Zen 101

Saturday, February 28, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
Namu Kie Butsu
Namu Kie Ho
Namu Kie So.
These are the three refuges. Zen Buddhists take refuge in these. An interesting notion, actually, and not at all what is commonly thought to be the case if we look deeply at the refuges themselves.
Butsu means Buddha. On the superficial level this might mean we take refuge in the model of the man who became a Buddha, or the model of the Enlightened One himself. Yet, Buddha just means awake. In the deepest sense we are taking refuge in the state of being awake, present, mindful, and so on. So, refuge does not mean setting ourselves apart from something, but being completely in it.
Ho means Dharma. Dharma is sometimes thought of as "teaching". So this refuge is about going to the teaching of the Buddha to live. Hmmm. Buddha taught only to be awake. Still deeper, dharma means reality. So we are taking refuge in the real world, the non-dualistic world of the present moment. We might call this "thusness".
So means Sangha, the community. On a superficial level, this would be a community of monks or other like-minded people. Yet, when we are one, who is two? All are one, so we take refuge in the entire world of beings. We both take care of others and are nurtured by others. On a closer level, our community supports our practice and our practice supports our community. Zen, contrary to popular belief, should not be practiced alone. It is not about the self, but rather the Self, not about the mind, but about the Mind.
Community is important to help us along the way, teachers are important to help us to not go in directions that are unhelpful. Buddha taught a very practical practice. If it leads us to complete unexcelled awakening, it is useful, if not, avoid it.
When we open our eyes we see that there is only one community, that is the community of beings on this planet. It may be filled with color and a cacophony of sound; it may come in slow bake, half bake, or fast bake varieties; it may have right wing outliers and left wing outliers on that bell curve: but all are us and the entire curve is one.
When we take refuge, we take refuge in this truth. This is the real meaning of the truth will set you free.

Be well.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Learning Life's Lessons

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
Despite my respiratory woes, I am awake this morning at 4:30 AM, made the coffee and tea, took some medicine, and am now enjoying some juice. Thank you to each of you for your thoughts and condolences regarding my mother's passing. She had been dying for sometime and only her will had kept her from letting go.
Sometimes such a will is a good thing; others, not so good. I believe when we are hanging on out of fear it is one thing, out of appreciation for the moment's breath, quite another.
Zen practice conditions us to examine such things. We experience the gamut of human emotion and thought as we sit facing the wall. We come to know in intimate detail our motives. Eventually digging out our true self and experiencing its True Nature. At this point we attain no fear.
We are released to appreciation of everything, even our illnesses and life disasters. I know as I am sick I have said to My Little Honey in no uncertain terms, "I hate this being sick!" Or speak to her with considerably less than a compassionate voice. Still, I know these things and move quickly to apologize or recover my balance. Without Zen, there would be none of that.
Last night between coughing spasms, I stayed with my breath, noting where along its path, the cough began. I adjusted my breath, then, and coughed less, becoming able to sleep.
I am told by my doctors that this will just have to run its course. There is an epidemic of this sort of thing in the Las Cruces area. Friends have told me not to allow visitors for awhile as my immune system in compromised. This means a serious cut in my weekly activities and lots of time to just sit still or lay down.
Perhaps this is a good thing, as my schedule was getting rather full.
So, life is like this. It has a way of bringing us home. Stopping us if we don't stop ourselves. May we each get there without the necessity of illness.
Be well.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Who We Are

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

"To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to let the self fall away, to let the self fall away is to be enlightened by the myriad things." or so says Master Dogen of the 13th century..

Many "myriad" commentators have had their say about what this all means. I like to look at the lat line. When we have no self we are in a position to learn. What does this mean?

Learning requires a setting aside of what we think we know. It requires the ability and skill to listen deeply. We have lost this art in our society. As we have lost the ability to hold civil discourse.

Agendas rule. Self is so very important. We seek books, classes, and news that confirms our view rather than challenge our view.

As we practice Zen, we learn this truth. We see it in operation in our mind. We have the opportunity in the practice, to cut through the strings of delusion, anger, and greed, setting us free. In this free light, in this awakened light, we see that nothing is forever, nothing lasts more than a millisecond. W are fresh every moment.

An agenda is not a life. A sale does not a person make. Nor does his clothes.

In truth, there is no singular person. We are one, together with the Infinite. The blade of grass our master, the pebble in our shoe, our teacher.

Let us learn.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Zen is so peculiar.
Its like the sword brandished by Manjushri
cutting through delusion,
but also like Kannon who embraces us as we fall.

To practice Zen is to practice without meaning.

