BLOG 12-25-2022


Solstice – the Earth turning in its orbit, so that the northern hemisphere once again comes closer and closer to the Sun. Light seemingly expanding. The northern hemisphere more intimate with the sun.

Christmas – a recognition of a new birth, birthing us anew, beginning of a burgeoning life, our slates are clean, the revealed intimacy of Mother-Child..

Tokudo – certainly embraces the returning of light, burgeoning life with our slates wiped clean. And there is something more in Tokudo. What is it? What is it? Tokudo has been a ceremony marking some transition within an individual’s life. A life that was traditionally centered upon monastic practice-life. Waking together, sitting together, eating together, growing food together, chopping wood for heat together, harvesting together, cleaning bodies and clothes together, digging latrines together, composting together, sleeping in the dorm together, dreaming in the dorm together. We are now engaged in the process of bringing Tokudo into our ordinary lay lives. In truth, compared to our ancestors, we do so little together. Can we transplant Tokudo from monastic practice to lay practice? How will Tokudo shape us? How will we shape Tokudo? So that this ceremony will bring us into the intimacy of lives together. If we fail to find this intimacy, I am afraid that our Tokudo will be a rather meaningless ceremony. There are six members of the Sangha who have begun this intimate process of Tokudo. As a first step in promoting our intimacy, we have asked each to provide something that shares, demonstrates, where they are in the Tokudo unfolding right now. From time to time, each will be asked to share further, revealing how the process is manifesting within, and without. Our hope is that this will guide us into the development of an authentic Tokudo of deep meaning and intimacy. Below you will find some of the initial offerings.

From Molly Myoka Black – a quilt emerging within Tokudo

The following from Vic Huohua Nuhuo Elder

When Tom asked me to write about Tokudo, I groaned.  I think the written word in reference to Zen or anything similar, is bloated ad-nausea.  For a “transmission written outside of scriptures,” there are over 44 million books written by tiresome amateurs feeling the most rudimentary of basic experiences and then writing about the “path”.  Tokudo is about living in a painstakingly cultivated goalless spontaneity which benefits existence. Its deeply intimate, personal and unique regardless of how common the form being practiced is. So, if you are reading this, it is my sincerest hope that you stop and go feed someone, grow something, sit, or twiddle your thumbs with vigor and enthusiasm.  It would be a more intimate experience then what is offered here. If you do continue, please read the rest with the awareness that you have my deepest condolences for the loss of your time. 

I took the precepts in August.  It is an expression of my commitment to Zenho and his ability to be a living example of wholeness forged in the crucible of his life. As I I have grown to love Zenho, (Who wouldn’t?), It’s really the formless depth of his practice, which lives timelessly beyond liturgy, dreams, or even sitting, that had me ask to take the precepts. Sure, there is the Rakusu, The Dharma Name, and the ritual but really, what is being conveyed? The precepts are something I think I will spend the rest of my life receiving. They are a mystery, veiled in the allegory of morality, demonstrated with the living symbol of what is best in all of us.  

 The journey with the precepts, Jukai or Tokudo, is insanely personal. Tokudo strikes me as a deep vow of action, submission and intimacy. A commitment to expressing the best of our shared existence thru a specific way of living that is unique to each of us, but doing our best to make it as unconditional as possible.  Each day the earth orbits the sun the absolute best it can because everything on earth is relying on it to. Zenho is there at the zendo no matter who shows up because we are relying on him to. Of course, we all work within the limits of our abilities, talents, strengths, endurance and humanity. We do our best. To me Tokudo is about doing our best to create the quality of practice someone else can rely on.     This should be very tangible, subtle, and clear. The symbols I respect most are sweat, time, blood, effort and money because these are our most valuable resources we all share sparingly and with only a trusted few.  

The primary benefit of Tokudo isn’t just for how we live but has the inadvertent consequence of  being for the benefit of all matter, energy, space, time and beings. “Well isn’t that what all practice is supposed to be?” The idea is a beautiful and idealistic notion, but Tokudo, is about staking your very livelihood on the quality of your “zen” practice.  This goes back to the very Buddha himself as well as  Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Ancestors.  Ideals, rhetoric, and flowery speech do little in the realms of poverty and the necessities of nature.  The orbit of sweat, time and effort speak much louder than anything I can write. Zenho once told me about listening to his son share his work with cars.  He said, “Listening to him talk about his relationship with cars was better than any Buddhist dharma talk he has heard in years.”  I have grown to trust the quality of Zenho’s practice. While point of view is a part of that, its an all inclusive deal. I trust Zenho because of how he lives, how he he relates with his vows.   

I see Tokudo performing two functions. First, its a social contract which drastically changes the way you relate with life. Your practice isn’t yours. This was the cultural implication that dates back to Buddha. To receive what is placed in your offering bowl and nothing more. To place your intent with the precepts and receive.   I also recognize that zen is in a place of transition. The transmission from east to west.  One of the deepest questions that I contemplate is in regards to the depth and quality of that transmission. What is the continuity of that transmission?  

