Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sangha Incorporated - Why and how?

Some of you might already know that the legal process of getting Cold Mountain Zen (CMZ) sangha registered as a nonprofit organization has started. This is referred to as getting an organization “incorporated!” Some members of the sangha have started conversations about how this incorporation will and should change our community’s structure, operations, and responsibilities, etc. This post was written by Jacky and Kritee to clarify some questions that are likely to come up as everyone associated with the sangha learns about these developments.

Why do we need our sangha to become a nonprofit organization?

Getting incorporated is the beginning of a process of deepening our relationships to each other and imagining the future of our sangha—a future as a community that is able to offer Zen teachings more effectively to our existing members and also to new groups throughout the tri-state area. We have been so lucky to find this way of life that has given us so much. It is, perhaps, the biggest gift we can give to our communities to make these teachings available to others now and in the future.

For the past 15 years, Kurt has driven for up to 1.5 hours each way, bringing cushions, cookies, or weather control systems (i.e., fans or heaters) and has converted classrooms, dance studios, and empty lodges/halls into zendos (meditation rooms). Other regular members of our sangha like Jacky and Alex (Blairstown), Sandy and Rumi (Cranford), Richard and Kritee (Princeton), and Gary (Rutgers and Monroe) have also made their cars traveling zendos week after week. These locations have helped different groups of people find a way to deal with the stresses of everyday life, to explore the deep layers of their minds, and to investigate the true nature of reality.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t it all working just fine?

If we look ahead, we can see we need to make changes now so we can thrive in the future. The locations we currently use for practice and the time/energy that Kurt and others happily volunteer to bring Zen meditation to others have certain limitations. For example:

1. We can’t share this beautiful practice of seated meditation with as many people as we could. At Rutgers’ Livingston Campus, we often have more people enthusiastic about sitting than that venue can accommodate.
2. These venues cannot be personalized to create an ambience most suitable for meditation. Our belongings are not always safe: In the not so recent past, our property (e.g., vacuum cleaners) has been stolen.
3. The availability of these venues is subject to the continued personal interest of their owners or a continued affiliation of one of our members with institutions, such as Rutgers or Masons, who own those buildings.
4. All of our volunteers have full-time jobs and they face burnout from showing up day after day, week after week, year after year. They need more help.
5. We need a more organized structure and more effective communication about the needs of our sangha. Some members, who are deeply committed to Zen, enjoy this practice and being part of our group of dedicated practitioners. They have sometimes voiced confusion about how to deepen their relationship with the sangha. The have various talents they can contribute to our operations and want to share themselves, want to give back to the community that has given to them.

So what is the solution?

Imagine a spacious and personalized home building owned by our community—a space where we don’t have to fold tables and chairs five times a week before we can set up our altars, our zafus and zabutons. Imagine a Zen center where we can have our sangha library and share literature that can inspire us to practice more deeply. Imagine a community where we can cook hot oatmeal after a deep morning sit. Or a place where members who live far away can stay overnight before a half-day meditation. Imagine a homebase from where more effective communication and more organized operations can be managed. Imagine eventually broadening our activities to include classes on the sutras, calligraphy and other Zen arts, as well as Buddhist yoga and tai-chi, cooking classes, and other community offerings. Imagine having a stake in such a place…creating a network of open-hearted practitioners who contribute to spreading Buddha, dharma, sangha to those who come after. Imagine being a vital contributing member of such a community.

Why do we need a nonprofit organization to be able to have a Zen center?

Registration as a nonprofit organization helps us to make our community a legal association, giving us the benefit of having numerous tax allowances, and allowing people to make tax-exempt donations. Also, it helps us to get organized so we can establish a group of individuals who have talents in the areas of business startup, accounting, law, and networking to serve as our Board of Directors (Trustees). These board members can guide the sangha by using their talents and skills to keep Cold Mountain Zen, Inc., a legal and financially stable entity.

What is a mandala organization and how does it fit in?

We plan to use the image of a mandala to symbolize the decentralized, shared, and interrelated nature of organizational responsibility among many different people, teams, and councils. When we think of organizations we usually picture the typical vertical structure: Things work from top to bottom, with the people at the top being in charge and making all the decisions. A mandala is very different from the typical structure of American businesses. The mandala graphic visually represents how all the inherent elements work together. It is divided into councils, where each council has mandates, and develops policies and other informational documents pertinent to its work. Each member of our sangha can contribute vitally to an area of the mandala. We can fully capitalize on each person’s individual talents and offerings to help build an organization for the sangha, run by the sangha, with each member valued and integral to the whole.

