Zen 101

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Don't Tread on Me

With respect,

When I returned from Vietnam, recovering from a bullet to my head, my Aunt said to me that my injury brought the war home to her. Yesterday I learned that the morning after the election a swastika was scrawled on the kitchen door of my son's restaurant in Georgetown, Tx. This made the catastrophe of Donald Trump's presidential win very real.  It brought it home to me. In the news of late many stories of racism and hate crimes seem to have increased.  It's as though a group of people (who always existed, but in the dark) now felt emboldened to take themselves into the light of day. I believe our now president-elect's campaign and post-campaign rhetoric has given tacit approval to such people.  He has fanned the flames and now we burn as he distances himself from the hate groups who so rabidly supported him.

Funny thing about hate, it spreads and it hurts. The Buddha argued that the antidote to hate is love. As a Zen priest I ought to practice loving my enemies.  I try.  Yet, we also vow not to kill and to me that vow also includes saving lives and preventing injury. So, a dilemma: to defend or not to defend.  The sort of hate being more and more openly expressed and the fear driving it is so similar to that in pre-WWII Germany that its actually scary and helps us resolve the dilemma. This is a hate that, left unchecked, will grow to include registering those we are afraid of: Muslims, Gays, Liberals, Intellectuals.  If you are a student of history you will recognize this tactic.

In Germany the Final Solution was facilitated both by fear and the fact that registration of undesirables had already been in place.  It was no problem to locate and round them all up. They were put behind walls away from sight as they were systematically murdered.  And we want to build a wall.  We want to vilify the press.  We insert false news stories and people begin to distrust the news outlets.  A propagandic tactic also used in Germany. Are we there yet?

We are headed in that direction.

Confronting hate with love is a good thing, yet those loved must be willing to receive it.  Often instead, the loved hater builds a wall around himself, creates mythic stories to make his hate OK and, at the same time, accuse their opponents of weakness at best, and of being co-conspirators at worst.  For me, the danger here is that many of us, like the Jews in Germany, believe good people would surely not harm us.  Fear and carefully crafted messages of hate will make good people chose to do bad things and one day, then, those good people come knocking on our door and they aren't bringing cookies.

I refuse to answer the door and welcome those who might hate me, and do me harm, entry. No, I will not. What I will do is address the hate directly, as in messages like this, and at the same time prepare for the worst.  What does that mean? Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson, and over here meet Mr. Taurus, oh, and let's not forget Mr. Colt. All of these fellows are near the door and are willing and able to put you away if you come to through the door with a deadly threat. All the while, I will chant the Heart Sutra for you as they are doing it.

Some say that isn't very Buddhist.  I really wonder where they get that idea.  Monks have for millennia defended themselves with deadly force. Even Tibet had an Army under the command of the Dalai Lama. Monks train with bow, sword, knife, cane, and other Martial Arts weapons.  I train with  9 mm and .380 semi-automatic handguns, as well as a M-4 Tactical Carbine. The Zen of it is this: defending life is based in the precepts and more, an obligation of everyone wishing to live in an open society.

So, hate-mongers, I welcome you to try to take away my life and those of others around me. I will first offer you my love, but failing in that, I will prevent you from harming me or others. Don't tread on me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In this Moment

With respect,

There is a famous line in Master Dogen's Genjo Koan that goes like this:"firewood does not become ash, firewood is firewood, ash is ash." Sounds so simple, but then some of the greatest teachings in the world are simple statement, but they are not simple, they are deeply profound observations. Years ago in my mountain refuge I would make a fire in the firebox of my wood cookstove. Every once in awhile I would need to put more wood in the box. It was obvious the wood was becoming ash. Master Dogen says that isn't so. Why would he challenge the obvious process of fire?

I believe the answer is in our everyday lives. With each breath we draw we draw it in a moment, hopefully of awareness. Drawing that breath is, itself, our life. It is a Dharma moment with its own existence. Likewise as we release our breath, that too, is its own Dharma moment. One is not becoming the other. Each exist in themselves and only in that moment. As Dogen says, ret each have "their own Dharma reality."

If we live our lives with the constant thought of what comes next, the moment we are actually existing in fails to arise and we do not appreciate it. You might say we are sleep-walking because we are not paying attention as we are moving about. Dogen asks us to pay attention. This breath is solely this breath. Forget the next or the last: in each we die and are born again.

Questions, Part Two

With respect,

Looking at your computer screen, what do you see? We might say, "a blog note."  Or we might say, "my screen." But whatever you say, it will only be a thought.  A concept socially developed and agreed upon, but what is it before we have named it?   A "blog note" is just what we call what we are seeing. I am asking us to look through the concept.

In our everyday life we rarely pay attention to the "true nature," the "original nature," of what we are looking. Earlier this evening I sat out under the stars with a sky map open on my iPhone. I saw stars and checked their names.  I would be a far cry from the truth of the matter if I thought the names were the stars. The stars are not their names.  Nor are they "stars."  Stars is what they are called, that is all.  But as I sat there and looked at them as they were, something else emerged.

