Zen 101

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Our Snow in southern New Mexico

Real Practice

From the Margins: Real Zen Practice
by Harvey Daiho Hilbert

One day I was sitting on the street in front of the Federal Building in downtown Las Cruces.  It was fairly early in our war with Iraq.  I sat in robes on a zafu with a small block lettered sign.  The sign read, “PEACE.”   As I sat there a man approached.  He was quite angry and told me his son was fighting in Iraq.  I listened as he talked to me about his concerns for his son.  I barely said a word.  As he talked, he came closer and closer to questioning why his son was there. Even then, many of us did not believe there were WMDs in Iraq and that the invasion was some sort of Bush payback. At some point, he was silent and sat down beside me.  We sat there together quietly.  

On another occasion, I sat in front of the same building as a group gathered to protest the Supreme Court’s decision that ruled corporations were people.  The gathering grew and security, as well as police with K-9s, approached the large group.  I was sitting between the group and the building on the public sidewalk.  The group, also on the sidewalk, was asked to remove themselves.  The authorities argued that the group was impeding pedestrians.  After a lot of discussion and threats of detainment, the large group moved off the sidewalk.  I did not. at some point in my zazen I heard officers standing near me considering what to do with me as I continued to sit.  a K-9 dog approached and sniffed around me.  I just sat there. In the end, the authorities retreated to the Federal Building and I remained on my cushion.  I had not spoken a word nor shared a glance.

These events stick out in my mind.  At the time a number of thoughts came and went.  In the first case I wondered what the man was going to do, whether he would escalate and if the need arose to defend myself, what I might do.  In the second case, I was prepared to not respond, but to continue my practice on the public sidewalk. I imagined being dragged away.  Thankfully that did not happen.

We in the West compartmentalize everything.  Zen is done either at home or in Zendos. We meditate to open our eyes and, theoretically, free all beings.  The classical understanding of this is that by opening our eye, so too, all eyes, since you and I are one. However, eyes open or not, there is great suffering in this world.  The Buddha did not awaken to sit in temples or under trees.  He stood up and taught, wandered and healed, pacified criminals, and Kings.  He was selfless and lived for the sake of others. Unfortunately, we in the West, with our proclivity for self absorption, have either forgotten, never learned, or purposefully ignored the Buddha’s teaching in this regard.  

Zen practice is not only about Zen practice in the relative safety of a Zendo, it is also about manifesting our practice through the precepts in the real world.  True practitioners of the Buddha Way have an obligation to engage the world around them just as the Buddha did.  This obligation arises from the Three Pure Precepts: cease doing evil, do good, and bring about abundant good for all beings. Notice the attention is on “doing” not on “being.” 

So, the next time you ask yourself or your teacher if you have freed yourself while on the cushion, know that in the question is your answer. Like that old Zen story, we don’t make a mirror by polishing tiles and we don’t gain enlightenment by practicing Zazen.  Why? Unless we take our open mind up from the cushion and into the world we have not become practice-realization.  What we are instead is smug Teachers and Students sitting safely and invisibly in a Zendo.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas et al

With Palms Together, Good Morning Everyone,
Some of us in the United States dislike using the phrase “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” They believe we should use the phrase “Merry Christmas” instead as they see that Jesus is the “reason for the season.” Some, then, see this as part of a so-called “War on Christmas.”
Let’s see, to put this politely, I might say, “If there is a war on Christmas its hard to tell when surrounded by Christmas carols, lights, displays, sales, parking problems, and traffic jams.” Yet, we might look at it a different way and suggest that all of these things are, in fact, the war on Christmas itself. Yes, these have little to nothing to do with “the reason for the season.” What does a Christmas sale, for example, have to do with the birth of the founder of a major religion, a person held up to be the son of God, if not God himself? To me, as an outsider (I am not a Christian), I view the commercialization of Christmas as a direct attack on the meaning of the day itself.
Christmas does not stand alone during this time of year, the time of the waning sun. Hanukkah (Festival of Lights), Rohatsu (Enlightenment of the Buddha), the High Holy Days (Days of Repentance), and in Islam, Mawlid (birth of the prophet Mohammed). We might note that each of these seasonal “holy”days involve birth and death and the hope that abides in between. These holy days did not just pop up, they evolved over time and matched our emotional and psychological needs as they symbolize a basic and common human need and, as such, have become a deeply held part of us.
As winter approaches, we witness a transformation of our environment, leaves falling from trees, plants withering, things move more slowly as temperatures drop and water freezes. Our sun is with us less and less and for those who pay attention to such things, appears to fall further and further down the horizon. In ancient times these events were closely watched and greatly feared. We were reminded of our mortality, our pain and suffering. The ancients crafted belief systems and ceremonies around such seasonal changes in the hope of staving off death and bringing forth birth. These holidays, then, were crucial to our sense of well-being and safety.
Today however, we have lost touch with our enchanted and natural world. We have light and heat at the touch of a button. Our food is not scarce and comes neatly packaged and often our children have no sense as to where these packages come from or how they were produced. Its as if we left nature behind as we pursued (almost as a stampede) the near magical possibilities at the dawn of the age of enlightenment.
Losing touch with the natural world enables us to view it as just matter, life without spirit. Our children’s eyes are drawn to video games, devices, websites, movies, videos,and so forth. As adults and parents we, too, have lost touch with the natural cycles of the earth. We prize our technological progress which, in itself is not a bad thing, but when paired with a marginalizing of the natural world, becomes very dangerous.

