In this most unusual and challenging of years, the Brooklyn Zen Center sangha, just like many practicing communities around the world, found myriads of ways to adapt and stay present for the teachings of each moment. Through confinement, physical distancing, heartbreaking loss of life, the endless violence of white supremacy, financial hardship, and raging fires – as well as through all the confusion, anger, fear and hopelessness that came with it – the BZC sangha has remained lovingly committed to practice and to each other.
While we were forced to practice in physical isolation, the BZC offerings became fully virtual and expanded in scope and reach through multiple program changes and innovations. While we made the difficult decision of closing our city temple in Brooklyn, the community of teachers and monastics at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery became the irradiating center of BZC’s practice, holding not only the precious physical objects that sustained our practice in the city for so many years, but also our hearts and our struggles. While several among us moved away from NYC, many new members joined our community from across the country and even from around the world. Throughout it all, we all did our best to embody refuge for ourselves and each other and to always return to our heartfelt intentions to live for the benefit of all beings.
As this most unusual of years comes to an end, we look back at the life of our sangha for the past 12 months through messages and images shared during 2020. May we all be safe and find joy as we move forward together in practice into the new year.
Sangha Jewel Power
Dear sangha,I hope you have all had a restful and easeful time during our interim break. Every time we return to the schedule after some time away, there is always a “back to school” quality for me. On the one hand, I reflect on all that has happened at Brooklyn Zen Center over the past twelve months: the transformative retreats and teachings, the ordination of a new cohort of jukai students, and of course the founding of our Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery upstate, where six monks have taken up residence and many more visit to practice for shorter stays. At the same time, I look ahead to the offerings that are about to unfold: a full schedule of classes, talks, retreats, and programs and the return this spring of BZC’s (and my) root teacher Teah Strozer. We will also be welcoming Zen teacher Chimyo Atkinson to BZC for the first time. Meanwhile, the community will come back together and we will recommit ourselves to the collective work of liberation.
[…]With gratitude and best wishes for the new year,
Brooklyn Zen Center Interim Director
Burning the Soup
I am standing next to the stove in the kitchen at Brooklyn Zen Center, doting over a pot of tomato, kale and barley soup. It’s late October of 2017, and it’s my first time serving as a cook. I’m nervous and excited – honored to be the cook for a community lunch! The dharma talk is about to end, so it’s time to do the final seasoning before we set up for serving. I pull out a spoon and dip it the pot for a taste. I take a sip. And I think:
Mmmm… uh, hmm. Hmm. Something’s not right. Tastes… burnt. Is that right? Can you burn soup? It’s mostly water. This can’t be right. One more taste… Okay, yeah, it’s burnt. But not too burnt. Should I say something? What would I say? No, I shouldn’t say anything. People are nice here, they won’t say anything either, and it will be okay.
So, that was my plan: Don’t talk about the problem, and no one else will, either.
The Tenzo (head of the kitchen), Maya at the time, walks over, ladles a small amount of the soup in a bowl, swirls it around, takes a sip, looks at me and says: “It’s burnt.”
Of course it’s burnt! Lunch is ruined! This is horrible! I’m mortified. What was I thinking? I should just pack up my spatula and go home. My career in the BZC kitchen is over!
And then, as if burning the soup were part of the actual recipe, Maya starts giving me instructions on what to do next. Within ten minutes, we had perfectly palatable soup with just a hint of smoke, you know, for flavor. Lunch happened. People came back for seconds. I was asked to cook again. It was miraculous!
On that day, I learned a lot about trusting my instincts, asking for support, and cultivating grace under fire – all from some soup (and the Tenzo).
As we start this new year – our first full year supporting and being supported by a monastery – many of us at BZC will be entering new roles: student roles, practice roles, teaching roles, monastic roles. Each one of us will get to be the cook with burnt soup, and each one of us will get to be the Tenzo with the right seasoning. In this give and take of generosity, we gain wisdom as a sangha. As you can see from the many offerings in this newsletter, there are plenty of opportunities to burn the soup together. I hope you’ll join me.
