Dharma Q/A: Should I Go to Sanzen?

I’m not sure if and when I should come to sanzen. What’s OK to ask and what isn’t? Sometimes I feel like I need more help in practice, that I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s hard to figure out how to put it into words.

I remember my first long retreat. On the second day of sesshin, I was surprised by a voice in the zendo that said ominously, “Sanzen is available with Kyogen. For those who want to come to sanzen, all those on the Buddha’s right, please come now.” I didn’t quite know what sanzen was and had a period of panic, frozen to my seiza bench. Should I go? While a half dozen people rose up without hesitation, I couldn’t move, despite another part of me yearning to leap up and go meet this teacher. The opportunity passed and still frozen to the bench, I felt totally defeated for the rest of the day. What was I afraid of? What would this teacher see if we met face to face? What would I say if I didn’t have anything insightful to report or articulate to ask?

The next day when the same offering was announced, I harnessed my willpower and despite my still present unexplained terror, I felt my body stand up with the others and follow the Jisha outside.  Out in the freezing December cold at Camp Adams on a cabin porch, I had nothing to bring except all of this experience. Cold, confused, hopeful, scared. Though I can’t remember that particular sanzen, I do know I was met with kindness and spaciousness and eventual laughter.

I remember going every day after that. What unfolded was another ten years of intimate meeting after meeting bringing my practice to my teacher (and any other teacher who offered) in whatever form it was taking. It became a touchstone for ongoing investigation into Zen and my life that I both dreaded and anticipated with hopefulness.  Only after many meetings could I see that my original wordless fears rooted in the common karmic burdens having to do with worth and belonging were whole and complete. I had everything I needed in that moment to go meet the teacher with what came up in the process. While I thought I needed to become someone more enlightened and speak Zen poetry like others, there was essentially nothing to hide, nothing to prove.

Our whole life is our practice. What enters the space of sanzen is what is most important to you. Finding what has the most “juice” is key, not intellectual understanding, but what experienced life circumstances and experiences in the zendo grab your attention, cause you pause, excitement, dread, curiosity, fear. Nothing is off limits.

Song of Sanzen

My knees are really hurting me in zazen and my feet fall asleep.

My brother relapsed and is living on the street and I don’t know how to help him.

Today I noticed the new white irises as I walked to the zendo.

I am afraid of dying.

What does it mean when Dogen says this isn’t meditation practice?

I am struggling to find time for sesshin but my partner wants me to spend more time with the family.

I am working with the koan Paichang’s fox and get choked up when they give the fox a burial.

There’s a sangha member who really bothers me and I try to be compassionate but find myself more and more resentful.

Every time I sit, I feel this sense of sorrow and tear up and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.

I am working with being OK with being who I am, but a lot of the time I feel unworthy and that I’m faking it and others can see right through this.

The other day in zazen, all thought dropped away, and there was just the sound of the crow and the wind in the trees.

I’m not sure why I practice.

I had a dream that I was alone on an arid plateau, standing on my zabuton, and a pack of white wolves were off in the distance coming towards me.

I’m not afraid of dying.

My knees still really hurt – isn’t this wonderful?  

The teacher meets you with the response that arises naturally through the encounter. As a teacher is a spiritual friend who has been on the path for some time, she or he is able to respond from experience and help reflect and point you to your own inherent wisdom. The medicine for one person at one time may not be the medicine for another at another time. It might be sharing silence to be together with a painful truth that is emerging. It might be pointing out something the student is not considering. It may be suggesting a particular practice. It might be spontaneous mutual laughter at our human foibles. It may be the teacher shares his or her own practice with similar difficulties. If the student is stuck in the world of form, emptiness is the medicine. If the student is stuck in the world of emptiness, form is the medicine. Kindness is medicine and challenge is medicine. The empty field is wide open.

My teacher used to say so many questions get answered in the sanzen line it makes his job easier. That is, as soon as we ask for this meeting, an encounter that comes with the risk of being seen intimately by another, a process begins as we mull over our own personal koan before we arrive. This inner process is vitally important. But, we have to get off the comfortable bench and enter the playing field if we want to experience this.

I tell people if they want to practice Zen in earnest, to make sanzen a regular practice. While I see many formal students every other week, others may wish to come monthly or every other month or quarterly. When “things are up” frequency may increase or meetings spread out in times of ease or integration. It’s not so important to have an articulate question as it is to be willing to present yourself completely. In the process, we notice where we hide. We notice where we might want to appear more enlightened than we are, or to appear less enlightened than we are.  Sanzen is how we find out how practice adapts to our life circumstances unfolding from our own personal koan. Our defenses that distance and divide are invited to rest back so the truth of the moment can spontaneously emerge. Ultimately, we find the teacher within and release into becoming completely who we are. All we need is the willingness to show up.

With palms together,



Face to Face: Becoming a Student in Real Life

(transcribed from the first day’s talk at the 2016 Face to Face January retreat where we were studying Dogen’s chapter “Kajo” or “Everyday Activity”)

Homage to the Buddha, our original cook, Shakyamuni
Homage to the Dharma, everyday rice and tea
Homage to the Sangha, those awakened to rice and tea

How fitting that our founder’s altar should be arranged on a piano. Hundreds of years of teachers and students, the musical score of this Zen way. And as I look over at this altar and see my teacher’s picture there….that was taken at the Empty Field Zendo – there’s a hint of my elbow in his side as I’m to his left in front of the altar. How fitting – mercy, how he listened to my years of struggle! Fifteen years as his student, and still his student now even after his death. Face to face. Eye to eye. Nose to nose. Two human hearts, two flawed beings, two perfect buddhas, awakening together. Hundreds of years of this.

In this retreat, we are studying Dogen’s chapter called Kajo – everyday activity, about everyday life. Kajo means that which is habitual in one’s home life. Like many of Dogen’s talks to his students, I get the sense he wrote this from a place of deep love, right out of the experience of his own path. He wanted his students to stop chasing for enlightenment in the place where it did not exist. His own life was not easy. He could have chosen to assume a role in the aristocracy, like Shakyamuni Buddha, but instead, after seeing his mother’s death when he was quite young, decides to follow a more pressing call. There was much corruption in the religious circles at that time in medieval Japan, Buddhism intertwined with political power struggles having to do with whether this temple or that teacher was in favor with the various ruling elite family or not. Like us Dogen wanted something sincere, something genuine, something satisfying.

When Dogen finally went to China where he would meet Rujing, he encountered a tenzo, a senior in the temple on a boat who was doing manual labor as a cook in his old age. Dogen asks him, Can’t you get someone else to do this? The tenzo looks at him curiously and tells him he mustn’t know too much about Zen. A bit of a double take for someone practicing as long as he has. You don’t know to much do you? But Dogen listened. He asks the tenzo, What is practice? Everywhere, nothing is hidden, says the tenzo. So it is now, on January 28th, exactly 773 years later, in a home in Corvallis, that we study the words to his students on the transmission of the dharma as everyday tea and rice.

Just like Rujing’s koan Mushin talked about this morning, How can you purify something that is already pure? there’s a koan Dogen offers us here that we can carry around this weekend, keep company with. If drinking tea and eating rice have been transmitted for a long time and are present right now, what is drinking tea and eating rice? We should each find our own answer to this question.

What is your answer?

Don’t answer too soon. Don’t explain anything.
See what comes to you this retreat.

While on one hand it seems too obvious, on the other, we might balk a little and think, what could tea and rice possibly have to offer towards shedding light on my struggles in life? I do that kind of stuff everyday and still don’t feel enlightened! Certainly it can’t be as easy as that! Luckily, the priest Daokai is totally on board with this quandary and asks the question for us:

Priest Daokai, who would later become abbot of Mount Dayang, asked Touzi, “It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice. Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching?”