These days, these cold winter days, ought remind us of this spiritual rendering. They were designed to bring us back in touch with the world as it is. Let’s say, a re- enchantment of our lives and our relationship to the universe. When we light incense and offer it, as we buy or make a gift for others during these holidays, and as we sit facing a wall in Zazen, let us consider the real meaning of the seasonal cycles, let us bear witness to our species destruction of the environment. And on a personal, individual level, let us be aware of our lack of care and compassion for our own space and its conditioned relationship to the “larger” world.
If there is a “War on Christmas” that war is fed by our greed and enabled by our lack of understanding of our core reality. The Buddha woke up. He touched the ground with his finger tips and gave witness to the Earth itself. In this he saw the essential truth of each moment as gateways to liberation from life and death. May we each learn ways to re- enchant our world, bringing forth spirit and hope thru our practice.
Yours, Daiho 

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Friends in the Dharma

With respect to all.,
I want to personally and publicly acknowledge my debt to two young monks who drove from Kansas City to Las Cruces in order to participate in our Rohatsu sesshin. Venerables Sunyananda Dharma and Thich Tam Bi were extremely helpful to me as I injured my back muscles just as sesshin began. Their kindness and generosity of spirit were immensely helpful. Our Zen world is in dire need of repair and these two young ones are part of the repair team. You know, there are those who would exclude certain lineages, includig my own, yet practitioners from such lineages seem to be the few who are actually manifesting the Dharma in everyday life. I am, frankly, humbled by their presence and sickened by those who claim authenticity thru their patriarchs but show little of the Dharma in their actions. 
My friend Rev. Kobutsu Malone, for example, has done Zen a great service but has been kicked in the teeth for it. Here is a man, alone in the wildsa of Maine, who suffers daily both in terms of his physical body, but also in terms of his heart and spirit. Admittedly, he is a challenge, but consider where is anger and disenchantment comes from: a heart, pure of spirit, and dedicated to victims of predatory monks. It seems to me we really dso want to kill the messenger. What Kobutsu Malone has is an excellent crap detector. when approaching be aware he will tolerate no bullshit and robes, shaved heads and credentials will not save you...which is as it should be. Zen is, and always will be, a personal journey from the inside out and if we are not willing to begin from the inside, relying instead on credentials and brocade robes as indicators of anything at all, we are doomed to be failures in our practice and our authenticity as a Zen practitioner and not the least a human being.

Our Fear

With palms together,
Good Morning All,

Sometimes my faith in the humanity of people is deeply shaken.  Deservedly so. Blind faith in whatever form is dangerous.  Every once in awhile we need a wake-up call.  In this case the call isn't what most of us might think it is.  No, it is not radical or extremist Islam, it is our fear.  To protect us from that which we are afraid of we create, indiscriminately, an enemy with a very broad brush. And in this brush we try to find ways to either get rid of him or keep him away from us.

Putting what we are afraid of in a closet and locking the door is no solution.  It takes energy and lots of it to keep that door closed and the loss of that energy prevents us from doing good things for our society.  When we respond to fear in this way that which we are afraid of becomes more powerful.  We choose to give away our freedoms, we betray the values our nation was founded upon, to wit, religious freedom, freedom of movement, freedom to bear arms, freedom from intrusions upon our privacy.  All in the name of national security and self defense.

You know, Old Timothy from Oklahoma felt himself to be a Christian and a patriot as he blew up the federal building killing scores of innocents.  I did not see Donald Trump call for the barring of Christians trying to enter our country as a result.  Did you?  And the KKK is a Christian organization, burning crosses and tar and feathering human beings...was there a call to  disrobe these domestic terrorists, burn bibles, or otherwise cope with our fear and outrage?

I don't know what the answer is to terrorism, but what I believe is this:  we ought not give up our nation's principles in order to remain safe because when we do, we are our own enemy, killing ourselves in the process.  Plainly speaking it is simply wrong to hold Muslims accountable for what terrorists do. Just as it would be wrong to blame all Christians for what the KKK has done.

What Mr. Trump and his cohorts are doing is destructive to our values and will lead us into the arms of a police state.  Is this really what our flag, constitution, and bill of rights stand for? I don't think so.


Monday, November 30, 2015


Leaving Thanksgiving/Arriving Rohatsu Sesshin: Are they the same or different?

Rohatsu, our celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment occurs on December 8th.  Most Zen centers and temples offer an extended retreat time in honor of this and participants are encouraged to let mind and body fall away.  In one sense sesshin might sound selfish as it seems to focus on replicating the personal enlightenment of the Buddha, but, as with the Buddha himself,  awakening does not get us food, nor does it wash our clothes, nor allow us to walk on water.  And so, in another sense sesshin may be seen as an invitation to offer one’s self to others in order to free them from their suffering, how so?  From the Buddha’s point of view, as his eye opened so did the universe. 

In the United States, we celebrate a wonderful holiday on the last Thursday of November.  On this day, we often consider what we may be grateful for and we share our gratitude with those around us.  So, within a few days we will move from a family and society focused sharing of gratitude, to a personal, inward, spiritual experience allowing us to prepare for being in-service to others.  Both events are deeply seated in, and derived from, our need to develop compassion for each other and our world.  We cannot be selfish while at the same time live for others.  Or can we?

Zen Master Seung Sahn carried with him a bag of sayings he could quickly access for the purpose of retort. He would ask a simple straightforward sort of question such as, “are they the same or different?” With an answer of thirty blows regardless, ready made and to the point, just as any koan master might do.  The point was everything is one in the same, both same and different.  At this stage of my life as a Zen teacher all things seem to be flowing from and to this “same and different” place.

