status it is able to accumulate -- by any means necessary, including hard spiritual practice -- and know it for what it is and work compassionately with its pattern. . . . . .

Suzuki-Roshi: "Renunciation is not giving up what you have; it's understanding that everything changes."
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Gossip can reduce everyone and everything to the lowest common denominator. It can trivialize unfathomable events and profound feelings into shallow and superficial events. It can also serve as a vehicle for stereotypes. It tends to reinforce your own perhaps simplistic view of human nature. In this way it promotes self-righteousness and hypocrisy.

Given all this, why might you gossip? Perhaps from a desire to impress people with what you know, to gain prestige and power, enjoy the glory of a humorous cutting remark, to feel intimate with the people you're with, to deal a blow to a rival by insinuating something vague about them. . . . . .But to condemn gossip out of hand overlooks the whole network of human exchanges of information, the need to inquire and to learn from the experience of others. Especially within a community, gossip can be an indispensable channel for public information and human concern. I've experienced it myself as supportive when intended to help, for instance, when individuals may be in need of work, or too ill to ask for help.

I happen to think that there's no better testing ground for the practice of Right Speech or the exercise of discretion and indiscretion than the everyday probing and trading of personal matters. It forces us to choose between concealing and revealing, inquisitiveness and restraint. It fosters the development of containment, some centered feeling that allows us to make judicious decisions about how we talk of others. Each of us develops some standards. Each of these has uncertain boundaries and borderline regions. How can they be made more explicit? In weighing such questions, discretion is required. . . . . . Whether gossip is benevolet might depend on whether it promotes or interferes with communication. It should never be used as a substitute for talking to, for instance. Sometimes I'll notice when I'm talking to a friend about another friend that I'm actually complaining about that absent friend. I realize I'm angry at the absent friend but I haven't taken it up with them. I immediately stop talking about them because I want the energy to go into talking to them, and it will take some special energy to bring up the subject so I don't want to blow it on gossip. I think gossip is harmful when the subject should be spoken to their faces. You discharge the energy in the wrong place.
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The Middle Way Is Not the Average

For many of us when we first come to practice, we have an idea of what practice is and how we should live up to that ideal. We aren't so interested yet in discovering what our suffering is specifically, or what the tendencies are that make our lives so difficult. We just want to be a good practitioner, a successful spiritual seeker. So we adopt the ideal of an empty mind as the object of our exertions. We try to empty our minds of their concepts and our bodies of their emotions. We impose our ideal on top of what is already here and try to mush down over here or prop up over there whatever it takes to make us look to ourselves like our ideal. When some teacher says "Start where you are," with your ancient twisted karma, taking the form of our anxious, busy mind and our obnoxious habits, we are a little surprised. We were busy suppressing our nasty selves and promoting our admirable selves. It is a real turning point in practice when we realize that zazen points us beyond our ideas of what practice should look like and we begin to notice what is already here.

When we notice what is already here, we understand that one conceptualization or another is not adequate to capture the vastness of our human existence. Not believing in the solidity of everything we see and think, nor taking a stand in emptiness. Following Nagarjuna's example, we neither impute absolute meaning nor impute no meaning at all. This is the way I understand what we call the Middle Way. It's not so interesting to interpret The Middle Way to mean the midway between 2 extreme points, like between hedonism and asceticism, or between emotional indulgence or repression, so that you're always somewhere in the middle. The Middle Way is not the average. The Middle Way is often refered to as nowhere standing. You don't hang out in the bland, colorless middle, and you don't hang out in the extremes -- you don't really hang out anywhere. Sometimes you choose this behavior, this action, this point of view and sometimes you choose that behavior, that action, that point of view. We suspend our judgments while we maintain contact with the stuff of experience. For example, sometimes you follow the ascetic way, during sesshin, there's no difference during that time between you and a devoted monk. And sometimes you are unrestrained. At your sister's wedding you get drunk and dance and eat too much like everybody else. . . . . .Since we have nowhere to stand, nowhere to go, then let us go on to discover what is our individual role, our unique work for the good of ourselves and other beings, the world. What is our own way moment after moment? I quote from Dogens 10th Guideline for Studying the Way: "To follow Buddha completely means you do not have your old views. To hit the mark completely means you have no new nests in which to settle." (From Moon In A Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi (Editor), North Point Press:1985.)
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What to Look for in a Spiritual Teacher