Brooklyn Zen Center co-Tenzo (Head of the Kitchen)
In March I will be returning to Brooklyn Zen Center for three months. I’ll be at our urban center as well as our monastery in the countryside. Spring is a time of renewal, rebirth and reconnecting. In spring, we watch in awe as life emerges from winter’s stillness and quiet – qualities reflecting the true nature of mind. As we carry forth wintertime’s quietude while new life tenderly buds, I look forward to practicing with you again. I intend to listen mostly, talk sparingly. You have changed since I was last with you, as I have. I am feeling quite open to re-meeting people I “knew,” and meeting “new” people I’ve yet to practice with. What a joy.
Shortly after I arrive, I will officiate the priest ordination ceremony of one of our steadfast sangha members and a longtime student of mine, Jefre Cantu. Together, we will celebrate the embodiment of the call to service from deep within Jefre’s life. Ordination is a celebration of an important archetype in our lineage, the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a person who offers their life in vow to support every being’s awakening to Truth. A Bodhisattva devotes herself to our path’s divine homecoming: a return to reality and liberation from personal and collective ancient twisted Karma.
Writing to you from California, I gaze through my window as rain showers the park’s trees across the street. We need rain in California. It heals the parched grass while fertilizing the plants. Rain brings growth and renewal, feeding the birds, the butterflies, the bees . . . we are all deeply connected after all, aren’t we? I look forward to keeping this ancestral remembrance of connection close to the heart, while practicing with you this spring.
Brooklyn Zen Center’s root teacher
Sangha in This Time
I hope you are all very well and healthy. Though we are distant, all of you are in my heart.
I’ve connected with a few of you these last few days and I know this is a difficult time for many. Our situation and the sometimes seemingly chaotic information and responses have been a whirlwind that can leave us feeling fear, disappointment, confusion, discouragement, and nowhere to stand. Not having any idea where all of this is going leaves us with all kinds of complex, painful feelings. Our lives have been disrupted. We are having to have conversations and make decisions we never expected. Many of the human connections on which we depend have been cut off for our own safety. Information changes day-to-day, leaving us with no ground on which to find our bearings.
Of course, this is exactly when we must stand unwaveringly and compassionately in our practice – when the truth of change and powerlessness confront our hearts and minds. The current pandemic is asking us to sit with a not knowing more vast than what many of us have ever had to face. As we all know, when we fight this mind, it tortures us. When we lovingly rest in it as the unwavering reality of human life, it is exactly this mind that realizes liberation.
What brings me deep solace and courage is our sangha. I have met with many of you who are taking up roles of leadership, reaching out to connect and support, organizing zazen and classes and discussion groups, further cultivating the shared life and strength of our loving sangha. What I am seeing brings me great joy as I believe we are exercising muscles and establishing ways of connecting that will bolster and mature our community well beyond the current crisis. When the temple was taken away, our sangha built a temple anyway.
This fills my heart with trust, inspiration, and joy. I am deeply grateful to you all. This moment is a great dharma teacher showing us clearly that trusting life to remain solidly as we want will cause us suffering. It is a moment that is showing us the precariousness and preciousness of our lives. It is a moment that might be stripping the fat off the bones of our priorities and asking us to consider them all over again. I feel this might be a spiritual moment when Mother Earth is asking some questions: Do you humans know you are connected yet? All of you? Are you ready to care for each other yet? Are you ready to love each other yet? Are you ready to put down selfish hate, greed, and disinterest so that all of you can thrive together with all beings?
The sincere practice of our ancestors has given us an extraordinary path that allows us to sit deeply with these questions and offers stillness amidst the whirling groundlessness. We have been given so many gifts. We have zazen. We have the precepts. We have bowing, chanting, ritual, and ceremony to mark our days and focus our hearts. We have devotion to our ancestors and the Buddha way. We have the realization of never ending, interconnected change throughout life’s myriad things. We have the sangha, each other. We have our breath. We have attention to our every action. We have the ability to take responsibility for our karma. We have enormous, compassionate hearts waiting for the opportunity to serve those suffering. I am encouraged every moment by all of this, by all of you.
