Zen 101

Sunday, October 31, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Right now I am sitting quietly in the dark in my residence.1. I am looking out over the mesa to the mountains in the east. It is dark and the ambient light is not enough to clarify anything. But there it is, in the dark, right in front of my eyes.

Our universe is itself beauty, each and every aspect is a manifestation of its entirety: whole, alive, an quite conditional. As scientist-philosopher Brian Greene suggested, it is an Elegant Universe. Do we take any time at all to notice it? We look, but do we see?

Sitting zazen in the park, I often look out at the trees, the iron fence, and the iron bench. In front of me, beyond the park boundary, there are newly constructed southwestern style apartments. A playground sits behind me. Blue sky is above me and grass beneath me. Do I really see these? How? What are they?

As I squint my eyes as artists sometimes do, I see less detail, but in its place patterns emerge. There is positive space and negative space. A tension between the two arises. Good art always has tension, as does a good life.

We often come to Zen in order to quiet our minds. Wrong idea. Quietism is a disease. Serene reflection is active and dynamic. Students, come to Zen to witness. Come to Zen to see. Seeing enables tension to be seen for what it is, the energy between points that are bound together by that energy. And more. When that energy is realized, the points fall away. What is left is the entire universe residing right there, right now.

Be well.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

People in the Buddhist world seem to argue about a few simple things: is Buddhism a religion, who is the “I” speaking (or writing), and, is there a “self?”

I will offer my own point of view here. First, Buddhism is a religion if its adherents practice it religiously. Religion does not require a God, and the fact that so many (including renowned dictionaries) believe it does leads to such ridiculous arguments as who or what is God. Religion needing God is a theist point of view. What if God is the Whole Enchilada? What if God is not? Does it matter? Will these questions get us any closer to our freedom?

The questions about self and an “I” are, it seems to me, based on a total misunderstanding and a case of simple amnesia. First, remember, there are two truths in Buddhism, the Absolute Truth and the Relative Truth. These are Big Mind, or Buddha Mind, and Small Mind, that is, the mind of our everyday interactions with each other and the space around us. Self arises as a result of our brain’s neurological functioning. It is a Small Mind creation and function. It is an interactional creation between bio-psycho-social and environmental factors. It is as real as a raging river which is composed of many streams coming together and many factors such as slope, rainfall, and gravity. While it is raging it is also constantly changing, thus it is empty of an inherent “self.”

We mistakenly believe that if something is “empty” it has no existence. Not so. If I smack you with my kyosaku it will sting and you will have evidence of it’s existence, my existence, and your existence. Do these existences constantly change? Of course, but just because a raging river flows does not mean it will not bowl you over.

When we practice our “religion” we allow ourselves to see our own true nature. We release ourselves from the grip of the Relative Truth and see the truth of the Absolute. This does not destroy or “conquer” the Relative, but rather, puts it in perspective. Minds do not need taming or conquering. They need open fields, fields with translucent borders, functional, but permeable. They need the faith to roam them without fear. The development of prajna requires this.

Be well.

Monday, October 25, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,


Clear Mind Zen Temple is establishing new practice times. We will practice Zazen in the Zendo at 7:00 AM on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Zen in the Park at 9:00 AM on Monday and Friday. The evening schedule is 7:00 PM Monday through Thursday. The Temple is closed on Saturday. Sunday Zazen is at 9:00 AM. Zen Discussion Group is Friday at 4:00 PM. Tai Chi Chih is offered in the Zendo on Wednesday at 4:00 PM.

The Temple is open at all other times by appointment and Roshi is available for private instruction.

Lastly, we will be practicing sesshin in honor of the Buddha's Enlightenment the first weekend of December. Our space is limited. Please email me your reservation. Thank you.

Be well.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

With life as it is, comes life as it is. When we expect it to be different than it is, we suffer. Yet, this isn’t quite true, is it? Suffering is a result of expectations held close, not expectations themselves. We go through life with expectations based on assumptions about the world. We must have such assumptions in order to get out of bed in the morning. It would be a challenge to get out of bed if I did not assume it is safe to do so, or that the world would not treat me fairly, or that if there was not going to be a certain amount of predictability in it. The world as we know it would come to a halt. It isn’t these that are the cause of suffering, but our investment in them.

