Zen 101

Monday, February 28, 2011

Firewood and Ash

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

The outdoor temperature is 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Here I thought southern New Mexico was ready for spring. Expectations gets me in trouble every time!

We were talking about the section of the Genjokoan yesterday at Temple which addresses firewood being firewood and ash being ash and firewood not becoming ash. Firewood has its own life as firewood; ash has its own life as ash. We might add that the burning itself has its own life as burning, as well.

Dogen’s point is simple: each being has its own past, present and future, and each of these is both separate and empty. Treat your present moment life with great respect. When ash, do not try to recapture yourself as firewood. When firewood, do not worry about becoming ash. Life is the burning, the constant metabolic process we call the cosmos.

When we practice we see this clearly. I am in this moment, there is no other. My memory of my life is just a memory; my concern about tomorrow is just my concern. What is most important is what I do now. Yet, as Okamura-roshi points out, even now is empty. We cannot capture it and hold it. So, in this sense, it is our function in this constant burning that matters most. The present moment gives rise to opportunity for action.

For those caught in the past or worried about the future, release yourselves. Rather than focusing on your thoughts about the past or future, reside in the action of the present. Sounds easy, but it takes a lifetime of practice.

Be well.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Day Off

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

It is Saturday and our day off so the Temple is closed today. Already this morning in our residence’ Zendo we sipped espresso coffee, did contemplative yoga, and completed a light dumbbell workout. I then took Suki for a short walk to the park and back, and am just now ready to sip some regular coffee. Soon, I will go into what we are calling, “the Art Room” (oy, soooo pretentious!) and take a long look at the canvas I am working on.

It is an Iris. I wanted it lit by moonlight, but fear that will require a dark sky and darker ground. Maybe some artistic license will help. I think I’ll just let my heart/mind do what it do.

Sitting in the Art Room is a good practice, as I see it. I have a stool in front of the easel and a large window to the right. On a table in front of the window is a hibiscus and a bougainvillea. The latter is in bloom. On my left is a table with paints, brushes, sponges and water jars. Of course paper towels are scattered about and often litter the place. I enjoy this spot and sit here often with no real intention to pick up a brush. But I look at the empty palette and the lovely colors and, well, I just can’t help myself. Its rather like writing, I suspect. I sit here in front of this little notebook and there it is, keys to be touched, words to be written, thoughts to be composed. I just do.

Yesterday at the Zen group, as we explored the Four Noble Truths, I asked what, if anything, connected the last truth to the third truth. I mean, how, exactly, does following that forth path end suffering? Rather, what is the operant mechanism? The easy answer is it’s the Middle Way. But that really doesn’t satisfy. I like to think that the word for “Right,” that is, “Samma,” is key. This word means “complete” or “perfect” as in seeing something completely as it is without desire to alter a thing. When we are in a place where we can appreciate what is for what is, we are able to let go of expectations. Every cherry blossom, pear, life, is perfect and complete as it is. So, I think the way these eight paths connect to the cessation of suffering is through a deliberate opening of our grasp on shoulds, coulds, and oughts. As things change, which is what everything does, we can begin to appreciate change itself.

How bright is a full moon?

Be well.

Friday, February 25, 2011

4 Truths

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Another delightful morning with a chilly 36 degrees rising to 70 today. The sun just peaked over the mountains in the east and light is bathing the trees in the Mesilla valley. I am awake, sitting next to my partner and considering what to write this morning.

Today we will practice yoga at 3:00 PM, host our Zen discussion group at 4:00 PM and practice Zazen at 5:30 PM. The discussion group will focus on the Four Noble Truths. This is always an interesting topic as the core elements are a challenge to define. These elements are “suffering,” “attachment,” and “right.” The Buddha says life is suffering, he says this suffering is caused by attachment, he says our suffering can end, and that the way to end it is through the eightfold path which includes right morality, practice, and wisdom. So?

When we talk about life as suffering I think we do understanding a disservice as we can easily get caught in the trap of nihilism. Dukkha means dissatisfaction, a sort of “something’s not quite right” about our lives. Buddha taught this was due to our clinging to, our desires for, and our attachments to what is in our present moment lives. We suffer, then, because the very nature of life is change. Since everything changes and since we often want to keep things the way they are, we suffer as things change.