Please take care of yourselves. Take care of your practice. Please dig deeply into your practice at this time, and support one another doing the same. Even when we sometimes must have painful conversations and plan for painful scenarios, we can remain here with what we know, with our breath, with our experience as it is. Stay with this moment, feeling what is here, discerning what is here, caring for what is here, not holding to what is here. Yes, all this is always already slipping away. Turn around in the stream. All this is always already coming to us.
Let’s take good care of ourselves throughout this time. Let’s call each other up, check in, and support one another in caring for ourselves. We will all need support. Collectively we can make sure no one slips through the cracks of our busy days. And let’s remember to sit down regularly and honor silence, clarity, compassion, equanimity, joy, and love for one another. There is nothing happening to us. We are what is happening. Practice gives us all we need to unfold skillfully together. Thank you for your loving practice. The world needs each one of you. Your communities need each one of you. Your sangha needs each one of you.
Sometimes silence. Sometimes tears. Sometimes song. All this with the clear heart of Buddha.
With loving respect,
Kosen Gregory Snyder
Brooklyn Zen Center dharma teacher and senior priest
As many of you know, we’ve started doing a daily well-being service here at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery. In this service, the dedication includes a list of names that people in the sangha would like to wish well. Anyone can join the service and ask for names to be incuded in the service. On the day it was announced that New York City should adopt a shelter in place mandate, I took over the role of kokyo in our weekly rotation of service roles. The names that came in were some of our only regular contact with the spreading pandemic back home.
Every day that week the list of names in the dedication got longer. At first only by one or two per day. Until we got to Saturday. After the dharma talk, we invited people to offer names in the chat box in our Online Zendo. I found myself agitated as they kept coming in. It was scrolling too fast. I couldn’t write them down fast enough.
Once we compiled the names, we began the service. I turned the page and looked over at the list of names to calculate how much breath to draw in and that’s when I felt in my body that it was not going to be one breath. It was also not going to be two. I was absolutely heartbroken.
The rising sense of helplessness and sadness I had been feeling sped up through my torso and it was clear that nothing I could understand about those numbers would stop the tears. As I called out each name I could feel each person. Every person getting their own brief moment to take up all the space in the room. I could also feel that each name vibrated differently in my throat—each one referring to a unique constellation of conditions, family lineages, nicknames given in childhood. Each one both equal and precious. All of them in some way precariously perched.
In a past life, that sadness would have completely overwhelmed me. Sadness was something to get past, something to fear. But because of this practice, I could stay near it and being so close to it I could see that it was not just sadness alone. It was not just pain. In the tears, I could feel all of you watching. I could feel the warmth of a supportive community allowing me to be in this position. I could feel the joy of that connection. I could feel the not-knowing of the future for each person on the list and the relief that comes with surrender to that kind of not-knowing. I felt a sense of refuge in the container of ceremony that required that I at least sort of hold it together. I felt a release from a kind of loneliness I cannot describe.
At the center of all of it, there was a stillness.
The list of names has now become long and stayed that way. My chest hasn’t stopped hurting since that service. I do not like the feeling now any more than I did two weeks ago. But it is clear that there is no way through it but through it. If we can commit to that direction together, to staying near, I think there is a refuge there for all of us.
Work Leader (Shissui), Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery
In these days of physical distancing, the Brooklyn Zen Center sangha, like spiritual communities around the world, has been practicing at home and through our online zendo. In our dwellings, whatever those may be, spaces for meditation and ritual are now even more cherished. Some of these have been set up for a long time now, others have sprouted in these new days of confinement — little corners to sit zazen, modest altars to offer incense, improvised zafus, tabletops with images of ancestors and tokens of nature. Negotiated spaces between book shelves, squares of room once overlooked, keepsakes now taking on new meanings. Flowers, for those who can get them. Or pictures of flowers, candles, images of the Buddha. Mostly in Brooklyn, but also across the country and around the world, the home altars of the Brooklyn Zen Center sangha are now precious spaces of practice.