Daokai is also doubtful that the deep meaning of the Buddha ancestors is the same as eating rice and drinking tea. Surely there must be some other means to awaken people, to teach people to wake up. How familiar to our modern sensibilities. It is the same way when we wonder, What am I missing? Is there some other practice I should be doing that will move me along? Some teacher that will reveal the truth? If so, please, could someone just let me know what that is? It’s important to Dokai and is not a frivolous question.

It’s with some irony I am recalling our recent lay teacher conference last week in Portland. We ask the same thing too. What new practices are you integrating into Zen? Bodywork, writing exercises, and so on. I must admit, I too get excited about our creativity in teaching. But I know from my 30 years as a farmer, after all the new names for approaches and fancy techniques have come and gone, growing good food is about something really simple, all about timing with water, sun and good earth. No shortcuts. My teacher Kyogen in his later years (how fortunate I should be his student in his later life) said much the same about Zen practice. He said, You know, after all we have done by way of innovation (and that’s quite a bit), it comes down to this – zazen and precepts. You just have to do the practice. Now there’s some everyday rice and tea. Plain words: Just do the practice. I don’t think that’s going to fly off the bookshelves. But there it is.

If we don’t know where to start with answering this koan, about the meaning of rice and tea we can start with the rice and tea that’s right here on retreat. What is this rice I am eating? What is this tea? We can completely let go of the idea of tea, listen to tea, drop you versus tea, forget inside and outside. Where are you when drinking tea? Who are you? What’s not tea?

Everyday activity. This Zen tradition is about living up close and personal. Young priest Daokai has some pressure on him to do some magic (as any new teacher I can identify with, ahem) as others are looking to him to enlighten them. He’s “got it” on one level, but faced with teaching others, goes back to looking for some power outside of what is right in front of him. Like me, he is refining his understanding but is not yet mature.


It is telling that, although Dogen could have just written his message more directly, that Kajo is chock full of stories of teachers and students, full of human stories. It reads like a play in many acts.

Here’s one answer to this koan: Most intimate. Tea and rice are most intimate. You know what I’ve come to realize is the hardest thing about Zen practice? Not the long hours of zazen, not the bizarre and frustrating Zen koan language, not this not that. No, it is the practice with others. Face to face. When I first came to practice with my home temple, Dharma Rain, they talked a lot about the need to be “willing to be seen.” I totally didn’t get it. What can they mean, I’m here aren’t I? Is there something more than just having my body show up to the zendo? I think the question made me feel even more inadequate at first. Now I realize there’s a big different between showing up and being willing to be seen. The willing comes when we can relax and allow ourselves to be received, to be part of the flow. It is hard to explain, but there is a noticeable difference. This is why it’s easy to have a distant teacher – someone who doesn’t see you in the morning with puffy eyes, doesn’t watch you interact with your child or argue with your partner, doesn’t encounter you when you’re confused or sick or angry. And vice versa. How easy to have a distant student who doesn’t see you, the teacher, mess up or get irritated or have conflicting human needs. Everyone’s on best behavior, but only for so long. Intimate. Up close and personal.

The opening scene of our play begins with Fuyo Dokai and his student Tosu Gisei. I do not know when this exchange happened, but because we do know their dates of birth, it’s possible that Tosu could be in his late 20’s, maybe 29, and Fuyo, 11 years his senior, could be about 40. Although Zen stories make it look like these brilliant masters pop out of nowhere, have a single conversation and then get enlightened, this is not the case. They have been at it for some time. And we can guess a little about their own karmic affinities by some of the stories about their lives. They had real struggles and concerns just like us, and engaged in many failed attempts to find the right path for them that would finally bring satisfaction and relief to their spiritual quest.

One account says that Fuyo started out on the Taoist path studying practices for immortality. It’s too bad he didn’t live in this modern era, because we’ve got tons of these kinds of devices! Just go into a store for special youthful creams, self help books and workout equipment. So I can only imagine that this naive hope we all secretly share to elude the ravages of time appeared one day to have its limits. A hope that often gets checked simply by looking in the mirror.

I also imagine Fuyo may have also had an affinity for image of the Taoist lone sage and perhaps, like many of us (I include myself) wanted to just practice as the solitary being, not be bothered with others, rise above this dusty demanding world. Make a clean escape. Perhaps one day, he realized the loneliness of that was getting him nowhere. We can imagine this of our old friend Fuyo, many cul de sacs on the path of practice. Of course, he did live until 72, so perhaps a few of those Daoist practices gave him a boost. No harm done.

And then there’s his teacher, Touzi, Tosu Gisei. I imagine him more the intellectuial sort – literary minded, attracted to esoteric teaching and the more complicated the better. Someone seduced by intellectual intrigue. According to Keizan, he studied Yogachara (which is a system of thought you practically need a PhD in Sanskrit to understand) until one day he exclaimed, “This doctrine is obscure, what good is it?” How familiar to us modern seekers with access to so much information, so much written dharma. How complicated the thinking mind can get when looking for the truth of this moment. So instead of complicated doctrine, he starts to take up Zen and look directly into his own heart-mind without the props.

A later story about Tosu says that at one time his teacher sent him off to a monastery to learn from another teacher. When found absent in the meditation hall after he arrived and the Ino goes and finds him asleep in the corridor. When questioned about this rude behavior, he replies, “Fancy food doesn’t interest someone who’s sated.” Can you imagine? The word “cheeky” comes to mind. But true enough, he’s no longer engaged in chasing words and phrases to wake up to his own existence. He’s ready for the real thing.

So these monks, these seekers, like us, had many years of trial and error before this conversation. They were reenacting Shakyamuni’s path based on their own karmic affinity until they knew what drinking tea and eating rice was. Reaching the place of the unborn, the undying. The place of no doubt. And then they continued on, constantly refining. Once sated, the continued eating.


My teacher used to say that there’s only one constant between teachers and students. And this is that the teacher becomes a koan for the student. What we want in a teacher and what we need in a teacher may not be the same thing. What a paradox, to awaken in relationship to another, someone who cannot give you anything. Dogen says here awakening to the truth is not found in the exotic, does not belong in the past, is not in words or esoteric practices, does not belong to famous teachers. No, instead he says there’s no need to rely upon anything else than drinking tea and eating rice. Like Mushin’s nest she so beautifully described, we need to leave the nest of our imagined enlightenment, into which are woven postcards of awakening from the images of others. (Of course, if these postcards inspire us to leap out of the nest, that’s great. But usually they just make us dreamy.)

I want to use a story of my own early days as a new student. Since we often hear teachers talk about their own teachers in romanticized (ie. forgetful) ways, like when Dogen talks about his teacher Rujing as “The Old Buddha,” I’d like to offer a more realistic view. When I met Kyogen, I knew he had something I wanted that I couldn’t name but felt compelled to return to. It made no sense to my rational mind. Since we had almost nothing in common on a basic human interest level, I had the most difficult time relating to him. Early on I drew the shocking conclusion that he just plain didn’t like me. That I was an annoyance. Of course, the more I thought this, the more evidence piled up to support this embarrassing fact. I would try to make small talk and he would drift away or look blankly back at me. He didn’t seek me out or laugh at my jokes or offerings of conversation. He certainly wasn’t impressed by my Zen insights! It became useless, until finally, I just said to myself, fine, he doesn’t have to like me, but I am determined to see this path through regardless. I was not about to give up. This is my last stop! Of course in hindsight, I was trying to fit Kyogen into the map of my known world and feared the worst base on my own early trauma growing up. The question of liking and not liking isn’t even relevant. I find the reflection amusing now, because his love was always shining great and clear. He was waiting patiently for me to arrive.

