Zen 101

Monday, January 31, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Soku Shin, Suki, and I just got back from a 2.6 mile desert hike. Suki did what Suki’s do, and gave chase to the myriad rabbits inhabiting the desert. Soku Shin did what Soku Shin’s do, talked with friend Caiti along the way. I did what I do, walked residing in my thoughts.

My thoughts are in a bit of a turmoil this morning. My Teacher who has always been a bit of a challenge for me, has sparked some conflict again. It has set me to wondering about the role of Teacher as we “advance” along the way. A friend recently asked me what being a “roshi” meant to me. I was taken aback by the question as I had never really given it much thought. He is in a position to have that honor bestowed upon him and he is concerned about it.

Rightly so.

I feel it is rather like when I finally was awarded a PhD and a license to practice independently as a clinical social worker. Oh my, big, deep breath. What are the expectations? Can I meet them? And on and on…

In America, this title has taken on too much weight, in my opinion. It simply means old teacher, but has morphed into Zen Master and beyond. I do not like pedestals.

Six years ago my Teacher gave me this honor (or burden, if you will). I feel as though I met the burden with a degree of grace and humility and lots of hard work. Over the years my Teacher and I have fought, cared for each other, and wrestled with a ton of issues. We had, I thought, reached a point where we saw each other as colleagues. Of late, though, given a few things, I am beginning to wonder if the title ought best be reconsidered.

If becoming a roshi is anything more than being a manifestation of Buddhanature, it cannot be correct. And if it is that, then all who practice deeply and sincerely are roshi. With such a realization, the title becomes meaningless.

Be well.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Love Your Enemies

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Events in distant lands are troublesome. Political unrest, religious oppression, killing, all seem rampant. There is a degree of inhumanity and intolerance that just seems plain wrong. I read a story of the brutal stoning deaths of a couple in Pakistan, the hanging of a woman in Iran, and the beating death of a gay man in Africa. Of course, we in the US have our share: the killing of a father and daughter in Arizona by vigilantes, and this morning, I read about a mother who shot and killed her teenaged daughter and son because they would not stop “mouthing off.”

Violence has always been a part of our world’s landscape and living in the self-righteous, often squeeky clean, dreamscape we create for ourselves, it is difficult for us to imagine such things. Yet, there they are.

I read with a sense of horror on the one hand and compassion on the other. I want to understand the killers so that I will somehow be able to make sense of their actions. On the other hand, I feel a sense of anger and a desire to seek on them retribution for the pain and suffering they cause.

These are practice opportunities offered up by the real world.

Are we actually one? Are human beings essentially the same? I suspect so, yet in this sameness, some might view the need to kill is, itself, an act of great religious merit, or an act of compassion itself. Maybe we might want to look at our differences again. Maybe compassion and tolerance need to be revisited. The killers and oppressors have in their hearts the desire to do the right thing, and fueled by hate and fear, it is not so much more difficult for them to feel justified in their behavior any more than it is not difficult for me to loathe them.

Loving your enemies is likely the most challenging of religious precepts, is it not?

Be well.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Zen in Motion

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

So decadent, I am tying sitting in a tub full of hot soapy water. Actually, I am treating a bunion and two “corns” that have appeared on my feet of late. Painful, they are getting in the way of my training for the Bataan Death March at the end of March. I have already decided to take the short course, 15 miles is about all I can get up to between now and then, but even this is being threatened by these little toe tigers biting me.

On my runs/hikes lately, I have been practicing running meditation. The thing is to get into a rhythm of breathing, syncing breath with footfalls. Usually it comes to two steps with each in breath; two steps with each out breath, exception being running up hills.

The synchronicity is rather like a mantra.

Free to consider each new breath with a new view, a new thought, a new feeling, the miles fall away. This is one of the things I have missed about distance running and am so happy to be able to experience again, if not for a short time.

We were talking yesterday in our Zen Group about the impermanence of self, no-self, and the processes of awakening. Opening our dharma eye is not difficult, we just need to let go of ideas, control, and feelings. When peeling away self, know that each layer is the self and in the center, nothing: nothing and the peelings are one. This is the nature of the Absolute and the Relative. Both inter-are.

Each footfall, each breath, each thought, feeling, and other sensory perception is just as it is, Buddhanature in action.

Be well.

Friday, January 28, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Master Dogen taught that to study the Way is to study the self. This study is the act of burning away the construction we call self, allowing the pieces to fall away, and supporting what remains as that which was not born and that which will not die: our true nature. This is the universality of everything, the Great Breath, not one, not two, just this.

How do we “get there”? Simple, we get out of our own way. We realize we are already there, that there is no there, and that the desire to get there, the imagining of a there in the first place, is all part of the delusion.

We practice stillness. This is the practice of just coming and going, the practice of breathing in and breathing out, the practice of practice itself: zanmai o zanmai. The Samadhi that is the king of Samadhi.