Summoning Moral Courage:
A Message from BZC’s Dharma Teachers
Black lives have once more been taken. We are heartbroken and sickened by murders that are the latest expressions of a culture of white supremacy that from our nation’s inception has sown violence into its soil. We must speak their names – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery – each torn without the slightest cause from this world, as were so many of their ancestors before them.
Yet it is not enough to speak of these horrific deaths alone when racialized structures ensure black bodies are dying at disproportionate rates in the COVID pandemic. These too are names that should be known, should be spoken for having been unjustly denied their birthright to breathe freely in a country that so boldly claims freedom as its foremost, unassailable value.
It is not enough even to speak their names without recognizing how unemployment too is tearing disproportionately through communities of color. The pain this will cause is still untold. Nor is it enough without recognizing that those who grasp white privilege too often take little responsibility for confused, racialized fears that lead them to pick up the phone and call upon the very racist structures that steal the lives of innocents.
It is not enough to speak of even this without saying clearly that every person who benefits from the racial hierarchy of our nation must take responsibility for these fears, this hatred, this confusion as it arises in minds and behavior, and contributes to the logic and landscape that allows a man to be slain by a knee to the neck before the whole of the world.
As Buddhists, it is not enough to speak of greed, hatred, and delusion as abstractions. They must be named in their historic specificity, as they show up in the lives of this nation. We must name white supremacy as a deluded form of hatred that benefits and fuels the greed of those with power in our racialized society.
In not naming these poisons clearly, whether for fear of politics or offense, we break our own precepts. In abstraction, we are liars. In abstraction, we are thieves. In abstraction, we are killers. In abstraction, we reveal our greed and intoxication with a world that lays privilege at our feet. It is not enough to speak of greed, hatred, and delusion. Every day we must name and work to end the mindsets, behaviors, and institutions that continue to take the lives of our beloved human family.
Whether speaking in religious abstractions or not at all, moral superiority and spiritual aloofness cannot be afforded in our current age. This is not a time for dualism, not a time for separation, not a time to believe in the delusion of an individual, separate self. It is the silence of those who hold themselves beyond the fray while benefiting from racialized supremacy that forges the conditions for seizing the breath of black people everywhere.
The body of our nation is on fire with greed and hatred and so our streets are on fire with grief and rage. When so many nonviolent gatherings and takings of knees are ignored and berated year after year, who would be surprised when the “enough already” bursts and shatters our cities.
When it comes to the Bodhisattva’s vow of compassionate liberation for all beings, is this a rarified path of fantastical tales woven in the dharma hall? Or is ours a path borne of the unflinching courage to clarify and uproot the causes of violence endemic to our country?
Our community must remain committed to the work of recognizing, clarifying, renouncing, healing, and correcting the racial harm that runs in the blood of our bodies and our nation. With the support of our Buddhist ancestors, may we devote ourselves to the healing of a society so painfully out of harmony with the Dharma. May we endeavor to realize in our bodies, psyches, institutions, systems, and culture, the love we know at base is the interconnected fabric of life itself.
We as a nation must admit and renounce white supremacy once and for all, and summon a moral imagination that paints the first strokes of a different world. Whether such a world can ever unfold will surely pivot on our taking of responsibility for our past, on our honesty about this moment, and most certainly on a shared moral courage toward a future that holds the possibility of a true home for us all.
Kosen Gregory Snyder
Dharma Teacher & Senior Priest, Brooklyn Zen Center
Shingetsu Laura O’Loughlin
Dharma Teacher & Senior Lay Practitioner, Brooklyn Zen Center
While living in solitude through the pandemic, I have had the opportunity to practice deeper intimacy with aspects of myself I generally “don’t have time for.” This time has offered me a renewed capacity for being alone and allowing myself to be present with being alone. This is a far cry from my past, when I was just too overwhelmed and terrified of being strange and lonely.