One translation of this fascicle refers to the rice and tea phrase as “coarse tea and thin gruel.” It’s not an easy path to have a teacher. Sometimes it’s coarse tea and thin gruel. Something not easy to take in. A teaching that is disappointing, not the medicine we want. On sesshin I try to accept with a little sadness when the Tippy Cloud South is weak in the morning. Then I understand the diluted taste often brings out something stark and haunting. Hundreds of years of teachers and students – heartbreak, struggle, opening, release. No two alike. And the gratitude there is profound. We teachers are often guilty of telling a romantic story of our studenthood that’s only romantic in retrospect.

Dogen’s chapter Kajo is a nourishing meal for the dis-ease we suffer from in our own skin. Such compassion for his sangha. When he recalls the words, the “everyday rice and tea” of his teacher, the old buddha Rujing, he remembers him saying in the hall:

Right at this moment, put down the burden you are carrying.

So, please, come back to your own seat and ponder this koan, What is drinking tea and eating rice? Sit with this question and don’t answer it too soon. Put down the burden you are carrying.

The Zen of Loneliness

In the blue sky a winter goose cries.
The mountains are bare; nothing but falling leaves.
Twilight: returning along the lonely village path
Alone, carrying an empty bowl.

Foolish and stubborn – what day can I rest?
Lonely and poor, this life.
Twilight: I return from the village
Again carrying an empty bowl.

~ Ryokan

After the holidays, I feel compelled to acknowledge the shadow of our cultural ideal of family togetherness and beloved intimates, for like most ideals, our lived experience often falls short. As a teacher and therapist, on the darkest night of winter, it is the curious state of loneliness that draws my attention – the state not easily admitted to, and the one that we can experience regardless of whether we are together with others or not. To know one’s own loneliness with the intimacy of Ryokan is to fully embrace the inherent problem of the separate self and the world of duality, to take responsibility for all of its humanness and give up attempts to escape, medicate, meditate away or cajole lonely from one’s experience. Instead, when we take up the Zen practice of non-opposition, lonely gives us a moment to deeply see into its causes and conditions. Becoming this empty bowl, the receptive vessel, is not for the faint of heart, but for those who wish to open to the wide pallet of human experience. Right in the midst of this lonely, this uncomfortable absence of a particular other, a particular way of being known, we render the heart capable of meeting itself. Right here, we meet Ryokan eye to eye, on his road home.

I am not sure there should be only one word for lonely or what this condition truly is though you can find many a definition along the lines of a sense of absence, absence of connection or love, of another, but being with another in a particular way. That being said, I think each of us should put aside looking for a concept that fits and instead look into our own visceral experience right in the midst of life. It is an enormous relief for many to just claim it. So many of those I work with in therapy suffer deeply from their loneliness. They feel isolated, all alone, not understood, not cared or loved in a sincere way, not trusting anything good will come along, and much of the suffering comes from trying to hide from this state. Despite my presence across from them in the moment, with compassion, openness and availability, I am no instant cure when the state of lonely is fixed identity, but can only bear witness and hold it with them. I notice when appreciated and held well, lonely moves on in its own due time. Something seems to need to work itself out from this place. This is also true for others not in the therapy room. People with family and stability, and long time meditators with connected sanghas and Zen teachers also claim times of loneliness both long and short in duration. What is it we fear there?

Sometimes I notice lonely is a sense of an innermost place that cannot be shared, cannot be met or communicated to another juxtaposed against this longing to be known, embraced, and experience feeling felt. Sometimes lonely is a closed room with thick walls and locked doors. Other times, lonely is an open plateau, just you and the packed red dirt and the too blue sky. I imagine our first lonely came when we cried out and no one came and the sense of being this one body completely dependent upon the world began to take shape. Some lonely carries it the sense of something deeply amiss inside our core, an old worn out message of wrongness, that goes right to the heart of our most innocent years.

If we give up ideas about getting rid of it, we can ask what it is here to teach us. We could consult the night sky.

From my vantage point midlife, the Zen of loneliness means to cure the cure and allow our natural response to being a skin bag (our unflattering Zennism) to inform us. There is nothing inherently wrong with being lonely. To cure the cure means to notice what we do with our lonely and see if we can put that reaction aside. Like Ryokan shows us, to be fully unapologetically longing, to be in complete non-opposition, is to be free. Do we try to fill the lonely space with busyness, Facebook encounters, and other distractions, or numb with a drink or make a companion of our TV or iPod? Or do we live in a dream of an ideal other – a lover, a spouse, a community? If we can stay a bit with this lonely, we can begin to ask what kind of lonely is it? And listen deeply for the response.

Ryokan Taigu, the beloved gentle itinerant monk from the 1800’s who played with the village children and wrote poetry for his friends, was human through and through. Some contemporary readers are perplexed by reading about a Zen master’s loneliness and question his awakening because we equate enlightened expression to be free from so called negative emotions and suffering. But Ryokan was not bound or reduced or lesser for this – he was freed within it, something that shows in his writing and his capacity to move from this state to joy and serenity as conditions changed. Towards the end of his life, he even falls in love with a young nun, Teishan, and thoroughly embraces this experience.

In Zen emptiness, everything we meet is the self. In that way the world perfectly loves us, welcomes us in its embrace unconditionally. Though the sun may warm or the wind may feel cold to the bone, it whispers to us alone in that moment. The fullness of emptiness leaves no space for lonely. Nothing is lacking. It is not possible. But this is only half, for which Ryokan provides a necessary cure. Sometimes the bowl is just empty, the road long and lonely, and there is the want of another heart. This is also the buddha’s awakening to conditioned life and it is perfectly OK. Ryokan’s loneliness is not a trap or a hindrance. The next day finds him playing with children and drinking sake with his old friends. Completely at ease! We are all carrying this empty bowl on the path. To know this solitary mountain is to meet one another on the path where the sky meets the sky.

Standing alone beneath a solitary pine;
Quickly the time passes.
Overhead the endless sky –
Who can I call to join me on this path?
~ Ryokan

Palm to palm,

The Emptiness of Busyness

Birth is the right-now-ness of undivided activity. Undivided activity is birth in its immediacy.

~ Eihei Dogen in Zenki

Our sitting group recently moved to a new yoga studio right in the heart of the city. A constant stream of cars, buses and trucks rumble along Oak St. a stone’s throw from our cushions while bands of partiers spill out from the corner arcade banter loudly with one another. At least once an evening, a police siren rises and fades along the 13th Ave corridor towards campus. Passersby talk over one another in excited voices as they rush past our windows and we hear incomplete excerpts of their conversation. Amidst all of this pulsing, a welcome downtown church bell slowly chimes in the background every fifteen minutes. This sweet incongruence is answered with our own bells beginning sitting as we savor this punctuation amidst the chaotic speed of our times.

The question arises, where are we going with such verve?

We all know the accepted lament about our busy lives – something that seems to be both a source of pride on one hand and overwhelm on the other. I’m sorry, I’ve just been so busy, a qualifier now added to our exchanges without much thought as to its meaning. When we can really take a look at the pace of modern life, it seems as if no one is sure who created this condition of busy or how to get off the train. For many of us, it’s hard to see what busy is now required for survival and what is a choice. Do we feel compelled to answer every electronic post or does our livelihood now require this? Do we feel confused by frequently overbooking engagements, cancelling and then refilling the calendar with more events? Is “getting a lot done” the internal measure of feeling good inside ourselves? Practice brings us intimately in touch with this “mind of busy” and begs the bigger question of what it serves. Busy at what cost? What’s being questioned here is not the amount of activities we do in a day, but the mindstate of busy. Though correlated, they are not necessarily causal.

If you want to really look into this modern affliction, you should come to sesshin. Zen retreat is truly good medicine tailored to our times in the way our rituals put a brake on our habit of accomplishment and acquisition. Often at first, this still presence isn’t easy to swallow. The beginning instruction of zazen is to step off the treadmill and “put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs.” Our rapid distracted pace comes to a jarring screech. We help one another take this radical step to simply be with our experience unfiltered by doing and judgment, evaluation and commentary. While many of us claim to desire such a place of presence, often we don’t know how to recognize it or embrace it when it arrives. Paradoxically, this is the very place that is replete with aliveness and very possibility we may be hoping for by maintaining the ever busy mindstate.

