Feeding the Hungry Ghosts

Giving rise to the awakened mind, we unconditionally offer a bowl of pure food to all the hungry ghosts in every land to the farthest reaches of vast emptiness in the ten directions, including every atom throughout the entire dharma realm. We invite all our departed ancestors going back to ancient times, the spirits dwelling in mountains, rivers, and earth, as well as demonic spirits from the untamed wilderness, to come and gather here.
– Offeratory from Segaki Ceremony

Who are these ghosts and what do they want from us?

On a drizzly October morning, ten of us gathered at Empty Field to prepare for Segaki, an adaptation of a traditional Japanese ceremony called “Feeding the Hungry Ghosts.” This elaborate enactment is rooted in an ancient story of the Mogallana seeking council after he is troubled by repeated dreams of his deceased mother in anguish in the realm of the “gaki.” The Buddha directs Mogallana how to make her an offering. Gaki are hungry ghosts, beings who are profoundly hungry yet unable to take in the food, depicted with extended bellies, a symptom of malnutrition, and skinny long throats that do not allow food to pass. This is truly a mythic image made for our insatiable modern appetites and how we hunger for something vitally alive that we try to fill with stuff that only makes us hungrier.

Though we contemporary types are quick to dismiss anything that looks superstitious or “high church,” if we look closely, the anatomy of this ceremony holds deep wisdom for us and offers healing and wholeness that leaps beyond the psychological or symbolic. This unusual ritual, both somber and celebratory, has a lot of power to it and comes complete with Gregorian chant, noisemakers, candy on the altar, and processing around the engawa tossing flowers to the night sky. It is something to experience directly. Kindness is offered to the “ghosts” without doctrine. Somehow, in this wild act together, we both release and are released from our karma at the same time.

And so, together, amidst the falling ash leaves, our group spent the day travelling the wisdom of the evening ceremony’s contours – a progression that begins by invoking our spiritual guides and setting our intention before inviting and feeding our “ghosts” and honoring those who have died in the past year. This year, our purpose was to do the inner preparation for the ceremony by working with a particular personal unresolved relationship (one of the many ways to understand what is meant by “ghosts”). Though consequences from seen and unseen causes and conditions are endless, some of the most troublesome karma we experience, our heaviest burdens, emerge from fissures in important past relationships – mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, relatives and teachers, those we have allowed into our hearts, by choice or birth. By taking up a single conflicted relationship from the past that has impacted us in some way, the ten of us spent time finding out what it means to really let go.

Although zazen directs to “let go” of our stories, some stories are not easily “meditated away” but instead call on us to bring forth the energy of turning towards these “ghosts” with fresh wisdom, not the familiar narrative, but with true heart and clear seeing. One thing I witness as a teacher repeatedly is that given half a chance to meet one another intimately and take a dharma eye towards our karmic conditioning, it becomes apparent that our lives are truly extraordinary. What is our own familiar chronology often turns out to be, for another, the making of a great novel. Taken as a whole, all our joys and struggles – grappling with the sudden suicide of a dear uncle, the sister against whom we could never measure up, the friend who secretly became a lover of your spouse– all of the difficulties, unforeseen and wholeheartedly chosen, make up our karmic inheritance. What we do with these events is nothing short of remarkable as something deep inside us attempts over and over to become whole. Sometimes we need to take up our story wholeheartedly in order to let it go.

This is what was learned about the release of karma.


Release cannot begin before we completely accept our present moment experience of what has come to pass.

When calling to mind those times of betrayal or hurt, we often find ourselves in an impossible position where part of us wants to let go of something and another part says, “But I can’t!” or, “I don’t want to.” It’s easy to imagine letting go means being free from pain or forgetting about things that have happened. Another part of us bristles thinking that letting go means not responding to or condoning past actions. There are many misunderstandings about this, which is why we begin the process of letting go with returning to ourselves, entering into the real experience we are having without judgment, aversion or grasp. There is deep wisdom in the Segaki ceremony that opens by calling on the strength of practice and Kanzeon, the heartmind of compassion, as well as the guides from all directions in the Sweet Gate Scripture, to help protect a space within which we can become clear witnesses to what is present before we invite in the hungry ghosts. We need to ready ourselves, to be grounded and clear.