Does raw land allow our plants to grow or do we need to till and otherwise care for the field? Do we need to weed and water? Do we need to fertilize? For our crop to be plentiful and strong, we need to do these things. Just so, Zen. We cannot expect to open the self to allow our True Nature to emerge without study. Right understanding requires a plow, hands, fertilizer, water, sun, and a willingness to set about the work itself.

Today at Clear Mind Zen Temple: Contemplative Yoga at 3:00, Zen Group at 4:00, and Zazen at 5:30. Please consider joining us!

Be well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

A short rant inspired by my study of the Buddha’s Nine Contemplations on a Corpse.

I remember walking through the streets of some Third World country a few years ago and coming upon a rotting corpse. What had been a man was now just there in the street covered in flies and other vermin. I was surprised to see him there, dead and all, just rotting as if he were like the other garbage strewn along the street. But this had been a human being.

The image, like so many others in my disappointing mind, is rather like a still life. I have it framed there. Another image, a bloated, purple body wrapped in my poncho in the jungle. It had been a Buck Sgt who decided to be John Wayne or something, but now was leaking out through various cuts and holes torn into him by a raging monsoon river. Or of a small boy, beaten by his parents, his arm twisted until it broke. I held him while the ER doc set it. Or the voice of some self righteous redneck family court judge ranting as he compared the Black family in front of him to dogs. Good grief.

What do I store these images for? Do I really have a choice? I know one thing I do with these things is keep them for support as I sit Zazen at the Veteran’s Park, or when in some sort of discussion regarding healthcare, poverty, racism, or peace. I do not want to see rotting bodies on the streets of America, though I know they are there. Nor do I want to see more young men and women killed in combat somewhere. And I for darned sure do not want to see our Government oppress its own people.

Back in graduate school, I was a regional researcher for a study of the mental health needs of homeless people. We interview 1000 homeless persons in Ohio. Such fun. We also interviewed “key informants” those who might have access to homeless persons or who offer them services (even more fun). You know, I never heard a single “hands on” expert suggest homelessness was a choice or a result of some sort of laziness on the part of the homeless person. Yet, in nearly any conversation today with people who (I am sorry for saying this) haven’t got a clue, such blame is cast. Blame the sick and dead, the soldier, the homeless, right. They should have known better, I hear.

I think one of the positive consequences of aging and life experience is that we have the potential to develop a lack of a willingness to let humanity slide in the face of suffering. Some of us elect to sit in comfortable houses and throw stones at the less fortunate. I cannot. Nor do I tolerate it well. Those who think they have no obligation to their society or to humanity at large really need to get a life. To me they are a bunch of self-serving whiners.

Our food drive is suffering. I had hoped we would have a full box by the 1st, but, alas, it is only a third full. If you should have a can or two of something nutritious and you are nearby, please consider dropping it off here at the Temple. Or if you are in some other part of the world, offer a can or two to your local shelter.

Be well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Today at Clear Mind Zen Temple

Today at Clear Mind Zen Temple:

3:00 Yoga

6:00 Tai Chi Chih

7:00 Zazen

Be well.

Put a Little Zen in Your Life

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

The aim of practice is practice itself and practice itself is to wake up. How hard is this? Very. It requires our every moment awareness, diligence, and effort. We practice; we live. We fail to practice; we die.

In Zen, life and death have nothing to do with breathing, cell division, or metabolism. Life and death are synonymous with awake or asleep. Awake we see the big picture; asleep we reside in the details. Just as everything asleep needs to wake up; everything awake needs sleep.

What is the big picture? What are the details? These are the questions that arise through our practice, these are the things, the body and mind, that fall away.

It is cold; it is not cold; cold is our mind creating cold. When one, cold and hot disappear. Body and mind fall away. Awake we need no coat; asleep we need a coat.

Just so, what is practice?

Be well.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I would like to talk about commentary. I read the news rather than watch televised news and I have discovered at the bottom of several news stories a comments box. Also on the blog sites I post to, these are common. Commenting on things could be a wonderful way to discuss an issue, but this does not seem to be the case.

People who comment do so anonymously in the main and they do a sort of hit and run thing in the process. Everyone is a wit, apparently. Often the quality of the wit reveals much too much of the person posting the witticism.

Someone messaged me: “You are a disappointment.” I replied, “Sometimes we just have to move on. Disappointments, expectations, assumptions, all are grist for the mill of practice. May you be a blessing in the universe.” To which they responded, “Just more bullshit…”

What, exactly, is this poster’s point? Is it to hurt me? Is it to help me? Or rather, is it about themselves and their own situation? Does it really help someone to post an attacking, sarcastic, comment? Way back in college, my writing professors used to say, “Show me, don’t tell me!” Alas, some have either lost that ability or never learned it.

In defense of parrots, however, I feel we are being taught this sort of thing via televised “news” where “journalists” “attack” each other and one-liner talking points are intended to “bury” an “opponent” in an exchange, rather than open an actual dialogue. Blood pressure rises, heartbeats increase, chemicals begin to be released by our brain, and we find ourselves in some sort of pre-historic and barbarous mode. Of course ratings go up and people like Rupert Murdoch can make a lot more money.

