Zen 101

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Relax and Be Free

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning was a chilly 45 degrees according to my thermometer as we headed out the door to meet friends Eve and Allen for a brisk morning walk. Actually, I needed less brisk, but then there was a morning breeze with that chilled air, so we naturally had a quick pace. Somewhere along the way I asked Allen to slow down. It was a rest/easy walk day for me.

In practice it is important to know the aim of your practice. Its part of the discipline. This is the meaning of that old saying, "When sitting, sit; when walking, walk: above all don't wobble". We do not sit zazen then in the middle of a sitting period decide to begin chanting practice. Likewise, if running a long, slow run, we don't in the middle decide to do speed repeats. Each practice has its place and its purpose.

Many of us are impatient, however, and think more is better. In training this leads to injury or burnout. In Zen practice, the same: we become so goal focused that we are caught in the goal. Like tugging on a Chinese puzzle, the harder we try to get free, the tighter the weave holds us in place. Relax and we are free.

Be well.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Team Zen

Good Morning Again,

A Team Zen Update: This morning I did a hard hill repeat workout (8 repeats) in the desert on sandy trails and steep hills. I completed 1.75 miles in total. My modest training schedule is as follows: Sunday, long run; Monday easy walk; Tuesday, desert hill repeats with a trail run base; Wednesday, easy walk; Thursday, interval run; Friday, easy walk; Saturday, off.

Shortly I will add a little biking, easy kick boxing, and some free weight training again, but I need to get a base established first. (Our garage is almost ready to act as a gym.)

I plan to increase my distance, repeat numbers, and interval numbers by 10% or so weekly, with the goal of completing the 15 mile portion of the Bataan Death March in March 2009.

For those of you who don't know, we had a "Team Zen" at the Zen Center for a couple of years and did local races. We made t-shirts that had "Stillness in Motion" printed on the backs. It was a lot of fun.

Fitness Training is an excellent Zen practice as it requires focused attention in repetition. The practitioner places his/her complete attention on the body and breath, integrating that with the physical environment while in motion. Some, while doing long distance running, get a sense of "zoning out" which is not exactly a good thing, nor is it good Zen. Zen training, whether seated Zen or Zen in motion, requires moment-to-moment attention. It is not about an altered state, but about waking up and being present.

I would be interested in hearing about your training. Maybe we can reestablish a team and find a race in the future to do together.

Be well.

A Refuge Weekend

With Palms Together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Our weekend went well in the mountains. As we arrived there was a person there looking at the property. The refuge is still for sale, technically, as there is a real estate contract in place, but we will only accept a very good (close to asking price) offer for the place and I would have many regrets selling it. On the other hand, it does require a degree of work we are no longer able to commit to (or do) on a regular basis. Its nearly six acres of fenced forest with a meadow, a wood burning cook stove requiring chopped wood, and water to be pumped from holding or collection tanks to the gravity feed tank on the ridge behind the house. The vegetation nearly took over the place this summer. I am anticipating fence repair as trees inevitably fall across fences in the winter. This means getting out the chain saw. Goodness.

On the upside, son Jason and daughter-in-law Maggie did a great job doing much of the work. Jason got the 4 wheeler going and used it to flatten out much of the rampaging Russian thistle. He then got out the scythe and began swinging it. Maggie and Jason both chopped wood. Maggie and I rolled some cut rounds down off the ridge that Ken Roshi had cut a couple of years ago to age.

We did lots of laundry. Judy cooked. Olivia played and played. She is one fearless and rambunctious 3 year old.

In between I had time to do sitting-in-the-recliner meditation. Every once in a while I would light a stick of incense, bow, and sit unobtrusively in the recliner and settle my attention. Occasionally, this would result in a nap.

At the conclusion of the visit, Maggie, Olivia and Judy left very early. Jason packed up and winterized; I cleaned the house, mopped, and polished the floors. He loaded up the ATV on a trailer (he wants to do some work on it here in Cruces and (of course) ride it in the desert) and we drove down off the mountain and across the desert.

Last night we practiced meditation at Temple Beth El. It is a smaller and smaller group. I am considering ending it so that I can free up Monday evening for regular Zen Meditation at Clear Mind Zendo. What do you think?