We cannot stop change. Rather than fight against it, we might embrace it. We might take a path that is holistic, that grasps a systemic, unfolding view. This is the “complete” of “summa,” the word so often translated as “right.” When we have “complete” understanding, it means we are synchronous with body, mind, and environment. We are oriented and thus can see clearly, think clearly, and behave clearly, which is to say, with complete morality, complete practice, and complete wisdom.

As engaged Zen Buddhists we understand this to mean stepping into the present without fear of leaving the past. Our eye is the true dharma eye that realizes faith in the cosmos. As fearless Bodhisattvas we look to see how this day can be made healthier, more in sync with life, and lived without misery.

Be well.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On a personal level

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

On a more personal level…

This is it. I am yielding to my body which apparently needs more sleep than it has been getting. I woke this morning at a startlingly late 7:30 AM. Ye gads! I even went to bed at a reasonable hour, about 9:30 or 10:00 PM. Something is happening. Maybe I am less anxious. Maybe I feel safer. It really doesn’t matter, the good thing is that I am sleeping and sleeping well.

We had a small T’ai Chi Chih group last night and a small Zazen group. I enjoy those smaller groups as they often feel far more intimate and meaningful. Our practice is aided by others, but only to a point. When the numbers get larger, the intimate quality is lost and one might as well be in a Wal-Mart.

The history of Buddhism seems to swing in two directions regarding Sangha. On one side there are stories of larger and larger followings, thousands of monks and dignitaries in attendance at teachings. On the other side, we have Zen teachers who reside in small places, parks, caves, huts, or small apartments, and from there bring the Dharma into the world. I have had the experience of addressing very large gatherings and of teaching in very small groups. There is no question, the large gatherings lead to an effort to be charismatic, whereas in the small gatherings our humanity, as teachers, has an opportunity to emerge. It seems to me, this is where the real teaching has an opportunity to be experienced, a teaching that flows in both directions.

I am not one for a lot of pomp and circumstance. I rarely wear the purple robe, often don’t wear the kesa, and mostly don my worn rakusu. I really do not like the koromo and mostly opt for samue. I do like our small temple with its apartment like feel: Zendo, bathroom, office, and kitchen. I cannot imagine being the sort of priest who has a large Sangha, who is flying here and there, and whose life is guided pretty much in every detail by a full calendar held close. Pressure to perform, to seek funding, to wow an audience? Good grief.

I want nothing to do with large organizations, with bureaucracy, with large and detailed policy and procedure manuals. To me this is contrary to the best of Zen whose heart is in the great matter and not on the material matter. Still, even small, local grassroots groups need money, need some policy, and need a willingness to practice together.

I think it is best just to go into the Zendo and open ourselves to the practice that is there before us to do.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

This coming Friday we will address the Four Noble Truths at our weekly Zen Discussion meeting. These are early teachings of the Buddha and were intended as a summation of his understanding and practice which led to his liberation. In the Zen world we rarely address these because as a result of the way they are translated and listed they easily fall into doctrinaire statements with the last Truth becoming a sort of code of conduct. In truth, however, they are an understanding of reality which leads to a practice path, which, in turn, leads to the goal of liberation. Zen begins and operates from the point of view that we are already liberated and our practice is to open ourselves to this reality. In other words, we come at the same thing but from different starting points.

From our practice we learn the reality of the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering, Suffering is caused by grasping, suffering can end, the way to end it is eightfold: the practice of complete understanding, complete thought, complete speech, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, and complete meditation. Complete is often translated as “Right” but I find most of us in the West understand “right” in ways not intended by what the Buddha meant. According to John Allen of BuddhaNet, “Right” is a translation of the word “Samma” which “means 'proper', 'whole', 'thorough', 'integral', 'complete', and 'perfect' - related to English 'summit' - It does not necessarily mean 'right', as opposed to 'wrong'.” He goes on to say, “Use of the word 'right' may make for a neat or consistent list of qualities in translations. The down side is that it can give the impression that the Path is a narrow and moralistic approach to the spiritual life.”

