Q/A: How Can I Face the Daily News?

Lately, I can hardly read the news. I know I’m supposed to know what’s going on, but every day I’m left with a sense of dread and overwhelm with what’s happening in the world. Even though I meditate every day, I’m not sure how my practicing zazen applies to this problem. I just feel helpless in the face of so much suffering.

Dear friend in the dharma ~

You are not alone. To be troubled by the suffering of others is a requirement for an open compassionate heart. It is important to dig deeper however into this “troubled” and where we go with it.  Zazen is not a cure for our discomfort of being touched by the world. Rather, it is the deepest silence capable of holding your experience, from which a right response emerges. That shift makes all the difference between adding your suffering on top of the world’s suffering and becoming free and responsive in the midst to suffering. Practice gives us that choice.

Zazen with newsfeed begins by examining this “self” that meets the headlines. Pause and wonder “What is my motivation?” before you begin. What are my gut reactions – anger, anxiety, dread, disgust, rage, and helplessness? Do they become embodied states of mind that create distance and impulses to flee or fight? Conversely, what softens the heart and connects me to one another to reach out, to act, to seek understanding? Kindly, without blame, look into the root source of any fixed selves rooted in fear. Follow the fears down. What are the underlying beliefs and conclusions constellating into familiar opinion of this set apart self?

Looking into my own experience over the years, I’ve found a whole host of karmically conditioned delusions and conclusions rooted in fear and anger that make for an impoverished response to the troubled world despite my wish for more wisdom and compassion. I alone am responsible for this suffering and must do something to fix it. The world is getting worse every day, more violent, mean and dangerous. Ignorant aggressive people will soon dominate the planet. Everyone is living is misery and destitution while my own relative comfort is criminal. How can those people think that way? There must be a solution if everyone would just do X.

 These selves and these conditioned ideas are all rooted in the same ground – my idea of myself vs. the world that seeks reinforcement for beliefs and conclusions I’ve already made. The “I” separate from all others that must have the answer or feels helpless to change things in the way I believe they should be changed. When this self view is in the lead, it begins in opposition and always ends in stuckness, because, in truth, this separate self is very limited when faced with the problems it encounters on the global scale. The Buddhist path shows us another way. We may have fears about letting go of our insistence the world be a certain way, but notice, if this mindstate was “working” we wouldn’t be asking these questions.

As bodhisattvas in training, we are tasked with the most important job of developing courage in the face of our worst fears and anxieties. Liberation is found when we release attachment to our reactive views and allow bodhicitta to be our guide. This mind of awakening begins with intention, openeness and acceptance when faced with what we consider awful or unbearable. We hold lightly the conclusions we’ve drawn about what it “true” about the world.  Deliberately bringing the mind of practice to media consumption, we look beyond the surface of what we read into understanding the causes and conditions that have brought about the suffering.

It is certainly important, that as people of practice and often privilege, we open up to the realities of human life on this globe and its unfathomable sum of suffering. That being said, it would be a mistake to take what we read about the world as the true world. Our mantra with the morning dispatch should be “This is the world. This is not the world.” For each story we read of violence, war and tragedy, it is never the whole story.

For every story there are another 10,000 overlooked stories.  What is not written about in the lead is the neighbor who comes to comfort the family who lost their home in the fire. The paramedic operating on the pedestrian caught in the crossfire. The congressman going door to door to listen honestly to his constituents with genuine care. The group that brings together opposing sides to work on peace. As the media inclines towards the shocking and incredulous, the stories of wisdom and heart fail to make the grade of titillating and tragic.

We would do well to consider the Buddhist teaching on the six realms of existence. There is a Buddha, an awakened one, found within each condition – in the animal realm driven by base desire, the heavenly realm sequestered from suffering, and the hell realm where everything burns. If we were reporters on the scenes we see in the news, we would witness a multitude of responses to what is unfolding, which would always be in constant flux, beyond any single narrative that shows up in The Times. Where there is fear, we would find courage. Where there is rage, we would find mercy. Where there is confusion, we would clarity.