So aside from being advised to do so by every book and lecture that say practice is about the teacher/student relationship, why would you have a teacher? Why is the teacher/student relationship seen as some kind of paradigm of zen practice? I think it might help if you think of a teacher as a "good friend," sometimes refered to in books as a "spiritual friend." That helps take the sense of permanent infantalization out of it that could be implied by permanent "teacher/student" roles. You are equals, you are developing a face-to-face intimacy together. Hanging out together, cooking together, discussing the nature of reality together. The difference between this friendship and your other friendships might be that only your spiritual friend helps you by pointing out your blind spots, challenging your assumptions, listening to your observations, like a good friend would, except this good friend has years of meditation training on you and can see you from a very helpful perspective, can interrupt your obsessive thoughts, can direct you and focus you. Practice is an exploration of our minds, our very selves, how we manage to weave a self together and artificially set it apart from the world. It is very difficult to see the edges of that self alone. It's as if you're trying to look at your own blindness. You literally can't see what you can't see. And I think the insights that speak to grasping and aversion involve observing the process by which we construct our selves and protect that delusion. So it helps to have someone to bounce things off of, to support the part of us that intuitively understands the self as delusion, or to give encouragemt when we really need it.

So what are the qualities to look for in a teacher? I think a good teacher aligns him or herself with the part of you that practices, that is not goal-oriented, concerned with the business of gaining and losing; we have many layers, some curious, some determined, some self-interested, some wide and open; some hidden. Sometimes these layers are in conflict, such as when you want to live a totally free life as an artist, creating when the spirit moves you, eating and sleeping when you want, but some other part of you says no, that's impossible, you'd better take that 9 to 5 job at Bank of America. Or you want to cultivate awareness of your breath, but you get bored and go off into some more interesting thought, like your fantasies of world domination or your affair with Brad Pitt, or how you're going to organize your project at work. Different parts of us often want different and conflicting things. Your teacher aligns with your way-seeking mind, the part of you that sees things as they are, underneath your habit patterns, your usual agenda. And that's usually the part of you that needs some help, some acknowledgment. Our habits are already in place; we need support for parts of us that aren't yet developed enough to hold their own. Oftentimes we need someone else to validate just the fact that this part is in there, too, when our own sightings are pretty spotty and tentative.

For instance, your habit may be to jump to a certain state of mind when you are stressed or upset, like denial, saying everything's really okay, what happened to you doesn't really matter. But at the same time some other part of you does not want to close off the experience you had in all its agonizing splendor. It is willing to watch, even if it means it has to suffer to watch. It wants to be totally immersed in the experience without a gap. Your teacher supports the part of you that is willing to stay in the feeling and points out your habit pattern of denial. This is very different from laying a zen trip on you from outside of yourself. He or she doesn't tell you to come out of denial necessarily, but he/she supports the part of you that he/she sees is struggling valiantly to practice, to be there for all your experience, pleasant or unpleasant, in the midst of hindrances and habits. Your teacher point out your foibles while still supporting you and your practice. Your teacher might also suggest specific practices to help you yourself see what he/she sees, yourself in action. For example, my teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, once told me not to criticize anything for a year because I was so habitually rejecting and cynical about my practice.
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Excerpts from book BEING BODIES, Moon and Friedman (Eds.), Shambhala, 1998.

