Zen 101

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sitting Still

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Last night our small group of dedicated meditators sat Zazen at Temple Beth El. We sat upright, focusing our attention on our breath, and were simply present. The sanctuary has its own sounds. Temperature changes as the sun goes down cause buckling sounds to crack and pop slicing through the silence that otherwise pervades the building.

Two periods of Zazen, one period of Kinhin. I talked about moving our Zen mind from the cushion to our relationships, how self arises to defend, agree, or parry our partner. We talked a little about how thoughts seem to race sometimes, teasing us almost, to break away from our concentration. It was an open and easy discussion. Then we went into the social hall for tea and cookies.
Earlier in the afternoon, with the sun blazing and the temperature at about 100 degrees, I sat Zazen holding a small umbrella on the sidewalk at the Federal Building. I propped my small placard, which simply reads, "PEACE" against my knee. As I sat, I heard horns "Honk for Peace" , felt the sweat bead and flow down my nose, drip off my eye brows, and fall into the dark oblivion of my samue pants. The sweat seemed to measure the minutes.

These two periods of meditation were very different. One challenged me to sit still under very adverse conditions, the other challenged me to be present and not drift away into the wonderful stillness of the Temple sanctuary. In the end, our practice is like that, we practice according to the conditions of our lives. In this way, our very lives become our practice.

Be well.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Zen of Relationship

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning Judy, Eve, Allen and me hiked through the desert, a desert saturated by summer rains. I have never seen our desert so lush, green everywhere. There were grasses growing on the desert floor and flowering plants in bloom everywhere. We took a trail we don't take very often and then went up an arroyo. The arroyo was a wide swath cut wider and deeper by the recent raging water coming down from the Organ mountains. From the arroyo we bush whacked across the ridges to get back to another trail that would take us to our starting point. By the time we were done, we were really feeling the effects of rugged hiking. After a breakfast of cold cereal we talked extensively. Judy and I do this from time to time. Sometimes its pleasant, sometimes not, but in the end, we feel closer together for it.
How does Zen fit into our relationships with each other? Buddhists are often accused of being self-absorbed naval gazers. Zen is often practiced in silence, facing a wall, and is known to be quite introspective. What then is the Zen of relationships? As My Little Honey has often pointed out, "There is the Zen of everything, why don't I ever hear about relationships?"

What might be the practice principles of relational Zen?

I suspect they are similar to all Zen principles: a focus on attending to the moment, as it is, and for the activity occurring within it. It is not about blanking out or zoning out when in the middle of a stressful conversation with a loved one. Nor is it about not being upset or angry. The Zen of relationships is about our relationship to our relationship. And its about being authentic in the process.

Are we present in our relationship? Do we open ourselves to our partner? Do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable? Are we compassionate or do we close the door to our open heart as soon as the going gets tough?

I know from my point of view, a view not always shared by My Little Honey, I am a compassionate and caring person, present in the moment most of the time. But I am not always there for her and I am not always open or compassionate. The balance is not just between who and what am I there for, it goes deeper than that.

We speak of non-self, of dropping away of self, of the fact that self is itself an illusion. Yet, wherever we go, there we are. Self is present. Its our relationship to it that matters so much. When we start with self, big problem. When we start with other, also big problem. Our start and finish really must be in our relationship with everything.

When I say "I", I am including the universe within that construct. I and other are one. Maybe we should replace "I" with "we" in most of our conversations, including internal conversations. Maybe "We" Zen is the Zen of relationship. Sort of like Martin Buber's I-Thou word pair. We must consider Big Mind and Small Mind as One Mind. Just so, "I" and "You" are "We", a singularity of its own, but complete and universal.

Yet all of this comes to nothing, is mere mental masturbation, if we do not have the willingness or develop the skill to apply it.

What do you think are the skills necessary to apply the Zen of Relationship?

Be well.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Getting Through

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I see the sun shining in through sporadic cloud cover. We have been flooded with rain over the last three days beginning Friday. I hear the Rio Grande is close to cresting near El Paso. A news story suggested we had nine inches of rain in the Sacramento mountains which includes Ruidoso and Cloudcroft. Our Refuge is in the mountains east of Cloudcroft.