As we take our seat and bring ourselves into the upright posture, mind, body, and environment unify. In this unification, ego has no place. Self falls away. Our original face emerges. It is complete as it is. So, from our point of view, this practice done while sitting, walking, or lying down is realization itself, the realization of our own true liberation, our actual true nature. The eightfold path is a portrayal the facets of how this samma nature is expressed.

Today at Clear Mind Zen Temple we will practice yoga at 3:00, Tai Chi Chih at 6:00 and Zazen at 7:00.

Be well

Monday, February 21, 2011

Good Grief

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

I have been reading a wonderfully challenging text entitled “Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers.” It is giving me pause, much like I had one day back in the early 90’s when I saw myself in a three piece suit in the mirror and decided then and there to take it off. What is Zen really about? And what are authentic Zen teachers?

If you see a Zen teacher behaving himself, I would be careful. If you see a Zen teacher going with the flow, e-gads, something is amiss. The fact is, true Zen Teachers are an historically against the stream bunch. You think all those seemingly flippant remarks by Zen Masters of old were just cute? Not. They were authentically irreverent, disrespectful, challenging, and decidedly not conventional. They occurred in real time in real society and were intended to wake up the sheep sleeping in front of them. For Zen, there should be no such thing as “mainstream.”

There are, however, those pesky precepts, those forms, and those ceremonies. What to do?

Precepts are a reflection of our original nature, not some code of conduct or set of commandments. So those code police among us need to get that straight. Want rules? Go to another form of Buddhism. Precepts are our authentic self, which is no-self, in action. Based in absolute compassion, they are always expressed in a relative context. Need a policy manual or a code of conduct to protect yourself from yourself or others? Go to church or join a club.

Forms are a practice vehicle, not a practice end. They get us to the place where we drop away. Ceremonies can function both as a seal of our authenticity and for Zen iconoclasts, a litmus test of our humility. An iconoclast has, good grief, I hate to admit it, an agenda. Setting that agenda aside long enough to practice a ritual or ceremony can be liberating however, so I encourage it.

The recent soap opera (see Tricycle.com) surrounding the conduct of Zen teachers of late has gotten ratings in the blogosphere and made me sick, but what does it really say? I think it says that we have been seduced by mainstream thinking, become orthodoxers, are caught in the same stink as megachurches, and left the actual practice of Zen to those on the margins.

While I do not support scandalous behavior, I do think it is important not to paint with a broad brush. Everything occurs in a context and everything is relative. That teachers sometimes behave poorly is a given in a human world. There is no excuse for abuse.

A few suggestions: Do not put teachers on some pedestal. Practice to see them as human beings. If you address misbehavior when it happens and keep your own authentic council, you will have no problem. If you seek after intimacy with a person in power or desire status by association, you will have a problem. Assuming you are a competent adult you may feel as though you have been victimized, but your choices were your own. So, in my view the responsibility is on the teacher, the teacher’s teacher, the student, the student’s friends, as well as the Sangha at large.

To not teach with the sharp sword of Manjushri is the real failing of modern Zen teachers.

Be well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Peace Camp, etc

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Sunday morning and we will sit Zazen at the Temple this morning at nine. Practicing together is a good thing. I hope to see you there.

Lately, we have been doing a variety of things away from the temple. I have been elected to the Board of Peace Village here in Las Cruces and was invited to speak at a meeting of the Border Servant Corps. I am also involved with the programs and curriculum committee of Peace Camp. We are looking at initiatives in the community to promote non-violence and peace. I will be looking into going back into J. Paul Taylor Youth Correctional Facility to offer meditation classes. We are also looking at doing a series of “mini-peace camps” in local neighborhoods. I will likely be involved in teaching meditation at these. We have one scheduled in Anthony, NM on the 30th of April. If any of our local members would like to assist in these projects, please reply to me. There is a DVD available at Temple showing the activities of Peace Camp. You are welcome to view it.

Let’s each have a good day today.

Be well.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dharma Eye

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Zen Master Hongzhi says, “Contemplating your own authentic form is how to contemplate Buddha.” And later, “Purity without stain is your body; perfect illumination without conditioning is your eyes. …The eye inside the body does not involve sense gates; the body inside the eye does not collect appearances.” 1.

