Saturday, November 9, 2019

60th Year Celebration, Hwangap Speech

Hwangap Speech
July 16th, 2017
by Most Ven. Dr. Wonji Dharma

Hello, all my old as well as my newer friends. As some of you may know, I began daily meditation practice in 1985 when I met my first teacher Swami Chaitanya Siraj and took refuge vows with his teacher that same year. Swami Chaitanya Siraj had studied with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) in his Indian Ashram for many years and was designated as a teacher in Osho's lineage; additionally, Siraj's path of teaching was wide and open to all the Wisdom Traditions. In 1989 I met and began practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn, and in 2001 I became a Dharmacharya, a Senior Dharma Teacher so I have been teaching individual students for 18 years. Also, because I chose to live the life of a mendicant in 2012, doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate life. I realized while planning this recent trip to Southern California to study with my current teacher, one of many I have had since the beginning, that I am 62 today.

Hwangap (ch: 甲子, py: Jiǎzǐ) is a traditional way of celebrating one’s 60th birthday. The number 60 means accomplishing one big 60-year cycle and starting another one in one's life following the traditional 60-year calendar cycle of the lunar calendar. Many of my old High School friends were born in 1957, just like me, and this means that they were born in the year of the “Red Fire Rooster.” In case you didn’t realize it, 2017 was the year of the “Red Fire Rooster.”

Our Gregorian Calendar is base 10, so a Century happens every 100 years. The Chinese Calendar is base 60, so a Century happens every 60 years. This is based on the 12 Zodiac symbols and the 5 elements, so 12 x 5 = 60.

In the traditional way of counting ages, we begin a new 60-year cycle on New Year's Day, when everyone became a year older. Thus, people who were 60 and had completed their first 60-year cycle entered their second cycle on the New Year's Day when they turned 61 and returned to the same combination of zodiacal symbols that governed the year of their birth. Under the currently popular western method of counting ages, however, one enters one's second cycle on one's 60th birthday. The traditional cycles remain, and the way of counting ages has changed by one year, so today I am only 2 years old.

In the past, a person's average life expectancy was much lower than 60, so Hwangap also means a celebration of longevity. The celebration party is also a wish for an even longer and more prosperous life. This party is customarily thrown by the children of the person who is turning 60 unless that person does not have any children, in which case there's no party at all. On one's Hwangap family and relatives prepare a big birthday celebration with lots of food.

As far as my Zen Community goes, we had a formal celebration of my 60 years during our July 2017 retreat in Oneida, NY. Changing, changing, changing, is the way of this world, let us all embrace it with love, compassion, and fortitude.

I started practicing Zen in the nineteen-eighties and learned much from my teachers during these early years. Consequently, as I progressed with daily practice, I can remember a few specific instances that occurred in the early nineteen nineties that changed my opinion and set the course for the rest of my life. One of my close mentors in those days was a Dharmacharya named Bridget Duff. She had started practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972 in the very early days in Los Angeles. Prior to meeting Seung Sahn, Bridget had spent some time also studying with Jiddu Krishnamurti and experienced some very transformational life-changing events. Bridget was one of the original members of the Los Angeles group and was close to Seung Sahn for the rest of his life.

Bridget is the daughter of two rather famous (or infamous) parents of the nineteen fifty Hollywood scenes. Her mother was Ida Lupino and her father was Howard Duff. Her mother was considered the most powerful woman in Hollywood next to Lucille Ball in the late fifties. Bridget grew up as neighbors of the Ronald Reagan’s and her best friend growing up was Patti Davis (Reagan) who was the same age as Bridgette.

In August of 1995, Bridgette had told me that her mother was dying. I had never heard much from her about her relationship with her mom or what was going on between them. Over the next few weeks, she told me that her mother had really alienated her relationship and wanted nothing to do with her daughter. However, due to her advanced colon cancer, she had reconciled with Bridgette and they got to try to reconcile about thirty years of problems over the course of two weeks.

Sometime, about a month later, I was in Reno, Nevada where I had arranged a retreat with Zen Master Bonsoeng (Jeff Kitzes), and a group of students who had been studying with Eido Roshi. I had been practicing with this group as my job had me in Reno at least three or four days a week at that time. I had brought up four of the residents of the Ocean Eyes Zen Center with me to attend this retreat and support the local Reno Sangha. During this retreat, Jeff gave a Dharma talk which discussed his alienation with his father when he decided to follow the Buddhist path.

Bonsoeng was brought up as a Jewish child in California and his father had hoped that he would follow in a banking or business path and support his father’s sense of family values. Bonsoeng grew up in the late sixties Berkeley environment and decided that Psychology and Buddhism was a much better path for him. Bonsoeng said that his father never forgave him for this. He then relayed that follow the diagnosis of a terminal illness, his father was given only a few months to live. Bonsoeng said that he decided to transfer his clients and spent as much time as he could in his father’s last days. Jeff said that the closeness and openness that his father expressed were moving and allowed the two of them to reconcile lifelong differences.

