Monday, February 3, 2014

The Business Beneath the Patch Robe

by Ryūmon Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín Sensei

Today I went on an early afternoon walk on a road called Cemetery. It’s a not a very long road—a quarter of a mile long. If you are heading north, it veers to the right, downhill off South Road, the main road cutting through the center of town. Cemetery then comes to an end and meets South Road, from which it veered, once again, four-tenths of a mile up, like an outward-curved parenthesis, or a smile. In this small and very rural New England town—no street lights, no post office, one of eighteen dry towns in the Commonwealth—where I have lived for the past four years, it is common to find roads like this.

The town is a “right-to-farm community and there is a right-to-farm bylaw in effect,” says the notice from the town’s Collector of Taxes. I never thought myself a farmer, coming from a lineage of maids, bread makers, cooks, union factory workers, construction laborers, gas station attendants, corner store owners, seamstresses, and beauticians. Yet, living here I experience a deep joy and contentment that the three vegetable beds, six by three feet, and the small herb garden my partner and I put in each spring is part of a greater constellation of human beings who have honored, cared for, and worked the earth going back thousands of years, not just an urban fad.

True to its namesake, midway down Cemetery Road, after you have climbed a bit and are coming onto flatness, the town’s graveyard sits on a rise. The gravestones of families going back hundreds of years stand in that somewhat orderly fashion common to all cemeteries. I often wonder when the first body is buried in a new plotted graveyard, who and what decides where exactly it is placed. And why it is so. I had no intention of stopping before the cemetery, yet, just past the main entrance, my steps slowed down, my body coming into stillness. Something stopped me and urged me to not pass by without missing the moment. I do not know where that instruction was coming from; all I know is that I took it to heart. So I stopped. Right there in the middle of the road. I first looked over my right shoulder, then, completely on its own accord, my body kept following the movement to the right. Before me the road, empty and silent, buttressing me between the a hazy, early winter afternoon sun to my right, and when I turned to face the cemetery, my breath taken by a faint half moon already visible in the blue sky. Such silence. The rustles of trees as the wind whispered in its passing. The birds also saying something, yet my ears couldn’t catch it. Even after many decades of practice, I have yet to learn how to hear the birds sing.
Photo: Andrew Pescod via Compfight cc

I took this walk as part of a self-designed meditation and writing retreat I have undertaken for the winter. In spite of blizzard-dumped hills of snow and frigid temperatures, I committed to go out most days and experience the sacred world. On that afternoon walk the sacred world revealed, with profound intimacy, the unfolding of what is. And truly, all was one in that moment of stopping before the graveyards on Cemetery Road.

Intimacy plays an essential role in the teachings of Zen. One can say that Zen is intimacy. Beginning in India with the Buddha Shakyamuni silently holding up a flower and Mahakashyapa smiling (I have always found great joy in the fact that Zen began with a smile!), countless intimate encounters are chronicled in the ancient teachings of China and Japan, serving as vehicles of awakening for the disciple engaged in such encounters. One classic encounter happened between the forty-second Chinese patriarch, a priest named Liangshan, and his teacher, Tongan the Latter. It goes something like this:
Tongan:“What is the business beneath the patch robe?”
Priest Liangshan did not have an answer.
Tongan then said: “Studying the Buddha Way and still not reaching this realm is the most painful thing. Now, you ask me.”
Priest Liangshan asked: “What is the business beneath the patch robe?”
Teacher Tongan said: “Intimacy”.
At that moment, as it seems to be the case in all of these ancient, face-to-face Zen encounters, Priest Liangshan was greatly awakened.

I want to be awakened just like Liangshan. I want to know with all of my heart the business beneath the patch robe. And as hard as I try, this business eludes me most days. And even in my best days, I forget about the smile.

Divine Statue,  the Okunoin Cemetery in
Koyasan, Japan, Photo: Stéfan via Flickr
That I found such significance standing on a road, before a graveyard, is no surprise. Right before my eyes was the teaching of Impermanence and Death. A teaching I have been studying intimately for several years, both as part of the preliminaries and also for teaching others in seminars on the Four Marks of Existence.

Impermanence and Death came calling in my own life this past year when, within a period of nine months, three friends died suddenly and incomprehensibly. Their names: Dr. Marlene Jones, Dr. Alexandra Mazard, and Rebecca Lee. They died between the ages of forty-four and sixty-two. Beautiful, brilliant, strong, embedded in family, highly accomplished, mothers. And, all three, are women of color.