When we encounter an unexpected change in our day, what does it feel like? How do we respond to it? Does it cause us a certain amount of anxiety? How much anxiety? Do we get angry or annoyed?

Holding on to an idea about how things should be creates suffering not the idea. Thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings. We practice to experience them as completely as possible, but then to let them go. If we do not we carry them into the next moment and, as a result, that moment suffers from its intrusion, and we suffer with it.

Do not hold onto expectations: hold them with an open hand.

Be well.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night I was so tired from an exhausting day that I could only manage the service chants and one period of zazen. We had one student at the Temple and I asked for her permission to cut the second period and set aside the Teisho period. She graciously agreed and we closed.

In the moment, I felt badly for depriving a student of a second period and withholding a teaching in order to take care of myself. It was a passing thought. We must take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.

This is a challenge for many and it seems that challenge is related to a need to be needed. When we cannot stop caring for another in order to care for ourselves we are in need of being needed and ironically, are not really caring at all. True care requires us not to need to care. Being in service to others is not about us, its’ about others. If I am caring for others, not for them but out of my need to care, then what is the true object of my care?

Be well.

Friday, October 22, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Prajna is translated as “wisdom.” Hui-Neng teaches that it is the same as Samadhi and that this Samadhi is one practice. Prajna is the same as zazen. It is the same as kinhin, samu, and oryoki. Prajna and enlightenment are one. Yet, enlightenment is not true enlightenment if it is a singular manifestation. In the Mahayana tradition we must turn our attention to others. Master Dogen in the Shushogi teaches that there are four wisdoms for the benefit of others. These are charity, kind speech, benevolent deeds, and cooperation. He says, “These are the practices of the vow of the bodhisattva.”

Recently I have been challenged by the fact that there have been so many changes coming from so many directions and encounters with people who have abused my friendship that when I took a look at this teaching again, I was dumbstruck. I did not feel particularly charitable, my words were decidedly not kind (at least those flying around in my head) and I did not feel much like doing good things or cooperating. In short, and in retrospect, I felt selfish.

But, my practice was my center and in spite of everything, I opened the Temple and offered Zen at the appointed hour. Two students came and we practiced zazen together, had tea, and listened to the words of Master Dogen.

I believe in my practice as I have evidence that it works. It took this bitter and angry Viet Nam vet and taught him it was OK to open his heart. While I may not always be so open, I am always on the path. The practices of Zen are there for each of us to try. If they are helpful, keep them. If they are not, discard them.

Be well.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Four Vows

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night at the Temple we talked about the part in the Shoshogi that addresses the vow to free all beings. The Four Great Vows are very special as they present us with the most fundamental koans.

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it.

We vow to free “numberless” beings, yet seemingly have only one lifetime. We vow to end delusions, yet they are “inexhaustible.” We vow to enter “boundless” dharma gates and in the end, realize an “unsurpassable” buddha way. Here’s the thing: If we approach these logically we will never get them. They are not logical in the logical of linearity.

We must step back and let our mind go. Like releasing one’s eyes when looking at a picture in order to see patterns we cannot see with focused eyes.

The vow is, as Daido Loori pointed out, a prayerful one. Such a vow is a unification rather than a petition. So, to “get” these vows we must enter them and to enter them, we must let our body/mind drop away. We begin accepting these vows by first practicing letting self go and casting our mind/heart eye toward all other beings.

We do not practice Zen for ourselves. We practice Zen for the benefit of others. So, we might say, “I am not sitting Zazen, all beings are sitting Zazen.” Our playground is infinite in all directions and includes all times. It contains innumerable beings but does not include a single being. Our delusions are inexhaustible, yet there are no delusions; boundlessness is entered once and ceases to be boundless; and unsurpassable is just this moment.

May we each be a blessing in the universe today.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Suki Moments

With palms together

Good Evening Everyone,

My dog, Suki, has buddha nature. I know this because watching her intently; I see generosity, patience, diligence, morality, mindfulness, and most importantly, wisdom. She is but a pup, yet there she is, a living buddha. I am fortunate indeed to have her at my side.

