Zen 101

Sunday, April 19, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Today I would like to talk to you about the Dharma. What is this thing we call "Dharma" anyway? The term has become popular to the point that there was a TV show with Dharma in it's title. Dharma comes from the Buddha's mouth. Dharma comes from the Buddha's heart. Dharma surrounds us. Everything is Dharma. Yet Dharma is nothing. It is a finger pointing to the moon.

One meaning is that Dharma is the teaching of the Buddha transmitted either 'mind to mind' or in oral history or in scripture. Another meaning of Dharma is that it is the unadorned, absolute truth. Still another, is that it is reality itself.

Dharma just is. We discover Dharma as we unfold our minds and hearts to manifest it, to receive it, and to transmit it.

Again, keep in mind, all dharmas are empty. This is to say that even the truth, even reality itself, even the Absolute, has no permanence. Everything, every idea, every thought, feeling, sensation, everything, is in process. The universe is flow.

And if flow is the essential nature of the universe, what is the Universal? Flow.

Take refuge in this.

Be well, be open.

Everyday Buddhas

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The dawn is stealth personified. Light shows itself ever so slowly, nearly imperceptibly, as dark recedes. Zazen can be like that. We sit with attention. We witness the world around us. At some point, imperceptibly so, the world and we are not the world and we, but one experience. We take this understanding from our cushion into the everyday world.

What's this?

Being in this 'world is One' state is not the final step.

What is the next step? The step that takes us back into duality with non-duality eyes.

What's this?

The dishes, experiencing no separation. The laundry, experiencing no separation. Making breakfast experiencing no separation. What is Buddha? The laundry, the dishes, the breakfast.

Dishes, laundry, breakfast are one in the same: awakened life.

We take refuge in this "awakened life", this state of non-duality.We call it Buddha Nature, and those who live it, buddhas.

This is what it means to take refuge in the Buddha.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Religious Meaning

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Our lives are filled with ritual: "religious" or "secular". Ritual is empty unless we imbue it with meaning. To imbue ritual with meaning means we live meaningfully. To live meaningfully means we must live mindfully.


Most of us in the US just finished one of two holidays: Passover or Easter. How did we live these out? Were they meaningful? What did they mean to us, if anything?

In Judaism, there are tons of ritualistic rules regarding Pesach: no leaven for a week, no work on certain days, a Seder or two with a "haggadah" to tell us the story of Exodus. In Christianity, there are the ceremonies regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus, Easter dress, egg hunts, and so on.

Do these really mean anything to us? Or do we do them because we are supposed to do them? Have we actually made them not just a part of our lives, but a meaningful part?

Zen is not exempt from these questions. When I practice Zen, I light a stick of incense, place it to my forehead, bow, and carefully set in it the alter burner. I bow. I take my seat, I recite the Three Refuges and the Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra. I fold my hands into the cosmic mudra and practice shikantaza. Are these always meaningful? This is to say, do I always do them meaningfully?

Can a ritual be meaningful without practicing it meaningfully? A much deeper question.

I know a few people who actually resisted eating leavened bread for this past week. They come out the other side sometimes feeling very tired of matzoh. Understandable.

It is this sense of being tired of doing something that can give rise to the greatest meaning of the experience, I believe. For it is in that moment that the meaning questions surface. And for those who do not fast from leaven, the conclusion of Pesach can mean a similar set of questions.

In Zen, I committed to reciting the vows of a priest daily. Do I tire of them? Are they always meaningful? If I fail to honor them during the day, is that meaningful? Does it matter one way or the other if I sit zazen? How I sit zazen?

Are religious practices ever truly empty?

I don't think so. Regardless of our take on them, that take is the meaning we are creating for them, imbuing in them, and the result will offer us lessons for our life. What are your lessons?

Be well.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Open Hand

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

How beautiful! The sun just broke over the mountains and lit up the valley below. It is so bright! The desert seems to yawn in its presence, roll itself over, open up, and warm itself. The birds are at our feeder. And I see a wonderful blue sky. It is supposed to become windy today. Of course, it is spring and in the desert southwest, that means windy days.

My son Jacob is in town. He is a chef, for those who don't know, and he may be moving back to Las Cruces. We are excited about this possibility. Granddaughter Sami is also here. We are thoroughly enjoying our Passover.

Yesterday we drove to White Sands and were sand-blasted. It was really interesting to try to climb the dunes in blowing sand. After a strenuous hour, the picnic lunch we brought looked terrific and we ate in the cover of wind-blocking shade canopies that cover each picnic table.

Zen is about going with the flow with a certain attitude. That attitude is openness. One must become a hand that opens and allows the wind to flow through it's fingers. If we hold up our hands in the wind and open our fingers, the air flows around and through; as we close our fingers and cup our hands, we catch the wind, offering it resistance. One case is open, needing little actual strength; the other is closed and requires great strength to keep its position. In either case, we have a hand in the wind, but in which case are we able to be truly present?

It takes great strength, though, to remain open. It is a strength of a different sort. It is the strength that comes with zazen. The strength of vulnerability. Anyone can wear a shield and feel brave; it takes true courage to go without a shield: open, vulnerable, and present.

Open your hand, feel your openness. Open your hand, feel your freedom.

For those who celebrate Easter, may your day be the blessing it is intended to be.

Be well.