Be well.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Becoming a Sage

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Yesterday we spent the morning with friends at the hospital. Our friend, Ken Kessen, underwent another major oral surgery to remove areas of his mouth affected by cancer and other issues. Please keep him and his wife, Deana, in your thoughts and prayers.

Being with friends as they struggle is something we are becoming quite familiar with. I think it is a sign of our particular age and place in the life-cycle. I was talking with someone at Temple yesterday who is witnessing her parents age and deteriorate in these, their final years. She said she wished God had set things up so that we live until we go out like sparklers. I understand the sentiment. Some of us are for sure fortunate if we die in our sleep with little to no warning. Yet, on the other hand, a process of dying has its advantages, as well.

While I would not wish long periods of painful suffering on anyone, I do think, aging itself is a stage of life that can be useful to all. We learn so much from each other about the nature of life, about friendships and family, and about our relationship with our bodies. In essence, we have the opportunity to become sages.

Events in our lives, painful events, can lead us to curse God and life itself. We ask the eternal questions, all beginning with "why?!" Yet, there are no answers really, at least none that are satisfying. It is in our nature, though, to ask. We want to make sense of our experiences. Yet, the sense we can make is limited to our tools, our senses, our brain, etc. Some things are just out of their scope.

When we encounter such things, it is best, in my opinion, to see them for what they are, processes of life, rather than part of some plan of an Infinite being. When we experience without judging the experience, knowing all experience is passing, I think we can more easily attend to the experience itself. Attending to experience is the essence of life. That, friends, may be its true meaning: it is the essence of being a sage.

May we all be free from suffering,

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Feeling good about the market rebound yesterday, I cautioned myself. It is important not to let our emotions determine our mood. What? Our emotions are our mood, you say. Not so.

Our mood may be a reflection of our emotional state, but our mood, it seems to me, is much more complex than that. Mood and attitude: our stance with regard to ourselves and our world is an aggregate of thought, feeling, behavior, and core beliefs. Our mood, then, is a dynamic reflection of our core beliefs, our core selves.

Mood. I really do not like that word so much. I prefer not to be in a mood or moody. I prefer to be present. If I am happy, I am happy; if angry, angry. An overflow of feeling into mood is not comfortable, nor is it good for us.

One of the best ways to make our mood stable is to recognize that thoughts and feelings are not us; they are transient reflections of our core beliefs. Our brains produce thoughts, we respond with feelings, and the whole complex filters through our core beliefs. I am of the opinion, that our core beliefs can be changed, can be "watered" as Thich Nhat Hahn points out and grown into magnificent flowers of loving-kindness, balance, and beauty, thus allowing us to be at peace even in the midst of unhappy circumstances.

When we practice to nurture the seeds of compassion, we become compassionate. When we water the seeds of loving-kindness, we become loving-kindness. And when we water the seeds of equanimity and non-attachment, we become balance itself.

The skeptics might say at this point, "No, actually, you become all wet!" But in truth, we can never get enough nurturance. We are social beings who grow through love.

So, if I am not my mood, my thoughts, my feelings, or my core beliefs as these are in constant flux, then what am I?

Be well.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Varieties of Religious Experience

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Last night we had Sunday dinner with our son, Jason, his wife Maggie, and our granddaughter, Olivia. Sunday dinner is a family tradition that began when our children moved out of the house after high school. They were invited to come to dinner on Sunday and could bring friends with adequate notice. Over time we amassed a few ex-girlfriends and an occasional ex-boyfriend, who would continue to visit even after they were "ex's". Our dinners were always open and inviting and we truly appreciated getting to know the people in our children's lives. Now that we have children once again in the neighborhood, we are delighted to continue this tradition.

Anyway, last night Olivia discovered the Zendo. At three years old, she was quite impressed with its emptiness. The gong and small bell delighted her, the mokugyo made her stop and take notice with its deep, wooden sound. I taught her to sit, gassho, and bow. But most of all we enjoyed the sounds of the instruments of Zen. Earlier in the day, Olivia attended our Temple's "Training Wheels" program, a sort of early preschool program to get children and parents ready for the Religious School. This is a true variety of religious experience. I wonder what William James would have thought of this.