What do these changes in the sangha mean for me?

These structural changes will offer each of us:
• A chance to deepen our relationships with and commitment to each other as individuals and the entire sangha as a group.
• More opportunities to offer our talents for benefit of the sangha starting now.
• The encouragement we may need to hone our individual skills so we have more to offer as time goes on.
• The ability to give tax-exempt donations at the end of the year.
• More organized, accountable, and transparent operations and …
• If we like, a formal membership such that we become stakeholders in the decision-making involved in the process of making Cold Mountain Zen Center a reality.

We have always heard our teacher say that our informal and warm community practices deeply and simply, so why do we need to get entangled in a formal structure (e.g., Board of Director or formal members)?

These changes will not alter the spirit of our sangha but, in fact, will deepen our relationships, giving us a chance to participate fully. To some of us, all of this is bound to sound like an unnecessary and uncomfortable formality. It may sound frightening or disappointing. To some, it may feel like a necessary evil or even a waste of time. If you feel like this, you are not alone! This is how incorporation has sounded to many burgeoning sanghas around the United States.

Recently, a member of our sangha visited three Zen centers in the city of Portland: Dharma Rain Centre founded by Karlsons (students of Jiyu Kennett), Portland Zen Center led by Larry Christensen (student of Joko Beck), and Zen community of Oregon founded by Bays (students of Maezumi Roshi). Members of all three sanghas mentioned their struggles with questions similar to what we see arising now or in the future within our sangha. When these three sanghas incorporated with the aim of expanding their reach within the wider Oregon community, and started changing their organizational structure in order to increase their functionality and begin to fund-raise, it left at least some people a bit bewildered. Why? Don’t meditation practitioners need to stay spontaneous, simple, and poor? The short answers these sanghas came up with were: 1) effective zazen needs a structure (for example, a meditation room and cushions, a deeply awake and healthy teacher, groceries and supplies for sesshin)—and 2) everything costs money. Poverty is not necessarily simplicity, and even spontaneity requires structure. Simplicity has to do with naturalness, a lack of luxury, pretentiousness, or guile. A lack of organization at this point would imply, to quote from an article in the newsletter of Dharma Rain Zen Centre “…..that we can’t share Zen practice and teachings with as many people as we could if we were better funded, that it’s harder to contribute to the community, harder to communicate effectively within the sangha, that volunteers burn out, and that we don’t have the space we need to offer the programs we wish to, among other things.”

How do we pick board members and mandala stewards?

Anyone who is a board member will be offering their time, skills, and commitment to our sangha. Kurt has worked on an interim team that will be announced at the April 3rd meeting and, committed members of our community will have a say in “electing” these members during our October annual meeting. All board members and mandala leaders will be doing a service to the sangha. However, none of these members or team leaders will hold “spiritual” authority. Just like being ordained does not necessarily imply spiritual advancement, being a board member and mandala participant does not necessarily imply that the person is a spiritually advanced practitioner. Remember, our vision is not for a vertical organization, but for a horizontal one, where everyone is integral to the organization as a whole.
As a community, we do not need to support our teacher as many other meditation communities in the U.S. have needed to do. However, to step up to a higher level of functionality—a deeper involvement with the wider tri-state community—we need a more structured organization.

Uniqueness of our sangha: For more than 15 years, we have operated on a zero budget. We pay a bargain rate for 5 days of excellent food and lodging—our sesshins are probably the cheapest sesshins in the country. In fact, many times Kurt has donated money from his own savings so that students can participate in sesshins. He has repeatedly said to students “Don’t worry about money! The most important thing is that you go to a sesshin…” Our teacher has always said that most of us need to start young and diligently practice zazen for years before it is too late to start changing our mental habits. So here we are: a dynamic, energetic, talented, and warm community of friends with probably one of the highest percentages of student members—who, sit after sit, week after week, sesshin after sesshin, learn to let go of our chattering minds and touch the compassionate and still parts of our selves. But Kankan Roshi’s decision to bring zazen to a younger group has meant that the average income of our members is not too high. So as individuals with modest incomes, we can’t accomplish much by ourselves, but if we work together to enlarge the circle of our supporters and mandala participants, we might be able to achieve something quite remarkable.