When working with past conflicted relationships, while in our conceptual mind we may acknowledge what has transpired, what is called for in the heart is a full body knowing of pain and hurt without turning away, analyzing, judging and getting caught in the story of what has happened. He did this because he is this way, or I think I have to do so and so to let go. Putting aside all analysis, should, shouldn’ts, could haves, and plans and instead, we stay right in this spot and invite the heart of compassion. Our vespers chant that opens the ceremony, has a familiar sweet prayer for those of us familiar with it: Do, do the work within my heart.

This is the true beginning of healing and atonement. To have the accepting eyes of sangha bear witness to this, resting in what is true and noticing the ways we’ve tried to avoid or manage our experience in ways that have not served us or others. To be able to be oneself and know and accept, I feel hurt and shame and sadness, simply as the truth of this moment, makes all the difference. Often, it is important to stay here a bit for longer than is comfortable, until we can say without a fight, Yes.


Meditating on the one who has hurt us restores the other to their humanity.

The practice of Zen is the practice of the harmony of difference and sameness. Another way to say this is “Not one. Not two.” Most people think that when in conflict with another, the problem is that they have become separate, which is how it often appears. But if we look closely, it may be the case that in truth, they have lost their “otherness” to us and have become part of our own self enclosed inner world. Through singular images, rehearsal and judgment, the other individual is reduced to someone unchangeable, stuck, and nonresponsive in our psyche. We carry them around with us unchanged. We conclude things like, he or she always or never or will never. We even obsess and formulate compelling analysis of their motivation and short comings causing their behavior. Throughout this rumination, they cease to participate in the living process and flow of change. Being open to finding a new way begins the shift.

Once rooted in the mind of compassion, by calling the other person to mind, we begin to return the other to their otherness, to their “not oneness” we might say in Zen. Do we really know the other person? How the person sees us? That they are unchanged or unaffected by what has unfolded? What are their hopes and struggles? What might they regret or have suffered? Just by calling them to mind and looking again, we make space for more a larger view.
One of the most poignant moment of the Segaki ceremony that speaks to this is right in the middle when the doshi calls out toward the Segaki altar a set of call and response phrases (dharanis) three times. Completely piercing the stillness in zendo, these particular chants are meant to banish all fear and give the gaki the precepts. They are unequivocal, bold, loving and clear. The act is a kind of gesture that suggests the ghosts will one day travel back into the human realm, the spiritual state most conducive to practice and awakening.

This is mirrored in our human relationships. Letting go of our reactivity and judgment, we begin to see through the other who lives in our inner world unskillful behavior and return them to their true nature, ungraspable. By simply accepting our own experience completely, new ground opens up right in this moment to begin to see clearly the humanity of the other. We can pause and look again, be surprised by new findings. Relax. We may see the love of an abusive mother, the fear from someone who has criticized us, the loneliness of a friend who betrayed our confidence. We also begin to admit the ways our defenses may have harmed the ones who have harmed us hidden by justifications and blindness to how we try to right wrongs in unskillful ways.


Release is not an action of getting rid of something, but allowing things to take their natural course.

During the entire day of our retreat, bursts of yellow translucent ash leaves lit from behind by the afternoon sun, floated through the sky like confetti. As I looked up from some journaling, I noticed how easy it appeared, once the juice of making sugar for the tree is spent, in an imperceptible moment, the leaf just drops, carried and twirling on a little breeze before gently dropping to the earth where it will again serve more life. After doing the hard motion of turning towards our suffering and karmic inheritance, true release begins much in the same way as we return to things as they are. At this point, nothing is forced or pushed away, but instead we can allow the process to take its natural course. Rooting deeply in our experience, not our stories of our experience, we begin to allow the other to be the other.

At the end of our Segaki ceremony, after the ghosts are fed and sent back to complete their karmic journey, we each throw slips of paper into the wood stove fire upon which are written the particulars of the karma we wish to release. On the back of the paper is the word “immaculate.” The fire is the fire of change and purification and we sit in by the embers taking it in the body, seeing it is true. This immaculate reminds us that from the point of view of “Not two” there is no problem, no foul, no self, no other. This moment is always perfect as it is. At once, our karmic lives are also pure and clear – like a lotus in muddy water, says our verse, rooted in the mud but not of it.