Long before ADHD, Buddhist practitioners studied in meditation the consequences of the mind’s capacity to separate from our direct experience through conceptual thought and become divided in our attention. While neutral in and of itself, when we habitually live our lives from this place, through our thoughts, our inner chatter and dialogue, we find this connected to our distress and unsatisfied hunger. We can notice the quality of addiction there – we must look at how attached we get to busy! But, like all addictions, busy wears off and one needs more and more of it to get the same high. For an authentic life, for true satisfaction, Eihei Dogen points to the Zen path of “undivided activity” – the one mind as an expression of the awakened mind.


One thing teachers notice on retreats is that most of us when we slow down in meditation process a backlog of experience that we haven’t received or processed. We notice a painful emotion not felt while meeting with a friend, an ache in the lower back or shoulders, or a deep longing for rest. We are divided and pulled in many directions on a daily basis. The body’s messages in the form of sensation and subtle felt senses do not run at the same speed as the prefrontal cortex that is constantly picking and choosing. The mind acclimated to entertainment and reward often doesn’t register the brilliant light reflected off the puddle in the road, the strange and exquisite call of a crow. Often the first order of business on retreat is to simply allow our minds and hearts and bodies to catch up to one another to even begin to attend to the deep stillness offered through the discipline. To simply stop and be takes effort and courage.

By beginning to look more deeply at our choices, Zen practice gives us the opportunity to take charge of this life, not in the way we imagine with more clever time management skills, but instead by aligning with time, that is, aligning with Buddha mind that is the mind of this moment, and deciding from that ground what it is we allow our life energy to serve. It becomes a radical choice to refuse to “be busy” regardless of your activities and instead, choose to “be” and invite others to join you in this place now, the only moment we have to become truly awake human beings.

When we slow down, we can truly investigate how we experience the sense of busy right in this moment? What is its quality and contour? Where is busy when we are cooking dinner, driving home from work, talking with a friend? Are we fully present for our life in this moment, or if we’re honest, juggling in the background all of the things we need to do? We can ask the question, who is really running this show? What part of us decided to fill our time this way?
In my own experience, I notice that the busy mindstate has its own momentum, its own identity, set of values, beliefs and behaviors. It is a whole arising self that keeps the busy motion going in hope of reward that is fleeting at best. Initially, it feels good to check off the list, imagine how much more I can get done, to eat and email at the same time. This moving quickly has its seduction – an excitement, its power and a possibility of reward. But when the juice of this wears off, it’s not hard to encounter its emptiness, both in the conventional sense of empty of lasting value, and the Buddhist sense of empty of selfhood, of permanence and ultimately, not something that brings lasting satisfaction.

It is obvious from our avoidance and numbing strategies in our culture from Facebook to Prozac, that more technology and choice is not making us more fulfilled. While busy may serve our economy, it does not serve our ecology. The to-do list checked off today repopulates itself tomorrow. To notice the emptiness of busyness, we see directly experience its marks of dukkha, anica and anata – of the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned things, of impermanence, and of no-essential-self. When we begin to see clearly, this busy mindstate loses its allure and is seen for what it is. Busy becomes the dharma gate par excellence to take the backwards step and arrive into our lives undivided guided by the breath.

Zen is not asking us to do less, but actually to simply do just this. Right in this moment is clarity and freedom. No reward awaits us in the future. Spaciousness comes right in this moment – this typed phrase, this call to my father, this cup of tea. Full, complete undivided activity. To change course from the busy driven promises of our modern culture is to come home to oneself and live in alignment with a deeper mind where real rest occurs. Refusing the mind of busy, we open to the gift of what happens in the fullness of time. This right-now-ness is in this breath, these eyes reading these words, with you and I here like this together.



With palms together,


Zen on the Road: Practice on Vacation

The following is excerpted from recent talks in Eugene & Corvallis

Neither Here nor There

An airport is nowhere
which is not something
generally noticed
by those inside it

yet some unnamed person in the past
deliberately planned it
to be there

and now you are
spending time there
unknown time
because of something you have done
like the souls in Purgatory

you sit there in the smell
of what passes for food
breathing what is called air
while the time pieces measure
their agreement

you believe in it
while you are there
because you are there
sometimes you may even feel happy
to be that far on your way
to somewhere
~ W. S. Merwin

As summer approaches, I’m reminded of the common experience students share with me about the difficulties they encounter while trying to maintain some sort of practice on vacation. It’s a time one notices how things devolve in the absence of regular meditation and support we take for granted at home. Although it is natural in this ancient Zen tradition to “pick up and put down” formal practice with the change of seasons, many people tell me they notice they’re a little off center when they skip sitting. And yet, doesn’t it seem to be the exact medicine needed amidst the stresses of travel or family? Rather than muscle ourselves onto the cushion while traveling and feel guilty when we can’t find the time, I’d like to take a fresh approach to practice while traveling by asking different questions, starting with, What practice is anyway? Once we have a sense of this, we’re ready to notice what arises most naturally when we’re on the road. And by cultivating this kind of presence, we’re then able to hold our overarching experience of traveling and notice how this informs our journey on the path of Zen.

I. On Practice

Periodically we should all consider this question: What is practice? There is real benefit to being able to give this household word, practice, a fresh view. Without reading further, what is your answer?

Zen Master Dogen taught that practice is awakening itself. Shusho, practice-enlightenment, is considered one hyphenated word, never separate. That is a real koan for most of us – how can that be? Mostly we consider we are practicing for some later date or some particular effect, like practicing scales on a violin for the upcoming performance. Zen calls attention to the problematic nature of this idea of working towards some future spiritual event. What happens when our longing gaze is on the horizon when life is actually unfolding right in front of us this very moment? Although in hindsight we might notice zazen has made us more resilient in the face of difficulty, in Zen, we come to understand that practice itself is Buddhamind manifesting in this very moment. It is complete and whole right now.

So then, what does it mean to practice in this moment? I find that in order for there to be real practice there has to be some movement. What brings movement is having both yin and yang elements, active and receptive qualities. It’s is a kind of dance we do that’s embedded in a larger conversation, a dance whose goal and expression are one and the same. There are the activities and rituals we engage in, bowing, chanting, sitting, serving tea, and there is a listening that accompanies these activities. If we have either without the other, something feels either stuck or flat on one hand, or drifting and ungrounded on the other.

After you learn the basics in Zen, after zazen has naturalized in the heart-mind-body, you are able to ask the question, What is my practice in this moment? and receive a reliable answer. In order to find out more about practice while traveling, start with an experiment of letting go of ideas of what practice should be and ask moment to moment this question. Recently, I was curious about what spontaneous ritual or practice would arise to fit the circumstances on a trip to Florida, and here are my findings. What I discovered was that no matter where I was, practice was always available, but for the purpose of this talk, I’d like to share just a small sample of experiences during the most excellent bardo plane of the airport. When you practice, you are always home.

II. In Airports

Airports are a perfect place for practice because, as W.S. Merwin eloquently points out, we are neither here nor there, not quite this, or that. Something has already been loosened to open up a gap in our usual busyness. Our everyday identity is suspended. If we forgo the usual distractions and entertainment, it is an excellent time for being completely awake. As soon as I entered the airport with this curiosity about practice, I immediately began to notice the kindness of strangers, the sincere helpfulness of the baggage security as they took my bags, the man who helped another at a kiosk, a woman joking with another person in the long line through security. The dharma eye knows what we are at our core and what is most essential.