So, here’s the thing, such comments are really practice opportunities. We can practice turning off the shrieking talking heads, we can write to television stations and ask management to meet their public service obligations by replacing such personalities with people who actually care about civilized life. We can sit with our feelings when we ourselves are attacked. We can write out responses then delete them.

Peace begins with our own willingness to be peace.

Enjoy your day.

Monday, January 24, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night was spent at a retreat for our city’s Peace Village Board and Staff. I was invited to join the Board and accepted. Clear Mind Zen Temple has been a part of Peace Village for four years now offering meditation instruction and practice to the children who attend. It has grown from a week to now a proposed three week camp which includes a wide variety of activity offerings. The retreat was an excellent experience and I look forward to completing the process today from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM.

I woke this morning with peace on my mind and wondered what exactly peace is, after all. Can we say it is an absence of violence or conflict without doing it a disservice? Defining things through negation does not assert anything at all. What can we assert about peace?

I believe peace is not a noun, but rather, it seems to me to be a verb. Peace is action, it is compassion and acceptance, mutual respect, generosity and patience, all rolled into one process unfolding with each breath we take.

More than anything, though, I think I value peace of mind. Peace of mind, serene reflection, allows for still water. Still water allows for accurate reflection. When we practice Zazen, our mind’s eye relaxes and we are able to see more clearly the ripples on the mind’s surface. Ripples we let go of as we witness their flow.

We generate this still water through our practice and willingness to allow the grip of our thoughts to open and body/mind to fall away. So, in a very real way, the Zazen of life itself is peace in action.

Be well; be peace.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Work in Progress

Crime and Punishment

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night we went to see a little theatre production of ”Crime and Punishment.” It was typically Russian. The actor’s “book” must have been seriously overwhelming as the play was a playground of words and the ideas they reflect. Actually, it was more a park than playground, with the slow moving Russian author filling long dark winters with monologue as he sat on benches or walked slowly along a winter’s path. Too cold for dialogue and lively would be unheard-of.

In any event, the play was wonderful and the acting superior to anything I have seen in that theatre since I’ve lived in Las Cruces. The director’s blocking was interesting and allowed some movement in the otherwise still, inner reflection, of the characters.

It was particularly delightful to be there to support fellow Zen monk, Algernon D’Ammassa. Algernon is a Zen priest in the Korean Zen tradition and lives in Deming, NM. He proved to be a serious actor who brought depth and maturity to the stage.

On the downside of the evening, we ran into a couple who were our friends in our former lives. My (apparently) former friend ignored me when I said hello in the lobby. This is so sad. A retired clergyman, I expected he would rise to the occasion and say hello in return allowing a degree of normalization to occur. Instead, he coldly walked past us with wife in tow, eyes cast down.

Holding on to past hurt and anger is not healthy and inhibits our grown as human beings. The past serves little useful purpose in the present and clearly distorts and clouds the array of possible behavioral choices in the moment, disallowing any possible healing.


Apropos, the thematic line of the play was, “do you believe a man can rise from the dead?” In other words, can we be reborn in the moment and offer ourselves in a new way in the present? Is redemption possible?

My answer? Absolutely, but only with a willingness to shed the skin of the self.

Be well.

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Being Yourself

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

On being yourself.

The most difficult aspect of being ourselves is letting go of our concern about what others might think. What others think is always not very far away as we behave during the day. We expect it of ourselves and others and often think of it as a conscience. On most levels this is a good thing.

To let go of our concern for the opinion and judgment of others seems to suggest living without a conscience at worst or lack of care at best, but I don’t think this is so. In the Ten Ox-Herding pictures, those famous depictions of an ox herd’s path to awakening, we see in the end, a man with a broad smile, at ease, and bringing joy and life to the world around him. He is ’free and easy in the marketplace’ but in the marketplace he is.

When we shed our mind’s eye and see with a clear mind, our service truly begins. There is no self to be protected, nothing to be concerned about regarding ourselves, and so we are completely present with our environment. Conscience becomes an artifact of an earlier stage of evolutionary development. Community, which is to say, everything, unfolds without separation and our touch, which is not ‘our’ touch, but is our touch, is in-service to well-being.

We might call this residing in “shin nyo” or “thusness.”

Be well.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Be forewarned: What follows is a political statement from an avowed liberal.

This morning I woke thinking about my country. Sleep is a wonderful nurturance. In the Soto Zen Sutra book there is a chant called the Gokan No Ge and we recite it as part of oryoki, (eating meditation). One of the lines says that we are eating “for our parents, teachers, leaders, and homeland,” these are the four benefactors. (As an aside, I have noticed that many centers drop the actual list of benefactors in favor of simply saying, ‘the four benefactors.’) I suppose patriotism is a bit of a problem when our practice is to open ourselves to the universality of all things. Still, it is important, I think, to keep in mind what frees us and what retains us. The United States, as far as I am aware, was founded for the sake of freedom, in response to tyranny, and has made freedom its abiding and deeply held creed since its inception.