In such silence truth emerges: we are infinitesimal creatures on a very tiny planet in a tiny galaxy amid a universe of others. We might come to the conclusion that what we think does not matter, nor does what we do in the greater scheme of things.  Is that so?

Everyday life is close, not distant.  We are living creatures amid other living creatures: the grand scale of the universe is not our realm, the everyday actions of each of us is our domain.

I asked in Part One, how to keep our original mind in everyday life.  The answer is simpleL pay attention. Mindfully paying attention to ourselves within interaction is key to living a "Zen" life. If you think this is easy, try it for an hour.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Good Morning Everyone,
Yes, it's true, another day dawns on us. My question to myself is this: In light of my vow "Beings are numberless, I vow to free them," what can I do today to fulfill this vow?
First, its an impossible vow on the surface. If beings are numberless, how can I possibly free them. Second, how can I free anyone? Third, what does it mean to "free" a being?
"Free" was in the past written as "Save," but I suspect that word had too close an association with Christianity's use of the term. To "free" has specific meanings in Zen. Zen Buddhism believes that we are prisoners of our mind, a mind that keeps us from viewing the Absolute and wants us, in a sense, to remain in the relative view of life. We practice to free ourselves so that we might abide in the Absolute, which is to say, a non-dualistic view of the universe where all is one.
The Relative Truth is that we are all separate beings. We may be interconnected and interdependent, but we are separate from each other and all other things. The Absolute Truth in Buddhism is that we are not separate; we are completely one with everything else. In this realization, there is no "me" separate from "you." Or no "me" separate from, say, "God." Buddhists argue that our task is to free ourselves from the bonds of the relative and live in the truth of the Absolute. 
When we realize the "Absolute" those boundaries that divide us fall away and when they do and we are all "one," One itself dissolves and there is just "thusness." We are then "beyond the other shore, having never left." 
Like a koan, we must move away from the words as the words are traps that bind us to the relative. The power of this vow is in the resolution of the apparent contradiction. When we try to enter non-duality we must fail because we are attempting to enter through the relative which keeps us stuck. 
So? How, then to honor this vow today? 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

That Place


There's an old koan about a student practicing meditation. The student comes to the Master and asks how to escape the heat and cold. The Master simply says "Go to that place where there is neither hot nor cold."

What is that place, I ask? Notice I don't ask "where" is that place. Why?

Simple. That place is everywhere and nowhere. It is not a place. Hot and cold, like comments on social media, are perceived and interpreted by mind. This comment is good, this comment is bad. This one hurts me, that one makes me feel good. In themselves they are neither good nor bad. Just so hot and cold.

So what is that place? Ask the duck floating on the pond.

As it is

Good Afternoon All,

I was re-reading my friend Brad Warner's "Don't Be A Jerk" this morning. Its a fine book, I recommend it, especially the piece on the Genjo Koan. Many of us Zen teachers believe this to be one of, if not the most important fascicles of the Shobogenzo. I know I reference it often. In effect its about realizing life. Not particularly understanding life, but rather, realizing life in this very moment.

The life I realize is conditional: what's this? What's this? What's this?

Each moment having its own reality, to paraphrase Master Dogen, 'Ash has its own dharma reality; firewood its own dharma reality. Firewood does not become ash. Ash is ash, firewood is firewood.'

When I look back at my life I am no longer awake. When I look forward in my life, I am dreaming. When I look at my fingers dancing along this MacBook I am looking directly at all there is. Nothing complicated, just this.

These days our lives seem to be filling up with comments on what happened or what's going to happen and our mind takes into a dream. Let's forget the dream and just feel our fingers on the keyboard or the feel of a brush in hand or the smell of bread baking in the oven or the touch of a loved one.

When all there is is that, when mind and body fall away, we cannot touch our true nature as there is no we and no nature to touch; just this.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Refresh Yourself

With respect,

I wrote this short note to a friend in need and thought you each might find it helpful.

"...I know you will. Your efforts are not unnoticed. My own journey has been fraught with anger and even hate coupled often with tremendous hurt. It is so difficult to see the suffering in those that wish to harm us in such moments, let alone feel compassion for them. Yet, it is that responsive set of feelings that tell us our individual work is not yet done. Sometimes I think our outward focus relieves us of the felt need to look inward. What we in the Zen world call "serene reflection meditation" has been helpful to me. Its much like the the practice the Hebrew ancients called hitbodedut done in silence out under the stars, a practice I often do, especially on those nights without a moon. Too often I think we get caught up in the day's events and fail to let things fall away in the night so that we are truly refreshed in the morning."


What is Wrong?

With palms together,

Last night I was invited to attend a vigil of sorts regarding the outcome of the presidential election. I am thanking that I was invited.  Unfortunately,  as I had another commitment I was only able to slip into the circle for a few minutes. The fallout of this election has been emotionally draining on many of us. I have had many contacts, especially on my Facebook page, expressing fear, sadness, and deep concern.  At the event last night I felt many of the participants were suffering.  Tears were not uncommon.  And though we face a challenging future, please let us remind ourselves in the greater scheme of things this is not so large.  Our feelings are just feelings and our thoughts just thoughts.  We have each, I am sure, experienced deep sadness and even fear in the past and survived.  What’s important, it seems to me, is that we do not allow this to sideline us in the work that we do, but rather, allow it to motivate us to address issues directly.  

