Zen 101

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ten Minutes

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at Temple Beth El. I teach three classes in a row: Jewish Spirituality, Jewish History, and Advanced Jewish Spirituality. By the end of the day I am swimming in Judaism. Not a bad thing, really. but cause for a period of rest. I was reading a book by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi the other day and he presented me with a wonderful tool. He calls it "making a ten minute Shabbot (Sabbath)".

The Sabbath is a break from ordinary time, as Rabbi Zalman points out, there is "doing" time and "being" time. (Master Dogen of the 13th century pointed out the same from a Zen point of view.) Being time is full, natural time, not clock time, not calendar time, but time in the present moment, in sync with your natural, human rhythm.

We can each "make" a ten minute sabbath by taking leave of the clock and joining the natural universe, either when we need it or during a break time in our busy day. We do this by stopping what we are doing, perhaps changing our environment by walking outside, or even, as Jon Kabat-Zinn pointed out, lying down on the floor (to get a different perspective), and then paying attention.

During our ten minute Shabbot, we release ourselves from work. We smell the air, breath deeply, relax our muscles, let the tension in our bodies drift away. This is a time for rest and renewal. In Zen we call it Zazen.

At the conclusion of our ten minutes, we return to our day knowing that our day, and the work it involves, is our connection with the world and through this, a blessing to the Infinite.

Perhaps we don't have ten minutes? OK, five. Not even five? OK, one.

Enjoy your minute.

Be well.


Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, First Steps to a New Jewish Spirit
Master Dogen, Uji, in the Shobogenzo
Jon Kabot-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

Friday, April 25, 2008

No Room for Self Centeredness

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

If you want to live an authentic life, you must be willing to live completely. This means living with your mind, heart, body, and environment so thoroughly integrated that there is only one. By environment, I include Big Mind, the Absolute, i.e., God.

In Judaism we practice Hitbodedut in order to experience Ruach HaKodesh, the spirit of God, which, like Big Mind, is everything. In order to experience this we must open our hearts and minds in stillness. This is the equivalent of zazen.

There is a real resistance to opening. Its as if somehow if we open ourselves we will either disappear or be injured. So we try, but retain that last bit of wall to protect us.

Such protection is the self holding onto Self. It prevents us from joining the Universal.

When we practice, we should therefore reduce the threat.

In Zen we do this by reciting the san ge mon, the prayer of repentance, and the Three Refuges, san ki rai mon. In these verses we acknowledge our sins, their source, and let them go, while also affirming our willingness to reside in Buddha (Awakened State), Buddha-Nature (Dharma, Reality), and a Sangha (Community of spiritually minded human beings).

In Judaism, we do some of the same sort of thing, though more extensively. In the daily liturgy, we thank the Absolute for pretty much everything, we bless His name, we speak about our gratitude for all the things in the world and in our lives, and we ask for healing for those in need.

All of these are an attempt to make it not only OK to let down our small and large walls, but to make letting go of small self desirable. There is no room in Zen or Judaism for self centeredness, selfish wants, or a separation from the Infinite.

When we are not separate from the Infinite, both Self and Non-Self are understood in their proper relationship. They are the same stuff, but operationalized differently. Riding the bike is being one with the bike, whilst simultaneously riding the bike, enjoying the scenery, the effort, and all other aspects of the activity. Its this simultaneity that is key.

Be well..

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Waking up in the morning, I am aware of just how precious a new day is: it should not be taken for granted.

We can chose to just get through it, doing what we do to take care of ourselves. We can chose to do something for the world, to make it a better place . We can chose to live as if each moment were a blessing in itself.

So, what will I do with this day? What will you do with this day?

Often, the thing that renews the world renews you. Maybe that's a good place to start.

Be well.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get the Ball Rolling!

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I plan to go for a run of sorts with my friend, Katie. It will be a desert trail run and I'm looking forward to it. I have not been training as hard as I should of late, so maybe today I'll be able to kick it a bit. Maybe a few hill repeats are in order.

