Gazing at Flowers on the Roof of Hell

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Sunday Lecture: learning zazen with Soen Roshi in Jerusalem - interfaith practice; Easter - rebirth; Issa "Walking together on the roof of hell, looking at flowers"; Wendy's house flooded by river, beautiful and terrible; current issues of Vanity Fair and Time on melting ice caps; Lee de Barros on peace conference with Dalai Lama; Yurok shaman Harry Roberts; story of whale freed from net

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Good morning. Blessed and peaceful Easter, a blessed and peaceful Passover, a blessed and peaceful Buddha's birthday, and then the deep wish that we may be neither blessed nor peaceful but active in our combined work for the well-being of our home world. I'd like to begin by, as a person who lived at Green Gorge for more than 25 years and practiced here shoulder-to-shoulder with many beings in this room, and now live next door in your beach, I would like to begin by welcoming our, I think, 11th year of apprentices,

[01:00]

farm and garden apprentices, to this valley. This is a great, joyful celebration as you gather here from all parts of the known world. As far east as Sweden, as local, thank heavens, as Berkeley, welcome to the nine or ten who are here to practice with us and open the craft of farming and gardening in the field of meditation, a field far beyond form and emptiness. And you're surrounded by many other apprentices. Could you raise your hands, those of you who've been here as an apprentice or as a farm and garden? Yeah. And I'd like to say, with my psychic powers, I see, Joe and Rosie, I see that your car's lights are on, so please get out there and turn them off. Oh, they got them, good. See, this is the kind of apprentice we want, willing to travel in the dark without any

[02:01]

light. So good morning. It's a real honor to be here to gather on this morning. I was remembering a line of poetry from my first Zen teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi. I had the great privilege of beginning Zen practice in 1971 with a wonderful teacher in Jerusalem, Israel. Soen Nakagawa Roshi was the head of the temple where I began to practice. It wasn't exactly a temple. It was a little funky house on the top of the Mount of Olives in eastern Jerusalem, right on the edge of the world, overlooking the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert, definitely in the Arab section of Jerusalem on a mountaintop. There was a tiny Zendo. Wonderful cancer researchist in Israel thought, this is the home of all of the great western

[03:09]

religions of the world. Why shouldn't Zen Buddhism also be represented? And she got herself to Israel, and, excuse me, from Israel to Japan, asked if she could find a Roshi who spoke English, and with the determination of a good scientist and dedicated practitioner found Soen Nakagawa Roshi, who was the abbot of Ryotakaji Dragon Temple in Japan, and persuaded him to send his head monk to Jerusalem. So my teacher, my first guide into the world of meditation, was a simple Japanese monk named Dōkyū Nakagawa Roshi, who made his way to the top of the Mount of Olives, was able to rent a little house, and opened the doors for meditation. I'm thinking of that this morning, ascending the hill and descending the hill, as Soen loved

[04:18]

to say, ascend the mountain, descend the mountain, ascend the mountain, descend the mountain, dragon's spring. I'm thinking of that dragon's spring more than thirty years ago, when I somehow ascended the Mount of Olives, found this little place of practice, not at all interested or even curious about Zen meditation, more as an activist, it was recommended that I just check it out and to my amazement a friend took me and I did do that, and thirty-five years later here we sit in the circle, in the dragon's circle. And particularly this morning, I'm remembering what it's like to practice in the world, in the fabric, in the mind of inner faith, connectedness. It's very important, especially in our times. So the first place I learned Zazen was in this little house, definitely bathed in the morning

[05:29]

call of the Muzin, because most of the practice on that mountaintop was the practice of Islam, and there were minarets and many houses of worship on the top of the Mount of Olives, and our little Zen place there. And I practiced with a very eclectic Sangha, which included a Jewish rabbi from the Diamond District of New York, who was looking for the essence of Judaism, of knowing the mind. And he sat with us, and two incredible Christian pilgrims in the Anglican Church who had lived for twenty-five years in India, they came in the morning and just sat completely silently. I remember actually there were three of them who had been pilgrims in India, wearing a sari and traditional garb of the village where they had lived for twenty-five years and had

