Identify Your Cows

I heard this story when I was training at Plum Village in France under the guidance of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006.  I am struck by how much I continue to reflect on its meaning.

 

One day the Buddha was out in the country side practicing walking meditation with his disciples.  They came across a cow herder who anxiously said to the Buddha, “Venerable monk, my cows all ran away.  I’m looking for them.  Have you seen them come by this way?”

The Buddha replied, “We have not seen any cows in this direction.  You might want to look in the other direction.”

The man hurried off.  Buddha turned to his disciples and said, “Aren’t we lucky, we don’t have any cows.”

 

A cow in this story is symbolic for those things that prevent us from experiencing real freedom.  They could be our material possessions.  Once you own something, you have to take care of it.  You have to worry about it.  In the time of the Buddha, monks owned three robes and one bowl.  They were forbidden to own anything else.  Food and shelter was freely given to them as needed by supportive lay followers.  Their practice had to be worthy enough to receive such offerings.

 

A cow could also refer to a rank or a position that one holds.  Once a person has a certain degree of status and power, it’s hard to let that go.  Yet, the holding on to that power often comes at a high cost. There is the constant worry that someone else will come along and displace you.  Or that you’ll eventually become ineffective in your position.  The stress from work can give us all kinds of physical, emotional, and mental problems.

 

Zen Master Rinzai, paradoxically, encouraged his students to be the person of “no rank.”  Even in the spiritual world our competitive natures can creep in.  We want to be closer to Enlightenment than other practitioners.  We might feel envious of students who are able to go on more retreats than we are.  This is all nonsense, though.  Our inherent Enlightenment is not affected by how much we practice.  Enlightenment is always there regardless of whether we recognize it or not.  The wave is always a part of the ocean, the question is whether the wave recognizes it’s “ocean nature” or not.  The practice of the Zen student is to touch their Buddha Nature in every opportunity available to them.  We don’t need to wait for the right time, the perfect teacher, or the right retreat to come along before we touch our Buddha Nature.  Buddha Nature is our birthright.

 

The question is, what prevents us from connecting with our inherent Buddha Nature?  What are our “cows”?

 

We all own things, and we all have certain positions or ranks we want to hold on to.  We may not have the luxury to just let those things go.  Or maybe we do, and we just have not looked carefully enough at our options, or we are afraid of changing.

 

Practice is about taking an honest look at ourselves and our lives and assessing what is a true need versus what is something we just want to have as a kind of security.  We may not be in a position to give up certain things.  But have we really looked carefully enough at our cows?

 

When I look at my own responsibilities these include my work as a Zen Priest and my duties as a father and husband.  These duties if abused or neglected will cause great harm.  But on a subtler level I need to be watchful that they don’t turn into “cows”.   In other words, I can identify myself with these roles and forget that these are not who I am.  Forgetfulness of this is where the “cow” comes in.  I need to remember that these roles are more like a mask that I take on and off, but sometimes the mask itself gets glued to my face and I can’t distinguish myself from the mask.  I remember a Catholic monk saying, “I’m not a monk, I’m a man wearing monk’s clothes.”  This expresses my sentiment exactly.

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Which masks do you put on and take off regularly?

Prior to my “Home Leaving Ceremony” (priest ordination for lack of a better description) there were times that I felt that I had no real mask to put on.  I was a nobody.  My teacher had me wait six years until she offered me the “Home Leaving Ceremony.”  During that extended period, I felt extremely vulnerable, not having a secure identity.  I suppose my label could have been “student”, but I wasn’t a student in the way our society recognizes a student.  I wasn’t enrolled in a University.  I wasn’t getting a degree that I could then use to apply to a job.

At this time, I also had no steady work, nor did I earn income in the usual sense, nothing I could call, “my occupation”, and no family to support.  I was neither a husband nor a father.  I was doing work for my teacher and for the temple in exchange for receiving the Dharma, room, and board.  My work included cooking, cleaning, gardening, being the Treasurer, and attending to the needs of my teacher, including driving her to prison for meditation with the Buddhist group or to the airport for engagements further away.  I had no teaching responsibilities for several years.