There is the Buddha, kill him!

There is the Buddha, embrace him!

When is Zen not peculiar? When we live directly, authentically, and don't call it Zen.
When we see a rose and really see the rose itself.
When we meet a person and see that person for himself, as he is.

But also, when the alarm rings we get up.
When its time to eat, we eat.
When we have a problem to address, we address it.

Each moment an invitation to open.
Each moment an opportunity to undress.
As the kabbalists say, 'rung upon rung!'

Going nowhere we are not already.

Be well.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

We Are Not Alone

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

We sat last night, a small group, in a very large sanctuary, bringing light into the world. I say this because we don't sit zazen for ourselves, but for all beings. As we open our eyes we see for all beings, as we take a step, we step for all beings, as we bow to our cushions, we bow for all beings. The entire universe sat in that small sanctuary last night.

Attaining this mind means some very important things. As we are one, we are all. Every action is a reflection of this oneness. To think, "I alone am responsible" is always incorrect. There is never a moment when we are alone and solely responsible. Our fathers and mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, generations of generations are with us here and now in our genes, our breath, our very touch. So too our friends and enemies, our coaches and critics: generations of generations, here, now, in this breath. How can we ever be alone?

To take a step is auspicious. Therefore, be mindfull where and how you place your foot.

Be well.

Monday, February 09, 2009

When Dogs Fly

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The morning sun has already risen over the mountains and its glaring light is blasting through our windows. Then, in the blink, cool shade. It is going to be a cloudy day here.
Or a sunny day. It depends on when your eyes are open.

Life is like that.

If our eyes are closed our world is self constructed in darkness. Imagination takes us to places unreal, chimera.

If our eyes are open and we do not see clearly, its something else again. We see our own creation, assign meaning to it, attach to it and suffer through it.

If our eyes are open and we see clearly, our reality is as it is...or as Suzuki-roshi was fond of saying, we see "things as it is". In this "state" (which is no state at all), A bird is a bird and a dog is a dog. No problem.

As the kabbalists say, though, come and see...

We say a dog is a dog and a bird is a bird. We say on the one hand they are the same, buddha nature, empty, and so on. Yet there they are, one barks and runs, the other flies and sings, different.

But birds bark and dogs sing, dogs fly and birds run. The same. How do birds run and bark as dogs fly and sing? Look deeply.

When we use our own words and phrases, big problem. Look deeply, get inside the oneness of life. There resides the answer.

Be well.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Keep Yours Close

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Having a Teflon mind is not always such a good thing. We teach ourselves not to grasp onto things, especially desires or material things, but some things are important to keep nearby, not in front of your nose mind you, but nearby.

One such thing is our love for and relationships with people.

People are the conduits for our energy flow, people are part of our whole. Relationships with friends and family allow for this flow in the least constricted fashion, keeping in mind, of course, a degree of respect and ettitquette (the forms we sometimes use as transfer and control mechanisms of our emotional energy).

Currently I have several friends who are suffering. I am still dealing with my own illness. Yet, as friends, we call on each other, rely on each other, and support each other. The result is far less suffering, free flow of our love and compassion for each other, and a clear sense of belonging.

When we reside behind self-built walls erected out of fear and anxiety, suspicion and anger, we become greedy, hateful, and deluded. We are greedy because we remain in and too ourselves, hoarding our energy. We are hateful because we suspect others are out to take our life away, miserable that it might be, and we are deluded because this is all a complete distortion created by an ego that resides in itself and cannot see --- or will not see --- its absolute interconnectivity to all things.

Zen Buddhist antidotes to these do not work without deliberation regarding Teflon Mind. The antidotes are generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

Without a willingness to keep our friends close, recall them, remember their needs, issues, and weakness, we cannot be of help: we cannot be generous, we cannot be compassionate, and we certainly are not manifesting wisdom.

Its not all that complicated.

Understand yourself, know yourself, keep a "don't know" mind that is open and flexible, and cast your heart's eye outward.

An open system lives: a closed system dies.
A bow to each of you,

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Another Flip of the Coin With No Sides

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

In Zen, we often will say something is so, then say it is not so. Some call this paradox. Some call it hooey. We would be mistaken if we thought it were "deep" or anything like that.
Master Seung Sahn happily points this out with his typical question, "are they the same or different?" Whack! to any thoughtful answer.

Someone on the Zen Living list writes: "I thought they were never "unwell" - they are just as they are."

In one post I say I am ill. In another I suggest illness does not exist. In still another I sign, "Be well". Very confusing, no?