Alienation has always been a root node of my suffering. The delusion of not belonging painfully shapes many of my thoughts and feelings. I so appreciate Sebene Selassie, whose soon-to-be-released book You Belong: A Call To Connection has been on my heart-mind for some time. I wouldn’t have the words to describe this phenomena (“belonging”) were it not for her most recent writing on her book: “We all belong to absolutely everyone and everything. To. ALL. Of. It. This does NOT necessarily feel good.”
Thankfully, the monastic-like forms my home practice is taking on allow for my mind to wander into portals of spaciousness, other ways of being with and feeling into my body, even when it doesn’t feel like too much fun. I have nowhere to go. Like our root teacher Teah Strozer lovingly pointed out in recent dharma talks, I shouldn’t have to go anywhere. When I stay put in the present, my capacity to feel into how much I belong grows thousandfold, more than any romantic partner, position of power, or validation has ever made me feel: I belong in a nebulous, pixelated space! I can’t laugh with, hug, or cry with any of you in person, yet I can feel the support of your vows and upright sitting in all moments, awake and dreaming.
It is that container that allows me the capacity more and more to sit with the many forms of privilege my body takes on. With feelings of alienation subsiding, forgoing the unfortunate forms of solipsism that can take on means more spaciousness for tending to collective karma. In the expression of life my body has taken on, this means considering the ways I hold people and institutions accountable that are not yet explicit in their commitment to uprooting anti-Blackness, White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, settler colonialism, ableism, and, for Hindu Brahmins like me and my ancestors, anti-Dalitness.
If I am beginning to feel like I belong, then my commitment in practice must be to sustain conditions for all living beings to feel that they, too, always belong.
In the spirit of supporting one of many Black dharma teachers by purchasing Sebene’s book, I hope many of us also take this as an invitation to consider the tangible ways we can bring practices of belonging and paradox to our sangha. Know that I am humbly right here with you on this journey towards our collective liberation. Time and time again, you all show me this is the way.
With deep bows and gratitude,
Radha Ashok Radkar
Brooklyn Zen Center Board Secretary
Remaking Sangha, Widening Community
Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. – John Lewis
I fold each black towel neatly. I imagine them soon to be laid out on green grass with the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge behind them. Chant sheets are clipped to the terrycloth fabric. The towels remind me of the bathroom hand towels folded into little rolls at the center. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I remember arriving early on Saturday mornings or on the mornings of sesshins and finding community members rolling towels up like little cinnamon pastries. We rarely seemed to run out of those towels.
“You begin to love what you care for and you care for what you begin to love.” This is a paraphrase of a saying that Laura mentions often in her dharma talks. “Appreciating how refreshing it is to be in a place that is well-cared for, we take care of our ourselves and our community.” This line is from our Community Agreements. I remember clean-swept floors, fresh-cut flowers, and orchids in the kitchen windows. Was the community taking care of me then as I am taking care of this new community now?
This new time is requiring a renewal, a stretch of the imagination into places that don’t yet exist, with people we don’t yet know, because we are currently remaking our world, and ourselves. Remaking sangha. Remaking a meditation center. Remaking our health, rituals, and our capacity for change.
To that end, I am creating new sanghas. It started small with facilitating all-Black gatherings online during the height of the NYC pandemic, and before that in rented Manhattan offices. Now, it is under the trees, sitting directly on the earth, breathing fresh air, even if through a mask. I have missed in-person practice so I – and we – have recreated it, a zendo under the sunshine, welcoming others as I was welcomed here.
This is what brought me to Brooklyn Zen Center almost four years ago. I wanted to meditate with Black people. I did. I quickly realized such a sangha didn’t exist, but I was perfectly happy to sit with Black, Indigenous, and any group of people of color who wished to. I looked for community and I have found it here. And that community has only widened. I have been able to find refuge in POC/BIPOC sanghas all over the United States.