The Only Way I Know to Alleviate Suffering

Self-healing is an area I've explored intensely because I have had rheumatoid arthritis, a very painful and crippling disease, for eighteen years. It began in my seventh year of zen practice, while I was living at Green Gulch Farm. . . . . .Because of my pain I lived in a world of continual intrusive sensation. It was very much in my self-interest to notice what circumstances increased or decreased my pain and then alter my pain level by manipulating those circumstances. Before becoming so ill, I had trouble interrupting my discursive mind to make the observations necessary to begin a mindfulness practice. On a Sunday I would vow to notice all my postural changes, determined to say to myself when I went from sitting to standing to lying: "Now I'm standing." Now I'm lying." Then the next time I remembered, Thursday, say, I would suddenly cry, "Oh! I'm standing!" After becoming ill, I was highly motivated to make these observations. Changing my posture was a dramatic event in my life. I needed to heed every little sensation in my legs and feet in order to go from sitting to standing. Getting out of my bed and Going to the bathroom took the same kind of focus and attention as going on safari.

I lived a half-block from the San Francisco Zen Center and used to try to go to dinner there once a week as a treat to myself. I would walk down the hill, which brought me to the bottom of a number of steps to the front door. Going up the steps would be the second leg of a laborious journey. Sometimes I would make it all the way to the steps and not be able to go up them. So I would have to strain all the way back up the hill to my apartment. I asked myself, what is it about my walking that is so tiring? What I called "walking" was the part of the step when my foot met the sidewalk. From the point of view of the joints, that is the most stressful component of walking. The joints get a rest when the foot is in the air, just before it strikes the pavement. I found that by focussing on the foot that was in the air instead of the foot that was striking the pavement, my stamina increased enormously. After making this observation, I never again failed to climb the steps to knock on the front door of Zen Center.

I was struck that the focus of my attention could make that much difference in my physical ability. I began to search out the times my brain was clumping together many disparate motions into an idea which would prevent me from overcoming an obstacle, and then I concentrated on breaking down these aggregates of ideas into discrete units of smaller experience that I could master. Sick or well, we all do this all the time. We get into the idea of something, the clump, the heap, the pile, rather than the actual experience. Someone says, "I can't practice because I haven't been to the zendo in three weeks" instead of just going to the zendo when she can. When I haul out the carrots and the cuttingboard during the arthritis workshops I give, everybody immediately groans: "I can't cut carrots with my arthritic hands!" But when you actually hold the knife in your hands, feeling its wooden handle and sharp, solid blade; and you touch the vulnerable flesh of the carrot on the cuttingboard; your wrist goes up and down, up and down; and the orange cylinders of carrot begin to pile up on the board, you realize: "I can cut carrots." Tears come to people's eyes.

. . . . .When Trungpa Rimpoche wrote in The Sacred Path of the Warrior that "the human potential for intelligence and dignity is attuned to experiencing the objects around us, the brilliance of the bright blue sky, the freshness of green fields, and the beauty of the trees and mountains," I think he was suggesting that our intelligence and dignity themselves are developed by our being alive for the mundane chaos of our lives. If we cultivate awareness of our actual experience, without reference to any preconceived idea, then we don't prefer any particular state of mind. Intimacy with our activity and the objects around us connects us deeply to our lives. This connection -- to the earth, our bodies, our sense impressions, our creative energies, our feelings, to other people -- is the only way I know of to alleviate suffering. To me our awareness of these things without preference is a meditation that synchronizes body and mind. This synchronization, the experience of deep integrity, of being all of a piece, is a very deep healing. It is unconventional to value such a subtle experience. It is not encouraged in our culture. We're much more apt to strive to feel special, uniquely talented, particularly loved. It's extraordinary to be willing to live an ordinary life, to be fully alive for the laundry, to be present for the dishes. We overlook these everyday connections to our lives, waiting for The Event.

A client of mine was very annoyed and scolded her husband for coming in and telling me a joke while I was massaging her at her house. When I asked her why she minded so much, she said to me, "He was using up my time with you." She was not in a state of mind that could be satisfied by simply listening to the sound of her husband's voice as he told a joke, of feeling my fingers on her body, of sensing the animal presense of the three of us sharing the room. She didn't even examine the starved, jealous mind that resented his brief interruption.