Following these two experiences, I looked at my own life and came to some deep realizations. I realized that I was very distant in relationship with both my father and my mother and decided that I didn't want to wait until a few weeks or months before their deaths to have a good relationship with them. I took to heart the teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn and applied his teaching of correct situation, correct relationship and correct function. I was distant from my parents and we were not very affectionate, nor did we communicate on a very regular basis.

I wrote a very detailed letter to my mother following these two experiences discussing our differences and seeming distance. I told her that she might be uncomfortable and I was going to be a good son, I was going to start hugging her (this had never happened before) and I was going to kiss her (this too) and tell her that I love her (this was a big deal for me so I decided to take the lead.) She responded well to my letter and from this, our relationship began to grow and bear fruit.

We grew stronger in our relationship and I was firm on celebrating all the major holidays with my parents and my family. We had great celebrations for Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. every year without fail, this was my commitment to my family. My mother was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2002 and it took her life in 2003. I was with her holding her hand when she took her last breath. I can also say that there was nothing left unsaid between the two of us. We had the eight years to sort everything out about our relationship and our history.

I was worried about my father when my mother died and thought he would take a turn and just give up. He didn't and we became close friends and spent some tremendous time together. He became frail a few years later and I spent as much time as I could with him, sometimes months at a time. He lived in the Bay Area and I was living in Los Angeles. I got five years of great time learning and exploring with my father before he finally succumbed to emphysema. I was also blessed to be holding his hand during the final moments, as I had with my mom.

So, what does all this mean? I studied with many teachers and psychologists and looked for insight where I could find it during these years. I found great direction with the Zen Hospice Project and the teachings should be looked at as precepts for living and not precepts for dealing with dying people. Please take these points to heart. We have a very short time on this planet; we can only make changes in the present, so please follow these precepts to allow your lives to flower.

to say my life
is a great mistake,
What is life and what is death? What is young and what is old? An Ancient Master once said, “I was never born, so I will never die!” What is the meaning of this?
            HIT the Zen Stick!
to think this is mine
is pure delusion,

            We come into this world empty-handed, we go out of this world empty-handed. We delude ourselves into thinking that the things of this world are permanent, we want so much to keep our stuff. What is the source of our desire?
to want something
is only a thought,

            Our thinking is non-stop, it bounces around like monkeys playing in the trees. We believe something, and then we stop believing it and replace it with another inadequate thought. What is thinking then?

            HIT the Zen Stick!
            Shouting into a gale-force wind!
to believe in an ideology
is a human’s folly,
            We join a group and change our opinions, then we jump on Facebook to expound the way to all our friends. After this, we rigidly argue with those who even slightly oppose us. Why do we do this?

            HIT the Zen Stick!
            We are like amoebas dreaming we are Gods.
to make something
is what we do for entertainment,
            Face it, we aren’t content with who and what we are; so, we attempt to change ourselves or the world to adapt to our views. What would we do if we just stayed to ourselves?

            HIT the Zen Stick!
            Start on the path towards realizing ourselves.
So, Hwangap means roughly, Beginning Again or Returning to the Source. It is traditionally our opportunity to set the slate clean or go off in a new direction if we like. I have found from my 32 years of attempting to discover the source of my dis-satisfaction, that it always ended up coming from me, even when I so much wanted it to come from others.

During these 60 years, here on this planet, the one constant throughout my time has been change. Nothing remains static for very long, one door closes and others opens, always seemingly at the right time. Also, I have noticed there have been seemingly strange interconnections between the people who have entered and exited my life.

Mostly what I have learned over the years, is what not to do. This may sound too simplistic, yet our lives are one continuous mistake. We make mistake, after mistake, after mistake. We take the Bodhisattva Vows to always correct any wrong that we may do in life, this vow is continuous, just like our mistakes. So, instead of rambling on about my life, which is now just a vague memory, I thought I’d talk about what it means to be alive. In my on-going research, I came across an article on the regrets of dying people which I’d like to share with you now.

1. We wish we hadn’t made decisions based on what other people think
When we make your decisions based on other people’s opinions, two things tend to happen. We make unexamined choices. There are many of us out there who studied for a degree we regret or even spend our lives pursuing a career we regret. Whether we are seeking parental approval or pursuing pay and prestige over passion, making poor life choices are decisions that will live with us until we wake up.

We also may fail to uphold our mores. When we get too caught up in what our boss thinks of us, how much money we think our spouse needs to be happy, or how inept we will look if we fail, we are at risk of violating our own mores. Our intense desire to make ourselves look good compromises our ability to stay true to our aspirations and, ultimately, to realize equanimity.

Lǎozi said, “If we seek for the approval of others, we become their prisoner.” The best way to avoid falling victim to the opinions of others is to realize that other people’s opinions are just that — opinions, and that our own opinions are just that — opinions. Regardless of how great or terrible we think we are, that is only our opinion. Our true self-worth comes from realizing our true selves.

