Zen 101

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Daiho's Personal Retreat & Schedule

With palms together,

Good Morning All,

As many of you know, Rev. Shukke Shin and I have established a routine wherein I practice a personal retreat at the Zendo the first weekend of each month and she does the same in El Paso on the third weekend. My retreat begins on Thursday evening at 7:00 PM and continues through Sunday service. As it happens, then, I will host Zazenkai each first Saturday and lead services on the first Sunday. This schedule will also be our Sesshin schedule at each quarter.

All are welcome to join me at the Temple during my retreat. It is always good to have others to practice with and I would deeply appreciate your company. There is one exception to the schedule below. This Friday I have an appointment to have my motorcycle serviced at 9:00 AM on Friday. This should not take more than two hours. I will return to the Temple after it is completed.

Roshi’s Personal Retreat Schedule

Thursday Evening

07:00-8:00 PM Zazen and Closing Ceremonies

Friday and Saturday

04:30 Wake and Wash

05:00-06:30 Gym

06:30-07:30 Breakfast

07:30-09:00 Recite Three Refuges, Wisdom Heart Sutra, Opening Tea Service, Teisho, Zazen: Three Periods

09:00-10:00 Walk/Jog

10:00-11:00 Zazen: Two Periods

11:00-11:30 Break

12:00-01:00 Lunch

01:00-01:30 Zazen: One Period

01:30-02:30 Samu

02:30-03:30 Zazen: Two Periods

03:30-05:00 Writing/Study Practice/Break

05:00-07:00 Dinner, Samu

07:00-08:00 Zazen: Two Periods

08:00 Close, Recite the Hanya Shin Gyo, the Four Great Vows.


04:30-05:00 Wake and Wash

05:00-06:30 Gym

06:30-07:30 Breakfast

07:30-10:00 Zazen, Break and Samu

10:00-11:30 Sunday Services

Monday, January 28, 2013

"The Zen of Trauma"

With respect to all,

After due consideration, I have reduced the price of my downloadable Kindle book, "The Zen of Trauma" to $0.99. If you wish to download this book, go to Amazon.com and search for the title. It is a Kindle edition and you may download it to your PC or MAC if you also download the free Kindle software.

I am putting the finishing touches on my next little book, "The Zen of Everyday Life" which will be the second in the series.



Thursday, January 24, 2013

Do We Mean What We Say?

With palms together,

This morning I woke at 3:45 and practiced Zazen followed by a short, but fully engaged yoga routine. At lighting my morning incense I had the thought that I was offering this wonderful gift to the universe. The thing is, do I really mean it? When I vow to free all beings, when I open my heart to compassionate living, what exactly do I really mean? Do I include hostage takers, mass murderers, child abusers, and all manner of people who do loathsome acts of terror and violence? These are part of the universe to which I offer the sweet gift of incense, aren’t they? And those who hate? And those who steal?

Often I simply say these words. Often they are just a part of the morning and evening liturgy. To the extent this is true they are, indeed, meaningless. If I vow to develop compassion and work to open my heart just to close it the moment I am confronted with something or someone who threatens me or others what am I?

I am a human being. It’s really that simple. I am an imperfect being on a path. There are many rocks, fallen trees, and other debris on this path. It would be both foolish and naïve of me to think that just because I practice lighting incense, investigating my body and heart through exercise and zazen, mouthing vows along the way, that I should be any different than any other animal comprising the human race. Acceptance of this fact is a very important practice as it leads to honest and authentic personal inquiry. With such inquiry each step we take along the path will be the same: honest and authentic.

Each time I recite a vow and notice my mind is elsewhere, each time I walk a step, lift a weight, or sit down on the practice cushion, noticing I am elsewhere, I am offered an opportunity to truly practice. Accepting I am a human being with flaws means I accept the human condition. This means understanding that I am no different fundamentally than any of those I may loath or wish not to extend my compassion. In realizing this and working with this, I open my heart just a little farther.

