If you have ever visited the Monastery, you have likely encountered one of the several waste stations throughout the buildings and grounds. Bins nestled together in the bathrooms and dorms, tucked along the north wall of the dining hall, snuggly aside the sinks in the kitchen. You may have witnessed the number of receptacles increase over the years as well. First came green containers for garbage. Next appeared blue bins with the iconic Mobius loop recycling symbol. And for the Monastery garden and orchard, compost buckets for all food and paper waste. Most recently, with the help of MRO Student and eco-sattva Jusan Chen, square cardboard boxes showed up with a green infinity-like logo for a company called TerraCycle.
Orchardist and Sculptor, Shinji shared on her blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, about creating a Jizo Bodhisattva for the Monastery garden.
Ancient people made stone piles to mark a site as sacred, while today we use stone cairns to indicate the direction on a wilderness trail. For over a year I had a small pile of stones on one of my work tables. It just sat there and didn’t draw attention from visitors to the studio. It didn’t point me in any direction.
As vaccinations for Covid-19 became more readily available last spring, the Monastery was able to resume offering on-site Jukai, the moral and ethical teachings represented in the Sixteen Precepts of the Buddha Way, welcoming six new Jukai students, six new MRO students, one new postulant monastic, and two fully ordained monastics. Just before Covid hit in 2020, Jukai was also given to three students at the Brooklyn Temple by Hojin Sensei.
On 11/21/21, the Monastery held a Shuso Hossen ceremony that capped our fall ango training period. During the ango, Degna Chikei Levister held the position of chief disciple acting as a model of practice for the sangha.
What does ‘a model of practice’ look like? It looks like a true person bringing their whole self and dedicated commitment to every task set before them. The ceremony and Chikei’s exchanges with the sangha are a testament to that.
The Zen Tweens program has been offering in-person programs monthly on the 2nd Sunday of the month since restarting in June, and will continue with outdoor programs October 10 and November 14, 9am-noon.
We focus on Zazen, concentration practices, and exploring perception through caretaking activities and creative games. We maintain Covid precautions, and hold space for the tweens to share their feelings and opinions on what we study and how it relates to what is going on in their lives.
In September we made autumnal offerings to the chipmunks, birds, and other woodland creatures by creating cornmeal suet feeders and hanging them in thoughtful places around the forest. After just a few days, woodland creatures have clearly been enjoying our offerings! As a part of our ongoing explorations of perception, we read a passage from phenomenologist David Abram that described his insights on making offerings to the more–than-human realms when researching in Bali.
We also participated in helping with the dye garden’s indigo harvest. The process of extracting indigo from the leaves of the plants grown on Mount Tremper is ancient and involves many opportunities for learning. Developed over centuries, the oldest known indigo dyed textiles were created over 6,000 years ago. For the tweens the lessons included a connection to this deep human past, and also new practical knowledge about the pH scale, agitation, and precipitate in chemical transformations.
Tweens helped in every step of the process, as the harvest is so large that it is taking days and weeks to process the raw indigo matter through all the necessary stages. We removed plants from a pool that had been fermenting, processed pigment, and neutralized various fluids for environmentally friendly disposal.
In other summer sessions we have assisted in supporting the trees of the orchard and weeding the garden beds. We have engaged in various games exploring visual perception and the perceptually influenced interplay of images and written language. In addition to in-person offerings, Zen Tweens maintains a monthly zoom session at the end of the month for community participants living further from the monastery.
Upcoming Zoom dates and times are Thursday, September 30 and Thursday, October 28, 6:15-7:15pm.
Because our guidelines include outdoor programs only, we will return to Zoom programs every 2 weeks over the winter months. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve maintained these Zoom sessions (with lively participation) in order to support this unique age group in their practice and contemplation.
It is a true joy to work with aspiring bodhisattvas at this special age and to see this world through their fresh, inquisitive eyes. If you know any 10 to 13 year olds who might be interested in participating, please share with them and their parents this web page where they will also find contact information for coordinators Kyuko and Jo.
Orchardist and Sculptor, Linda Shinji Hoffman shared on her blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, about her experience being Shuso during the Spring 2021 Ango. The following is a slightly edited version.
