To create a location which locates you
Buddhist monasteries are a communal (cenobitic) form of monasticism, about 2500 years old, and thus probably the oldest, on-going, communal institutions in the world. The settled sites were called ‘arama’, meaning ‘pleasant park’. Our own specific tradition of East Asian Zen monasticism is about 1600 years old and a continuation of the basic tradition.
Why has it lasted so long? Because the teaching and the yogic craft of Buddhist practice has been developed communally and generationally and taught and practiced communally and generationally.
Buddhism is a multi-generational development of yogic practice, an experientially rooted philosophy, and a manifest, compassionate vision of humanity and of all sentience.
Three dharmic aims underlie the basic structure of Zen monasticism and the components of its lived practice. One is to realize freedom from mental suffering. The second is to live in concert with everything as it actually exists. And the third is to create likely conditions for the realization of enlightenment.
This first aim, to realize freedom from mental (psychological and emotional) suffering, requires developing a ‘wisdom-observing-mind’ rooted in stillness. Monastic life is designed to help us realize this wisdom-observing-mind.
The second aim is to live in concert with everything as it is. This comes to fruition through a personal realization of a contextually presenced bodily-mind, continuously and successively articulated within ungrounded immediacy. This practice is at the center of monastic practice.
And the third aim, enlightenment is ‘not aimed for’ because it is not anywhere but here. However, it is experienced as an instantaneous shift to, or an incremental establishment of, freedom from mental suffering, an embodied immediacy, and an imperturbable, attentional interiority.
Buddhism is not a revealed teaching to be believed, or a teaching of the ‘book’. Like science, Buddhist teachings are generationally and accumulatively developed. And as science requires universities, libraries, laboratories; Buddhism also requires monasteries; texts; informed practice – and often universities and scholarship.
Of course, you can practice zazen alone and anywhere, and you can practice the teachings at any time in any circumstance. However, zazen and the teachings have been developed through shared practice and its generational transmission. This mutuality and succession almost always occurs with a teacher, with fellow practitioners, and through the equivalent of ‘peer review’.
The ‘Seven Buddhas Before Buddha’ (sometimes 27 are counted) is a mythology developed to emphasize that the Buddha was not a solitary, yogic genius, that his teachings and practices arose within the practices of India of the time, and that these teachings and practices can also arise within the basic conditions of our lived lives.
Buddhism has no central institutional authority. Its coherence and its cohesion are maintained by the practice of the Buddhist precepts, by the transformative effect of meditation, and by demonstrated realization in every generation.
Dharma Sangha Johanneshof-Quellenw is part of this tradition. Our present Sangha arises from the ‘invisible-sangha-of-the-past', and our present Sangha will be a foundation for the 'invisible-sangha-of-the-future'. This is lineage. Our individual practice and our shared practice continue the lineage.
Zen practice is simultaneously singular and communal. Each of us finds our way to articulate and embody the teachings and practices within our lived-life. While we do it in our own way, this ‘own way’ is deeply informed by the way.
We all speak language in our own way – and we realize the potentials of expression in our own way. But none of us could have created language by ourselves. Language remains simultaneously personal and mutual – and it develops through being simultaneously personal and mutual.
In a similar way, monastic and lay practitioners mutually speak, practice, and live the language of Zen.
All of us who have a daily zazen practice, who have done sesshins, and who have done one or more angos, know that these instituted forms of Zen practice do something to us, change us individually, transform our relationships with others, and open us to what we could not have known otherwise.
If Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had available the practices of zazen, sesshin, and ango, would they have understood the Delphic maxim: ‘know thyself’ in a different way, in a deeper way?
While in those Greek times, oracular practices included altered modes of consciousness, sensory deprivation, and psychotropic gases, these practices were limited to designated seers. They were not practices available to anyone seeking to know themselves. The conceptual, yogic, and kinetic development of similar transformative practices and their universal availability is the creation of Mahayana Buddhism.
A Zen Practice Center is designed and built for the interior world of shared zazen. As a Concert Hall is designed for the music of the musician, a Zendo is designed for the Mind of the practitioner and for the shared Mind of practitioners. It is a home – away from home – within ourselves.
However, the history and natural aspects of the Practice Center’s site are also important. A building begins where it stands. At the same time, how a site has been used by buildings, by habitants, by society, and by times in the past, are resonances that should and to some extent will accompany a sites future uses.
A ‘site’ is a ‘local position’ (situs), a made-environment. Now Dharma Sangha is daring to remake and newly use this site. We are doing so within the observation of our neighbors and with their cooperation.
