For decades, the San Francisco Zen Center has performed a weekly Well-Being Ceremony, chanting for the health and safety of loved ones suffering from physical and psychological distress. This past Saturday, the ceremony moved online to Zoom and included a prayer for the well-being of those affected by the current pandemic.
A Well-Being Ceremony will now be taking place every Saturday at 7:00 am, immediately following the 6:30 am period of zazen of the Online Zendo. All are invited to send the names of loved ones in need of support for inclusion in the ceremony to the Ino, head of the meditation hall, at firstname.lastname@example.org. You are welcome to participate in this short yet powerful ceremony.
The Well-Being Ceremony is one of the many ceremonies transmitted by SFZC founder Suzuki Roshi and other early teachers and included among the formal rituals and ceremonies that are practiced at Zen monasteries in Japan. It begins with the doshi leading the assembly in three bows to the Buddha, followed by the traditional offering of fragrance. The assembly then chants the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo in unison. The chant is repeated seven times, with the speed, intensity and energy of the chanting building up during the recitation. The kokyo, or chant leader, then offers an eko, or closing dedication.
In the online adaptation of this traditional ceremony, the names of those for whom we are chanting are shown on the screen during the recitation of the eko. The assembly is invited to share in this time by reading these names, offering wishes for well-being, and during a pause, giving voice to the names not included in writing. The ceremony concludes with three more bows, followed by a closing verse. The totality of the ceremony takes place with participant mics muted so all participants may hear the dedication and instrumental soundscape of the ceremony.
The Enmei Jukku Kanon Gyo – in English, The Ten-Verse Compassion Sutra for Protecting Life – is an invocation to Kanzeon. Kanzeon is the Japanese name given to the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion, Kuan Yin. She originated from the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The sutra, chanted in sino-japanese, is translated below.
ENMEI JUKKU KANNON GYŌ
yo butsu u in
yo butsu u en
buppo so en
jo raku ga jo
cho nen kanzeon
bo nen kanzeo
nen nen ju shin ki
nen nen fu ri shin
TEN-VERSE COMPASSION SUTRA FOR PROTECTING LIFE
We venerate Buddha!
All are one with Buddha,
All awake to Buddha –
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha –
Eternal, joyous, selfless, pure.
Throughout the day Compassion,
Throughout the night Compassion.
This moment springs from Mind
This moment itself is Mind
While the usual eko is dedicated to all those lacking shelter, food and safety; suffering from physical and mental illness; or exposed to violence, the eko for the online ceremony has been adapted to this current moment in time:
“May all awakened beings manifest through the Three Treasures their luminous mirror wisdom; having chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo for protecting life, we dedicate this merit and virtue to: the well-being, comfort and recovery of our dear friends, and to all those suffering from the physical, emotional and financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and from policies which make some lives more vulnerable than others; all those being asked to choose between their livelihoods and the safety of themselves and their families, including health care workers, janitors, delivery people, grocery workers, warehouse staff, farm workers, sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters and all others; along with those making heroic efforts to offer their skills to care for those who are suffering. May they be deeply supported in the Dharma, peaceful and free from suffering, and may they, together with all beings realize Buddha’s Way.”
How this ceremony serves to heal all beings can be at once mysterious and palpable. In the words of the City Center Ino, Kodo Conlin, “Engaging in a communal ceremony, to me, counterbalances any sense of isolation. As we in the Bay Area continue to shelter in place, it’s timely. To call to mind the names of our dear ones, along with a wish for well-being connects me to a deep well of support. Invoking the beautiful qualities of compassion, kindness and well-being opens my heart – it’s of mutual benefit.”
Please join this opening of our hearts to the suffering of the current time, participate in sending wishes of well-being to all those impacted by the pandemic, and come benefit from the deep well of support generated when we engage together in ceremony.
By Dawu Camille Whitney
Numerous members of San Francisco Zen Center’s wider sangha have written with well-wishes and to inquire what daily life is like in the midst of this pandemic. Here’s my story of what it’s been like to live at SFZC’s City Center during this time.
The first major impact was on Saturday, March 7. I went to morning zazen and service as usual. During the work circle following service, City Center Director Michael McCord announced that the temple would be closing to the public due to advice from the SF Department of Health and concern for the many SFZC residents who are at risk of the virus.