[06:33]

been missionized by India, had been claimed by India. And they sat with us. I remember they were a lot older, Murray was white-haired and very proper, and he and his wife Mary and Heather sat completely quietly. They would sit through walking meditation, that's what I really remember about them. So they would sit unmoving and absolutely alert for an hour and a half, an hour and forty-five minutes, and then just get up and stretch their bones and go peacefully on their way. They lived in East Jerusalem, where they maintained a simple hermitage, open particularly for children, and a number of other Sangha members. And we had no place, no formal place like this one to practice, so when it was time for Sashin, our first Sashin, this is a gathering of the mind for seven days, our first Sashin was donated to us by Trappist monks at the monastery of Latrun, outside of the city of

[07:41]

Jerusalem. And they loved our sitting and our quiet, but when it was time for us to chant, we went outside to the olive grove. That they asked us not to do, and I think it was more than the content or the curiosity of what that content could possibly be, it was the sound. They maintained a place of real silence. So my practice developed and took root in the interfaith world, in that world where all traditions are joined by a common contemplative strand, that bright strand woven through the fabric of our shared life. So it was wonderful to begin in that way. I remember so much about those early years, and I'm grateful for the fact that I, as a

[08:45]

pilgrim, didn't have an established place to practice, didn't have the security of an organized sangha life and had to make the determination every single day to get up, to take that rickety bus from the center of the old city of Jerusalem up to Har Zeytim, to the Mount of Olives, to walk through the wind and the dark and often through the rain to that little house, to take off my shoes, to step in, to sit down, and to know the mind, shape the mind, and free the mind. It's amazing to me that I, as an American young woman in my early 20s, felt that I couldn't have that kind of access here in this country where I grew up.

[09:48]

I had to go, as we say in the 13th century text of Kansa Zengi, had to go to the dusty lands looking for a place of practice, and of all places, to have to go to Israel. I marvel at the fact that that was how I began my practice. A large reason for me for going outside of the United States was the war in Vietnam, feeling that if my country was engaged in the kind of behavior it was engaged in, I should investigate living outside of these boundaries, and now I marvel at the irony of moving to Israel. But I'm very glad that I did, and that not looking for Zen practice, it found me, and claimed me.

[10:49]

And not looking for interfaith dialogue, being in the presence, sitting down every morning after making that 35, 45-minute pilgrimage to get to the Mount of Olives, sitting down in the call of Islam surrounding me, the temple bells of the Christian faith ringing up from the city, and then the simple, soundless, wordless field in that tiny meditation hall that had an altar that only included a strand of wheat, a simple Sumi circle or Enso circle, and a bowl of water, a blue bowl of water. I remember it so well, in the desert, what it was like to look at the wheat, the water in the circle, and to sit. Now I'm neither romantic nor emotional about religious life.

[11:54]

Instead I feel as a 35-plus-year practitioner of daily meditation and a laywoman, mother, activist, wife, troublemaker. I feel the call to take my place in this world and to speak truth lovingly to the situation that we find ourselves in now. So today, Easter Sunday, the day where we celebrate a rebirth, new life, coming from ashes, life into death into life, said my garden teacher. Everything we do in the garden is about life into death into life again. That's this morning's celebration, getting up at dawn in the rain, going to the river that runs behind our house, putting my hands in that muddy water, tasting the muddy water,

[12:56]

standing in that place of rebirth. And it's wonderful in this season of the year to celebrate Easter with Passover, from that wonderful Hebrew word, Lifsoach, which means to jump over, to jump over from narrowness to a wider vision of who we are, what our work is, what the responsibility we take up is in these times, to jump over from narrowness into a wider world. And at the same time, to celebrate Buddha's birthday on that full moon day, when the baby Buddha stood up and said, I'm going to spend my entire life looking at suffering and the relief of suffering, my entire life, and I'm going to begin right now. And we often say that Buddha's birthday is the holiday, the holy day of flowers, lightened