Even more so: there is never a time when a non-moving mind is sick, well, happy, sad and never a time when a non-moving mind is not sick, well, happy, sad.

A non-moving mind is just mind experiencing mind or what Uchiyama-roshi calls the self becoming the self.
No thinking!

No making dreams, fantasies, expectations, desires at the cost of just being.

Just so, we think, we make dreams, have desires.

Do you see?

Our Small Mind world of fever, chills, sickness and wellness co-exists with our Big Mind world of Emptiness. They are one in the same, not two. It is for us to attain being within them fully awake to their wholeness, to their complete oneness, seamlessness, that is our practice. And even this is "empty."

Leaving us to be well within our own existence regardless of its differentiated quality.

Be well.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Note regards my absence

With palms together,

I have not been well. I am just on the mend from pneumonia and will begin blogging soon.

Be well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mystic is as Mystic Does

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Last night at Temple Beth El, after two periods of seated meditation where I silently recited the Heart Sutra, the Sh'ma, and the Elohai N'Shama, I talked about emptiness and nothingness from a Jewish mystical point of view. The Wisdom Heart Sutra directly addresses compassion and understanding doing the twist on the head of deep samadhi. The Sh'ma declares God is One. The Elohai N'Shamah thanks God for creating a pure soul. Many words: one existence. My head dances at times.

From One comes everything. The kabbalists say God pulled Himself together creating a huge void, then created the universe to fill it. He created it with His words, that is, His breath sounds. Imbuing everything with His presence. We hold up a mirror, there is God.

The Sefirot are a sort of map of this image, detailing the attributes of God with human terms. There are ten of these, but I will only mention a few: On the top is Keter, the crown, understood to be Ayin, nothingness. Then comes Hokhmah, wisdom. Binah, on its left is understanding. Below these are Chesed, love and Gevurah, strength.

What is interesting to me about these attributes is that they seem key to most spiritual traditions. In Zen we talk about the emptiness, that is, the impermanence of existence. Achieving emptiness we understand the proper relationship between conditioned things.

The relationships between these sefirot have parallels in Zen. The Heart sutra teaches that as we sit with love and compassion, and reach a clear understanding, we see that all things are "empty". In order to do this we need a powerhouse of what in Japanese is called joriki, strength. This understanding is wisdom and the deepest wisdom is "empty".

My point is this: regardless of our religious tradition, if we sit with strength, concentrate on being present (the last sefirot, incidentally) we will reach a point where we see clearly the way of the Universal. We might call it Adonai, Godhead, Christ, or Buddha Mind, it is all the same. And once there, the words are like boats used to cross a river: tie them up and leave them be.

Be well.

Monday, February 02, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

There is a slate sky becoming light blue outside my house. I study these things. Ever since Vietnam I have had a near obsession with morning light. The nights were so dark and dangerous there and the light of morning bathed me with a sense of hope. Yet, I also feel drawn to the night: soft, hidden. A time when our ears turn from human sound to nature's sound.

So, now it is later in the morning. Zazen is done. Yoga is done. And the house is clean.

Livvie, our granddaughter, is with us this morning. She is not well and had to stay home from daycare. So, I made us all pancakes and sent her to play on the organ. she loves to put on a recorded tune and either "play" along or dance to it.

Three year olds are so interested and expressive!

Anyway, I am not sure how to wrap this note into a spiritual practice other than to say its often enlightenment itself to be with children.

Be well.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I woke feeling better than I did when I went to bed. Always nice. Our robot went to cleaning; I dusted, made coffee and tea, did the dishes, and picked things up a bit. Order is an important trait.

In Zen, as we enter a Zendo, we remove our shoes, place palms together and bow. We step in on our right foot. We walk in slow, measured steps. We bow to our cushion, bow to the room, take our seat. As the priest enters he or she goes through a set of motions, all prescribed, all measured. Order. We place palms together facing the wall and bow when the bell is offered. We sit in silence and with great concentration. The bell rings, we relax. Order.

Life is a process that has its own order. Sometimes it is hidden, sometimes it is as plain as the nose on our face. Sometimes gentle, sometimes stormy, but know this: there is no stormy, no gentle: we create these in our mind. Become one with the storm, no storm. Become one with gentle, no gentle.

Order is therefore something not related to outside appearance, but rather to our balance inside. We call this equanimity.

Outside order, placing things just so is our way of training ourselves to find stillness of mind and body. Like a reflection in a pool, order is a reflection of ourselves.Choppy water; choppy reflection.

This is a very important point. If you want to find peace, become peace by letting your conception of peace go. As we say, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!

Be well.