As we are now exposed to every happening on the plant instantaneously through modern media, oryoki may be a useful guide here. Our meal practice points to “just enough.” What is just enough news that helps me become larger and inform my practice day to day and my offering to the community? We should be selective and intentional rather than pulled along by continued online clicking that become more and more sensational without real depth. Avoid making the news background noise or distraction that fills the cracks in our day. Choose wisely and digest what you take in, nourishing the reason for your commitment to practice and alleviate all suffering.

By reorienting to our news consumption, rather than end in helplessness, when we practice deeply, we are bountiful and creative when called by the heart. We can accept the base fact of suffering and aspire to respond with what we are called to do. How might you respond? Letting go of large and small, success or failure, practical or impractical, what comes forth?  To follow the path of the bodhisattva means to hold the world of suffering and move forward naturally with what we have to offer which can look a thousand different ways from person to person. We are each blessed with different gifts in this one Buddha Body. You be the hands, and I will be the liver, and my friend here will be the eyes. My teacher would say, “Go boldly forth.”

With palms together,


Recommended books:

The Culture of Fear by Glassner – a well researched book on fear driven media trends over time and their impact on policy.

Enlightenment Now: A Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Pinker – An interesting check on some conclusions we draw about a worsening world. Not necessarily the “right view” but a way to question what we assume as true.

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,



Dharma Q/A: Why Do I Seek Realization?

Why do I seek realization?  I only have a very short time to live (years or days just a blink in time).  What is the benefit of becoming enlightened?  It can’t be for me.  I’m as transient as an airborne spore.

When you realize buddha dharma, you do not think, “This is realization just as I expected.” Even if you think so, realization inevitably differs from your expectation. Realization is not like your conception of it. Accordingly, realization cannot take place as previously conceived. When you realize buddha dharma, you do not consider how realization came about. Reflect on this: what you think one way or another before realization is not a help for realization.

~ Eihei Dogen in Yuibutsu Yobutsu   

To engage Zen wholeheartedly and not know why is a sure sign of sincere practice. If there were a clear reason we could grasp with the thinking mind, this reason would fail to sustain our energy over time as life circumstances change. But the instinct towards awakening needs no rational justification. In fact, just the opposite – there is a teaching that “the mind that seeks the way is the mind of enlightenment itself.” When practice really starts to take hold and change our daily life habits, a tension often arises between the instinctual knowing that there is something to wake up to and the rational comparing mind that has limited ideas about who enlightened people are and what it looks like. What am I doing? Why am I spending all this time in zazen? I can’t possibly get enlightened, you know, like the Dalai Llama. I could be relaxing reading a mystery novel or taking up ceramics. What good is all this sitting? I never thought I’d so something like this. This is pure craziness!

This skeptical doubt is not a problem if we see it for what it is, trying to be a good friend and keep us safe in the limited known world.  However, alongside this is another knowing we come to rely upon – the intuitive felt sense we are returning to an old familiar place we once knew but have forgotten. This wordless inspiration in the body’s core is the place we return to breath after breath. It is the vital life of practice, animating our Zen rituals. While we can lose touch, it is never apart from us. We start to trust it more and along the path are frequently affirmed when we experience the moment of returning home in our lives and our bodies. It has no justification in the world of gain and loss, right and wrong, should and shouldn’t.

It is said we need three things on the path – great faith, great determination and great doubt. So this skeptical intellectual doubt begins to transform into the “great doubt” of an open mind, listening to what cannot be grasped but can be lived out, going forward with humility and curiosity. I remember a difficult time in practice when it was painful to sit with fear and grief and self criticism. I was too far in to quit but really doubting the path. I said to my teacher, Why would anyone choose to go through all this difficulty for some elusive enlightenment? He said gently, It is just like taking off a too tight pair of shoes. Slowly I realized this awakening was less otherworldly and far more intimate and powerful than I imagined.

Yes, life is transient. It is also a long life. What we do matters. Every day, there are endless choices and consequences to these choices. The path is not a matter of time left but time now and we see that simply walking the path is awakening itself and sustains us day to day. It is a good way to live, enlightened or not. When we give up the image of the magic moment in the future when we “get enlightened” all that energy returns to wholehearted being now and brings light and life to the ungraspable nature of what is before you. The path – endless, marvelous, loving, and mysterious – becomes who we are.