The suddenness of my friends’ death left me in shock each time I received the news. In their death they have taught me more than they would have ever imagined. A painful lesson I am gleaning from their untimely death is that as a woman of color, living in US culture, we do so at great cost. A cost seldom acknowledged. I question whether “living” is truly the appropriate description.

I want to tell you about one of these friends, Dr. Marlene Jones. Marlene was also a Dharma colleague. For a period of some years we were engaged, as part of a group of Dharma Practitioners of Color, in addressing issues of exclusiveness, privilege, and racism within a couple of Northern California (USA) Dharma communities. I first met Marlene when attending a Women of Color sitting group in Marin City, California in the 1990s. She co-led the group, and for me, I want to believe that sitting around a circle of black and brown and white Latina bodies was a first taste of intimacy in the Dharma. Such circles did not exist in my own Zen sangha then, or in any other sangha at that time; and this appears to continue to be so even after the passing of so many decades.

When Marlene died lots was written about her work as a pioneer for diversity in sanghas. Very little was written about her struggles within a white dominant Dharma community. Or, about the toll on her health that a culturally toxic environment might have taken on her life. Or the impact of living as a black-skin woman in a country and society that has yet to account for the historical trauma of racism and genocide. When I heard she had gone into cardiac arrest, what first rose in me was “racism broke her heart.” When I found out Marlene went into cardiac arrest the same day as my sixtieth birthday, I knew she had become my guru. Her death has brought to light instructions on how to save my life. Among the instructions was a simple statement, found in her essay, “Moving Toward an End to Suffering”:

“Everything is practice, a very sacred and personal experience. There is freedom in the silence of practice, in the stillness as well as in the movement of the practice of life. The greatest teaching for me has been practicing compassion, first for myself, then for other individuals, and for all beings in all directions. It is here that I have found true freedom.” (Hilda Baldoquín, ed., Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism [Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2004], p. 45)

The business beneath the patch robe is evident here. It is here, in the moment to moment of breath. Here, in the living and in the dying. This intimacy is like spiritual balm, soothing, tender, and generous. And yet, in my own practice, there are times that the fires burn furiously in my heart at the legacies—to quote Marlene again—“Historical domination, colonization, slavery and oppression of people of color by Europeans have been the rule worldwide for many centuries. In my own community experience I have felt marginalized, invisible, and conspicuous, all at the same time . . . I felt that I had to leave myself at the door and assimilate in order to fit in.” The fire burns in particular when these legacies, as is the nature of legacies, live invisibly, as “business as usual,” in spite of best intentions in our Dharma communities. I have to believe this is also the business beneath the patch robe.

When Marlene died, I was invited by a mutual friend and Dharma colleague to share some words at the celebration of her life, even though I was not able to attend in person. This friend offered to read my words. I wrote a poem, intimate in its expression and burning with the experience of loss. The poem I wrote to Marlene was censored, not given voice. Silenced at her life’s celebration. Stunned, when inquiring as to why, I was given an institutionalized response. I can make up stories about the reasons for the silencing of my words. That would make for interesting ink, yet not what is most important. Most important to me, is knowing my words to Marlene wholeheartedly expressed what had been left out. An intimate expression calling into question why another black woman had to die so soon.

A Prayer in the Dark, figure of the standing monk Mahakashyapa,
from North Vietnam now at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore
Photo: Ee Shawn via Flickr

So how to reconcile the sacred and personal and intimate experience of practice with the day-to-day experiences of being a member of a marginalized group whose very life, both spiritual—and for many of us, physical—is under threat moment to moment? How are ongoing microaggressions arising from other’s conditioned perceptions of differences addressed and healed? How does each of us skillfully attend to the experience of wounded self? How do we successfully renegotiate the trauma of our multigenerational sociocultural histories? How do we hold it all in the Dharma Ocean of wisdom and compassion?

The Buddha’s teachings tell us there is no division, and yet, we perceive—and experience—divisions everywhere! Across cultures, religions, economic classes, skin color, sexualities, physical and mental abilities, genders, languages, access to societal resources, and endless others. And in addition to just perceiving the differences, there is also the sensorial experience of the impact of these differences. So what is the teaching really talking about when it says there is no division? I propose it is not the “life” we perceive through our senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body); no, it is life just as it is, without sensorial interpretation. In that space, in the absence of sensorial interpretation, we can perceive differences and simultaneously embrace them beyond the cognitive realm. And to experience this intimacy is freedom.

