Zen 101

Saturday, March 29, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

We are in a chilly, overcast Memphis. I forgot just how cold damp air can feel. So, now I'm reminded and it can go away anytime!

This morning's mail brought up a few things for me. It seems we all like to learn and one of the ways we learn is by reading. Some of us read to gain a certain feeling, create an internal environment such as the warm, fuzzy sort of thing we get from reading Thich Nhat Hanh.

Some of us read to get something hopeful, something positive in our lives. For the same reason we might watch Oprah on television.

Yet, I wonder about this. Such reading and watching is not practice. Its like getting some mind candy. Such reading and watching is like wrapping oneself in a warm blanket. It feels good, but we don't get an accurate sense of the actual temperature of our world..

Zen is not like that. While Buddha taught us to plant the seeds of compassion, of kindness, and so on, he also was a realist who taught us a way to see clearly. Wrapping oneself with external supports actually works against this. Instead of seeing things as they are, we see through eyes warmed up by soft, warm fuzzy words. Our compassion must be real. Our kindness must be an expression of our true self.

When I read, I notice the feelings the author's words are creating in my body. I sense the mental construction being built. Sometimes these structures are very seductive, so wonderful and such that I hate to put them down. We want to be like the author! So, while these are all teaching, like my words to you, they can be dangerous to a clear mind.. Buddha asked us to test his words. This means a reality check, a taking off of the blanket, a closing of the book, and a stepping out into the real word as it is.

How do we know what our true self, in this true world, actually is if we load it up with the words, thoughts, and feelings of others? We practice.

Here in Memphis it is damp and cold. I know this because I experience my environment, yes? No! I am cold and damp because my mind compares what I am currently experiencing to a memory of my environmental experience in New Mexico. Cold and warm are relative terms and thus have no independent meaning apart from the meaning we make.

So, cold and warm are dependent conditions. Clear Mind Zen asks us to live in the condition of no-condition. What is the condition of no-condition? The condition of the present moment.

Be well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Your Actual Life

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Zen is the practice of living your actual life as it actually is. Many of us live our life as if we think it should be something else, better: more money, more love, more peace. But this is not the Zen way.

In an effort to live the Zen way, though, we think we should know what this "Way" is, so we pick up a book and read, learning about what others say the Zen way is. We think we are inadequate to know the Zen way, that just sitting is somehow not enough. But this is not true.

Sitting Zen is the Way. Sitting Zen will open your heart and mind to your actual life. It will teach you to be in your actual life fully and completely as it is.

Books point us, guided our mind, or offer suggestions about our practice, but it is our practice that is our teacher and we must never forget that.

Zen is awareness; it is presence of mind. Seated Zen disciplines us to be present and have awareness of mind at all times. It teaches us all we really need to know about how to live.

How do we treat a door when closing or opening it? How do we treat food as we prepare and eat it? How do we treat our partner in conflict? Presence of mind, Zen, will be your best teacher.

Some say the best way to "solve" a koan is to enter the koan. So too, the best way to treat a door, food, or your partner, is to become your door, food, or partner. That is to say, we must enter them as they are, not as we wish them or think them to be. In this way we offer them the greatest respect.

Now practice.

Be well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Authenticity and Purity

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

We returned from the Refuge yesterday afternoon after a wonderful two days of retreat. During this time I studied Master Dogen's Eihei Shingi, a collection of standards for the monastery (which includes Tenzo Kyokun, his Instructions for the Cook), as well as a rather large book on the history of the Jews. I noticed both groups sought methods for creating purity, by which it seems they meant somewhat different things in different points in time and context.

In both cases, however, practitioners were asked to separate themselves from others, either through monastic life in one case, or in creating "special" markers for the tribe in the other case. In Zen, people shave their heads and retreat in sesshin, Jews circumcise and enjoy shabbot, interesting.

In both cases, the drive to separate is a drive to come closer to the Infinite at the same time via that separation. In both cases people lack the words to sufficiently convey the experience of intimacy with the Absolute, yet still manage. A bush that burns without consumption, a mouth with a molten iron that cannot be spit out.

In Dogen's monastery, we are taught not to do anything that will call attention to ourselves, separate us from the group of monks. Community is key and is a paramount virtue. In the Jewish tribes, the question of how to govern, have group cohesion, and remain loyal to the Absolute was in constant tension.

