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  • Dharma Talk with Ikushun Desiree Webster: Right Effort

Dharma Talk with Ikushun Desiree Webster: Right Effort

  • Thursday, July 20, 2023
  • 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
  • Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Ikushun Desiree Webster: The Journey to Tassajara—Exploring Right Effort

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July 17 th , 2023 The Journey to Tassajara—Exploring Right Effort

Dear friends, Today, I’d like to continue our discussion on Right Effort, the sixth of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Effort, as John described last week, is an internal direction, an internal energy to select a skillful path, an inner ability to sustain practice. Throughout my journey to Tassajara Zen Center and back, I’ve been aware of some factors needed for “Right Effort.” The trip itself and the Dharma sharing/discussions we had while there set the stage for this exploration—the combo really allowed me to take a deeper look into the ingredients that give and sustain energy—and the factors that may be missing in my daily life, at one time or another. But first!—a little background about the trip to Tassajara and its connection with Right Effort.

As many of you know, I’ve just returned from there —the realization of a lifelong dream. My desire to go to Tassajara began long ago, before I knew that I was Buddhist—but came from a deep calling nonetheless. Just an inkling of the place planted a seed as it drifted into my realm…in the 70s…in Boulder. I had the Tassajara Bread Book and liked the meal chant on the opening pages. It remained with me over the years.

Then many years after, I found myself practicing here!—in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi—the founder of the Tassajara Zen Center. As I moved into practice in this tradition however, I found myself letting go of the dream of Tassajara—with more limited ambulatory skills than before—and the use of the walker/rollator. I knew from pictures and stories that Tassajara was not the most accessible place for me to get around, with uneven dirt and rock paths, lots of steps, and lots of ups and downs, deep in the heart of the Ventana wilderness in CA. I heard stories from KanHo Chris and others of the beautiful but rigorous stays there during their 3 month monastic trainings, and I could only imagine what they experienced there—with the familiar twinge of longing and jealousy as I listened to their remembrances but resolute in the idea that it could not happen for me.

Then, it happened. I saw that Gil Fronsdal was offering a 3 week intensive there. I mentioned this to Chris—“wouldn’t that be so incredible?” Instead of replying, “Yes, it would be so great, but…” [sigh] she offered, “you could do it.” “WHAT??” I said—“you’ve always told me that it would be too much for me!” She replied, “3 months would be too much—but you could do 3 weeks!” That made an opening of possibility in my mind… “could it really be possible??” In these many years as a practitioner, I no longer wanted to just “go” to Tassajara as a “guest” during a guest season—I

wanted to go as a Zen student. Well, I emailed my teacher, Ryushin Andrea Thach—about my lifelong dream and the possibility—and when I told her about that, she let me know that, in fact, she was bringing a cohort of practioners to Tassajara for a 5 day Dharma Study week! I couldn’t believe it. She felt that it was very likely that there would be a spot for me! I was determined that I could do it—I could somehow make it work! The chance to not only go to Tassajara—but to go and practice with my teacher?—and study the Dharma there for 5 days? What a gift that would be!!

And so it began. The process of planning and preparing took a different kind of energy—The thought of driving myself down to CA, driving myself and others to Tassajara itself, the moment by moment maneuvering myself around the grounds—even imagining the extreme heat—took energy—could I do it??...I was aware of my fretting energy also, and knew that this was not the energy that would ultimately carry me. This was not the energy I ultimately drew on once there and in the midst of experiencing. I did find my way around, it did take a lot of ongoing physical energy, and, I did continue to have the energy for everything that was offered. Most surprisingly, I experienced all of this with a sense of ease. I was savoring my moments there, with much gratitude.

So, during our time with each other at Tassajara, my teacher Ryushin Andrea, and her co-teacher, Susan, brought with them excerpts from their teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, who passed away about 2 years ago. For those unfamiliar with Sojun Mel, he studied in those early days with Suzuki Roshi—helped build Tassajara as a Zen Center, and was the long time Abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, where my teacher practices. He gave Dharma transmission to her, as well as Norman Fischer, amongst many others. Sojun Mel lived at Tassajara here and there, during those early years. We were paying homage not only to Suzuki Roshi but to Sojun Mel while we at Tassajara as well.

It was a special gift to use Sojun’s excerpts (book forthcoming) for our discussions while we were there. It was interesting and timely for me to be absorbed in these teachings on practice, in the midst of my own musings on energy and effort. I’d like to share a few of these excerpts for you as we go along—and, see if these, also, bring up thoughts of your own, connected to Right Effort.

The first thing we read from Sojun’s excerpts was this: “when I was in high school I ran the hundred yard dash with a burst of speed as fast as I could, while some ran the mile and others even did the marathon. I couldn’t understand how they had the patience, much less the stamina, to run that far. In the Buddhadharma, there is an example of the

three animals: the rabbit, the horse and the elephant. The rabbit is like the sprinter, hopping all over the place as fast as it can, the horse is running around too, but more settled. The wise elephant is very careful, taking slow and deliberate steps without being scattered or hasty and if careful, will live a long, wise and useful life. The elephant represents the Buddhadharma.” [Ryushin Andrea then noted that the description of the elephant, with its slow, methodical, never ceasing steps, was also Sojun Mel.]

…We agreed in our discussion that “balance” is an important factor in sustaining practice; “slow and steady wins the race…” I have learned over many years about the importance of balance and pacing. When I swim, I am an elephant! Others always swim faster, but almost no one paces themselves to continue for the duration without stopping, as I do.