It is a paradox that this letting go is not a willful action, but a willful surrender that cannot be reduced to something psychological or symbolic. Letting go is a mutual act of all things reconnecting – it is the ground of being, and anything but “getting rid of.” Letting go and being let go of are two sides of the same coin. In this “not one,” we can accept the pain and release the artificial hold we have in our minds, a hold that is a felt sense in the body, that if we keep our anger, ideas, we will somehow right what has been wronged. If we keep our resentment at the other for the ways we have felt hurt, we have a temporary sense of power and protection that costs much in the long run.
We do this ceremony every year, renewing and releasing. We end the ceremony by enjoying the yummy sweets offered on the altar, returning to daily life, talking about ordinary things and allowing what has transpired to have its own natural time. This work is difficult which is why we need the support of the sangha to travel these roads where ghosts jump out from the untamed wilderness to scare us.

The natural course of things. One day, the transparent tear shaped leaf, catching a breeze opens up to the blue sky. Completely seen through, enjoying the ease before it returns as an offering to the root.

Palm to palm,

Dreaming Mind: The Eyes in Sleep

Every dewdrop manifested in every realm is a dream. The dream is the glowing clarity of the one hundred grasses. ~ Dogen Zenji

If we’re really interested in waking up, we should befriend our dreams. Through our dreams we study the self in its unadorned form. We forget the self when we realize the nature of dreaming. Night after night we dip in and out of this stream of images, thoughts, and feelings, plot lines that beguile, embarrass and inspire us. We run, chase, fight, fly, love and awaken to great “Aha’s!” in our dreams. And yet, few practitioners I know pay much attention to these nightly excursions even though we practice exquisite awareness of our day waking thoughts and mind states in zazen.

The beauty of our dreams for this “study of the self” is that they are not constructed by our willful ego, but instead often bring forth the very thing we turn away from, the obstacle that blocks our opening, release or integration of our spiritual studies. In our dreams, we play out what is foreign to our conscious ideas of ourselves – showing up naked to the meeting, screaming at a close friend or having sex with the wrongest person – ways we would not allow or admit in our ordered universe. And yet, in these night missives, we come into contact with an intrinsic sense of deep knowing, encounter inexpressible beauty, and meet with great sages who love and know us completely. What keeps us from looking deeply into this phenomenon of mind?

In Japanese, the word for dream is yume, meaning “the eyes in sleep.” We could also say this is what we aspire to in Zen, the see in the dark, to have insight. For several years now I have been working with students and groups to help us develop a dharma eye for our nightly dreams – to enter into their secret language, a language that is at once very personal to each of us and at the same time, universal. Jung said a dream was “speech that is not yet ripe.” How familiar to us in practice, this wordless “felt sense” of change along the path.

Practicing with the images and actions in our dreams, the stranger at the door, the odd placement of the flower vase, requires us to let go of our initial interpretations and desire to know what a dream “means” and instead, reenter the dream on the dream’s terms, in the world of images and felt sense. To do this is to befriend the dream and allow it to speak its own message through practicing with the dream. While interpretive philosophies may have their place, to reduce a dream to its meaning is to kill the dream. It is like reducing Starry Night or Water Lilies or Beethoven’s Fifth to their meaning or conclusion. All dream images have the potential to carry multiple meanings and unfold in different ways over time, so to keep the dream in its live form, we write it out in the present tense and practice “don’t know” mind.

When I first took up practice, my dreams became vivid, intense and completely riveted my attention. I dreamt of collapsing buildings, fires and floods as a great dismantling was taking place. I faced fears by confronting strange attackers with knives and embracing the deep grief of forgotten past losses. Ancient corpses floated to the surface of the water to be reconciled, old lovers came to give complaint or say goodbye. More and more, as the path became established, I was getting out of my car that was driving me and started riding a horse and walking. Out of the shadows, new visions began to emerge over time, unspeakably beautiful sunsets, wise old masters arrived with the truth so simple and obvious, and a marriage of opposites took place. Throughout this period of time, my teacher, Kyogen, would very naturally engage these dreams with me in our meetings and also share his own remarkable formative dreams he had when in the monastery. I took for granted that this was an integral part of practice and when I later had the chance to do a group dream workshop, knew instantly that I would take this into my teaching. I am always humbled to hear a dream, no matter how simple, it is intimate expression.