 

I am eternally grateful to have been put in such an awkward position as a young adult.  Luckily, I was supported by a Zen community and a teacher so that I could really just practice Zazen and learn.  Being open to my own vulnerability is where a lot of growth happened.

 

Within Soto Zen there is a tradition for both lay and priests to help us identify our attachment to the label of “Buddhist”.  During the first meditation period in the morning Zen Buddhists sit without their outer Buddha robe on them.  Once the “Robe Verse” is recited, one is then permitted to wrap themselves in their robe.  So, we sit first thing in the morning without relying on our robe.  It’s a reminder that underneath our layers of clothing there is just this body wrapped in skin.  Even a Buddha robe is not going to protect us from our humanity nor our vulnerability as a human that lives and dies.

 

With regards to family responsibilities, questions I have found helpful in order to make the distinction between mask and reality are, “What does honesty look like when I am in front of my wife and son?  What if I shared my true feelings rather than pretended everything is okay?”  These are questions I continue to ask myself.  Like anyone else, family demands of me my time, energy, and effort to keep things moving.  There is no way I can maintain constant harmony.  The question is not if things fall apart, but when.  At those times, introspection rather than blame has always proved helpful for reestablishing connection.

 

The labels I have been given – Zen Priest, father, husband, son, brother, male, American, human – none of these will protect me from dying.  If I’m not careful in my practice, they all have the potential to become my “cows”.  I can’t lean on those roles when it comes to the “Great Matter of Life and Death”.  What I can do is tap more deeply into my own being, love myself more and do my best to show my concern for the wellbeing of everyone in my life.  Though I continue to strive to carry out the Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, maybe, just maybe, I can be a little less of a jerk, and a tiny bit more considerate to one or two people in my life.

 

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A Dharma Doorway

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

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Children have been by far my best teachers.  Jesus said that if we can learn to have the mind of a child, then we will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The child’s mind is open, receptive, and sincerely curious about life.  When sitting zazen, Dai-En Roshi would encourage us to sit with “kindergarten mind,” a phrase she received from her teacher, Aoyama Roshi.

Upon leaving Japan as a teacher of English, I had a plan to enter graduate school and to pursue a Master’s Degree in Theology.  I knew within the first few weeks of study that I was in the wrong place.  I felt the need to be working, earning money, and experiencing life, and not thinking about it.  I dropped out of graduate school and began working as a substitute teacher for the West Contra Costa School District in California.  I was considering becoming a full-time elementary school teacher at that time.

I found substitute teaching exciting because I did not know where I would be going next, or what kind of children I would be teaching.  Some of the classes were wonderful, and others were absolutely dreadful.  I enjoyed the younger kids much more than the adolescent children.

At the beginning of the summer I returned to the east coast to live with my parents in Maryland.  My sister-n-law, Lois, helped me to find full-time work as a teacher in a Catholic school that served children with autism.  The work was not bad, but the opportunity arrived for me to work as a 5th grade teacher at another Catholic school in the area.  Because I had not yet made a signed commitment to the first school, I abruptly left it to teach at the other school.  I later regretted this move because I realized that how I leave one job effects how I enter another job.

I was unprepared to take on two classes of 30 children ten years of age.  As much as children can be looked to as examples for developing curiosity, their egos are in full swing.  I realized the need, personally, when working with kids, to be able to recognize my own ego, my attachments and aversions, and to be able to drop ego identification frequently.  The training in Zen I had done up to that point was not sufficient in addressing this need.  I had, after all, spent little time actually training with a Zen teacher, or living in a monastery.  The intellectual foundation for practice had been laid by my academic training, but it did not address the down-to-earth practice that I needed to do.