One area I believe important is investigating the motivations behind so many Americans voting the way they did.  Its easy, I think, to blame it on racism or sexism, too easy.  There must be something else under the surface that we are missing.  What is it about a “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoint that is so toxic to this population?  How might we encourage those who voted for Mr. Trump to look more deeply?  

My sense is, just like many of us, they are motivated by fear.  How do we address fear within our nation, in our communities or even within our families? Does it help to protest?  Does protest assuage fear? I’m concerned that the protests that arise only serve to deepen the fear and make us more and more suspect in the hearts of those we want to reach. Would it be a good idea for us as concerned citizens and clergy to have a community discussion on such things?  My apologies for going on and on.  These are just some thoughts that arose after last night.  

May we each be a blessing in the universe.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Dear Readers,

This month we mark the US bombing of two cities in Japan with Atomic bombs. From Wiki:

On August 6, the U.S. dropped a uranium gun-type atomic bomb (Little Boy) on the city of Hiroshima. American President Harry S. Truman called for Japan's surrender 16 hours later, warning them to "expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth". Three days later, on August 9, the U.S. dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb (Fat Man) on the city of Nagasaki. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison.

Back in Sept 2013 I wrote the following:

With palms together,

Good Morning All,

With the stroke of a key uploading an old picture of three monks, my teacher, his wife, myself and another priest in our lineage, walking into Trinity Site, New Mexico carrying a flame originally lit by the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki, I began to weep. I feel so alone without his presence. While we struggled often together, he was with me as I founded the Order of Clear Mind Zen. He was my support and conscience so often, checking me with his cold, sometimes angry stare. So often I feel as though I do not know what I am doing. So often I feel I am not doing enough. It appears that even in his death he still is teaching me.

I think, aside from weddings and ordinations, walking to Trinity Site with these Japanese Soto priests, who treated us with the greatest respect and gratitude for walking with them, this event was the most meaningful event in my life as a monk. It appears that we of Matsuoka-roshi’s lineage were accepted where it counts most, action. This warmed my heart so much and humbled me greatly.

The atomic flame had been burning since it was ignited by our atomic attack on Japan. The monks of the temple where it was tended to believed it was time to extinguish the flame and “close the circle.” Three of them carried the flame by foot from Japan to Trinity Site here in New Mexico. We gathered together, bearing witness to this effort at forgiveness and closure. For me, it counts as much as my return trip to Vietnam where I was hosted by my former enemies toasted and welcomed. Hard stuff, this.

To live in peace we must be willing to get out of our own way, check our hatred and suspicion at the door of perception and raise compassion and love to embrace our countenance. I recognize for me this has taken years of practice and great effort, but I can tell you from my experience, it is so well worth the effort. We are a nation with a proven capacity to kill in the name of our defense, may we also be a nation equally willing to live in peace. Maybe we need to love ourselves a little less and love our neighbors a little more. Let us practice this together.

Be well

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Questions, Part One

With respect to all,

Today I had two different discussions with two of my students.  In the first case, I asked the student what her expectations of having a formal teacher were.  In the second case, a discussion about why practice zazen if nothing is to be gained. Both intriging and thought provoking questions.

Just what are the expectations of a student of a teacher?I suppose, and my experience bears this out, they are as varied as are students to have.  Each of us comes to the teacher with some idea as to what that teacher can or will do forth.Some see a teacher as a guru.  I don't believe this is a good idea.  Zen is about self falling away in order to be completely present with whatever is.Its not about guru worship, in fact, to have a guru misses the point of practice entirely, in my opinion. Besides, it diminishes the student's willingness to rely on him or her self to deal with their own lives.Others see a teacher as a friend.  Equally a bad idea.  A teacher is not a friend, a teacher is a teacher. Clarification of roles and role boundaries are, therefore, critical.

Why sit?  Master Dogen addresses this rather serious koan in his essay, Bendowa, in his Shobogenzo. so I won't go into his answer here. The student asks if there is no idea of gain and nothing happens, then why sit? We sit because that's whats in front of us to do. Lets not make it complicated.  Just sit.
The practice of "just sitting" is a practice that teaches us something about ourselves: it teaches us to simply be present with no agenda. We learn that there can be direct experience of ourselves with no sense that we must do something with it. When we achieve or develop the ability to just be present then all things become clear in the sense that we are able to "see" the things that take us away from ourselves and our actual experience and directly experience what is there..

These are beginning questions, to be sure, but incredibly important ones at that.  Beginning question, like all questions, require a "beginner's mind."  Our practice is to maintain that mind in each and every situation.  In part Two I will address the how of this.