[14:11]

flowers, like a wedding. I think of a line of poetry from Issa where he says, we walk together on the roof of hell gazing at flowers. So, may all the sweetness and rebirth and jumping over from narrowness into freedom be tempered by walking together on the roof of hell, on the edge of the known world. I'm borrowing all the flat surfaces I can find this morning. Gratitude to the flat surfaces. This morning I was listening, in preparation for this talk, I was listening to the rain,

[15:16]

the steady rain, the voice of the rain, the voice of the rising tide. Avalokiteshvara is often referred to as the one with the voice of the rising tide. And feeling so strongly this world we find ourselves in right now. I live on the edge of Redwood Creek. After living here for 25 years, our family was just creative enough to move a mile north. That's, you know, inch by step by step, you know, inch by inch. It was a wonderful move where we share a house with an artist and activist, Mayumi Oda. We share a home right on the edge of the water, next door to Goat in the Road, which is a wonderful place of practice where Yvonne Rand and her husband Bill Sterling, also members of this community,

[16:18]

practiced for more than 30 years as householders on the edge of the creek. And this winter, the voice of the rising tide ran right through our home. On New Year's Eve day, the river rose up and gave us a good call for our, a good run for our Zen money. That's what I like to think of. Luckily, we're pretty faithful meditation practitioners and it's pretty hard to sleep past 3.40 in the morning. That's kind of the normal time we wake up, oh, it's 3.40 in the morning. I'll look at the clock and either it says 3.40 or 9.11. Very often I notice that. When I look up, I see those numbers reminding me of who I am. Anyway, 3.40 in the morning, it was clear to us that the river was not only rising up, but was intending to run through our house. So we gathered together all of our, everything we could gather together,

[17:24]

putting couches up on boxes and chairs. Mainly in our house, I found we have a lot of books and they're low down. So I noticed today, I don't have a lot of robes to organize, but I have a lot of books to organize, a lot of poetry, a lot of words, a field of words. So lifting up books with my children and my husband, waking our neighbors, helping them get out of home. We had brand new neighbors living at Goat in the Road, a new family with three children who'd never been through that kind of rain. The river rose up and went into Mayumi's side of the house, about three feet deep for six hours, water running through the house. And our house, which has never flooded, water ran through it. The doors opened up and by then our neighbor was gone and the children next door and our 17-year-old daughter and our cat

[18:26]

had all been evacuated. And my husband and I, who practiced here for so many years, stood on the deck of our home holding on to the edge of the door because the river was roaring through the landscape and felt how beautiful this is. How beautiful and how terrible. How terrible, not for our home, but for the many who've been inundated this year. How terrible that we forget. When all around us is the voice of the rain to remind us of the world that we are causing and that we take responsibility for. You know, in the current issue of Vanity Fair,

[19:27]

have you seen this issue? It's a little... I brought it just because it's such a gas. A new American revolution. Here's Julia... What's her name? Julia Roberts, dressed in svelte green silk with George Clooney and Robert Kennedy Jr. and Al Gore surrounding her like the kind of leaves out of which the great Easter lily comes. She's coming forth. You know, this issue is extremely important to have be on the newsstands right now. This issue, and I'm bringing in... I actually think this is quite important, this issue of time. Be worried, be very worried, with a polar bear not quite as green as Vanity Fair, but a different view of time and the river flowing. And Al Gore's piece is...

[20:28]

His piece of writing is quite wonderful. I've just returned from helping to lead a mindfulness retreat with a very good friend in Arkansas. And while there, one of the practitioners in our floating sangha, in the Ozark floating sangha, had just returned from hearing Al Gore. And he said it was a very meaningful event for him. It actually deepened his meditation practice in a way he hadn't expected. Gore spoke of, as he does in this piece, the Chinese character for opportunity, which is... excuse me, the Chinese character for crisis, that's what it is, made up of two characters, danger and opportunity. You know, and in this rain this morning, this Easter morning, how could we not be aware of the danger we live in and the opportunity that we have in front of us? The earth is rapidly accumulating pollution

