Zen 101

Thursday, October 22, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

One of my Disciples, Rev. Kajo, wrote to the Zen Living list about her experience dealing with the recent death of her father. I am sending my reply to her this morning as my daily message. Below my reply is her original post.

Daiho Roshi


Dear Kajo,

Personal pain and personal suffering are different, but equally difficult for others to address with the one in pain and suffering. You have experienced the loss of your father's presence in your life as a physical being. You have experienced your family's insensitivity in not informing you immediately. Pain, yes. Suffering, well that is yours. We suffer as we hold on to thoughts and feelings, stringing them like beads on a necklace. Care needs to be taken not to allow this necklace to become a choker chain.

We experience, through our practice, the fact that there is no birth or death, only this moment. How can this help? The thought of it does nothing. The practice of it liberates us.

From a theological perspective, we must be careful not to make too much of a notion of a God with intentions. Does God throw dice? Does He look over every single event on every planet in an infinite universe? Can God even see? These ideas of God are projections on our part, I believe. We wish for, need, or want such a God.

Yet the simple truth of the matter is these ideas are idols in the mind. A deep understanding of the Infinite comes through our suffering. The pain we experience teaches us most specifically about our separation from God, rather than God's separation from us. One with the Infinite, what is loss? One with the Infinite, what is birth and death?

We Jews believe that we are infused with Ruach ha-Kodesh, the breath of God or the Holy Spirit. As Zen Buddhists we might at first blush, say "nonsense!" Yet, I see our essential Buddha Nature as this Infinite Breath. Breathing in, breathing out. What else is there?

May you embrace your pain and look deeply into your suffering,

Be well.

You must be as nothing in your own eyes.
Then you will be worthy of attaining true
self-nullification and your soul will be
merged with its root.

Rabbi Nachman

Harvey Daiho Hilbert, Ph.D., Roshi
Telephone: 575-405-8522

From: celia
To: ZenLiving@yahoogroups.com
Sent: Wed, October 21, 2009 9:25:06 AM
Subject: [Zen Living] Death

With palms together,
Dear Sangha,
I have studied intensiveley about death, accepting death, and not being afraid of it. I have found comfort in TNH's idea that when we die, its meerley because we were no longer able to manifest so we withdraw from the world. I like this thought a lot and it has been helping me accept my fathers death.
Everyone I see hugs me tight and tells me he is no longer suffering and is resting now. This is the hardest part for me. I keep wondering why God didn't take him earlier. I don't mean that to sound bad. I just mean that my dad was suffering for so long. Situations amd environment were not right for him to continue to manifest. What is it that keeps us alive when we suffer so much? ...and why do we still hurt? How, in buddhism can we free the pain that we feel when a loved one is suffering or the pain that we feel when our loved ones withdraw from the world?
Do we sit it out? In Christianity, we ask God to remove out pain and he does- when we let him. How in meditation do we learn to let it float by? Ibam in nob way bashing my Buddhist practice. I am simply looking for a way to find peace.
I know what my dad would say: "give it to the lord". What do we as Buddhists say?

Learning to accept my dads withdrawal from the world,
Rev. Kajo

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is the Point Necessary?

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning is a wonderfully cool morning. My chess was a little better last night. And I began reading a great little book recommended by Rabbi Citrin on the Bible called, simply enough, "Who Wrote the Bible?" It offers a background on text criticism which opens a whole other dimension to Torah study. Agenda in writing is the sleeper to the story. As in most of life, don't we seek to know "the point"?

When we try to transfer something from ourselves to another, duality is created. Other is separated from self. You arises. In this separation, a point arises. Why? Why would you give me that? Why are you talking to me? Why would you take that away? Why would you tell the story that way and not this? What does why mean? Is is really is? :)

Zen Judaism asks us to be our relationship with the Infinite. We don't become it. Why questions cause separation. What questions offer exploration. When we explore our lives for the story, the point of view, the agenda, and the dramatis personae, we begin to brings things back together.

For the sake of what are we doing the dance in the way we do it?

Zen Judaism would say we do what we do and in the do is the Eternal.

Be well,

Monday, October 12, 2009

Where's God?