Many people tell me they don’t remember their dreams as if this skill is somehow intrinsically lacking in them, but for most people, this is simply a matter of interest and willingness. Research has shown that a few simple changes to our routines increase our ability to remember our dreams – setting the intention to do so when you go to sleep and upon waking, the first thing, having a journal close by and immediately writing even the faintest wisp of the dream. At first it might look like this: “There was an old house” or “a dog” or “angry.” It isn’t important to have a plot line (many of which are manufactured in the remembering of the dream anyway) at all – what is important is to begin to reestablish a relationship with the state we call dreaming. All of us can just begin with some scratch paper and a pen without too much effort.

When we look into our dreams as a group, what I find remarkable and reliable is the way that our dreams characterize our obstacles, our worst fears and contain within them the dharma gate to work with these obstacles. For instance, we may be searching through stark corridors for the right doorway, or looking for our teacher who keeps receding or changing into someone else, and right in the moment of despair or surrender, there it is, right in the dream, a flower, a golden child, the missing key. Dreams help us find the blocked door to our opening of the heart and offer a gate often hidden to our conscious mind that wants to plan out how our practice will go and what we’re prepared to do. When we work in groups, it is the eyes of other dreamers that point this out to us, not in an interpretative way, but because of our common suffering and our common enlightenment.

And then there is this forgetting the self. To forget the self is to study the act of creating the self, that is, dreaming. Our identities, the stories we weave together from fragments cobbled together over time, are truly great dreams. To awaken, we awaken to the nature of the dream within the dream. In Muchu Setsumu, Zen Master Dogen says enlightenment is “expressing a dream within a dream.” By befriending our nightly dreams, we learn to turn towards all mind phenomena with curiosity and openness, to notice the dreaming mind. This life we call “real” and the dream we call an “illusion” from a Buddhist point of view is not so different from each other. Our narratives, selections of images and impulse, relationships and plot lines, while so very convincing are really dreams. I return to Dogen Zenji’s offering that to awaken is to awaken within the dream and clarifying this dream does not make the dream go away. We awaken and continue to dream, but the whole world is changed forever.

A star at dawn
A bubble in a stream
A flash of lightening in a summer’s cloud
A flickering lamp
A phantom and a dream
So is this fleeting world

(Verse of the Diamond Sutra)

Sweet dreams.

Palm to palm,

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

Freedom in Words – the Art of Copying

One of the conundrums of a practice that points to the truth outside of words, is the question of how to engage the formidable amount of words written to convey this mystery. I remember long ago taking my pile of Zen books up to the counter at our local Smith Family Book Store for purchase, Three Pillars of Zen, Everday Zen, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind (and then some) only to have the cashier look at me quizzically saying, “Um, isn’t that just about, like, being in the moment?” Unable at the time to offer a cogent defense as to why I needed these books to realize something so simple, I sheepishly bought my reads (and over the years many more stacks after that) pouring through each new expression and insight. It was only years later that I began to understand the importance of beyond words through intimacy with words.

When I first came to practice, before my many years of book store runs, I had some understanding that my intellectual bent would be a hindrance in Zen, so I decided to read nothing about it from that point onwards, and to Readinghave no iconography in my home. I went on a book diet, and simply attended the local Zen sitting group, practicing being “in the moment” as the cashier had implied was the obvious point. It was an excellent way to begin; just absorbing what was being talked about in the group, and listening deeply in a wordless way to the silence of zazen, resisting the impulse to read about what it all meant. Lots of sitting. In the wee hours of the night – vitally awake, a distant train heard clearly. I felt unburdened and intrigued by this discipline. But then one day, I encountered the writings of Zen Master Dogen. When I first heard the melody of his Genjo Koan, I was arrested and instantly drawn in; something inside me perked up and took note, something nameless and yet undeniable. It was then that I realized it was time to move on from that very informative but limited (and dualistic) pursuit of awakening by keeping words at bay. With some practice under my belt, I began to read in earnest.