Conservatives seem to struggle with this. On the one hand, they want government off our backs. They seek less governance, less regulation, and fewer social programs, i.e., no more Obamacare. On the other hand, they want a more authoritarian government, government overseeing and regulating personal moral conduct, and a strong military and police to enforce law and order, i.e., laws to “protect” heterosexual marriage, laws against sexual conduct between consenting adults, laws against a right to privacy, etc. When looked at closely, it seems less governance of business is good and less governance of individual citizens is bad.

The religious right has a part to play in this. I have noticed conservatives do not seem to trust human beings. Hence, the need for criminalizing certain private, consenting, human behaviors. I believe this comes from a strong affiliation with the Christian right which puts forth the toxic notion that human beings are inherently sinful, and therefore, need a strong and wrathful God (read government) to bring them into line.

All of this points to the need for a separation of church and state and clear lines regarding the reach of government. Religious leaders running for office have a special duty, it seems to me, to be clear about their motives and whether they are actually capable of being objective in their governance.

A case in point: the newly elected Governor of Alabama, a Deacon in his church, a conservative born again Christian, who just after his inauguration proclaimed his belief that anyone not born again in Jesus Christ was not his brother or sister. For a government official to proclaim a division between those who believe and those who do not is disturbing. What’s more, the self-righteous arrogance behind such thinking, is what makes that faith tradition a tradition to closely watch.

I believe Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, New Agers, Tree Huggers, and everyone else has the right to practice their faith tradition, but that rights stop at their door and have no business entering my door unless invited, even if it is a tenant of their faith to attempt to convert the entire world.

Politicians with beliefs residing in faith traditions that require efforts to witness for the sake of conversion ought consider a different line of work. They cannot be impartial and will, sooner or later, allow their beliefs to color their judgment regarding lawmaking for the common good. Oppression is oppression even in the name of saving us from ourselves.

Be well.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Healthcare: Whatr's the Issue?

With palms together,

Good Afternoon Everyone,

This afternoon, after yoga, I decided to read the Healthcare Reform Law, since the Republican controlled House decided to vote to repeal it today. Just what is all the fuss about?

My read of the law suggests that it is rather straightforward. It protects people from being dropped, protects children (and later, adults) from being denied due to pre-existing conditions, and creates a framework for everyone in the United States to be covered by health insurance. For the life of me, I cannot see what the argument against it might be.

I suppose, as I read in some blogs, it might appear to be socialized medicine. So? Private care has not stepped up to the plate and, frankly, service at physicians offices and hospitals could use a good overhaul.

My reading suggests the law will reduce the federal deficit and this is a bad thing?

As Zen Buddhists we vow to do good for others. It seems to me, there can be no greater good than our health. A society that does not care for its children, its aged, and its infirm is a society that lacks compassion, is shortsighted, and is doomed to fail.

Here are the major points. I am very interested in this topic and why people seem so opposed to healthcare for everyone.

For those of you against healthcare reform, please indicate which ought be repealed and why? (excerpted from CBS News)


Would expand coverage to 32 million Americans who are currently uninsured.

Health Insurance Exchanges:

The uninsured and self-employed would be able to purchase insurance through state-based exchanges with subsidies available to individuals and families with income between the 133 percent and 400 percent of poverty level.

Separate exchanges would be created for small businesses to purchase coverage -- effective 2014.

Funding available to states to establish exchanges within one year of enactment and until January 1, 2015.


Individuals and families who make between 100 percent - 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and want to purchase their own health insurance on an exchange are eligible for subsidies. They cannot be eligible for Medicare, Medicaid and cannot be covered by an employer. Eligible buyers receive premium credits and there is a cap for how much they have to contribute to their premiums on a sliding scale.

Federal Poverty Level for family of four is $22,050

Paying for the Plan:

Medicare Payroll tax on investment income -- Starting in 2012, the Medicare Payroll Tax will be expanded to include unearned income. That will be a 3.8 percent tax on investment income for families making more than $250,000 per year ($200,000 for individuals).

Excise Tax -- Beginning in 2018, insurance companies will pay a 40 percent excise tax on so-called "Cadillac" high-end insurance plans worth over $27,500 for families ($10,200 for individuals). Dental and vision plans are exempt and will not be counted in the total cost of a family's plan.

Tanning Tax -- 10 percent excise tax on indoor tanning services.


Closes the Medicare prescription drug "donut hole" by 2020. Seniors who hit the donut hole by 2010 will receive a $250 rebate.

Beginning in 2011, seniors in the gap will receive a 50 percent discount on brand name drugs. The bill also includes $500 billion in Medicare cuts over the next decade.


Expands Medicaid to include 133 percent of federal poverty level which is $29,327 for a family of four.

Requires states to expand Medicaid to include childless adults starting in 2014.