Friday, April 10, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
Change. Goodness. First we are going to the Refuge for the weekend, then we are not. I am a duck floating on the water. Its a good thing...unless there are pirates or hunters about. Then I become an eagle and open my wings, puff out my chest, and scream.
I began a short study of Master Dogen's Genjo Koan last night using a version and commentary by Hakuun Yasutani-roshi, translated by Paul Jaffe. I asked Student Komyo to tackle this essay and we will talk about it next week. Anyway, as I was reading last night, I was struck by the bold strokes of Yasutani.
I am reminded of the old saw that says, "When sitting, sit; when walking, walk; above all, don't wobble!"
It is vital to know yourself intimately. It is vital to have total congruence. When a duck, float; when an eagle, scream!
A small mind might see this as in-congruent, but Big Mind will see the whole.
This is what is meant by whole-heartedness. We take each step in the world with definiteness. No wobbles. Know yourself. And when you do, there is nothing but you. You and I, you and the Universe, are One. In such a space, there is no right or left, no up or down, no good or bad, no picking and choosing.
Just do what is in front of you to do and do it with all of your being.
Be well.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Life and Death

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

It is still dark outside. My Little Honey woke me at 4 something looking for our portable DVD player. She couldn't sleep. I found the player, made the coffee, and looked over my email on my iPhone.

After a cup of coffee, I decided to come talk to you.

Tomorrow morning I will offer a talk on "Caring for the Buddhist Patient" at the Mesilla Valley Hospice. I am not sure how one differentiates a dying Buddhist from a dying Jew or a dying Christian. At such a point in life, it is this dying that points us to our commonality: all beings die.

Each religion seems to have an idea of the meaning of death. Each offers some solice with some understanding of life after death. This life usually entails communion with a Creator God. The Buddha Way, when looked at as Buddhism, does not share a view of a Creator God. A Creator God might exist, or might not, but a Creator God is not essential to following the Buddha Way.

So, what does a follower of the Buddha Way understand? It depends. For one thing, as is true of all religions, there is no one Buddhism. As the Buddha Way spread throughout the world, it morphed, adapting and adopting various folkways and local customs. A Buddhist practitioner in Thailand understands the Way somewhat differently than a practitioner in Tibet, who differs from one in China, Japan, or Europe.

In the main, the Buddha had little to say about life after death and not much at all about a Creator God. He thought such discussions were a distraction from practice. And they are.

Once we attain a deep sense of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things, we glimpse into the true nature of reality. One does not mean two. One is one, infinitely. In this sense, a practitioner of the Buddha Way attains no death, no birth. Birth and death are understaood as concepts emerging from ignorance of the oneness of the universe.

So, in the relative world, when someone "dies" what does this actually mean?

When ice becomes liquid, then vapor, what does that mean? And when vapor becomes liquid, then ice?

Eternal processes are just that, eternal processes. They, in themselves, mean nothing. It is we human beings that assign meaning to them. Someone is "born" that is to say, conditions have arisen to make manifest a form. This form seems to divide from its parent, yet we know that what is "parent" is also "child". The division is no different from the flame of one candle lighting the wick of another. One flame or two?

We care for our child, we nurture her, we teach, love, and eventually send her away into the world. Our core is passed on, karma transfers, and we begin to wilt.

What is important is not that we pass away, but that we don't.

In my hand is my father, his father, his father's father, and so on throughout the generations of man and before. Equally in my hand is my son, his sons, and sons after him. And I am not talking simply about DNA. I am talking about everything.

If we were to distill this we would see residue of compassion, love, tenderness, caring, approval, anger, dislike, disapproval, envy, jelousy, greed, and on and on. Our karma.

The good news is that an instant of good karmic conduct can eclipse all the not so good karmic conduct. It does not erase it, but goes a long way toward correcting the pinball's circuit around the universe.

We come to death with acceptance, with an understanding that we live our lives, pass on, and our next generations do the same. Nothing is lost, nothing is gained. The essential aspects of "we" live on. They are passed through each generation, sometimes improved, sometimes not. How we live and what we do with our bodies and our spirit matters. It is the behavior that is our legacy over the generations, our 'life after death'.

May yours be a blessing in the universe.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning everyone,

The morning opens, as we open, slowly, with a stretch and maybe a yawn. It is important to be present in this process. We witness the sun rise over the horizon, (in my case, the Organ mountains) and as we do, we appreciate the wonder of creation. It is there for us to appreciate, if only we pay attention.

What is the currency of this payment? A willingness to slow ourselves down. Multi-tasking, while sounding as if we can accomplish much in little time, disallows appreciation. It takes us away from being present, from delight, and from seeing deeply. The focus of multi-tasking is on the ends, not the means. Yet, it is our means that contain our intention. Without a focus on intention, there is little human meaning in an activity, little quality, and certainly, little appreciation.

As we slow down, we allow ourselves the joy of being rather than the hope of becoming. The hope of becoming creates idols in the mind. Smash them. Cut them loose. Slow down and feel, see, taste, touch, smell, think. While these are impermenant, they exist for a reason.

We appreciate through our senses. I feel the warmth of my coffee cup, delight that it says, "Wake up!" on it's side. Yet know, as is true of all conditioned things, it will fall away sometime, as I will fall away, you will fall away: everything comes and everything goes. What is left is our appreciation and the karmic footprint left in its wake.

When we appreciate, we care; when we care, we do good; when we do good, good follows.

Pass it on.

Be well.