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening. When you see forms or hear sounds, fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharma intimately. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.
~ Dogen in Genjo Koan

Before I understood a word of what Dogen was saying, I intuitively took up the practice of copying that I was introduced to in a Louts Sutra class, instead of trying to figure out his meaning. Because Dogen’s manner of writing is a circular blend of poetry and prose – unfolding classical exchanges between teachers and students through exhaustive inquiry – his language, like no other, invites us to directly experience the indivisibility of the truth while using representations of the truth. It is wholly engaging body-and-mind. While we can distill many cogent rational arguments from his writing, returning to the originals continually yields new subtler meanings.

So the practice of copying evolved for me over the years, leaving the stiff properness of its classical form behind and instead becoming something life giving and dynamic. The practice of writing these words over and over has become a central part of my teaching and still informs my deeper mind. The act of simply copying words others have written helps slow down our familiar meaning-making mental apparatus, so quick to grab the old associations, and enter into a piece of writing like a landscape or garden in which one takes a refreshing walk. For those inclined to burn through one dharma book after the other, it is very good medicine indeed.

This might beg the question, why do we need to study at all? While it is true, as my cashier pointed out, that all of Zen is aimed at clarifying one single matter, it is one thing to realize this and another to express and manifest it in the world. In our chant The Precious Mirror Samadhi, it says, A baby babbles/ Is anything said or not?/ In the end it says nothing/ For the words are not yet right. A baby expresses our oneness so beautifully, completely in the moment and the environment, but the baby cannot communicate this in all the places and ways that this samadhi can serve to awaken others. A baby cannot yet say to another, I love you. I’m sorry. Here, let me carry that for you. Without this sense of the other as other, we cannot clarify the dharma that harmonizes the one and the many. My teacher taught us that we must learn to express our awakening with all our capacities so that it serves others. Resolving the duality inherent in language is the key.

Because we are beings with the capacity for language, we can learn to practice with its double edged capacity. On one hand, language helps inspire us to turn the mind to what’s most essential, to walk into those places of growth we otherwise avoid, and reach beyond our limited maps of self and other. On the other, language also tends to reinforce our sense of separation, creates ideas of linear reality, and can keep us stuck in an endless self referential loop of conceptual knowledge like a hall of mirrors from which there is no escape. For this illness, like poetry, the practice of copying helps us leap beyond words, through words, neither grasping nor rejecting.

To that end, I’d like to share with you these simple instructions for copying that have evolved for me over time. To begin, choose any piece of classical Zen writing that intrigues you, some of the old Chinese masters or daily liturgy are the best to work with like Master Hongzhi, or the Sandokai or Hokyazanmai. A koan is excellent. (You need not love what you are reading. At a retreat recently, I got a wonderful compliment. After leading a copying exercise, one woman said to me after years of studying Dogen, she “hated him a little less.” We laughed, because I know she has many allies in that dislike and somehow that warmed my heart.)

It’s important to let go of any need for anything particular to happen while copying. Just note your genuine direct experience. Be open. Settle into a comfortable quiet place with paper or journal, a favorite writing implement and take a moment to settle into zazen for a few moments, then simply begin to copy the writing word for word.

As you continue, don’t rush or worry about finishing or how your handwriting looks. Write as if you were writing a letter to a dear friend. If you make a mistake, simply correct it as you go. See if you can taste the words. Like chanting practice, allow the words to flow through your writing without engaging in discursive additions, but shift into a felt sense, that is, notice in the body what it feels like to write these words. Is there tension, warmth, energy movement, lightness? Whatever is there, simply notice and allow that to be. When you notice a particular affinity for a word or phrase, note this by either underlining or putting an asterisk in the margin. Again, let go of getting discursively engaged, but just note what pops out to you.

Whenever you feel the urge, simply pause, put down the pen, and take a few breaths, then return to the writing. If you finish the piece you are writing, start again. You may decide to set a timer to do this for only a period of time, say 15 – 30 minutes, and let go of producing anything. (For many spiritual traditions, the perfection of copying was an essential goal to carry forward the integrity of the teachings, but this copying is for one’s own digestion. Though you may choose to write and share this with others, producing something is not the point.) End your writing session with a bow to your writing, and return to zazen. Notice the body.