Paradoxically, noticing this kind of small-mindedness can actually add rich texture to the weave of your life. When you include the shadow in your perceptions, your conscious life begins to be shaded and textured by your anguish and your petty little snits. Sanitizing your thoughts and your preoccupations not only squanders vital energy that would be better spent in your creative endeavors, but your not-so-presentable life can be enormously enriching and provide the compost for the development of compassion. If you have never given into temptation of any kind, how can you ever understand -- or embrace -- the sinner? I pointed out some of these things to my client. When I next saw her she told me that after our session she had begun to be flooded with perceptions. She had noticed how much pain her tense relationship with her teenaged son was causing her. Being numb had enabled her to tolerate their friction, but now it was clear to her that she couldn't live with those hard feelings. She had to engage him and discuss their problems.

People sometimes ask me where my own healing energy comes from. How in the midst of this pain, this implacable slow crippling, can I encourage myself and other people? My answer is that my healing comes from my bitterness itself, my despair, my terror. It comes from the shadow. I dip down into that muck again and again and then am flooded with its healing energy. Despite the renewal and vitality it gives me to face my deepest fears, I don't go willingly when they call. I've been around that wheel a million times: first I feel the despair, but I deny it for a few days; then its tugs become more insistent in proportion to my resistance; finally it overwhelms me and pulls me down, kicking and screaming all the way. It's clear I am caught, so at last I give up to this reunion with the dark aspect of my adjustment to pain and loss. Immediately the release begins: first peace and then the flood of vitality and healing energy. I can never just give up to it when I first feel it stir. You'd think after a million times with a happy ending, I could give up right away and just say, "Take me, I'm yours," but I never can. I always resist. I guess that's why it's called despair. If you went willingly, it would be called something else, like purification or renewal or something hopeful. It's staring defeat and annihilation in the face that's so terrifying; I must resist until it overwhelms me. But I've come to trust it deeply. It's enriched my life, informed my work, and taught me not to fear the dark.

It seems to me that when we fall ill, we have an opportunity we may not have noticed when we were well, to literally in-corp-orate the wisdom of the Buddhas, and to present it as our own body.

Darlene Cohen Dharma Talk Zen Mountain Center Carmel Valley, CA  July 27th, 2006
 "The Samadhi of Nourishment"

What steadies us when things become difficult? Out body-to-body connection with others ca be a source of trust which is deeply reassuring.  And, through such teachings as the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, Soto Zen points toward staying connected with our own greed, hate and delusion.  This radical teaching opens a path where we can find out who we are, rather than escaping who we are.  When you can look in the mirror without flinching, you stabilize and you open to everything.

Darlene at Green Gulch Farms, Sausalito, CA August 13th, 2006
 "Zazen as a Basis for Social Action"

Why sit zazen when the world is going to hell, and fast?  Well, anything of value is learned from a state of suffering.  And we have a great opportunity right now to study how humans behave when we're frightened or threatened.  By cultivating a still mind, we may develop the courage for true equanimity, where there is a willingness to have our heart broke again and again.  This is a huge gift to the world: the offering of a mind that initiates intimacy, cultivates respect for all, and is able to appreciate the relativity of our opinions.

Darlene at Iron Bell Zendo, Sacramento, CA March 26th, 2007
"Working People's Samadhi"

American Zen offers a bold experiment, where we find the unprecedented dharmic realm of working in a the world, raising children, and practicing.  This is primo terrain for actualizing the Bodhisattva ideal.  We get to play with our particular way of developing skillful means: meeting what arises with, well, what arises.  What is in your mind during work? What is in your body during work?  We find the liberation from our suffering right in the middle of our suffering.

Darlene at Green Gulch Farm, Sausality, CA February 5th, 2006
"Shimmering Suchness"

Beyond the push-pull of preference, the mundane - closely observed - becomes shimmering and vivid.  Not a mystical trick, the myriad beings and things come forward in shining uniqueness.  Right now, suchness arises.  But how do we get here, now?  Darlene explores this through the deeply healing world of body awareness - raw sensations, sense impressions, thoughts, feelings.  Awareness of body sensations is the basic mindfulness practice; practice develops our stability to trust this direct experience.  Beyond understanding, we can change not what we do, but be changed by the doing.

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