There was a palpable sadness in the room at the thought of the doors being closed to the wider sangha and a sinking sensation in my heart. Before the Dharma talk that day, fellow residents Nancy Petrin and Myles Cowherd stood outside the temple, greeting anyone who showed up, explaining why we had closed and encouraging people to watch on livestream at home. The building felt strangely empty and quiet in contrast to the usually bustling Saturday scene – before that became the “new abnormal.”
The next big shift was on Monday, March 16, when San Francisco announced the shelter in place. I was in my office at 395 Page Street when my supervisor, Development Director Santiago Requejo, bid me farewell for who knows how long and went home to Alameda. (It wasn’t too sentimental since we knew we’d be seeing each other on Zoom on a constant basis). Vice President Diego Miglioli came by in the early afternoon to say that our office building would be closing and that we would work from our own rooms. Myles helped me carry my office chair and monitor across the street to my room so I could set up an office space.
Since then, almost every aspect of residential life at SFZC has changed to a new form, and continues to change. Someone still rings the wake-up bell each day, though twenty minutes later than it used to be. We turn on our computers in order to sit zazen and do walking meditation in our rooms, connected to each other via Zoom. Then we put on our home-sewn face masks and go down the stairs for soji (temple cleaning).
After that, students wearing masks and gloves serve breakfast to the rest of us. We sit six feet away from each other in the dining room (or eat in our rooms) and maintain silence in order to reduce any possible airborne contagions. Twice a week, we can ask a designated shopper to pick up essential items at Safeway, Whole Foods or CVS. That way, everyone living in the main building can avoid going shopping and thus reduce the amount of risk for the rest of the community.
If someone has any symptoms at all, such as a sore throat, they are asked to stay in their room and call their doctor to discuss symptoms. After that, they’re to contact Michael McCord, the City Center Director, who then sends a thermometer to their room so they can take their temperature. So far, happily, no one has shown any Covid-19 symptoms that would cause them to be placed in a special quarantine area. I am part of a team that volunteers to bring people meals in their rooms until they are symptom-free and ready to rejoin the community.
My husband Tim and I try to keep things fresh. We take lots of walks, including a circuit on the roof of the main building after lunch every day. We have also joined with friends to read plays together on Zoom—starting with Sartre’s No Exit and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s the first time he and I have done theater together—and more than we’ve done in our lives up to this point. It’s a ton of fun and is making us wonder why we waited so long.
Still, some days I wish I could join a “Buddhists against change” group, as Marc Lesser likes to joke in his dharma talks. Those are the days when the loss of our former way of life and the anxieties of the present weigh heavily, and I just wish I could hug my friends and chat with them face-to-face, maskless.
Sooner or later, though, I come back to an appreciation for living here during these challenging times. We are still sitting zazen and hearing inspiring Dharma talks, connecting with, and hopefully helping to sustain the practice of hundreds of people around the world on Zoom. One of the sweetest moments each day is after zazen when people wave to each other on Zoom and say “have a good day!” We are still meeting with practice leaders regularly, via Zoom, as well as our assigned buddy and a weekly small group. I’ve been grateful to feel connected and supported by these offerings, and for how we’re practicing together here at City Center.
About the author:
I was lucky enough to have a high school teacher who gave me basic meditation instruction and a copy of the Cheri Huber book Nothing Happens Next. Since then, Buddhist practice has helped me find more ease, peacefulness, and clarity as well as greater compassion for myself and others when the peacefulness goes out the window. I received jukai in December 2013 from Shido Nyogen Roshi at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Before returning to City Center in January, I was at Tassajara for the last few years. You may know my husband Tim Sandoe, a long-time SFZC resident. We got married at City Center in September 2018 so it has been sweet returning to this community together.
An essay by Jody Greene, Zen student, Zen teacher, Professor of Literature. Jody currently serves on the San Francisco Zen Center Board of Directors.
I didn’t set out to be a Zen monk. It was an accident, really. I happened to arrive to do a little volunteer work at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, on September 10, 2001. When the Twin Towers fell during the first period of meditation on my first morning there, all I could think was, “okay, you’ve got my attention.” My immediate instinct was to start packing. I told one of the teachers I was getting ready to drive back down along the perilous 15-mile dirt road that connects that mountain valley to the rest of the California coastline, jump on a plane, and head straight to New York, the city of my birth.
