Abbot's Message for the New Year: ROMANCING THE STONE

aszc location facade
No, it's not about the 1984 movie staring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. When I was working for a design firm that specialized in designing and implementing environmental programs for brick-and-mortar retailers in the 1990s and early 2000s, this term was frequently used to describe what we did for our clients.

Most companies in the business of selling hard and soft lines of merchandise, banking, automotive and other products and services, were then and are still today faced with the dilemma of a competitive climate in which it was more and more difficult to distinguish yourself based on the unique products you sell, the "stones," owing to the fact that others in your niche had the same or similar ones.

Among the limited strategies for standing out in a situation like this is to enhance the environment in which the products are sold. This might include programs to train the personnel who meet and greet the customer, optimize the display of the merchandise by manipulating the plan and placement, improve the customer communications through managing the content and placement of signing, and fine-tuning factors in the environ such as lighting and sound, color and other ambient features of the store itself.

Adjunct approaches include giving the customer more good reasons to shop the store more often, usually through sales promotions, and inducements to stay longer once they are in the store, providing such amenities as informative seminars, product presentations and classes, comfort zones for sitting and resting, having refreshments, and so on. This all amounts to packaging the same products in different environments, or "romancing the stone," the same stones our competition is selling. These days, more and more retail competition has gone online, leading to the decline of the brick-and-mortar establishments, but the game of romancing the stones is still the same, played out on electronic media.

In last month's Dharma Byte I emphasized the importance of Sangha, supporting each other in our Zen community, and have in the past often stressed Dharma, the complementary study of the compassionate teachings, as well as Buddha, the uncovering of our original nature through diligence in zazen. To look forward to the new year, I would like to emphasize the environment of the Zen center, the most outer physical dimension of the package, so to speak, wrapped around your practice.

Let me ask you to read the Mission Statement in our by-laws. Most members have probably never read it, but it does a good job of setting the tone and clarifying the purpose for which we have a Zen center to begin with.

Mission Statement Page on

So what we do at ASZC, and the primary reasons we have acquired (read: leased) Zonolite Place is that we are devoted to religious (Zen), charitable (zazen) and/or educational (dharma) purposes. But the propagation of genuine Zen is unlike any other 501c3 NFP enterprise.

"Selling Water by the River" is the title of a book you may have read by Jiyu-Kennett Roshi, an Englishwoman, the first female to be sanctioned by the Soto school to teach in the West. It is probably derived from an old saying, most likely from Chinese Buddhism, to describe the propagation of Zen. We are all in the middle of this river, surrounded by water, but with "nary a drop to drink," as in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In Zen, we are not surrounded by salt water, but the refreshing fluid of the living dharma.

That most people are unaware of the abundance of its availability, constitutes the reason we have to set up shop, design the environment to support the practice of the members of our Sangha, and reach out online, to let prospective practitioners know that we are here, and when and how they may participate. In other words, romancing the stone.

Now, the particular stone we are romancing — Zen meditation — we feel to be unique, in comparison to others on the smorgasbord of mediation entrees out there, though the water we are offering to drink ultimately has to be the same, to mix several metaphors. But in the minds of the consuming public, to lapse into marketing jargon, they don't know the difference. Fortuitously, in terms of marketing, we couldn't ask for a better brand, Soto Zen, one that has a pristine history of 2500 years, even older than Coca-Cola.

So our task, to a great degree, is the same as it was for Master Dogen in the 1200s, or Matsuoka Roshi, in his early talks explaining Zen to a Western mindset, or that of Kennett Roshi, ladling out the water somewhat later. We are charged with romancing a stone that everyone already owns, and indeed carrying it, concealed somewhere on their body — the "wish-fulfilling Mani Jewel" no one knows they have.

In doing so, we work with the material we have at hand, even if it appears woefully inadequate to the task. Perhaps a detour into the world of the plastic arts will provide a context for grasping the importance of treating the environment as a stage, or medium, for the practice of communal Zen.

An artist naturally turns to the ugly to create the beautiful, a premise I first heard as a student of design, articulated by Claes Oldenberg, an artist best known for his work in soft sculptures and public installations of very large replicas of everyday objects. I met him at a seminar he gave at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, when I was a student at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. At the time, he and his retinue of assistants were working on an exhibit, including a full-size, fabric replica of the Chrysler Airstream auto from the 1930s, a revolutionary new styling famous in design circles.

