Zen 101

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.