My sense? This is as it should be. Yet, I wonder.  When we are young and making our mark in the world, it is of little help (or so we think)  to be focused on anything but the brass ring and how to capture it.   We have little time to step away from the ride, or don’t we?  Often stepping away from the ride offers us a unique and (in my opinion) necessary perspective.  Makes me wonder (again) just how important time in reflection is versus the “just do it” mentality of our “don’t wobble” Zensters.  In any event, as we approach our practice intensive, know this: the two truths of the Buddha Way can, in fact, be held together as one.  Its just our penchant for the naming of things that creates a separation. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Prayer

With respect,

This afternoon I was honored to offer a prayer at the opening of our monthly Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association meeting here in Las Cruces. I would like to share a few thoughts about my offering. I said, to paraphrase, 'my faith tradition has a slogan: "May all beings be free from suffering." I noted that all of us suffer and as veterans of combat we have a pretty damned good idea as to what real suffering is. God knows we are a suffering world. We suffer and live, we suffer and are wounded. I asked each of us to pray for those who were killed in Paris in violence that was...and is...meaningless. I asked us to pray that the Lord keep warm the hearts and souls of the families involved. 

My thoughts are also with those beings who suffer so much that they feel the only way to free themselves from their hate is to harm others. All of us feel the need to retaliate injury, but not all of us do harm as a result of that feeling. Our desire to seek retribution comes from the dark side of our nature, it is both normal and toxic, a result of millennia of natural selection. Yet so is our desire and need to care for one another a result of that same evolutionary principle. 

I believe the most difficult thing a person of spirit must do is love those who wish us harm. Few get there and many who do are assassinated for it. Peace is not easy. And working for peace in a climate of hate is dangerous. 

Personally, I must work hard every day not to give in to the inclination to harm those who threaten us. I often fail in this. I am human after all which is, then, a contradiction as the Latin, homo sapien (our biological classification), means wise man. Ironic, isn't it? 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Authentic Zen

With palms together,
Good Afternoon All,

From Rev. Senzaki’s correspondence in “Eloquent Silence,” (p 386) a few noteworthy notes: 

“… present day Japanese Buddhists do not understand true Buddhism, but are clinging to sectarian ideas instead.”  

And of Priest emissaries here to teach Zen:

“With few exceptions they are not accomplishing anything here but propaganda and the advertisement of their titles and cathedrals, like sandwich men peddling their wares.”

…”They may think they can do things here in America just as they do in Japan, but they are badly mistaken.”

Yet, today, years later, some of us cling to the Japanese as final arbiters of what is and is not Zen.  Authenticity from mind-to-mind transmission, practice, and up-right living are not as important, it would seem, as what lineage we are from and whether that lineage is officially recognized by Soto Shu in Japan.  

Senzaki-roshi, like Matsuoka-roshi, wished to build an authentic Zen practice here in the United States, a practice not dependent on Cathedrals, titles, and brocade robes. Theirs was a simple practice, one Rinzai, the other Soto, but each engaged in a simple, straightforward practice of Zen.  As we so often say, it was “nothing special.” 

The quotes above remind me of Dogen Zenji’s travels to China and his desire to bring “True Buddhism” to Japan.  His True Buddhism was in the daily practice of Zazen.  As Dogen Zenji attempted to find an authentic teacher, he went through a lot of “advertisements” and those closely affiliated with governing bodies first.  His true teacher, like another Zen radical, Uchiyama-roshi, simply practiced Zazen.     

Many have written and spoken about Zen in America.  There have been retreats dedicated to discovering, or perhaps creating and directing, what Zen in America is or will become. I fear these are essentially a wasted effort, as Zen cannot be directed, especially from the top down, or by groups of well meaning priests.

My Dharma grandfather was a pioneer in Zen here in the United States. He had a fresh vision developed Zen from its true roots, practice.  When he initially taught, Zen Centers were rare.  He did what Senzaki did, he practiced living room Zen.  His centers often, if not always, began from establishing sitting groups in living rooms. Nothing fancy and no trained assistants. He made do, training an Ino when necessary.  Training a Tenzo when meals were needed. As was pointed out as if a criticism of Matsuoka, he often ordained people before they were ready and trained them into their positions. Today we call that OJT.  It is not a bad way to teach.  On the Job Training (OJT) is hands on. In fact, we might say, “it's the American way.”

In truth, living room Zen is good, practice in parks and on the streets is good, and practice in our offices or on our motorcycles is good.  Each of these require nothing but the willingness to sit down and shut up.  Pandering to benefactors, holding out one’s lineage as something special, or making idols of dead teachers: these are our jailers, dear friends, not our advocates.

So?  Ahh, here is no so.  Zen is in the practice and the authentic relationships of teachers and students and these to the everyday.

My books for You

With respect,

I have two books on Zen, Living Zen and Zen in Your Pocket. "Living Zen" has been revised and now includes a foreword by Rev. Jundo Cohen.  "Zen in Your Pocket" is a small book addressing Zen practice from the everyday to the catastrophic.

Amazon.com is selling both books as trade paperbacks and on Kindle.  Take a look here

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Zen in Your Pocket

Dear Readers,

Two things: first, the revised edition of Living Zen with a foreword by Rev. Jundo Cohen is now

available through Amazon.com and a downloadable version on Kindle. I have reduced the price to

$7.95.  Second, my new book, Zen in Your Pocket, is available also through Amazon.com and will

soon be available through Kindle. It is priced at $6.95.

Please consider taking a peek.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Art Practice

With palms together,

In his book, “The Eight Gates of Zen”  Daido Loori-roshi devotes a chapter to Art as practice seeing it as one of the “Eight Gates.”  We might ask ourselves just what happens when someone picks up a brush or camera, a chisel or a handful of clay? Is there something magical or mystical about what happens next?  Maybe so, but then, the same could be said about any of the other seven gates, maybe so, maybe not.

Art is such a fickle friend and occasional foe.  Art can be creative or destructive, but no one wants to think of it in the latter sense.  We want art to be art, somehow for its name sake, above reason or intuition, and not necessarily subject to good taste. We want this so much so that nearly every sophomoric attempt at putting media together is considered “art.”  