Be well

Local Note: We will host Study Group at 6:00 PM and practice Zazen at 7:00 PM at the Temple. I hope to see you there!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wasting Trash

With palms together,

This morning I sat outside in our courtyard looking at the stars. It was 28 degrees. Not bad as I was wearing a robe and my running tights. With each breath thoughts arose. I considered the Bataan Memorial Death March and whether I would finish it. I considered the few dirty dishes in our sink. I considered the coffee brewing in our kitchen. And so on. A shooting star caught the corner of my eye. That speck, caught in our atmosphere, flamed out and I was reminded of my age. We each will flame out at some time. I was reminded of a conversation I had yesterday at the café in Mesilla. My friend told me his neighbor had died in his sleep a few days ago. He was 68. I will be 67 next month. It seems as we age we hear such stories and, like the shooting star, we are reminded of the brief time we have in awareness.

In one of the 101 Zen Stories there is a story about a monk who is admonished not to waste his time. Our study group on Thursday considered this. What does this mean? Can time be wasted? What assumptions are present for such an idea to be expressed? In another text there is a story about a monk who wondered what to do with the trash he had just swept up. His teacher told him there was no trash and went about experientially teaching the young monk the truth of this statement. Waste and trash are similar. They dismiss the value of what is there before us. The moment I had sitting outside in the cold this morning was every bit as valuable as doing something in service to others. Every moment is precious, made ever the more so by reminders that some of us die early in the flash of a moment.

Waste is a concept we create because we add value to something else. Trash is a concept we create because we cannot see the value of that which we call trash. Yet everything, like every moment, has intrinsic value and should not be dismissed. We need to learn to look deeply at what is there before us. To do this we need to practice the art of looking past our judgments, for judgments we will, as a matter of course, make. When we can see the value of a moment regardless of what else we have to do, we have the opportunity to develop gratitude for simply being. When we can see the value of what we have called trash we will eventually be able to embrace that which we have diminished.

May we practice to be blessings in the universe.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Empty Cup

With palms together,

There is nothing to be gained from the practice of Zen. So we say. We say that when we have a gaining idea when we come to practice we will miss the mark. This is so when our practice is pure, but not all practices are pure, which is to say, many of us come to practice with a need. We need to be more relaxed, more at peace, less angry, less depressed and so on. Few of us come to practice with the aroused thought of enlightenment. It has occurred to me that to talk of enlightenment is to miss the mark in two ways. First, it is not wise to talk of that which cannot be thought, only realized. Second, and most importantly, it does not address the needs of those in attendance.

The Buddha was a medicine man. He applied skilful means after he made a diagnosis of the ills of the person in front of him. Not all medicine was the same nor was it delivered in the same way. When I look out at the faces in my Zendo as I am about to offer a Dharma talk, it is important that I understand what the needs are of those in front of me. There is a strong pressure to give them what I believe they need rather than what they believe they need. As to “needs” we are too often both mistaken. There are differences between what they believe they need, what I believe they need, and what we each, in fact, need. An appreciation of this deepens my appreciation of the Buddha as he sat in front of ailing crowds offering medicine so skillfully. We must be empty cups.

Bromides like “only go straight,” or “just sit,” are not helpful and reflect, in my opinion, a lack of skill on the part of the teacher. Like Gutei’s finger they are only useful when uttered by the original Master, a Master who has assessed the situation and offers his or her teaching authentically. Copycats need not apply.

When we disallow what we “know” we have little recourse but to throw ourselves into the literal, actual, moment. We must address those sitting in front of us who have come to the Zendo for something. In this, we are left with ourselves. Such a thing can be scary, hence, our all too often reliance on bromides, snippets from other Masters, and tricks such as the crack of a stick. What are we doing?

Frankly, I don’t know. What I do know is that I too often completely miss the mark. I believe it is important to begin where the student is (to borrow a phrase from Social Work). The only way to do that is to ask the student to describe where they are and what they want or need. More importantly, though, we must believe them and teach to that need. It is important to stay in the present, as well. The Ancients teach us much, but ubiquitous referencing of dead guys is a little like the constant referencing of scripture in the Christian tradition: boring and unhelpful.

