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CONTEMPORARY ZEN PRACTICE AND INQUIRY

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Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it is really worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass them on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's ok to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.
—Miranda July
Posted by Peg Syverson - Jul 14, 2017, 11:22 AM

Greetings from Chicago! Today in Zazen I realized that we need to be most alive to our values, purpose, and drive, and that if we can connect people strongly to these three existential qualities they will have astonishing capacities, especially when they come together. Obviously, values provide the foundation of our actions. Sincerity simply means acting in accord with our values. Shame arises when we have not acted in accord with our values or when our values themselves have been revealed to us as lacking or inadequate. 

So it is extremely important to reflect on our values: where they came from, what they are, and how well they accord with wisdom, compassion, and clarity. In our Zen Buddhist tradition, the paramount value is the Bodhisattva vow, to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings. Six aspects of this vow are expressed as the six paramitas, or practices of perfection: generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom. 

Sometimes people have a simplistic notion of values. For example, they might say their core value is “family.” But family is a topic, not a value. Where one person’s value around family might be “keep my family safe in a dangerous world,” another person’s might be “share adventures and experiences with family in a wide, fascinating, and kaleidoscopic world.” This is why it is necessary to inquire, especially beyond simplistic slogans: What does it mean to keep a family safe? For one person, for example, it might mean guns and locks; for another, lots of helpful information. so again, the universal solvent is curiosity. We go deeper with every question: What threat most concerns you? What troubles have you faced in the past? and so on. 

But clarity about our values is not enough. We need a direction for mobilizing and expressing them in the world. We need a purpose, or a set of congruent purposes. Raising a healthy, sane, caring child is a purpose, for example. Such an effort entails other purposes, such as ensuring health care, quality schools, and so forth. Of course, every healthy set of purposes now includes the major challenge of restoring the health of our environment. 

So our values and purposes give meaning and direction in our lives. But there is one more critical factor: drive. In Buddhism the term for this is virya, energy, and it is exemplified in the Zen expression “to practice as if your hair is on fire.” This conveys the sense of urgency and dedication required, but not the scope. I would say we need to practice as if our world is on fire, because it is. 

We keenly sense our limited, puny capacities as lone individuals in the face of global catastrophes and large-scale human needs. I once described this as trying to fill Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. But we do not have millions of kalpas ahead of us. We must find ways to amplify our efforts. The best one I know of is to find others who share your values and purposes, and join forces. then join these streams and join again until a mighty river of shared effort and intention rolls out, carrying vast energetic care for the whole world. Don’t wait. You must find your partners in the urgent, profound, and healing work ahead. 

My domain is spiritual practice, the incubator for healthy, life-sustaining values and clarity of purpose. But I cannot provide the drive. That is the bottomless resource found in each and every person, no matter how obscured it may be by despair, dread, anxiety, and self-doubt. I know that luminous life force is there. I cannot forget it, and I feel a bit part of my work is helping people remember it. 

Why are we here? We are here to save the planet, to nourish and support all living beings, and to live life as the Buddhas we are. Sometimes we have to help each other recall who we truly are. 

This is not a trivial task.

So many things get in the way: everyday tasks, layers of habitual conditioning, past trauma, alarming events and circumstances in the world, difficulties in relationships, losses, and a sense that something is lacking, in ourselves or in our world. But all of these can and must be relinquished as unnecessary distractions and hindrances to our values, purposes, and drive—our vow, in other words. When we stay connected in this way, our limitations are merely a way our contribution gets shaped, and we begin to develop skillful means for working with them, in ourselves and in others. 

Remember the Buddha’s story in the Lotus Sutra of the father whose children are playing in a burning house. This is our present world situation. Will we be the children, blissfully and stubbornly playing with our toys as the flames devour us, or will we be the desperate but resourceful father who skillfully entices those children to come outside for even better toys? What will it take to bring a whole civilization out of the flames it's created for itself, playing with matches? We need to find out—and soon. 