I don’t think so.

Art, like the other gates, requires discipline.  It requires restraint in some cases and explosive, powerful thrusts in others, but in either case they are not without the discipline of practice.  Anyone can throw paint on a canvas and call it “art.”  But is it so?

To simply throw paint on a canvas and have it be “art” the artist must first be an artist, which is to say, one disciplined in the skills necessary to have the emerging image take form in ways that are meaningful to both the artist and the viewer of the work.  As in reading, the reader is as much a part of the work of the writing as is the writer herself. Worlds are created through the interaction of the reader and the writer and each reader creates his or her own world rendering the writing infinite in scope. So too, every image created in the visual arts sustains worlds of meaning too numerous to perceive, let alone count.  And therein lay the problem: the eye of the beholder, when each eye is to be objectively understood as being on the same level, everything can be “art.”   Yet,iIn truth, we are not created equal: all eyes are not the same. We each bring our unique perceptual constellation to the art itself. 

My issue isn’t with this inequality, rather it is with the notion that an undisciplined approach, even if inspired, should be considered art.  Just as undisciplined Zazen cannot be a useful gate, so too, undisciplined art is simply a show. And as we say in any case, “nothing special.’

Be well

Monday, October 26, 2015


With palms together,

Crying , the deep convulsive sort of crying, the crying born of years of unwanted and horrific memories, was comforted by my brothers yesterday.  At the Vietnam Memorial in Truth or Consequences I broke down in torrents of grief, anger, and hurt.  Within a few minutes a young veteran put his arm around me in silence.  We stood there together. Then another two veterans joined us.  It has been nearly fifty years since I left Vietnam and yet, in a nano second, I am there again.  

This time my tears were not just about me, however, this time they were also about my younger combat veteran brothers and sisters who each day struggle with their demons.  I feel great sorrow about this as I know they have years to come, years of the same sort of pain I experience 49 years after the fact.  This is just not right.

The night before a young lady, a female veteran, was considering suicide.  We talked with her, listened to her as she paced the sidewalk, and in the end, our love and respect for her gave her the support she needed, just as the men surrounding me, offered me their love and support in my time of need.  

All I can say at this time is this: life is worth the suffering it demands.  The suffering is a requirement for our hearts to open.  And with open hearts we can love. So, perhaps the karmic consequence of suffering is love itself.  As well as an awakening to the fact that none of us are alone, that  we are each interconnected and interdependent.  Human beings require mutual aid to survive: a baby unloved will waste away in non-organic failure to thrive.  Just as we will fail to thrive if we close ourselves to others in our pain and suffering.

Our practice in Zen is to release ourselves even in the most turbulent of emotional storms. We practice to float, like a duck in a pond, free and easy. Yet, even with years of practice, floating is sometimes a serious challenge.  In those times it is good to be with others, even as we feel we need to be alone.  And this willingness, my friends, this willingness to be a human being in the company of others is true courage.  

Let us each become heroes in our suffering.

Yours in the Dharma

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Responding with Compassion

With palms together,

The weather here in Las Cruces, New Mexico has been difficult.  The hail storm we had a couple of weeks ago did over $10,000.00 worth of damage to our roof. Who knew?  And we are forecasted to have more storms this week.  Our insurance has covered the loss and we will be getting a new roof in a couple of weeks plus two broken skylights will be replaced.  While the process of working with the insurance company, adjusters, and roofers, was relatively easy and straightforward, I’ve noticed I have felt stressed.  I suppose that might have something to do with my broken hand as well.  

This brings up something important: how we respond to our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.  Many people come to Zen practice in order to “get better” and that can mean a whole array of things from stress management, to anger management, to improving out general outlook on life, which is to say, to become happier.  All of these are just fine, thank you very much, but each is also something “added”: an idea of gain.  From my experience it is uncommon for someone coming to Zen for something, that they stay with it for very long.  Zazen is very difficult and the “gains” are very often not perceptible. We Americans are a pragmatic lot and also quite impatient, so when our expected outcome is not realized within a few weeks we seek help elsewhere.

Still, it would be the rare practitioner who did not come to the cushion with an idea of gain.  But this is not entirely problematic.  Insight meditation, for example, has us sitting naming thoughts and feelings as they arise.  Many Zen teachers are psychotherapists and cannot help themselves but to initiate some sort of cognitive or behavioral therapy cloaked in Zen-speak.  And all of this is not so bad if it moves us more deeply into an examination of ourselves and if the result of these examinations change arises.  

Our behavior affects those around us.  When we can be frustrated or angry and not manifest it in a way that is toxic, we are on the right path.  Buddha argued for Right Speech and Right Action. Both of these require mindful attention and personal discipline.  

I have taught that zazen helps us learn to open a space between thought, feeling, and behavior.  Such a space may help us not to knee-jerk in a situation, but rather to be present in it.  We are not always successful in this and sometimes our frustration is so intense that we manifest it immediately and in ways that may be hurtful to those around us.  I know I am guilty of this.  

We ought not worry so much about “slips,” but rather use them as practice opportunities. Be forgiving of ourselves, know that we are human beings conditioned by a lifetime of experiences.  Be compassionate with ourselves:  as in peace, compassion begins within us.  Here’s to each of you!  My your practice be strong.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Right Speech: Religion and Politics

People say there are two areas of discussion friends ought not pursue:  religion and politics.  Yet, it seems to me these are two of the most important areas of our lives and they deserve civil dialogue.The key word here is “civil.”  To be civil is to be respectful which requires listening and close attention. Today it seems nearly impossible to bear witness to such discussions. Talking heads and pundits have created a style of “dialogue” which is less dialogue than haranguing. Nothing is accomplished by one person interrupting, brow-beating, putting down, or competing.  All these methods accomplish is to gain ratings on talk shows, polarize conversations and dumb-down our everyday ability to talk with one another.  Recourse to “talking points” or catch phrases limits depth and discourages actual conversation.

