Thursday, February 19, 2015


This week marked a central event in the Christian calendar – Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This date signals a preparation for the celebration of Easter (approximately 40 days later, April 3), and all that it represents. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times of ritual purification and preparation, in advance of a Holy Day.
This is a unique artifact of religious ritual in our secularised world which has so thoroughly erased any attention to religious symbols and the enacting of any religious acts. Admittedly, Lent and Ash Wednesday are softened versions of themselves. We joke about what we might “give up for Lent” in terms of doing something which we might have intended to do in our collapsed New Year’s resolutions – no chocolate, more exercise. The emphasis is on how we could find the self-discipline to refrain from doing something, rather than the refinement or preparation of our spirituality or inner lives. In our shallow materialistic lives, Lent is usually an equally shallow statement that we would be better off with a little short-term restraint instead of our usual expectation of unending self-indulgence.
This is nothing unique to Christian practice, Buddhists, in our own way can be as shallow. One only needs to observe how practices like meditation are reduced to “stress-reduction”, rather than one of the essential cogs in the wheel of the Eight Steps to Satisfaction taught by Shakyamuni. Many Buddhists, most noticeably Western ones, firmly believe that there is no necessity for symbolic or ritual activity. We can dispense with bowing to Buddhas, making offerings and creating practice spaces which have spiritual power, as long as we live good lives, don’t harm anyone and do some meditation when we can fit it in to our schedules. Ritual events like Lent, or for us, Nehan, Vesak or Segaki-e, remind us that this material realm remains the Saha realm, one of ceaseless dukkha. Ritual acts are how we prepare ourselves to transcend this dukkha.

in the Dharma,
Innen, doshu

Sunday, February 15, 2015


An 18th c. Tibetan representation of the Buddha's paranirvana
At our service yesterday, we held a brief Nehan Service. Nehan is the marking of the final passing on of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha and founding teacher of our and all Dharma lineages.  Although he had his awakening experience may years earlier, and it was this that set him on his many decades of presenting the Dharma all over North India, this was referred to as his nirvana. This is described as the “blowing out” of his conventional self-identity, his recognition of the 3 conditions and the 4 truths which inform our practice and teaching. His death marks his para-nirvana, (nehan in Japanese) the end of his time as a human body. His body would simply decay and disappear, as all of our bodies do.
During the service I read a short memorial verse from the chanting collection of the White Wind Zen Community which I have always found moving. Then, for our contemplation we reflected on who this being, this Shakyamuni was and is to us, nearly 3,000 years later.  For myself, I have found it challenging to understand my view of someone from the ancient past of the world. Its like asking how to relate to Pythagoras or Confucius. Even more recent personages like our Dharma grandfathers, Saicho or Kukai, remain shadowy, distant and shrouded in legend. How much more so the historical Buddha?

Who is he to you?

in the dharma,
Innen, doshu
om namu shaka nutsu

Monday, February 09, 2015


On Saturday the question came up about the use of a mala (or nenju or rosary), so we worked on "recitation" practice. This is what we call the traditional practice of nembutsu. In this we select a specific phrase, om namo amida butsu, in this case, as the focus phrase for reciting. We used our mala to count the recitations and worked through the recitation at different cadences.
In some respects it does not matter what the phrase may be, what matters is that you practice sustaining the phrase, excluding all other extraneous thoughts or mental activity. This allows us to keep a stable mental space, undisturbed by intruding thoughts or other content. When we do this we sustain our practice free of distractions. The result is a more stable and continuous experience. 
In a more traditional vipassana style, this would probably seem both unnecessary and distracting. In that more restrictive style of meditation the goal is open awareness, developing the capacity to observe whatever arises and maintain a continuous attentive state to whatever arises. It tends to be more like a large open space, where activity shows up in contrast to the emptiness of the perspective. That style is quite demanding because it leaves us very open to distractions and intrusive thoughts.
Recitation, in a sense fills our mental space with the phrase of recitation thereby excluding most of the distractions we experience. This leaves us greater capacity to sustain a continuous awareness, even if it does reduce the scope of our attention. It is a valuable introductory practice that cultivates strength when we need it, preparing us to grow and deepen our practice.

in the Dharma,
Innen , doshu,
om namu amida butsu