Today we practice, in both cases, as independent, liberal, and nearly secular, practitioners. Authority for our practices actually rests with ourselves. We get in touch with our own authenticity through our practice with only the guidance of larger bodies, not their rules.

It remains to be seen whether this will be a way that will survive. Human beings are funny that way. Like breathing, we have in-breath and out-breath cycles, some free and easy, some not.

Proximate rule following in the form of following tradition seems to yield a sense of being "more Jewish" or "more Zen-like" than not following closely the liturgies and standards of practice. Yet, is this really so? No. Feelings of authenticity are not authenticity, they are just what we call the feelings we have.

If I eat meat as a Zen Buddhist or eat bacon as a Jew I am not less Zen or less Jewish. Just so, if I don't eat meat or bacon, I am not more Zen or more Jewish. It only means what it means to me. We human beings are meaning makers, it is we who invest our lives with meaning. Zen or Jewish tradition only offers us the tools. It is our integration and practice that creates the authenticity and the meaning of our lives as Zen practitioners or Jewish practitioners or Christian practitioners for that matter.

Be well.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Middle Way

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The noise of the dishwasher is loud, but rhythmic, and I notice my mind follows its cycle with no effort at all. As this synchronicity happens, I easily let go of the sound since nothing clashes. Harmony.

The Buddha taught the Middle Way, a way that when followed, produces harmony with all things, all aspects of our life. Yet, sometimes discord is necessary. Sometimes we must eschew harmony in order to right a wrong. Wherefore?

Because we are or seek to be in harmony with the universe does not mean that others are as well. Tibetan monks are in harmony, they follow the Middle Way, practice with great diligence, and because this is so, are deeply offended by the oppressive tactics of their Chinese invaders.

The Japanese monks during the years preceding and during World War II were in harmony, but were so culturally fixated on order as the highest good that they failed to address the oppressive and militaristic nationalism of their own country.

In one case, order imposed is seen as a disturbance of the Way, in another, order imposed is the way.

The lesson here is that harmony must come from within and has little to do with a social order. Oppression is oppression regardless of what it is in service to. When we are serene reflection, we are like water: we become a flood, meeting oppression and surround it with our harmony. We prevent it from standing alone. We erode it with compassion and deep listening. We do not just let it be, fading away into monasteries or practice centers.

In the world today, as in any day, some wish to oppress and exploit others, sometimes even with the highest motives, but we must be alert to this and understand that the method corrupts the motive and only evil remains. We vow not to do evil, we vow to do good, and we vow to bring about good for all beings, We cannot accomplish these vows without action.

Social action must however be done with a harmonious mind, a clear mind. As the noise of the dishwasher rises, my mind meets it and finds its cadence. Noise becomes melody. And as war rages, invasions happen, exploitation and starvation, rape and violence continue, we rise to meet them with our own harmony. We witness for another way, a peaceful, embracing, and loving way. Saying no does not require a bat, but it does require a compassionate heart.

Be well.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Clear Mind Zen

Good Morning Everyone,

Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is called Kie Sanbo and it is the first ceremonial step in becoming a Zen practitioner in the Clear Mind Sangha. We are asked to say, "Namu kie Butsu; Namu kie Ho; Namu kie So". Why?

Why, if in the Clear Mind Sangha we are open and accepting of all religious faiths and traditions, do we ask people to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha?

The answer is somewhat tricky and to some extent relies on the realization of the three terms used. Buddha is not the person Gautama who historically became a Buddha, but the realized Buddha as both a model and an actuality.

When I go to Buddha for refuge it means I take refuge in awakening itself and see the Buddha as a model of that awakened personage. We could just as easily say the same of the Patriarchs, Moses, prophets or Jesus. Each awakened person is a model, a potentiality for our own awakening.

Similarly, the Dharma is reality, things-as-it-is, Suzuki-roshi used to say. Every faith tradition has its dharma, but dharma is not dependent on faith tradition. Things-as-it-is is, regardless of our spin on it. The practice of Clear Mind is to see without perceptual filters or the biases of labels and concepts. What is reality before we call it reality, this is Dharma.

Lastly, Sangha is both the community of practitioners and the universality of life. It is truly impossible to separate those who practice with us from those who do not as all life practices living in the Dharma. Its just that some are not fully awake to the fact.

Some of us interdependent beings sleepwalk. Yes, its true. We can see them on any given day, driving along with tombstones in their eyes, knee jerk reacting to whatever is in front of them. Yet, if the universe is One, then they are just as much a part of it as we are.