What is the self that arises amidst all these people we don’t know? How fascinating that we all see one another in a public space, but avert our gaze not be seen seeing. As I sat waiting for my airplane to board, I noticed the quick categorical labels, stereotypes, and judgments in the mind as our limbic system unconsciously sizes up one another up to see if we are friend or foe. Entitled business man, bored teenager, proper housewife, macho football player, and so on. My practice in that moment was to notice this and the effect of how this distances us from each other, placing us in safe categories and an “off” button of concern. Though “safe,” ultimately it is an unsatisfying feeling.

As I let go of those judgments, I made up a ritual of imagining what it would take for me to connect with each person, a small story about their lives to upend my categories, and notice how it changed my sense of compassion and interdependence. Business man working on his weekends to develop a project to employ veterans in his community, teenager not sure of herself and fearful that her parents are going to divorce, housewife teaching her five year old to care for all the animals and plants in the garden wondering about global climate change, football player loves Kierkegaard, his little brother, and knitting. Although my stories were imagined, being a therapist, I know they are more true to life than our own stereotypes. We are all complicated and mixed and full of potential. When we find what unites us, our common ground, we are closer to the truth of how we exist as one another. Soon it was time for my new sangha to board.

The airplane itself is the place for zazen! A zendo par excellence. (When Dogen wrote about “upright sitting” he had no idea.) The key is to begin by refusing all distractions, which are extraordinary in variety in such a limited place ~ laptops, iPhones, books, snacks, drinks, movies, skymall shopping, small talk with neighbor, avoiding small talk with neighbor, list making, people watching, cloud gazing, and then some. It appears that actually just being there in the airplane and non-doing is to be avoided at all costs.

When I travel I like to sit zazen stealth style, so no one has to call the steward and report how their neighbor sietting in the next seat has become inexplicably comatose. Slipping of my shoes so my feet can feel the floor of the plane, resting hands in a relaxed mudra, book on lap as prop, just lower the eyes as if naturally dozing, and you’re good to go. Being nowhere and awake. Noticing the body firmly upright, the hum of venting system, a soda can pops open, a child squeals, the overhead air brushes a hair past your cheek. This is the best way to fly. Coming into the sensations of the body you notice each shift and move of the plane and feel completely present to this metal bird as if its wings were yours, the clouds brushing the bottoms of your bare feet. You are fragile and alive. That this is an extraordinary experience is registered. (Although I am not afraid of flying, practitioners who experience anxiety tell me that this kind of awareness of the micro movements of the plane actually decreases their fear.)

This is just a small taste of practice that balances the yin and yang of action and listening, attuning to the truth of the moment. Letting go of getting somewhere, we practice in these in between bardo places like kinhin, step by step and come into the richness of presence that our rituals point us towards. Allowing your own rituals to emerge that bring the mind awake, alert and close to the heart doesn’t require any changes to the itinerary, just a shift in the attention. Although it’s been months since this trip, I remember that airplane ride more exquisitely than that richly flavored dinner out with family at a fine Italian restaurant or sunny afternoon on Vero beach. You can listen to your own answer of what your practice wants of you moment to moment. Be creative.

III. On the Journey

As practice unfolded spontaneously throughout this trip, what emerged, however, was a larger koan. Where am I really going?

What is our aim on any particular trip? What do we hope will happen or that we’ll experience? Whether the classic get-away or visiting a beloved friend, it’s good to consider this. We are chock full of expectations and desires when we travel. As I was preparing to give this talk, I had the following dream that informed me about the way we travel in these journeys and how this parallels the spiritual path.

Walking barefoot. Big city. I like it but realize it’s not acceptable socially or in public places. I go through many neighborhoods which turns out to be in Portland. I am going down angled streets and trying to cut back eventually towards Dharma Rain Zen Center. It’s unclear where to turn to get to Madison. I see 53rd and am going into higher streets but that seems wrong. I have to go away to go towards it. I can’t go directly to the center. I realize I need some shoes. It’s too late to go home and come back. I decide to go to Chinatown for a cheap pair of cloth sandals so I can go to DRZC. There’s a man there, piles of imported stuff. I see a few pairs – one that looks a little large but might fit. It has ballerina straps. They offer not support but will protect my feet from glass and such. I liked walking barefoot, even on hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete.

When I awoke from this dream it occurred to me that there are really only two journeys we take in life – the journey for adventure and the journey home. On the adventure, we look for the new, the novel, to be touched in some way, to take risks and grow. Returning home, we long for the familiar, being seen and known, for rest and release. From Odysseus to Game of Thrones, it’s all the same story. We repeat this impulse in large and small ways, whether attending a weekend family dinner or 50 year high school reunion, or hiking along the river by work or Kilimanjaro. There is something calling us and our talk in the zendo is how this plays out on the spiritual journey. What is it that calls to you? What is the journey you long for?

So we can learn something about our mind and our habits by looking at our motives and what actually happens during our travels. Where am I going? Is a portable koan to travel with. Fits nicely in the overhead. When we are open and engaged, adventure and home fill a deep need for our human growth. However, when life has other plans, or we are attached to particular outcomes on our travels, the shadow sides of these experiences emerge. Luggage is lost. It rains on the beach. The old friend is distracted and has changed. We’ve changed. We get ill. Our hosts get ill. The adventure turns boring or nightmarish, and the homecoming is harmful or feels alien. In this way, Zen practice helps us to dig deeper and listen to how our journeys ask us to be aware of our deeper purpose, and note what is actually happening beyond what we want to happen and learn something.

In these moments, when we let go of our ideas and align with what is actually happening, the practice of Zen is alive and right in that moment, we understand what we are looking for. In Fukanzazengi, we recite, Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one mistake, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.

Zen is a journey that simultaneously actualizes both archetypes of adventure and home, at once, right in this moment. In zazen, you are immediately and simultaneously home and a wonder even unto yourself! It is no doubt we will continue to wander in those dusty lands, but each time we leave home, we can discover our true home and true adventure is right in this seat, a window view in 28A. Everyone’s on board.

We travel not to meet others and see great sights, we travel to meet ourselves. I close with a poem Jim in our sangha shared with us. It’s fitting the irony that here I am talking about insights while vacationing, which I hardly ever do, making me a good anthropologist in my own culture but not a good traveler. As a farmer, therapist and introvert, my own travels and adventures have been here rooted in this earth, this practice, this zendo, this community. For me each day is full of pyramids, warm oceans, exotic tastes and the northern lights. Directly in front of me. I think Wendell Berry knows this place too.

~ Palm to palm,

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.
I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

~Wendell Berry

Our Dark Places: For Gensei

Walking along a narrow path at the foot of a mountain
I come to an ancient cemetery filled with countless tombstones
And thousand-year-old oaks and pines.
The day is ending with a lonely, plaintive wind.
The names on the tombs are completely faded,
And even the relatives have forgotten who they were,
Choked with tears, unable to speak,
I take my staff and return home.

~ Ryokan

 Gensei departing

Death is a time of reflection like no other. On March 15, at what I imagine to have been some overwhelming moment of despair when being in this world seemed too much for him, our dharma friend Ross Gensei Morris took his own life. He was 37. We had lost touch these last few years, but in the early days of practice, he was a dear brother. When I heard the news, before the sadness I expected, I felt a strong anger with him for this choice. When someone so young dies in this way, an enormous “No!” erupts from us, the survivors. Even if we saw signs, the shock is enormous, the grief wrenching and we beg some absent celestial power to go back to the approaching days to do it over again. Even though we know it will not change the moment, our minds want to find out why, and we go through every could have and should have to try to make some sense of this irreversible and final act.

The day is ending with a lonely, plaintive wind.