“That’s just fine,” the monk told me. “But what exactly do you plan to do when you get there?”
That was the first of many lessons Zen would teach me, usually in the form of blows to my sense of self, of self-importance, of urgency and agency. That morning, we went back into the zendo, chanted a service for well-being, and then turned to the work of the day: chopping vegetables, cleaning, fixing up the cabins. Without access in the valley to newspapers, radio, television, cellphones, or (in those days) the internet, all we knew was that a great tragedy had occurred many thousands of miles away, and that many people had died. The community’s response was to do nothing—or rather, to do nothing out of the ordinary. It seemed shocking to me, that they would just keep going about their business while the world burned.
But the world wasn’t burning in that valley.
That was the second lesson.
In the nearly twenty years since my accidental introduction to Zen under conditions of catastrophe, I’ve continued to practice regularly in the tradition, both in periods of monastic retreat at Tassajara and at lay practice centers designed for householders like myself. The Zen tradition is unusual, in that one can enter into periods of monastic retreat—each of the four retreats I have done lasted three months—and then leave the monastery to go “back to the marketplace,” as we say when we depart.
The idea is that you are not leaving the world permanently, but practicing so that you can return to live into—at best, to exemplify—what you have learned during periods of extended silence and stillness and relative social isolation. In the best of consequences, you return from this period of intensive training, as the departing monk ceremony says, “with gift-bestowing hands.”
I’ve been thinking a lot during the past month of confinement (with a canine companion, blessedly) about the many ways in which Zen monastic life has provided outstanding training for the experience of sheltering in place as a solitary, healthy, and relatively privileged human in a global pandemic. I have been contemplating the urgency I still feel, after all these years, to do something, my insistent desire to be a resource for others when, truth be told, I have no immediate role to play in healing the sick or feeding the hungry.
I have been turning over (and over) what it might mean to offer gift-bestowing hands when you cannot touch others, and when any material gift you share is in danger of becoming a vector of contagion. Above all, I have been sharply aware of what Zen has taught me about the capacity to find freedom in the midst of constraints and about the importance of learning to find ease and even refuge in one’s own company. Zen can show us how very deeply we dread the simple act of sitting down with ourselves and, at its most compassionate and loving, Zen can help us learn not to be so afraid of the workings of our own minds. The last of these, on any given day, may be the greatest gift that Zen has to bestow.
Zen training is designed to break you, to strip you of the habits, tricks, and workarounds we all use to escape from things as they are, or, as Tassajara founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi put it, “things as it is.” Zen’s ferocity and austerity are legendary. From its mind-bending koans to its 16-hour a day (as at Tassajara) retreat schedules, its mode of training depends upon negotiating a set of restrictions on communication, movement, and sovereignty over time, space, and freedom of choice. “Picking and choosing” is the first thing you renounce when you become a student of Zen.
You meet regularly with a teacher, to whom you commit to laying bare both the terrain of your own mind and the behaviors and activities you engage in. There is no place to run away to and no place to hide. The teacher is a mirror, who attempts to reflect you back to yourself with as little distortion as possible. For most of us, the desire to look away, to escape from simply seeing and being ourselves, is overwhelming.
When you enter Zen monastic training at Tassajara, you agree to follow a schedule that begins at 4 am and ends at 9 pm. You do not speak until 1 in the afternoon. You eat all your meals in the zendo. You wear robes unless you are working. There is very little “personal time.” This is, after all, the point; you are there to study all the ways that the self attempts to organize the world to suit its personal preferences, to exert control, to stack the deck in favor of what it believes, in its dreamlike state, will lead to its own unceasing and unfailing happiness.
In a Zen community, your practice requires an extreme level of silence and solitude, but in that contrived state of isolation, you come to understand how much you have been fruitlessly trying to separate your personhood and its priorities from others all along.
While the regular monastic schedule is undeniably intense, for a week out of each month, the intensity increases, during periods known as sesshin—literally, “touching the heart-mind.”
During these periods, you do not speak to, make eye contact with, or touch others, and you may not read, write, or draw. Once or twice a day, you may have 30 minutes to nap or take a walk. Your only intimacy is with that heart-mind of yours; as the liturgy says, this is a time to gather your scattered energies, to “settle the self on the self.” You sit up to 15 periods of meditation, or zazen, each day. If you have the energy and the permission of your teacher, you go back to the zendo and sit with yourself late into the night.