With palms together,


Dharma Q/A: Zazen – The One Non-negotiable?

There is a huge billboard on W. 11th that says, “Jesus, the only way to God.” I know Zen (unlike the Christian billboard) is not saying that zazen is the only way to realization, but why is it indispensable in Zen practice?    

As I say this often, I can imagine it sounds quite dogmatic, a quality that naturally evokes suspicion. I’m with you. As was the Buddha.

I talk about zazen as “the one non-negotiable” in practice, not to pass opinion as incontrovertible fact or exclude other spiritual paths. I say it so we can immediately recognize both the power of our aspiration alongside the hope we can make up our own rules. If you want to play the violin, listening to Vivaldi may create a sublime experience, but you eventually have to pick up the bow and touch the strings. If you want to bake bread, reading recipes may make the mouth water, but getting your hands in the sticky dough is the only way. While this is obvious, it’s not so obvious that reading about Zen, resonating with the truth of Buddhist teachings, and attending a weekly meeting or a retreat is not a substitute for regular zazen – the most reliable, affordable and loyal teacher we will ever have.

Although there are 10,000 distinctions and 1,000 variations, they just wholeheartedly engage the way in zazen.

~ Dogen Zenji

 There are two dimensions to this non-negotiable quality – one about effort and the other about being.

On Effort

 To practice Zen means to practice zazen regularly, to place it front and center in our lives. However we creatively integrate zazen into our everyday responsibilities as lay people, it responds when we value it equally with what we most care about – loved ones, health, justice, earth, vocation. Zazen is not an extra-curricular activity. It is the gate to realizing moment to moment life as spiritual practice.

For many of us, this takes years ebbing and flowing between showing up on the cushion, forgetting, avoiding and remembering all over again why we do this crazy practice in the first place. We experience directly how life goes when we are sitting and when we’re not sitting – which is why most of us keep returning to the cushion. Eventually, it becomes seamless, no different than waking and getting dressed and brushing your teeth. Everything in your life gets tossed into the soup pot of zazen to simmer and release its innermost flavor.  From the point of view of effort, it takes time.

On Being

The other non-negotiable aspect is when we notice the subtle bargains we try to make within zazen. When will they ring the bell??? We are crafty. We attempt to limit what comes through our awareness or trick our mind into gaining special insights or desired states of thought free ease.  We are endlessly subtle in our pursuit of gain. But if we’re really practicing, we notice zazen will not negotiate with us.

Zazen is not meditation practice, it is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease. The practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. ~ Dogen Zenji

 When I intend to just clock my minutes in zazen or recreate a serene feeling I had yesterday, alas, I am face to face with just myself and my experience of irritation or hope for escape.   When I make bargains that I’ll sit just this much, expecting some return like feeling better for my good Zen behavior, no reward arrives. My inner manager cannot realize the fruits of zazen so I have to help her take a break. Zazen is a strict teacher and pointing at something more precious than these kinds of rewards. We let go over and over of trying to manage and negotiate with zazen, and when we do, zazen takes on another kind of surprising life. From the point of view of being, just this moment is it.

The mind of zazen by definition includes the entire world. It does not end when you get up off the cushion, it doesn’t disappear when you are upset or sleeping, it is the way you met the world and the way the world meets you. If we are awake at all, no two breaths of zazen are alike. It is uncanny we are even alive in this moment.  No one knows what this zazen is really as it is always in flux. And yet, it is perfect in its unveiling capacity.  In this way, zazen is the great unraveling – unwrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching, we free all living beings.

Thank you for your question. May your zazen go well.

With palms together,


*Dogen quotes from Fukanzazengi – “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen” – chanted in Soto Zen lineages everywhere.

Dharma Q/A: What Is “Leaning Into” Zazen?

This morning I was contemplating before and during meditation what it means to “lean in.”  I get passive meditation, because I have done plenty of that, but how does one lean in?  Is it with my mind?  Should I be invoking something?