Be well,

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Facebook Away

With respect, I just deactivated my Facebook account and invited my friends to follow me here on my blog site.  If you are one of them, simply follow the instructions on the site.  I look forward to hearing from you.  I will post here on pretty much a regular basis and my posts will be focused on engaged practice as well as everyday Zen.  Be well,

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


With respect to all,

We have a sort of fascination with Masters, those of us walking along a “spiritual path.”  I’ve noticed of late there are at least two categories of Masters. Those who master a Way and go more deeply within that Way and those who master and move on. It seems we seek Masters, become Masters, and start all over again… or we settle into our faith tradition, embracing it as fully as possible.  I, for one, feel when one achieves a level we might call Master, the Master ought go deeper while others, move on. Those who move on might move to a different teacher, a different lineage, or even a different faith tradition altogether. In both cases the Master is still seeking, never satisfied.

So, we read in Teacher bios, ”Master So and So was transmitted by Master X, then began study with Master Y, achieving the rank of Master, he then went on…”  and so on and so forth. Such Masters are, in my opinion, searching without receiving.  I can, for example, master a liturgy, ceremony, and all the little dots and dashes of a faith tradition, but am I a “Master”? Master means something far deeper and reveals itself in life’s little details.

Does one ever truly become a Master?  I doubt it. And if one is so deeply dedicated to a practice, it would seem to me one would have developed a faith in that practice and would've moved ever more deeply along the way of that practice. In such a way true mastery occurs. But it is the sort of mastery that arises without degree nor recognition because it is an internal transformation.

I’ve heard the mythic story that the origin of the Martial Arts “Black Belt” was that students wore a belt and trained in it so long that the white belt became black. Today these are bought and awarded after years of training. Yet, it seems to me they are decidedly not the same thing. Today, if we want to see a true Master we might search elsewhere. Perhaps seek out a violin maker, for example, who creates violins with his/her own hands slowly and with the greatest of care and love.   We might seek out a poet who truly struggles over words and images, crafting a poem that speaks volumes in few words. We might seek out an artist whose work is the artist inside and out. And in every case there will be humility.  It will not be the Master who wishes to be appreciated, but the Master will wish the work itself to be appreciated. He or she might care less about the accolades and hoopla around being awarded something for his or her work. A true Master, then, it seems to me, has transcended himself.  There would be no desire to be a Master as that desire dropped away in the long transformative process becoming selfless.

Is our world, our heart, and our practice one? Do we touch our coffee cup in the same way we might touch God? Master the everyday and true mastery will manifest itself on its own.  

Be well

Monday, July 11, 2016


With respect to all,

Yesterday I was talking with two of my students over pizza. The subject of my teacher,  Rev. Ken Hogaku Shozen McGuire Dai Osho came up.  I miss him dearly even though we sometimes fought like cats and dogs. He was a strong, centered, mountain of a man. We were alike in many ways, we were also different in as many ways.  I found myself talking much like him. I can be both a strong-willed teacher and a softy. Mostly the latter, yet people tell me I’m somehow intimidating. Go figure. We rarely see ourselves in the same way others do.  

There seems to be a perennial discussion in the American Zen world regarding ritual  and ceremony. Ought we wear robes, shave our heads, offer Dharma names in Japanese?  Or ought we simply sit and devout ourselves to our various practices off the cushion? Some of us are fully one way or another.  Fortunately, I am from a lineage whose founder, Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka Dai Osho, thought to leave Temple Zen as practiced in his homeland in his homeland in order to develop a Zen practice us Westerners might be able to both understand and practice.: a sort of middle way. For him, Zen was practice. And while he retained much of the Japanese Soto school’s practices, he streamlined them here in the United States beginning in 1939.

So, we might say he offered a hybrid sort of practice.  Decidedly not the high church style some are accustomed to seeing.  He wore robes, shaved his head, and practiced Zazen.  He also did engaged practice through his many, many talks in schools, dojos, and, well, any place that would have him.  My teacher, likewise. 

When my teacher authorized me to create my own Order he told me I had permission to change what I thought was necessary, but not to embarrass him. So, too, I have given those instructions to the priests I have ordained.  What is important here, I think, is authenticity in practice. If you will not do san pai (three prostrations) with your whole body and mind, don’t do them.
If you do not have your heart in the Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra as you chant it, don’t chant it. 

We have a saying in Zen, “When walking, walk; when sitting, sit.  Above all, don’t wobble.”  The choice regarding ceremony and ritual is intensely personal, but must be informed.  One ought not change a tradition just because one doesn’t like it. Once one is inside it, realizes it, then, maybe then, change may come.

Be a blessing today, listen to someone you do not agree with.



Monday, May 23, 2016

Another Memorial Day, Another Donut

With palms together,

I often say Zen saved my life, but that is only partly true and now Memorial Day is nearly upon us. A time to reflect on and honor those who gave their lives in armed conflict with enemies of the United States. This year that day will follow the 50th anniversary of my being shot in the head by a North Vietnamese Army soldier (May 29, 1966). My life was radically changed by that event. In some ways for the worse, but in many, many ways for the better. While it is true that I limp and stumble and can only use my left hand to pull the clutch back on my Harley, it is also true that warfare opened my eyes to the suffering of mankind and kindled a deep desire to make this world a better place. When my lovely wife and I celebrate (if that's an appropriate word)and will honor the dead this day, we will also celebrate the many lives who survived combat and honor those who have made a difference in our society as a result of their combat experiences.

