Zen 101

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Float Mode

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I got up at 5:00 and began picking up, dusting, and polishing. We did most of the other stuff yesterday, the floors, sweeping, etc. Today we will host a party for Olivia (Livvie). We plan to have a pony here for her and her friends to ride. It is going to be a major effort to remain in float mode. :)

Zen is about float mode, so to speak. There's the choppy water float. There's the serene water float. All the while paddling toward that shore we are already standing on. Some of us have a need to flail around in the water, cursing the choppy when we seek serene. Yet serene is within us at all times.

Even with screaming children.

Here's the thing. When we are awake and aware of our oneness with all things, we easily feel the tension rise as things begin to go south. We breath into it, embrace it, and let it go with our breath. When there is too much and the storm is overtaking us, we walk away. We take a break. We practice zazen. There is no harm in taking a break; yet great harm in overstaying our ability to deal with things that are getting out of hand. As Clint Eastwood says, "a man's gotta know his limitations."

When we fail to get out of the way of the storm or don't know how to ride it, we point our fingers, blaming everyone under the sun for our suffering. All the shoulds and coulds and woulds come out like lightning biting at other's butts. Not very Zen. On the other hand, very Zen. Zen is only what the moment is.

The key is training and awareness with the added willingness to take a step away. May we each walk in wonder and ease.

Remember, silence is thunder.

Be well.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I will practice streetZen at the Southwest Environmental Center at the open air Downtown Mall from 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM. If you are interested, please bring a cushion and join me.

Followers of the Buddha Way have practiced this sort of practice since the time of the Buddha himself. streetZen is practiced in mindful silence. A dana bowl is used. In the past, Buddha taught we should walk, approach a home, and simply stand with our bowls. In the USA no one would have any idea what we were doing and we would likely be arrested. Better to go to a public venue and practice Zazen. The benefit is the witness of serene reflection meditation.

I invite you to do this practice.

Be well.

Friday, May 29, 2009

knock, knock

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone.

With the rising sun
I hear the universe knocking.
Or is it my head pounding at its door?
Who knows?
Who cares.

Silence is thunder.

Be well.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning!

My Dharma Grandfather, Matsuoka-roshi, was fond of shouting "Silence is Thunder!" and, in fact, there was some talk of using this as the name of an Order of his dharma heirs. When we are silent, what happens?

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

If silence is thunder, then what is thunder? Words?
Silence decidedly is not in-action. Remember, because we have silenced a person does not mean we have converted him. Sometimes (more often than not) actions are shouts and words, mere whispers.

When spoken to, there is an expectation of verbal response. When it is not forthcoming, what? Silence is loud. It creates open space. It is a deep and dark canyon, be careful!

So, what do you think Sensei Matsuoka meant by this 'silence is thunder'?

Be well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Here a Star, There a Star...

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning brought cool desert air across our skin as we hiked our nearly three mile morning trek. It was glorious, though. I love desert walks. The air always seems to fresh and, after a rain, verdant.

Today I would like to address a few lines from the Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra.

O Shariputra, remember, Dharma is fundamentally emptiness, no birth, no death. Nothing is pure, nothing is defiled. Nothing can increase, nothing can decrease. Hence: in emptiness, no form, no feeling no thought, no impulse, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no thinking, no realm of sight, no realm of thought, no ignorance and no end of ignorance, no old age and death and no end to old age and death. No suffering, no craving, no extinction, no path, no wisdom, no attainment.
This section is a core teaching and reveals the koan of life and death that is at the base of Zen. Dharma is, says Kannon, "emptiness". In Judaism we might call this Ein Sof, in Christianity, the Universal Godhead. It points to the fundamental underlying reality of all things: process, evolvement, unfolding, etc., on an infinite level. In such an understanding, nothing has a permanent, fixed, or of a separate reality. Everything is intimately interconnected and is always, always, changing.