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Honestly, I do not know why I study through the day each and every day. I've been considering this question (and another) for some time as it consumes a great deal of my time. I suppose the best answer is that when I study, I find connections. Text is my community. The more the better, it would seem. The two major areas I study are in Zen and Judaism, particularly what I like to call contemplative Judaism. [Whenever I come upon the word 'mystical' in a Jewish text it almost always refers to a pointing to something non-dualistic. Must be mystical if it brings us closer to the Infinite, I suppose. In the modern era, mystical sounds, well, too mystical :) ]
Every once in awhile I find texts in the two traditions (actually, more often than not) which say the same thing or point to the same thing, and this leads me to believe that in both cases, the practice is to collapse the self into the Infinite. In other words, to join Big Mind, Spacious Mind, the Ein Sof. In Lawrence Kushner's wonderful text, God was in this Place & I, i did not know, he cites a midrash addressing the question, why did God create both a heaven and a hell. The rabbis say, so one may borrow room from the other. And how much space separates these rooms? "The rabbis said that they are right next to one another...Not even the thinness of a membrane separated Jacob and Esau." (p.68).

In the Zen scripture, the Hokyo Zanmai (Precious Mirror Samadhi), the text addresses non-duality and says, "Natural and wondrous, it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment. .. ...A hairsbreadth deviation, and you are out of tune." (Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice, p. 35.)

Duality and non-duality inter-exist, like space and time, they cannot be separated. It is our attention and intention that shifts. Within this shifting, good and evil are born. Interesting. Dukkha is not knowing all the chords of the universe are of the same stuff.

My second question is where's God? Looking for the Infinite has been an aim of mine since I was shot in the head and nearly died. Yet, the question sounds kind of like where's Waldo. The truth is we wouldn't be far off. The reason Waldo is so challenging to find is that he is like Everyperson (the post PC, Everyman). Naming this person as opposed to another person "Waldo" is a big mistake. Just so, naming God, God, is a big mistake. Its like some rabbi took the yod and pointed it. Any pointing is a deviation. Isaiah says, "His presence fills all the earth!" If God is everywhere, then he, as God, is nowhere. Want God? Look deeply at your own fingers, look under the nails; look at the mouse in a mouse trap, or the head of a trophy on a hunter's wall; look under your bed, into your heart, or better, don't look at all.

Just like Zen, we do not find "Buddha" we kill him. Kill your thoughts of God, your images of God, and there he will be. Be still. Be well.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I went outside to eat some raisin toast. While doing so, I feed the birds and picked up things. Granddaughter Livvie has a tent set up and it is full of toys. As I'm picking up, I notice a bird swoop down to snack on my toast. Sharing is a good thing.

The passing of someone like Rev. John Daido Loori-roshi is one of those inevitability's none of us look forward to. The man was a pioneer of Zen in the United States. His monastery, books, dharma talks, and photography stand as a testament to a life well lived in service to others and to the dharma.

I met him once in California at the 800th birthday of Master Dogen. He walked with a slow deliberateness and slightly hunched back. There was a slight smile on his face and seeming twinkle in his eyes. He taught through himself: a manifest buddha. Yet, also, was challenging. His teaching was as historic masters, the kyosaku and a word or bell were always present.

We use his books for Jukai study, especially The Heart of Being and The Eight Gates of Zen. I have studied his translation and commentary of Dogen's koan collection, as well as his many other works. I found him to be an upright man who had great love and appreciation for the ancestors and their ways... and always a deep understanding realized on the page!

I thought there was such a stark contrast between the two dharma brothers, Loori and Glassman roshi. Out of the same teacher, these men took quite different paths, yet both arrived in the same place, having never left, as we say.

May his name be for a blessing.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Paradigm is Cracking

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Last night after a pair of classes at the Temple I came home and read the Responsa assignments for our "Jewish Issues" class. A "responsa" is a rabbinic assembly's consideration of a question put to it by someone regarding Jewish life. In Reform Judaism, Responsa do not hold the force of law, but are considered informed opinions about situations that are meant to offer guidance to local congregations.
One of our reading assignments/discussion topics involves Jews who convert to Christianity, apostasy & synagogue honors. I read this and felt for all "sides". Conscience, faith, and belief on an individual level is always in tension with "group". I remembered another responsa I had read some years ago now on the question of whether or not a Zen Buddhist priest could become a member of a Temple congregation. The responsa declared he or she could not. The issue hung on the assumptions around "ordination" viz-a-viz role conflict with rabbis and the potential "confusion" an ordained Zen Buddhist priest might cause the general public by being a member of a Jewish congregation. Also included were notes about yoga. It is permissible to practice yoga, but not to support and teach the underlying assumptions of the practice. I saw this as smoke on the one hand, and very revealing on the other hand. In reading this I was reminded that recently I was made aware that my own status as a Zen priest will affect and (I assume) limit, my activities on the bema (the place where the official religious stuff happens).