As an optional follow up exercise, go back to your writing and copy out those words, phrases or sentences that have stood out to you. Then from that, choose the one that has the most energy with it no matter how obscure – favor the heart’s resonance of the mind’s sense of intrigue or preference. Then begin to write about this, pausing and asking in writing from time to time, “What do I mean by [insert a term or phrase]?” and then continue.

And yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
~ Dogen

Blossoms fall. What do I mean by blossoms? Yesterday morning I noticed the plum blossoms evenly scattered on the courtyard stone that stopped me in my tracks on the way to my office. They seemed to just appear, the day before none, then hundreds. I felt the loss of the full bloom of the tree and never really looked. The plum said, You missed it, my friend, where are you rushing to? I had to get to the office. What do I mean by “had to?”…

Copying in this manner is intended, like all Zen forms, to be a full body and mind practice. Copying is good practice for those who find themselves seeking the answers in their reading, and also for those who feel shy with engaging the study of the dharma. It allows us a way of opening up to a deeper knowing we intuitively already have. It invites us to integrate this into the fabric of our karmic lives, in the particulars of what we care for, what we live for. I have watched many people open up to ways the dharma loosens and pries at our stuck places, helping us let go and begin to express the dharma fluidly in our everyday life. I’ve seen some make connections that wouldn’t have occurred to them through the rational mind that seeks to make connections limited by our unconscious assumptions.

Enjoy this practice. Please, feel free to share with me any experiences while trying this copying practice or new variations you’ve added. And to my bodhisattva cashier at Smith Family Bookstores, I reply, “Yes. Exactly! It’s about being in the moment. And how endlessly subtle this is.”

Palm to palm,

Acknowledgements & Notes: Gratitude to Abbess Gyokuko Carlson of DRZC for introducing copying in the Lotus Sutra class many years ago and my friend and colleague, Lay Zen Teacher Joshin O’Hara of the Village Zendo, who gave me the endlessly giving phrase: “What do I mean by…..?” For those wishing to take up copying Dogen, the Tanahashi collection, Moon in a Dewdrop, is a good place to start.

Happy New Year: 2014 Reflections

Dear Sangha and EF/ZW Friends,

As I look over the pictures from this last year, I am struck by the amazing gift of practicing together in a small sangha, a place where we are seen and known, and a place where we can be ourselves as we address our deepest concerns and day to day struggles in this human life. In a year where there was sadness at the loss of my dear teacher, Kyogen, there was also joy in our group. Where there was grief over the strife and environmental ills of the world, we nourished insight and compassion.

Below are a few remembrances of a very remarkable year of practice. Heartfelt gratitude to all who cooked, cleaned, organized the zendo, crafted oryoki sets, led chants, made bank deposits, donated money and goods, greeted newcomers, sculpted altars, shared your lives with others, and most importantly, practiced the way of Zen just as you are. Deep bows to Aido and her inspiring koan play and our visiting teachers, Mushin, Genko, Mala, and Kenshin. And Yudo, oh those exquisite oryoki bowls – endless teachings! Please continue to value one another and the nourishing place we are creating. Blessings for the New Year  we call 2015, a good year to awaken with all beings.

~ Palm to palm,


Practice with the Zen Altar

altar-cropped-with-flowersThis week we’re talking about Zen forms and rituals and my mind has been drawn to the ancient and curious human construction of an altar. On opening day, it seemed the thing to do to offer up on the altar a dish of seeds, sake cup of water and a harvest knife with a handle made smooth of twenty years and an impeccably sharp edge – a touchstone to begin our season. And then there are the little altars, secular and religiously themed, in nooks and crannies in our homes filled with statues, earth offerings and pictures of loved ones. The beauty of this Zen practice in this country is in the zest of its living form made humble by ordinary lives, a method and ritual yet to be buried under the accretions of historical imperatives. I would like to look at the teaching of the altar in the temple and encourage a questioning relationship.