A few final words:
Among our regular participants, there must be many who feel grateful for our group and the extraordinary opportunity for practice that it has provided. And when we look to the future, we can easily imagine that upcoming generations might also appreciate the freedom and joy that Zen has given us. But where will they practice on a weekly basis when for example, Room 103 in the Livingston Campus of Rutgers University is gone? If we have benefited from the practice of Zen, which has been passed down through the hard work and sacrifice of many generations, then we might try to pass it on to others too. This is an opportunity to build a future where others can have what we have been so fortunate to find: a community of open-hearted, talented, wonderful people who want to fully engage with the world around them.

Love and Gassho,
Jacky (Kanki)and Kritee
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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Jacky's invitation

(Click on the image for better resolution)

Dear sangha,

Kurt's book "Buddha at the Apocalypse" is coming out on May 1st, 2010. Jacky, who some of you might already know served as the literary agent for the book (and ofcourse is a long time ordained sangha member "Kanki"), is throwing a publication party to celebrate the publication.

12:30 to 4 pm, May 2nd , Faculty Dining Hall
(Douglass Campus Center, 100 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901: Campus Map and directions)

RSVP (for complimentary lunch):

12:30 (Complimentary Lunch for first 75 sangha members to RSVP to Jacky 'Kanki' Fernandez)
1:30 (Doors open for public to attend author's talk, book signing)
3:30 (Desserts and Hot Beverages)

If you plan to buy the book, Jacky asks that you please hold off until May 2nd.... It would be a great sangha get together and we can have Kurt sign books that afternoon! Jacky will be sending out formal press releases with final details by early March, but we wanted to get a quick idea about how many people would be interested to join for such an event.

If you are interested in buying books for this sangha event, take a moment and please answer a poll on the left hand side of the screen. Your response will greatly help us get organized. If you have any other suggestions about the event, you can email Jacky directly.

And what do we know, "Cold Mountain Sangha" now has a facebook page!! I got inspired after finding some very senior sangha members on facebook (won't name them). Here is the link Membership is open for now.

The idea is to have an interface that can help us connect, comment and the very least have a platform to share information about rides to and from sesshin etc. March sesshin is approaching and many people will need rides for weekend sesshin. Instead of needing to ask Kurt, we can directly post our request or availability to give/take ride on facebook. (By the way, in case you didn't know, Kurt is allowing us to come for weekends much more easily.) So....if you enjoy being on internet, please join the facebook page of our sangha and may be find out how naughty or versatile real sangha members (who only seem to love sitting in deep silence) are!

Also, if you ever wanted to (un)subsribe from sangha's email list, please just click here and fill up your email address!

Read more!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sangha pictures

Dear all,

This is Yen and Shaoching's baby boy Aiden who was born on 10/5/09. Yen is one of the longest practicing members of our sangha and is one of the kindest and most modest people I have known! If you find him missing some sits these days, it is because he has been getting up thrice during the night to feed this beautiful baby! Click on the image for larger view! More pictures coming soon! Read more!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sesshin pictures

(August 2009)

(October 2009)

Please click on the photographs for a larger view!

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Note from May Lee

Dear everyone,

May Lee who is training at Sogenji, a Rinzai Temple in Japan, sent a long letter and wrote in detail about her experiences at the monastery. Her schedule (specially during sesshins) sounds very rigorous with even less personal time than we get at our sesshin. The lines that I struck me the most were "sesshin schedule is so tight and yet it feels so liberating because one has to strip everything down to bare essentials [and take away all complications], which makes me realize how confused we are about the meaning of being 'free'... ".

She has her head shaved now which she said "it feels great not to have to bother with it at all and it also feels like it represents better how I feel". She is also doing Takahatsu (going around to ask for alms) with the "boys" -- three times a month - chanting "Ho". I hear from Nobuko that at Bukkokuji, women weren't allowed to go for Takahatsu. I have her letter and would be happy to share it with anyone who wants to get a peek into her life there!


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What am I doing here?

Dear everyone,

Nick sent this heartfelt note after October 2009 sesshin! A few words in parenthesis were added for more continuity or clarity.

At the end of this last sesshin, someone passingly said to me "You know sometimes I just wonder, what am I doing here?" I must acknowledge that this thought occurs to me from time to time...even now after many years of practice.

