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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….

Alex Man UK seminar 2017

So last weekend (March 11th &12th) was the Alex Man UK seminar in Sheffield, hosted by Sifu William Lai.

I could only afford 1 day, so I went along on the Saturday, the course was well attended, even though the attendance was fairly exclusive for friends and students of William Lai or of the Chu Shing Tin lineage of Wing Chun.

The course was very heavily theory based and the Saturday especially was mainly based around a series of lectures with physical demonstrations to highlight certain points.

Apparently the Sunday seminar included more physical interaction and exercise.

I think at my level (beginner) a lot of what was being taught went over my head, and personally I would have benefited from a more hands on approach, but still it was enjoyable and I was able to take some notes, maybe some of the information will fall into place later in my development.

There was a lot of focus of relaxing our posture, and allowing energy to flow up and down the spine, term like Tai Gong (rotation of the pelvic floor), but I’m not going to try to explain them here, as I don’t have the depth of knowledge to explain sufficiently.

 

Some Basic Course Notes (Saturday 11th) 

Wing Chun starts with Sui Lim (nim) Tao

Sui Lim Tao, means little idea, so small thoughts, small steps one by one, step by step – this is the learning process, step by step.

Learn to be mindful, be mindful of what your body is doing, where you are holding any tension in your body and then slowly relax.

Training and learning are not the same, learning can take just an instant, whereas you have to train over and over (a term Alex Man often used was one hundred thousand times).

Walking is natural we don’t have to think about how we walk, when to hold tension and when to relax, we just walk, we need to train our Wing Chun (hundred thousand or many hundred thousand times) until our Wing Chun becomes natural like walking.

Continue to relax and open up your joints, don’t hold any tension in your muscles.

Those words left unspoken

We had a nice meal out with my Dad and stepmother on Sunday, partway through the meal my wife Karen, asked me if I was going to mention the adoption process, which we restart in May, and to ask if Dad would be one of our nominated referees, at the time I said that the atmosphere was too loud (a bustling pub restaurant on a Sunday lunch time) and we would have time before May to ask.

I received a phone call on Monday night, informing me the my Dad had suffered a stroke and was in hospital, we went to visit both Tuesday and Thursday and even with just that short time there has been a marked improvement in his condition, although the recovery process will be a long one, and none of our lives will be quite the same again.

That phone call on Monday came about ten minutes before I needed to set off for my Wing Chun class, I could have spent the evening pacing the house wringing my hands in worry, instead I went training and as always pushed my self to the limits, and realised that one of the greatest gift my father gave me was that introduction to the martial arts, taking his shy, scrawny eleven year old son to the local Karate dojo and training along side me for a few weeks, until I got settled….thirty odd years later I realised that going to the gym to the Wing Chun class was a continuation of that journey, continuing the story that he started, his gift to me, and mine to him.

Many Nichiren Buddhist’s in that situation would have gone straight to their Gohonzon and started chanted, I picked up my bag and went to a martial arts class, I’m not sure what that means on a deeper level, but it will be worth looking into this year…

Do I wish that I had mentioned the adoption, sure, amongst other things, I also wanted my Dad to spend more time with his grandchildren and just be around them more, telling them the same stories we heard when we were growing up, those same old stories, those same old jokes….

 

Our voices can hurt or help others, but sometimes the conversations that stay with us the longest are those left unspoken.

A Question of faith

I’ve been struggling with my Buddhist practice recently (nothing new really), this coincides with some Buddhist studies I’m undertaking at the moment, and I suppose as with any study undertaken, it makes you re-evaluate what and why you are doing something.

I’m looking into the concept of ‘kuon ganjo’ a Buddhist phrase translating to roughly ‘time without beginning’ and also the concept of ‘original Buddha’ that is the Buddha of kuon ganjo, a lot of this is based on the various translations and transcriptions of the Lotus Sutra (chapter 16 the Juryo chapter), the chapter where ‘Shakyamuni Buddha (Gautama Buddha) drops the bombshell that he originally gained enlightenment, not under the papal tree in Gaya, but in the remote past of gohyaku-jintengo (500 dust particle kalpas) ago.

 

I often unknowingly (or certainly not intentionally) approach bold statements in Buddhist writing with an air of scepticism and suspicion, so when I saw the statement that Nichiren Daishonin was the original Buddha, I had to take another look at the evidence, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of digging around and have found the whole thing is very interesting.

 

Now that the (SGI) Rotherham & Doncaster district has been disbanded, it’s been decided (on my behalf) that my new district is now Sheffield, when I recently mentioned to a leader that I would try and attend meetings in other areas, and kind of just ‘float’ about, he got his feathers a bit ruffled.

 

I guess that’s always going to be a problem when you mix systems of religious hierarchy and an individual’s freedom of faith, it can be seen the world over in each spectrum of religion and belief system.

 

So this time my struggle is with the concept of faith, faith isn’t a concept I came across very often when I began my Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition, however now in the Nichiren tradition it is a cornerstone of the practice, having faith in the ‘mystic law’.

I know the importance of deep faith, as my Mother was dying of cancer her strong Christian faith kept her strong and was a great support for her, it was that lesson (her final lesson, I guess)that set me on my own spiritual quest, to find my own religious path.

 

I’m hoping that, the more research and study I do, the more I understand, then gradually my faith with grow stronger, although I expect that sometime in the future I’ll have to close the books, and as the Zen tale tells us take that first step off the hundred foot pole.