2. We wish we hadn’t worked so rigidly
Working rigidly maybe is a prodigious way to impact the world, to learn, to grow, to feel accomplished, and sometimes even to find happiness, yet this becomes a problem when we do so at the expense of the people closest to us. Ironically, we often work hard to make money for the people we care about without realizing that they value our company more than money.

The key is to find a balance between doing what we love and being with the people we love. Otherwise we will look back one day and wish we had focused more on the latter.

3. We wish we had expressed their feelings openly
We are taught as children that emotions are dangerous and that they must be bottled up and controlled. This usually works at first and boxing up our feelings causes them to grow until they erupt. The best thing we can do is to put our feelings directly on the table. Though it’s painful to initiate, this forces us to be honest and transparent with ourselves and others.

4. We wish we had stayed in touch with our friends
When we get caught up in our weekly routine, it is easy to lose sight of how important people are to us, especially those we must make time for. Relationships with old friends are among the first things to fall off the table when we’re busy. This is unfortunate because spending time with friends is a major stress buster. Close friends bring us energy, fresh perspectives, and a sense of belonging, in a way that no one else can.

5. We wish we had allowed ourselves to be content
When our life is about to end, all the difficulties we have faced will suddenly become trivial compared to the good times. This is because we realize that, often, dis-satisfaction is a choice. Unfortunately, most of us realize this far too late.

Although we all inevitably experience pain, how we react to our pain is completely under our control, as is our ability to experience joy. Learning to laugh, smile, and be content (especially when stressed) is a challenge at times, but it’s one that’s worth every ounce of effort.

Bringing it all together
Some decisions have repercussions that can last a lifetime. Most of these decisions are made daily, and they require focus and perspective to keep them from haunting us. So, how do we address our lives in this moment? What can we do, starting right this very moment to change our direction? Years ago, when my mother was diagnosed with spinal cancer, I began to investigate this, so that I might share it with my family as well as transforming the way I experience the world. They are essentially five precepts for living, they were derived from the teachings of Frank Ostaseki from his early CDs I listened to when my mother was dying from spinal cancer. Frank founded the Zen Hospice Project and has recently published his first book, the Five Invitations, which I highly recommend. The first precept is:

Welcome everything, push away nothing.
My first Zen teacher Seung Sahn Dae Jong Sa was quite fond of saying, “Put it all down,” which was his way of saying “welcome everything, push away nothing.” In Zen, we also say things like; “live in the moment” or “be mindful.” Pema Chödron, who is a teaching lineage holder of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, says it from the opposite perspective, “Abandon all hope.” This means to give up our ideas that things will change other than what they are. Abandon the idea that the outcome of a given situation is other than what it is, right now. Face this life with full awareness. Suzuki Rōshi once said something to the effect of: “it’s like going to a restaurant for lunch, and when your lunch is served you say to yourself, ‘I shouldn't have come to this restaurant, I should have gone to some other restaurant. This restaurant is not so good.’ The truth of this situation is that we can only be here now. I still have a little card my first psychology professor gave me from a class on “transactional analysis” I took in 1980 which says, “Even if you don’t like the way it is, it still is the way it is.”

Bring your whole self to the experience.
This means to live our lives with our whole bodies and souls. To be completely present and to pay attention to ourselves as much as we pay attention to others. We have to feel ourselves in each situation, feel our own tension, our own fear, our own apprehension. We need to love ourselves in each moment, especially in times of stress and anxiety. If we pay attention to our inner self we can relax into the moment and it will be easier to be present.

Don’t wait.
Waiting implies something is going to happen by itself. It also implies that perhaps it can be done in the future. The reality that Buddha taught was that the only moment we have is now. Krishnamurti, who was one of the greatest sages of the twentieth century, talked a lot about this point. He said, “We delude ourselves in thinking that we can change some behavior in the future. It is through our discursive thinking that change can happen in the future. The only moment we have to change anything is now.”

Find the place of rest, in the middle of things.
This means that we must find that place of calm in the middle of the storm. The storm of our lives, the storm of work, the storm of getting our kids ready for school, the storm of someone who is close to us that is dying. It means that within each activity we can find a place of peace and then we can see the truth for what it is.

Cultivate don’t know mind.
Suzuki Roshi called this beginners mind. In the mind of the beginner possibilities are endless, in the mind of the expert, possibilities are few. An ancient once said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” This is being here without expectation or idea. This is our essential practice.
to be present
is what the Buddha taught,
            So, what is being present this very moment?
            HIT the Zen Stick!

            I am speaking in a room with many friends and associates.
to have everyday mind
is what Nánquán expressed,
            So, what is everyday mind?
            HIT the Zen Stick!

            My speech is almost done.
to only not know
is the way of Dahui,
            So, what is not knowing?
            HIT the Zen Stick!

            Before the big bang, what existed?
so what is your way
of seeing clearly in this moment.

            HIT the Zen Stick!
            My speech is done and thank you for coming to my Hwangap Ceremony.


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