Lastly, a caution from the film, Chicago: when on the ropes, “razzle dazzle them!” The energy and quick spatter of profundities we sometimes use as teachers might make good theatre, but is hardly the intimate heart to heart touching students may require. I believe Zen students want something real. They want something authentic. And they want something both fresh and relevant. To gain such medicine both students and teachers must be willing to be honest, speak up, and take risks. It’s not all on the teacher, thank goodness. Students must use their voices and touch their hearts as they stumble through their practice. After all, if the physician is not given accurate, authentic information from the patient how will he or she properly treat the ailment?

Be well

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Boundless and Bounded

With palms together,

Zen, what a marvelous, though thoroughly overused and, at the same time misunderstood, word. Zen. It has a stunning and sexy sound. It calls forth images of shaved headed monks in black robes, incense offerings, cross-legged sitting, and austerity: a high bar, although a distorted one. Of late, sex scandals, character, and questions regarding the power of zazen to maintain precepts seem to be in the forefront of those who practice. This practice is a challenge enough and so to have such questions can easily derail a person’s commitment to, and practice of, zazen.

What is Zen, and most importantly, zazen, its chief practice? Does it have any power? Is there a relationship between the practice of Zen and moral conduct? All of these are very worthy questions and all are very challenging to address and yet, impossible to answer. I think, superficially, we can describe zazen and even paint a picture of Zen itself, but in my opinion, such questions cannot be answered in the abstract through words, reason or rationality. Instead, they must be addressed individually for, and by, each of us as individuals in relation to each other. Lastly, the practice of zazen seems to open boundaries rather than close them and one possible consequence of this may be that Zen practitioners and Masters alike may violate precepts as part of a boundless perception of reality.

People often think of Zen as an individual practice. This is an obvious understanding of those at the beginning of their practice. Such a view remains in the realm of thought, not experience. It makes sense to think this way as we come to the cushion alone and leave the cushion alone even if there are a hundred other people in the room practicing with us. We are alone in the practice itself. As we continue, however, this understanding of practice becomes less and less meaningful. Over time we begin to see more clearly and with a wider eye. We see that Sangha supports us as we support Sangha. Our teacher supports us as we support our teacher. Such an interdependent understanding extends to the cushions, incense, bells and clappers. We begin to see that everything is interconnected and depends on everything else and at some point the boundaries between self and others fade and boundlessness arises. This is a dangerous place in our practice.

Boundlessness must also be bounded as the sutra says: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. It is on the first side of this formulation that people often get stuck. We get to the top of that hundred foot pole, we understand our “true nature,” but that is not enough: to realize it we must step off the pole and return to everyday life. One of the reasons people get stuck is that they see the Big Picture and it is wonderful, free, and eternally fresh. I imagine it’s sort of like getting to heaven and being seated under the throne of God, all lightness and light and such. Who would want to leave God? Bodhisattvas do.

Bodhisattvas come back from the desert: Gilgamesh did, the people Israel did, Jacob did, Jesus did, and Buddha did. Everyone who wrestles with themselves somewhere along the Way must resolve the struggle one way or another and step back into everyday life.

So, the question arises: what is our next step. Even more, how will we step? You see, it’s not just the step itself, but the way of the step, the direction of the step, the feel of the step, that counts. We are not done when we step off the pole: we are just beginning. This is where those other, pesky sorts of questions arise: Questions of character, moral discipline, and the like.

A boundless mind needs bounded practice. For myself, I know I need constant reminders of my limits. I need support in my practice. I am in constant need of the discipline honoring the precepts provides. And I am always in need of a wide perspective, while at the same time keeping my eye on the ball. Our lives depend on each other in tandem with our planet. None can survive without the great eternal web we call life. When we realize Zen as an every moment practice and allow what arises from each moment to guide us, our steps become more caring and compassionate and more, they become traceless.

Be well.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Life and Death

With palms together,

In her forward to Daido Loori’s “Eight Gates of Zen” Rev. Bonnie Myotai Treace quotes the text at the entrance to Zen Mountain Monastery: “I come here realizing the question of Life and Death is a vital matter…” And so it is. Yet, how many of us reach this important question before we actually face death? For me, that moment came on May 29th, 1966 when in a fierce firefight with the North Vietnamese Army I came face to face with death. That was almost 47 years ago and the moment has yet to leave me. On the contrary, it is part of my everyday experience.