Sometimes, in the wake of brilliantly lit intrusive thoughts, I recall those people who assisted me on my trek back to "the world" from the jungles of Viet Nam. There were "Donut Dollies" on an airfield in Alabama on my way to Portsmouth Navel Hospital, there were the many medics and nurses who cared for me on that flight, and lets not forget the docs and nurses in Vietnam who saved my life on the operateng table in a combat zone. 

And then the there was Alan Watts who unknowingly introduced me to Zen in late 1966 as I read his "The Way of Zen" and began a practice that was destined also to save my life. My chess teacher, Bernie Schmidt, my Zen Teacher Hogaku Shozen McGuire, and the many, many others who sometimes, at great expense to themselves, supported me.  My life has been a world of hurt, but also of many, many blessings.  On Memorial Day it is good to recall both.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Drink Your Coffee

A student and teacher were drinking coffee. The students asks, “Zazen, what good is it?”  The Teacher responds, “Not much.”  “Then why practice it?“  the student continues.  “I don’t know,”  the teacher replies, “drink your coffee.” 
The student awakened.

Right.  We’ve read many of such little vignettes.  The gullible believe them.  The wise set them aside assigning no particular meaning to them.  Why?  Awakening is not the point of practice; it is the practice. Master Dogen suggests our practice, the practice of shikantaza, is itself practice realization. Are these the same or different?  

“(D)rink your coffee” is key.  The coffee was in front of you, just drink the coffee.  This is the essence of Zen.  

On the other hand, you take your seat, gather your robes, and address your mind by setting it free: the entire universe is its home.  You do what you do: breathe.  Its what’s in front of you to do. 

This also is the essence of Zen.

But neither matter much and if you come to it as if it mattered, you would be completely mistaken. 


The student adds milk and sugar to his coffee; the Master takes it black.

So, why ask why?  Is there any answer that would satisfy you?  Of course not. Just more milk and sugar… 

…and the coffee is no longer coffee.

Just so, Zen is not words. And life is not thinking about life; life is living life.

Friday, April 08, 2016


With respect to all,

This morning I woke at 3:00 AM.  Not unusual, as I wake at this hour on nearly a daily basis. I find waking so early to be a blessing as it offers me time in the silence of the dawn.  I practice during this time, sitting quietly either in the Zendo or outside under the stars.  I often paint during this time and sometimes, like now, write.  

We human beings live in a world that seems to travel at breakneck speeds, communicating at the speed of light across the globe and while it is wonderful to have connections with others, sometimes those very connections keep us from ourselves and from the very important task of knowing ourselves as intimately as is possible.  Not knowing ourselves can lead to all sorts of issues: automatic thoughts and the feelings arising from them, choices being made from information skewed by our beliefs and assumptions, and a mind running amok without the ability to reign it in. 

Sometimes I get caught in this whirlwind and in such circumstances am not the person I wish to be.  I frustrate easily and let everyone know it.  I forget important tasks or deliberately reshuffle them in my list of “to dos.”  And worst of all, it seems to me, allow my thoughts and frustrations to rule myself in the moment.

Zen training is training to first recognize these common occurrences and second, respond differently to them.  When we respond with compassion, for example, recognizing our shared humanity and the frailties of being human, we can let go of the judgements we make about ourselves and others.  We are human, after all, not superman or woman.  And what is the skill so necessary to employ?  Easy, it is the ability to stop.

When we stop, sit down and shut up, all manner of things emerge.  Knowledge about ourselves, reflections on how we may have hurt others, and the practice of returning home. The home of (for me in this very moment) pre-dawn silence. I encourage all of us to do this practice as often as possible.  Micro Zazen at our desks, tables, or sofas.  A few moments to just breathe and relax gently into the moment itself. These are precious opportunities to be born again. Let’s not waste them.

In the Dharma,


Sunday, February 07, 2016


With respect to all,

Yesterday I visited a Huey Medivac helicopter on display.  It will be mounted on a pole high above the ground at our Veteran’s park here in Las Cruces, NM.  I sat at the edge, as we often did in Vietnam with the door gunner next to us firing a rain of M-60 machine gun fire covering us as we would leap from the chopper to the ground.  The last time I flew in one on those birds was May 29, 1966 as I was “dusted off” at around 6:00 in the morning  to head to a field hospital after having been shot in the head and taking grenade shrapnel in my back.  I remember this quite well, as well as the events leading up to it.

There is a flier that came with a book on moral injury sitting on my coffee table.  The flier reads, “Don’t thank me for my service.”  This is a sentiment I so often feel that it may actually be the prevailing thought in my head when I am thanked, as I was repeatedly thanked at the display of the Huey. This thought mystifies many.  Why would I not want to be thanked for my service in Vietnam; thanked for putting my life in harm’s way, being wounded, and for ostensibly fighting for my country?