This loss of ability to discourse is a sorry state of affairs and a dangerous one.  When civilized people cannot talk with one another nothing is learned; “opposing” camps remain polarized, and nothing changes.  In fact, if anything, things get worse.

One reason politics and religion seem off-limits is that they are, indeed, important.  Not only are they important, they are near and dear to us.  Our faith tradition is key to our moral understanding, politics enables our faith to be the undergirding of our choices and decisions related to our governance.  Since these both are near and dear, we want to hold onto them.  Yet, from a literal perspective, everything changes. Many of us refuse to understand and accept this truth so we suffer.

The Buddha taught we should speak with mindfulness, care and compassion.  He called this “Right Speech.”  By right he didn’t quite mean incorrect or wrong.  I believe he meant true, as in the line is true or the measure is true.  It is what it says it is, and in speech, follows a middle way.  To do this requires a few qualities: patience and forbearance, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to consider what is being said to which we will then respond.

The next time we are in a discussion, let’s try to leave the sarcasm, cliched phrases, and desire to win out of the picture.  It is said in the Zen world, moku rai or “silence is thunder.”  Sometimes just listening helps as it allows those we are talking with to more fully outline their position.  We shouldn’t be afraid of this or our opposing friend’s words (I believe much of the pundit’s tactics are derived from a basic fear that the other person will indeed have an opportunity to sway.)  Our case should rest on its own merits without recourse to violating the precept against putting others down in order to elevate ourselves.  

Right speech is a challenge to us today, yet without it civil discourse is made impossible. The result is that we don’t learn, nor are we able to reach a solution to our differences.  If we want a more peaceful community, perhaps this is one way to get there.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On a Clear Mind

From Outside the Margins
On a Clear Mind

With respect to all,

It is 1:00 AM. I am awake and outside looking at the moon through my telescope again.  The sky here in New Mexico is large and clear as a bell.  I have just practiced Zazen before coming outside and feel the after effects of a mind made clear by just sitting.  Clarity is a delicious thing. It is free and open, flowing without obstruction.  Its very nature, however, can be addicting. 

I want to talk a little about that.  A clear mind, placid, without ripples reflects exactly what is there and does so without recourse to names.  A wall is no longer a wall;  a cup no longer a cup. There is nothing there and no observer observing.  Just this, as we so often say in the Zen world. 

Many of us strive to reach this place, but it eludes those who strive.  Cease looking and there it is.  Its why we call it serene reflection meditation.   Yet, when this is all we can see and all we wish to be, we are said to be stuck on top of a hundred foot pole.  Achieved clarity, achieved clear mind, and the question arises, “So?” 

So, it feels good.  So, it is relaxed and stress free.  So, it is that we want to stay there.  But we can’t, can we?  We must eat. We must walk, sleep, and earn a living.  Yet, that sense of serenity keeps tugging at us.  

The moon tonight is full. It lights up the night with its brilliance.  But this is short-lived and will over the next few days diminish.  In this natural world lessons abound.  The moon does not seek brilliance; it does not seek clarity.  It is brilliant and it is not.  Trying to hold onto that brilliance creates suffering. Just so, serene mind.  

Yet, here’s teething, that serene mind, that ability to see without obstruction is always available to us. All that is required is a willingness to release our ideas about what is in front of us and allow it to be experienced directly. 

So, the moon I am looking at this evening is not the moon. The telescope is not the telescope. I am not Daiho.  Each of these words are concepts, something added.  Remove the addition and what is left?


Monday, August 24, 2015

On Teachers

With palms together,
Good Evening Everyone,

This evening I would like to address a topic that is quite challenging, to wit: What is a Zen Teacher and what does a Zen Teacher actually teach?  Who is a Zen Teacher anyway? The simple and most direct answer historically is a person who has gained Dharma transmission from his Teacher and/or has been authorized by that teacher to teach. I might add, this person must have a strong drive to teach.   Now this was good enough throughout the world since the Buddha’s time, but has recently been challenged here in the United States.  

Here we have people challenging Dharma transmission itself, and indeed, the whole notion of a clergy and teacher cadre. These folks believe in a horizontal organizational structure or, simply, no structure at all.  They argue shaved heads and robes put people off, separate clergy from the ordinary guy, etc. My response to that argument is equally simple: so?

Then there is the American Zen Teacher’s Association which claims it is not a credentialing body, but by its very name suggests it is. This organization regards a Zen Teacher as one who has received transmission from a recognized lineage master, agrees to follow the AZTA’s ethical code, has had substantial time on the cushion prior to being authorized to teach, and has a position wherein the applicant is currently teaching. 

Sounds easy enough, but understand; for the time on the cushion aspect of these criteria it is suggested the minimum be a year’s worth of retreat time.  Now, let’s take a cold look at that…and understand what that means: prior to being granted transmission, the person must have sat a minimum of 365 days in retreat under the supervision of an authorized teacher.  Lets look a little closer. 

The typical sesshin is 7 days so if we were to use the standard sesshin as a measure, the person must have sat 52 weeks of sesshin. Now, if that person were to sit one sesshin per month (the typical Zen Center offers sesshin only quarterly, by the way), it would take 4.3 years of monthly seven day sessions in order to meet this basic requirement. The people who have achieved this miracle must either not work anywhere or have jobs that allow them a week’s vacation monthly. 
If we were to take the typical annual calendar of a Zen Center, which includes four sesshin per year, it would take 13 years of quarterly sesshin to obtain the minimum amount of retreat time. Right. 