Suki manifests the great paramitas, those aspects of a buddha we seek to release through our practice. I wish I were able to release such fine attributes, but alas, I am human.

My practice will be Suki watching, or more precisely, watching myself experience Suki.

This is all we can do in life: witness in the most profound and deepest sense that which gives rise to the thought of enlightenment. As we go about our daily business, we witness ourselves in our small preoccupations and, once in awhile, if we are both fortunate and observant, a Suki moment taps us on the shoulder.

May yours be in this moment.

Monday, October 18, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning we will sit zazen in the park at Frontier and Roadrunner here in Las Cruces, NM. I am looking forward to this practice, although this immediate moment is actually my practice. I am drawn to my online chess games and struggle to let them sit idle while I stare at the wall…or the grass. My rating has taken a serious hit lately. I feel a strong urge to play and play and play some more! Dealing with such matters is what Zen is all about.

We often feel compelled. We often struggle with this urge or that. It is not the aim of the urge that is so much the matter, but the felt urgency itself. The aims come and go, but just below the surface urgency remains. For some it is a personality issue, for others it can be a sign of addiction, and still others (most, I think) it is a culturally induced response to fight or flight. There is a reason we say, “We are like sitting ducks!” Birds on a wire get shot! Urgency, hypervigilance, the need to do something about something: these go back a very long way in our gene pool.

Zen practice is about noticing and releasing. I notice my need and release myself from its bondage. I do this through the practice or returning to the present moment fused with a commitment to just sit.

By just sitting we face the power of urgency and defeat it. In the process, we gain mastery while paradoxically letting mastery go. It’s like those straw finger puzzles: the more we pull, the tighter they get. Want freedom? Relax and let go.

Be well.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Contact of a Zen Kind

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Zen living requires a radical reorientation to life. When such a turn happens what was once important no longer seems so; what was once unimportant is now significant. It is this seeming turning of life upside down that disturbs some of us, as well as so many of those around us. Conversely, it is what makes life so wonderful for those who open their eyes. Yet, it is only a seeming turning of things. In truth, it is just a shift in where we place our mind.

Two short, non-exclusive lists:

What is significant?

A glass of water.

A sliver of the moon in the sky.

Loving someone; being loved by someone.

The taste of things.

The feel of things.

The smell of things.

The sound of things.

What is insignificant?

Our thoughts about the above.

Hurrying to get somewhere.

Getting somewhere.

Our social status; another’s social status.

The sort of car we drive.

How wide our TV screen is.

That we have a TV in the first place.

We might consider making our own lists on a day-to-day basis. Doing so can be a way of keeping things fresh. The shift is about experience rather than analysis; a turn toward the direct contact with the thing itself.

This is Contact of a Zen Kind.

Be well.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pure Precpts

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

The first two of the Three Pure Precepts were the topic of Rev. Bobby Kankin’s Teisho last night at Both Sides/No Sides Zen Sangha in El Paso. He did a marvelous job framing those two very significant vows. While he was presenting them, he spoke of a question he had received which asked what was the difference between them. The first vow is in the negative, “I vow to cease doing evil.” The second vow is in the positive, “I vow to do good.”

Rev. Kankin asked me at the conclusion of his talk to comment.

With some consideration, I offered that the first pure precept is really a precept toward making oneself whole. To refrain is to enter one’s self. It is a process of unification. Whereas, the second vow is a vow to manifest our true nature. Therefore, in the first case, we unify ourselves, bringing about an end to duality, and in the second case, we allow that non-duality to appear in the world. How? By getting up from our cushions and going into the world with our buddha nature. The key here is realization of our unity. Our oneness with all things makes it essential that we act with great compassion and care. Using the third vow, “I vow to bring about good for all beings,” we manifest ourselves. This is a good thing.

Be well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Walk

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

An announcement:

There will be no Zazen at Clear Mind Zen Temple this evening as I will be in El Paso with Both Sides/No Sides Sangha.