Secondly, the sutra teaches us that all of our senses and the organs we use to sense, all of our thoughts, all of our feelings, in short, everything we think we know, is also "empty." Life and death, old age, youth, suffering, even enlightenment itself has no reality separate from all reality, the reality of constant process.


So, let go, forget about it. Just be who you are, when you are, now. We suffer when we attach to a notion of reality, and expectation of ourselves, or others, or the world. We suffer when we think that our thoughts are actual reflections of reality and that this reality is it.

If we realize the truth of this teaching, we see these manifestations for what they are and can set them aside in order to open ourselves to the buddha within. This buddha is the buddha of infinite life. Life without death, yet life where death is occurring moment to moment, thus allowing ourselves the possibility of being born and re-born in each and every moment of our existence, and as part of the Infinite Everything, being born and re-born eternally as starstuff.
Quite something, this sutra. Don't worry, be happy.

Be well.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

In the US it is Memorial Day. Our attention is directed toward those who gave their lives in defense of their country. I have known a few. I have listened to their cries as they died. With this in mind, please accept the following.

There is a grave danger in over sentimentalizing soldiers and their sacrifices. The danger is that we separate them from ourselves and somehow put them on a pedestal., rather like Madonnas. Moreover, we tend to glamorize warfare in the process and by touching the heartstrings make it far easier to recruit soldiers for and initial new warfare.

I stand opposed to warfare. I oppose soldiers doing warfare. Just as I stand opposed to domestic violence and oppose perpetrators. I have often said we should not confuse the war with the warrior, but it is equally important not to give warriors a free pass. It is a volunteer army, afterall, and people elect to prepare themselves to use deadly force. They should share responsibility therefore in the consequences of using that force.

Honoring those who have died in defense of the US, or any country for that matter, might best be served by vigils against further combat. Working to find, teach, and live non-violent solutions to conflict might be far better than waving flags and blowing bugles.
May we each be a blessing in the universe.

Be well.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Harrowing Experience

A Harrowing Experience

May 24th, 13:33
With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

So, My Little Honey decides she and her friend are going to the Refuge early on Wednesday for a planned Religious School Retreat that would begin on Friday evening and go through Sunday morning. The problem was that a thunderstorm began to roll in and by Friday developed into a freak severe weather event. Her friend left early Friday so Judy was without a car. People planning to attend began cancelling and by Friday afternoon, the event was officially cancelled and a deluge was upon the Refuge creating major flooding and turning the only dirt road into a river.

So, Judy is alone. She is anxious. I ask her if she wants me to come to get her. She says no. Son Jason and family, who were going there anyway for the retreat, decided to go Friday evening. I thought Jason's SUV was a 4-wheel drive vehicle, but apparently it was not and Jason got stuck after missing the Walker Canyon turn. It was nearly midnight. Pitch black.

All through the night Judy and I were talking getting updates on where Jason was. The Country Sherrif figured it out and verbally guided them back to the highway. They settled into a small motel in Cloudcroft for the night...of course it was 3:00 AM.

The next morning Jason tried to get to the Refuge and was within a 100 yards when as he came over the last little hill in front of the outfitter ner us, he slammed on his brakes to avoid smacking into a trailer someone left stuck in the middle of the one lane dirt road. This drive his vehicle, once again, deep into the mud. He was stuck again. They were able to carry the contents of their vehicle up the entrance road to the Refuge and were safe inside with Judy.

Sometime in the afternoon, the County Sherrif was able to get the car pulled out with the help of a mountain resident with a four-wheeler that had a wench. The Sheriff helped them pack up and guided them all back to the highway. By eight o'clock last night they were home in Las Cruces and we all sat down to have pizza.

I am very happy and relieved that they are all back safe and sound!

Next time I will be at her side.
With Palms Together,

Part B:

During all of this, some things came to the surface. I was scheduled to visit Zen Master Brad Warner in El Paso and was committed to Zen activities over the weekend. We both agreed that Judy would go to the Refuge to conduct her retreat. She took care of all of her planning, yet I still felt a great conflict regards not being there with her. I fought this because I truly believe she is a fully competent and capable woman. Yet, she also felt that somehow I should have been there when things "went south" as they say.