Frankly, this is ridiculous.  We can see this ex post facto cushion requirement is either a pipe dream or those who are members of AZTA have been creative on their applications. in verifying these requirements I had a short conversation with an AZTA dignitary, I learned “many” of the AZTA members trained for “twenty years” before being granted teacher status.  This still doesn’t explain how it is possible to meet this minimal retreat requirement.  Perhaps they were grandfathered in.  Maybe there is still another alternative, such as the organization waives the time requirement for certain people?  I don’t know.

What I believe, however, is that time on the cushion is simply time on the cushion.  Without some sense of what that time has done it is a meaningless number.  To use an analogy:  Let’s suppose someone is studying the koan curriculum with a teacher.  It takes the person, say, ten years to resolve a handful of the 300 koans in the collection.  Another student, same teacher, completes the koan collection in a year.  In such a case, using time as the criteria, the person who took ten years to get a handful of koans would be accepted and the one who brilliantly completed the collection in a year would be denied. 

This leads me to the second aspect of this piece:  what actual Zen Teachers teach. Teachers, I acknowledge, teach didactically or experientially.  The latter, it seems to me is the most effective.   As to what teachers teach here’s a short list of categories of what we typically think of as content: 

We are to teach the Dharma; 

We teach the precepts, as we ourselves are precept holders and are responsible for manifesting them in our daily lives; and 

We teach the practices, contemplative, ceremonial and otherwise, to our students.  

We teach our history.

This is an impressive list, but is it what we actually teach?  And how is the list prioritized?  Priorities are usually established in accordance with what we value, a Zen axiology, if you will.  What’s first on our list if we were to prioritize it?  Given the questions on the AZTA’s application and what goes on in a typical Zen Center, my sense is most of us would place zazen at the top of the list. So sitting on our asses, staring at a wall is our highest value?

There is a problem with this and the problem is labeled “our Vows.”

At each level of ordination we are asked to take our vows, these are recited once again monthly, and each day we recite the Four Great Vows.  Now these vows are important.  They are an ethical statement in their own right and they point us to our task as precept holders or priests. 

The third pure precept suggests we are to create conditions within which all beings will be free.  I believe these precepts should be, as the Torah says, as frontlets between our eyes.  Our precepts are our everyday practice, indeed, our precepts are ourselves expressed in action. 

  Our Bodhisattva vows make it clear that we are to put ourselves last and all others are before us.  These vows, then teach us what tradition might say is our starting point and our priority.  Well, darn, looking at what is contained in the latest Buddhist magazines, or looking at the schedules of many, many Zen Centers, I see their focus to be on the practice of zazen. 

What I don’t see are opportunities to enact the precepts and the Bodhisattva vows. So, sitting down, facing a wall, and shutting up, is first on the list and stands as the highest value.  On some level I understand this: it is important, after all, to begin to glimpse our original face, see how all things come and go, and how, when looked at closely, appear deeply interconnected.  Yes, important, but not necessarily the most important, or the highest good.  Zazen is first a practice and in certain ways that practice becomes a complete way of life, but not right away and perhaps never.  The mind, as it arises on the cushion, is important to keep close.  

So instead of asking how many decades we have spent sitting on our ass, we might be asking how we have been of service to others.  We might take that third pure precept and use it to give us authority to stand up against these interminable wars, against discrimination and hate, and for reproductive rights.

It seems to me that just when our nation needs religious and spiritual leadership Zen teachers, with few exceptions, are no where to be found.  Well, not so, we can see them sitting in their Zendo facing a wall.  Meanwhile the terror of warfare continues, the culture of violence we Americans have created goes unchallenged by us, and students are able to clearly see what we most value: sitting on our asses.

When it comes time to do the talk, we talk, but when it comes time to the walk, we sit.

So it goes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Birth and Death

With palms together,

From Shushogi: The most important issue of all for Buddhists is the thorough clarification of the meaning of birth and death. If the buddha is within birth and death, there is no birth and death. Simply understand that birth and death are in themselves nirvana; there is no birth and death to be hated nor nirvana to be desired. Then, for the first time, we will be freed from birth and death. To master this problem is of supreme importance. (As translated and published in Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice.)

These are the precious words of Dogen Zenji.  They can be comforting or terrifying or both.  They are about as spiritual a koan as is possible; they are also a derivative from the Great Heart of Wisdom sutra.

To apply a teaching from another of Master Dogen's works, the Genjokoan, birth has its own Dharma reality and death has its own Dharma reality.  In birth there is just birth; in death there is just death.  We typically don't like thinking about death, whereas, birth is something we tend to celebrate.  Think about it or not, with what feels like the blink of an eye, there it is before us.

I know as a young wounded soldier I never thought I would live this long, but now that I'm here, I'd rather stay, thank you very much! Dogen says, "if the buddha is within birth and death, there is no birth and death.  One wonders just what this could possibly mean.  Much like the Heart sutra is spoken from deep samadhi, and therefore with "Big Mind," nothing is separate.

Grasping unification is key.  If we are separate from each other, all things, and our own nature, then we can die. If, on the other hand, we have unified, which is to say, discarded our separateness, and experience oneness, then there can be no birth or death as these require duality to exist. In one there is no two, indeed, in one, there is no one. There is just thusness.

Coming from this mind, birth ceases; death ceases, as both time and space collapse as separate experiences. We are a wave discovering it is water. The duality of the relative truth is what the Heart sutra suggests is what hinders the mind and thus allows us to fear.

The sutra says, "no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance therefore no fear."  What a wonderful mantra to hold close.