This morning very early, Soku Shin and I took a walk through the Desert Trails park. The stars were wonderful. A flashlight helped keep us on the trail and Suki helps as well by making sure we were mindful. Walking in starlight is very humbling. The sky is so deep and expansive, the air so cool, and the earth so seemingly supportive that it feels as though we are truly on a voyage on a spaceship though the universe. Indeed we are.

Where are we going? Where have we been? It really doesn’t matter. Just as on a walk, it is the walk that matters. The voyage is never about getting there.

I am playing multiple games of chess just now. I am not doing well, by some standard, such as winning or losing. I am playing chess with very interesting people from around the world. In their play their temperaments are revealed. Small things count: misplacing a piece, moving without seeing, staying calm, but most of all not worrying about winning or losing.

My rating has taken a serious hit lately as I have been playing these games on my phone’s small screen and often in the midst of some other activity. We learn or we don’t. Multitasking in chess (as in most things) is like oil and water.

I am learning to let go of lost games and simply resign a lost position: more psychological energy for the next game.

It might be time for another walk. So it goes.

Monday, October 11, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

So it is in the fifties here in southern New Mexico and I just woke at 4:00 AM. Yesterday was a very good day. Team Zen did a charity race in El Paso, a 5k non-competitive walk, so I guess it wasn’t technically a race. I noticed, though, through Rev. Kajo pointing it out, that I just couldn’t help racing along passing people, looking over my shoulder, and all that stuff one does while racing. I considered her observation and it was true.

Even when it was pointed out that I was racing, and I backed off, I soon was at it again. I put my attention on the scenery, and as beautiful as it was, my heart was in the race. These are habits of the heart that are a challenge to break.

The thing is, even if I were to pass someone, I am still a far back of the pack racer. So all of my racing is for my self-improvement just as in zazen, we often sit with the thought of improving: how long can I sit? Can I sit stronger than yesterday? Will I move today?

It is best to let these fall away and just put one breath in front of another and in racing, one foot in front of another. The fact that this is difficult is testimony to the power of our brain to take us away from the moment at hand and the need for vigilance and diligence in our practice.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The News

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

I have not yet looked at the morning news. I am curious about it. Who bombed who today? Who killed or stole or raped? They say dog bites man is not news, but man bites dog is. I wonder.

The stories that compose our diet of news are incredibly similar in that they strike out at the heart. Let me see...hostage killed in rescue attempt; gunman opening fire at an elementary school; teens and a man abducted, sodomized, tortured, and nearly killed for being gay.

Good grief. Seems to me I read these stories pretty much weekly. How can we be the way we are?

Yet, I still hold onto my breath and find some way to care about the perpetrators of these crimes. Somewhere, somehow, hate filled them.

People do not just get up in the morning and think it might be cool to shoot somebody or cut them or strangle them. They had to be taught it, dreamed about it, and felt it, for a very long time.

Just as my heart begins to hurt as I read these stories, so too must have theirs in response to something. Just as I envision punishing them, they needed to punish someone for the hurt they feel. This is human.

A buddha accepts these thoughts and feelings and wraps them in his love. If we hate such perpetrators, we are hating ourselves. And the world goes round and round. If we love these perpetrators, we love ourselves. And the world goes round and round. The only difference is whether is goes in love or hate.

Be well.

Friday, October 08, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning was a cool sixty degrees as we walked Suki in the park. It was nice to wake up to a starry sky, clear and unobstructed. I think the sky is one of my favorite aspects of life here in New Mexico. Having a clear and unobstructed view is crucial to living an authentic life.

I am of late concerned about our ability to tolerate each other’s differences when those differences appear threatening. The very nature of a threat distorts our perception. When we are afraid we do not see clearly at all: we see situations as pregnant with danger. Our mind’s eye quite naturally rests on dangerous possibilities, often to the exclusion of others.

Recently I asked the question, “How would Buddha respond to Islam?” I frankly believe this is a threatening question, as those of us who purport to be Buddhists must take a close look at what our understanding of Buddha is and how close or distant we are from that ideal.

Moreover, I think such a question demands a close examination of our own understanding of Islam. It is my sense that most of us know very little of Islam and that which we do know is grossly inaccurate and/or based on televised programming designed to increase market share through emotional appeal.