Consistency is vital. Habit energy is the strongest sort of human energy, I think. Like the proverbial ball rolling is hard to stop, so too, its hard to get rolling again. Best to just roll, because once "on a roll" its easy to continue to do so.

I've noticed our chief enemy to consistency is our Small Mind. It wishes to take us away from the Big Mind "roll". We might say to ourselves, "Aw, I don't feel like it" or "I just can't get myself out there today...my ______________ hurts."

Just Small Mind at work. Kick it. Get into that Big Mind space, expansive, open, inclusive. positive.

We should do this with everything: physical training, zazen, prayer, compassion, relationship building and relationship maintenance. Everything.

Another way of saying this is to let the self fall away to be enlightened by the myriad things.

Be well.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Being One With the Universe

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

On this Passover, a note on liberation:

There is an old joke about the Buddhist monk who says to the hot dog vendor, "Make me one with everything!"

We smile and dismiss the phrase as ubiquitous pablum.

To be one with something means being without self and being without self is more than counter-intuitive, it seems impossible. Yet, we are without self everyday. When we ride a bicycle, read, work, play, anytime we are so immersed and involved in an activity that we forget ourself in that activity, we are one with that activity and essentially, without self. In such moments time ceases to exist. There is just the moment. Zen practice aims to teach us to be in this singular, non-dualistic state at all times.

We sit down on a cushion, bring our attention to our breath, and join the universe. We open the hand of thought that connects us to ourself, and there we are: one.

When we are one with the universe, everything we do is the universe.

For Christian Zen practitioners, Jewish Zen practitioners, and Muslim Zen practitioners, it is the same. Prayer becomes an activity of joining the Universe. Life as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, becomes an act of unification with the Absolute.

When we approach something, say a salad, with the attitude of "this is precious, this is the Universe" and we do so without a reference to "I" we are dropping away the self and are being one with the salad. The salad becomes something it always was but that we didn't recognize, and that is, it becomes a gateway to the Infinite.

This is so of everything. Everything.

So, the next time you sip some coffee of tea, know you and the Infinite are One.

Be well.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

My dreams are worrisome. I keep dreaming of Zen services, chanting sutras, inviting bells to ring, gracefully offering incense, and I wake. It has been several months now since I left the Zen Center. I feel as though something is slipping away. Perhaps this separation is an opening of my hand of thought. Perhaps I am fading away. Perhaps my dreams are a closing of that hand, grasping for what was. Better to let it go.

At Temple last night I felt alone, very alone. My Little Honey and I had been suffering one of our moments of disagreement, I had had a runny nose, I took an antihistamine with my evening meds, and within an hour felt the heaviness of sleep pressing against me. My friends asked if I was OK. My Little Honey asked if I was OK. I was OK. I was just alone in my own little head.

I practiced zazen during part of the service. It is always a good thing for me to be still and place my attention on the present moment. It points the way, as it were.

There it was, a sort of emptiness. Nothing fixed, everything in motion. Coming and going, coming and going. Standing, sitting, chanting, praying.

In the Sefer Yetzirah (the Kabbalist' Book of Creation), is says that God created the universe through His words He made emptiness because before the first word, He was One and everything was filled with Him. Likewise, we create with our speech. This creation is the heart and beginning of duality, as before creation there is just One and one without two or three is meaningless. With the speaking of One there is the other. We really need the other.

In Zen we call this Big Mind and Small Mind, the Absolute and the Relative: two interdependent truths. To reside in Big Mind alone is to reside in Nothingness, no form whatever. This is a blissful sickness, like being stuck in peace. Sooner or later we need change.

So it was in the beginning, the Absolute needed the Relative in order to be the Absolute. Its important to see that both are one in the same. One resides within the other. So, while we have the potential for oneness, so too we have the potential for duality. In the One is all, in the all is One.

As for me, I don't know who I am anymore: Jew, Zen priest, husband, father, disabled vet, therapist, friend, none of the above: and with that am completely liberated. A good thing.