What is this authentic form, this stainless body? It is not the body of the senses. It is not the eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin, or mind. This body is the body of the Universe. It is the body of all buddhas. We might call it God, provided nothing of a noun is involved. We might call it the Ultimate or the Absolute or, as another teacher of Hongzhi’s era suggested, “Equality” or “Sameness.” 2.

When we reside in this body, we see everything as it is. Seeing “things as it is” 3. is understanding the true relationship of the Buddhist Two Truths. What is it to see without conditioning?

Contemplating our form points us in this direction. We sit upright, body, mind, and environment one. To use horseman terminology, we are collected. As we practice, we begin to ‘see’ without looking and be without being. There is no effort, there is no try, there is only this. As this happens, our true form emerges from the mud 4. of our “shiki” mind. “Ku” appears.

Ku is the Sino-Japanese character for emptiness. Shiki is the character for the material world. It isn’t that shiki or ku are separate, they are not. But it takes residing in ku to experience that. Here’s the thing, that ‘eye that sees’ is the gate to the unconditioned, the eternal, ever-present state of everything. As such, it, itself, is conditioned. This is why we say that there is no path, no wisdom, and no attainment. The True Dharma Eye is always there, it is our choice of a conditional gate and willingness to step through it that is a question. So, we Zen teachers ask, what is your practice?

1. Leighton, Dan Taigen, “Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen”, Tuttle, 2000

2. See Shitou’s Harmony of Difference and Equality.

3. Suzuki, Shunryu. He is often quoted as using this phrase.

4. Remember the after meal chant? “In this world of emptiness, may we live in muddy water with the purity of the lotus.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Difficulty

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning I woke to thoughts of my painting, “Summer.” I could see the color and minimal brush strokes. I wanted a hazy sort of summer day. I went into the studio and just painted. There are times when things flow. This was one of them. While I titled the painting “Summer” my partner thought it could as easily be “Mountains” in which case, the other day’s post about moving mountains fits nicely.

Our first Tuesday evening Yoga session went well. We had four including me, but excluding Soku Shin (she was home not feeling well). We went through a short list of asanas and were done in about thirty minutes, concluding with a very relaxing savasana.

This was much needed after a difficult discussion regarding Zazen from the fukanzazengi. It is so hard to communicate the gestalt of Zazen. When Dogen says Zazen has nothing to do with sitting or walking, it becomes an invitation to see the Buddha’s dialectic at play. It’s like saying painting has nothing to do with paint, brush, canvas, or subject.

Do these things make painting? No. Does the action with them make painting? Not exactly. Painting is that, to be sure, but it is also so much more than that. What is this “larger” painting? Just so, show me the global Zazen! We sat down together, faced the wall, and opened our grasp.

Be well.

PS. Today at the Temple we will do Yoga at 3:00 PM, Tai Chi Chih at 6:00 PM, and Zazen at 7:00 PM. I look forward to seeing you there if you can make it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Moving Mountains

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Student Shoji and I have been studying the Diamond Sutra using Red Pine’s most excellent translation and commentary. We are approaching Chapter 5 this week. Shoji lives in California and I am in New Mexico and through the marvel of Skype video, we have wonderful talks each week.

We have learned in the previous chapters that in order to liberate others the Buddha taught we must do so without “being attached” to any part of the process or any actors involved, including ourselves. In chapter five, the Buddha is concerned that we might become attached to the liberated body of buddha. He offers the following:

“…the Buddha told the venerable Subhuti, “Since the possession of attributes is an illusion, Subhuti, and no possession of attributes is no illusion, by means of attributes that are no attributes the Tathagata can, indeed, be seen.” P. 107

On the same page, Pine argues: “To see that an entity is no entity is not enough.” In other words, to see that form is emptiness is only the first part of the dialectic of the Buddha’s teaching. Emptiness is not empty, it is also form, so we must take another step. Pine uses the famous Ch’ing-yuan explanation: “When I first began my practice, the mountains and rivers were simply mountains and rivers. After I advanced in my practice, the mountains and rivers were no longer mountains and rivers. But when I reached the end of my practice, the mountains and rivers were simply mountains and rivers again.” P. 108

What does this teaching mean? Perhaps it means that Buddhas are free and easy in the marketplace, unencumbered by their form, yet living within their form.