In truth, the Infinite lives in every experience.

Be well,

Saturday, October 11, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning All,

Nothing is forever. Oh, how we resist this simple truth! Beaches erode, we attempt to shore them up; age takes its toll, we attempt to repair or prevent it; our economy goes to the dogs and, yes, we try to buttress it, prevent the loss of our fortunes. Everything changes: its the nature of the universe.

Yet, our safety is threatened. Our comfort and security is in question, not in some far off desert, but right here on Main Street.

What to do.

A few months ago I was threatened with a serious reduction in my pension. I freaked. We were in the process of our credit review and the closing processes on our new house. My mind was not as elastic as I had hoped.

What I did: I saw my psychiatrist; I took time to sleep, to practice meditation, but I also took the time to engage the VA and the DAV. I was committed to health regardless of outcome.

Zazen helps us see clearly that life is a full process of birth and death...to the point that we see there is no real birth or death, just universal process. In this we come to relax a bit. Life goes on. We really have all that we need. Like trauma teaches, we learn to value this moment itself regardless of its particular flavor.

Counseling helps us as we begin to sort and organize: we develop priorities, we learn to respond appropriately.

Engaging the problem directly, with as little emotional tidal wave behind us as possible, is also wise. We must assume responsibility for our priorities, our decisions, and the consequences of those decisions.

Lastly, we must be willing to teach ourselves to let go of that we cannot change. We cannot be responsible as individuals for the world and the world's economy. We can only do what we can do on our own level, then let the rest go.

So difficult. We are addicted to news, to up to the millisecond computer reports, and a thought that if we are only fast enough and wise enough, we can save ourselves. Perhaps.

The greater truth is that we are not our wealth or our possessions; we are not our status in the world or the power of our armies. We are just people, little buddhas, who need to awaken.

Practice mindful attention, practice zazen, practice life.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Another Day

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

It is early morning. The air is incredibly still. Pete-kitty has joined me on my desk and Tripper is at my feet. Shortly I will leave them for the Zendo, but for now they are wonderful furry company.

We have just completed our yearly "Days of Awe" where we open ourselves to a New Year and work hard to examine ourselves and our relationships so that we might repair them, address wrongs we might have done, and close things out so that we might begin our new year with fresh eyes and a fresh heart. Sometimes we are more successful than other times.

In Zen we chant a verse of Atonement daily. A new translation from Soto Shu says it this way:

All my past and harmful karma,
born from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion,
through body, speech, and mind.
I now fully avow.

It is very important for us as human beings to examine ourselves, to know ourselves intimately. We should know what makes us tick. We should connect the dots between thought, feeling and behavior and everything in between. We should avow these connections, see them for what they are, and forgive ourselves and others as we move through this complex and often deeply ambiguous life.

This is a daily process. One which must really be moment to moment. We should ask ourselves often how we are doing. Have we been thoughtful, kind, compassionate? Have we been courageous and stood our moral ground against oppression, discrimination, or other toxins in society?

To be human is not to sit around navel gazing: it is to be fully engaged with the universe. Its best to do this while awake.

Be well.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

High Maintenance

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

In the morning, the early morning, the air has a stillness that is just so inviting to the soul. There is a clear sense of the earth having rested, settled, and in the east a rising sense of expectation. Of course these "senses" are not real, they are perceptions of a mind joined with that earth.

Perceptions are a funny thing. They come in different shapes and sizes and, more than likely, are fairly distorted by a perceiver's point of view. In Zen we work to cut through these distortions, to see as clearly as is possible what is actually there, only to discover nothing, a vast emptiness of process. Even this process is not real, it is but a mental construct, and explanation our mind offers to name what we experience.

Recently, My Little Honey and I had a few words over whether or not I was "high maintenance." It seems others who know us have commented that I am a high maintenance sort of person. I took great offense at this perception and actually was deeply hurt by it. My understanding of the phrase refers to a rather shallow, self absorbed being who demands much care and attention.

Through our discussion, though, another point of view emerged. It seems My Little Honey recognizes my needs as a person with challenges, sets herself aside, and takes care to meet my needs all without a word. This point of view suggests that high maintenance does not refer to the shallow nature of a demanding materialist, but rather to a person with special needs.