An excellent question to ask about this kind of vague directive I often talk about! Sounds like you understand that zazen isn’t “passive” – already, right there, you invite the aliveness and curiosity at the heart of zazen which is better described as “active receptive” rather than “passive.” As we become more concentrated in mediation through a singular focus that brings a bright alert crispness to the awareness, the shift to “leaning in” is hard to describe. It means letting go of whatever gains come from meditation, continually brushing away distraction, even the distraction of peaceful feelings or pleasurable ease. There is nothing to invoke or do “with your mind” because there is no “you” and a “your mind” that is separate.  If you brush away whatever arises, including wanting something to happen, and wondering if you’re doing it right, that is the art of zazen. Getting comfortable with not knowing, just continue and you will find your way. When we lean in, we give over our own separate self and begin to deeply trust the space of meditation. This is what is meant by “just sitting.”

In gassho


Dharma Q/A: Overwhelmed by the News?

I have a hard time reading the daily news – I find myself getting angry and overwhelmed either by other’s opinions or what’s happening in the world. Yet part of me feels like I need to keep informed, but there’s so much out there that’s really confusing.

You are not alone. We live in an unprecedented era of information overload. In less than a minute, I can learn that North Korea just tested another nuclear weapon, in Chechnya gay men are being rounded up, a local woman is sentenced for abusing her children, the weather is predicted to be cloudy through Wednesday, and there’s a fuchsia plant sale at the hardware center – thus we begin our day. What shall we do with all of this information? How can we take in so much suffering and strife? How do we wake up with the morning news?

To be aware of global events instantaneously is a dilemma for practitioners wanting to respond to suffering. Rather than inspire our practice, often too much information sacrifices depth of understanding for numbness and a protective heart. Real depth comes when we realize that for every story we read, there are hundreds of stories untold about any single event which cannot be grasped by a single narrative.  Rather than remain frozen in light of the sheer volume of information, we can take charge of our media consumption. Bit by bit, we can transform overwhelm into a broader global awareness that serves compassion and wisdom energizing our practice.

Like our Zen oryoki ritual where we receive food offerings in our bowls, we need to find the place of “just enough.” If I lose myself in constant alarm level alerts, it’s like sugary soda where the more I drink, the less satisfied and more sickened I become. Turning away is also not the answer. This recent election has vividly demonstrated the cost of living in a cultural bubble surrounded by familiar assumptions that reinforce our own preconceived ideas about the world at the expense of a larger awareness. As Buddhists, we should seek the middle way with the media.

Bracket your news intake. Before slipping into the morning news over breakfast or the radio on the way to work, pause and notice your state of mind and your own motivation. Is the news entertainment for boredom, a daily habit, or something else? If this isn’t clear, take a breath and make your own vow to receive the news in service of your practice. What changes? Take a week or two and create boundaries around your news consumption with a strict time limit. Give what you take in your full attention mentally and emotionally rather than allowing it to be background noise.

You might carry around this koan question “What do I need to know?” and see what arrives.

Notice the articles you read and those you do not. Be curious how you are pulled along from one article or click to the next. Who is choosing this? Media managers know high conflict and titillating stories sell as we seem wired for the bizarre and the awful. Most of these kinds of sensationalized stories do not usually enrich practice. Just notice your own experience.

To read with mindful awareness helps us become more naturally attuned to information that matters to our practice and forgoing information that acts as “empty calories.” This doesn’t mean to only read what you agree with. On the contrary, to be awake means to be exposed to challenging points of view different from our own. Notice what happens in your experience after you encounter each article. Pause and breathe and consider. What’s the most important thing?

Ultimately, as people of practice, we develop an eye for the one daily story of karmic suffering, our interconnectedness, and a wish for universal awakening. Everything in the news ultimately falls within this overarching rubric.  We can read the details of a shared human life where we are not reading about “those people out there” but the story of everything human.  How does the news inspire our compassion and wisdom? Dropping the separation, I can see myself in all that I read.

To read with the lens of suffering and the conditions of suffering means to acknowledge and embrace the dukkha we encounter with an open heart rather than with reactivity. Can we pause to receive the difficulties in the world for a moment with acceptance? This does not mean we like what is happening or that we are helpless. Acceptance is a strong stance that bows to what is truly happening.