For the five months that I taught the Catholic school children, I came home exhausted everyday.  I struggled with holding their attention and getting them to do and behave the way I wanted them to.  Yet I was teaching them material from religion and biology, all things I loved.  I was not able to convey my love for these subjects in a way that justified my continuation in this work.  I spent what I later determined to be too much time disciplining children, and not nearly enough time affirming them.  This lesson came at a great price, and thanks to practicing Vipassana with Tara Brach’s meditation group at a Unitarian Universalist church near Washington DC once a week.  Because I felt so much better, so restored, after practicing with this group, I made it a point, no matter what, to attend her class every week.

One of the weeks that I attended, Tara had us split off into smaller groups to talk about a Dharma subject.  I shared my frustration in working with the children and I received very helpful feedback from my group.  I realized that I might not be doing the kids any favors by my demonstrations of anger towards those who were misbehaving.  I bought a Dharma talk by Joseph Goldstein that addressed the mental component “fear,” and ways of working with it.

I saw a direct connection between my anger towards misbehaving children, and my own fears of being inadequate to actually directing and having compassion toward children.  Determined not to act from a place of anger or fear anymore, I came into the classroom Monday morning with the goal of remaining calm and looking at my own ego attachments in the process of working through my fears. 

This worked well for my first class, albeit in a strange way.  I decided not to say anything to this class until I could be calm and feel at peace.  I waited for their attention without saying a word.  I did not realize that I would be waiting for a full 25 minutes to do this, and probably most teachers would not have this patience.  As I continued to calm myself, looking at my ego, and my desire to control the kids, the children were busy talking amongst themselves waiting for me to “lose it,” as I had usually done at this time.  But I was determined to change, even if that meant losing my job.

I did not care at this point, if I lost my job or not.  I was too exhausted to continue teaching in the way that I had been, and felt that if I can not change, then perhaps I should not be working as a teacher.  I had nothing to lose in remaining silent and, in effect, waiting for their attention. 

After 25 minutes of me standing in front of the class, still, calm, and not speaking, all of the children, to a tee, noticed that I was waiting for them.  They had been expecting me to discipline them as I had been ineffectively doing.  I managed to trick them by not behaving in my usual pattern.  They noticed the change and all of them stopped speaking and began looking at me in wonder.  The silence was palpable.  The kids were wondering, “is he going to reprimand us?”  I could see it on their faces.  They were anticipating my disciplinarian action.

Instead, I began with the lesson, asking them to take out their books and turn to a certain page.  They seemed somewhat disappointed and perplexed not to see more drama on my part.  But they paid marvelous attention during the last part of the period, attending to their work, without complaint or question.  It was beautiful.  I could not have asked for a better outcome.  I had found the secret to working with kids: patience with myself.

I decided to use the same strategy for the next class.  I had high hopes.  Anxiety was running through my veins with the same kind of anticipation that accompanied me before a swim a race.  I did not realize, however, that the previous class would tell the children in the next class about my plans.  This class was a different kind of beast all together.  I waited even longer, almost 45 minutes, without saying a thing, and nothing of note happened other than the kids continuing to talk without giving me an ounce of their attention.  One child, in fact, decided to leave the class at this time to let the principal of the school know what I was doing. 

Upon reflection, I could see how my own karma was ripening.  I had lost the trust of these children long ago.  They had not forgiven or forgotten how I had been treating them, and they seemed determined in making me pay for my mistakes.  I was now beginning to feel like the children I had sent to the principal’s office for punishment.  The only difference was that instead of me going to the principal, the principal was coming to me.

I felt as if I had completely failed in my objectives.  My peace of mind was nowhere to be found as I contemplated what to do next.  What would the principal say about this?  What would he think about me?  How can I explain myself?  I felt very stuck.

The principal entered the classroom and sat down in one of the desks in the middle of the room.  The whole class was quiet.  I picked up on their quiet and began the lesson as if nothing prior had happened.  Somewhat defeated, acting as though I planned all of this, but on another level knowing something was wrong, I walked through the rest of the day wondering what would be the result of all this, and how to explain my actions.