[21:44]

from the way we live. And we know this. And the air surrounding the earth. And the rivers and waters of our world arise as I experienced quite vividly on New Year's Eve Day. As the great waters and ice fields of this world begin to melt from the Sierras here in California and down into Mexico to the Andes and the Alps and the massive ice fields on the roof of the world on the Tibetan Plateau, melting and the waters rising up to remind us of how we're living, the voice of the rising tide. I want to read you this information, not as a bummer, but because it is so,

[22:45]

and it is so because of the way we live. In the massive ice fields in the Tibetan Plateau, a hundred times more ice than the Alps, these fields supply half of the drinking water for 40% of the world's people. And seven great rivers have their source in this melting ice, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers. As we live and function in this world, we are also melting the vast, relatively thin, floating ice cap that covers the Arctic Ocean and even beginning to melt the enormous 10,000-foot-thick mound of ice on top of Greenland and West Antarctica. And as these ice fields melt, the waters of the world rise up.

[23:53]

They can rise up to, in the next 100 years, 20 feet above present sea level. And it's important for us to know this. It's important to know this true fact, which is an expression of the way we live and how we are in the world, as it is to study the basic tenets of Buddhism. They go together. They're meant to be sung and spoken together. In the year 2005, the city of Mumbai in India received 37 inches of rain in one day. That is usually the amount of rain on a good year that falls year-round in Northern California. 37 inches in one day.

[24:53]

2005. The sound of the rising tide. We have to listen. There's plenty of good news. It's good news that people are waking up, that we're meeting together, that most college campuses that I visited this, just a week ago with my daughter, as she prepares for that next phase of her life, most of the college campuses we visited had sent contingencies of young people to, actually, they had sent themselves to Louisiana, to New Orleans, to help. Hundreds of students. A young man I work with at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley is spending his vacation in New Orleans, responding to the voice of the rising tide. There's plenty of good news, but it has to be tempered by what is and by how we're living,

[25:57]

and by asking ourselves, what are we meant to do? So I was contemplating this question this morning, preparing to come and be here with you, and I listened to this wonderful tape that a good friend gave me at right around New Year's time, supposedly from His Holiness the Dalai Lama chanting for peace and well-being in the world. A beautiful tape. I was listening to that very softly when my friend and Dharma brother, Mr. Lee, Seto Lee Debaros, with whom I practiced here for years, and he's married, has the good fortune to be married to one of the most kick-ass dames I know, Martha Debaros. Both of them together serve actively in the prisons of our wealthy, wealthy, wealthy county. Mr. Lee goes every Sunday and has for six years to the Buddhadharma Sangha, which is a sangha of incarcerated crooks at San Quentin.

[27:02]

They're beginning their first practice period. So Mr. Lee practices there with Steve Stuckey and many people in this sangha have practiced there behind the walls of San Quentin. But he didn't call to tell me about the Buddhadharma Sangha. He called to say that yesterday he had participated in an extraordinary event convened by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, an interfaith gathering of practitioners from the great religious traditions, faith traditions. Let me say that. I'm more comfortable in that. Faith, one great confidence, shraddha, faith. One great translation of shraddha or faith is confidence. I think that's a wonderful translation of the word faith. So more than 500 people gathered together

[28:03]

in the ballroom of the Mark Hopkins Hotel for an opportunity to really look at peace and how we make peace in troubled times. I'm so glad Mr. Lee called to tell me this while His Holiness was chanting in our kitchen and the rain was streaming in and the river was rising and Easter celebrations were opening all over the world. I'm glad he called to tell me what an extraordinary event this was and he's a very active member, as are people from Green Gulch, very active in the interfaith dialogue. But he said to be there in the presence of so many people of confidence and faith in all their different robes and trappings and magnificence

[29:03]

was extraordinary. And people spoke to the question of what will it take to make peace in these times? Deeply speaking to each other, His Holiness remembered the fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet who apparently was walking through the countryside and came upon a Tibetan Muslim practitioner who was prostrating toward the east and praying. And the fifth Dalai Lama asked him, What are you doing? And the practitioner answered something like, I don't remember exactly what Lee told me, but something like, I'm supplicating myself or prostrating myself to the great unknown. I'm making that up a little bit. Let's say that's what he said. It was in Tibetan anyway, so who's to say? Without Bob Thurman here to translate before it's spoken, who's to say what was said? And the fifth Dalai Lama was very moved