When this is the choice of a person of practice, it’s hard not to think it a failure of practice or a failure of the community. But after hearing people share about their experiences with Gensei at his funeral, I came away with a different story, one that requires a wider heart to hold the unknown with the known together; I let go of settling for explanations and instead embraced the depth and mystery of this life, in which we equally triumph and struggle. Listening to dharma brothers and sisters elaborate about the ways his life influenced their own, I learned something about humility and deep respect for what it means to practice Zen in the face of difficult and dark karma. For if any truth was told at this memorial, it is the story that our lives cannot be evaluated by our ending, the moment we call death, but are whole and far reaching, each day of lived life. Whether we shrink before our dragons one day, or defeat or tame them another; if it is in the context of practice, it is perfect as it is. We continue to practice together in this place we call death as we did in life.

I first met Gensei when he walked up the driveway where I was sweeping for a small sitting group I attended (a group that later became the Eugene Zendo). Later he would tease that I had given him some cryptic Zen response to his question whether this was the right place or not, to which he scoffed. To this more outgoing middle aged woman, he was easy to overlook – in his young 20’s, quiet and socially awkward. I hardly remember him saying a word in those early days. In that group, people read each other well, approaching to the degree that seemed welcomed by each individual. This is the beauty of Zen practice centers. You’re free to be as you are as long as you’re not harming anyone. No one tried to suggest he should be more friendly or outgoing. He was just accepted and embraced, like the rest of us, right where we were, and given a broom. Anyone who wants to practice, come on along! So days led to months and he just kept coming back week after week.

As this group moved from one venue to the other before settling into its current home, something magical happened for Gensei along the way. His zazen deepened and he began to open up and interact with others – to make rye jokes and share his encyclopedic knowledge of Dogen. Soon, Gensei playingI saw a sweet child emerge as he started to roll around playfully with the zendo cats, play with the priest’s young children, and before long he and I began this teasing banter with one another. He, making fun of my very serious “touchy feely” emotional reflections and sometimes cryptic Zen references; I giving it back to him about his fastidiousness or some attachment to having things done a particularly Dogen way. (It’s handy to be bilinguial – I am personally fluent in “east coast” including the brotherly “take down” oddly meant to communicate we’re in it together. Love at a safe but recognizable distance.)

Over the years and building of the zendo, he, I and others became family in the way that it happens in biological families, not necessarily because of heredity, but by simply spending time with one another doing the basic things of life. Over time, Gensei learned to not just cook, but to cook well, serving in the role of tenzo for many years, creating magnificent dishes during this time. He eventually took on the monk’s robes and helped show other newcomers the Zen forms. He became exacting in his mastery of these forms that both inspired, confused and exasperated others.

Like many of us, Gensei was brought up a second time within the context of practice, and renewed and rejuvenated a core life force that served the dharma. From re-learning baby steps in kinhin and the rakusu bibs, we get a second go around to retrieve, reconnect and let go of the  attachment to self.  Through Zen, many of us learn to love and be loved, in our own way. Despite Gensei’s well known aversion to hugging, sharing feelings or being touched, he had offered comfort to many in the old days.  I particularly remember a cookie turning up on my zafu or sitting with me in silence while I felt adrift. I knew he knew when I was struggling and that’s what seemed to matter.

Through Zen, Gensei came to life. But of course, this is only one part of the story (all stories are part stories). For those who shared at the funeral also acknowledged the dark side, the part of our dharma brother that would not and could not be reached; a shadow that emerged in his irritation, his tight hold on the way things should be, and his unrequited loves over the years. I imagine for this one fateful moment on March 15th, this part gained the upper hand and lived out energy quietly waiting. This is a truth we must also face in practice – that we also contain our dark sides for which Zen is not a cure, but an approach to integration.

Walking along a narrow path at the foot of a mountain

I come to an ancient cemetery filled with countless tombstones

And thousand-year-old oaks and pines.

We are all on this narrow path circling the mountain. We must take our own steps, and yet, here we are together in this predicament. How is it that we often only know how much we loved after someone is gone – as I know now I loved Gensei like a younger brother, but never once expressed that to him in a straightforward way. We had re-grown up together in the dharma.  Even though our life situations and personalities couldn’t have been more different – for we would not have even interacted outside the context of practice – the common intention of sangha allowed for us to meet and bond in our sincerity and longing for the way. Despite our teasing take downs, we had a deep unspoken respect for that mind that seeks the way that is solid and palpable, the kind of force water has to split rock when frozen, or tree roots have to lift sidewalks and push houses. Though he left formal practice in these later years, I have no doubt that that bodhicitta remained as strong as ever.

That 80 people came to say their goodbyes at the recent memorial says something about the way Gensei influenced us all. And though he would groan and tease to hear me say this, (yes, I hear you my friend) I feel as if he held the role of orphan for us all as he was adopted and held by many people who gave him work, encouragement, shelter and material support over the last 15 years. The sense of being an orphan is very common in our sanghas, an internal dissonance about being separated from something primal, a feeling that we’ve forgotten where we belong. It’s a universal archetype that speaks our deeper seeking for a return. Mmany people describe that their early days in practice feel like “coming home,” a touching inward to something familiar and deep and old. It is not a coincidence that many of our ancestor’s stories in Zen begin with having lost their mothers or being orphaned, from Shakyamuni Buddha to Dogen and several ancestors in the Denkoroku.

I think Gensei allowed us to touch the orphan inside us, for, from the point of view of Buddhism, to have a human body and singular self is to be an orphan. Recognizing this allows us to tap into our compassion for the sometimes melancholy, lonely parts that long for a return that is at onceGensei to SFZC our birthright.  Regardless of our apparent functional lives, the sense of being separated is universal and how we respond to this makes all the difference. Because Gensei gave himself so freely and openly to the practice, struggled, succeeded and struggled again, taught others as much as it did him, in the way that we all influence each other simply by living our lives fully in the light of the dharma together and bearing witness. Sometimes it is only in times of death that we see this so clearly, as we all so deeply wished the other day that Gensei could have waited and heard how important his ordinary life was to others.

Choked with tears, unable to speak,

I take my staff and return home.

Although Gensei was well known for his love of Dogen, I am not sure everyone knew he also loved Dogen’s cure – Ryokan. In many ways, Gensei lived Ryokan’s life, a solitary monk who embraced wholeheartedly the loneliness, longing and playful side of enlightenment lived in and amongst the world; while some part of him remained always in his monk’s hut, even after he’d taken off his formal robes. When Gensei first ordained, I gave him two things – a book of Ryokan and a carved wooden dragon, which is how I will remember him best. I close with a poem he told me he liked most, and look out the window and tell him with watery eyes, that we will carry you now as you did us with your wide monk’s robes.  You taught me something in life and also in death for which I am very grateful. Carry on my friend.   ~ Palm to palm, Seido

It is not that

I do not wish

To mix with others

But living alone in freedom

Is a better Path for me.


When I think

About the misery

Of those in this world,

Their sadness

Becomes mine.


Oh, that my monk’s robe

Was wide enough

To gather up all

The suffering people

In this floating world. 


~ Ryokan

Face to Face: Learning to Trust

In Zen, there is only one way to truly awaken, and this to awaken in the context of relationship. Despite all the Buddhist iconography of a singular individual sitting in meditation, there is no enlightened being whose enlightenment ends at the boundary of their own skin. We awaken through relationship, within relationship, because of relationship, and despite relationship, this last one being very subtle. Despite our imperfection, this face to face relationship serves the dharma perfectly and we inherit the skin, flesh, bones and marrow of the lineage, and the long broad stream of practitioners who came before us.

Welcoming address to retreat participants, January 28, 2015


            Having just returned from our Face to Face retreat, one week later, I am savoring the subtle dharma explored there. Practicing intimately in a small group is perfect, an environment where we could delve into these questions and quandaries about relationships in Zen practice with teachers and sangha. How is it that we awaken? What about fear and trust, about self power and other power, what are our misunderstandings and what do we already innately know? We entered into one particular story of the teacher, student and sangha relationship through Dogen’s Twining Vines. We then asked these questions of how to address the longing from our deepest heart in the context of relationship.