It dawned on me that I needed, rather than punishing the “bad” kids, to reward the “good” kids.  Tuesday of the same week I instituted a reward system where I gave tickets to the kids who were, “caught being good.”  They could cash in the tickets for prizes that were to be determined.  I found, hands down, that this had more consistent results then my experiments with silence.  I was now actively seeking out the children that were behaving, and actively ignoring the kids that were being rude.  This shift of focus was noticed by the children.  They changed.  Even the “bad” kids began to consider how they could be, “caught being good.”

I felt that, thanks to my experiments with silence, I was able to see the need and implementation of a reward system.  I had effectively taken control over this class.  It took me a grueling five months of struggle with myself to come to this place, but I did it.  The one thing that was worrying me, however, was the principal.  Since that fateful day when he had come into my class I had not heard a word from him.

Friday afternoon of that week he called me into his office.  It was during a break before my last class.  The principal asked me to resign.  He told me that he had found my replacement, and that the incident that Monday morning convinced him I was unable to control the class. 

I was speechless.  I did not know how to respond.  I did not want to resign.  Why?!  I tried to explain feebly how I had finally gained control of the class.  It was too late though.  He asked me to tell the kids that I would be leaving after today.  That was the end of it.

Thrust into a maelstrom of confusion and anger I proceeded to return to my class.  I had about 15 minutes before the children would be arriving for their last period with me.  Not knowing exactly how to conduct the class, I hinted at my departure by talking about how all things change, and ended with a sincere prayer straight from my heart saying,  “Sometimes we feel lost and confused in this world.  It’s at these times that we can look to God and cry out, ‘God, help me.  What should I do?  Where should I go?’” 

The children knew what I was talking about.  They could not say it directly, but they knew.  Some looked at me quite seriously and understood that a big change was about to happen.  I did not need nor feel obliged to say more.  The only thought that came to mind after the prayer was to visit that teacher (Dai-En Roshi) up in Pennsylvania who was trying to start a Zen monastery.  What did I have to lose at this point?  I had no job, no girlfriend, and no children to take care of.  If I was going to study and practice Zen for real, this would be the time to do it.  I would learn what I had not learned while practicing by myself.  I would learn how to really practice and teach meditation.

What these children taught me was the importance of not trying to control anyone.  They showed me how controlling I was, they shined back to me my own anger and delusion.  They taught me, too, that I needed to learn how to control myself.  Three years of meditating mostly on my own was insufficient to work through these issues.  I needed a teacher to work with at this point, to show me how to meditate, and to show me how a teacher conducts him/herself in daily activities.  Though the way I was treated by the principal reflected his own weaknesses, what turned out to be a loss in this world enabled me to more fully study, practice and eventually teach the Dharma.  One Dharma gate had closed and another Dharma gate had opened.

Where is my mind?

In our culture there is a major split between mind and body.  Generally speaking, the body gets treated one way and the mind another.  We go to a gym to develop our body.  We go to a classroom to develop our mind.  The body is considered physical: muscle, bones, ligaments, organs.  The mind is generally located in the head, associated with thoughts, and considered superior to the body.  But these two things – mind and body – are not separate, and treating them that way has created a dislocation between our thoughts and reality.

Breath brings body and mind back together so our thoughts are more in alignment with reality.  We can learn a lot about the body and mind from Zen Buddhism.  In Buddhism, breath is referred to as the royal road connecting mind and body.  According to Zen, there is no body separate from mind, and mind is not located only in the head.  When someone from Japan says, “I’m thinking,” they point to their heart.  So where is our mind?

One perspective – the teachings of Totality as found in the Flower Ornament Sutra – states that mind is in every cell of the body.  Every cell of your body carries memory.  This is why therapy that is based only on changing thinking patterns is often not enough for trauma patients or victims of abuse and violence.  The violence to which a person is exposed is carried in the muscles in addition to his or her thoughts and consciousness.  Asanas are powerful because they can, if done with compassion, help someone learn ways to gently hold the pain they are experiencing, rather than repressing it in  a self-destructive way, or expressing it in an other-destructive way.

