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Trying to escape the hamster wheel

Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, but there comes a time it seems when you stop and look around and think- is this it?

Isn’t there more to life than this hamster wheel going round and round, this cycle of getting up going to work, repeat, repeat, repeat, etc….

Some buy sports cars or motorbikes, or take up extreme sports, being on a tight budget, I looking for a deeper (and less expensive) spiritual meaning to it all.

The more observant among you may have noticed that I’ve changed the tag line on my blog, it’s roughly the same but I’ve replaced the word Buddhism with the word faith.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been struggling with my Buddhist practice and my understanding of the term ‘faith’ in general for a few years now.

I’ve been flip flopping between Zen practice and SGI practice, until recently I realised I had pigeonholed my options because of my adopted label as ‘Buddhist’ – this has also effected other peoples views and opinions of my practice as well it seems.

I commented to my Wife about this situation, and told her I may try a Sunday service at the local Methodist chapel, “oh I can’t see as being a Christian, believing in God and all that” was her response.

I was a little bit taken aback by the response to be honest, just because since she has known me, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist (either as part of a group or just at home) however in my younger days and into my teens I was a regular Sunday morning Church of England congregant, even taking my confirmation from the Bishop David of Wakefield.

So now I’m taking some time, to explore various religious and faith practices, this will be a fairly long process, however I have decided to give my Gohonzon one last try, we’re told as members of Soka Gakkai, to put our practice to the test, to chant for actual proof, after two and half years of practice, I can say that I haven’t received anything yet, I was told that I need to be very specific, so with a very specific time weighted goal, I’ve begun chanting again, and will wait until the end of July to see if this provides any validation or not, I’ve packed away all my Buddhist books, and taken away my altar and other Buddhist paraphernalia, and I’ve gone back to basics just me and my Gohonzon, so lets see what happens.

 

I’m really enjoying my Wing Chun at the moment, for the last two weeks Sifu has gone back to basic’s and focussed on a very traditional lesson format, lots of forms and chi sau. I’ve added ten minutes on my wall bag to my daily practice

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The value of martial arts grades

As my Wing Chun grade is now over and I’m pleased that I passed, so now I can put all that behind me for a while and just get on with training.

I’m reminded of comments made by Sensei Mark Danford (White Rose Aikikai) said about grades and their value –

‘The real value of grades isn’t the end result, not the pass or fail, it’s the extra effort and dedication you put in to your practice in the few weeks prior to the grade event’

That extra time and effort you put into brushing up on your technical skill and identifying then working on the weaknesses in your skill repertoire, can lead to invaluable growth in your martial arts journey.

Also the experience of putting yourself under the pressure of a grade examination, voluntarily taking you out of your comfort zone, can be a great learning tool too.

I don’t feel as though, the build up to this grade was particularly good, due to the bank holiday closure and Sifu being away the week prior to that, although I was physically ready, I don’t think I had been able to put that extra effort in during class and get psychologically ready, but I got through, so fair enough I suppose.

Many are guilty, and when I was a younger I was just as guilty, of thinking the faster you got through your grades or the amount of grades you were able to pass, was some kind of contest, and like finding the end of the rainbow, there would be a nice big pot of gold for you to find.

 

I suppose now (older and wiser?), I’m just glad of the opportunity to take a grade, to see if my training in Wing Chun has improved, to examine where I need to improve and what to focus on for the next few months.

 

Some will proudly display their certificate, in fancy frame (and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that) I will put mine into a folder under the bed, with the rest of them, it’s never about the destination, always about the journey.

I suppose one of the values of attaining grades (as in an official documented way) is it allows you with some degree of confidence to show and help others, not that holding a certificate indicates the true level of your ability or experience, but it does help you get through the bureaucratic systems of insurance and authorisation to teach later on.

 

Maybe a story here will highlight my point, many moons ago, when I was teaching Taekwondo (Ki Taekwodo), I received a call from the chief instructor of our association, asking me to visit a club (in my area) to see if I could help them out, it seemed their instructor had decided to quit due to other responsibilities.