From my point of view it is an antidote to quietism. Residing in emptiness is not the Buddha Way. We must get up and do something. The world is suffering how can we simply witness it? Knowing that suffering is a part of the great cycle of birth and death, knowing that everything changes and is therefore empty, is no excuse for sitting still. If it were, the Buddha would have passed into oblivion having never taught a thing.

The attributes of a buddha are no attributes, they are empty. Because they are empty, they are the attributes of a buddha. Mountains can be mountains only because they are not “mountains.” These mountains move.

Be well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Day

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Another day born into to make a difference. Our lives provide us with millions of moments to care, love, and nourish others. With each word, gesture, or look, we touch another. So each morning offers a world of opportunities. Most often we do not accept them, choosing instead to sleepwalk. In such times age becomes a bell of mindfulness.

As we age it seems an edge, call it urgency, appears. Facing our inevitable end we see what we missed, touch what really needs to be done, and in the process, realize how much of our time we waste. In this moment, I choose to let go my grasp and fall into the world’s arms knowing with certainty it will love me for it and I are not two, but one.

My birthday is always followed by Valentine’s Day and it has just occurred to me at 64 that birth and death are so deeply interconnected through love. In love, birth and death are rendered unimportant: they drop away, surrendering to the touch of the moment.

May our breath offer life, our touch heal, and our hearts join. There is only now.

Be well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Haven’t done much Zen thinking lately (a contradiction in terms, I know), but we have been doing a bunch of Zen Living. Moving allows for an opportunity to be deliberate and mindful, selecting this or that, new paint, curtains or blinds, sorting items, and so on.

I had been living at the Temple, then partially moved into my partner’s apartment, now fully moved in together in a place new to both of us. With this came considerations of space, how we would manage together, and, ultimately, how this change affects my Temple time management.

I will be moving much of my library to the new apartment as I tend to write in the mornings and access to my library is important in that process. Our Temple hours will continue to be afternoons and evenings as that is when most visitors tend to come. I think we will open at 2:00 PM and close at 8:30 PM Monday through Thursday, and 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM on Fridays with our regular Sunday Zazen period being from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM.

Today at CMZT 9:00 AM Zazen and in the afternoon we will host an Open House at our new apartment from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Please consider dropping by. Call me for address and directions at 680-6680.

Be well

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Chain

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Yesterday’s Zen Group discussion was interesting less for its content than for the challenges of what the content points to. We addressed the 12 Links in the Chain of Dependent Origination, a necessary step to grasping the Four Noble Truths, Karma, and all the rest of the early teachings of the Buddha. I think the whole point of the thing can be summarized as the Buddha himself did: this is because that is. Should we really care about what gives rise to what, especially when we realize everything is empty of permanence, is one, and is seamless?

The most important point in this teaching is that everything is conditioned and at the very same time conditioning. Nothing conditioned is static, nothing conditioned is, at root, a noun. Once again, when we look deeply into anything we can see everything else.

Our food, for example, is not just our food, but our food, as well as, the many hands and many lives that brought our food into existence. On a macro level, the entire universe and all of time is in our food. So what? In my view, the so what is unification.

The source of our cross cultural, cross religious, “Golden Rule” is in our realization of our unified, interdependent existence. Hence, the importance of compassion, care, tenderness, and love and the avoidance of behavior that is toxic to life on the one hand, and behavior derived from being “born,” which is to say, separated, on the other hand. From this separation, all of the dependent “links” in the chain arise. Realize this and the chain collapses.

Zen practice, then, is the practice of birthless and deathless being.

Be well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Touch the Earth

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

A few years ago I worked with a Road Chief in Gallup, NM. He was an amazing man and we worked well together. He introduced me to many Navajo traditions, opened my heart to the People, and taught me a lot about myself. We built a sweat lodge together in Window Rock from tress he cut down on Mt. Taylor, one of the sacred mountains of the People. In the process he gave me a Navajo name, “Two Fires” which has always been a symbols, I fear, of my life.

Being in touch with the Earth and its natural cycles is incredibly important. Civilization seems to be defined by the amount of distraction and the degree of separation we place between us and the natural world.

I’ve noticed since leaving my work with Navajo to eventually living in the mountains, to leaving the mountains to live in Las Cruces, I have been gradually losing my connection with the natural world and its rhythms. What I have not lost is my sense of this connection’s importance.