Federal Government pays 100 percent of costs for covering newly eligible individuals through 2016.

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid.

Insurance Reforms:

Six months after enactment, insurance companies could no longer denying children coverage based on a preexisting condition.

Starting in 2014, insurance companies cannot deny coverage to anyone with preexisting conditions.

Insurance companies must allow children to stay on their parent's insurance plans until age 26th.


The bill segregates private insurance premium funds from taxpayer funds. Individuals would have to pay for abortion coverage by making two separate payments, private funds would have to be kept in a separate account from federal and taxpayer funds.

No health care plan would be required to offer abortion coverage. States could pass legislation choosing to opt out of offering abortion coverage through the exchange.

**Separately, anti-abortion Democrats worked out language with the White House on an executive order that would state that no federal funds can be used to pay for abortions except in the case of rape, incest or health of the mother.

Individual Mandate:

In 2014, everyone must purchase health insurance or face a $695 annual fine. There are some exceptions for low-income people.

Employer Mandate:

Technically, there is no employer mandate. Employers with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance or pay a fine of $2000 per worker each year if any worker receives federal subsidies to purchase health insurance. Fines applied to entire number of employees minus some allowances.


Illegal immigrants will not be allowed to buy health insurance in the exchanges -- even if they pay completely with their own money.



With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

It is late in the morning already. There is something about being cradled by your partner that is arresting. In such a position, it is best to release one’s grip on schedule and relax into it. Such good practice.

My colleague, Jue Miao Jing Ming, is working on his message regarding re-incarnation for the Zen Living list at Yahoogroups.com. In the meantime he has asked me for my thoughts regarding a book which explores past-life regression. While I have not read the particular text, I have read several excerpts and reviews, but more to the point, have some experiential understanding of the phenomena.

Similar to near death or death resuscitation experiences, past life regression stories are anecdotal evidence. Assuming the individuals are not being guided,, they are simply reporting what their brain is telling them. Our brains are totally unreliable organizers of sense data. Our brains rush to place data in categories. We see this in experiments where subjects read texts with missing letters and are able to make perfect sense of them. Our brain fills in the gaps according to pathways that have been developed. When our brain does not know what to do with particular data, it makes up something that allows the data to make sense to us.

So, under hypnosis, what is happening? Are we actually touching a “past life”? Or are we adding to a sensory data array a frame within which to place the data so that it makes a degree of sense to us?

Trusting a memory can be dangerous. Memories are constructions, like all other thoughts. Three people witness an accident and three versions are described. Someone, a crime victim, just “knows” a particular person did something, only to discover they were in another state at the time. People have used memories of abuse to charge alleged perpetrators only to discover the alleged perpetrator was not, actually, the perpetrator at all. Memories can be, and are, manipulated.

So, does a memory of a past life mean anything? Does it offer any sort of evidence that re-incarnation is an actuality? Maybe, maybe not. I rather think that these things point to other explanations such as a potent connection with all life, a sort of genetic memory, if you will, and not a memory of a single soul migrating through time.

From a Zen perspective, all time is in all being; being and time are not two, but one. So, too, all things. The Buddha’s memories of past lives, memories of animal existence, etc., are, in my opinion, expressions of present moment, deeply interconnected, manifestations of the oneness of life. “My” Buddha-nature is not separate from “yours.” There is no mine or yours, there is just Buddha Nature.

Be well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Recently, we decided to begin an educational exchange series on our Zen Living email list. My morning post is my position on our Order’s understanding of “Re-incarnation.”

The Soto School of Zen typically does not use the term, “re-incarnation,” but rather, chooses the word, “re-birth” to refer to continuation of life in the eternal flow of living and dying. To re-incarnate would mean a transmigration of a unique individual’s ego or ‘essence’ into another form after death. We hold to the Buddha’s teaching that there is no such thing, that there is no “soul” that survives after death as a manifestation of a unique individual. I quote Kennett-roshi, Founding Abbess of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives,

“A new being is neither absolutely the same as its predecessor (since the composition is not identical) nor entirely different, being the same stream of life-force which, like electric current, can be tapped when a new bulb is plugged in…so with re-birth there is a continuity of a life force which manifests itself in birth and seems invisible in death; just that and nothing more.”

So, Re-birth, on the other hand, means life as life itself continues as a river continues along its path. The matter and energy that once was a person re-enters the whole and becomes part of the whole re-manifesting in whatever ways it might. There is no conscious choice in this process, only process itself, or ‘flow’ if you will.

Our unique sentience is ours in this moment and, at death, ends forever as “our” unique awareness. That which we were composed of comes apart, the aggregates fall away, and “we” as a “I” are no more. But then again, we as an I never really were, were we? The “I” of us is an illusion created by a physical brain which perceives itself and needs a name.

As a river of life flows past a sentient viewer is the river the same or different at any given moment in time? It is both. It is river flowing. Living and dying are the same. We are river.

So, where does karma fit in?