During this retreat, we practiced jundo, a daily processional between seven different altars to honor the Buddhist archetypes of wisdom and compassion. One of the altars was dedicated to our past teachers and guides, holding the smiling bright faces of Kyogen Carlson, Jiyu Kennet Roshi, Chozen Bays Roshi, Robert Aitken Roshi, the Dalai Llama, among others. Because Zen practice honors lineage (this face to face experience that traces back to the original Buddha) it begs the question of its purpose.  What is it for? What is the role of a teacher? What is the role of a student? What about the risks? Exploring these questions, without having preconceived right or wrong answers, reveals something about how we go about living our lives, and where we might begin to grow.

In Zen, we often say that everything that meets the eye is our teacher, everything is Buddha. The dirty dishes in the sink, the black lab on the kitchen floor, the laptop computer, the news of a plane crash, the green moss on the old apple tree. When we live life like this, awake, moment to moment receiving the immediate teachings of what we meet — I call this the high bar of practice. From that place, life is no problem whatsoever. Everything proclaims the truth. How often do we know this?

Unfortunately, for most of us, this is not the norm and takes many years of practice to actually come upon. The pull towards autopilot, absorption in our problems, and the deep belief held in the viscera of the body about our separation from life, is a highly engrained comfort zone. It is comfortable, at least from the perspective of the managing self, which we dislike leaving. Our grasping mind that arranges our comfort is so familiar to us, that we hardly question. We often begin to do so only when suffering become acute enough to suggest another avenue in living life. When I first came to practice, I knew there was something missing, something to resolve and the ideas of Zen spoke to me. I was also very wary of others, having been hurt in the past, and was unsure of what I would find. I vowed when I attended my first sitting group, that if there was any excessive solicitation or false friendliness, I wouldn’t return. Luckily, no one seemed to care one way or the other whether I was there (bless their hearts). They welcomed me in an open way, and thus began my practice. Gradually I began to trust my own impulse to find out about this dharma and appreciate my compadres on the path. The rest is history. Or more accurately, that moment of way seeking mind now becomes this moment of way seeking mind.  I now know there are endless dharma gates to plumb, and clarifying our delusion becomes more and more subtle. Still, I can say I have learned a lot about trust and have gained what seems like a bottomless faith in our awakening.

My teacher, Kyogen, had a way of responding to the question Why should we have a teacher or join a sangha? He would say that enlightenment is like gravity. Everyone, without exception, is subject to it. But there is a difference between knowing this and not, in the same way there’s a difference between dancing and falling down, where at any one moment, we can either align with gravity or fight it. What blocks us from aligning with this truth is right in front of us, but we can’t always see it. He said it’s like having a smudge on your face, something you can only recognize when it’s pointed out by another. We have all kinds of ideas about what’s wrong with us that are often far afield. But a teacher listens, and kindly may point out, How about that smudge?  Usually, we just see it implicitly in the process. Oh! Hmmm, well…..maybe I’ll take a look at that. Our practice is completely our responsibility.

I would also add to my teacher’s understanding of this, that it’s not only the smudge that we miss. Many of us fear that we’ll be “found out” as being particularly awful or lacking if we engage another in self reflection. We equally fear our own light. Being blind to our enlightened mind is also like having a great jewel on the forehead, shining brightly, which we also miss, unless it is pointed out to us. We miss our dark and light nature equally. So it helps enormously to have friends to encourage us on the path, and a teacher is a spiritual friend that commits to the process of awakening in a special way. How many of us also know and trust our own essential goodness?

So, the question moment to moment is how do we both take responsibility for our practice and call on the help of others? Practicing intimately with sangha is to relate to others who also have grappled with their sleepiness, their skepticism, their doubts and fears, their addictions and anger.  Because there is something very important at stake, it feels that opening up to others comes with some risk. Especially for us independent types, we’d much rather figure it out for ourselves than ask for help. Will I be hurt? Will I be misled? Who can I trust? How do I know? These are excellent questions to explore, as we look more and more deeply into what we can rely upon. A teacher’s role is to act as a bright mirror and help you find this out, to find out where your real center of gravity resides.

It is said that it is easy to be enlightened in a cave. Without this intimate face to face meeting, we make a comfortable world, but one where we sense that something is lacking. I liken this to having a mind like a hall of mirrors. Because I am a big proponent of making time for solitude and contemplation, I know the limit of this mind space where at some point, everything I think and see is what I already know.  What often moves me from this spot is simply boredom in my own conclusions! We can only grow when we meet an other. An other is something we don’t already know, something that doesn’t quite fit, and ultimately, something that makes us stretch and grow. It is in the stretching and growing where we become more ourselves. That is what it means to be a Zen student, to simply be willing to lean into the relationship and trust the process.

Dogen uses the metaphor of twining vines to express how teachers and students grow together. This is not a linear one-way hierarchical relationship, akin to a college professor who has a particular domain of knowledge and skills and certifies their students — that they’ve received, understood and mastered that package with some sufficiency.  A Zen teacher and student relationship is much more mysterious. When entering into a teacher/student relationship, many of us harbor an illusion that the teacher will give us something special, something we are lacking. But a Zen teacher has nothing to give anyone.

Dogen wrote teachers and students practice mutually, like twining vines. This is a beautiful image. As squash vines grow they reach out for the light and then curl back into the dark. When they’re planted close together, they become inseparable in their branching and reaching. This is the dance I have learned with my own teacher – each movement is mirrored and followed, and the territory of actual lived life, in this soil, this day, these circumstances, is thoroughly explored. There is no formula – only the natural urge to grow in a certain way, the map of which is held in the heart. Teacher and student learn together.

 Gourd vines entangle with gourd vines means that Buddha ancestors thoroughly experience Buddha ancestors; Buddha ancestors merge with Buddha ancestors in realization. This is transmitting mind to mind.

~Eihei Dogen in TwiningVines

            Although I hesitate to say anything is necessary, I know that engaging a teacher on this path was essential in helping me find the way to align with gravity, and that has made all the difference. My heart holds the deepest gratitude that this single person, now gone, agreed to accompany me on the messy trek, without any guarantees of what would happen. At some point we come out of our caves and look around. We see more deeply into others, and by doing so, see more deeply into ourselves. Zazen, the dharma, the teacher, the forms, and the sangha are all mirrors in service of this awakening. Ultimately, what we awaken to is relationship itself, this dynamic interplay between the one and the many. Our practice is entirely our responsibility. No one can take a single step on the path that we must take ourselves. And yet, how do we come to trust another to serve this process? The growing vine embraces the growing and becomes itself fully. Though the vines twist and turn, the fruit is always perfect.

Palm to palm,




Ice Storm

When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it? Do not doubt that these are the characteristics water manifests. You should reflect on the moment when you see the water of the ten directions as the water of the ten directions. This is not just studying the moment when human and heavenly beings see water; this is studying the moment when water sees water. Because water has practice-realization of water, water speaks of water.

– Dogen Zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

     It is the fourth day since our area has been shrouded in snow and ice, each tree outline arrested in glass like amber, all the corners of the world, softened by rounded white curves. The sounds of soft freezing rain hits the snow like tinkling chimes. The engines of industriousness – cars, leaf blowers, skillsaws – appeased for a time. I am having an impromptu private sesshin in my office, unable to return to our farm in the mountains for the last three days. My husband, home without electricity and water, informs me all six of our greenhouses were crushed under the heavy weight of wet snow. The old elm from the neighbors here in town intermittently drops huge limbs on our house that are 12 inches across. One pierced through the eave, another misses a skylight. I take this time to study the Heart Sutra.