Part of our practice is re-visioning religion so as to open each to things-as-it-is. To have each begin to see clearly before dogma sets in, or to crack that cosmic egg and let the light contained therein, out.

Anyone willing to see clearly by taking on the practices of Zen is welcome to join Clear Mind Sangha.

Be well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

As you probably are already aware, this is the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. Thousands dead and wounded, billions spent, and a mortgage that will last for several decades in terms of treatment for permanent veteran disabilities, family disruptions, and economic chaos.

Please pray for an end to this disaster, a speedy delivery of our troops home, and a peaceful future.

Also during your prayers, keep in mind the religious and ethnic freedom of our Tibetan brothers and sisters, as well as oppressed people everywhere.

Spring is coming to our hemisphere, let it bring signs of hope through our behavior.

Be well.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Good News

Good Morning Everyone,

The morning air is wonderful: cool, but not cold, with a slight early morning breeze gently moving the blinds so that they perform like wind instruments in an orchestra. I am sitting on the sofa with Tripper and some coffee, listening to these and other dawn sounds. There were times in my life when I would wish to be carried away by the wind, but no longer. At this place in my life, I would prefer to just reside and appreciate whatever presents itself. Gentle breeze or storm, each should be equally welcome as they are only gentle or stormy as we apply the notions.

This is the practice and we are never always in its embrace.

There are times when we wish just to be left alone to reside peacefully in our thoughts. There are times when we are less able to be pliant or even simply present. We practice to make these moments less frequent and more brief in duration. Just so, we practice Zen as life.

Yesterday we finally leased our vacant condo! A great relief and welcome cash to our strained budget. We also made preparations for My Little Honey's book-signing today. A lot of flurry and if I were wearing robes yesterday, they would have been a-flapping. But I wasn't always present, not always joyful or appreciative of the day's events as they unfolded. I had my own agenda tucked into the recesses of my mind: sit, play chess, enjoy the day, take a walk in the desert...you know, that sort of thing.

So while the morning was filled with such delights as Talmud study, Morning Services, a nice lunch; the afternoon, after leasing the condo out furnished, was full of shopping and going and preparing and discussing, none of which I am particularly good at.

The good news is that the tensions are very short in duration and far less frequent than they were historically. Why? Practice. It is good to be a work in progress, let us continue to be in progress through infinity.

Be well.

For those on the Zen Living List: It is delightful to see such excellent interaction on the list. Awareness is essential, coupled with a willingness to not press the SEND key in the heat of a moment, but rather, to take a few breaths, step away from your work, then come back later with a refreshed perspective.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

What's Important

Good Morning Everyone,

Question: What is the most important thing to do? Answer: Not live as if this is more important than that.

When living a Zen life, we live with everything as it is. So, in this moment, the most important thing are the keys on my keyboard as my fingers touch them while writing to you.

There are many "also importants" such as Pete-kitty resting on the arm of the sofa as I type, the sound of the morning dove's outside, and the pleasurable thought of My Little Honey nestled in our bed sleeping just now. But, the most important thing is always the thing we are doing. What we are doing is our life.

More important, less important; more valuable, less valuable: these judgements get in the way of actual living. They also get in the way of our appreciating our life and the lives around us.

Practice to appreciate what is there before you.

Be well.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Good Morning Everyone,

One should not sit without a time keeper. If not in a Zendo with a timekeeper, use a timer. I use my wrist watch alarms. Each period is 25 minutes. You can use less or more, but to sit without a time limit allows for Sloppy Zen. Sloppy Zen is Zen without discipline. Sloppy Zen is anything goes Zen.

Last night at Zen Judaism, a participant talked about his experience of "seeing the light" by which I believe he meant, slipping into a deeply relaxed state where time essentially stopped. This is one type of meditation practice, but it is not zazen. If our aim in our practice is to relax, allow stress to dissipate from our mind-mind, then this "seeing the light" meditation is useful. If our aim, however, is to be present regardless of environmental or internal factors and without getting stuck on them or by them, this is not effective practice.

Zazen, Shikantaza Zen, is the Zen of the Buddhas and ancestors. It is what Master Dogen calls "practice realization" and goes beyond just sitting on a cushion.

To practice shikantaza, just sit with an open mind, a mind that refuses to grasp or seek.

A timer is essential because we cannot be thinking about when to stop. Our practice period is predetermined.

Please enjoy this practice.

Be well.