Be well.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Be Still

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning's air is delicious! Cool, fresh, and still. I know that by this afternoon it will turn into the winds common in our spring here in New Mexico. For now, in this moment, though, it is still.

One of the things I so appreciate about morning is its stillness. I hear some birds singing along with the occasional coo and hoot of desert birds. Its a wonderful thing. Most of our neighbors are retired and so we don't have the ruckus of cars starting for the morning drive to work. We are left with just the sound remaining in a world that lacks busy-ness.

Yesterday was PrayerWorks, a monthly luncheon event hosted by Rabbi Kane's wife, Cyrille. It is a really positive experience to gather together asking for the healing of others. So often we go through our day without much thought for the well-being of our friends, the well-being of our community, so self-absorbed we can become. A deliberate practice of gathering together, reflecting on inspirational readings, and asking the Infinite for the blessing of healing, helps us to reapportion our lives according to the needs of others.

When we decide to commit to a disciplined spiritual practice that includes at its base a commitment to look outside of ourselves to the world around us, we are committing to a life of healing. Paradoxically, we heal. Life is like that, you know, but we must first make the commitment, be still, and open our hearts to the universe.

May your day be a day of joy and goodwill.

Be well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Way of Man

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

According to Hasidism, the very qualities which make
us what we are constitute our special approach to God and
our potential use for Him. There is nothing so crass or base
that it cannot become material for hallowing. “The profane,”
for Hasidism, “is only a designation for the not-yet-hallowed.”
Hallowing transforms the “evil urges” by confronting them
with holiness and making them responsible toward what is

Maurice Friedman in his forward to Buber's Way of Man

When I was a therapist, I would often suggest to my clients, now that you are aware of the problem, it is your responsibility to engage it. So often we go about in life believing that past issues are the cause of our current suffering. This is really like sleep walking. Yet, once awake, we must behave differently. We must be awake to the present moment and this moment's opportunities to live.

Martin Buber wrote a wonderful little book called "The way of Man" (its available as a pdf file here: http://www.pendlehill.org/resources/files/pdf%20files/php106.pdf. ). In it he relates a story of a Rebbe who was arrested. The jailer approaches him while he is deep in meditation. After a few questions, the Rebbe asks:

“How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing said to Adam:
‘Where art thou?’” “Do you believe,” answered the rav, “that the Scriptures
are eternal and that every era, every generation and every man is included in them?”
“I believe this,” said the other. “Well then,” said the zaddik,3 “in every era, God calls
to every man: ‘Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’ God says something like
this: ‘You have lived forty-six years. How far along are you?’”

Every day we are presented with this question, where am I. Or to put it in more present terms, what am I. To answer this question is an invitation to look deeply into one's self. What has happened to me? What have I done? Failed to do? etc. But the important this isn't the self recrimination, but the willingness to "turn" as Buber refers to it. Turn from the recrimination, the self absorption, to the light of day. Turn to the world, what now needs to be done to make this world a better place?

when we are involved, sometimes deeply involved, in self recrimination, shame, and other self-focused feelings and thoughts, we are lost to our true self, our true beauty and joy.

Later, in the end of his book, Buber makes the point that while we search the world over for ways to get out of our responsibility, even to places like heaven or nirvana, the Hasid "invert" the order and says, "For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of the hidden divine life."

Our true self, our Buddha nature, is always present, even in the muck of a muddy swamp. So the world asks, "where are you?"

Be well

Friday, April 11, 2008

No Where To Go

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

On the Zen Living list, we have been discussing emotions, particularly anger, and there have been some particularly good comments made about it. One sangha member suggests Zen teaches that "true stillness is to be found only in action". I like that perspective and see its truth. It reminds us of the third pure precept, to bring about good for all beings.

Yet, Zen is, in a sense, really more about the stillness before the action. Emotions, thoughts, and actions are interconnected. Because this is so, they affect one another and are affected by one another. A change in one, therefore, affects a change in another. Because this is so, if we change an action, say, we are silent when provoked, escalation of ill-feeling is less possible. Moreover, our ability to be present during conflict increases. Our "enemies" are without sails to puff up.