If media consumption leaves us with anger and overwhelm, this is often connected with an underlying sense of helplessness when we’re identified with our limited selves. But the Buddha’s teachings point to the way in which we are never helpless. We are only helpless when we attach to an outcome. There is always a response to whatever meets the eye.

One antidote to the helpless state of mind that constrict our life is to take some action, no matter how small, as a result of what you have read today. Let this flow naturally. Forget about being effective. Just move with your heart. If someone you don’t know has died, place him or her on the merit list that week. If there is increased repression in a foreign country, send a letter to your representative about your concern. If a neighboring group has been the victim of a hate crime, visit them and express your solidarity. To take up bodhisattva action means to be changed by the world and respond right where we are.

In the end, the most important thing we do when we read media is to refuse the implicit message that we are basically violent, rapacious, and polarized at heart. The media always summarizes our least common denominator. While our human nature includes greed, hate and delusion, the Buddha’s teachings point to a fundamental awareness that is clear, bright, responsive and connected. To take charge of your media consumption means to wholeheartedly refuse to be taken over but instead find the place of “just enough” and recommit to practice. Day after day, this habit changes our lives and the lives of others.

Media Gatha

May I read this news with a clear and open eye.

May I seek truth and understanding over entertainment.

May I accept the bitter, salty, sweet, sour and pungent flavors of life.

May self and other drop away and a sincere offering arrive.  

May I remember that in this collective awakening, I am not alone.


What is your own vow?

In gassho


Dharma Q/A: How Do I Practice with Extreme Pain?

How can enduring continuous physical pain be a useful gateway to realization, especially when the pain is extreme or all consuming? 

Extreme pain is the most exacting of teachers – there’s no “maybe I’ll practice with that later” as it commands our attention and primal instinct to get away from a cause. In many cases, however, this is just not possible, and in some chronic conditions, we may never know a “cause” of pain in our modern medical sense. What we mean by “enduring pain” deserves investigation though because it often includes great opposition that increases felt suffering.  Assuming we have utilized the resources available to us to take care medicinally, I want to offer two dharma gates here, the second more difficult than the first.

The first dharma gate is one of compassion, the universal medicine of the moment that changes everything. Letting go of the reactive mind that wants to identify, fix and run from this pain, we can return to being with the sensations of the body and be vigilant about letting go of all the extra judgments. If we step out of the cycle of good/bad, right/wrong, what are we left with? We may notice heat, tension, throbbing and heavy sensations – investigating the edges of these sensations and what space is around them is befriending and clarifying rather than fighting the pain. Kanzeon’s loving gaze gives us a great example of the gathering of compassionate energy to lean into.

When we let go of ideas that cause more pain, like “I can’t take this anymore” and “Why is this happening to me?” we return to mindfulness of the body through the body with this one additional caveat. Because our minds are wired to continually ruminate and therefore reinforce the neural pathway that is the “consuming” nature of physical pain, it is particularly important for those in chronic conditions, to begin to redirect the mind to places in or out of the body that do not have the familiar pain and explore these sensations that contain more rest or ease or liveliness. This takes some practice and vigilance at first as the thinking mind wants to return to try to fix the original distress. Noticing the earlobe has no pain but feels soft and warm. Noticing the soles of the feet feel tingly and energized. Noticing the barn swallow’s trill or the scent of the daphne. Sending the breath into these spaces. This is not distraction as much as it is attuning to a larger space within which this pain can take its place. The meditation here is fueled by compassion – not self pity, but a strong heartfelt love and empathy for this very human condition arising right now. Let this be your one job on earth and lean into others to sit with you in this place.

The second dharma gate is more difficult. It is found by letting the pain completely take you. This gate lets go of all separation between “me” and “my pain” and my wished for self in the past and hoped for in the future. We can allow the constructed self to be “consumed” in a way that brings release rather than destruction. This gate is “in and through” the pain and drops off any opposition to life as it is arising right now.  Just this. Just this. Over and over breathing in and through, we have access to a broader ground of being that has no words. Even the rage or sadness has its place, this too is coming with this life. It is like giving way to the contractions of birth, excruciating or not, what is emerging is yet unknown. I offer this gate with great caution and it is helpful to be supported by a teacher and sangha to guard the space of true surrender that is the hallmark of Zen.