Workout Note: This morning I did a short one mile walk/jog with Katie, then did six hill repeats. getting my heart-rate to 90% of its max on two and 80% on four of the repeats. My Left Foot was not behaving and I neglected to wear my brace --- a not so good combination. Anyway, at home I did: two sets of twenty push-ups, three sets of bent dumbbell rows, and three sets of dead lifts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's This?

Good Morning Everyone,

Monotheism, the belief in one God, is a ubiquitous belief in the West. I said in an earlier post that it was a cultural belief and, as such, forms part of the sociologic fabric of our lives. Yet, we rarely address this belief. Its rather like a "fact" held, but without a serious discussion of the fact's perimeters. There is a cultural assumption that we all "know" what "one God" means. Yet, in truth, we do not.

God is so diversely understood as to render any one understanding of Him/Her/It virtually meaningless in terms of consensus. This is partly due, I think, to the fact that we assume so often we each "know" what the other means when we refer to God, but also I think, to a real unwillingness to explore the topic. We prefer, in a sense, the anthropomorphized version of God so deeply ingrained in our consciousness and pervasive in our religious literature.

Zen demands us to ask, "what's this" at every turn in our conscious life. So when a contemplative student of whatever faith tradition approaches God in whatever context, he or she must first address the question, "what's this" before he or she can go any further.

So, what is God?

You see, immediately we are cast in a different dimension of understanding. No longer are the "he's and she's" of God appropriate.

I suspect God is a meta-label for what is infinitely out of our cognitive grasp. We might in the new age say God is universal energy, the stuff of life, but this would exclude God from matter. We might say, God is infinite love, but then we must understand love on such a cosmic level that the individual must be essentially meaningless, and therefore, the very word is rendered meaningless itself.

Historically, God was understood as either transcendent or immanent, that is, wholly other or completely present. Some might say God is both simultaneously.

Buddha argued that the very question was not helpful. He argued that the existence, non-existence, or shape and form of God was ultimately unknowable, and therefore a distraction from the Great Way.

When we understand God to be the absolute of Big Mind and the Relative of Small Mind, in the Zen context of understanding Non-duality and Duality, we get a somewhat different picture, however.

Letting go our grasp, opening our mind's eye to see the universe as it is, rather than as we would wish it to be, or as we think it is, takes us right to the question, what's this?

It is not the answer so much that is important, its not even the actual question, per se, but what is most important is our attitude toward our life and to the universe around us.

This leads us ultimately to the fact that we cannot really know God in the cognitive sense, but rather only in the experiential sense. We can know God through our experience of opening the hand of thought as Uchiyama-roshi elegantly phrases it. What we "know" is not a concept, not a static positivistic label, but rather, the universe itself. open and immediately present in our lives.

Be well.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hiking and Sitting: Zen Training

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I will be hiking with a new friend who is here in the condo complex for a short time, as he lives in the Virgin Islands. The weather is cooperating, I think. Its supposed to be sunny with a high near 70 today. Currently, its 43 degrees outside. Delightful for a morning hike through the desert.

Some people enjoy company on their runs. While I will enjoy this man's company for a hike this morning, I confess, I do not enjoy company during training runs, in particular. While I welcome an occasional training partner, like my friend Katie, I would rather be alone on distance runs. Part of the reason for this is the value of concentration during training. Its one of the reasons silence is thunder during meditation retreats.

Training is a relationship with interior awareness and experience of a challenge. We say we will run hills, a set of four, six, eight, or ten hill repeats. Or we set out to do speed repeats. Or a long slow run to increase endurance. Each of these sets our interior world against an exterior challenge of mind, body, and spirit.

Just so, sesshin, the Zen practice of secluded, extended, silent meditation.

In each experience we are required to come to terms with ourselves as we approach and touch our limits. Sometimes we move past these limits by simply dissociating from our internal discomfort, we distract ourselves with mental tricks, jokes, etc., but this is not really a good way, in my opinion, as it takes us out of touch with what is actually going on and, in physical training, this can lead to injury.

The best approach is the Zen approach: complete presence with perseverance.

So, this morning, as I walk in the desert with my new friend, I will be aware that my attention is being divided between my footsteps and my mouth; between my body and our need to interact. In such a case, training becomes secondary as relationship becomes primary, and through this, enjoyment of the experience is made possible. This is what happens when I walk with My Little Honey, which I thoroughly enjoy.