In an article I found on the Buddhist Channel, similarities between Islam and Buddhism are discussed. It is interesting to me that our consciousness here in America has been so warped by media images, brow-beating interviews, and the ascendency of inflammatory rhetoric, that we do not know even the most rudimentary concepts of Islamic theology, cannot name a single Islamic theologian, and have never (or barely) opened the Islamic holy book. Yet from what we think we know, we make gross generalizations based on the acts of vengeful miscreants regarding the whole of a faith tradition.

This is akin to cross-burning KKKers being identified as the personification of Christianity. Or suggesting that because Buddhist practitioners bow in front of a statue of Buddha we are idolaters. We do not do that, nor should we do it to other faith traditions.

It is our obligation as spiritual seekers to be authentic and honest through our body, speech, and mind. We understand these vehicles to be at risk from the three poisons, greed, hatred, and delusion. Further, we hold that such poisons be addressed by generosity, love, and wisdom. My sense is that Buddha would find a Middle Way through the bombastic rhetoric and fear mongering of this environment. He would find a way to see clearly that the person in front of him is a suffering human being. He would care for him and love him, even if that person was burning a cross, oppressing women, abusing children, or had an explosive device and was threatening to detonate it.

The Buddha Way is not for everyone. This much is clear.

Be well.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Today is Bodhidharma Day and we are able to practice as a result of his effort. We are each Bodhidharma, even today, as we take our position on the zafu, we manifest the essential nature of the ancestors from before Shakyamuni Buddha to today.

Bodhidharma was born, it is believed, in 470 C. E. He traveled to China, interviewed with the Emperor Wu, and eventually settled into a cave near the Shaolin Temple where it is said he practiced facing the cave wall for nine years.

Often portrayed as a wildish sort with eyes bulging, he was clearly an intimidating Master. He often rebuffed those who came to study with him and perhaps this is where the tradition of testing a potential student’s commitment came into being. For Bodhidharma, the practice was not a Sunday morning affair, but a daily, moment-to-moment experience.

People then had the same reasons for not coming to the cushion or to a practice center as do people today. They had families, worked, and otherwise were occupied with matters of consequence, but for a few, there were no matters of greater import than practice.

We sat last night and this morning with Bodhidharma in heart/mind. We are grateful to him for bringing the dharma to China and to Dogen Dai Osho for bringing it to Japan and for Matsuoka Dai Osho for bringing it to the United States and for Hogaku Shozen-roshi for bringing it to us.

May we each as a result, deepen our practice and offer the dharma to any who will sit with us.

Be well.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Our Mind

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

It is o’dark thirty and I am awake. What else is there to say? Mornings are indescribably delicious to me: the cool air, the silence, and time pregnant with opportunity.

This morning we will practice Zazen. Throughout the day, we will practice mindfulness. It is our way

With an eye to what is next to do, I am aware that my eye is on what next to do: bring it back, bring it back. The processes of Zen are the same: simple but difficult. Keep your mind, mindfully.

Be well.

Friday, October 01, 2010

To Sustain Ourselves

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

It is early and the rice is cooking for the day. It is the beginning of the month and we will soon have money to buy food. In the meantime, rice is nice (thank you KoMyo!) and I am reminded of the scene in the film “Zen” where the Tenzo has no rice at all. The monks drank boiled water. To complicate matters the refrigerator here at the Temple is broken and will need to be replaced. A call to the landlord has begun to get things moving in that direction.

There is a line in the meal chant, "to sustain ourselves, we eat this food." Our practice is to sustain ourselves without much ado. So, we wash the rice and cook it, add what is in the pantry (in this case a bit of turmeric with a hint of mint and beans), and enjoy the process of cooking. I will add the beans a bit later with a little fresh onion. Lunch will be early today as I have a 12:15 appointment with my orthopedic doc.

Before all that, 7:00 AM Zazen; 9:00 AM Zen in the Park, 10:30 meeting with Hogaku-roshi, 12:15 Doctor’s appointment, and later today at 4:00 PM our Zen Discussion Group, followed by 7:00 PM Zazen.

May you each be a blessing in the universe.