Coming out of hiding is a golden repair. The prayer is to get still and concentrated enough and loving ourselves enough to rest in that repair more and more. – Ruth King
Kintsugi, also known as ‘golden repair,’ is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer mixed with powdered gold or silver. For our world, cracks have been there since the pottery of the world was wrought. No one repaired the cracks so they cracked further and further. They will always be there. Can we now engineer a golden repair? Can we fill in the cracks, heal the hurts, with silver, gold, love, and fortitude, so that the crockery of our world is all the more beautiful for the cracks it has suffered? I hope it is so. I believe in the words of Ruth King and John Lewis. Coming out of hiding and standing up for who one is and what one believes in is finding refuge at its most important level. Refuge, even if no one hears at first. Even if no one shows up. Even if others only see the cracks and not the gold. The joy and healing are still there if you look for it.
Not holding to fixed views, endowed with insight, freed from sense appetites, one who achieves the way will be freed from the duality of birth and death. – Final line of the Metta Sutta
The towels are ready now, as I am prepared for the next all-Black gathering. With the new big bell and amplifier for voices on the wind. I’m in gratitude for all of the towels folded for me, all the spaces held for me, the meetings, the reminders, the care. For my teachers, my dharma siblings, the teachings, and practice.
I believe in this practice. I believe in sangha. Yes, you. You in your imperfection and fear and me in my own fears and need of you. I believe in all of you. In the courage to show up when invited and step back when necessary. The highest calling of my heart is to reach out, support, and serve. And I believe you will stand up and serve with me.
There is a while yet between birth and death. Many towels to fold. Many more gatherings to share though they may not look the way we ever imagined. I release my own fixed views. Unfold a black towel, lay it down before me. . . and bow.
Co-Facilitator, Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine in Our Practice Organizer, Black Breath Sits
Mutual Aid Kitchen Practice at BZC
During the last few weeks, sangha members were busy making some classic BZC recipes to support Brooklyn Saints, a mutual aid group that provides food, water, and other supplies to support the social justice rallies and marches in our community, as well as to homeless shelters.
This was an opportunity to come together as a sangha (in limited numbers, of course) and to use the kitchen space for the last few weeks before the closing of Boundless Mind Temple, our spiritual home in the heart of Brooklyn for the past decade.
An Old Recipe
The other day, I wanted to make banana bread and found an old recipe from my friend Eppie, who was a second-generation Japanese American. To me, she was a true bodhisattva.
I first met Eppie when I moved to New York City twenty-five years ago. One of my Japanese friends took me to Eppie’s apartment, where many Japanese Americans and native Japanese came to hang out with Eppie and to enjoy her delicious home-cooked food: paella, bouillabaisse, roast turkey, pecan pie, banana bread, and more. Many of us cooked and brought traditional Japanese food to her parties. She loved Okonomi-yaki (Japanese pancake) and Chikuzen-ni (chicken and vegetable cooked in broth).
Her small apartment was filled with love. Every room was clean and organized and her beautiful African Violet and Pothos plants were flourishing and well cared for. You could sense Eppie’s warm heart everywhere. She loved food, cooking, and sharing her meals with friends. She told us proudly that she won a corn-eating contest when she was young. I was inspired by her joy of cooking and how she compared and tried recipes from the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Cook’s Illustrated, like a scientist with lightheartedness.
Upon first meeting her, I had no idea how much suffering she had endured. She never talked about her life. Later, when I interviewed her to make a documentary film about her, she told me many stories. When she was in an internment camp, she felt humiliated and terrified using a communal bathroom without a door for privacy. When she married a black man, her own mother, a Japanese immigrant, told her, “Do not come to see me and don’t even come to my funeral.” After her husband left her for another woman, Eppie’s young son was devastated and sunk into depression and drug use. A few years later, he died from an overdose.
I think that Eppie’s suffering made her softer, tender, and resilient instead of hardening. And she coped with her pain and loss by creating community through her food and cooking. Her warm welcome would make you feel at home away from home. Whenever you talked to her, you always felt like she had full attention on you. She deeply listened to whatever was troubling you at the moment. Maybe she was able to see the universal nature of all of our sufferings because of her own suffering. Her gentle smile made you feel like it was okay to feel this way or that way. She created loving space for many of us, sharing her food and her presence.