It is freedom because right in the midst of these differences, in the experience of sorrow and despair, of hopelessness and anger, of fear and confusion, joy and laughter, right there, embodying the reality of the present moment, is awakening, and in that place beyond words, there is no division. Only deep breath . . . painful back . . . runaway teen . . . lonely child . . . starving infant . . . scared elder . . . terminal illness . . . wild mind . . . parched throat . . . quivering heart . . . beautiful aria . . . early morning woodpecker . . . oil-drenched pelicans . . . winter dawn . . . warm rain after a blizzard.

In this relative world, while confronting the historical legacies of oppressions, navigating institutional powers blinded to the endemic impact of privileges, experiencing daily microaggressions, living in fear for our children’s future and steeling ourselves for the anticipated rejection, we also hunger for a loving embrace. We long for the intimacy of heart touching heart.

I like to imagine that the essence of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s life and teaching, as well as that of all the ancient sages, is this intimacy of heart touching heart. In the Buddha’s case, he showed us a path of transformation and a path of liberation. In the path of transformation, he taught nobility – his diagnoses and his prescription to end suffering, the teaching of what it is to be awake. And he showed us a path of liberation by proclaiming all beings are Buddha.

In the path of transformation, we begin with knowing suffering, our own and that of all sentient beings. Knowing suffering, we can know what it means to be compassionate. We see how to cultivate compassion with loving -kindness and generosity, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We commit to taming the mind,to cleanse our afflictions, to understand the law of cause and effect, to cultivate sanity, and to be kind and forgiving.

The path of liberation takes us beyond transformation. Here the Buddha gave us the teachings on non-duality, no division; of the emptiness of all phenomena, on the realization of the nature of mind, and that Buddha nature is inherent to us all.

Mountain of Jizo Statues, the Okunoin Cemetery in Koyasan, Japan, Photo: Stéfan via Flickr

Walking the two rails of transformation and liberation, we stay steady in our practice. With focused attention, deep spaciousness and fearless intimacy, we discern core spiritual ailments that prevent us from fully embodying our True Nature.

So, in the absence of sensorial interpretations is just this: Marlene, Alexandra and Bekki lived, and no longer do. They are no longer in body, existing in this realm, alive through my sense perceptions. They have passed on. Where have they gone? As the old ancestral Chinese Teacher Tao Wu said, “I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead,” when on a condolence call with his student Chien Yuan, the latter hit the coffin and said to Tao Wu, “Alive or Dead?”

Yet, I still find myself wanting to keep each of my friends really close, so that I don’t miss them. It is in the intimacy of the silent missing, when I drop into the stillness of the moment, that I hear and see and feel their teachings in the movement around me. Each of them is the clock, just now striking the chime at half past noon. The squirrel, cautiously crawling towards the seeds, spilled underneath the bird feeder. The soft, pale yellow New England winter sun, lazily draping the tall birches outside my window. The birds jumping from branch to branch on the magnolia, pussy willow and pear trees that have come alive in this now spring-like weather on this ordinary January day. Right here, they are as close as the tip of my nose.

Here is one last of those Zen encounters, this time a modern example:
A clinical psychiatrist questioned Suzuki Roshi about consciousness. “I don’t know anything about consciousness,” Suzuki said. I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing.” May I live long enough to embody Roshi’s teaching.

Ryūmon Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín: Soto Zen Priest Writer, Poet & Editor 

Ryūmon Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín is a writer, poet, and editor of the anthology Dharma, Color and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism, and a contributor to the collection, Women Practicing Buddhism: American Experiences. An ordained Soto Zen priest and guiding teacher for Peace Dragon (AnRyūJi) Zen home temple in Westhampton, Massachusetts, she co-founded, with Dr. Catherine Anraku Hondorp, Two Streams Zen, a multicultural Dharma vehicle with the mission of transforming people and communities through fearless intimacy and living compassion. Ryūmon is also a trauma resolution practitioner and an assistant with the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute. She has a private practice of Zen Trauma Healing™ in Northampton, Massachusetts. This is her second time contributing to Awakening Buddhist Women; her first post, “Liberation in the Midst of Suffering,” was published in May 2013.

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