We shared the weekend there with two other couples, close friends of ours. Who knew it would be such a weekend! Sheets of rain all day and night over two days left the dirt road a river. We spent the weekend reading and talking, cooking and eating. One set of friends had a camper, the other set, a tent. It turns out both camper and tent sprung leaks. The second night we spent together inside the refuge. I practiced much meditation, the non-apparent kid. Sitting in a recliner focusing on just being present. I read through Thich Nhat Hahn's wonderful little book on The Energy of Prayer, as well as several chapters from a book (Brave New Judaism) on the collision between science and scripture within Judaism. I also read through a few of Suzuki Roshi's teishos in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (I keep a hardcover copy of this at the Refuge). Other people read novels and whatever else they could find in the library. We had no radio, no television, and no computer Internet connection.

When it was time to leave we discovered the west exit was blocked by a river that eclipsed the road and followed it for some fifty or sixty feet nor could anticipate the flooding along the west exit, the same single lane dirt road that winds its way through the mountains down to the main road. We were prepared to spend additional days at the Refuge, but really were feeling a bit anxious about it all. A call to the Sheriff's office by us and a neighbor's ranch was responded to by a brave young man in a big Sheriff's truck. He informed the ranch people that the size of their vehicles (horse trailers and RVs) would prohibit their exit on the west exit. He thought we had a chance of getting out and he was willing to lead us out.

Our friend, pulling a camper, got seriously stuck on the muddy bottom of the refuge near the gate. We detached the camper and the Sheriff's Deputy was able to free him from the mud. We all then proceeded very gingerly out the west exit. There were moments when I really didn't think the little Honda Fit Judy and I were driving was going to make it. Some places the dirt road was a virtual river with six to eight inches of rushing water over fifty or sixty feet in length. Very scary stuff indeed.

We are now home safe and sound. I feel a great sense of relief. Yet I also feel very good about our group of friends, none of whom panicked, all of whom gathered together to meet the challenge.

Observant Jews are obligated to recite a prayer of thanks to God after surviving a harrowing circumstance like a flood. The prayer is as follows:

Transliteration: Baruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam Ha-go-mel Le-cha-ya-vim To-vot She-ge-ma-la-ni Tov.
Translation: Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for God has bestowed goodness to me.

Zen Buddhists, on the other hand, might have a somewhat different take. We might say there is never any danger, that danger is a mental construct built from fear and anticipatory thoughts. In circumstances such as driving through flooding waters on desolate mountain roads, we should just drive. In the end was it God who got us through? The cars? The circumstances? Our driving? The Sheriff? We should recognize and appreciate all of these. We are aware that everything is One. It is our faith in ourselves, God, and this interconnected universe that can get us through.

Be well.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Three Prnciples of Zen

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This week I go to Peace Village again to offer meditation instruction and practice to the younger children. I have found that young children can practice Zazen very well for short periods. They have open minds and are willing to learn. This openness is key. It is awareness itself. To be open with no closed openings is to allow everything to flow. One of the principles of Zen is open-mindedness.

A second principle is the principle of moving from inside out. We begin our practice, that is, come to Zen, with an interest in ourselves. We wish to improve, remove an obstacle, solve a problem, find happiness. As we develop our practice we discover our deep interconnected nature, we release our interest in ourselves and open ourselves to an interest in others. We come to an awareness, a recognition, that we and others are actually one. Taking care of ourselves is taking care of others: taking care of others is taking care of ourselves. The universe is our home and we are our universe.

The third principle, then, is the principle of deep caring. Deep caring is based in an opening that allows our compassionate heart to emerge and guide us through our daily activity. This compassionate heart is our Buddha-nature. Tenderness, love, a willingness to listen: these arise from our Buddha-nature. Zazen puts us in touch with these. Mindful practice allows us to touch these.