The question is where does the individual stand. With what community? Judaism lives and dies through community. We are "the people Israel" with the same or similar assumptions and connotations as any tribal organization. Subtle questions lurk under the surface: is this person a 'real Jew? Is this person here to convert us? Such questions arise from an old paradigm of place/group defined community. Its limits are being breached millions of times a day, stretching the model to a breaking point.

We Jews are a rebellious bunch, always asking uncomfortable, out of the box questions. How does Rabbinic Judaism address a very aware, individualistic, post-modern, mobile, seeking, and informed populace? Of what real value are rabbis when any member of the tribe can (and often do) lead services and perform ceremonies? Everyone fancies himself/herself the director of his/her own spiritual destiny. Nearly the entire literature of Judaism is on the Internet for anyone to study deeply and fully. We are now a highly mobile society with fewer and fewer strong links to a geographical place-point. Where, exactly, does community reside? Herein resides the real problem for modern Judaism, Reform Judaism included.

Such questions and choices are getting a lot of play in the media. According to a piece reported on CBS's "Good Morning" program, our society seeks to be 'spiritual,' defines itself as spiritual as opposed to 'religious', and notes that a significant portion of the population investigates Eastern methods of practice. The responsa I cited above even notes the value of such investigations, but quickly adds there are "Jewish" models for these practices. I think that is code for 1. if a Jew does it, its Jewish, and 2. if its Jewish its under the auspices of rabbinic Judaism. While at one point in our cultural life this might have been true, it is not so today. People do what they do, have the legal and moral right to do so, and Rabbinic Judaism must relate, adapt, or wither away as arcane relics of another time.

The truth is, alternative spiritual explorations and mind/body practices are re-vitalizing religion in America. Yoga, meditation, Zen, Mindfulness, Reiki, hypnotherapy, running and walking clubs, vegetarianism and related health foci on food, are all being brought to bear on the quest for a sense of spiritual connection, satisfaction, and, perhaps, awakening. Spirituality is being more rightly understood as a holistic event and not a particularized one. Stilted old models which are adapted without flexibility will fail under an informed, awake, and aware eye of this vastly interconnected and interdependent era.

I am a Jew. I am a Zen Buddhist priest. I am neither and both: I am a child of the universe.

Be well.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The morning air is moving swiftly over the desert up from Mexico. I am reminded of the koan regarding the flag and the wind. Some might say the flag is moving, others say the wind is moving, still others say mind is moving. In truth there is no "moving". And from the point of view of the Infinite, clearly this is so. Buddha Mind is unmoving. Yet, the clock still ticks as we measure our day and if we don't get to the bank on time, our checks will bounce. What is important about the lesson regarding "moving" is that we learn both are true at the same time: relative and absolute. The Infinite is infinite. It renders all concepts both full and empty. Only No-Mind can grasp this.

Be well.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Quiet pervades even in the midst of a cacophony of noise. How? Ask, what is noise? Concordant, discordant, no matter. Noise is nothing but a sensory event we assign meaning to. Some meanings are wonderful; others, not so wonderful. Yet, when we set aside our meanings and exist with the 'noise', when 'noise' is received and accepted, enfolded into ourselves, 'noise' ceases. This is stillness. This is serene reflection meditation. This is Zen. It is without religious assignment, yet is the heart of all religion.

Be well.

Friday, October 02, 2009


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Vows are inside out. We don't take a vow, we manifest a vow already there deep within us. Like a seed planted by the Infinite, life's various twists and turns till the soil around it, water it, offer it light and warmth, and there...it opens to our view.
I have manifested only a few vows in my life. A vow to serve and protect the United States. A vow to follow the ways of Torah. A vow to be a partner to My Little Honey. And a set of Bodhisattva vows. I like to think these are consonant and not discordant.

It is so: the core vow is that of waking up. Being present, and seeing with a clear mind, resolves all illusion of conflict as conflict can only occur in a deluded mind, a mind divided.

I experience buddha-mind in every moment. We are beings united without separation, yet there is you, and there is me. The golden net is our heart. It is our heart-mind, "shin", that is the source of all vows. Understand, in Zen, heart and mind are not two, but one. This Heart-Mind is the essential nature of the Infinite

As we step into the world this morning, may we step with the light of our own seeds come to full bloom.