During each period of zazen, you are asked to remain completely still, usually for 30-40 minutes at a time. Beyond following the breath, there is no instruction—nothing to do, to think, or to accomplish, and no way to get it right. No mantra, no visualization, no sequence of inner rituals. There is nothing to do but be. As one venerable Zen teacher, Shohaku Okamura, says, always with a half-smile on his face, “Zazen is good for nothing.”
The discomfort of simply sitting with your own body, heart, and mind for 40 minutes can be extreme, even unbearable. To do this all day, for many days, months, or years on end, is a profoundly transformative experience, one that leaves you with no doubt whatsoever about the inevitability of your own death and the extraordinary yet strange gift that is a human life.
An unexpected thing happens over the course of a sesshin, not always, but surprisingly often. Somewhere along the way, you stop fighting, stop focusing on the constraints and limitations, start finding small openings where there appeared to be nothing but contraction. You start noticing things you’d never noticed before, from the light as it moves across the white walls of the zendo in different parts of the day to the weight of one hand resting completely in the palm of the other. You begin to be aware of the sensation of your ribs expanding with each breath or the sound of squirrels’ claws on the roof or the way the birds start to sing exactly as the first warmth of morning hits the valley wall.
Perhaps most curiously, you become aware of your own capacity to communicate with the other humans with whom you are sharing the retreat. Even though you cannot look at each other or speak, and only bow as you pass each other on the path, each bow begins to vibrate with care, attention, and love. Connection reaffirms its presence in the midst of only apparent isolation.
Zen is a training in becoming intimate with yourself, but in the process it makes you intimate with the other beings with whom you share your immediate world as well—human, not human, animate, inanimate. There is a tenderness that builds in the midst of Zen austerity and rigor that softens the sense of isolation and soothes the terror of being thrown back upon the self.
Just as many of us who are socially isolated are greeting each other with renewed vigor in the street and thanking those we should have been thanking all along—postal service workers, delivery truck drivers, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, and all those other essential persons whose labor our lives rely on—we become just a little more aware of our already existing interconnectedness when confronted by the mirror of enforced social distancing.
Still, social distancing, like a Zen sesshin, is a stern teacher, and the conditions much of the world is living under are unprecedentedly draconian. In Wuhan, some people were not allowed to leave their apartments for 74 days. I ask myself if I could endure such a thing. No matter how many retreats I’ve sat, I’m humbled by the fear that arises when I imagine being faced with this challenge and having to find the inner resources to respond.
Yet draconian etymological roots lie with the dragons. Who is the dragon we face when, by choice or by decree, we withdraw from the world for a time and sit down quietly in the company of our own hearts and minds? What would it mean to befriend that dragon and to take her as our teacher?
A beloved Zen koan insists, “every day is a good day.” I worry that the aphorism rings somewhere between outrageous and obscene, in a time of so much suffering and loss, and yet it has been in my head a lot these days, a quiet pulse of words within the silence.
The teaching does not mean that every day is happy, easy, or pleasing to my personal preferences. It means, as I understand it, that when I am willing to be intimate with the circumstances arising right now, no matter how difficult or perilous, no matter how constrained, when I am willing not to turn away or to try to escape, at that moment I begin to live my life.
Wishing that this day were another or a “better” day is tantamount to wishing my life away. It is a way of refusing to take care of the life I have, which seems like a terrible response in a time when so many are dying. Every day is a good day because this day is the only day I have, and because having a day, no matter how grief-stricken, terror-filled, or dragon-faced, is a gift, even in the midst of a pandemic.
The whole world is paying attention, right here and right now. Many of us—the fortunate ones, anyway—have spent the last month sheltering in place, alone yet together. It looks like we’ll be engaged in this enforced retreat into our own company for some months to come. When this is all over, and it’s time to go back to the marketplace, I wonder what we’ll do with our gift-bestowing hands.
Starting on April 28, Onryu Mary Stares, City Center’s Tanto or Head of Practice, will be leading the Spring Online Practice Period called A Bridge of 59 Stones. This 6-week session will explore lojong, a collection of 59 short, pithy slogans used to train the mind. The lojong teachings originated in the Tibetian tradition but have been adopted by many Zen practitioners as a tool to refine understanding and awaken bodhichitta.