Be well.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Walking the Walk

With respect,

"There are lazy, self-important and -indulgent priests who do possess the "right" credentials, not because they have penetrated to the core of life-and-death, but because they are clever in a worldly sense." (Matsuoka-roshi, Moku-Rai, p.12.)  Here is the poison threatening Zen today. Reliance on credentials, robes, shaved heads, sutras, chants, deadly stares, or organizational imprimaturs will bring us nothing but the risk of inauthentic teaching. To find your way listen to that 'still, small voice" whispering in your ear as you sit zazen or witness your teacher. Listen, then let it go. 

For me, I often say I learned more about living Zen from noticing my own response to my teacher than anything he ever taught me directly. So, if we don't like to put our palms together and bow? We might ask ourselves, 'what is the resistance and where does it come from?  Don't like chanting, or reciting the Maka Hanya Haramita Shin Gyo?  We ask ourselves, 'what's up with that? 

Zen is a disciplines spiritual practice and one thing I know is we Americans are always willing and able to find ways to be or remain undisciplined. We love to talk the talk, but walk the walk?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


With respect to each of you,

This evening I sat out under the stars, or what stars I could see since it is a cloudy evening here in Southern New Mexico.  Seeing the stars is unnecessary, we know they are there and, if we had studied them, we know what they look like.  Still, the act of sitting quietly out of doors is an act of mindful attention and love.

We should love our home, this tiny speck of a planet in an infinite universe.  It allows us to live, provides for us, and offers us a place in the vastness of space itself.  Having a place is very important and is something we in the United States rarely consider, as we are Americans and don't necessarily see ourselves as needing (or having) a "place."

Yet a "place" is one of the things in life we each seem to seek.  We want to know who and what we are, as well as, where we fit in.  We resist because we don't want to be "defined" by our sociological standing.  We want to define ourselves and do so in a liquid way.  Good for us, as that liquidity takes back to Zen where everything is understood to be liquid.  Every being and everything is in a state of constant change.

Personally, I am comfortable with my place, a place I have settled into and feel incredibly warm in.  Sitting outside this evening I drew myself near to the edge of the universe.  An edge that is just one breath away for each of us.  To get there, just let go what what you think you know and open yourself to your greatest teacher, the universe itself.

Be well,

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Frustration's End

With palms together,
Good Evening All,

It’s a little after 9:00 PM and outside I see clouds moving in over the mountains with an occasional lightening flash.  At rest now, my heart is taking in the day, a day with frustrations, joy, intimacy, and business.  It seemed as though at every turn there were issues with hanging the ink brush pictures.  In the morning I will once again make an effort to complete the task.  

I am a typical man: as things get in the way, frustration rises and swearing begins.  Shukke Shin doesn’t approve of this, but then, neither do I.  Still, there is frustration and there is swearing. It’s so, so automatic.  Today, though, something changed.  We had a session with our therapist and the frustrations came rolling out.  What a relief it is to just let things come out. As we talked, laughter arose, another good thing.  

When I discovered that the title cards to the paintings were not sticking and that I had gotten the wrong type of wire for the pictures, and that I had also forgotten the drill so I could not make starter holes on the frames…when I discovered all that, I decided in calmness to pack things up, get the right sort of wire and some material that will work to stick the tittle cards to the walls, and come back fresh in the morning.  This friends, is actual progress.  There was a time when I would simply go on auto pilot and fly around not resting till everything was addressed, fixed, or well on the way to being taken care of.

Practice is a good thing.  Sitting quietly with my mind, holding it close, and letting it be what it is, can help immensely.  What happens is this: through mindful practice we begin to see things as they happen and respond quickly making the necessary adjustments in mood, behavior, and demeanor in the process.  It’s not that we are not frustrated, angry, or sad; its that we recognize these feelings and are able to create a space between them and our actions. I will be the first to admit I am not always able to do this, but I am able to recover from a bout of negative thoughts and feelings much more quickly than most.  

You know, Zen asks nothing of us.  The practice accepts us as we are.  We are not going to hell in a hand basket for being human beings.  The hell we fear is that which we create ourselves.  Recognize this and you are almost home free.  

May you be a blessing in the universe.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A talk on the Zen of Trauma in Kansas City

The Zen of Trauma: a talk with Roshi Daiho Hilbert, PhD

Thursday, June 25
at 6:30pm                               
3405 Highland Ave, Kansas City, MO

On Thursday evening, at a nearby Buddhist Temple the Rev. Dr. Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi, a Zen Master in the Soto lineage will offer a talk on “The Zen of Trauma.”  The Rev. Dr. Hilbert began studying Zen in 1966 after being shot in the head during combat in Vietnam.

Educated as a psychotherapist, Roshi spent many years in private practice, and in service to in-need communities in the southwest United States. Daiho was ordained as a Priest in 2000, and received transmission of the Dharma in 2005 as the sole successor of Rev. Ken Hogaku Shozen McGuire-roshi, a Chief Disciple of Zen Master Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi. 

Zen Master Daiho will facilitate a discussion around the practice of Zen, through the experience of trauma. Ven. Sunyananda of Dharmakaya Buddhist Association highly recommends this event as a rare opportunity to engage a clear-eyed Buddhist master. 

Donations for the teacher will be kindly accepted, and a few copies of his chap book "The Zen of Trauma: A Practice for Life" will be available to interested participants.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


With respect to all,

The other day in a conversation with a biker veteran who, I might add, is just completing his Masters degree,  I was reminded of the difference between tolerance and acceptance.  When I worked in the T or C school system I recall receiving teaching materials related to tolerance.  At the time I didn't give it much thought, though I believe I thought it was a good idea.  I think now, I was wrong.  Teaching tolerance is about teaching us to use forbearance in order not to rock the boat.  We stifle ourselves when we come across something that really bothers us.  I ask a simple question, then, how does a stifling of meaningful difference help us get along?  It doesn't.  What it teaches us to do is "tolerate" each other, in spite of our differences.  While this approach allows each faith tradition to practice, it does nothing to bring us together since we are simply tolerating each other.  The problem then is this: how can we come to accept difference between faith traditions?