Let’s suppose the river we are thinking of has the conscious capacity to engage its banks. It might chose at some point to change this or that aspect of a bank. The river flowing before it and the river flowing after it will be the same, yet will have changed as well. Perhaps it will be cleaner; perhaps more polluted. Any change in a system creates changes in all of its sub-systems: this is karma, impersonal cause and effect, but in your face. A wider view reveals the whole: it is still river flowing.

Again, Kennett-roshi:

"re-birth must be distinguished from re-incarnation or transmigration since an unchanging or eternal soul is non-existent; since there is no "I" to think, there is nothing to be reborn."

Awakening, then, is our complete and total realization of this and our total acceptance of it.

Be well.

Monday, January 17, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Mark, on our Zen Living list, wrote to ask why we don’t use our native language in Zen rather than foreign words.

Very good question and one often asked. He framed his question with this:

“To me the words, regardless of the language, are only labels we place on reality and not actually reality. Who was it that said, "The teaching that is spoken is not the true teaching"? The fullness of sitting for meditation cannot be described in any words that I have heard or read, yet it can be experienced.”

I do not exactly disagree. In fact, I agree with Mark. Words are, indeed, just labels. So, then, as such, should it matter which words we use? Actually no, so there may be something else going on, something under this question. Or some other reason for using one word over another.

Is it that we do not like foreign words? Is it that we resist learning new words? Is it a resistance to difference itself or to the fact there is a Teacher offering this new language? Is it a veiled attack on tradition? I don’t know and as long as the subtext is not revealed, I really don’t care to address it.

So, setting the aim of the question aside, we might consider how some words just are better as they are. Dharma is a good example of this. What is Dharma? Do we have an English equivalent? Is it teaching? Scripture? Truth? Reality? Or all of that.

We could use a string of words that get us to the sense of the word, but that would be cumbersome. Why not use the word of the buddhas and ancestors before us? To paraphrase what Master Dogen said about the practice of Zazen, or Suzuki-roshi said about wearing his robes, 'its just what we do.'

As founder of a Zen Buddhist Order I selected certain liturgical pieces to be chanted in their original for two reasons. First, they are a serious and direct connection to our ancestors, a lineage going back to the Buddha himself. Second, they are often far richer than the English equivalents. Take the phrase "sei gon," for example, in the Four Great Vows. It has the meaning of prayerful vow, but not prayer in the sense of supplication. Rather, prayer in the sense of unification with the aim of the vow. A lot of words when "sei gon" will do nicely, and, at the same time, using it connect us to other practitioners worldwide.

Mark also suggested that perhaps there was a mystical reason for the use of certain words, that certain words might be believed to have spiritual power. I think it is less the definition of the words than their sound, cadence, and resonance that makes them "mystical." And if some believe them to be mystical, powerful, or otherwise avenues to awakening, so? Who are we to argue they are not? Perhaps we would do well to regain a little sense of the mystical in our lives.

Our world has been denuded, so to speak, of its living nature, that nature I perceive to be spiritual . When parks are just tracts of land to be developed, or food wrapped in plastic in grocery stores is not recognized for its source, or words are just words, we have lost something very important.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

What is Zen?

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Yesterday was a day full of goodness. Zazenkai was very special to me as my partner, Kathryn Soku Shin, took the precepts with her teacher, Rev. Bobby Kankin Byrd. It was also a delight to witness Michael Inmo Dretcsh, an Army Neuropsychologist, do the same. We were very pleased that my Teacher, Rev. Hogaku Shozen McGuire-roshi and his partner, Rev. Shin Getsu McGuire-roshi were in attendance for the ceremonials, as well. The day was spent in Zazen, but was interspersed with experiencing the film, “Zen”, the story of Master Dogen.

So much of what we do today in Soto Zen are directly traceable to this authentic and courageous seeker of the Way. Dogen’s Zen was clear and direct. Sit. Practice. Let body and mind fall away. So simple, yet so challenging.

We, in the Order of Clear Mind Zen, seek to follow him, not imitate him. His Zen was his moment’s Zen, meeting directly the requirements of his time and place. He went to China, found his true Master, got his own realization, and then worked tirelessly to fashion a Zen practice for his Japanese students.

We do the Master no great service by practicing Zen in the same way and in the same detail as do the Japanese. This is not authentic. It is a copy.

Masters like Dogen, Homeless Kodo Sawaki, Uchiyama, Senzaki, and Matsuoka took their Zen out of the cathedral and theatre and made it living. To do this takes courage, but more, it takes a willingness to look deeply inside to discover our own true nature and find fresh and relevant ways to express it.

Such a search does not mean we have carte blanche to change everything. Zen is still Zazen. Practice is a disciplined activity, not a choice to do or not do. It is everything else that is at the heart of the matter. I read a comment on someone’s blog the other day, it smacked of the sort of attitude and understanding I abhor. The commentator was happy to see that another Zen teacher, a rebellious sort, finally “learned how to wear his kesa.”