Kind blessings on this path,


Dharma Q/A: What’s a Zen Teacher?

What is the difference between you as a teacher and the rest of us in the sangha?

On one hand, nothing. Teachers and students are both subject to delusion and enlightenment and both practice the way. On the other hand, while there is no essential difference between teacher and student in the Zen sangha, in our lineage, we say that a teacher is someone who has thoroughly clarified what it means to be a student. They’ve struggled, studied, yearned, resisted, experienced insight only to have it elude them. They’ve been humbled a hundred times over, and discovered a source of unlimited faith while continuing to be chagrined at the depth of their own delusion and the pull of old karma.  Teachers have tried all the shortcuts and made all the mistakes.

This is transmission of the dharma. Thoroughly absorbed in practice, one day your teacher says to you when you have become least concerned about such distractions, that he or she would like you to teach. To be fair, teachers in our lineage have done many hours of training, year after year of sesshin, serving in all the zendo roles, tested as shuso, taken and taught classes, studied with sangha, ceremonial, and seminary. But this in itself is not a guarantee. Stepping into the role of teacher comes from having let go rather than yearning for the job.

So becoming a teacher is not a reward for some spiritual accomplishment or a course of study, but marks a capacity to function in a particular way for a student. Like a farmer showing up day after day rain or shine to protect the new green shoots of corn, they guard and cultivate the process of awakening, a natural unfolding. Natural however doesn’t mean easy – there is much at stake as a lot can go wrong. Like a good farmer, this is more about service and getting out of the way than anything. Still, it’s good to have some idea of how a tomato plant grows and fruits if you want to be a farmer.

What magic then does a  Zen teacher have to enlighten their students? I bow to Norman Fisher who has quoted the following classic Zen exchange in his own description of what a teacher is:

The great Zen teacher Huangbo strides into the hall and says to the assembled monastics, “You people are all dreg-slurpers! If you go on like this, when will you ever see today? Don’t you know that in all of China, there are no teachers of Zen?” A monastic comes forward and says to him, “Then what about all those people like you who set up Zen places that students flock to like birds?” Huangbo replies, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.”

How wonderful that the teacher has no magic to enlighten you. Whenever I was stuck, my teacher, Kyogen, who unfailingly held the space waiting for me through thick and thin, used to say, “It’s like I am on one mountain and you are on an adjacent mountain.  I can look over and see on your path the large boulder there in front of you.” He could tell me what he saw, maybe even offer a few tips, but there is no way he could help me around a single obstacle. That had to come from my own two feet. And this is the way the teaching staff is passed on generation after generation where we are all teachers and students clarifying the great matter of life and death.

Palm to palm,


Dharma Q/A: How is Awe Connected to Wisdom?

Your question reminds me of my teacher’s oft quoted passage from the Prajna Paramita, the ancient teaching manual, if you will, describing how to rely not upon our usual feelings and opinions but instead, rest in emptiness, or boundlessness, as the source of wisdom.

A bodhisattva does not stand in form, perception or in feeling, in will or consciousness, or any skandha whatsoever. In Dharma’s true nature alone is she standing. Then that is a  bodhisattva’s practice of wisdom, the highest perfection. Change or no change, suffering or ease, the self and the non-self, the lovely and repulsive – just one suchness in this emptiness they are.

There is a kind of awe in this passage, an apprehension of the groundless condition of our experience, with a holistic view that contains all paradox. What is awe, but an experience that arrests and pierces this protective insulated self with an encounter that cannot be grasped, reduced to something else – a moment immediate, unequivocal, humbling and enlivening. From the pyramids to spring pansies, we can simply partake. I think our practice makes us more prone to awe, for we need to get out of our heads and in touch with the extraordinary happenings around us. Awe and wisdom share an edge of letting go of the limited self’s view and entering open handed into life for life’s sake. However, if we try to grab onto and make something special and private from awe or wisdom as owned experiences, they are immediately lost. “Postcards from emptiness” as Suzuki Roshi quipped. Both the sunset and the extended warm hand cannot belong to anyone, but simply invite our full participation in the form of surrender. Where awe points to an inner apprehension, wisdom takes awe and motivates a response in line with our true nature. So the next time awe emerges, we might ask the question, “How now?” What is the way? Taking a step from here is the spirit of Zen.