I have not trained with Katie for a couple of weeks now. I miss going out with her. Maybe, if she reads this, she will go out with me on Thursday morning to run some hills.

Be well.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Being One

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Yesterday I talked with a Zen student of mine on the telephone, I also received emails from several other students, each asked if I were OK. It seems of late I have not been posting as regularly as I have in the past and my students have detected a shift in my tone. They are good students! They will make good priests in the Zen tradition.

I have not posted as often because I have less to say just now. Not being affiliated with the local Zen Center I founded has left me as a fish out of water, one might say. One of the things I have done, then, is I dove into the Jewish pool at Temple Beth El here in Las Cruces. I study Talmud there once a week, attend a weekly discussion group, a weekly breakfast with the boys, and offer meditation once a week there. I even joined the Mensch Club. This, in addition to weekly Shabbot services on Friday night. My reading, outside of a renewed study of Uchiyama's "How To Cook Your Life", has been also in Judaism. I am preparing to teach a class in Jewish History to begin the first week of April. I will also offer two sections (one introductory, one advanced) on Jewish Spirituality at the Academy. I am reading Martin Buber's book, "The Ten Rungs and the Way of Man", as well as several other books cast about my bedroom and study. Of course, my study of Hebrew is continuing.


Well, for one thing, we all need a practice group. Judaism, like Zen, requires a sangha, a community of practitioners. Judaism, like Zen is a practice, but with a vast history and many possible ways of understanding relationship to both the Infinite and the world. It can approach this idealistically or in the contemplative traditions of Jewish mysticism, non-idealistically. Without a Zen Center, my Jewish history and identity offered me support.

Most importantly, however, is this: Zen in America is not a religion. Its institutions are not well developed as community based centers. Zen communities, as I have found them, are not as family focused, and Zen Centers focus their attention on individual needs of members rather than the communal needs of the group and larger societal system.

We are a nation of cultural, if not religious, monotheists. Zen to thrive, must encounter this fact in ways that enhance the cultural monotheism, rather than fight against it.

While it is true, Zen does not have a "God" nor do we Zen practitioners "worship" in the same sense as the monotheistic faiths do, it is equally true that the more spiritually centered and contemplative branches of the monotheistic faiths share more in common with Zen than they do their own non-contemplative brethren

My sense is that Zen can be a serious teacher for us all. It can offer a real wake-up potential to those who sleepwalk through their days, dutifully going to work or church or synagogue on weekends. But to do so, Zen must enter these faiths and assume a role within them.

Personally I am fortunate to have a local congregation that is open, a congregation of learners, as Rabbi Emeritus Kane has pointed out, who are willing to learn with me.

As a result I will be a better Jew, a better Zen Master, and certainly a far better integrated human being. Another result will be a more American Zen tradition.

Be well.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Rock and a Rard Place

Good Morning Everyone,

Zen teaches us how to relinquish our desires: we observe them for the wind in the flags they are. But then, what do we do with the flags themselves?

In a discussion on the Zen Living list I moderate, list member Enryu rightly points out, when the pot is empty, its difficult, if not impossible to let that emptiness go.

List member, Hsin says, when he is hungry, he eats. Yes, poetic reflection of an age-old Zen poem.

Yet, when hungry and there is no food? When cold or threatened and there is no house?

Zen vows, both the Three Pure Precepts, and the Four Great Vows, offer us a way of understanding this relationship.

We are to stop doing bad, do good, and bring about good for all, says the three pure precepts. We sit in paradox and contradiction when we accept the four great vows. In the first of these, for example, we are to free all beings, knowing we cannot free anyone, even ourselves.

States of mind versus states of being. When we think of something we should always keep in mind, the thought is NOT the thing. Acceptance does not mean remaining hungry or homeless or passive victims of a state sponsored war. Acceptance means being with our desire for food without having it lead us around by the nose. Sitting with it will help this, but it will not put food in our belly nor in our pot. Only getting up from our cushion and earning our food will do this.

If we want peace, we must earn peace: we earn peace by being peace. We should be peace --- even in the middle of strife. By being peace, we model peace; by modeling peace, we bring at least our peace into the world.

Paradox is purely mental. Its a phenomenon of mental constructs. Can light be both a particle and a wave at the same time? Can something be in two places at the same time? Yes, according to modern physics; no, according to this mind we use, hard wired as it is to reside in duality.

Zen practice busts us out of quietism when we see practice as life itself.

Happy bubble bursting.

Be well