So there I remember meeting a Taekwondo 3rd Dan, who was keen in taking further grades, and continuing her training, but refused to teach.

So what I wondered to myself was the real value of those grades, other than the fancy certificates and gold tags on her belt, she was disinclined to pass that knowledge and experience on to the next generation of students.

She had gladly and eagerly accepted the help from her seniors, but was unwilling to return that favour her juniors.

Last weekend was a bitter/sweet occasion for me, on one hand my grade success, but on the other, it marked the end of my martial arts professional indemnity insurance, so I’m no longer an insured as an instructor, as one door opens another one closes, such is life…..

 

 

Everyday is a journey

This is a phrase my Dad used last week when we went to visit him in hospital, he’s making good progress now with his recovery from his stroke, and has been in a wheel chair, so he’s getting some form of mobility back, everyday trying to do something new, gain a bit more independence.

Little by little, step by step, these were the words Alex Man used during his recent UK seminar, describing our progress in Wing Chun.

With the bank holiday weekend, we didn’t have a Wing Chun class this week, which is a little annoying as I’m due to take my grade on Saturday, and Sifu was away last lesson, so I would have liked to cover a little bit more of the syllabus, but I guess I’ll just take my Dads advice and treat everyday as a journey and see where the trip takes me, little by little, step by step.

There’s still a weakness in the third section (tan sau to garn sau) of my first form, although according to the syllabus I’m only graded on the first two sections, and I would have liked to practice my jut sau drill a few more times, but apart from that I’m fairly confident with my basics, so we’ll just have to see.

Sifu put me forward for the grade, so I have to have trust in my training.

 

After the grade is over (regardless of result) I’m investing in a wall bag, so during the summer months at least (as I’ll be hanging it outside) I can practice conditioning and striking.

 

On Tuesday, I sat with the South Yorkshire Zen group at their Doncaster Zendo, with Hoshi Scott Williams (Dana Sangha) it’s been about ten years since I last saw Scott, so It was nice to see him again, also Patrick was there, who I haven’t seen for a couple of years.

It’s been about ten months since I sat formally in a Zendo, so I was a bit conscious of getting the form correct, but I needn’t have worried as due to the size of the group and Zendo, form wasn’t really an issue.

So hopefully I can attend regularly and get back into my Zen practice again.

2017 for me is about settling down and getting into a stable and regular practice in both my martial arts (which I have with Wing Chun) and my Buddhist practice, I’ve spent (not necessarily wasted) time in the past looking for that greener grass, over various fences, but this year its time to realise the grass is just fine right here under my own two feet.

Where does the time go?

Time is a strange thing, as we go through life, crossing off the days on the calendar, days we’ll never get back, time seems so fixed and rigid, and yet the older I get the quicker time seems to go by we’re now in April, soon before we know it we’ll be facing the summer holidays, and then the slow slope into autumn and winter.

Our Daughter will be eight this year, and my Son twelve, when I look though photographs of my children as they were younger, and wonder where those small children have gone.

John Lennon got it spot on when he said that ‘life happens when you’re busy making other plans’

This time last year, I had almost completed my week of sesshin (Zen retreat) at Crosby Hall with the Stonewater Zen Sangha, an experience whilst not able to financially repeat at least very often, I’ll never forget.

This time nine years ago, I was taking my 1st Dan in Aikido, of all the grades I hold (at the moment) this one is the one I’m most proud of, because it was probably the most difficult to accomplish, perhaps not on a physical level, although it was hard work, and technically challenging  , but more from a personal perspective it was the most nerve racking and as I was going through a time of change and upheaval in my life which I had to deal with alongside my Aikido progression, the passing of that grade, seemed to be a huge stepping stone going forward in my life.

My Wife has decided that she doesn’t want to go forward with the adoption process, our next meeting would have been in May, I must admit the procedures did at times sound as though they would be intrusive and bureaucratic,but I thought that this was the path we were going down, and now I guess not, I think at the end of it the ‘Buddhist’ side of me, wanted to give a child who has had a rough upbringing, a happy family home, maybe I was being a bit naïve.