Each morning when I step out into the world, I deliberately open myself the its face. Cold, wet, dry or hot, there it is. I notice the change in the grasses in the desert as we hike or jog through trails. Each evening I try to get a glimpse of the sky, feel the air as it changes when the sun sets and we are presented with the awesome gift of our Southwestern sunsets.

Waking up is nothing more than opening ourselves to each and every sense organ and allowing it to have its place in our heart/mind. Unadulterated, pure, present. My advice? Take a breath and go in its direction.

Be well.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Loori-roshi, in his commentary on Case Number 9 of Master Dogen’s Shingi Shobogenzo, says, “Mountains and rivers cannot be seen in a mirror. If you go to a mirror to see them, you make one reality into two things. Just let mountains be mountains and rivers be rivers. Each thing perfect and complete, abides in its own dharma state.” He adds, “…when you really see, you go blind, when you really hear, you go deaf.”

What is meant by this teaching?

When I look for something as something specific, I am looking for an idea of it (looking in a mirror), therefore, I will never see it for what it is. When I listen for something specific (looking in a mirror), I will never hear it as it is.

So to truly see is to not see what we are looking for, thus we are blind to the concept of that being seen and are actually seeing what is there in front of us.

Mountains and rivers are to be experienced to be realized.

When we come to Zen for Zen we will never find it. When we come to Zen and are Zen, everything is Zen.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

There is a practice point in Zen that borders on dogma: make no distinctions. From the Third Patriarch to the Sixth Patriarch to Master Dogen, we hear this admonition and because people repeat this without benefit of practice, their understanding becomes the dogma of parrots.

In my view, ‘make no distinctions’ is less about right and wrong, good and bad, than it is about the state of our heart/mind. It is about accurate perception.

From the Hsin Hsin Ming:

The tao is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

This teaching is about practice: the position or platform of our heart/mind as we take up Zazen, indeed ,life itself. Do we like or dislike the cushion we are on? Is the air too cold, too hot, or is the scent of the incense too powerful? It is not the questions, per se, it is what our mind does with the questions, that is the point. Do we set up this over that does not do away with this or that.

In my view, then, ‘make no distinctions’ does not refer to something outside of us, a qualitative judgment about an external this or that, but rather the admonition points to the quality and state of our heart/mind: is it still, like a placid lake, so that it accurately perceives the moon? Or is it in the turmoil of judgment itself?

Here’s the thing, if the moon is accurately reflected it is still a reflection of the moon. In other words, as we practice and make no distinctions, or have no preferences, those things arising in our view are still what they are. It’s what we do with them that has the potential to distort things.

People assume we are to make no judgments and yet, to make no judgments is the mark of a fool. Instead, consider this: we are to make no judgments without understanding they have value in the relative world only: in the absolute world, in the world of the Dao, they make no sense.

However, because judgment make no sense on one level, does not mean it makes no sense on another level: that good and bad are relative does not mean there is no good or bad, it just means they are relative. This means we must look at our ethical judgments in a context. If our context is serene it is one thing, if it is choppy and disturbed, it is another. This subtlety is lost on those who do not practice.

From the Hsin Hsin Ming:

Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves. When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity your very effort fills you with activity. As long as you remain in one extreme or the other you will never know oneness.

Be well.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Today at Clear Mind Zen Temple: Private meeting with Hogaku-roshi and Gozen-sensei at 12:00 PM; Contemplative Yoga at 3:00 PM; Zen 101 Study Group at 6:00 PM; Zazen at 7:00 PM. Please consider joining us at the Temple.

We sat last night in the Zendo alone, Soku Shin and I. It was a wonderfully quiet period. Sometime during the period, a cat appeared at the door. I could see him, as I was in the Ino’s seat which looks out over the Zendo and the door to the Temple is in plain view.

The cat came up, sat down, and looked in. Then, without a word, he turned and walked away. I am always impressed by cats. They truly live in their own space and seem so comfortable with themselves. Their needs are easy to read, no confused communication, no fuss, just, ‘here I am.’

They present themselves and we must chose our response.