Zazen is a skill that when practiced, acts like this. It is a practice of maintaining presence regardless of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors within us or outside of us. It precedes them.

When attacked, we parry with the least resistance, but practice not to return a blow.

First (like the Dalai Lama) we see the person attacking us as being in a state of wanting happiness, not wanting suffering. This person shares our human reality: we each want to be free from suffering and often see other's behavior as the cause of our suffering. In truth, we are the cause of our own suffering however, built through our ideas about how our lives (or others) "should" be. Yet, if we just do what is right and good to do, without drama, no issue.

Therefore, when we see a wrong, we right it without emotional attachment or investment in it. We do the right thing without thinking, "I'm doing the right thing". No worries, as my son is fond of saying.

I like to think of this as clarity in action. There is synchronicity between the event, the thought, the feeling, and the behavior and that synchronicity involves an open mind. It is here that our practice is so very helpful. "Thought arises, open mind, return to breath; feeling arises, open mind, return to breath; action happens, open mind, return to breath."

This "open mind" is the action of seeing the whole situation and deliberately letting go, This "return to breath" is the deliberate and complete mechanism for letting go.

No reason to pursue the rabbit down the hole and seek the causes of our feelings. Just notice, open, and breathe.

Now to practice.

Be well.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Humility v Humiliation

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Last night was wonderful. We had the distinct pleasure of attending the "Red & Black Ball" introducing the Pam American Dance Institute, an aspect of the New Mexico State University's Dance Department to the Las Cruces community. Throughout this elegant evening we were treated to hors d'oeuvres, drinks, a wonderful dinner and delightful dance performances, as well as live music and dancing with Bob Burns and the Mike Caranda Orchestra. The whole affair took place on the spacious patio plaza of the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

The dance pieces were sensuously Pan American, tango, rumba, and Flamenco, but also included modern dance renditions that were just wonderful. Toward the end of the evening we were all invited to share the dance floor! Right, just after being lifted into a near dream state by such delightful body renditions of human passion and love, I don't think so.

I thought about dancing, even asked My Little Honey to dance a waltz, she declined thinking I did not know how to dance a real waltz, Sometime later I told her I actually do know how to dance this form, but by then it was too late. Besides, My Left Foot wasn't behaving. As a day wears on, My Left Foot's ability to move wears out. so, by most evenings I drag it about, sometimes walking as if I were drunk, and other times just stumbling. Last night was one of those nights.

Anyway, I had a dream last night, a terrifying dream actually. It involved pieces of my life which involved public humiliation as regards my ability to physically function. I recall saying to a karate instructor (in my dream) that I was getting worse and was no longer able to use my left arm and leg at all without serious spastic consequences.

As I woke, I thought about the relationship[ between humility (a positive virtue in spiritual matters) and humiliation, a not so good condition of being humbled by others.

What is this? What is the relationship between "humble", "humility", and "humiliation"? They all share the same root,(L.) humilus, which means lowly, earthy, grounded and the word is related to the root Latinate for human being, humus or homo.

I am wondering if we practice to allow ourself to drop away, to render ourselves as humble human beings, and we are successful, how then, can we ever be humiliated? Is the sense of humiliation, which is what I was experiencing trying to walk at the Ball last night, an indicator of practice "success" or, to be honest, a lack thereof? I don't know. Perhaps, in the end, it really doesn't matter. It is the practice itself that matters.

The more we practice humility, the less vulnerable to humiliation we can be.

Be well.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Being Awake

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The morning air is a little chilly. I did my evening practice period with my home zendo window open and as I entered the room this morning, it was pretty nippy in there. I have a penchant for fresh air, I think, and this gets me into trouble at times. I almost always would rather have a window open than closed and really dislike air conditioning systems as they require closed windows.

