Zen 101

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Crack in Everything

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

“Ring the bell that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack,
A crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
L. Cohen

Today comes with clouds and the threat of rain. ‘Got out of the mountains just in time, I understand, as another snow is coming there today. Tonight we are to sit down for Sunday dinner, the kids, their partners, and Judy. We will have a discussion.

On April 1, I will move into one of our two condominiums, Unit 1115. It has a courtyard and was our apartment when we first retreated from the mountain winters. We need to talk out the “parameters” of our separation and make sure the family is all on the same page.

I am looking forward to this living alone segment of my life in an odd sort of way. Being alone, like sitting zazen, offers an opening for the “light to come in” as Leonard Cohen suggests. And in keeping with his lyrics, being alone or sitting zazen are like “cracks” in the everyday.

There is a piece in the Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Jewish prayer book that asks the Infinite to “disturb us” as we enter prayer (or in meditation, I will add). We invite ourselves not to mistake our serenity as an excuse to overlook the suffering of others, not to feel that we are somehow special, better, or closer to Everything That Is just because we are in a sanctuary.

A separation is such a disturbance. We need them. I need them. I seek the light to come in; I invite it to illuminate my heart and expose my complacency. For better or worse, life must be lived as it actually is. Complacency is a blinder, shutting out light and inviting sleep.

So let’s invite the bell to ring.

Be well.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


With palms together,

Good Evening Everyone,

The Refuge seemed cold and barren without students. There is much work that needs to be done there, gutter replacement, solar system upgrade, generator repair, general grounds clean-up. Winter exposes so much!

Ken-roshi replaced our water pump, but the hoses to the storage tanks had been damaged by snow and ice, so pumping was out of the question. It seems Dharma Mountain was damaged as well: two breaks in foof beams. This winter has brought lots of snow and precious few days of higher temperatures to melt the stuff.

As spring approaches and depending on finances, I will try to begin repairs with the help of sons Jacob and Jason, as well as any others who might be interested. Gutter replacement is top priority as we will need to collect the water we need for the year through the coming rainy season.

Due my change in status and the costs of repairs, I am forced to ask for donations.I will be sitting streetZen more often as the days pass with begging bowl. Clear Mind Zen has a donation button on our website, www.clearmindzen.org

If you are able and so desire, please consider helping.

Thank you.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
Morning and my body do not seem to be in accord today. I am awake before it is time and my head is rebelling with a dull thud. Muscles ache, tendons argue, and coffee feels like medicine rather than the delight that it usually is. Still, the day is here and I am grateful to rise to meet it.
One of the key precepts in contemplative life is ahimsa, do no harm. The precepts themselves seem to flow from this central notion. I would rather understand this practice in its affirmative: I vow to nurture life.
When I do this, precepts such as ‘do not kill’ are recast as “support and nurture life”, and “do not steal” as “”affirm the integrity of others”. When I attempt to live in this way, my aim is to practice living my life as a healer. The tools I possess reside in my heart/mind and are expressed through my body and speech.
Refraining from something is passive. It is far too easy to relax into a sort of quietism I can ill afford as a Bodhisattva. So, today I vow to support and nurture life in each thing I do.

Be well.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Face

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Stepping out of the light of the known, approaching the edge, what is my face? The edge between the known and the unknown is the true heart of darkness, At this edge I experience what at first feels like fear, but when I open my eyes! Awe.
In this place, I realize there is no true darkness because darkness is only a doorway to the light of my True Nature. What is my face?

Be well

Saturday, February 20, 2010


With palms together,

Good Evening Everyone,

This day was a long one. I just returned from El Paso where I sat with the No Sides/Both Sides Zen Sangha, a border community. Two Zensters were from Juarez one of whom, Susanna, used to come to Zen Center to sit with me. It was very good to see her again.

I will be ordaining Bobby Byrd, one of the founders of that Zendo, the first week or April at Hanamatsuri Bobby and I go back a few years now and it is good to see him take this step.

Afterwards, we had dinner, Bobby, John Fortunato, and me. It was good to meet with these two Zensters. Three old farts sitting in a Middle Eastern Café in El Paso Texas talking Zen, Christianity, and Judaism: who da thunk it?

The seeds are being planted. May the flowers bloom.

Be well.

A reminderr: there are no Sunday Zen Services at my personal Zendo until further notice.