[30:06]

and realized that the sacred land of Tibet belonged to many traditions and that it was absolutely necessary for those traditions to be intertwined and called the most powerful archer of that era to the very spot where the Tibetan Muslim man was practicing, was praying, and asked the archer to stand there and turn to the north, the east, the west, and the south. And it's a great, that acronym, north, east, west, south, is news. We get our news from the north, east, west, south coming together. So the archer stood on the spot of prayer and let loose an arrow to the north, and where it fell was the northern boundary of safe land for that practitioner. And to the east, and where it fell, was the eastern boundary of safety. To the west, where it fell, was the western boundary.

[31:09]

To the south, where it fell, was the southern boundary. Protect this land so that there can be a diversity of tradition, so that we can be a healthy people and be who we are. So it seems good to remember that this morning, this Easter morning. And it seems also good to remember Reverend William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain for years at Yale University and then on to Riverside Church in New York, an activist minister who never stopped preaching peace from the pulpit. He died a few days ago in this holy week. I remember hearing a speech from one of his students, a man, a young man at Yale, who presented his draft card to the reverend

[32:11]

and asked the reverend to take it to Washington, D.C. and return it, because he didn't intend to use the draft card. And Coffin went to Washington with hundreds of draft cards and presented them. This young man remembers a rainy Easter morning with Coffin, Reverend Coffin, preaching in the pulpit, calling out, Bloom, frozen Christians! Bloom! Take your place on the roof of hell and speak out for true justice. So this is, thinking about this is wonderful. And His Holiness offered four suggestions. And you know, I asked Mr. Lee, Lee de Barros, to come and he's here in the hall and during question and answer we will talk together, speak together and actually he can tell us more about this gathering

[33:12]

because it was extraordinarily moving to hear from him. But he did tell me these four points which seem to have some relevance this morning, sitting here together. Number one, first of all, His Holiness suggested that this is a very good time for scholars to come together and to really look for religious scholars or scholars of faith traditions to come together and deeply look at what is being taught and offered in your tradition. How has your study, translation, immersion in the teachings of your different traditions been valuable? What have you learned and what can we teach each other from a scholarly perspective? And I love it that he began with that. The scholar monk is an extraordinary being that runs through all different faith traditions

[34:13]

and even if he or she doesn't have monkish roots, the scholar that helps us understand our tradition is an invaluable member. So let's begin with scholarship, looking at the Dharma or the truth of what's being offered. And second of all, let's look at our differences. Not just the scholars, but let's begin by scholarly practitioners meeting and informing one another about what our traditions are. And this reminds me a lot of the privilege of meeting with His Holiness about five years ago at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where for five days different members of the teaching Buddhism in the Western community gathered with His Holiness to learn a little bit about our own tradition and what was relevant to offer. So he says let's begin with scholars. Second of all, let's as practitioners really ask ourselves what are the differences in our traditions

[35:17]

that are important and then what are the similarities? And Mr. Lee will go through this more carefully with us. And what is the purpose of these differences? His Holiness opined that when we really sit down and look at the merging of difference and unity, we see that our differences, the purpose is common to, as the Buddha said, to look at suffering and the end of suffering in our world, to increase compassion, to increase our deepest presence, and to do it lifetime after lifetime after lifetime. But unless we meet together, we can't begin that process. Third of all, he suggested that we go on pilgrimage, that if we're lucky enough to visit Tibet, we try to find that circle of protection

[36:17]

where the fifth Dalai Lama met a countryman and protected land, that we make a pilgrimage to that spot of Muslim prayer and kneel down and recognize this is sacred ground. And of course, again, we're talking about the dusty worlds. You don't need to go much farther than the land right outside your own door. My primary teacher, Harry Roberts, here at Zen Center, said that his teacher, who was a Yurok shaman, a medicine man, chose his students by asking them to bring him five plants that had never been seen before. And the most ardent students fanned out over the hills looking for the plants, while the stupidest adults just looked right down at the ground underneath their feet. They didn't go an inch. And those were his students. He chose those who didn't move,