One major answer is guilt, plain and simple: guilt.  A guilt so deep and so toxic that it hurt me, my family, and many of those who were my friends.  A person riddled with guilt can do many things to put off those who may offer love.  While the Buddha argued love was the antidote for hate, it feels inauthentic to those suffering from guilt.  Love is difficult to accept when feeling unworthy. Unworthiness, an antiquated term not often used today in a world where worth is so easily and superficially bestowed, is a challenge to live with. 

Zen priests are no more prepared to deal with these feelings in a sangha member than any other clergy person of any other faith tradition.  Such experiences as those suffered in combat are outside the realm of ordinary experience. Survivors feel alienated from home, disillusioned, angry, and, of course, often guilty for what they have done in combat.  For those who have not experienced such things, imagining what warfare is like is rather like imagining walking on the moon: its really not possible because the experiences are so extraordinary and alien to our civilized sensibilities.   

We might say that pat answers like, “sit with it,”  are not particularly helpful and can, indeed, be harmful as the person sitting may be sitting in excruciating emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain, pain on a magnitude we rarely see in civilian life.  So, then, what are we to do?

As a holder of guilt we might consider offering some sort of penance after wrestling with the actual moral conflicts.  Social action, to be in-service to others, is an excellent tool.  Its not that the action is necessarily for ourselves (while it very well might be in the beginning) it is for those we serve, those who may be less further along the way, those suffering more deeply,  Being willing to help others is a key to being willing to receive love. Zazen is addressed a bit later in this essay.

As a priest, unconditional love  and an encouragement to talk can be quite helpful.  Listening to your own heart as the survivor speaks can tell you a ton of stuff, mostly about yourself.  How you respond is vital. Survivors may not wish to be thanked.  They may, instead, want to just do the work.  

Zazen, the art of just sitting, can teach discipline, the discipline to just be with what is there.  Yet, we must note that to say such a thing invites the potential for a wrathful answer.  Ask me to sit down and shut up? Right.  “You have no idea!”  Yet, in the act of zazen, we are taught to let go of what arises and it is this constant arising and letting go that can be useful in that it can teach us how we can change our relationship to traumatic memories.  

In the end, dear readers, there is nothing that will take away the feelings surrounding warfare.  The best we can do is offer support and attention to those we know are suffering.  

What we ought not do is patronize the suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,

Monday, February 01, 2016

A Review of "Zen in Your Pocket" by Ewan Magie

Permission to publish this review was granted by the Owner/editor of Sweepingzen.com who owns the copyright.

This book is available through amazon.com

Liberation at Hand:  Zen and Trauma — A Review of Daiho Harvey Hilbert’s Zen in your Pocket


Ewan Magie

Zen in Your Pocket (2016) is the new book from Harvey Daiho Hilbert-roshi.  Short, elegantly clear, and deeply moving, it is both a guidebook and a profound meditation on trauma, written by a Vietnam veteran, Zen priest, and PhD in psychotherapy.  This short book is subtitled “A Small Manual for a Large Challenge”; bluntly, that challenge is waking up to life as it is.  This includes waking up to all the little ways we deceive ourselves, deny what has or is really happening, or invent coping strategies to flee what we cannot face.  Like many teachers in North American Soto Zen, Roshi Hilbert fuses Zen teachings with Western psychotherapeutic insights in an effort to liberate all beings from suffering. This book is a guide to practicing that liberation in your everyday life.
Divided into three sections across just 132 pages, Part One focuses on “The Zen of Everyday Life.”  Daiho-roshi begins, “I will speak to you as if we were in a conversation.”  He tells us a story from everyday life, his life:
This morning, for example, I woke with the thought, ‘Every day is a good day.’ I am 68 years old and have lived a rich and full life; first as a professional soldier, then as a student, then as a psychotherapist, and finally as a Zen Buddhist monk. It took some doing to get from soldier to monk. There were a lot of challenges in between (Hilbert 5-6).