Friday, February 19, 2010


With palms together,
Good Evening Everyone,

Is eternal life, that is, the practice and realization of Zen, simply the absence of an I? No drop of water is independent from an ocean. At various times we are drops, whole waves, and even the ocean in its entirety. Our practice is to be at ease attaining one in the same.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Student and the Teacher

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
The night sky invites my eye. I am sitting at my dining room table next to the picture window. When I turn off the lights, it is as though I am sitting in a planetarium. There is such beauty in the early morning. The sound of the heating system, or the boys padding around on the tile floor, or the crunch of somebody nibbling at the dog food I just put down: these are the sounds moving through the darkness.
It is good to have this time. I face a very busy day today, as Wednesdays typically are for me. Gentle time to be aware, unhurried, and unfolding is precious. Such moments are true teachers.
The lessons involve the mysteries of our personal connection to that which is hidden. How we face these mysteries is important. With open or closed eyes? With open or closed ears? With open or closed heart?
Be still and pay attention I whisper to myself.
Be well,

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Swimming in Everything

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I will drive over to Temple Beth El and do what I am calling Contemplative Practices there. Beginning Monday I will do this daily on weekdays at 7:00 AM. Contemplative Practices are Morning Prayers, Meditation, and Yoga. Each to be done mindfully, slowly, and with the aim of developing gratitude, compassion, and patience for the day.

For me, Zen practice is a universal componant to all contemplative practices. Zen in stillness (seated practice), and Zen in motion (eating, walking, yoga, weghts, tai chi, work, etc.), are all one in the same thing: mindful living

When we live mindfully: we are living with an open heart, open to the Infinite. Whether we call this the Infinite, Big Mind, Buddha Nature, Christ, God, a Highr Power, or simply the Highest Good, is irrelevant. In fact, what we call it can be problematic if the term we use denotes a static conception or image because of our natural inclination to grasp such a thin and hold onto it.

So, it is a challenge to live without nouns! Life as continuous, never-ending process, has nothing stable upon which to stand. This lack of firm foundation is very scary. Yet, like being underwater in a pool, our environment completely surrounds us and as we relax into it we join it. Pure freedom, yes, but most importantly, we are in a position to taste life as it is, rather than as we think it is.

Be well.

Monday, February 15, 2010


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night I was working on a paper concluding a course of study in Judaism and I found myself just writing as I do in my blogs. It is a mistake I think to try to consider a religious point of view as one thing or another.

The practice is to just be.

So, in the middle of writing, I composed this:

The Infinite does not speak to me,
It whispers, kisses, and hovers.
It rises thrugh my fingers
with each touch of a key
on my keyboard
like fingers touching a mirror.
there It is,..
Tactile dialogue
as words pirouette.

I think I like being lost in the wilderness of a forest where nothing has a name and everything is just there before me. It makes every touch count.

Be well.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Dday

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Today is one of those days, oy, one of those days, where cards and candy, flowers, and schmaltz flow like tidal waves, and at the speed of light, yet.

I will freely admit, I am not fond of Valentine's Day. I feel it is so artificial, so contrived,and worse, shallow.

People spend so much time and money on cards, candy, and other ready-mades, and so little time and energy on the real thing.

Love is hard. It is work. Love requires things of us we are so often unwilling to give. A piece of paper with a sentiment? Please.

Couples grow, relationships change. Sometimes they deepen, sometimes they remain stuck in romantic notions of by-gone times. Love requires a willingness to risk living in new growth. It requires a recasting of ideas, thoughts, and behaviors.

We love our partners and are committed to them. But this love is dynamic and changes over time. and because this is so, the nature of the relationship must change. Often deeper, sometimes in different directions, we work to hold on to an ever-changing ground.

The test of a relationship and the people in it is their willingness to release themselves from the bondage of history and step into a deeper, more satisfying present. Love is not two dimensional, it is incredibly multidimensional with surfaces facing in all directions.

Today I vow to open my heart to all those dimensions and directions..

Be well,

Friday, February 12, 2010

Clearing Away Stuff

With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The morning air is cold and the sky is dark. I put on the fire in the fireplace, made some coffee, and spent a little time picking up books. Somehow, my library spread through the living room and dining area, across the counter, and over my desk. Odd papers, folders, and a few pens completed the mess. This is the inevitable result of writing. We want our sources right in front of us. So, too, practice.

Our primary source in practice is ourselves. We sit facing a wall. Nothing else is there. This form isolates us and because this is so, it offers an opportunity to experience without secondary sources, i.e., the constant flow of voices and images around us.

This practice is a source of life and vitality. As things clear away, our life reveals itself as directly as possible. Like being able to see the granite counter under the books, we can see what is there rather than what we think is there.

When I take away the clutter clarity returns and with it our life energy rises.