May you each be a blessing in the universe today.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Its a gray morning this morning. Although the temperatures are lower, the humidity is higher, and things feel close. At 7:00 AM our neighbor, who just recently moved in, rang our doorbell. She held her kitty in her arms. The cat was dead, killed by accident in her garage door. We invited her in, listened, and helped by calling until we found a local veterinary clinic that was open. We took her and her cat to the vet to have it cremated. Life is so unpredictable.

From there, Talmud class and a discussion surrounding issues related to "times of danger" when Jews were vulnerable to having their newly wed wives deflowered by local rulers. Was she obligated to kill herself or submit? Legal discussions blend with morality and ethics, culture and culture clash, through a long history closely documented and richly discussed.

And now, at home with a cup of coffee and dogs sleeping at my feet, I am looking forward to being still for awhile. I have my living room windows open, a fan on, and the light is a wonderfully muted gray. It is Shabbat. A day of rest, study and prayer. I am reading two books simultaneously. A book on Jewish ethical issues related to science and a Thich Nhat Hahn book on prayer. One balances the other. We should always be willing to reflect and consider, bringing mercy and compassion into the equation.

Whether its Zen for a few minutes a day, or Judaism with morning prayers, or Christians in prayer, time in stillness is essential to making sense of both our world and our lives. May you each build stillness into your lives.

Be well.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Zen Buddhism

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Zen Buddhism is the practice of the Middle Way. A way between extremes, the practice informs us, teaches us, and frees us from greed, hatred and delusion. It is, and isn't, a religion, a philosophy, a way of life. Its a way of being in the world.

We practice Zen Buddhism in order to be at peace. We practice Zen Buddhism to be present. We practice Zen Buddhism to live.

What do Zen Buddhists believe? Whatever they want. Zen Buddhism is not about belief or worldview or cosmic conflict: its about residing in peace.

Are there articles of faith? No. There are instead principles of practice. The focus is on experiencing the truth of your life as it is in this moment.

Zen Buddhism does not focus on the past or the future.

The principles of practice are simple. On the interior, be stillness. On the exterior, stop doing evil, do good, and work to bring about good for all. How hard is that?

Be well.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Making Peace

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
This week I go to Peace Camp each morning to conduct a morning meditation with the children attending. I am looking forward to this. It is a delight to sit with children. They are always fresh and interested in something new. Peace Camp is hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Church here in Las Cruces, but is supported by several other churches, the synagogue, and Clear Mind Zen Sangha, as well as many local organizations and businesses.

So, we will sit in the sanctuary and be still. Starting the day with attention to our breath. We will make a vow to bring peace into the universe by making ourselves the very peace we desire.

I encourage each of you to sit in peace this morning then to get up from your cushions and make peace in the world.

Be well.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Life As It Is

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

To practice Zazen is to practice enlightenment itself. We take our seat with complete deliberation. We sit down, gather ourselves together, assume he cosmic mudra and remain present. This being upright, being present, is the heart of practice. It is life itself. In this practice there is no reliance on anything but your own willingness to stay in the moment. No text, no sutra, no mantra, no mandala: just this: life as it is.

In this presence, everything opens. The mind is not processing, appearance comes and goes. Sounds come and go, as do feelings and all other senses. Nothing gets stuck, everything flows.

When we look back on this experience we see its cosmic implication. If we are willing to set aside the "I", life itself can be seen clearly for what it is, a continuous, unfolding process. Our "I" is like a dam constructed to halt the flow. We want to keep this slice of the process, this life as it is. But stopping the process is impossible and our thoughts that we can an illusion.

Practicing Zazen teaches us to let go.

What enters when everything opens? Life itself. The Infinite. And in this moment we see how naming is counter-productive, even futile. The Infinite, the Absolute, Jesus, Allah, Big Mind...all are weak constructs that when used close us off to the actuality of experience. Buddhists try to avoid discussions of what this is. Jews rely on no-name names like "Ha Shem" (the name) to point without describing. Both focus on practice rather than belief

We are left with practice.

