Sangha News

Orchard Grasses

· Essays, Reflections, Sangha News, Zen Training ·

by Linda Shinji Hoffman

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. 

Shugen Roshi extending the sheppei (a symbol of empowerment) to Shinji before her talk.

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 da
y.

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.  

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Zen Kids: Grateful for Grapes and Taking Care of Dragon’s Eggs

· Reviews, Sangha News

By Simon Sekku Harrison

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?

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New Vows, New Aspirations

· Sangha News · ,

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.

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Awakening Justice: MLK Jr 2021

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Sangha News

By Taikyo Gilman

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.

Brave Together 2021 panelists from the left, Tanya Bonner, Chikei Levister, Pamela Ayo Yetunde, and Yama Faye

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.

Sunday MLK Jr. Awakening Justice: 2021, sangha member Tanya Bonner introducing the day.

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.

Still from video, courtesy of Yehui Zhao and Yama Faye, (c)2021

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.

ZCNYC Temple’s first Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, last January 2020
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Sustainable Monastery, Locally Grown

· Earth Initiative, From The Mountain, Sangha News ·

By Eve Romm

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.  

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In Memoriam: Gary Shoso Peacock

· Sangha News

May 12, 1935—September 4, 2020

Shoso at the Monastery in 2012

The sangha will miss good friend, committed Zen student and jazz legend Gary Shoso Peacock who passed away peacefully on September 4th, surrounded by family at his home in Olivebridge, NY. One week later, his ashes were interred at the Monastery cemetery, Nirvana Gardens, in an intimate ceremony officiated by Shugen Roshi, with family and monastics present. 

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Ecodharma and Environmental Justice

· Earth Initiative, Retreats, Sangha News

By Dojaku Niccolino

If you’ve wondered how to respond to human-created ecological devastation and climate breakdown, so has author David Loy. “What does Buddhism have to offer?” is the question he posed for a discussion at Fire Lotus Temple last November, and the major theme of his upcoming Ecodharma retreat via zoom on Thursday, October 3rd.

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Gates of Zen Training Stay Open

· Sangha News, Zen Training

By Eve Romm

In the 2500 year history of Buddhism, sanghas and practitioners have always had to adapt to difficult times, and our own era is no exception. The dharma which has been passed down to us survived natural disasters and political marginalization, famine and war, conflict and corruption. So it’s no surprise that training in the MRO continues with vibrancy, creativity, and enthusiasm despite the fact that the Monastery’s and the Temple’s physical gates have been shut for several months. In the past few months, many of the traditional rhythms and forms of training have had to adapt to the lack of in-person contact between the resident and lay sanghas, and it’s exciting to watch new skillful means arise to meet these new challenges.          

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Sangha / Gathering

· Sangha News · ,

On July 1, over 170 sangha members gathered on Zoom to reflect on the state of our distancing. We heard from board members who are part of a special “reopening subcommittee.” They’ve been focused on the various questions that arise when considering any relaxing of the quarantine at the Monastery and our city center.

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Two Statements from the MRO responding to the ongoing killing of Black People in our country

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Sangha News, Zen Training

Two statements—the first from the MRO People of Color Affinity Group, and second from Shugen Roshi and the white members of the BFoD Planning Group—were posted here in response to the surge in violence against men and women of color, and the persistence of unjust, white supremacist systems of oppression which remains invisible to the majority of Americans.

As a sangha we are unified in our vows to serve, to alleviate suffering and the causes of suffering, and to respond with compassion and wisdom as challenges and conflict arise. We affirm our responsibility as individuals and as a community to support each other’s vows.

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