And so Sojun Mel continued: “Establishing a rhythm is essential. If the runner goes too fast, he gets tired too soon.” Then Mel continued, “If she doesn’t have enough momentum, her energy leaks out and is not renewed. Hmmmm…with this my teacher asked the question, “what gives momentum? What is it that allows momentum to continue? I want to stop and allow everyone to think about this for a moment. How do we sustain our practice??

For me, the thing that came to mind was “aspiration.” Deep aspiration” on this path sustains my practice. This is what gives me energy, at the deepest level, to continue. It is what gives me momentum so that this energy doesn’t all leak out. This is an important part of Right Effort.

Sojun Mel went on to talk about dedication and commitment. A commitment to yourself. “You can’t practice without commitment.” He suggests going to your teacher and creating a commitment with them that is doable. This is an important aspect in Right Effort also because otherwise it is easy to go by “how we feel” day by day, physically, emotionally, or otherwise… I know that I can easily get myself into trouble if I go by “feel”…”Oh, I’m kind of tired today…oh, I deserve a special treat…Oh, I need some time to relax…” Depend on your commitment, not your feelings, he says. What I noticed is that unless your commitment is strong, it is very easy to let it be overrun when it comes to some of life’s activities. However, what I knew about my journey to Tassajara is that both my commitment AND my aspiration were so strong, they could not be undone by my hesitation or fears or habit energies. Sojun Mel also talked about Zazen as the touchstone to our practice; the center. Then, he interjected: “lest we forget, the fruit of practice is compassion.”

This is kind of an aside perhaps, but for me, this is what I am finding with zazen, with practice. Compassion isn’t the goal of practice—it isn’t something that you try to force yourself to have—it is the fruit of practice; it is the thing that naturally arises from our zazen/ practice. He says that when we practice selflessly there is no self to get tired and this no self is continuously renewed. I love this and think it is so true. I think of my heros who have devoted their whole lives to work for the benefit of all beings, and who continue in the midst of incredibly harsh situations—how do they continue? I think it is this.

And, this leads me right into the next factor that contributes for me, to Right Effort, which is Inspiration. Who inspires me and why? How does this help sustain Right Effort and give me momentum? My teacher inspires me, as well as the other teachers in all forms, and our ancient ancestral teachers including the human person who was the Buddha. Why? One important observation is that wisdom arises from direct experience. I can see that my teacher has been down the road—and back. It is a knowing of the truth. Experience itself, in our practice, gives rise to insight and Right View. I also draw inspiration from the great sutras. I love the instruction and teachings. For instance, the Avatamsaka sutra, which I am enjoying right now, is filled with clear and beautiful instruction for those of us on the path of the Bodhisattva. Like a child who sees and models the skills of a

good parent, I gain energy from seeing that others can, and do, continue on this path as well, despite all obstacles. They help sustain my practice.

These factors not only contribute to Right Effort, but because the facets of the Noble Eight Fold path are all inter-related, I also see that they help sustain Right Intention, which then leads to Right Action. Perhaps we will all hear about this in another talk!

I am also aware of other factors contributing to Right Effort—joy and ease—and love. I also know that I can’t sustain energy for things that I try to force in some way. I can maybe sprint for a while, but without an authentic heart—I’ll burn out and it won’t last long. As a matter of fact, as I write, I see that all the characteristics we’ve been looking at contributed to my time here as Shuso during winter practice period, giving me energy to give classes, offer dharma talks, etc: yes, I was sustained aspiration, inspiration, commitment, joy, ease, and love.

As I think about these factors needed for Right Effort, I have been pondering Right Effort in relationship to my ongoing activities. These activities require a various amount of effort. Certainly not at the intensity of the effort that allowed me to make my way to Tassajara and back. Activities such as my

daily practice, my activities with the sangha, and showing up!...taking care of my health, eating well, taking care of my house, devoting time to others? As John talked about in his talk last week, the idea is to “help the unwholesome seeds return to my store consciousness and focus on watering the good seeds to make them grow.” In my routines, I sometimes ignore that these factors we’ve explored relate to everything in my life. Certainly, around my spiritual practice—but, of course, it is all spiritual practice. Bringing awareness to this, with each step, is never-ending. Whether inner or outer, whether taking care of my health or cleaning the house, they are all activities that contribute to peace and wellbeing. I struggle with eating healthfully. I have strong habit energies around using food. I enjoy food as a form of adventure, I use it as comfort, I use it as a distraction and as an escape.

A simple phrase that has been helping me in making choices was part of the exercises I presented in my classes for Winter Practice Period. I gave out some exercises suggested by Gil Fronsdal, from his little book entitled, “Steps to Liberation—the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.” I have kept one of these in the forefront of my mind ever since. It is so helpful for me in remembering to water these seeds that contribute to Right Effort. It is this: “Nourish your inner life—and instead of doing activities that bring pleasure, do things that

bring satisfaction, meaning, and happiness to your heart.” That is Right Effort. This simple reminder has been invaluable to me. It speaks to me about living by vow, and not by habit energies. It speaks about energy that gives rise to the deepest sense of nourishment and joy. It speaks not about choices that fulfil instant gratification, or greediness, or laziness. It speaks about the energy that it took to get me to Tassajara and back: a deep aspiration, a deep calling, and an eventual letting go of frets and worries, and having faith that Right Effort would give me what I needed.

So, I’d like to leave you with that, and now, I’d like for us to get into small groups—Thank you very much!

…Everyone can get into a group of 3 (or 4?) and talk for a moment about one (or both) of these things to consider… 1) What are factors that sustain your own Right Effort? 2) What are factors that cause your energy to leak?

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