I wrestled with feeling powerless to help. I resisted feelings of guilt. Anger was there. We argued. We wrestled. We explored. All over long telephone conversations. .

A modern marriage is pregnant with opportunities to grow, but not without real struggle. The professional woman, competent, capable, and who walks in her own authority is one side. The professional man, competent, capable, and who walks in his own authority is on the other side. Somehow the two sides must become one without losing two.

How does the "we are one" not extinguish the I and the you. In Zen we talk about a release of the self, yet the self is our basic unit. "I" brush my teeth, "we" don't. On the other hand, "we" are in relationship. What does this mean? How is it operationalized?

Judy talked with some friends whose basic identity in relationship is "we". She says they have an agreement to give over their own needs, likes, dislikes, in service to the other. Judy sees them as interdependent. I see them as each dependent. As a survivor of so much trauma, I am deeply suspect of dependence. Its part of that dance of intimacy we PTSD folks seem to do.

Interdependence is one thing, dependence a fully different thing. I wonder though, how, as Judy has asked, to operationalize this.

I know that next time I will be at Judy's side. To do this I must make a choice.There are three parties to this relationship: Me; Her; and Us. It is the Us that gets short shrift. I admit this. In Zen we practice to burn away the self. In this practice we begin to see the self is not an independent existant, but an interconnected, living process. So, while there is a Me, a You, and an Us. There is also none of that, just the one vast process. In my practice, I have been focusing so much attention on getting to the top of that hundred foot pole and so little attention to exactly where my next step will fall that I nearly always place my foot in the larger world, neglecting that world just outside of me.

It is time to re-place that foot.

Be well,
Part C:

With Palms Together,

OK, so, why share all of this?

I get this question a lot. Why do I feel the need to share the personal details of my life?

An answer as best I can:

As a Zen Teacher, my life is not my own. When I became a Zen priest, I took a vow to free all beings, to relieve them from suffering, etc. To do this, one must realize that self and other are the same. We free ourselves: we free all beings. Its all very existential and has to do with the experience of humanity as an individual with the aim of living a collective awareness and responsibility.

My suffering is your suffering, more or less and as I practice to work things through, I feel it (that practice) is my teaching. Of course, it is important to keep some things private. And to respect, as much as possible, the anonymity of those in my life I write about, but in the end, it is this transparency that gives rise to an open heart and a well grounded, no nonsense practice.

We are all human beings. A Zen Master is no less or no more. This is true of all other faith traditions, priests, monks, imams, buddhas or bodhisattvas, as well. Writing as I do ensures this for me and, I hope, communicates to you that what is possible here, is also possible there.

May we each be blessings in the universe.
A bow to each of you, my teachers.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Brad Warner Zen

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Well, we got a good drenching here in southern New Mexico and west Texas yesterday afternoon and evening. I was sitting in El Paso at Pho Tre Bien Vietnamese restaurant with Zen Master Brad Warner and Students, Bobby HenShin Byrd and Rev. Bonnie Bussho Hobbs (Student Rev. Celia Kajo Villa was delayed and would meet up with us later). The rain was so thick we could not see through it. I drank a Chinese beer, then sipped espresso. We waited, talked, but mostly watched the torrents.

Brad Warner is an unassuming young man in his forties. He dresses simply: a t-shirt with a monster movie character, a simple long sleeved print shirt, and plain cotton pants. No beads, no robes and hair on his head cut in shaggy strands. I enjoy his presence.

When we got to the El Paso UU Church, it quickly filled. People seemed eager to meet this anomalous Master. Rev. Bussho and Rev. Kajo assisted by setting up books to sell and preparing to video record the talk. I politely welcomed people at the door, but otherwise stayed in the background: this was not my show, and when it was time to start, I sat against the rough stone wall of the beautiful sanctuary and listened.