Sitting is like that: we present ourselves to the wall, we choose to notice and let go of our response to what arises. It is best, then, to come to the wall with a clear sense of openness and lack of judgment and fear. As our briefly visiting cat, just sit then move on: nothing special. We walk in our own authority.


Monday, February 07, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Listening to the gas logs in the fireplace burn, I remind myself of the sound of real logs burning in the wood cook stove at the Refuge. The trouble with memories is that they take us away from this moment in time. On the other hand, perhaps this moment is a time for reflection in which case, memories are clearly appropriate. It is important to know the difference.

Life without a past, is a life without a context. Life lived in the past is a life not being lived.

Context has the potential to enrich our life experience or diminish it. Context is the Absolute aware of the Relative. Absolute, though, must give way to the Relative’s direct contact with what is. When we live in the world of the Absolute and all things are understood in terms of their true nature, we must also understand and accept the everyday, every-moment, relativity of things. Living in the Absolute without touching the Relative disallows the unique and wonderful nature of each being.

On the other hand, living in the Relative world, we must not miss the fact that all things are without permanent form and exist in an intimate, but constantly changing, relationship with everything else. To miss this point is to suffer greatly.

I no longer have a refuge in the mountains and the wood cook stove is no longer mine. While this is so, because it is so, it allows this precise moment to be experienced as it is, both richly and fully.

Be well.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Morning is less cold and we put away most of the kitchen last night. The garage is still with boxes and bags, but it is manageable. Clothes are in the closets. Bathrooms are in order.

Our thanks to Yubao and Dai Shugyo for their assistance and also to others who made generous offers for the use of their trucks. Moving always brings to the front of our minds underlying issues. Home, order, ability to tolerate disarray, that sort of thing. I think, since I have been moving often, I am relaxing more into the process. It is less and less disconcerting. Practice is a good thing!

So, this morning I put away a few more things, sat on the sofa with Soku Shin and Suki, and enjoyed their company as I sipped a cup of coffee. The house can wait a bit and soon the Temple will call me to get up off the sofa and go take care of it. I will.

At 9:00 AM this morning we will sit Zazen. I would like to see you there. Sitting in a group is an excellent and sustaining practice. It’s just not the same to practice alone.

Be well.

Saturday, February 05, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

February 4

It is a little warmer this morning at 9 degrees. Last night our women’s group had but three persons in attendance and I sat alone in the Temple’s Zendo. Sitting alone in a Zendo can be very challenging. Lots of thoughts, no helpful energy, and since the willingness to sit is internal, without the energy of others to assist, it is completely possible to blow the whole thing off

I sat one period, chanted the appropriate chants, and left the Zendo for home. But before I left, I had the opportunity to read the preface to Karen Armstrong’s new book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.” Ms. Armstrong makes the case that we are a species suffering from a religious/spiritual crisis. She argues that the core of religion is compassion and that we have somehow let that core recede into the background. She takes issue with social Darwinists and argues from the science of an evolutionary neurology. Yes, we have a reptilian brain, but we also have a part of our brain which gives rise to compassion. She discusses “mirror neurons” and their role in generating empathy, and makes the case that these traits and qualities can be trained and developed to very high levels when we wish to do so.

She writes, “…those who have persistently trained themselves in the art of compassion manifest new capacities in the human heart and mind; they discover that when they reach out consistently toward others, they are able to live with the suffering that inevitably comes their way with serenity, kindness, and creativity. They find that they have a new clarity and experience a richly intensified state of being” (pp 21-22).

As I read this beautiful book, I hear my own nagging reptilian brain squawking, but what if? Student Shoji and I had a good discussion the other day on Skype where we talked about our feelings in situations that might be perceived as dangerous. My sense is that we practice to get to a place where keeping ourselves alive at the expense of others is no longer acceptable. Rather than living to maintain our lives, as Bodhisattvas we live for the lives of others. Our aim is not self interest, but the interest of all beings.

So, how do we fair as compassionate beings? Can we say we live for the well-being of others? And what if, as we walk down the street, we are confronted with aggression?

In truth, I know that in the past I have met aggression with aggression, sometimes having lethal consequences. More recently, I have met aggression with more of an open heart, knowing my heart’s purpose is to heal others. So, today, my hope is that I would take a backward step and act for the sake of the one in front of me. Given a Self that is ‘no self’ (as it is thoroughly interdependent), what would self defense mean? My guess, compassion.