This week at Wing Chun, well our grades are approaching, so I expected a heavy syllabus based class, but instead Sifu gave us a tough stamina session, followed by some work on forms and pad work. This was our last chance to train with Sifu before we take our grades, as he’s away on holiday next week, and the following week is a bank holiday and as the gym closes early we don’t have a class.

Oh well lets see what happens next week, we have the senior students Darren and Robin taking the lesson.

Spring is in the air

The roadsides are full of daffodils and the early blossoms are brightening the trees, April is rewarding us with the colours of spring.

Last Monday I cancelled my Insure4Sports Insurance renewal, this is my professional indemnity insurance that allows me to teach. It will be the fist time for 15 years that I won’t be licensed to teach martial arts, it runs expires on April 23rd.

I guess this will be an end of one chapter of my journey, and although I don’t teach much anymore except for the very rare request from a couple of old friends with their own clubs, even those seem to have dried up now, the last time I taught a course or class was 2015.

Sifu has set the Wing Chun grade date as Saturday the 22nd April, I’m quite looking forward to the opportunity to grade, Sifu has put me forward for Red-2, so I’m looking forward to that, I passed Red-1 with a different Wing Chun academy in 2013, so although the syllabus is different, and a 3 year absence, I still feel as though I’m moving forward, all be it rather slowly.

Although with the Easter bank holiday weekend, it means we only have two classes left, so I hope we can spend time on syllabus work.

I’ve been practicing zazen this week, I started the week doing twenty minutes in a morning and evening, however I’ve been suffering from cramp in my left leg, so later in the week I dropped it down to ten minutes. It’s been about six months since doing any serious ‘sitting’ so I need to start slowly and take it step by step.

I’ve started reading ‘a blind man in the land of Zen’ by Steve Hobson, which I’m enjoying, I met Steve last year on Zen retreat, a really nice bloke, who took time out to make sure I was settling in and gave me a pep talk, an act of pure compassion, and something I’ll never forget.

Pursuing a goal-less practice

I come to the realisation that the problem I’m having with my SGI practice at the moment (and in the past) is a lack of faith.

I’ve always approached Buddhism through an intellectual and philosophical standpoint, I was first introduced to Nichiren Buddhism through reading books on the subject, and membership was a requirement so I could complete my study exams.

Now however I’m being confronted by this lack of faith.

As I’ve written in previous blogs, when I first started my Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition, faith wasn’t something that came up, we sat, we chanted, we read books – we weren’t asked to have faith in the brass Buddha statue on the altar, we just sat and developed the concept of being present at that moment in time.

(I personally began to live my life being mindful of the four noble truths and eightfold path)

Nichiren Daishonin himself told his followers to challenge their faith by chanting for actual proof, these days SGI practitioners chant for all kind of things bigger houses, new cars, etc…

This has never sat easy with me, in Zen we try to know how to be satisfied by the realities of our own lives, as they are, to fully appreciate our lives as they are, not how we think they should be, if I’m constantly striving for my life to be something other than what it is, how can I fully appreciate and enjoy my life as it is in this very moment.

Earthly desires are enlightenment, this is a teaching of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, as human beings desires are part of our daily existence, they see the Zen tradition as nihilistic and austere, perhaps they are right, often the suppression of natural desires lead to larger problems later

 

The culture clash when East met West over the last several decades, stories of these famous Roshi’s falling from grace, as the suppressed Eastern monastic model crashed head first to the open and liberal Western culture are plentiful (many Zen lineages have stories of these unfortunate events including my own)

My lack of faith in my SGI practice could indeed stem from my lack of ‘actual proof’ that is chanting for things that have never materialised, talking to leaders about this and becomes a chicken and egg scenario – chanting should come from a place of deep faith, but then without the actual proof how can you develop strong faith?

I’m now beginning to understand that faith, like happiness comes more easily to some people than others.