I have came across many teachers who expressed it in many ways.  Where is the line between what the Buddha transmitted at its core and what are just unique personal choices?  Zen isn’t any old thing someone does because they are doing it in a focused and precise manner and smell like patchouli and incense.   Tokudo changes the quality of discipline, care and effort you put into your practice because other people will come to rely on it in hopefully some meaningful way.  Being stated, this also changes how people see you. They see the costume, the robe, the bald head. People will change how they treat you, especially if they didn’t know you pre-Tokudo.  Its primarily social contract, to live in a manner which embodies intimacy and  most importantly, the precepts. 

I think the second function of Tokudo is a container for our life and effort. Daido broke down living into 8 different contexts of our modern culture which represent different kinds of ways of being intimate with life. This brings me back to the line between personalizing a unique practice  vs the quality of a complete transmission, what is it?  There is a quality of variety, focus, and support that a monastery offers monks who take Tokudo. Modern society doesn’t necessarily support these notions, especially in this particular time and space. I think  Daido’s 8 Gates of Zen confirms my own experience of living in a monastery for a year.  Monastic life is broken into 

  • Zazen 
  • Face to face interview with a teachers 
  • Liturgy practice 
  • Academic Study 
  • Precepts Study 
  • Art Practice 
  • Body practice 
  • Work Practice 
  • Dream Practice  

Daido’s framework leaves a lot of room to make these choices deeply personal.  I think its the contexts that matter. No amount of academic study will balance an unhealthy body.  No amount of Zazen will replace face to face interview.  Etc.  In my basic understanding, each context must be practiced for a wholeness. 80 to 90% of monastic experience is quiet, varied, labor, which brings a joy and balance I couldn’t possibly describe. Its the labor and the work that is truly the gift we receive. 

Varied conditioning of absorbed awareness(samadhi) is the precondition for the art and flowery rhetoric to unveil itself in a way which creates permanent significant growth. A joke so funny, after you finish being the punchline, you want to participate in the setup for others. The koan’s, poems and memories that truly changed how I live day to day will never be forgotten. It wasn’t the art it self, it was how I grew.  On the other hand, absorbed awareness also will bring all the karma and shit we need to confront.  I don’t see samadhi as the enlightenment. Its the precondition of nirvana. The quality of what breaks that samadhi is what constitutes the difference between nirvana and samsara. Yes, they are not separate. Existence will also offer a myriad of variety especially in perceived context. The hype about context and conditioning is really about the unknown needs we have. People look at absorbed awareness in one context and can let that become a new form of ego. When that absorbed awareness is put into conflict with a context the person is not used to, that one gateway of absorbed awareness becomes null and void and cultural love goes out the window, replaced with honest release of things people would rather not confront or be aware of.  The 8 gates are designed to condition absorbed awareness from the variety of life so oneness and absorbed awareness can expose things about ourselves in ways we never thought possible. By consequence, these newly confronted things become new varietals of life which shape the very essence of our form and how we relate with existence.  

Just because form is empty doesn’t mean it should be neglected as not important. The depth of how well you cultivate subtlety in movement within nature are the very means and foundations with which how the precepts unveil themselves. In art, medicine, body practice, the fundamentals must be conditioned to a thoughtless place of “Just doing.” Once the form is doing itself, this is where the letting go happens in a skill. Forcing yourself to let go of something is to deny what the precepts are offering you. Skillful means taught in their proper context by a qualified teacher lead to the stillness-movement that occurs. Samadhi on a zen cushion is only the first step. Taking it off the cushion is a whole new deal. These 8 gates offer a frame work so that oneness that everyone preaches about can become a movement and an element for it to teach itself. I tend to ignore preaching about oneness because oneness preaches about itself in way more interesting places.  Standing on a pulpit in a costume or reading this nonsense you are reading now isn’t where I prefer to receive instruction on oneness.  

The most important thing Zenho has taught me, is that “Zen” teaches itself when its offered and received.  The teaching I think we go to is how Zenho is practicing his Tokudo vow daily. On the surface its shaving his head for us, wearing silly robes and , lord ,the level of bullshit this poor man has to listen to. He says he loves it. I think he is wearing an iron collar of all beings.   There is no direct recipe and trying to follow some form that teacher said. It won’t work.  Teaching people how to forge their own relationship with the depth of their own existence, is a quality that is lacking in almost all teachers I have come across. It forces the deepest of intimacy, vulnerability and trust, or it doesn’t take.  