One way, I've learned, is to seek commonalities.  When we can see that we have things in common, compassion, for example, we may have something to build on.  Finding commonalities is easy, actually, I've done it many times in mediation sessions with clients.  What is not so easy is finding ways to live with the differences  An example:  I lived for years in the deep[ south where fundamentalist Christians are in the majority.  These are caring people, though (IMHO) misguided.  Blue laws prevailed there.  These were laws based on Christian understanding of their bible.  So, stores, by law, had to be closed on Sunday.  Nothing really wrong with that, right?  Wrong.  From my religious POV, the Sabbath is on a Saturday, and this, folks, is what that very same bible actually says.  If a Jew wanted to shop on Sunday he was out of luck.  Conversely, the fact that stores were allowed to be open on Saturday desecrated the sabbath from a Jewish point of view.  We could say, "so what" there aren't that many Jews, besides we're a Christian country aren't we?  Not really, but we can avoid the facts and stick to the myth...

Which brings us to this, should Jews in our example simply tolerate the desecration of the sabbath?  Or should Christians understand there are differences between faith traditions within the same Abrahamic line (in this case)  and be willing to see and understand difference.  Tolerate?  Respect?

For me the key is to learn, deeply learn, about each faith tradition.  Once we actually know something about a tradition we are in a place where mutual respect can arise.  Even if we differ on issues it is possible to respect those differences and, at times, even learn to appreciate them.  As an aside, I disliked Shakespeare a great deal in college, though the fact was, I had not read much of his work.  Then, an English class helped me understand what I was reading.  I became a fan of the Bard and even taught a college class in Shakespearean tragedies. Teaching something almost always deepens our understanding and appreciation of that which we are teaching.  The thing is, many of us are convinced that we...or our faith tradition, is the one and only truth.  So convinced are we that we cannot or will not learn.  Tolerance, in such circumstances may be a good thing because it can be a beginning step on a path that leads to true respect and love of each other regardless of our beliefs.

When Blue laws were repealed, the sky did not fall down on our heads, but something did happen:  People had to look at their own conscience when it came to shopping on a Sunday. And, I believe introspection is always a good thing...

May we each build bridges toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other.

Be well

Friday, May 29, 2015

49 years

With respect for all, 
49 years

We each have stories to tell.  Some are funny, some heroic, others down right scary. Stories of great suffering; stories of great joy. My dissertation Chairman, Dr.Howard Goldstein, once said to me, “All of us live by story.”  Howard’s stories died with him. As will mine and yours.   

I am a retired Combat Infantry soldier, psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist priest. While I don’t know if my story is much different from yours, I’m pretty sure it differs from most.  My life was a mess as a child: alcoholic dad, flirty mother, and a jock brother.  I was the so-called “brain” as a kid.  What no one knew was I had to add and subtract using my fingers, but then, I always had a book in my hand so it didn’t matter.  People see what they want to see.  So do we ourselves.

Some of us live deeply in our stories.  Our stories define us and offer us a place among our fellows.  We immerse ourselves in our stories.  One might even say, we become our stories. This is not good for some of us, myself included, because the meat and marrow of our stories can be toxic to the heart and spirit.

My story involves trying to do the right thing and having it turn out to be terribly wrong.  It involves great pain and no small amount of moral anguish.  It also involves miraculous events and great joy.  Yet, in matters involving good and evil, there is no ledger and things rarely balance out. I know this because I have spent the last 49 years trying my best to balance that ledger without success.  It comes down to one thing, what is the relative value of a single human life? As one who has taken life, I place that value very, very high.  I do this based on the pain I have felt over the years for having done so. 

We Zensters chant, “All the evil committed by my body, mind and speech is caused by beginningless greed, hatred, and delusion. I now repent everything wholeheartedly.“  I say this to myself daily. But, in the end, I rarely feel that I have repented. And I am certainly not made whole through such practices.   

All of this, and the events surrounding Memorial Day, have given me pause —- as they should. While Christians hold there is a devil that tempts us and Jews hold there exists an evil inclination, we Zensters on the other hand, hold that evil does not exist outside of us, that we bring evil into the world through our actions. Now, an action in and of itself is neither good nor bad, it is simply an action.  Whether it is good or evil is dependent on the action’s intent and consequences. So it is our actions in a context of intent that are judged as “evil” or “good” mainly as a result of consequences, otherwise known as Karma.

Karma can be a heavy load.  I tried today to distinguish between what is and what ought to be in terms of moral injury.  It was a challenge.  You see, as many of you know, I killed a man, actually many men, in Vietnam in the early morning of May 29, 1966.  There are all sorts of compelling reasons to having done so: my life was in danger, my fellow soldiers lives were in danger, I was being shot at with everything from a rifle to machine guns.  In the dark and in the heat of battle, I fired at what I thought were enemy soldiers attempting to breach our perimeter. It was not pretty and soon thereafter I was shot in the head. This was what is;  what “ought” was another matter. Simplistic answers not only do not help, they often make matters worse.  Just because an act is justified does not lessen the pain and suffering of having done it.  

Over the last 49 years since that event, I have tried to make amends to the universe.  How does one make amends for such actions as those in combat? And even if amends are made, so what?  The memories, questions, and feelings are still there. As with koan practice, my sense is this:  in order to deal with moral injury, we must enter it fully and completely.  It took years to come to this: I accept my actions, I accept my feelings.  I do not run from my memories or assuage them with toxic bromides.  As the saying goes:  “It is what it is” or, rather in my case, “I am what I am.”

And that about does it.