I invite each of you to take up this practice regardless of your religion. Zazen will not only deepen your relationship to the universe, but open your heart to it.
Be well.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I woke to the need to drive to the store to buy coffee. It seems we used the last of our coffee last night. Early morning store runs are always interesting. The grocery is just opening, few shoppers, clean floors, the beginnings of hustle and bustle. I chose a dark roast by Folgers, something called Black Silk. I am no coffee expert, clearly. I like ordinary coffee and avoid Starbucks altogether. We'll see how this new stuff tastes.

When we lived in the Refuge and made coffee in a stove top percolator, the aroma of the cedar woodfire seemed to add something to the coffee. And for the longest time we used a small French press here in the city, but my son recently bought us some sort of super duper coffee maker and now we are in the modern age.

I am not so sure the modern age is all its cracked up to be. Labor saving devices make us fat and lazy. Further, and most importantly, they take us away from the nature of the processes, divorcing us, if you will, from nature itself. When I was young, changing the channel on the television meant getting up and walking to the TV to manually turn the dial. And when I was really young, visiting my grandfather, our TV was the front porch of his farm house. Degrees of separation. Today we hardly move to entertain ourselves. It is truly a question as to whether this is an advancement.

The Zen way is the way of involvement in the process. Mindful attention to detail. When we make the coffee, even in a new, modern, coffee maker, we should be aware of the feel and smell of the coffee as we scoop it from the can. We should remind ourselves of the many hands and lives that went into bringing that coffee and the coffee maker to us. In this way we re-connect ourselves to the larger world, even to the universe itself.

In the Zen way, the everyday becomes our prayer.

Be well.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Enjoy the Everyday

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

We so often look for wonder in the big places, the edge of the Grand Canyon, some mountain peak, the completion of a grand dream like running a marathon, and while these are wondrous to be sure, to seek wonder solely in them often blinds us to the wonder in the ordinary. We often here people say, 'what's so special' about this or that. We hear people talk with dreamy eyes about planned adventures, sometimes to exotic places, and I feel good for them, but at the same time, sad.

Each and every day has its wonder. We wake in the morning to see a sun rise. We see the darkness turn to light. We hear the world wake up. My Little Honey brings me a cup of coffee. It tastes really good. I watch Tripper as he dances in dogged excitement waiting for his turn to go outside and smell the world. Ordinary wonders.

As we sit in the stillness of Zazen, we begin to notice the details of the moment. These details are often obscured in everyday life by the sheer volume and variety of activity in our lives. How does my back feel just here, or my toes feel as they begin to go to sleep ten minutes into Zazen? How do I witness my response to thoughts or feelings as I sit without physical response, except to return to my breath? We might hear a clock tick or the air flow through the ducts in our building. On one level, the wonders of life go on with or without our involvement.

Yet it is equally true that there is no wonder in life without us. In a sense, we add wonder to our experience. And therein lies the problem: we become addicts. What we need isn't so much wonder, big or small, but rather, appreciation. Our practice isn't the seeking of wonder, but appreciating the actual moment. No special trips necessary.

When we appreciate, deeply appreciate, each moment, a moment becomes eternal.

Be well.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Just Zen

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The sun rises over the mountains in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I often sit with it as it does. Its a marvelous transformation of night into day, sleep to awake, and stillness to motion. We appreciate both the stillness and the motion. Eventually we come to realize they are one.

The Zen of stillness is the Zen of being seated while the world swirls around us. The Zen of motion is the Zen of being the world swirling. Awake we know there is just Zen.

Be well.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Libertarian Food for Thought

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

I just read a study at livescience.com which reported that happiness in the world in increasing. The happiest, Denmark. The unhappiest, Zimbabwe. The United States ranks 16th.

The researcher, Ronald Inglehart of The University of Michigan, says, "The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives."

In a survey released last week, pointed to one reason the US is not closer to the top: Baby Boomers are generally miserable compared to other generations.

The livescience articles adds, "Further, a public opinion poll released by the Pew Research Center in April found that 81 percent of Americans say they believe the country is on the "wrong track." The response is the most negative in the 25 years pollsters have asked the question."


Maybe we are finally getting the point that an open society is a living, dynamic, and happy thing. Efforts to make people follow this or that path are just efforts to close a system. We all know what happens to closed systems, don't we? They die.

Be well.