As spring slides into summer, I wanted to share about the last three months. I’ve been on an intense retreat—some of it quarantined in my studio, some of it at Zen Mountain Monastery, and some of it following our spring schedule at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio in Harvard, Massachusetts.
Last winter I was asked by my teacher, Shugen Roshi, to serve as Shuso, or Chief Disciple for the three-month training period we call ango. The ango training period dates back to the time of the Buddha. In his time, the monastic life mostly involved wandering across northern India, sharing the dharma and receiving support from householders. However, the summer monsoon season often made the way impassable—dangerous for the monks and nuns to be out walking alone. Instead, they gathered in one place—in shelters and groves—practicing together and living near their teacher. These intensified three-month periods were called vassa (literally “rains” retreat) in Pali and later ango—or “peaceful dwelling”—in Japanese.
At Zen Mountain Monastery we practice ango in the spring and the fall. The shuso can be either a layperson or a monastic. Their role is to inspire the sangha with their devotion and commitment to practice. The training period ends with a ceremony where the chief disciple gives their first talk on a koan and is then challenged by the sangha with live questions.
On the last Sunday in May, my time as shuso ended with a talk on the koan, “Dongshan’s Essential Way.” Dongshan was a 9th-century Chinese Zen master. The koan is a brief teaching dialogue between a student and their teacher. This koan begins with the student saying, “I cannot see the essential path; I still can’t become free of discriminating consciousness.”
What is this essential path? The student can’t see her way. Is it hidden? Who is hiding it? What is hiding it? And why is this student asking the question right now, today?
I gave my talk on the last Sunday in May. It was followed by questions from other students, and then congratulatory poems. The ceremony marked the completion of my transition to become a senior student in the order, and the opportunity to take on a more important role within the sangha.
Many of you know how much I love Zen practice and, specifically, training at Zen Mountain Monastery. A full matrix of activities shapes the practice here: zazen (meditation), liturgy, body practice, art practice, work practice, study of the teachings, and face-to-face encounters with a teacher. Most importantly, it is following the rigorous monastic schedule, putting aside one’s own desires, and joining with the community. It is said that being in community is like being in a rock tumbler. We need each other to bump up against, to be polished. However, to put it most simply, Zen training is the study of reality as it really is when we are not confused, when our mind is not obscured by attachments and clinging to that which is not real. We aspire through our practice to move among the myriad contradictions and complications of this world with equanimity and compassion, to be fully present, to do good and not cause harm.
I didn’t feel I could write about this rite of passage until it was over. There were moments when I knew for certain my teacher had made a grave mistake in assigning me this role. I could not do this. But I also knew there was no way out. Of course I was going to do what I was asked to do. I was going to give it everything I could. And the sangha was there with love and support.
Now that I’ve had a little time back home, and have hung up my new white robe and am wearing jeans, t-shirt and work boots again, I wanted to share with those of you who are curious a little about this rite of passage. There is an audio recording of the shuso hossen ceremony and a video available on the Monastery’s Livestream page.
And now I can focus on the farm! I look forward to reconnecting with my Old Frog Pond community. We’re preparing the grounds for Emergence, our 15th Annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit, which opens on August 1 with twenty-five sculptors bringing new work to the farm. We’ve scheduled a series of storytelling events, African Drumming, Sacred Fires, and Plein Air Poetry. The apples are ripening. It looks like mother nature is providing a bountiful and beautiful crop.
The verse that the end of my koan was: Wet with morning dew The tips of the ten thousand grasses All contain the light of day.
The ten thousand grasses in Buddhism are the phenomenal world. All the myriad things – all our physical experiences, our sense objects, our karma. Go where there are no grasses. Go where there are no conditioned experiences, go beyond desires – go beyond fear. How do we do that? This period of training was a great teaching that whether pruning an apple tree or officiating a service, cultivating the seeded rows or sitting among clouds; to practice fully is to move freely among and to meet every blade of grass.
Orchard grasses are strong, they compete with the young apple trees. Several times in a season, I work with our farmers to weed around each one. We cultivate the soil to support their fruiting growth.
To learn more about Old Frog Pond farm and studio, visit https://oldfrogpondfarm.com/ Shinji’s forthcoming memoir, “The Artist and the Orchard,” will be published in October by Loom Press.