It is odd to face death at 19 years old. I had shot and killed many men by that time, including I believe, one of our own. That night I both endured getting shot in the head and also the moral anguish of combat itself. Over the decades since, the questions regarding the morality of my behavior have haunted me. My cushion is not a refuge, but rather a gate to these questions. I approach it often with a degree of trepidation I am to this day uncomfortable with. Yet sit, I do. And there on the cushion arises memories so clear I can see the events of that night in full color, including the sounds and smells that go with them. I sit in a constant state of redirection: thought to breath, thought to breath, thought to breath. More often than not, the precept I took so many years ago against killing arises to haunt me with equal vigor.

Is there a difference between killing enemy soldiers and accidentally killing a friend? On the one hand, of course…enemy soldiers are out to kill me and a friend is not. Was I so afraid under the fire of a battalion of NVA regulars that my perception was distorted and so allowed me to fire at the three men scrambling for the safety of our perimeter? Does the confusion of night combat make it acceptable? I still don’t know.

What I know is this: life is precious, but then, so is death. The juxtaposition of these is a powerful teacher inviting us to live deeply and fully. Facing death, life becomes more real, more vivid, and certainly more precious. Yet, when we look deeply, starring into these, we find they are both real and unreal. Life and death is both a pair of concepts arising from delusion and literal moments we experience with our relative brains and bodies. Through our practice, they resolve into one and from one, nothing.

Our practice is to be, not to become. It is to live with an open eye, an eye which sees fully and comprehensively. We call this experienced open eye prajna. And the gate to it is the practice realization of Zazen. In prajna questions and their answers cease to exist and what remains is the precise moment we are alive.

Be well

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Simple Thing

With palms together,

Good Morning All,

Its about 30 degrees outside, maybe a degree or two cooler, and I’m preparing to do a ride as part of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association’s (CVMA) effort to support Rolling Thunder’s ride to the Truth or Consequences Veterans Home. I am our Chapter's chaplain and CMVA’s motto is “Vets Helping Vets.” This ride is to do just that. The veteran’s home is a nursing facility for veterans. I’ve been there before. When I was a practicing psychotherapist I often visited there to talk to vets housed there who were depressed and suffering from PTSD.

Nursing homes are lonely places in general, it seems to me, and sad places as well. One who takes up residence in a “home” is acknowledging either voluntarily or not, their end of life. It would be better if all of us could face that in the arms of a loving family, yet in our world today, this is often an impossibility. Or so we politely tell ourselves. For those in “homes” their truth can be a sense of abandonment to an institutionalized care. I’m certain that institutions mean well, but they are institutions and are sometimes faceless and predominately policy driven. Our ride this morning is to offset some of that and bring to veterans housed there a small degree of love. There is nothing that will bring a smile to a face than a visit from someone who cares. It’s a simple thing really.

Be well

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Fitness Training

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

This old body requires attention: a little background. Back in 1990 when I was 43, my step-son, Jason, told me I was getting a belly. It happened that he saw World Gym had a 2 for 1 membership sale. He thought it would be great if we joined together (of course Dad paid) and we could work-out together. So we did, join that is. After a week or two, son Jason could not seem to find the time to go. But I continued and after a couple of months of 3 times per week full body workouts, pressed on to a split routine working two body parts per day, then eventually went to a double split routine going to the gym twice a day working one body part in the morning and another in the evening. I went from 143 lbs to 175 lbs of muscle mass within a year. In 1994 we moved to New Mexico. I built a gym in our garage and continued my workouts.

Attention to diet, adding an aerobic workout, and beginning meditation in a serious way, led to a leaner body still. I got it in my head that I wanted to run a full marathon having never run a step. In 2002 I began a marathon training program and in 2003 ran the Las Vegas Marathon. Running replaced heavy weight workouts and distance running became a passion. In 2005 I ran a half marathon every two months for the entire year. This effort ended with my first---and only--- DNF (Did Not Finish) when I attempted to run a second half in Cleveland a week after running the McMinville Half in Tennessee. I resolved then to back off a bit. Backing off eventually led to shorter and shorter runs. When we moved to the Refuge in the mountains I sold nearly all of my gym equipment. Running less and less my body went south and eventually led to back problems, deteriorating ability to walk (let alone run), and the dwindling away of that muscle mass I had worked so hard to gain.