Herrischwand, within the headwaters of the Murg, was cleared for settlement and farming around the 9th century. However, because forest soil is not well suited to agriculture, and because of the long winters, the region has been poor, and as a result, of little interest to feudal and monastic overlords. This has given Hotzenwald the reputation of attracting tough, independent, spiritual, and often ungovernable inhabitants.
Wolfram Graubner chose this place as the site for his architecture and woodworking business because of its proximity to Johanneshof, where he lived as an 18 year old student of Graf von Durckheim. But he also chose this location, because he liked its reputation for independence, open-mindedness, and spiritual inhabitants.
Johanneshof has been an artists’ studio, a farm, and for 30 years, an anthroposophical kinderheim. The kinderheim brought teachers, medical professionals, children, and visitors into Herrischwand, enlivening and informing the area. For 20 years, Johanneshof was part of Graf von Dürkheim’s psychotherapeutic community as a residence, a meditation center, and a site for sesshins led by Japanese roshis. For the last 20 years, it has been the Dharma Sangha Zen Buddhist Study Center.
When Wolfram lived in Johanneshof, as its Director for Dürkheim, he found himself studying the two hectares across the road. He imagined sometime building a monastic compound on the site. He wanted to create a place for gatherings and conversations about real questions. This was his dream.
Wolfram observed where the sun reached the site, where the snow stayed and where it melted. He imagined roof ridges adjusted to the horizon and roof angles related to the line of the equinox sun. He wanted to preserve the springs, streams, and marshes on and nearby the site.
When his dream turned into excavating and building, they uncovered the foundation of a farmhouse, which had burned from a lightening strike in the early 1800s, and two huge, glacial boulders. Nearly everyday, auspiciously they thought, a rarely seen Auerhan bird watched them working.
The plan for Hotzenhaus was developed during 1980 to ‘82. It was built between 1982 and ‘84. The Schreinerei building, the cabinet making shop, which will be our New Zendo and Buddha Dharma Hall, was planned in 1982 with and for Hugo Kükelhaus. However, Kükelhaus died in 1984, and the building was not finished until 1986. The large Construction Hall below and adjoining Hotzenhaus was built during 1989 and ‘90.
Until four years ago, for 20 years, the Hotzenholz property was the architectural and design offices, the cabinet making and carpentry shops, and the construction space for as many as fifty-two persons. Bridges, Rudolf Steiner Waldorf playgrounds, and anthroposophical school equipment have been designed and made in Hotzenholz and installed throughout Europe.
What are the ingredients of a Zen Practice Center? I could list many, but since we are not building a new compound on a traditional mandalic ground plan, we will have to explore and work with the buildings and grounds we have: the spatial and dynamic relationships between them; the way the Sangha moves within the exterior and interior spaces; the personal, practical, and dharmic uses of the spaces; the paths and gardens and entryways. We will have to discover and evolve the ideal aspects of a Zen Practice Center in our use of Johanneshof-Quellenweg. With three 90-Day Practice Periods already accomplished, we have already begun.
First of all, there is the site itself and its history. The site’s topography, natural beauty, and its adaptability to practice, residence, and monastic life. Then there is silence. Ideally, the compound is so designed and articulated that silence falls as one enters the Gate. (The Honmon, The Origin Gate ,it is called.). Presently, we have the silence of the back garden of Johanneshof, and the silence of the garden between the New Zendo building and Hotzenhaus, and the silence too entering the coatroom of the Zendo. These ‘silences’ become tangible parts of our Practice.
Then there is water. Our confluence of springs and streams. It would be good to have a pond – we will eventually. In a pond water stops in silence, sometimes silence shines in its surface, and sometimes silence hides beneath the ripples of the wind.
The gardens, inter woven with paths, plants, flowers, trees, and buildings, bring us songbirds in the morning. The trees occupy the angles of the roofs.
In a Zen Practice Center, ideally each space, each building, each room, each location will feel complete, almost separately defined, and yet still part of the whole, inter-in-dependent. Anywhere we walk in the compound and stop for a moment, ideally, we will find ourselves in a location complete in itself – and we will feel complete in ourselves.
It is proportion that makes a space feel complete and the body too. Proportion arises from the body. And proportionate spaces return proportion to the body. Embodiable spaces – rooms, gardens, walls, doors – make us feel complete.
Constructed spaces can best be embodied when we can heuristically feel the construction of the space: how beam rests on pillar, how a wood floor reaches the wall, how stones distribute their weight, how windows and doors welcome use.