Eppie would probably be happy to know that I now work as the Tenzo, head of the kitchen. To me, kitchen practice is about caring and paying attention to everything and everyone, just as Eppie did; being intimate with myriad things. You work wholeheartedly cutting off the brown parts of cauliflower, washing lettuce over and over until there is no more sand and washing and rinsing rice without losing a single grain. You do this with a caring heart for the monks who will eat the food, and hopefully enjoy and be nourished by it. You take care of things to love. As you work diligently and silently, you forget the self, self and others melt into just isness, suchness of this moment, and you can see the selfless nature in everything. At the same time, you can see clearly your conditioning, your karma, come up. You can hear all the comments in your heads: complaining, praising, defending, shaming or judging with fear, anger, sadness, hurt and pain. And if you don’t judge and don’t take it personally, if you allow thoughts and emotions to be as they are and let yourself feel them fully in your body, you can see how they disappear into nothing. You can see the impermanent and empty nature of everything. Everything arising and passing away.
As Dogen says: “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
As I was making Eppie’s banana bread recipe, I recalled her love of people and love of life. How strange and mysterious it is to be a human and to be nothing at the same time. How wonderful and paradoxical it is to feel the love of people and the love of life, and to know the empty nature of all of that. How amazing that we are that mystery and we are that paradox.
I miss you all. How fortunate that we are practicing this mystery together, whether near or far sometimes connected by something as simple as banana bread. If you try Eppie’s banana bread recipe, I hope you will feel the care handed down from her to me to you.
Head of the Kitchen (Tenzo), Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery
A few weeks ago I was removing some dry grass beneath the kale plants in the monastery garden. As I was clearing it away, a small mouse dashed out and hid in the lettuce, dragging a tiny pink baby behind it. I looked down to realize that, in my ignorance, I had pulled up a whole nest, which had been carefully lined with fur and tucked away hidden in the grass, full of blind pink babies all curled up together and completely at the mercy of the world. I froze for a moment, and then did my best to put it all back and leave as quickly as I could, hoping the mother would return to her babies and make everything right again. I don’t know whether she did or not. I went and sat down next to the Jizo statue and burst into tears, feeling both that it was my fault and that there was absolutely nothing I could have done. I could only ask Jizo to watch over them, mother and babies and all; to let it rest entirely in the hands of the earth.Caring for growing things is like that. Living here at Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery, on the boundary between forest and farmland, it is inescapable how being surrounded by so much life means being surrounded by so much death. They are the same mystery, after all.
What is not killing, when the shovel that turns soil for vegetables is the same one that ends the life of insects and worms? What is not stealing, when the ground in which I am planting winter spinach was taken by violence from the ancestors of the Schaghticoke? I ask the open sky and the tall grasses, and the reply I get is blowing wind and fall leaves beginning to turn crimson.
My own ancestors were settlers, self-described “Indian fighters” who hacked and homesteaded their way from what’s now New York and Pennsylvania to Iowa, Kansas, and Oregon. I haven’t forgiven them yet. I also don’t blame them like I used to. Some deep part of me still believes what they believed, that freedom means having a piece of land of one’s own that no one can take away. My body still carries their own ancestral memory of being dispossessed in Europe long before they came here. Violence works like that. I wish I knew how to free all of us from the scars of our history together.I grew up in a valley far from here, between different mountains and different farmlands. I learned to garden by helping my mom poke beans and tomato plants into the clay soil of our backyard, and I learned to make apple pies from the orchard by helping my grandmother peel fruit and crimp dough. I left for the city as soon as I turned eighteen because I desperately wanted to escape my small town. But the truth is that no matter how far I’ve tried to run, I’ve never been able to get away from those mountains, from the fact that the land is me, constitutes everything I am. Sitting here now, I’m done running from it.