The Zen youth programs, (Kids, Tweens and Teens) have been online for well over a year. We’ve welcomed new sangha members from all over the country and even as far afield as Colombia, SA. The Zen Kids program (4-10 years) joins together once a week to sit zazen, create art, share gratitude, use our imaginations and read inspiring stories together.
Zazen with the young kids is the same as with us grown-ups, but different. We encourage the kids to sit in the same posture, but to find our mudra we might imagine we are taking care of a delicate dragon’s egg. Kids as young as age four participatie so Zazen can often be a playful adventure in locating where we find our breath. Can we find it in our nose, our toes? Our home, the trees and birds outside?
For those of us who live at the Monastery, it’s been moving to watch remotely as home dwellers have taken refuge in their practice during the pandemic and continued to further explore commitment and self-study. As our lives are streamed every day (at least in the zendo), we residents also benefit from watching lay practitioners further explore their commitment to this path.
Honoring the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not on the MRO’s annual calendar of events until sangha member Tanya Bonner brought it up. She asked the teachers, Why do I have to go somewhere else outside of my practice community to honor this ancestor? While not a Buddhist, Rev. King embodied the moral and ethical faith imperative to respond to suffering in his lifetime. So, planning began for the first annual event held in January 2019, organized by Tanya, other Black and POC sangha members and MRO staff.
Simultaneous MLK Jr. events at Brooklyn’s ZCNYC Temple and upstate’s Monastery were powerful reminders of the bodhisattva activity in the world, and the sangha’s deep need to honor our connection with these ancestors who support us in our moral and ethical precepts—in social and racial justice work—within dharma practice.
This year’s 2021 MLK events were sobering reminders of how entrenched the violence, trauma and racialized inequality continues to be in our nation. Many months in the planning, Hojin Sensei and Tanya developed Brave Together: A Conversation Panel with Black sangha members and special guest Pamala Ayo Yetunde, co-editor and author of Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom for mid-January.
Joined by sangha members Yama Faye and Degna Chikei Levister, the four panelists took up questions related to how they encountered Buddhism and connected with the Dharma, and their experiences as Black practitioners entering this and other sangha communities. A lively discussion brought to light the challenges of creating sangha and the need for more awareness of the bias and confusion that are part of being conditioned, cultured beings. We all need to be brave and stay open, to stay vulnerable and genuine when we hesitate or blunder, trusting with openness and integrity.
On Sunday the Monastery and virtual sangha honored MLK Jr. with an event created by Black sangha members, Awakening Justice, to bring into the room an awareness of on-going struggle. Sangha member Carmen Phelps organized a reading of over 155 names of Black people murdered by police from January to August of 2020—and the acknowledgment of others yet unnamed—was a stark reminder that racial bias is still a dynamic source of trauma and pain. We honor all who work to change systemic bias and to uproot racial violence and hatred.
The morning included dharma words from Hojin Sensei and Shugen Roshi and featured a short video created by Yama Faye and the planning committee showing the stark reality of neighborhood inequity in food, housing, policing and green spaces in a five mile ride from Yama’s home in Brownsville to Boerum Hill where the ZCNYC Temple is located, giving a visual experience of these differences in real time.
Aware of these persistent inequities and our Bodhisattva vow to alleviate suffering, an increasing number of sangha members are engaging in social justice as an integral part of their dharma practice. More than half of last ango’s participants engaged in study sessions on anti-racism work as dharma practice, many for the first time but also many with experience spanning decades of engagement in social justice and personal study. Some may be studying on their own, and the teachers and the sangha want to encourage everyone who has not yet taken up this bodhisattva practice and study to step in.
It is important—imperative—for the MRO sangha to be creating a shared, public dialogue across the silences with events of this kind, and study such as “What is Whiteness,” exploring the harm of entrenched, persistent inequity and bias. Our different experiences and unique circumstances need to be clearly understood and expressed, regardless of where we are coming from. Together we take up this living vow to bring an end to all suffering, trauma and injustice.
The A-frame meadow offers a spectacular view of the gentle twin peaks of Mt. Tremper. Beneath them, deer wander through the meadow, cicadas and crickets buzz, even an occasional pack of wild turkeys passes. In the midst of all this the Monastery orchard and dye garden has flourished. Sunflowers tower over the indigo and coreopsis that eventually become our natural dye pigments; raspberries and blackberries ripen, and fruit trees promise an abundant harvest.