Dharma Q/A: Angered by Other’s Opinion

Since the election, you’ve been talking about the importance of the practice of “dropping the divide” and “seeking understanding” when meeting others we disagree with, but I can hardly get passed my angry reaction to some people that goes “You’re completely wrong!”  

You’re not alone in this dilemma – many of us in this culture are out of practice meeting face to face with people who think differently, having developed a social sphere replete with information that fits into our basic frame of life. This election has burst the bubble of that comfort – so this is an excellent place of practice, to cultivate embracing difference without the extremes of helplessness or hate that makes the divide between self and other appear impossible. We can begin with curiosity as to why someone’s verbal opinion feels so threatening to us in the moment.

Here are three practices to move from stuck to compassion. They follow the progression of our three Pure Precepts – to cease from harm, do good, and do good for others. The final commentary goes like this:

Embrace all things and conditions. Leap beyond the holy and the unholy. Let us rescue ourselves together with all beings.   

One: Cease from Harm. When faced with someone’s opinion or idea that is offensive, take responsibility for what do you do. Notice your body, the emotional charge, the tightening and sense of fight or flight. Do I feel compelled to make a rebuttal or counter attack, or escape? If we can simply pause and notice, we can ask ourselves, in this moment, where is the threat?

Most of the times, we take what is said too personally, but if we can step out of that reactive sense of threat and notice that we’re actually safe in the moment, we can shift from defensiveness and attack mode to curiosity and engagement.

Dropping the self here doesn’t mean we don’t value our own life experience, our commitment to Buddhist values, and what we do know of the world. Practice means forgoing fixed views. Embrace this paradox – having views while letting go of views. That is the art of Zen.

Two: Do Good. Doing good here means forgetting about convincing someone else of the rightness your ideas and the wrongness of theirs, though you might disagree, and instead offering a gesture of what is good. I meet you as a being with intrinsic value. In our social connections, good comes in many forms – being curious, being honest and respectful, being willing to be present and authentic with this person with whom you disagree. You may get no reward for this at all, but good should be done nonetheless.

If someone says to you, “I’m tired of all these immigrants getting special treatment in this country. Why don’t they go back home?” how do you empathize with their frustration without compromising your own integrity? “It sounds like an important issue to you. I wonder what you’re thinking about that?” “Wow, we think really differently about this – what do you hope will change?” or even, “Sometimes that’s hard for me to hear, but I’m willing to try to find out about your experience.”

Instead of combating what you think is a wrong idea by judging the person and thereby cutting off the heart, try to uncover what’s underneath this difference to find common values. Don’t be in a hurry. In Buddhism, this is always this one common truth: We all suffer and wish to end suffering. We are all subject to greed, hate and delusion, which when clarified becomes generosity, loving kindness and wisdom.

Three: Do Good for Others. After we have some practice becoming safe being in the presence of someone with different ideas and opinions, if there’s any measure of openness, here is the moment to connect ideas to action, for ideas are at once, merely words, and also, the basis of mindstates that create great harm. Given the larger context, how do we stay connected to the other and share our own experience? What is most intimate is most influential. “Can I share with you my experience? My neighbor’s from Mexico. She works three jobs to send her kids to school.  On Fridays we go out for pizza together and I’m concerned about their welfare because the youngest is being bullied at school. I wonder if there’s a better way to make sure the next generation has work ahead of them?”

In Zen, no one gets voted off the island. Suppressing and shaming someone for their ideas makes them gather steam as we have come to observe in the last few months. Bringing your practice to others means meeting the truth of the person before you without defensiveness, and it is that fierce compassion, not the words we speak, that becomes the most important dharma gate to cultivating wise views that serve life.

With palms together,