Brad talked about his life and entry into Zen practice. He talked about his practice itself and his relationship with his 90+ year old Master, Nishijima-roshi. He was decidedly grounded. No fancy jargon here. I could hear his thoughtfulness, as well as his intuitive flashes, which brought a fresh, truly "Zen" life to the room.

Zen is, if anything, iconoclastic at its roots. It is the most pure form of Buddhist practice and by this I mean, it is, at base, unadorned and direct. We in the West seem to have fallen in love with the forms, the outer garments, if you will: robes, beads, incense, bells, shaved heads, talking the talk...but, while these are important containers, they are not the thing itself.

The audience was mystified this, I suspect. Like many, they expected a Buddhist persona, the sort of thing we see in commercials. Yet, what they got was the real thing. Unadorned. Simple. And deeply human.

Zen takes us into our humanity. Our practice, like psychotherapy, takes to the deep, hidden crevices of who we think we are and demands that we chip away the cover and expose ourselves. Like water dripped on a hot burner, tssss! Gone.

Yet, this is an internal burning away and so often it fails to reveal itself even to us. We burn and recover; burn and recover only to eventually ask ourselves what we are doing this for. In the end, we do it just to do it. It is life itself, this practice of Zen, and if it yields a concept we have gone too far.

I would highly recommend Brad Warner and all three of his books: Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up, and Zen Dipped in Chocolate Wrapped in Karma.
Brad will be at the UU Church in Las Cruces Saturday evening at 7:00 PM and at the Zen Center of Las Cruces to practice Zazen on Sunday at 10:00 AM. If you are in the area, I would encourage you to meet him.

Be well.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Word for World is Balance

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Water is a wonderful metaphor. It yields, yet is so strong it erodes mountains into canyons. It remains water as it moves from liquid to vapor and back. Water reveals its essential nature in its visible life cycle for all of us to see and, in this, it is a wonderful teacher.

As I look out my bedroom window, I see heavy clouds. They seem pregnant and the weather site suggests they will give birth today. Water is so necessary, rain is the seed of life.

I consider Mars, the angry planet, and understand it is bereft of water. A thin atmosphere, distant from the sun. Anger burns away love. When we are angry, we cannot nurture. Where there is anger there can be no life.

Venus, clothed in heavy clouds, close to the sun, thought to be a metaphor for love. Venus teaches me that to be draped in heavy bonds may be lethal. While love can nurture, it can also suffocate.

We have the beauty of residing on a planet where the metaphor is balance. Too little love, arid. Too much love, suffocation. Both Venus and Mars are inhospitable to life. On Earth we are in harmony. A lesson here as we are moving out of harmony: consuming, burning, suffocating in our own waste. Teachers are everywhere When we let our arrogance drop away we are able to see them.

As Buddha taught, when the string is too tight, it will break; when too loose, it will not play. The Middle Way is the Living Way.

Be well.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I am alone in bed looking at the morning light open a view of the Organ mountains out my window. Judy is at the Refuge. Pepper, my old dog, is beside me in Judy's place, and Pete Kitty is at my feet. This morning I plan to attend a breakfast meeting of a clergy group. We will meet at Mesilla Valley Hospice. From there, its on to Breakfast with the Boys. I will try to eat only one breakfast :)

Tomorrow evening I will attend a presentation by Brad Warner, that renegade sort of Zen monk who writes odd, but refreshing books, such as Hardcore Zen. This will be the second time I have met him, though we have corresponded a bit. While I enjoy his innovation and his thorough grounding in Master Dogen's work, I have often wanted him to mature some. Perhaps he has with his new book, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma. We will see.

As to my own maturity at 62, I am not too overly concerned with it. I have made a few decisions, though. I will begin my streetZen practice again and I will involve myself much more in the Las Cruces community as a Zen priest. I have kept that in the background in deference to Temple Beth El since I was on their Board. Fundamentally, however, my calling is as a Zen priest and spiritual educator. A recent request to not use my title, "roshi" in matters related to the synagogue has brought that into clear focus and I am thankful for that.