Be well

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Question

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

As some of you might know I am just completing a two year course of study with Rabbi Citrin at Temple Beth El in Las Cruces. The program, called "Journeys", explored historical, liturgical, theological, and personal issues surrounding Judaism and its practices. I am now knee deep in writing a paper to complete the program. A reader of my blog at Tricycle asked me a question and I thought I would take some time this morning to address it. The question was:

Hello Roshi , please I am curious how the mix of being a Buddhist priest and a Jewish lay teacher/student works ?

This is at once both a complex and simple question. There are those in both faith traditions who would argue that it does not work. They might be hooked on their tradition, unwilling to see more deeply what the aim is, or they might fear competing agendas, and so on. On the other hand, there are many who have viewed my effort with curiosity, appreciation, and even gratitude.

Contemplative practices have much in common and every faith tradition has a tradition of contemplative practice. It happens that in Zen and Judaism, thee are so very many parallels and points of agreement that synchronicity is not such a problem as it might be in other blends.

Mystical Judaism, through the teachings of kabbalists and the Hasidim, posit a view of God that is as nearly identical to Zen's view of Big Mind as is possible. Meditation has been traced to Jewish ancestors back to and including Abraham. And in both cases, the practice is the focus, not the beliefs.

I have found that each inform and deepen the other. One tills the soil, as the other plants seeds, one nurtures, the other reaps, one bakes, the other feasts, and in the end, manifestation of holiness. A holiness not holier than thou, but a holiness that reveals the sacred nature of all things.

People seem very interested in learning. I have taught very well attended classes in Jewish Spirituality, Kabbalah, Mussar,and conduct two weekly meditation periods at the Temple. The congregation, initially suspicious, has warmly accepted me over the years and I was even elected to the Board of Directors.

The Zen world has had a little more difficulty, I think. For one, most people's understanding of Judaism is quite shallow, even erroneous. Stereotypes prevail in both cases and these offer both practice opportunities and teaching moments.

For me personally, the path has been torturous as I am just a tad too serious. Prone to go black and white, I cut off my nose despite my face at times. Engaging however, in the torture is essential to deepening our faith, whether its faith in the Everything or faith in a practice.

As a result I have come to deeply appreciate the truth of the statement that there are many windows in the mansion of the Infinite. And great wisdom in letting go of our grasp of idols regardless of who made them and what they point to.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
A contemplative practice is a practice of continuous release. We let go of our grip on everything as each thing’s tightness is noticed. Breathe in, notice; breathe out, release.
Releasing is essential to discovering serenity.
We are animals who, when we perceive we are threatened, tighten. Chemistry kicks it. In the Army, we would call it going on “Alert.”
It is a natural and normal response, but one that is often unneeded and, too often, not dealt with well because we do not know how or we do not notice the response in the first place. Contemplative practice creates awareness necessary to notice and helps to develop a skill set in dealing with it once it happens.
Pay attention! Wake up! Each is bluntly asking us to notice. As we go through our day is mindfulness, we naturally notice. We notice our breath caught in our lungs. We notice an increase in the flushness of our face or our respiration becoming shallow and more rapid.
In each case, we practice to release. Opening our grip on things, we let go of control in order to experience our situation, we are in a place to release ourselves into it.

If we were not in a situation we would not be alive, which is to say, life is one continuous situation. A contemplative’s practice is to be alive in it and this requires release.

I picture my mind as having closed. I practice unlocking it and opening it, like a flower opening in the sunlight. On the other hand, my lungs, locked up, opening and releasing air. The release is an essential feeling to experience fully and completely.

In such a release, we learn to abide in our lives freely and easily.

Be well.

Monday, February 08, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

The morning moon is stunning against a black sky the fullness of which takes my breath away. Standing on the edge of darkness has that effect.

Darkness gets a bad rep. I remember a moment in childhood standing on the edge of an ocean. I could not see a thing. But I could feel. That vast expanse of emptiness is deep. I remember feeling awestruck.

As a child I did a dance both loving and fearing this vast darkness. As an adult, I know that we spend our lives trying to avoid it or meekly throw light at it or pretend it isn’t what it is. Open mystery.

Turn off your lights and go outside in the dark. Walk under the trees, under the stars, and open your heart to the universe. It is there to accept you.

Holiness is on such an edge. It is the point between light and dark, the edge of awareness, where taking any step with throw you off balance and into seeming oblivion. If you know it, it is not it, you must know it as a deep and abiding part of you.