Excerpt: "Everyone around me seemed so still, balanced, deeply concentrated and full of compassion, and I was just screaming inside my head, trying to survive. I felt unworthy because I didn't feel grateful when we were eating food. I felt like a bad person for not being able to bow wholeheartedly. I felt bad for not being able to sit for the entire half hour without moving, and disturbing others. I felt bad for not working like everyone else after lunch and dinner because I was so tired. Everything just seemed to point out my flaws. I really started to resent being there. I couldn't help but think .. "what am I doing here?" ."

I think there are several reasons why one can feel this way, and it's very important to explore the root of these thoughts. I've come up with a few reasons that apply to me, and perhaps some of these thoughts which might be of use to others who have had a similar experience.

I remember going to my first sesshin. Back in those days, nobody told you the rules on the first night as they do now. Everything was a shock to the system. Well, it still is even though you know the rules! By the second or third day, I think I had pretty much lost all sense of propriety. I felt so different than the person I thought I was supposed to be. Everyone around me seemed so still, balanced, deeply concentrated and full of compassion, and I was just screaming inside my head, trying to survive. I felt unworthy because I didn't feel grateful when we were eating food. I felt like a bad person for not being able to bow wholeheartedly. I felt bad for not being able to sit for the entire half hour without moving, and disturbing others. I felt bad for not working like everyone else after lunch and dinner because I was so tired. Everything just seemed to point out my flaws. I really started to resent being there. I couldn't help but think .. "what am I doing here?"

It's interesting that when things don't go our way, we tend to be attracted to the opposite extreme. During that sesshin, I saw zen as something very painful and even evil, and couldn't wait to re-enter the world where I could finally be myself. This is like a crisis of identity, which is bound to happen I think at some point in our practice. It's very easy because the environment is so different at sesshin, and you really cannot help but feel inadequate. Another scenario which is just as likely is to assimilate and act the part, but not be free inside. This too will cause resentment toward practice. These are just 2 sides of the same coin. It is important not to confuse zen with being compassionate, sitting without moving, helping during lunch and dinner etc. These are very important qualities. But they are just the visible qualities of a zen mind. Now I increasingly think/believe that the real zen is inside us, and nobody can take it away! Even if one feels one is being rude, it is still there! So, one should not be discouraged if one cannot live up to the expectations [that one sets up from oneself by looking at others]. If one can be compassionate and let go of the idea that "compassion means I'm good," then that is of different quality all together. That is a free mind which is not obstructed by ideas of good and bad. It is the difference between zen and the idea of zen, which is why we probably say "if there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong, the mind essence will be lost in confusion." But until then, I'll try to be free to be myself and [try to] let go of expectations.

Ghosts from the past
I remember the first time I came in for a sesshin. Reciting one of the afternoon sutras truly scared me and almost sent me wanting to run home! I came from a background [Hindu-Indian] where my family didn't take time to explain the reason behind their rituals and religious customs. It was always "do this" and "do that" and the tone was always condemnatory [frowning and demanding tone which made you do things out of no joy or gratitude, but instead just out of plain compulsion, "blind faith" and fear of not accepted by society] . Nobody ever bothered to explain why we needed to do the things we were doing. Eventually, I came to equate "the path of worship [ religion and rituals]" with "the path to run away from." So imagine my surprise when I was sitting there on the cushion during sesshin , ready to embark on the great path to self understanding, and we end up reciting verses like ".. and finally we pray that when the time comes for us to die, we may have a minimum amount of sickness and suffering. After our bodies are lifeless and have been thrown away, we pray that we may be accepted in the Buddha realm where we will see countless Buddha beings whose teachings are one with the buddha dharma." It may be hard to spot, but there is a strong element of worship [ faith that Buddha realm exists? whom are we praying to?] in that verse. I couldn't help but cringe when I read this out loud. Every part of my mind and body just wanted to get up and leave. I felt so betrayed, and I couldn't figure out why. It was like this new experience which was supposed to be my salvation just ended up being the same old thing in disguise. I couldn't help but wonder, "what am I doing here"?