Still, I will work wherever I am needed and wanted. I will continue to work with Temple Beth El in my capacity as Chair of the Academy and as an educator in contemplative practices, as well as in my new role in their Communications/Marketing department. This work will be as a Jew and I will leave my priesthood out of it. It is my Plan B, as Norm Fischer, that other, more famous Jewish Roshi :), outlines in a recent article in the summer 2009 issue of Buddhadharma. But, in terms of the larger community, I live to free all beings from suffering. That is my Plan A.

Be well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Walking and Talking

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Friends Allen and Eve just finished hiking a 2.8 mile out and back desert trail hike with Judy and me. Allen and I walk together, while Eve and Judy pair off, and we tend to talk about a variety of issues. I have found this to be a very cleansing habit, one that when I fail to go, I miss very much. There is much to be gained by opening one's heart to others. Of course, the other obvious benefit is in the walking itself. While I also enjoy runs alone and biking alone, long walks with a friend are of a wholly different order.

Zen, on the other hand, is a quiet, introspective practice. We sit facing a wall in silence. Talking is discouraged. Of course, this is an excellent practice, as well. It is quite possible we Americans talk entirely too much. The conversations that occur on long walks are of a very different variety. These are conversations that uncover and release; conversations that bridge and unite; conversations that deepen the bonds between human beings. Along the way, they are also conversations that free us from the bonds of ourselves. In Zen we might say we are "presenting ourselves as we will."

Many of us go along emotionally constipated. We squeak out meaningless words here and there, words without authenticity or personal import. We can even talk incessantly about nonsense. As a result we do not touch ourselves. Too bad really, we could use a little emotional Ex-lax, once in awhile. Maybe with such medicine we wouldn't be such an uptight and paranoid culture. Maybe we would actually be able to relax and enjoy the ride. And get to know ourselves more completely in the process.

For me, a desert walk with a friend three or four times a week is very much what the doctor ordered,. I would encourage us all to do the same.

Be well.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Pebbles and Boulders

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Many of you have privately asked about me, both in person, and via email. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and your sensitivity. I am well. Of course, life has offered both its typical and atypical stones-to-boulder's in the road, but that is to be expected. My Little Honey and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary yesterday. My son Jacob is in treatment for both emotional and chemical issues, the dream of a family restaurant collapsed and laid bare. We are struggling to keep the pieces and values of family together. Bronchitis and allergies haven't helped. Still, I say I am well.

Our lives are what they are: a gift to us. This gift is perfect regardless of what we think or feel about it. Every facet is a teacher, every turn, a lesson. Our challenge is to be open and present each moment.When we are willing to see this way, everything is an opportunity

This is difficult. Life can wear us down. I often want to withdraw to my Zendo or bedroom. I turn on a television show and drift away.I feel such limited energy, yet I have the experience to know that down under the stinking thinking is a vast reservoir of vitality, love, and compassion. This energy is the stuff of the universe and it is everywhere. I tapped it at mile 22 of a 26.2 mile race. I tapped it in the jungle in the middle of a firefight. I tapped it in graduate school and a thousand other places and moments during my life.

The Zen of Living is the Zen of each moment: taste life in all its flavors. Embrace life in all its forms and stages. And in each space and each step embrace peace.

May you each be a blessing in the universe.

Monday, May 11, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The dishwasher is changed out
and the kitty litter replaced:
everyday chores, everyday Zen.
The Zen of the Everyday
is the highest and the lowest
form of practice.
It is ubiquitous.

Wake up!

Unfold your mind
and open like a flower in the morning light.
Wrap your self in extinction
and the universe is your Teacher.
This dish wounded, this one fine:
make no distinction,
only wash the dish
and put it away.

Be well.