Like a warm enfolding blanket, the Infinite embraces. It’s no wonder we humans love our robes be they simple shawls, tallit, or kesas. We wrap ourselves with the edge of holiness, and reside in wonder.

Be well

Sunday, February 07, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
Last night we lit the havdallah candle and passed the spice box, marking the close of the Sabbath and the entering of a new week. While a beautiful ceremony, this whole notion of marking the sacred and profane is annoying. On the one hand, we invest in a time and space, creating a dualism, on the other hand we come to realize there is no place or time where the Infinite is not. Everything is. Simple.
Yet, here we are, even in Zen, lighting candles, bowing, treating this as somehow invested with meaning and that as not.
Perhaps we must: a sacred life would be a life lived with no automatic pilot. No rest. No letting go. A sacred life would be a life without meaning. When everything is sacred, nothing is.
The very definition of sacred demands a separation of one thing from another, investing holiness through mindful attention.
On the other hand, nothing can be profane as everything matters. Everything is deeply and intimately interconnected. One is many, many is one.
Only when we look to the function of ceremony do we begin to understand. Ceremony does not mark, create, or underscore anything at all. Ceremony invites us to recognize what already is. A mindfulness bell does not create our true home, it invites us to open ourselves to it as it is with us always.
Our place is our heart: wherever we go, there we are. We might consider relaxing into it.

Be well.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,
Study is one of the dharma gates I enter often. Last night was Erev Shabbat and we stopped what we were doing to light candles, say blessings, and welcome a day of rest and holiness with a family dinner. The thing is, what I was doing was an expression of that very thing. I was studying and writing. My paper’s working title is the Sacralization of Reform Judaism.
As a Buddhist priest and a Jewish lay religious teacher/student, I practice to keep my dharma eye open to see such expressions and as an expression of holiness itself. I know, I know…words can be serious obstacles. What holiness is is another topic.
Anyway, I am noticing a tension between the rational, linear processes utilized in study and my willingness to open my heart to the sacred itself in that very process. Study requires a ‘what’s this in relation to that?’ sort of thinking. Holiness requires entering both this and that at the same time. It’s an immersion.
In Buddhist and Jewish traditions we have prayers for both entering study and wrapping ourselves in the sacred. In the end, we should come to understand they are not separate at all as we discover everything is sacred, everything is holy.
Unfortunately today, both study and the holy are either tortured or eschewed. Study has become a fact finding process with brain cells storing as much as possible while the holy is rarely encountered in our post-modern conscience. And if it is, we see it as anachronistic. Therein, the tension. We want holiness.
Such tension is a shadow, though, of our mind at play in multilayered playgrounds. These playgrounds are built as a result of our moving away from the natural, the powerful dark, edges of things. In the light we see the sacred is everywhere in everything. Non-duality dispels such a tension. Religion today seems to be rolling along that track. People seem to need a way to touch the sacred in their lives. We want to get to the edge and take a step.
A flower is opening.
That a religious group like Reform Judaism, born in the Age of Enlightenment and wedded to the principles of universality, science, and reason has itself begun to ask itself how to be an avenue to the holy for its members is testimony to this third millennia blossom.
Zen, often cold and indifferent feeling, has taken on a similar thrust. Our Order was created to take us out of the cold monastic walls of Japanese tradition and into the warm light of engaged practice with the world. We are in a place where our task is to re-enchant the world. It is best to do this by beginning with ourselves.

Be well.

Friday, February 05, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

Chan practitioner JM recently posted a note to ZenLiving at YahooGroups regarding Karma. I would like to add my three cents. Karma is often misunderstood; it seems to me, as a sort of punishment/reward system or something akin to fate. It is neither.

Karma is simply cause and effect, that’s it. If we look at a living system such as a pond, it may have a karmic balance we might call homeostasis. This is cause and effect in action. If the system goes into disequilibrium, that process is also a cause and effect. This is also cause and effect in action. Now, both equilibrium and disequilibrium are mental constructs. We add our understanding of these to what we experience in the pond. We make discriminations about them: balance good, imbalance, bad, and so on. Yet, in the grand scheme and the long view, no problem. This pond is temporary and is part of the whole environmental system, also temporary, and part of the Earth, also temporary, and so on. Everything changes.

Now, in the relative world, if I add something good to the pond, something good ripples out. If I add something bad to the pond, something bad ripples out. If I expect to use the pond, and I have added something bad, I will receive bad karmic effect. This effect may take on dimensions I do not foresee. Perhaps my children will want to swim in the pond and now they are sick. Or perhaps someone finds out I have done this and puts me in jail. Or perhaps, I recognize I did something wrong and offer amends…each action has a reaction and this reaction ripples out. But, here’s the thing, we are in the ripples and these ripples change us and as we change others change and so on and so on…

So, on the one hand, the Big Mind hand, everything is as it should be and nothing is this or that; on the other hand, in the Small Mind hand, everything happens because everything else happens and we are in the water when it does.