There is something exhilarating about crisp morning air. I recall at the Mountain Refuge stepping out onto the deck at night feeling the crisp, cold air or in the early morning facing an early mist in the meadow below. These were special moments that grounded me in space and time.

Zazen is like that. The practice of seated meditation can be thoroughly grounding, not just emotionally or psychologically, but literally in space and time. This is because when we practice zazen, the moment is completely alive, vibrant and very, very real. When done properly, we sit erect, upright, with complete attention to the present moment as it is: air cold, air hot; breeze, no breeze; sounds, no sounds, just as it is.

Air conditioning, closed windows, enclosed spaces, these are the same as putting a headset on during zazen and taking a magical mystery tour. Pleasant, but not zazen. Artificial environments need to be as unobtrusive as possible. Open space, free flowing air, the sounds and sights of our environment, even if its a city environment link us to our actual reality.

We say, 'who wants to smell bus fumes, or hear car horns, or ambulance sirens.' I say, 'I do.' If this is my environment I need to confront it. Live in it. Appreciate it. Know what needs to change. If our world is to get better we should not escape from it and live as if it is otherwise.

One of the reasons I support Zoos is that we humans are far too easily able to forget we share this globe with myriad other creatures. I support fresh produce because we are too easily able to forget where our food comes from. I support walking and running because we too easily forget how dependent we are on machine transportation and how far away from being in-touch with our actual bodies we are.

Today, consider walking someplace rather than driving; consider opening windows rather than closing them; consider making something from scratch rather than taking something from a package. Smell life, taste life. Wake up.

Be well.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Kindness Practice

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

It is a beautiful morning here in southern New Mexico. I am always appreciative of the sun's light and our deep blue skies. On the way home from Memphis Tuesday I noticed I was beginning to feel under the weather, yesterday a full blown cold emerged and today I feel a bit cloudy with the symptomatic treatments of aspirin and benadryl. I'm also taking Zicam and drinking plenty of water. In spite of this I did go to meditation last night at the Temple, though I passed on the Peace Vigil. I am a believer in maintaining a set of habits, a daily regimen, if you will, and allow limited excuses in my own life.

I'm reading a new book out by Jeffrey Hopkins, former translator for the Dalai Lama, entitled, "A Truthful Heart: Buddhist practices for connecting with others" and in it he says one one year or so of the Dalai Lama's teaching tour, the Dalai Lama's message was a simple and clear one, "Everyone wants happiness and doesn't want suffering." At first a very simple statement, almost a platitude, yet, when we think about it, there is much in these words to give us pause regarding our own behavior.

On one level he is saying we are all the same, everyone wants happiness, no one wants to suffer. Yet, in order to be happy and not suffer, we typically seem to expect others to be in service to our happiness and not support our suffering.

I know I want My Little Honey to pay attention to me, my moods, my abilities or lack of abilities, expecting her to make my life easier by not making me suffer. What does this do for her happiness, her lack of suffering?

If I truly behaved according to the principle, "Everyone wants happiness, no one wants suffering" I would see her as I see myself and treat her in ways that reduce her suffering. So, you see, it depends on your starting point. If we begin with the practice of reducing suffering and increasing happiness for others as the method of reducing our own suffering and increasing our own happiness, everyone is happy. But if we begin with "how can someone else make me happy and reduce my suffering" we are focusing our attention on ourselves, our feelings become the barometer of social happiness.

The Dalai Lama made a brilliant statement to Dr. Hopkins one day, he said, "Society is kindness". By this he meant to actually equate kindness with the possibility and actuality of society. While teaching sociology I often made a similar statement that we should treat all people as kin, that is, with familial kindness. When we do this, everyone is our brother and sister, everyone springs from the same place, breathes the same air, wants the very same basic things: happiness and freedom from suffering.

As we practice our Zen, the clarity of such things becomes real. When we practice to let open the hand of thought, nothing attaches and we can be present, really present for others. As we are present for others, we are deeply present for ourselves.

We are One.

Be well.