This person does not know a thing about the practice. He knows what others do, he knows what others teach, but apparently he pays attention to the finger, losing the moon entirely.

We wrap ourselves in the Buddha’s teaching. A robe of patches, originally taken from corpses, washed and died, an offering from the dead to the living, and it really matters so awfully much that it is folded this way, or tied that way? I am grateful that he wears the robe and offers himself in service to others.

We must find our way. Forms are important, doing them properly is also important, but imitation, as they say, is the poorest form of flattery. Why? Because our heart is not in it. It is not our authentic presentation of ourselves. It is such a presentation that is Zen.

Be well.

Friday, January 14, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Two notes:

Tomorrow we will host Both Sides/No Sides Zen Sangha's Zazenkai and Jukai ceremonies. Rev. Bobby Kankin Byrd will lead the Zazenkai and his students, Kathryn Soku Shin Masaryk and Mike Dretsch will receive the precepts at 4:30. This event includes Oryoki lunch.

Please consider joining us for all or part of the day, but let me know if you are attending so that we can get an accurate count for lunch.

Today at Clear Mind Zen Temple: We will practice Contemplative Yoga at 3:00 PM, our Zen Dicussion group will meet at 4:00 PM, and we will practice Zazen at 5:30 PM.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Challenge

With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night was a delight at the Temple; two people came, new to us, and attended the Zen 101 group and then sat with us. This couple has been a part of an interfaith discussion group for some years now. I attended a meeting of that group a few months ago with my Teacher and close friend Soku Shin.

It is always good to see new people come to the Temple and begin to learn something about Zen as it is actually practiced. We get so much of what we know from books, movies, TV, and the Internet, rarely actually experiencing the thing itself.

Master Dogen says, “You must…abandon a practice based on intellectual understanding, running after words, and clinging to the letter. You must turn and direct your light inward to illuminate your true nature.” (Fukanzazengi)

Most of us today fail in this abandonment, so easy it is to believe we know through our mind’s eye, rather than through the Dharma Eye of practice. Knowing is not realization, just as eating is not digestion. To realize, we must set aside knowing and allow realization to come out. Our True Nature is there, inside, deep, serene, and always present. We must but turn our self inward to see it. But, to experience it, we must let go of everything we think we know. This is our challenge and greatest obstacle in practice.

Meet the challenge.

Be well.

Monday, January 10, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

The events of this past week as well as discussions in our groups at temple lead me to ask, is it possible to speak without creating some form of duality? No, but! It is silly to think that we should live without duality. If I ask you to care about this or that, I am creating a dualism on several levels. So? Do we not live in a relative world? Forget the relative at your peril, my friends.

We are our actions and we are responsible for our actions, and just as we are interconnected with all things and interdependent with all things, we are also, therefore, responsible for the actions of others as well. This is a challenging notion in this era of Me. if I am one with everything, then everything is one with me. I and Other are One My responsibility is both personal and social.

Our speech is an aspect of our behavior. We should be aware of how it affects people and know that if we yell “Fire!” in a crowded room with minimal egress, we are responsible for the consequences. We cannot say, well those poor folk who were crushed at the door should not have panicked or should have known there was no fire or some other excuse to get us off the hook.

Likewise if I keep saying liberals are treasonous as Ann Coulter repeatedly does, or that we should “target” those we don’t like and “eliminate” them, as many political operatives might say, we cannot escape some degree of responsibility if someone takes adverse action against those we have demonized.

It is our responsibility to address this now in a clear voice. Violence, both physical and emotional, through body, speech or mind, is not acceptable. We must practice the Eightfold Noble Path not just spout it. As a reminder, this path includes: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Effort, Right Livelihood, Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness.

Now, go do the right thing.

Be well.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


With palms together,

The comments in the comments sections of the news stories regarding the Arizona shootings make me feel as sick as the actual shootings. Liberal loonies, Right wing fascists, Dumb this, Stupid that, each polarized side blaming the other and, in the process, ratcheting up the already high emotion. Are liberals to blame? Are conservatives accountable? Can we actually talk to one another these days?

Violence and threats of violence seem to be part of the political landscape at this point. Packages are igniting, rocks thrown, bullets fired, all over what? How to be a better society? I think not. We live in (and support) a culture of violence in both word and deed. We should not be surprised by recent events.

Our media share a lot of responsibility in the current situation. Television networks like Fox News and MSNBC, conservative radio programs like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, liberal commentators on Air America, commentators who use sarcasm and poison to get position and ratings, all share in this. Yet, we can hear it now: “We can’t be responsible for ‘nut cases.’ “ No? Why not? Every media outlet knows ‘nut cases’ are out there and the media mentioned plays to them. It’s like saying we poured gasoline on a tinderbox and jumped up and down regarding the tinderbox itself and then said, “We have no responsibility” in the lighting of the match that sends it into flames. Right.