An altar is fundamentally an unhidden truth, a Buddha or bodhisattva in full view held in a suspension of ledges that both give and receive. The temple altar is what catches the eye when you enter while at the same time, being that which beholds you, a gaze with a clear view of the room. It is an orienting presence no matter where you are – entering, exiting, bowing, sitting, or offering. There is never a moment the altar is not still and present. Many a time over the years I have walked to the altar and been surprised by my sense of fear, and although it would be easy to say at this point that that fear was unfounded, I think of it as fear for good reason because we need to step beyond the threshold of what we hold certain. One of the reasons altars seem to historically become grander over time is to ensure a sense of awe in the uninitiated. But you don’t need giant sculptures to be awed. To be in the presence of our own truth is to lay bare the tepidness of our dreams, to know a kind of grace despite the limitations of this human view.

Before the altar, our human motion is to approach. To walk as we are and make offerings. Offerings to whom we ask in a non-theistic religion? This is a good question. I cannot tell you if there are beings who receive the scent of incense and come to our aid, but I can tell you that to live in light of an altar is a transformative act for the one who makes the approach. It might be useful to take time to consider where the altars are in your life. What happens for you as you walk towards or away from the altar? How do you stand before it or surreptitiously glance? Do you think it is only for special people in robes to mediate a connection? Are there old memories from past religious experiences good or bad? Do issues of worthiness appear? Can you be there as a question?

When the altar is no longer confined within the temple walls, but becomes the whole of the universe with nothing missing, we find a way to move in the world in right relationship. The whole of the path can be described through the activity of engaging an altar and the teachings of flowers and light. (Or you could say flowers and fire, the other side of burning.) Flowers are the unexpected gesture of plants in which something completely new is brought forth from a series of expansions and contractions of green growth. Fire and light are universal symbols of purification and illumination. Flower and light depend upon one another, the right and the left hand. There is much to say about this, but my intention is more about encouraging us to make a fresh relationship with this ancient form, to bring our questions there and allow something new and vital to touch our hearts as we walk this path together, straight between blooms and brightness.

In gassho,

Zen Practice in the Garden

sunflower-single-yellow1Perhaps I love the garden most for this combination of engagement with the world’s needs and those long hours when I find myself alone in paradise in the cool of the day. The evening light is slanted and pale green and wind moves through the gaps in the dark rosemary hedge like blue smoke over the uncut lavender. Ask me then for three good reasons to garden and I will tell you: for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, and for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind.

– Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

To be a farmer in this modern world is to engage a kind of intuitive Zen training. It delivers to your doorstep the intensity of love and loss amongst the practical deeds required for sustaining life. It juxtaposes visions of perfection with the ordinariness of the unfinished and the mundane. It forces the question of life and death before you’re inclined to ask. Like all spiritual paths, to farm requires great will and great surrender. What could be missing on the path of inquiry into the meaning of this life?

The answer of course, is nothing. And yet, without a method, we have the human habit of being blind to what is most close to us and disconnected from our purpose. This is true whether you live in paradise or prison. (Sometimes we’re in both one after the other!) Through Zen practice, this wholehearted act of just sitting, we learn how to care for the garden in an entirely new way.

It is in this empty field that I welcome the return of spring, meeting new and old friends amidst the sunflowers and oryoki bowls. To serve this dharma hall, to balance the calling of formal practice and field activity, and to meet one another in our fullness, is the most wonderful gift I can imagine for this lifetime. The one right way to practice is a moving target. We are all very fortunate to live in a time of great renewal in the west where the koan of how to integrate Zen practice outside the historical prescription of the monastic tradition presents endless possibility and contradiction.  This friction is actually an asset – it keeps us from grasping onto easy formulas and revitalizes the intimate conversation of what it means to engage spiritual practice. When we move from our true center, the answer to that question will ultimately takes care of itself.

In a recent Insight Journal article, David Loy, who writes about Buddhism and climate change, passes on this lovely quote from Nisargadatta: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two, my life turns.” I look forward to sharing this dharma garden, in all its minutiae and metaphor with you all this coming season, for beauty, for the coming apart of beauty, and for the opportunity to begin again with no design in mind.


Many bows to good friends on the path, and Wendy, a gardener’s gardener.


Palms together,



Johnson, W. (2008). Gardening at the dragon’s gate. New York: Bantam Dell.

Loy, D. (2010). Bursting the bubbles. Insight Journal, 33.