[37:18]

who knew that what I've never seen before, where I've never prayed before, is right under my own feet. And I take my place in this country. Right from here, I can hear the sound of the rising tide just fine. I don't need to go anywhere. I'll be a pilgrim right here. And yet, to make a pilgrimage away from the classroom at Tufts or NYU or Colgate College or any of those upper crust places of learning out into the wild world, beyond the gate, is extremely important. So pilgrimage is the third point. And the last point is, please, His Holiness begged, please, people of faith, come together and speak to one another and really listen. Wouldn't it be wonderful,

[38:20]

someone said, wouldn't it be wonderful if goodness were as contagious as the common cold? And of course, the Dalai Lama reminded us, it is, it is, it is. So I want to close. I had so much more to say. Thank God, I'm not going to say it. But we can continue examining who we are and what we do. I want to play, I'm going to try to find a a recording, what do they call it, a CD player for question and answer because just a few days ago I was, well, actually not a few days ago, a good number of months ago I was walking by my daughter's room and pouring out of her room was a great song by the Flaming Lips,

[39:22]

one of her favorite bands, the Flaming Lips. She has a poster on her wall. Sometimes when she's gone to school I step over all the junk on the floor of her room and I marvel in that, it's like going to a different country. I make pilgrimage to my teenager's room, to that field far beyond form and emptiness and I step into the richness of her intense life up to the poster that says The Flaming Lips. It's on the wall and I think, The Flaming Lips, amazing. Between Bob Marley and Ferris Bueller, The Flaming Lips, do you realize that everything you love will die? It's a beautiful song and I was walking by her room and heard it and felt my heart open and in recognition that teachings of awareness,

[40:24]

teachings of frontline activism are available to us in all forms. If our hearts and minds are open, if we're willing to step into a shared universe and take our place and really listen to the voice of the rising tide. So I want you, I'm going to lure you back into this cave and play some rock music for you from The Flaming Lips and then Mr. Lee and I will talk about, mostly he will talk about this experience yesterday. I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to come home, to sit here in this wonderful seat, to feel tremendous gratitude for the young and old, for the wide range of folks surrounding, for our Sangha, for this floating Sangha this morning, for all of you who chose to come here today to investigate the way.

[41:26]

Because we live in desperate times, because we've made quite a mess of this world, we have no choice but to work together to serve, learn and respond, not turn away, not turn away in any way. A very good friend of mine whose son was born the same year as my 17-year-old. We both survived 17 years of intensity. We weathered well. Our children have helped us. She's just returned from traveling in the desert. She told me about spending the night on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon and the immense terror and joy of being there on the edge, feeling, she said, the great maw of the canyon making me be more than I am,

[42:29]

reminding us of what's possible, how we can step over, jump over from narrowness to the wide world, how regeneration comes up out of the ashes, ashes and snow, how by walking on the roof of hell we can gaze at the flowers and remember who we are. And it's important, in closing, it wouldn't be proper not to recognize the more-than-human world that joins us and is teaching us at every point. So let me close with a gift from my sister, a beautiful offering she sent me and just listen to this. If you read the front-page story of the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday, December 14, 2005,

[43:32]

you would have read about a female humpback whale who became entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, a line tugging in her mouth. A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands, outside of the Golden Gate, and radioed an environmental group for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that the whale was in grave danger. The only way to help her was to dive into the water and untangle the ropes from her body, a very dangerous proposition. One slap of this gigantic whale's tail would kill any rescuer. They worked for hours

[44:35]

underwater with curved knives and eventually they freed her. When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles around and around. She then came back to each and every diver one at a time, nudged them, pushed them gently around. Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The man who cut the rope out of the whale's mouth says her eye followed him the entire time he was working and he will never be the same. May you, may we, all of those who love, be so blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by beings who help us get untangled from things that are binding us. And may we always remember and know the joy of giving and receiving gratitude. Frozen beings,

[45:38]

may we all bloom together on the roof of hell. And thank you for coming out this morning.

[45:43]