  This brings me to my deepest obstacle to taking Tokudo without a monastery in an Unorthodox way, IE without the support of a monastery. Monks aren’t transient beggars in our culture and thus wouldn’t make sense. I am not above it. I would probably do it if it was in our culture.  I haven’t found peace in a home or a vocation. With as many gifts as I have received, I still find myself in the throws of modern society and our toxicity.  I have earned six figure salaries in two different forms of work. I even enjoy both of them to some extent. From the Sutras, Buddha stated some simple elements about a vocation that should be embodied. It should be honest, energetic, and skillful. A difficult combination for me that has alluded me. The forms of work I have cultivated are not that.  There isn’t a situation I can see that doesn’t put me 10 to 14 hours a day in a toxic environment which doesn’t support practice in that manner I have spoken about above.  This is of course failing of my own practice and karma. Without having my livelihood, home and vocation in order,  Taking Tokudo during my off time and the weekends seems as a lay practitioner committed to his family. I am committed to not having children. Without a monastery it strikes me as difficult.  

I have a list of all sorts of things I could do that have nothing to do with working as a monastic that I could adopt in a monastic way? I am deeply afraid that these things will suck up my time and Ill just end up a weekend monk, demonstrating liturgy, because I am too exhausted from working and taking care of “the real thing I have to do”. Our culture requires a full commitment of our time to providing in an honest, skillful and energetic way. This begs many questions for me, Is Tokudo about trusting that spark to bring what isn’t being thought about? Is the quality of our current practice connected to the quality of the offers we will receive from the precepts? Did Buddha’s middle way have a point about society and culture?   

Here is the remarkable thing about the story of the Buddha. Here is a person who came from the most powerful people of their culture with deep pockets and influence. He left it all after seeing sick, old and dying people, became a yogi and ascetic, then said “None of this makes any sense, just gonna chill under this tree”.  After 7 years of sitting under a tree, his version of “The Middle Way” was to live with only a bowl, a robe and a staff and walk the earth sharing the vibe, like Quai Chang Kane in Kung Fu.   “Middle way” indeed.  

I am unsure as to how to finish this particular note. After reading most of this thru, I find myself still dubious about writing this nonsense. The questions stand. What are the lines of continuity between a complete transmission and what is just unique intimacy personalized? What contexts should be pushed to their limits and what passes should we write ourselves because “Oh I don’t need that, I’m perfect already. Buddha said so.”  The monastic traditions of most eastern cultures are vigorous, focused and disciplined regardless of traditions or people. Do we get to disregard what monastics have passed down for 80 generations because  monastics are grossly flawed, especially about sex? Do teachers have to resort to manipulation to substitute for discipline and honesty? Oddly enough, I’m pretty sure the precepts answer all of of my questions, especially my unspoken ones about mysticism, and a bunch of other things.  I have more questions but really, I have indulged this finger twiddling across my keyboard enough.  

From Travis Ensai/Ensei Black, self-portrait in Tokudo

The following from Russell Mugen Milazzo:


When I ask myself, “how do I feel in the midst of Tokudo” I often find myself becoming entangled in Buddha’s thicket of views.  Many thoughts and much philosophizing arise and I become aware of trying to encapsulate Tokudo in “how much” and “what” I understand, how much advancement I’ve made or what magnitude of profundity I can comprehend.  I am often figuratively trying to put it in a box with a neat bow on it.  I strive to feel like I’m accomplishing something and my mind runs in circles seeking ways to validate what I’m doing.  A line from Keizan’s poem has come back to me several times when I catch myself mid-thicket, “sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.” 

At times, this period of Tokudo also feels like an internally tumultuous emotional challenge.  In the time leading up to and during Jukai, I remember feeling anger and frustration often and their arising needing my attention.  Now my sense is that I’m aware of things underneath the anger and much of it is difficult to be with.  I’m finding deep sadness and fear. Fear of being rejected by those around me and an inability to be vulnerable with them lest they hurt me.  Sadness with how much I want to be needed and need the people around me.  And the anger is still there too, a reflection of these deeper feelings having no outlet.  My most heartfelt desire is to now practice extending these places within myself compassion and acknowledge their part in me and that they’ve done their best to protect me up until now.  I also hope that I can extend this compassion to all of you, who do so much on your own that I don’t get to see amidst your own struggles.   

All of these feelings emerge alongside doubt and questions of whether I making anything better through this practice and whether there is any resolution to these things in Zen.  However, I am grateful for a new sense of faith in the process of practice that is also making itself known.  When these questions arise, I take comfort in the mere possibility of being aware of them and being with them.  Several years ago, I think these doubts would have been too painful and defeating for me to face.  I am beginning to see that, for me, Tokudo is not just what I do for and at the Zendo or what I do on the cushion.  It is what arises every moment in me and how this compartmentalized me that is suffering doesn’t have to be shut away and ignored while some other part of me tries to revel in the Absolute and pretend like that’s It.   

Tokudo is churning the earth and letting things emerge.       

SCHEDULE 12-12-22 thru 12-18-22

MONDAY, 6:30AM, ZAZEN AT TEA HOUSE, DAVID OPENING; Breakfast at Flying Star to follow

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Zenho & Issan

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