Is there karma or not?

Be well.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


With palms together,
Good Morning Everyone,

There is no sense in crying about the world, it has enough crying in it. There is no sense in worry, things are what they are. There is no sense in coping, it just gets us through the night. What is crucial is our willingness to deal with what is presented to us.

Dealing with something is quite different from coping with something. I do not like the notions contained in the phrase “coping skills” as these amount to Ora-gel for a toothache or a shot of whiskey when tense: Just soothers of nerve-endings, nothing more.

We rise and face our world, a world of our own construction, and ask it meet our expectations. We fail to realize our expectations are our fantasies, and the world we create reflects our lack of skill, our desire, and our lack of vision. We add to the world our problems, usually defined as unmet expectations, lack of basic needs or even higher needs. And go about kvetching.

Nike had it right, “Just do it”. Elegant. Direct. To the point. We practice Engaged Zen in his Order. Our way is to meet the world directly, offering what we can, withholding when necessary, and working through, hand in hand with those affected, the issues that confront them.

“Working through” is an old ego-psychology term and our lack of understanding it reflects our social norms. It is not a quick fix, instant karma, or salve. To work through something is to enter it. Like a entering a koan, we drop away the expectation of a solution and live with paradox or contradiction, duality or powerlessness. We experience our feelings, letting our grip on them open so they may slip away eventually, but not before processing their relation to our thoughts and perceptions.

We do. We suck it up. We “gird our loins” in biblical terms. Diligence is a necessary ally in our work. We experience frustration like a duck floating on water. Nibble here, nibble there, float on.

So today, experience your world as it is, not as you wish it to be. Notice. Process. Do. Enjoy. But watch out for the inclination to cope.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

The sky is wet this morning. I sit in the Zendo with my mini notebook and coffee waiting for any early morning students. Wednesday morning I open my Zendo to the public for practice. Not the “public” at large, mind you, but to my small sangha here in Las Cruces.

My morning practice actually starts late. 6:30 AM is nearly midday at some practice centers, but we are Americans and this is not a practice center, but my home. We are not affiliated with Soto Shu in Japan, nor do we wish to be. We are our own Order here in the United States.

Rev. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi , my Dharma Grandfather, did not bother to register most of his disciples with Soto Shu. He actually did what other Japanese Zen Teachers said should be done, let the Japanese recede and allow our own cultural elements to arise to be integrated. Sensei, according to my Teacher, taught his heirs to be open to the Americanization of Zen. Later developments have created an impulse to re-align with Soto Shu and many centers now eschew a more relaxed Center practice, in favor of the far more stylized Japanese monastic style. Most people attending such centers believe there is a “right” way and this way is the Japanese way.

I strongly disagree. Right is not external or culturally specific. Right is internal, an orientation of mind, body, and environment. Zen is not about the bells and whistles, the robes, or whether we bow at this word or that. Although these are important to the order and flow of a service composed of a variety of people, it is not Zen, per se.

Practice should consider environment. It is in an environmental, cultural context, that meanings arise and make sense. When we vow to cease doing evil, we understand evil in a cultural context, doing good also in such a context, and clearly creating conditions for addressing the cries of the world is a cultural phenomenon. We reside in an environment that is specific to us. Zen practice attempts to crack these wide open. Bringing in a foreign culture can lead to a false sense of specialness. And works against this necessity. Teachers who use choppy English can be perceived as somehow more esoteric, mystical, or “enlightened”. Koromos are more “elegant” and high class than scrubs or jeans and a t-shirt.

The Order I have established is less about form than about mindful, compassionate presence. Although form is important, (it does, after all provide the container), it is not the thing itself. I am more inclined to celebrate the use of a hammer than reside placidly in specialness.

Be well,

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

When the Ceiling is the Ground

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

If we lay down on the floor and look up, we get an entirely different view of our environment. Furnishing seem larger, their undersides are exposed, the ceiling seems like the floor with lights sprouting up from it. We are resting in the sky.

I do this often, lay on the floor, and it is both refreshing as a reminder of the power of perspective, and as a healing for my body.

Take an opportunity and lay down on the floor, better if outside, perceive the sky, the ceiling, the underside of things. Experience the Earth supporting you. Be thankful.

Be well.