We met with Mary over Zoom to find out a little more about this teaching and how it can be helpful under today’s circumstances.
What is meant by ‘training the mind’?
The idea of training is specifically built into lojong. Lo means mind and jong means training. Norman Fisher’s book, which we will be using as a text for the practice period, is called Training in Compassion, so he interprets it that way.
Athlete’s train for years in order to become experts in their sport; yogi’s train for years so they can perfect their poses. But training is not something that comes easily to human beings. What we really want is to be a child prodigy, to sit in front of a piano and immediately play Beethoven without any training. And for some people that’s true but for most of us, that isn’t how our lives are. So we have to train.
Our minds are very complicated and tricky. The idea of using a tool to train our minds to work in certain ways is something that practitioners of Buddhism have thought about for centuries. How do I make my mind do what I want it to do? The lojong slogans are designed to help us do that. They’re designed to help us point our mind in a certain direction.
How does this apply to everyday life? To our current circumstances?
I’ve been training with the lojong slogans for many years. I’ve repeated them and memorized them and gone through them over and over again. So when I’m in a situation, in a grocery store for instance, and there’s a long line in front of me, slogan number 35 comes up which is “Don’t try to be the fastest.” What is the implication of that? What’s the implication of not always being in a hurry?
The point is that we learn these slogans and in different circumstances, they will pop up automatically. So now when I’m frustrated with somebody who’s not wearing a face mask, slogan 26 pops up which is “Don’t ponder others.” This points me back into my own experience. Instead of the energy going out, I’m looking at what’s happening in here (points to heart) so that I can then open to my experience and also, hopefully, be open to the experience of others.
So the intent of these slogans is to open ourselves up to our lives and to look at our actions is a gentle but persistent way. When we do this, we avoid sending ourselves bad messages and we invite the possibility of a positive experience of our own mind as well as the minds of others.
This doesn’t happen overnight. The story of Atiśa, the person who collected the lojong slogans and wrote them down, is that he studied with a teacher full time for 12 years. As practitioners, we know that it takes more than 10-15 minutes of exposure to a practice to have it work.
This has been my training for over 20 years and this is something I come back to over and over again. To help soften, and to help open to my life and the lives of others.
How is lojong helpful to Zen practitioners?
I think the Zen instruction to drop body and mind is terrifically difficult. Lojong offers some support for Zen practitioners, a launching pad for what to do with our minds when we’re off the cushion. It’s a practical way to access the teachings that give people a leg up.
I’m grateful that Norman Fischer brought the teachings out of the closet with his book Training in Compassion. Some people in the Zen world might get caught up because it’s from a different tradition but as Buddhism enters into the western culture, this idea of separating the traditions becomes a little artificial. It’s important that we look towards what makes the teachings accessible.
What do you hope to create for this Online Practice Period?
I think of a practice period as a structure that allows people to settle into or intensify their practice. So if someone is brand new, it offers the possibility of understanding some of the structures of Zen, which will intensify their practice. And if someone has been practicing for years, the specific study of the lojong teachings will allow people to intensify their practice. So whatever level people are entering, there is the intention to intensify.
There will be dharma talks, small group meetings, and a weekly class. My idea is to go over these materials so people can continue on with this study without the structure of the practice period. They will have the tools to self-study after this. Hopefully they will be interested enough in the concepts, the slogans, the practices, that they will continue to explore further.
What’s great about this practice period is that everyone will be doing the same thing, everyone will be participating in it through the same medium. I think that’s going to be really cool, actually. As a teacher, this means that I am teaching with one focus, instead of having to switch between the residential experience, the commuter experience, and the online experience.
I think the lojong slogans are an amazing gift. Buddhism is hard for some people because it doesn’t seem very practical. It can be very heady and there’s no apparent first step, second step. I’m a very practical person and lojong gives me something I can do: there are steps I can take, there’s a shape that my mind can grab onto. This is not an intellectual practice. This is a body/mind connection practice. It’s been a lifeline for me and continues to be so.
A Bridge of 59 Stones
A 6-Week Online Practice Period with Onryu Mary Stares
April 28 – June 6
Fee: $179 general; $161 current members; $143 limited income
For more information and to register