When this happens, one has to stop and ask yourself - is it zen that I am running away from, or an experience from the past which is causing me to misinterpret what is happening right now? This is actually what this practice is all about; this is what it probably means to have karma. Because of our life experiences, we have a tendency to see things in a prejudiced way, which is very different from the way things really are. This is what it means when we say "the moment" in zen - it is a reality which is unobstructed by past experience. It takes time because everything you have learned goes against it. I don't think we should ourselves for where one is now. This is the only place where one can be. This path has not been totally easy, but it has become my closest friend. This is true because in its simplest form, what are you really doing? You are just sitting there on a cushion with yourself! The only thing which can haunt you is what is already there within you. So it is not the practice [or elements of practice like sutras] which is the problem! Kurt always says to have faith in your true self. This itself takes a lot of time. But [I am beginning to feel] that true self is really there.

Over time, I have to come to gain a deeper understanding of why we have this element of worship in our practice. Many times, it seems quite natural now. It is simply an expression of gratitude for this moment. Nothing more, nothing less. But it takes time for that to sink in.

So, I hope this helps the person who was wondering about "what am I doing here?".

Read more!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sitting during the week of sesshin

Dear everyone,

Sesshin starts on Tuesday (Oct 27th). If you are planning to come for 5 days, we need to arrive before 8 pm and if you are coming for the weekend on Friday, please come around 7 pm because sitting will start at 8 pm on Friday.

There will be no sitting at Kendall Park from Wednesday morning till Sunday night (Nov 1st). Sitting will resume on Monday Nov 2nd. There will be Tuesday evening sit at Masonic Centre (Princeton). There will be Sunday sitting at Cranford but not for beginners. There will be no morning or evening sits at Rutgers from Tuesday Oct 26th to Nov 2nd. And lastly, there will be a Sunday morning sit at Blairstown as usual.

Gassho! See some of you at sesshin!

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Two little girls

Dear all,

This poem was read at Sandy's ordination but this is an expression of gratitude for having wonderful Dharma friendships. The poem and the story of friendship could apply to any two people in (and as Sandy said "out" of) sangha.

Two little girls

Water was cool
Waves were gentle’n blue
When I started playing by the ocean
Soon I found you
Always asking
“What is your name again?”

Thus, two little girls started playing
by the beach.
We wet our feet
and learnt to float
in the mu-ocean

But did I not pull your ponytail
and you tramped over my sand castles….
when we didn’t find a personal & perfect wave?
We were just little girls….we must have!!

We learnt slowly ….are always learning…
to worry less about sand castles by the shore
to jump together when tides came
to root for each other
and clap as more kids joined the core!

Now sometimes when you are stressed, I feel it in my bones
When you reach mushin, relief smiles through my lips
When you plunge, I dive
When I weep, may be tears show up in your eye!

Ocean is always vast and deep
Now, it is time and there is a vow to keep
To be by the ocean
And watch all beings
big and small
very little girl minds or not…
pull each other’s hair, wet feet, clap hands and plunge into ocean!!

For all of us
May you find the deepest and all the ocean floors,
And ride with the waves and be the ocean

May you continue to nourish the sangha
with your friendship off and on the cushion!
May you let the love of interconnected sangha hold you
when the waves seem turbulent!

My dear nestling…
May you find the sky security
Become an old ripe mango!

May moon guide your tides
and shine through you!

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 2009 sesshin

Dear all,

This sesshin, it was so humid that even the Indians among us were delirious, (I hear) robes stayed wet, floors were perspiring and wouldn't stay dry unless table-fans kept whirring. A trail of sweat was left everywhere you cared to notice....but the ripe mangoes and watermelon tasted great and the sound of cicadas was young and still resonates in my being. This time, some of us are so tired after sesshin, we don't want to think of next sit and can't focus when we sit and yet want to be (with) that eternal sound of crickets..again and again! And of course, the sesshin ended with beautiful ceremony of Sandy Spina becoming Kan-getsu (Cold Moon). We are waiting for photographs and video of the ceremony to get uploaded online and then will post a description the ceremony soon.

I will fill in more details after coming back from Colorado. Meanwhile, please feel free to add to this post about August sesshin.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blog Post from the Times

Those of you just back from the August sesshin may find these articles interesting.

Robert Wright, author of "The Evolution of God", and other things, posted an interesting account of a Vipassana retreat in the New York Times' "Happy Days" blog. You can find it here.

The same blog had a post about a Soto retreat earlier this month. You can find that article here.

-JW Read more!