If we are to remain a civilized world (and this status is, at this point, questionable) we must be willing to listen to each other and get to the source of each other’s point of view. I fear at this stage of the process, the political landscape, which is to say, the landscape of every one of us, has been stained with hate. It is very challenging to be in the presence of those who dislike or hate us. Even more challenging to be willing to listen to their point of view with an open heart/mind.

Both Left and Right need to be less left or right and more for the common good. Precious little of that is evident these days. Yet, under it all, moral conscience is the fuel. We want to be a better society and have been de-railed by those who would rather have hot tempers gain ratings than cool heads solving problems. Maybe it is time to sit down together and shut up. Maybe it is time to listen and allow ourselves to care with compassion.

Be well

Rev. Dr. Harvey Daiho Hilbert

Abbot, Clear Mind Zen Temple

Las Cruces, NM

Thursday, January 06, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Mushotoku. This is something we all need to practice. It means practicing with no aim at all. It is, as Phillipe Coupey says, the philosophical essence of Soto Zen. What does it mean to practice with no aim, no idea of gaining anything, not even satori? It means releasing oneself from ideas.

We practice to practice and practice is all there is. In everyday life our practice is to be awake and present to everything: the feel of water on our hands as we wash them; the feel of toilet paper; the scent of the person we are sitting next to. Nothing escapes our attention and nothing sticks.

We might take issue with this. We might want more. We might come to this practice to become better people, healthier people, less troubled, less angry, or less stressed, but these will act as stains on our practice. Our want needs to drop away.

This practice begins and ends with you. In the beginning it is the small you, the “small mind” of your existence. In the end, it is the big you, the “Big Mind” of the universal that is present.

What was your face, the face you had before your father and mother were born? Is it possible to harm this face? Is it possible to kill this face? To abuse this face?

Hopefully a whisper in your ear: “No.”

Be well.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Our Zen 101 group is doing well. Last night we discussed the passages of the Fukanzazengi that relate to the Buddha and Bodhidharma and how it was that they practiced Zazen. There is a Japanese word, Kakusoku, which refers to maintaining awareness. In Zazen, it is the effort of practicing not-thinking.

We sit with no particular aim in mind. We sit just to sit. Naturally, the world rushes to us in the form of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. We need to move. We need to check on something. Our body is not cooperating. Judgments arise: this is stupid, I hate zazen! What, is the timekeeper asleep?

Kakusoku means we notice and return to this moment, as it is, letting everything we are thinking, feeling, or otherwise sensing, fall away. Letting without deliberation. Letting in the sense of allowing. The reality of our world is that everything changes. Kakusoku is our actual experience of this.

The TV commercial asking “What’s in your wallet,” might be adapted here to “What’s in your mind?”

Or as I often say to myself, “What’s this?” with no expectation of following my answer except to ask again and again, "What's this?"

Be well.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Already it is a lovely morning. The temperature is a reasonable 32 degrees with signs that it will rise into the 50s. The sky is a clear blue. The sun is beginning to peak over the mountains. I have my running clothes laid out and ready. The coffee just finished being made. All is right here in the Mesilla Valley.

Zen is like that. Everything is itself. No pretense. Pretense is an anathema to true Zen. The coffee is made. A Zen teaching. The sun is in the sky. A Zen teaching. And the teaching itself? Life is to be lived and experienced directly. We do not shy away from this or that; this or that is our life.

So, time for a run. Let's do it!

Be well.

Monday, January 03, 2011


With palms together

Good Morning Everyone,

Yesterday afternoon after Zen services, Soku Shin, Suki, and I went for a desert hike. We ended up doing 4.2 miles over often very rough terrain. It was very good getting out and doing something physical. I have missed the awareness that comes with it: the air was crisp, the sun was high, and the sky very blue. A wonderful combo for a hike.

At the Temple I addressed that part of the Master Dogen’s Genjokoan that speaks to the study of the Buddha Way, the part that says, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self” and “to study the self is to let the self fall away.” “To let the self fall away is to be realized by the myriad things.” So, the Buddha way is a selfless way, a way leading to unification with all things. And when we are unified? Does the we of We continue to be? Or is there just the all of All, leaving All empty, as well? I think it is so.

Long distance running, bicycling, entering a koan, becoming one with the mountains: such unifications leave no two. But no two means no one. And so? Dogen says a trace is left, emerging from our falling away. Awakening is a teaser, if you will, like a movie trailer, or the spots on the TV wetting your appetite for the next show. One cannot be without two; non-duality demands duality.

Good grief, when I talk like this I get a headache. Or I want to tape my mouth shut. It’s all so meaningless. What is meaningful? The sitting itself. The living itself. The doing, it’s the doing, that is important and meaningful, not the talking about the doing.

We manifest through our practice. So, for those who don’t sit, who don’t have the discipline to practice get a grip. Do what you do! Regardless of what comes up, be there. It’s our life.

Now that I have said this, I am saying I am also saying I am back in the training saddle.

Obligatory Running Note (ORN): 7/10ths mile at o’dark-thirty in the freezing cold of the New Mexico desert air.

Be well.