In 2012, I endured the worst pain in my life due to lumbar spinal stenosis and increased arthritis in my spinal column and left shoulder. Once again my body required attention. Kathryn coaxed me into beginning a weight training program a few months ago and we bought a circuit machine to add to the dumbbells and incline bench I still had as leftovers from years ago. We began getting fit, then that stenosis showed up in a fury. All training stopped as I was not able to stand for more than a few seconds at a time. A few spinal procedures, a couple of months of physical therapy, lots of massage from Cloud, and I am now essentially pain free.

So, here we are in 2013. We decided to join Planet Fitness together. After a week of going every morning I have found my muscles responding...muscle memory is a wonderful thing...and this week began a double split routine. Monday and Thursday I train Arms in the morning and Shoulders in the evening. Tuesday and Friday I train Chest in the morning and Back in the evening, Wednesday and Saturday I train Legs in the morning. Each workout includes an Abs workout, as well. At the end of each workout I do a few minutes on the treadmill or that killer stair machine called "K2." I have been walking with an eye toward doing the short course of the Bataan Death March in mid-March this year.

If anyone would like to walk the 14 miles of Bataan in March with me, please let me know...I'd be more than happy to have your company!

Be well.

Sunday, January 06, 2013


With palms together,

Good Morning All,

Someone asked if I might one day address the relationship between the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the Six Paramitas, and the 16 Precepts. At first blush this sounds like a very tall order and, I suppose if I were to go through the developmental history of each, it would be. Yet, I don’t think it is history that this student wants, but rather a teaching on the spiritual relationship of these.

From my perspective, these teachings are one and they arise from the first of the Three Treasures, buddha. Please notice that I did not capitalize this treasure as it is not the person of “the Buddha” that I am referring to, but rather, the true treasure, the state of being awake. When awake we see the universe in a wholly different way. The Absolute and the Relative are one, yet two, simultaneously. We experience the deep, interconnected and interdependent nature of the universe. We experience without a “we” at all. The ability to see in this way gives rise to a clear understanding of the Four Noble Truths in which we are able to “see” that dualistic living gives rise to suffering. The Buddha taught us to loosen our grip of attachment to things and as a result of that loosened grip the Middle Way we call the Noble Eightfold Path arises.

From a buddha heart the whole universe in the ten directions and three times are one. We should consider this: If all is one, there can be no “two.” If no “two” what does this do to our notions of interpersonal relations? Can “All is One” kill? Killing, lying, stealing, etc., all require a dualistic view. They require us to separate ourselves from each other and without this separation; actions such as killing make no sense. Yet, we cannot live entirely in the Absolute world. We are relative beings requiring food, clothing, and shelter, as well as a sense of safety, belongingness, and so forth. So, the question is, “how do we live in such a world and remain moral beings?” The Buddha’s answer was the Eightfold Noble Path, a middle way, a way between extremes.

From our buddha-nature, that place of oneness, the gates to oneness are revealed: these gates are the paramitas, the bridges that bodhisattvas manifest in the world. Generosity, morality, patience, etc., are manifest without separation. We just give, we just manifest morality, and we just enact patience, as we interact with others in the relative world. In other words, we behave as relative beings with a selfless Absolute heart/mind. But how? What does this entail?

To help us, the ancients derived a final gate, what we refer to as our precepts, including the Four Great Vows and the Sixteen Precepts. The Four Great Vows are global commitments to being a Bodhisattva; to free all beings, to end delusion, to enter Dharma gates, and to follow the Buddha Way. The Sixteen Precepts give us the details: Be awake, be a student, be a community, cease doing bad things, do good, bring about good for others, cease killing, stealing, cease using sex to harm, cease lying, cease clouding our minds, cease gossiping, cease raising ourselves at other’s expense, cease allowing ourselves to give way to anger, cease being stingy, and cease speaking ill of the three treasures. Each of these is a koan in its own right as each requires dualistic thinking. Our key is in the very first of the Sixteen Precepts: take refuge in buddha.

Be well