So I’ve decided to pursue a goal less practice, that is to sit in zazen or chant (or both) without a particular goal in mind, last year with my Zen practice, I wanted to take my vows, and that became the focus and goal of my practice, but for now I will sit for the sake of sitting.

I had a phone call from Mr. M, my SGI chapter leader (whom I really like as a person) on Monday night, he was actually calling to warn me of the (apparently evil) Nichiren Shoshu priesthood who are becoming active in the area, the conversation came around to my practice, and I tried to explain about this lack of faith to him.

Unfortunately I kind of knew what his answer was going to be, before he said it, and that is to chant about it (and to send me some Gosho quotes).

As the old saying goes when you’re only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails.

I don’t feel that I can talk to Mr. M, about this at the moment, he has no Buddhist experience outside of the SGI, and probably the only things he knows about Zen are the negative comments in the Gosho, his faith is too strong to be able to approach this problem objectively.

I have approached a local Zen sangha, whom I’ve tried to join before, and they now have space for me at their Doncaster Zendo, so I will start there in April.

So to practice zazen (and) or chanting without a goals or expectations will be my practice for a while.

Flip flopping along the middle way

Flip flopping along the middle way – examining my Buddhist practice

Recently I’ve been struggling with my Buddhist practice, this is nothing new, over the last ten years I’ve changed the core of practice several times.

I began in late 2005, firstly as many others who approach Buddhism by reading and home practice, the following year I began weekly practice in Sheffield with a small Zen group with Bob Bowles, as always money was tight and I wasn’t able to attend the retreats.

In 2007 the Zen group changed it’s schedule, it was now on the same night as my main Aikido class (Tuesdays) having recently passed 1st Kyu, I had to make the choice between Zen or Aikido practice, I chose Aikido and continued onto take my 1st Dan in April 2008.

Throughout 2007 to 2009 I continued to practice Buddhism in the Zen tradition at home. I also tried a few NKT meetings and did some Buddhism correspondence courses.

After getting married in 2010, I decided to try and re-establish contact with Bob Bowles, only to find that the group had closed.

I took a break from any kind of regular practice, for over two years (I continued to read and study) in 2013 I read a book about Nichiren Buddhism and I began to chant at home, the following year I became a member of the SGI and took part in local district meetings and events (I also took my grade 1 exam with the SGI) in the following year I began to organise and host meetings and events.

However I often had a feeling of what if…

Flip / flop / flip / flop…

So in the late summer of 2015 I returned to my Zen practice with a small group in Bolsover (run by Mark Shawcroft originally part of the group in Sheffield) I attended the seven day retreat last year (taking the money from my savings) I asked Kaizen Sensei about taking Jukai, but this would take time and more retreats (which I couldn’t afford) so after some post retreat depression I began to chant again, hoping to re-connect with my SGI practice.

Now my former district has been disbanded, and more and more I feel despondent with my practice, I simply don’t enjoy gongyo or feel any connection with my gohonzon at the moment.

So I’m in that same situation again, do I drag myself reluctantly in front of the gohonzon to perform a half hearted gongyo, or do I enjoy sitting in silent meditation in my own practice, in the knowledge that I may never be able to afford attend retreats or take my vows (jukai).

Flip / flop/ flip /flop…

I know that to make any progress, I have to make a strong commitment to my practice, am I simply taking the easy way out and running away from my SGI practice because I feel deadlocked, or is my reluctance (to chant) brought on by a deep seated feeling that, that particular practice just isn’t for me.

So here I am at the moment, I was told this year by an SGI leader (with no experience of any other form of Buddhism) that you can’t mix your SGI practice with Zen, you can’t practice mindfulness alongside Gongyo, also that I have to practice at Sheffield now, it seems that I’m not free to choose where to practice.

Is my desire to go back to meditation practice, a simple case of laziness, It’s all very well to escape to a Zen retreat and feel great for a few days, breathing in the incense infused  country air, and soaking up the silence, while robed priests ring bells, but that isn’t the reality of my life either.

My Buddhist practice has to make sense and pertain to my life, this will take a lot of self investigation and reflection….