Filling the body with breath and then releasing the breath through asana practice is a way to touch the pain within us and to acknowledge its presence in a loving way.  It does not guarantee the ending of or releasing of that pain, though much of the pain we hold on to is not caused by the pain itself but by the very fear of having or experiencing that pain.  So in touching the pain with our awareness we greatly reduce its intensity.

In Buddhism we are admonished to practice the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma.  In other words, practice without looking for the benefits – just practice.  Asana practice is also like this.  Just do the asanas without hoping for anything at all.  At the same time, I have found it inspiring to know the great benefits that come from meditating and yoga – reducing stress and chronic pain, boosting the immune system, coping with painful life events, working with negative emotions, improving concentration, etc – and they help me to keep at it.

In Zen practice we first use the breath to regulate mind and body.  We calm the body and mind with the breath.  This is the first half of the practice.  Once calm, we can begin looking into how everything is connected to everything else.  This is the second half of the practice.  The breath is used to calm us down so that we can gain insight into Buddhist teachings on emptiness, the teaching that there is no separate self that exists apart from anything else.

Isshin Denshin – “Mind to Mind Transmission”

“You can do anything you want in your life, but you have to know the price for it and be willing to pay it.”  -Mrs. Featherston

The town eccentric, Mrs. Featherston, wore bright, flowing gypsy skirts and Converse high top shoes because of her hammer toes.  She lived just on the edge of town before the Lewisburg Bridge crosses over the Susquehanna River.  The house where she resided is now referred to as Packard House and it became a museum filled with all the clothes and artifacts she and her husband collected on their world-wide travels.  Lewisburg is a small rural town in central Pennsylvania, noted for Bucknell University and the Federal Penitentiary.  It is also the hometown of my teacher, Patricia Dai-En Bennage Roshi.

As a little girl, Patricia was taking a walk with her mother, Evelyn, in town one day when they met Mrs. Featherston on the way.  Mrs. Featherston bent over and looked deeply and earnestly into Patricia’s eyes saying, “Hello Patty,” patting her on the head with one hand, then straightening back up and walking on. 

After this brief encounter she asked her mother, “How is it that Mrs. Featherston can say one thing with her mouth and another thing with her eyes?” 

Evelyn responded, “I have no idea what you mean, Honey.

Dai-En Roshi remembers in retrospect what she thought Mrs. Featherston said with her eyes: “You can do anything you want with your life, but you have to know the price for it and be willing to pay it.”

Zen is simple, Dai-En Roshi would often say.  “The way of the world is to, ‘Fly now and pay later.’  But the way of Zen is to ‘Pay now and fly later.’  We need to be willing to pay the price for what we want to do.”

Dai-En Roshi shared this story with me when I first came to Mount Equity Zendo as a 24 yearold young man.  This was her way of talking about the need for practitioners to build resolve.  We really need to want Enlightenment, to cultivate the mind that seeks after it, knowing that anything less than this mind will hinder us on the path.  “Hotsubodaishin,” the heart/mind that seeks The Way, Enlightenment, Truth, is the cornerstone of Zen practice.  My teacher planted a seed in my mind, suggesting ordination as a Buddhist monk as a pathway.  This seemed like a scary prospect.  Could I do it?  What would my family think?  What would society think?  Is this what I really want to do?  What would I need to ‘pay’ in order to ‘fly’? 

My answer to those questions was found in the process of building resolve, a process that was, for me, six years in the making, and of daily living and practicing at Mount Equity Zendo.    What I wanted did not come easily.  Though she offered it as a road, Dai-En Roshi felt I was too young at 24 to ordain.  She had me wait in order that my resolve be deepened.  At the time, I had no idea how long I would need to wait.  There was no timeline put on it.  When I saw that my fellow Dharma sister was being ordained after one year, I got the gumption to ask my teacher if I could ordain as well.  She said, “No, I don’t want you ordaining just because someone else is ordaining.  Besides, she is much older than you and has considerable Zen practice and life experience.”