Be well.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

On Robes and Things

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

It is zero degrees outside and we are snuggled in together with our laptops. Wel, one laptop. The other is downstairs. The coffee tastes so good on mornings like this and if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought we were deep in the mountains.

Where is my mind? I don’t seem to have one. I see this. I see that. But when I look for the “I”, no “I” appears. Maybe the “I” is simply a sensory receptor and interpreter of a body born from an ancient strain of birth and death. Maybe there is no “I“ but for the neurological slight of hand the brain pulls to create an us in the first place.

Does it matter? Or is this just Zen mumbo-jumbo? I think the latter. Seeing under the surface has use value only when we have the determination to use it. Most of us enjoy it as simple mental masturbation and would not let the ego drop away if we were paid to do so in our weight in gold. No, we are wedded to our delusion.

For example, would we each give up 10 percent of our daily commodity use in order to raise the standard of living across the planet? Do we really need two or three cars, several televisions, and closets full of shoes? Our egocentric, ethnocentric and species-centric views are not easily given up. Most of us can imagine living with less, but we don’t. It is this simple truth that underscores the point. Even those ‘enlightened’ souls of PETA or vegans or other hipster-types seem so wedded to their views that they cannot see their own ego investment.

Zen in America has a long history of discussion regarding the necessity of titles and other symbols of Buddhist clergy and practice. When we look at Zen, even shaved headed monks in monasteries seem attached to their bald heads and robes, as are those who seek them out.

What if suddenly every major temple stopped using robes, titles, razors, bells, clappers, candles, incense, and chants? Would we go?

I don’t think so…or at least not for long. We would eventually say, “nah, nothing there I can’t do at home!”

Which suggests to me that we may think we go to Zen Centers for Zen itself, but there is something more to it. This is where perception and symbol come into play and where we see the truth in the fact that we are meaning making creatures who use symbol as manifestation of the meaning we make.

I think it is disingenuous to suggest clergy stop using vestments and for temples to stop using ritual, when it is consumers, neurotic as we are, who demand their use. Zen Mountain Monastery, Upaya Zen Center, or San Francisco Zen Center would not exist without the robes, shaved heads, and ambiance of Zen. Tibetan Dharma Center without statuary, robes, and 108 bead malas would not be perceived as Dharma Centers, but just another building with folding chairs or pillows on the floor. Would the Dalai Lama be listened to, revered so much, if he were not in robes? If you say ”yes, of course, it’s the man not the clothes!” I respectfully urge you to think again.

As for myself, I would be happy to let my hair grow out. It would make my partner very happy. I would be happy to give up my robes. I actually enjoy wearing jeans. And I could be just “Harvey” the guy who does what he can to make the world a better place. But in the end, this would be equally disingenuous as I would be in costume. The truth is, I am a monk and for a couple of thousand years monks shaved their heads, put on the Buddha’s robe, and took on the yoke of the priesthood. Its just what we do.

Be well.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

This morning we woke in our new apartment to a wonderful scene. Snow. Icicles. And 12 degrees. This is Las Cruces, New Mexico. Lots of sun. Except today. So, our moving has been put on slow. We will go out in a bit for a breakfast of bean and cheese burritos and coffee. It is likely we will go by the old apartment, pick up clothes and other essentials, and then nestle in for the majority of the morning.

Last night’s Zen 101 group was sparse: students Yubao and Caiti came. We left early as the snow had begun to come down rather fast and furiously. In a place like Las Cruces, there are no snow plows, no salt trucks, and many drivers who have never driven on ice. Its best to offer ourselves to the rest imposed by such conditions.

Setting aside plans is a necessary part of our practice. Being pliant is part of being resilient. Resilience is essential for our spiritual health. As we are confronted by conditions adverse to our aims, our willingness to open ourselves to change becomes a marker of our development in the Way. Obsessive-compulsive feelings need to be noticed and let go of. Our practice to be willing to live in the moment we are in shows itself.

So, this morning no breakfast burrito, coffee made at home, and in this instant, our power went off. So I switched to my Android phone and am using it as a modem to send this message to you.

Please be safe.

The Temple will be closed today.