So there is a genuine emergency here, and it is an emergency of human consciousness, as the Buddha taught. We must continue to help people wake up, feel empowered, and take action, together. As a sangha we are learning how to do this, together. As we take what we are learning back out into our everyday lives, we bring it into practice. That is my deepest hope for a suffering world.

Posted by Peg Syverson - Jul 7, 2017, 10:09 AM

A sangha is an ecosystem, a dynamic web of interactions, practices, ceremonies, people, teachings, and places. Every sangha, in any moment, is a reflection of its history of these processes up to that point. Every sangha is actively constructing the story of its future. Disagreements are an inevitable part of that process, and the way disagreements are discovered, met, and resolved is critical to the health and well-being of the entire ecosystem. This fact may not be obvious to individuals who find themselves involved in the disagreement. But because of the interdependent web of relations in the sangha, the entire sangha is affected by disagreements, whether expressed or submerged. One way to recognize this is to reframe a disagreement or conflict as a situation. That situation includes the entire sangha, and therefore everyone in the sangha, and possibly even some people outside the sangha has a stake in addressing the situation in a beneficial way.

Often, spiritual communities give the impression that disagreement within the community does not exist, or that it is not welcome. And of course we are learning together how to live in harmony with each other and with all beings. But the health and future well-being of a sangha depends on the awareness and skillful resolution of disagreement and conflict. A Zen sangha is not a monoculture with one right path, nor a coercive belief system all members must adopt. To the extent that we discover how to welcome differences and bring liberation and relief from suffering in our community we become better able to provide this in the larger world, where it is sorely needed. So it is very important to recognize the contribution that difference and disagreement makes in the life of the sangha, how it fosters reflection, discernment, and wise action. I’ve written a bit about that in the previous post. 

Here is a suggestion for a process to address disagreement and conflict in a sangha. There are many other models that might be used depending on the specific needs, time constraints, and conditions for a particular disagreement. But I think this one uses the practices and experiences we’ve developed at Appamada, with our focus on relational Zen. It adapts the Conversation Cafe model for our purposes. It takes longer to describe than to practice, so don’t be daunted by the explanation here. These are the steps:

  1. Awareness: The realization that there is a situation in which there is disagreement. 
  2. Discovery: Who is part of the disagreement? Who might also be part of resolving it? This includes not only affected parties, but also neutral counselors or teachers. 
  3. Convening: Bringing those involved in the disagreement, as well as those who might be helpful in resolving it, together. 
  4. Definition: What is the disagreement about? What is the situation? Clarify only the topic, not the positions, at this point. Participants agree to stick to this topic. 
  5. Conversation cafe process:
    • Post the topic where everyone can see it. Clarify it if needed, and remind participants to stick to the topic
    • One minute of silence
    • Round one. Each person will speak in turn for an exact amount of time. The time allotted depends on the number of people and the total time available. One minute to five minutes is typical: five minutes is used when there are only two people. 
    • One minute of silence
    • Round two. Each person speaks in turn for twice the amount of time in round one. 
    • One minute of silence
    • Round three: Open discussion, staying on the topic. Time depends on time available: 15-20 minutes is typical. Check if more time is needed. Use a “silence” object in the center, such as a stone or shell or stick. If the conversation becomes too heated, off topic, or chaotic, anyone may pick up the silence object and all conversation stops. The person then says what he or she has observed. Conversation resumes when the silence object is returned to the center. 
    • One minute of silence
    • Round four: Appreciation. Each person in turn has one minute to express appreciation for something that another person has said. 
    • Conclusion: Open discussion. Is the disagreement resolved? What is still needed for satisfaction? Is there a vision for future well-being for the participants and the sangha?

 

Posted by Peg Syverson - Jul 7, 2017, 9:26 AM

We often feel that when our views differ from another’s, and particularly where the stakes are high or the emotions are strong, we have only these choices: stifle our own views, oppose the other’s views, or try to persuade or argue the other to our position. Non-oppositional disagreement does not follow any of these patterns. It does not suggest that you become a doormat for others, that you go to war for your side, nor that you engage in a struggle to convince the other that you are right. It considers that our primary goal is to come to appropriate action on an issue, or make a wise and compassionate decision, or share multiple perspectives to deepen understanding. It considers the process by which our disagreements become known a helpful one, which illuminates difficulties or reasoning outside of our own awareness. At the same time, it recognizes that our own perspective is based on the experience and intelligence we bring to the situation. Here are some features of non-oppositional disagreement.