At the time, I didn’t think that I was asking because of my Dharma sister, but her ceremony certainly made me wonder when I could ordain, and initiated the conversation.  Her “no” response sent me into a tailspin for the next several weeks which initially deepened my confusion as to whether I was in the right place or not.  I decided, however, to stay put, and resolved, more deeply, to simply do the practice for the sake of the practice, without trying to become a monk, priest, or venerable person.

The years that followed allowed me to really consider what practice is and to let go of unhelpful notions about what constitutes a Buddhist priest.  Perhaps the most transformative thing I did during this time was zazen, and – at my teacher’s insistence – work as a certified nurse’s aide at the nearby nursing home.  I’d return to Mount Equity Zendo after an eight hour shift saying, “NiOsho [‘NiOsho’ means ‘female head of temple’ and is what Dai-En Roshi is referred to by her students], I’m so lucky–I can swallow!; I can dress myself and clean myself!”  While most of my work was with elderly residents, there were also three young men I tended to, only in their thirties, all of them paralyzed from accidents.  I realized the preciousness of the most simple functions, and how easy it is to overlook them when our mind is preoccupied with unhelpful notions of success.

Between zazen and work as a nurse’s aide I was able to see through the labels that society or I gave to me and to honor “the man of no rank” within myself.  Society feeds us with ideas about what it means to be prosperous.  Having a certain number of degrees, being a professional – a doctor, lawyer, chaplain, etc – can mask our vulnerability to being born human, and delay us from witnessing the True Self, the one not bound by hierarchical levels, the one that is the All.  This is not a condemnation of levels and positions, but merely a recognition of how limiting they can be when we identify with them as our self.

The six years of living in this way at Mount Equity Zendo formed a solid foundation for which I am now grateful.  For in that time I was able to let go of the idea of even wanting to be a priest.  I was able to end my grasping after something that was not me.  I was able to find satisfaction in who I am, without the need for a label or a person to affirm me.  Shortly after I came to the conclusion that I am fine just as I am, my teacher asked me if I wanted to ordain.  I had recently had my 30th birthday and she felt I had reached a level of maturity to make this decision on my own.

Having let go of my desires for becoming a monk was, paradoxically the doorway into being a Buddhist monk.  Let me say, however, that I found the thought of letting go not the same thing as the actual doing of it.  Simply knowing I needed to “let go” was not enough.  Letting go is not an intellectual process, but a fundamental change that occurs on the deepest level of mind and body.  It can be triggered gradually, suddenly, or both gradually and suddenly.  The price I paid was six years of daily introspection through zazen, Dharma study, manual labor, serving the infirm, and working hard to understand and communicate with my teacher. 

Shortly after Dai-En Roshi’s 15 years of training in Japanese Zen monasteries she returned to the United States in 1990 to teach.  A friend from Nagoya, Japan was visiting her at the time, and she decided to take her friend sightseeing around her home town.  Her tour included the Packard House in Lewisburg.   While inside the gift shop she inquired about Mrs. Featherston and was told, “Well, you know, in her old age, even though she had those hammer toes and was long widowed, she went in a wheelchair on her long dreamedof visit to, of all places, Tibet.”  Upon hearing this story, Dai-En Roshi reflected upon the message she held in Mrs. Featherston’s eyes as a young girl.  “You can do anything you want, but you have to know the price and be willing to pay it.”

The foundation for the work for me to be a Zen priest was the resolve that I built up over six years as a lay student.  I want to be a Zen priest!  I can, indeed, do anything I want!  I honor Old Mrs. Featherston, a lady whose eyes I have met.

Daishin Eric McCabe met his teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, in 1994 at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania while studying Religion and Biology.  He began his 15 year residency and mentorship with her at Mount Equity Zendo in 1998 and completed Zuise in 2009.  He is a present member of the Board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a member of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists and has recently completed a one year Clinical Pastoral Education training program.  In August of 2014 he moved to Ames, Iowa with his wife, Jisho Sara Siebert.  This article is an excerpt from a book he is writing.  To learn more, visit him on the web at:  www.zenfields.org.

(This post was published in “Ancient Way” magazine which can be found at:  http://dharmalight.weebly.com/)