As an aside within an aside, when I invited Baba Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, to speak at the University of Illinois while I was teaching in the Design department, he later came to my apartment and cooked dinner for me and my wife. I went with him to his car to get the jars of chapati flower and beans, a recipe he apparently had picked up in India, and guess what - he was driving a Chrysler Airstream! Small world, great minds.

Oldenberg's soft sculptures, including the Airstream-in-progress, reminded me of the paintings of Salvador Dali, the famous surrealist, those showing melting objects, such as timepieces. Which, as yet another aside, stand as a symbol of the real time that we experience in zazen, where time seems to "melt" into the present eternal moment, as Matsuoka Roshi expressed it. Perhaps everything is an aside.

But what stuck with me is his comment that we artists "naturally" turn to the ugly to create the beautiful. This may be obvious in such works as Robert Rauschenberg's "combines," in which he conjoined ordinary discarded items, such as a used tire juxtaposed by wrapping it around a stuffed goat; or the dadaist Man Ray's "found object" sculptures, from the early 1900s. After all, paint pigments, the main medium in which I work, are nothing more than refined mud.

When considering the environment as a medium for practicing Zen, I remember a startling comment made by Achok Rimpoche, a member of HH the Dalai Lama's inner circle, when he spoke at ASZC just after we had expanded and renovated the zendo. He was speaking about dana, the perfection of generosity, and said that dana is "providing the conducive environment" for practice. I had never heard dana defined in this way before, though I had embraced propagating the Dharma as a form of dana, a way of paying back with time and effort, not only as supporting its teachers through donations. Tying the idea of dana to the environment clicked for me, as I realized that our efforts in "taking good care of the practice place" at ASZC are exactly that, a commitment to the practice of Zen, expressed in the way we maintain the environment. This had been Matsuoka Roshi's attitude as well, expressed in his fastidious cleanliness and attention to detail at the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple.

In the context of the environment as dana, Achok Rimpoche went on to compliment our beautifully simple zendo design, which he noted as largely unadorned, with natural wood and, at that time, white walls. But he reminded us that in Tibet, everything, everywhere is white, "So we like a little more color." A funny understatement, if you are familiar with the brilliant red and gold of their typical interiors.

There is an old Chinese saying, source unknown, "Work on that which is already ruined brings greatest merit." Recalling this expression is a source of some comfort to me personally, particularly in my efforts to maintain my own household, which consists of a Craftsman bungalow built before 1920, and my main ongoing renovation project since 1980. I am often faced with the irony of spending precious days working to renovate the Zen center, while a project is going unfinished, awaiting me at home. The role of a building is to fall down; ours is to prop them up.

Another of my regular activities, in which merit rescuing the already ruined finds resonance, comprises those missions I refer to as "curbside collectibles." I often salvage and refurbish, somewhat selectively of course, old furniture that people simply kick to the curb, rather than bother with repairing and refinishing it. One rationale I use to justify this compulsion is that I hate to see landfills fill up, period; but in particular I hate to see perfectly good pieces chucked into a hole to rot (we are not talking Ikea here), while we continue cutting down the remaining stands of forest to replenish factories that chunk out less and less refined furniture made of ticky-tacky, with thin veneers of what remains of the rare woods of the world (we are talking Ikea here). I further lament the disposable economy of the USA, and the mentality that lies behind it. I fear that this mindset includes sentient beings and people of other classes, races, tribes and nations, all disposable commodities. We are in danger of becoming a world of people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

So when I look at our humble training center on Zonolite Place, I do not see the ramshackle, rundown pair of early 1900s bungalows, joined at the hips to a homely, flat-roofed (read: guaranteed to leak) concrete-block structure with its weird, inward-slanting front windows, a retro 1950s innovation for store fronts, meant to eliminate glare so that street traffic could see the window displays of merchandise. In the context of the Zen center, this is only one of the many strange environmental anomalies that we live with at our present home, not to mention sitting smack in the middle of a floodway, the lowest point in a floodplain draining into Peachtree Creek.