Much of the rest of Part One introduces readers to the practice of Soto Zen, leading us through how to sit zazen (sitting meditation), how to do walking meditation (kinhin), work practice (samu), how to eat, how to cook, how to start your own sitting group at home.  Hilbert’s voice is direct and uncomplicated, a plain and simple American voice, yet one seasoned by a fully lived life, one filled equally with trauma and luck.
Hilbert’s opening pages establish this direct presence and assert a fundamental point:  “Trauma taught me something about the appreciation of everyday life.”  This voice and this poignant assertion hold us through the basic instructions in Soto Zen practice that fill most of Part One.  But it is in “Part Two: The Zen of Trauma” that Daiho-roshi’s teachings grip the reader. He admits that a discussion of trauma, Zen, and spiritual life “seems at first a stretch.”  But this deeply experienced psychotherapist and Zen teacher notes how “life is revealed more deeply by the challenges we face.”  His words on trauma reveal how, fundamentally, the sudden and unpredictable event “outside the realm of ordinary experience” can jar us so profoundly that we may open to “the willingness to experience our essential nature and to recognize our ability to actively engage in transforming our lives.”
First, Roshi Hilbert begins Part Two by critiquing the label PTSD, showing how “‘disorder’ [is] an offensive term bearing no use-value whatever to understanding or living with post-traumatic stress. It is a label and little else. I use it only because it is part of the common clinical community’s language.” Next he proceeds to show how “Zen” itself is a slippery term, one “not easily defined and, like the Dao, as soon as we think we have it, we have lost it.”  Spirit, writes Daiho-roshi, “especially the human spirit, is something like Zen or Dao. It is elusive, untouchable, non-concrete, and ever-changing: like breath, it flows through its host and has no independent reality. To see the Dao, the human spirit, we must look indirectly.”  Ultimately, this humble little book presents a quiet convincing case for contemplative living in general, and Zen in particular.  “In order to live our life directly,” Daiho-roshi writes at the outset, “we must be willing to practice.”
This little book, then, is about a practice you can carry “in your pocket,” in your everyday life. Zen is this practice, “a way of perceiving which teaches us to let things present themselves as they are and in so doing, allows them to be what they are.” But Daiho-roshi goes further in Part Two, elucidating how in Western societies like the U.S., we perceive time as linear, as having a beginning and an end.  By contrast, Eastern cultures (and Native American cultures) perceive time as cyclical or circular, much like cycles of recovery from trauma are circular. By sitting meditation routinely, as a practice, we can begin to inhabit the present more fully, to become quieter and less busy.  Ultimately, Daiho-roshi shows us how, in relation to any traumatic event disabling our lives, we can learn to see how we form habits of denial and coping.  Finally, he writes how we can let go of these and face the presence of trauma within us: “we can enter into it, embrace it, work our way through it, and finally integrate it.”
Towards the end of Part Two, Daiho-roshi connects his themes to the central idea of Soto Zen’s founder, Eihei Dogen, who asserted how “practice is enlightenment.”  Daiho explains, “In Zen practice, it is crucial to continue the practices. We do not just sit, get enlightenment, and move on.  We sit some more. We sit with others. We engage a Teacher. We structure in supports for our practice through these tools and many others.”  The book’s final section, “Part Three: The Zen of Diasability,” is about “asking for help.” As a disabled veteran, Daiho has had to request aid many times, but his book acknowledges how frequently we assume expectations of independence, ones that, in essence, deny our interconnectedness and interrelatedness. Zen, he shows us, “challenges my deeply held view of myself as independent and capable of overcoming hardship.” 
Reading and writing about this wonderful little book over MLK weekend has helped drive home how traumatized this nation is.  It confronts me with our individual and collective habits of denial, of coping, of avoiding practices that would truly help us see and compassionately heal by  accepting and integrating our wounds.  The histories of slavery, colonial oppression and cultural destruction, systematic racism and discrimination, as well as the wounds of wars waged in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are still palpably present within the social fabric of this “United States.”  This book shows us a way to be quiet yet fully present, grounded enough to actually begin to see, and feel our wounds, then move beyond ineffective and harmful strategies of denial and coping, and ultimately open to the surrender of self that can accept how “none of us exists without the help of others.” Daiho-roshi shows us how this contemplative practice of Zen can help us help ourselves, and therefore, quietly help each other.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Moving Forward

With respect,
Hello All,

This morning I went on a training hike for the Bataan Memorial Death March to be held on March 20th at the Army base at White Sands, NM. I’m doing the short version at 14.2 miles.  It is a trail run with sand, hills, and (did I say) sand?  Anyway, I am training on desert trails out behind my house.  This morning I did nearly 3 miles in 29 degree weather.  I stayed on pace at 20 minutes per mile. It was a good effort over rough terrain.  

What does this have to do with Zen?  Well, biking, running and walking have a cadence.  As we are out there on a course eventually our body settles into a “zone” where breath, footfall, and attention seem to integrate into a seamless pattern…almost oneness itself.  We are aware of the scenery, looking forward enough to check our path but, most of all, mindfully moving along.  I call this, “Stillness in motion” and have this phrase on the back of our “Team Zen” tee shirts.

The “zone” I am talking about is not a “zoned-out” thing, rather its a mindfulness in motion sort of thing. Contrary to conventional thought we have not separated ourselves from our bodies as we are aware and mindful of both our internal world and our external world: we float like a duck and don’t hold on to anything. It is this that is what I call Zen in motion.  Once we begin, the flow will take us there whether we like it or not because its the inevitable ‘practice realization’ that Master Dogen referred to in his work.

In ‘Zen in motion,’ we simply put one foot in front of another and let our thoughts and feelings do what they do.  What we do not do is allow them the power to take us away from what’s in front of us to do: finish the race. This is, of course, easier said than done. Yet, we have each other, don’t we?  None of us are alone on the trail: I’ve had my teacher, my coach, my family, my sangha, and my friends each run every race I have run be with me as I put each foot down on the ground.  So, in the end, its not me who runs the race, its all of us together.  In truth this is true of all of life: we are not alone.

