Zen 101

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.


Monday, May 25, 2015


With respect to all,

So, this was Memorial Day, a day of remembrance and gratitude. This day means different things to different people. And for some, different things within the same person. I know I am conflicted about it. As I am sure many combat veterans are, as well. Many of us are caught in flashbacks, terrible memories, great anxiety, and in this, who really wants to remember? And am I to be grateful for surviving when others did not? 
On the other hand I cannot help but feel obligated to assist on this day. I tear up with the raising of the flag, the pledge, and the myriad prayers people offer. It is a good thing to remember: when we forget, bad things are free to happen again. History repeats itself only if we choose to repeat it. 
To paraphrase what I said to a friend recently who admonished us to remember, "remembering is not a problem" war is with me in each and every breath. My struggle, if you will, is to open my heart to peace, a place I find difficult to trust. In this I wish we would approach peace-making with the same fervency that we approach war. I would like us to memorialize peace, celebrate love, and invest in ways of making the world a better place; all without armies. Is that too much to ask?

Be well,

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Zen of Nothing

There are a ton of books on Zen: Zen philosophy, Zen poetry, Zen art, Zen practice, Zen this, and Zen that.  What I want to see is a Zen of Nothing.  This would be the Zen of nothing important, a Zen without words, robes, bells, or whistles.  A Zen without those in the know, those higher up, or those down below, those approved of and those not approved of: this would be a true Zen, a pure Zen, a Zen that cannot be taught or written about.  

The Zen of Nothing is not even Zen.  The Zen of Nothing is just the wind through the leaves, the sound of tap water in the sink or the feel of cool sheets on a summer's eve.

What do we do to receive this Zen?  Listen.

The Zen of Nothing is within you, around you, over you and under you.  There is not a place or time where the Zen of Nothing does not exist.  Stop thinking.  Stop ruminating.  Sit down. Be quiet.  Rest easy in the world.  The Zen of Nothing contains no evil, nor good, nor blessings, nor curses.  It is not hot or cold, far or near.

Let your body feel it.  Let your mind open in it.  Let your heart dance to the sound of one hand.

The Zen of Nothing arrives when we stop singing the songs of the Zen of Something.

Be well.