Either view is a challenge for me as I have prided myself in being able to take care of myself and steadfast refusal to seek the assistance of others. Competency is a high value in my lexicon.

Yet here it is: we are all aging, gradually loosing our abilities to be independent and in a relationship, as My Little Honey wisely points out, we should care for each other and pick up the slack for each other. We call this nurturance.

Sometimes a desire to be independent and competent is an obsession that no longer is a virtue, but rather becomes an obstacle to a loving life.

Be well.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Clearly fall is upon us here in southern New Mexico. The early morning sky was seriously overcast as the mountains were nearly hidden in them. Lightning flashed in the pre-dawn. It has rained a coldish, miserable sort of rain and much of the landscape has that gray look that always seems to accompany a seasonal temperature drop.

I stood outside by the rock wall cleaning i-robot of this morning gatherings of dust and dog hair. It was pretty wet and nippy. Marvelous light on majestic mountains was my backdrop. Robot is recharging now and I am enjoying a little coffee. Zazen went well, if not a tad droopy. Of late, I seem to have little energy.

Here's the thing: such things come and go and I firmly believe they are tightly connected to our inner self. When we are purposeful, we feel better; when we are in motion, we feel better. The key is to have an aim and be in motion at the same time while then re-enforce the positive thoughts and feelings as they naturally arise in the process.

Today is a good day to begin. Its the beginning of a new week, I teach my last Jewish Spirituality class for this session, and the clouds are supposed to break in the afternoon.

"For you see,
We are the result of the desire of awareness,
And the prayer of the Creator,
To comprehend itself."
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Clear Mind Zendo

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Clear Mind Zendo had a crowd last night. Hmmm. Two people, Bobby and John, came up from El Paso, very gracious of them both! And two local students, Rev. Kajo and Colette, were present. My maximum seating is six including myself, so it was a good test of the Zendo to accommodate a "full house" :)

This Zendo is intended for Zen students to come and sit with me. It is not a Zen Center, per se. I do not intend on incorporating, filing church papers with the state, or any other such nonsense. It is only a place to practice zazen and touch the Dharma.

So, I woke this morning with a sense of accomplishing a purpose. We all should have an aim in our lives, not an obsession, but a direction.
Mine I suppose is to be a religious teacher to any who approach me knowing I have nothing to teach. For a student to know this he must have some basis in practice already. Zen is like that.

Be well.

Announcements: We will sit this Saturday morning at 8:00 AM as it is the first Saturday of the month. If you wish to sit with me, please call in advance to reserve a space. Also, consider attending Rohatsu sesshin the first weekend of December. We will be in retreat at the Refuge in Cloudcroft. The sesshin will begin at 7:00 PM on Friday evening on the 5th and close at noon on the 7th. Phone reservations at 575-521-3711.

Thank you.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

I woke a little late this morning, passing by my wrist alarm as if it were a pesky fly. So, zazen will come after this missive. It is Wednesday. Today we sit at the peace vigil at 4:30 PM and again in the Zendo at 7:00 PM. For reasons I cannot recall other than the vague sense of family and moving issues, I have not been at the vigils for several weeks now. So, I look forward to returning to this practice. Especially now that the weather is not quite as hot. Besides, this is a new year for me and an opportunity to re-commit to peace action.

Peace is a tricky thing. Peace activists cover the waterfront from complete pacifists to those who are simply opposed to this war (the one in Iraq). Some Zen Masters might say we can be at complete peace while swiftly cutting the head off an opponent. Most others might say, surrender all violence and consider all alternatives to violent action in the cause of peace. I am somewhere in there. To not kill also means to support and defend life.

We must understand that there are those who do not believe in peace or hold it in esteem as a virtue. These are dangerous people who do not value life for itself but only life in service to a belief system, a state, or a practice. It makes no sense to surrender one's life to them in the cause of peace. On the other hand, it does not make sense to kill them either or celebrate their deaths.

We should strive to find a middle way, a path between violent action and complete surrender. A commitment to peace is a commitment to life itself. Let this be a guiding principle.

Be well.