Living that truth, though, is not so clean. A month ago we tilled a small field in a flat spot on the hill below the orchard, to grow our own vegetables next year. I don’t know how many mouse nests, vole holes, plants, insects, and soil lives ended under that plow. Pushing a shovel through the sod, I also don’t know where the settler in me ends and liberation begins. Where is death and where is life when we’re all turned in the wheel together? The legacies of violence live right next to my best intentions, completely intimate with them. My grandmother, who grew up on a homestead in Kansas, also taught me to live on the food that I’ve grown with my own hands. I believe that we are doing our best here, to live in relationship with the earth and each other, to bring some small balance to a world that feels deeply off-kilter, even as we remain so intertwined with everything that feels wrong. I don’t know. I, too, try to do my best to listen, to let everything be free to be itself, and ask Jizo to look after us all.
Autumn has always felt like a time of grieving to me, this year more than most. There is a lot to grieve right now, and it is a strange feeling to find myself coming home to a place where the weather, trees, and birds are so different from where I was born. I understand now why the seasons turning is a time-honored Zen expression of the indescribable beauty and pain of all things changing together in their time. This fall I’m taking refuge in the turning itself: in the cycles of the year, of the harvest and planting, of the compost, of our lifetimes together. At some point I began to trust that the unfolding is enough. But I’m still not over longing for an answer.
In love and gratitude,
Sansei Ella Antell
Head of Garden and Grounds, Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery
Echoes in the Dark
As I make my way, I walk the quiet country path that takes me uphill to Ancestral Heart Zen Monastery, where I’ve joined the resident monks for the Fall Practice Period. I’m guided by the moon and the stars, luminescent in the dark sky. I’m also carried by the sounds I hear coming from the forest: the soft burble of the waterfall, whispers from the trees, an occasional squirrel scuttling across the fallen leaves. When my breath and the night are still enough, I can hear, too, the echo of my footsteps on pebble.
I haven’t been here very long but I am already appreciating the joys and challenges of practicing in community. The monks make it easy. I am one eddy in the stream, self-conscious of being an eddy, with all of the other eddies, even though we’re of the same substance and moving in the same course. Face to face, things are often clearer. I’m reminded of songwriter Daniel Johnston’s words, “…true love is searching too, but how can it recognize you, if you don’t step out into the light.” It’s funny watching a self being born as another one dies. Turns out, we’re making new selves all the time. Life’s good when there’s a chance to see, stop and begin anew.
A lot of the work that gets done by the monks here at Ancestral Heart involves attending to the needs of our sangha and making sure everyone is cared for at this time. I’ve heard some sangha members express understandable worry or fatigue given all we’ve had to negotiate in recent months. Earlier in the year, when the pandemic was as its peak in my part of Brooklyn, and the sirens went all day and all night for weeks, like others I noted the zeitgeist as not the most upbeat. I remembered sitting zazen in the morning, alone in my apartment, and hearing the trills of the sirens interspersed with the trills of the birds.
From past experience, I can say my faith often grows when there’s been some earlier doubt. It’s hard to predict how things are really going to turn out, but I’m OK being with you in this present moment, whether over Zoom or through some other socially-approved distance. A lit face shining through a dark screen, a voice on the other side of the phone, a hidden smile under a mask, sitting together in zazen–may these echoes in the dark continue to resonate, at least for the time being, mysterious and reassuring.
Shigetsu (Steadfast Moon)
The BZC Tech Ryo
The ongoing pandemic and closure of our temple on Carroll St. have faced us with unprecedented challenges. We also have the unprecedented aid of technology to keep us connected.
We have recently formed a Tech Ryo to support and stabilize our ongoing work.
It’s a great deal of effort, and is absolutely worthwhile to connect us.
We’re asking everyone to treat this like any other practice role, discerning between preference and access. There won’t be a ‘perfect’ event: the sound might be unclear, or there may be a gap as we switch settings. We want to treat this the same way as the doan striking the bell out of place, or the kitchen running out of an ingredient.
While the technology may be aggravating at times, it has also allowed wonderful things, such as connecting our sangha nationally and internationally, and including those who have difficulty meeting in person.
Thank you for your practice, and for holding us and this powerful technology with uprightness and care.
Tech Ryo Co-Chairs