Be well,


Friday, January 08, 2016

The Zen of Knowledge,Part two

With respect,
We left Part one with the question, “So what?” In that piece I talked about ways we “know.” I covered this in a superficial way: epistemology and ontology, like existentialism and phenomenology are complex and sit at the core of philosophy. Philosophers have debated them for centuries. Such debate, possibly useful, but likely not, is sort of like mental masturbation. It feels good in the moment, but leaves us wanting the real thing. So, what is the real thing?
In the world of Zen practice our aim, should we actually have one, is to let mind and body fall away and in this process live in what Master Dogen thought of as “practice realization.” To get to a better understanding of what this means, we must break it down piece by piece.
In Master Dogen’s Fukanzazengi He gives us a clear sense that we each ought practice zazen, that ancient contemplative form once referred to as “Serene Reflection Meditation” or “Silent Illumination.” He put forth the unheard of notion that when we sit in this way, when mind and body fall away, we are in a state of realization. Why? What on earth? Is enlightenment that easy? Right, were it so. But he knew that there was something more to it than that. The rascal.
Here’s the thing, allowing mind and body to fall away essentially means that we let go, yes, let go. Let go of our thoughts. Let go of our feelings, our bodily sensations, in fact, we are to “let go” of everything we think we know and if we are successful? Well, then the keyboard I am typing on has an opportunity not to be a keyboard per se, but can present itself, as my teacher used to say, “As it will.” Right. when is a keyboard not a keyboard? when we stop thinking of it as a keyboard. Its ontological reality is then free.
Practice deep enough and “keyboard” ceases to exist as keyboard. We learn thru our practice that “keyboard” is not a keyboard, it is simply and completely only what we call it. But calling something something does it a serious disservice. Because calling it something disallows it to be itself. Poor keyboard, but even more poor is ourselves because we never get to know it for its original nature. We only believe we know it.
So, then, how do we know? An epistemological question, yes? Some, the empiricists among us, say we “know” through our senses. Yes, and the Buddha counted the mind as one of the senses and, from a Kantian perspective this might be so, then, as Kant believed we establish categories, like little boxes, in our mind within which we put our sensory data encoded as data with names and properties: this is round and thus if goes to “roundness,” this is square, and so forth. It discriminates in order to do the sorting.Once in a box with a name we think we “know it.” Yet, do we really? Or is what we know simply what our brain is doing,sorting and naming, etc.? Our epistemological “knowledge” in the end, is only what our brain says it is. It is not the ontological reality of the thing itself: its actual being. But we think it is!
It that thinking that robs the thing of its truth. I know you. I know you are So and so, you are this old, are this sort of person doing thst sort of job, wearing certain clothes with so much money in the back and so on. So, when I sctually meet you, this “knowledge” acts as a filter and it is through this filter that I interpret you in your presence before me. But is this interpretation that actual you?
The “so what” of Zen, then, is the fact that our practice exposes our filters. What’s left is pure perception. It’s in the “clear mind” that you may be seen for who and what you actually are.I believe it is this that is “practice realization.”

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Zen of Knowledge, Part one

From Outside the Margins

The Zen of Knowledge, Part One
by Daiho Hilbert

With respect,

We do not get to the truth of anything by believing it to be true. We get to the truth by questioning it to be true. Therein arises faith.

There is an observation common amongst Jews: Jews tend to answer questions with questions.  It is always interesting when a question is answered with a question. The person asking the question may feel threatened so answers the returning question with defensiveness or the questioner understands the nature of the discussion is one of seeking the truth in which case he/she considers the response and allows feelings of defensiveness to flow away thus allowing further exploration. 

When we are convinced of the truth of something the larger truth eludes us as our conviction becomes an untested declaration. 

Someone in the various threads of my Facebook page asked the question, "how do we know?" In philosophy, especially the philosophy of science, this query takes us to a branch of philosophy called epistemology. It is a necessary question in the area of theory building.  How do we know anything?  

Another, sometimes counter philosophical area, is ontology which is about "being."  We might say somethings are known through our direct experience of them. Existentialists and phenomenologists may fall into this category.

Theological issues often include epistemological questions related to a person's ontological or phenomenological knowledge.  How do we know God?  Is it even possible to know a proposed being who is believed to exist on an entirely different plane of existence as our own? I believe the Buddha argued it was both impossible to answer that question and that the question itself had no value because it did nothing to awaken us.

Contemporary Zen Masters have suggested that one of the ways we may discover the truth is to abide in a "don't know" mind. Masters like Seung Sahn and Bernie Glassman are proponents of this, as is the Order of Clear Mind Zen. To abide in a "Don't Know Mind" is to deliberately set aside what we think we know so that what is in front of us has an opportunity to be seen as it is, directly, and without the filter of presumption.  We develop such a mind through the practice of seated meditation and in the Rinzai school, koan work. 

At this point, we might be asking ourselves, “So what?”  In Part Two we will address that most important question of application. Be well Y’all