    When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? This storm has brought us an intimate appreciation of the qualities of water, the teaching of that which changes, that which flows, what we understand to be buddhanature. Before this storm came, the conversation was about the fears of the severe drought in our area as normal winter rains failed to manifest week after week. As if in answer to our longing, the many characteristics of water offered themselves up in spades Thursday morn – beginning with a few light dry snowflakes, then heavy snow, then freezing rain, and now rain and ice. Though people think a farmer’s hardest challenge is the unpredictable weather, we are actually quite accepting towards the natural workings of heat rising, cold descending and the spin of the earth that gives us what we call weather. There is no use arguing with the sky when it rains, or begging someone to turn down the heat in summer. That kind of expenditure of energy is a luxury better spent in cleaning up the aftermath.

In the midst of storms, there is a magnificent suspension of time that brings our attention firmly into the present.  Priorities change. With eyes wide open, we have to surrender to water doing what water does. While of course, we move to protect life, the vulnerable plants and animals, to those unhoused in harsh weather, at some point, being able to let go to water, to know and appreciate our complete interdependence upon water, is to invite water to see water. That is because we are water.

The Heart Sutra is a teaching about how to live with storms, the conflict between appearances and the truth of change and interdependence, between the many and the one, translated in the sutra as form and emptiness. What is our habit of reaction to the storms in our lives? What fight, flight, freeze or fold response creates our opposition to life as it is? No one escapes storms, they are a great equalizer. Much of what will happen in response to this storm will come from our human reactivity that adds to our delusion – lots of talk on how awful or not it is, what losses there were, accidents, inconveniences, what hopes for replenishing water tables, what this says about global warming.

Not that this talk that connects us to one another and gives voice to our experience is bad in itself. But particularly with the internet, we spin in our minds so much around phenomena, that we might actually miss the direct experience of storm – listening, touching, feeling, tasting, being right where we are with nothing extra. Taking care of what’s important, reaching out to neighbors. In our reactivity, we separate ourselves from storms – they’re inconvenient extras we judge and evaluate that cause tension we hold in the body. We make solid realities of storms, and makes solid selves in opposition. But the Heart Sutra invites us to find the emptiness of this storm – no storm, no tree, no ice, no snow, no me, no you. What then? What makes itself known when we brush away the thought coverings?

How is water practicing right now? How is water flowing and taking form, letting go of form, right before our very eyes? How are we flowing with what is, taking form, and letting go of form right in this moment? If you are safe, and those around you are safe, I invite you to join me in my Heart Sutra ice storm retreat and sit quietly a while, to let go of opposition and opinions that block the breath and the body’s natural flow, and allow water to see water. No extraordinary effort is required, water already knows what to do, it’s been practicing a very, very long time. Trust water.

Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!

Palm to palm,


Transforming Anger: A Brilliant Sea of Clouds

The Ninth Grave Precept

Do not indulge anger, cultivate equanimity.

In the realm of the selfless Dharma, not contriving reality for the self is the precept of not indulging anger.

Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is a brilliant sea of clouds. There is a dignified sea of clouds. 

Last week at Zen West, we talked about this Buddhist precept that cautions us against the delusion and harmful action that springs from this powerful and very human emotion of anger. Although worded as prohibitory rules, the precepts are fundamentally an invitation into discovery and a new way of seeing. They are not hard and fast do’s and don’ts applied from wisdom outside of you, but something that calls forth, instead, our own natural mind, and an ultimate truth of how we exist in this interpenetrating co-arising reality that we can never fully grasp with our conceptual thinking. Though precepts may at times constrict, they are about a palpable freedom we experience when we let go of small limited views that no longer serve our deepest needs.

I find this ninth precept on anger is one of the most difficult yet fruitful dharma gates to investigate, and interestingly, the only precept that directly addresses an emotion. Anger has a very strong attachment to its object and “contrived” justification from the mind. From mild annoyance to rage, if we look carefully, we can notice our days are often peppered with this “I” versus “you” mentality that gives rise to anger, galvanizing action in the face of threat and comes out as harsh tones of voice, menacing body postures, passive sulking or physical violence. If we look around us we can notice the undercurrent of anger is disturbingly pervasive and becomes resentment and hatred built up over time. The prospect of transforming this powerful energy may seem overwhelming, but to take up this precept earnestly, we just need to begin noticing and admitting our own experience of anger, without judgment. How does it feel in the body? Can we separate out the sensations, the heat and contraction, from the impulses and actions? Can you notice how the mind “indulges” the anger, finding an object to blame, and feeding the anger with judgments of fantasies of getting even? We can notice how we become angry at a concept in our minds rather than the reality of a person or situation.

Notice who really suffers from our anger.

If we can stay with our anger, and not indulge its message to hurt and harm in retaliation, we can often find the more vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness or grief, and begin to take care of the self that feels threatened and doesn’t know the truth of our ultimate belonging. This is not indulging that self, or the anger, but bringing compassion to the human vulnerability, and seeing deeply into the delusion. In Zazen, attending the arising and falling of anger like this, befriending the difficult states of mind, allows us to eventually let go, and utilize the gift of anger, its energy and urge to seek safety, in enlightened ways. Sometimes wrathful compassion looks this way, anger that is in the service of benefiting all beings, and not about being right or getting rid of the enemy. That is truly a powerful approach to work in the world. So this practice is not about cutting off, but being who you are and transforming that anger into something that serves.

If we take one small step in this direction, we take our place in this brilliant and dignified sea of clouds.

~ In gassho,


Gifts from Sesshin

interdependence-retreat-and-jukai-groupHow amazing this simple practice of Zen retreat we call sesshin – to slow way way down, to calmly see our shadows and our brightness, to experience a range from grief to harmony – all gifts of sitting still and mindful activity. My teacher, Kyogen, joined us at the end of this last retreat. During our closing remarks, he said, it’s like an image he recently saw – where a glass box what put over a fish in a lake, so you could see it clearly, something always there that normally escapes us. So sesshin is an artificial arrangement to see something clearly, experience it in the gut, but the ritual of sesshin is not meant to be a way of life – we return to taking care of families, work, rest and play.

As practitioners of Zen, we integrate this stillness into movement, and it in turn transforms our lives, moment to moment and touches not only our own hearts but those around us. Being in contact with each participant, I am struck once again by the good medicine that this practice of retreat is – how each person receives what they need without having to craft it deliberately. No adjustment to the medication needed….30 mg’s of mindful sweeping and a double dose of zazen. We all get what we need. It just happens, sesshin just happens when we can settle the mind that is busy busy busy doing doing doing. The retreat leaders are no exception – we are busy busy busy busy getting things arranged so we can slow down. But over time, the body of the long time practitioner knows the drill, and drops quickly into its place of receptivity and pointed presence.

Sesshin is not an easy practice by any means, we face all our struggles there – physical and emotional discomfort without the usual coping strategies, self consciousness, obsessions, boredom and restlessness. This is why we do it together and support one another. But what emerges when one stays the course is unprecedented in many of our modern settings – and the preciousness of that is what fuels continued efforts in practice. At some point, you just have to take the plunge. It is hard to find the time to come to sesshin, but if you can, consider the experiment of attending some extended sitting, some crafted glass box held in the water for a brief time to catch a fish.

Palms together,


Participants at the Interdependence and the Four Elements Retreat requested this poem to be posted:

To be of the Earth is to know

            The restlessness of being a seed

            The darkness of being planted

            The struggle toward the light

            The pain of growth into the light

            The joy of bursting and bearing fruit

            The love of being food for someone

            The scattering of your seeds

            The decay of the seasons

            The mystery of death

            And the miracle of birth.


            – John Soos


Seido’s version:


To take up the path of Zen is to know

 The restlessness of being a seed

            The darkness of being planted

            The struggle toward the light

            The pain of growth into the light

            The joy of bursting and bearing fruit

            The love of being food for someone

            The scattering of your seeds

            The decay of the seasons

            The mystery of death

            And the miracle of birth.