Five years ago we broke ground on the orchard and dye garden as part of a widespread shift in residency and monastic life towards sustainability and self-sufficiency. The store now carries some of the fruits of this labor—naturally dyed and hand-sewn aprons, napkins, scarves, altar cloths and more; honey and beeswax candles harvested from our own hives; dried hot peppers and herbs from the garden; statues designed, cast and painted in the art room; and so on. Not only do these new initiatives produce beautiful and delicious things, they also allow the residents and monastics to spend more work time outside, doing the simple but profound work of harnessing the power of the four elements to cultivate a life-supporting bounty.
Like practice itself, the orchard will grow more fruitful and better established over years, even decades. Gokan, the resident orchardist, focused on improving the soil, putting up fences, getting a water system in place, cultivating and waiting for the young trees to bear fruit. Although raccoons and crows still pillage many of the ripening peaches, pears and plums before they can be picked, the raspberries, blackberries and elderberries are less attractive to those pests—but ardently appreciated by the resident sangha. It’s clear how much Gokan loves this work. When I asked him if there was anything in particular he wanted people to know about the orchard, he answered in a dreamy tone I’ve rarely heard—“It’s beautiful”.
This past spring, the kitchen shifted it’s purchasing practices to align more closely with the values of sustainability and stewardship which guide the orchard, garden, and dye garden endeavors. Instead of ordering produce sourced from all over the country, we now get our ingredients through a produce distributing company called Farms2Tables, which allows wholesale buyers to order directly from local farms. Tangy apples and cider, for example, come to us from Samascott Orchard in Kinderhook, rich and creamy whole milk in an impressive 5-gallon bag from Ronnybrook Farms in Pine Plains, and finely ground whole grain bread flour from the Wild Hive Community Grain Project in Clinton Corners.
Much of the impetus for this shift came from concern about our carbon footprint, and the hidden transportation and cooling costs of imported produce. But for Paul, our cook, it goes deeper than that. To him, cooking with local, seasonal foods is a way of maintaining a spiritual connection to the place and time that we are actually in the midst of. As he sees it, kitchen work is a profound dharma gate, a way of directly encountering the physical realities, needs, and joys of human life. Eating what is offered by the very place in which we find ourselves, Paul says after a moment of careful reflection, is a way of coming home. It helps us to cultivate gratitude and reverence for the generosity of the land and the miracle that is life-giving food.
In the height of the late summer harvest season, the ingredients available locally are pretty extraordinary. In addition to the avalanche of heirloom tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, eggplant, runner beans, kale, swis chard and more coming from Yukon’s acre-and-a-half vegetable garden, the local produce offerings are bountiful, varied, and incredibly delicious. When we first made the shift to only local products, though, it was early spring, before the harvest season had really gotten underway. Undeterred, the kitchen supplemented the parsnips, squashes, potatoes, radishes and beets which keep through the winter with dry and canned goods like beans and sundried tomatoes. This summer, we’re preparing for the sparser season by freezing pesto, pickling cucumbers, and otherwise doing our best to preserve some of the summer flavors for the colder season coming up.
Turning towards a simpler, more ancient way of choosing ingredients has been complemented by an increased interest in timeless foodways like pickling, canning, and fermentation. We’ve been making our own yogurt and kombucha for some time, but these days we also have homemade sauerkraut, kimchi, fresh tomato sauce, dill pickles, mayonnaise, jam, and sourdough bread. The time and space to experiment is one of the small silver linings of the monastery closure: with fewer mouths to feed, the kitchen has more space to explore and experiment with ways to manifest our values more fully.
These shifts towards more direct connection with the land we live on feel very connected to our dharma practice and training. What better arena in which to study and marvel at the profound truth of interdependence, and to directly see the ways in which our own lives depend on the busy work of bees and butterflies, the rain and sunlight, insects and birds, on the work of the sangha and the efforts of the larger human community. “Thus,” as the meal gatha so beautifully declares, “we eat this food with everyone,” receiving that offering with gratitude, and striving to repay it by working to be of benefit to the land and it’s many inhabitants.