I certainly do not see, in my imagination, the elegant refinement of the environment of an Eiheiji monastery, which I visited in 1989, nor even that of San Francisco Zen Center, where I stayed briefly in 2000. But, having grown up dirt poor on a small farm in Illinois in the 1940s and 1950s, I am not particularly impressed with fine digs, and my personal practice does not depend upon impressive surroundings. I am perfectly happy to practice meditation in a basement, which I did in the early days of my exposure to Zen. The beauty of stains in the concrete floor are recollections that I carry with me yet today, and that esthetic is reflected in my art.

So I want to encourage you to see beyond the outer appearance of our humble abode at Zonolite Place. Appearance is often used as another term for form in Zen Buddhism, so we are admonished to avoid entrapment or entanglement in the appearance, or form, of things, and to penetrate to the emptiness that underlies them. This emptiness is not simply a deeper level of mundane nothingness, beneath a forlorn surface, but glimmers with the radiance that Master Dogen points to in Bendowa, the poetic Self-fulfilling Samadhi section that we are currently studying in our weekly conferences:

"Grass, trees, and lands, which are embraced by this teaching together radiate a great light, and endlessly expound the inconceivable, profound dharma."

He also said, in "Fukanzazengi," something to the effect that it is not necessary, and essentially a waste of time, to travel to foreign lands looking for the dharma, as he had done in China, ironically. I would add that it is counterproductive to seek out swanky retreat centers in hopes that some transformative insight that is beyond your grasp at home will magically appear, if only you can find the appropriately spiritual, pastoral setting that will do the trick.

Our funky surround at ASZC is radiating this great light for those who have eyes to see it. And the even more depressingly familiar environment where you may work is not exempt. An enlightenment poem from a Japanese businessman, attribution unknown, captures the essence, following an epiphany one day at the office where he had eked out a living for his entire professional life:

"And there sat the old man, in all his homeliness."

We certainly meet the homeliness criterion at Zonolite. But this homeliness does not mean that we should let our practice home crumble and fall apart around us. The meditation of buddha, the teaching of dharma, and the coherence of sangha, all to some extent depend upon the environment in which they happen. So we should not be too cavalier about that environment, especially in light of the fact that we maintain it for the sake of others. Later in the same poem, Master Dogen makes this clear:

"Grass, trees and walls bring forth the teaching for all beings, common people as well as sages and they in accord extend this dharma for the sake of grass, trees, and walls."

Our great Founder is, as usual, making more than one point at a time, including that not only does nature continually manifest the true dharma of those that have ears to hear it, but the works of humankind also necessarily do as well. And especially the walls of the Zen center and in particular those of the zendo itself, "bring forth the teaching." Those who have the good fortune, and bulldog persistence, to come to accord with the teaching then pay it forward, by extending it, propagating the practice. I count myself among these lucky few. And we do so for the sake of the natural world, as well as those institutions that propagate it, namely the Zen centers, monasteries, and practice places, including ASZC. The walls of our zendo bring forth the eternal wall, the mirror of Zen, that goes with you when you leave the cushion. A note to those who may throw up the objection that Zen then becomes just another "organized religion": since when is Zen a religion? and what would you prefer — disorganized religion?

That there is no self and other in Zen means there is also no separation of being and environment, either. And they can effect each other, for better or for worse. Especially at ASZC, we all need to recognize the importance of having and maintaining a practice place. We invite you to regard it as a second home, perhaps more important in many ways than our first home. Just consider the differences in the environment at your home and work place, and what you find and feel at the Zen center. Would you really prefer to always and only practice at home, with all its daily and hourly distractions? If you compare the impact of your usual surroundings to those of the zendo, I think you would have to admit that our training center trumps yours, if only in that it is dedicated exclusively to the practice of Zen.

This attitude of due respect and recognition of true value is reflected in our dharma-opening verse:

The unsurpassed profound and wondrous dharma is rarely met with
Even in a hundred-thousand-million kalpas
Now we can see it and hear it accept and maintain it
May we unfold the meaning of the Tathagata's truth

It is much easier to meet with this dharma in an environment relatively untrammeled with interruptions, and the rising tide of clutter and chaos that we find in most environments. Of course, we meet with this dharma everywhere we go, as it is universal and absolute. But it is also at the Zen center, which is uniquely designed to support the efforts you come here to make, in seeing the dharma, hearing it, and accepting and maintaining it. Please unfold the Tathagata's truth at your second home, ASZC, be it ever so humble.