Non-oppositional disagreement

  • Does not make judgments of good or bad for either persons or ideas, groups or institutions
  • Considers understanding, wisdom, and right action as emergent properties of human interaction, experience, and reflection
  • Considers differences of perspective, even those strongly or rigidly held, as natural, healthy, and desirable for all social systems
  • Maintains curiosity, openness, willingness to listen and to learn, even when firmly maintaining a particular perspective
  • Appreciates the strengths, insights, and limitations of every point of view of position
  • Considers disagreement a process of mutually seeking truth, meaning, right action, appropriate responses, and wisdom rather than a conflict between right and wrong, good and evil, best and worst
  • Is not attached to outcomes
  • Seeks clarity, not victory; that which benefits life over that which ignores or tramples over it; that which sustains and strengthens relationship over that which destroys it
  • Affirms the highest aspirations of all participants, even where there are sharp differences of judgment, interpretation, opinion
  • Recognizes the possibility that there is no such thing as fixed, abiding Truth, that all formulations are necessarily partial, provisional, temporary working constructs

 

Some frames for setting the stage include statements like these:

  • Well, I do have an opinion on this subject, but I have an open mind and I’m interested in hearing other points of view. I’ve been misguided in the past, like anyone else. The process of getting clarity together is always helpful for me.
  • I wonder if you might be curious about a quite different perspective?

For more charged situations, something like this might be helpful:

  • You have made some really important points and it’s clear you feel strongly about this issue. I have a strong feelings, too, from a different point of view, and I have a concern that these strong feelings we are experiencing have the potential to lead us into conflict, when what we both want is to figure out somehow, how to respond appropriately to what is needed. Can we agree together on some ground rules for our discussion? Then you might describe what such ground rules might look like from your point of view. For example:

    I’m thinking, specifically, that I would like to be able to speak without being interrupted, that I may express the emotions I’m experiencing. freely without others taking it personally, and I will do the same. I also think it might be helpful to set a time limit for the discussion, so that everyone recognizes some shared boundaries. You might also have a ground rule that only the issue at hand be discussed, without dragging past grievances, collateral issues, or future hypotheticals.

    The next post will describe a process that allows us to use our Zen practice in resolving disagreements.
Posted by Peg Syverson - Jul 6, 2017, 9:10 PM

The website is live! It's exciting, but also daunting, because there is still a lot of content to be put up. But it is functional and I hope attractive and it should serve our needs for the present. We are still trying to get the default avatar to work, as it has disappeared again. But these are minor issues to be resolved. I am not sure about the document library either. That may still need to be fixed. We only use that for classes, so for now I will see what I can do. 

Posted by Peg Syverson - May 19, 2017, 4:12 PM

Today I set up classes using the Classes page type to refine how we represent and serve classes. I've now put up eight Foundations classes, which are linked both to the "Study" page and also to the "Archives" page. 

I had a lot of problems with the People slider so I deleted it for now, until they can be ironed out. 

Our Schedule

Welcome! These programs are open for everyone.

Monday—Friday 6:30-7:30 AM
Morning Zazen

Sunday 8:00-11:00 AM
Zazen, service, and dharma talk

Sunday 8:00-9:00 AM
Newcomer orientation

Tuesday 12:30-1:30 PM
Inquiry

Wednesday 7:30-8:45 PM
Wednesday evening program

More activities can be found on the Appamada Calendar

Ethics and Grievance Policy

Our Location

913 East 38th St
Austin, TX 78705 (Map)

Affiliated Sanghas

About Parking

Please be mindful of our neighbors. Additional Parking is available in the Cafe Hornitos parking lot at the corner of 38th St. and the I-35 frontage road, one block east of Appamada.

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Recent Posts
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