This embodiable, experienceable construction is consciously articulated throughout the Hotzenholz buildings. It was the lifework of Wolfram Graubner and Hugo Kükelhaus to create human-scaled, experienceable, buildings, with spaces, rooms, stone-work, which sensorially awaken the bodily-mind. They called it organological building. Amazingly, we are beneficiaries of these organological buildings, simply because they were across our country road.
To a degree, this same kind of experienceable construction is present in the Johanneshof building, as it was how buildings around Herrischried were constructed in the early 1900s.
Buildings like this in Japan are considered to be balance points. You visit them to restore your balance. They’re also understood to be something like batteries storing the energy of their use, of their accommodation, and for us, the accumulations of dharma practice, the accumulated presence of the Sangha.
The entire compound of a Zen Practice Center finds its fullest and definitive expression in the Zendo and in the BuddhaDharma Hall, especially in its altar. Here we are lucky, because we have a five hundred year old Amida Buddha on a lotus stand. It is a serene, deeply presenced, beautifully made Buddha. Generations have taken care of it.
Traditional Zendos are spare and refined at the same time. In the old days, Zendos had earthen floors (Eiheiji still does). Our new Zendo floor will be slate. The refinement of a wood-joinery Zendo should equal the refinement of Zen practice. Ideally, the attention required to notice the mind in its variety and subtlety, ought to be similar to the attention felt in the construction of aZendo.
When the proportions of a Zendo work, there is a depth of silence, a readiness for sound which doesn’t have a sound.
It is traditional to have a Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, on a Zendo altar, not a Buddha. In a Zendo, each sitter is a Buddha, or a Buddha to be, with the encouragement of Manjusri’s wisdom. The raised meditation platform, called the Tan, is the altar of each practitioner.
This raised Tan also makes it easier, really possible, to serve meals in the Zendo during sesshin and Ango. The raised Tan is also long enough for practitioners to sleep on, as is traditional during Ango and Sesshins. The Tansu, the cabinets, at the end of each Tan, are for bedding in the lower half, and personal effects in the upper half.
The outer edge of the Tan is the ‘Eating Board’. It is about 10 inches wide. We also call it the MA Board, because it divides the Zendo into the space of activity: serving meals, kinhin, entering and leaving; and into the space of doing nothing but Zazen. The MA Board is carefully respected. It is not stood on nor touched except to wipe it. When practitioners enter the Zazen space, they lift themselves over the MA Board, without stepping on it.
On one side of the MA Board is the space of known activity and doing. On the other side, is the unknown and the undoing of usual mind. All the activity of a Zen Practice Center approaches, supports, and protects the MA Board. We don’t know what is on the other side of the MA Board. Even when we are sitting there, we don’t know. Our own otherness is us, is a potency which opens us to the otherness of others – and all otherness. When otherness becomes our own, True Self is present.
A Zendo is a singular space, a complexity of spaces. It expands and compresses. It folds out of sight, but not out of experience. A Zendo awakens our internal gaze, our attentional interiority. Form and emptiness, duration and interpenetration. It is a duration we know, an interpenetration we experience.
While we don’t need a Zendo to do zazen, we do need a Zendo to do Zazen with others. Two or three persons sitting together regularly in the same place are starting a Zendo, especially if they dedicate the space to the practice of zazen.
Who are the others with whom we sit? Many many are in the past. In a way, we are sitting with them too. You wouldn’t likely think up zazen on your own. You wouldn’t know really how important it is to limit sitting to the same time, and same length of time every day, nor how important it is to limit sitting spatially by not-moving. At least, I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have known either, how to evolve concentration, attention, attention to attention, attentional interiority, the bodily-mind aspects of attention, or the priorities and articulations of mind itself. And that is just mentioning attentional aspects of sitting. And there are many many teachings and practices which are essential to developing a lifeway practice.
Really, it is Buddha who gives us permission to practice within the noble concept of awakening.
So Buddha is one of the others. And if Buddha is one of the others, then the entire lineage of Buddha Ancestors, the invisible Sangha with whom we practice, are the others. All those who will sit in the New Zendo, the visible Sangha of the present, are also the others. It is for these others, including each person we meet, that we have the teachings of the Brahmaviharas and the Paramitas. It is these others, who open up our Zazen practice to the deepest, compassionate, wise possibilities of human life.
We are weaving and celebrating –– weaving with threads and patterns from the past, weaving within our lived present, and weaving, too, an imagination of practice-life in the future.