Buddhists Responding

Three weeks after the election, many of us came together last Tuesday to share our serious concerns, confusions and questions about how we feel called to respond. It is easy to get instantly overwhelmed when we try to come up with ways to address the formidable suffering caused by our cultural divide, racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, and destruction of the natural world among other social ills. While it was widely expressed that we were grateful for having a practice to rely upon at all, many of us also realize our practice is being seriously tested.  As a teacher, I want to suggest that Buddhist social action does not rely upon the usual thinking on how to solve social problems, but instead, real change emerges from our clarity of intention and insight into the true nature of things.

While there are many incredible organizations working on issues of social justice and environmental awareness, to take action in the world in the spirit of Zen is not always valued in these groups. But because we separate church and state, we Buddhists do not always have a venue to explore political discussions in the sangha. Like topics of sex and money, the theme is most often politely sidestepped. However, the imperative of this moment in our history asks us to find a way to do so in the context of the buddhadharma. Everything that makes up our lives is part of our practice, the causes and conditions of social and environmental ills, and who we ask to represent us in government, is no exception.

Rather than align with the usual ideas we have about how to respond in the political domain, I want to suggest that action emerging out of zazen is the most powerful response each of us have to offer. This kind of action may look 1000 different ways. It brings with it vitality and liberating insight to others. Its measure has to do with our ongoing clarity about self, other and the interrelationship of all being.  With these three aspects aligned, we are like a strong rooted tree that gives forth fruit and offers shade in the world.

How do I let my response emerge from zazen?

To start, take a moment to put aside all ideas of should we have from affinity groups and the media, and instead, without mental rumination, sit deeply with the felt sense of events that are unfolding around us. Hold a single event or individual or situation in your heart lightly. What emerges to meet this? We only need to find one authentic action rooted in compassion and wisdom to move our energy forward.

What is the measure of Zen social action?

A Stable Upright Rooted Self

Rather than base our action on preconceived ideas of right and wrong, or the reactive energies of fear and anger, an awakened response means clarifying our intention to act to benefit others. Action taken from a reactive heart/mind becomes protective and will not be skillful. Action that acknowledges that relative truth is multifaceted isn’t stuck in opposing opinions and explanations. We become interested in the questions, willing to be wrong to listen and learn. What comes forward from each of us without excessive deliberation and insistence upon a successful outcome, is the authentic path. Here, matters of large or small, effective or ineffective should or shouldn’t have little meaning – one’s response simply becomes “the thing to do.”

Embracing the Ecology of all Existence

 Rather than imagine a justified “right” side that will somehow get rid of the “wrong” folks, an awakened response recognizes our interconnected whole. Even if we can’t see it, everything somehow serves – from the mycellium in the duff to the tall Doug Fir, we are one ecology.  Demonizing an enemy or contempt of any “other,” a tactic often taken by political groups, is out of true with the buddhdharma. Recognizing ourselves in what we oppose is awakening. Rather than seeing a fixed evil “out there” that is cast out by the “good,” our Buddhist stories show us that what has been destructive is instead transformed and absorbed into a larger whole, taking its rightful place. For Buddhists, the real foe is always our blindness to delusion.

Branching Out to Meet Others with Compassion and Wisdom

Our interconnectedness doesn’t efface our differences. On the contrary, we come into harmony through recognition and interaction. Buddhist precepts guide our actions reminding us to leap beyond the holy and the unholy and embrace all things and conditions. Our precepts teach us about how to treat one another and our world, through honesty, encouraging life, respecting truth, equality, and generosity. By leaning into the precepts when we reach out to others means that we live from our own integrity and the offering from that place involves letting go, giving shade and fruit to others in whatever way we are so moved.  

So while there will be much resistance in the coming days to this administration, I want to encourage those of us who are people of practice to remember our vows, to reflect upon our actions and see if they align with the clarity of the rooted self, our ecological reality, and how we reach out to one another. There is no one way – which is why we are not a group with “A Buddhist Response” but instead, we are simply, Buddhists responding.

Already these responses are taking shape as we become more tender hearted towards one another and aware of the suffering of others, as we vow to protect the community garden next door, to meet the neighbor we’ve never met, and challenge the root of our own bias and delusion.   When we do this, our action is not burdensome, but instead, life giving, natural, and inspiring to others. The creativity that comes from the core of the heart is already worth a thousand petitions, a hundred marches in the street.

Let us inspire one another in the coming days.

With palms together,


Lambing Season: Listening and Practice of the Precepts

January. It’s lambing season. In the midst of constant cold 40 degree drizzle, thunder storms and winds at 60 mph, hail and occasional snow, dozens of beautiful little white twin lambs arrive in our pasture, often bleating in call and response to their mother’s voice. The lambs have no idea there is any other season in which to be born, and appear quite delighted to be alive. They wag their tails, enjoy a continual supply of milk, and scamper around with their siblings curious about everything that meets the eye. This morning, I was awoken by a persistent cry from a lamb and what sounded like a reply from its mother in the distance. I had been sick all week, and although Sunday morning is coveted time with tea and contemplation in bed, groggily I put on my clothes and went out to see what was up. It reminded me of an instance this past summer.

It was July and the farm was shorthanded and not having enough time to keep up with the weeding. I was in a bad mood, putting in lots of overtime to help us catch up, skipping dinner one night to go out to plug away at the large bulbing onion planting in a field we call “South Dakota.”  In my absorbing resentment, while I ruminated on “who dropped the ball to get us in this state,” I noticed in the distance a large sheep by the fenceline between our field and our neighbor’s property. The sheep was separated from the others in the flock, was baaahing steadily and would stop for some time, and start again. I couldn’t see anything from where I was and assumed it was perhaps in heat, calling to a neighboring male to announce that her dance card was open. I’m not sure why, but half way through my weeding, I decided to take a break and go over and investigate. It was only when I got right up to the sheep, that I saw, there tucked in the tall grass on our side of the fence, a single little lamb sitting peacefully, while the mother tried to call it back to her side of the fence. It was so small. It had slipped through the 8 by 8 inch hog wire sections and didn’t have the legs yet to get up. Instantly, I picked it up and squeezed it back through the fence section, and mother and offspring happily returned to the flock. The mother had likely been calling off and on for hours.

Later I worried what would have happened to that little lamb had nightfall come without being reunited with its mother, or had I just continued to ignore the mother’s distress call. I also noticed how simple it was to respond to the situation, without thought, when I saw what was needed. Though they technically belong to our neighbors, it made it easy today to just go and check on the lambs without deliberation. We are the ones close by. (They were all fine by the way, perhaps just enjoying a Sunday morning choir).

As we study the Buddhist precepts that include cultivating and encouraging life, and responding from a mind of interconnectedness, I like to emphasize to students how important it is for each of us to find where we already have these experiences of natural response to life, including people, plants and animals, where compassion is effortless.  Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, means “she who hears/perceives the cries of the world.” The Bodhisattva precepts call us to listen deeply, and often, right action follows from that activity without anything added. If there is no listening, sometimes we get stuck responding from our ideas of what we should do and get very entangled in an inner debate trying to predict outcomes.  For myself, when I was absorbed in my anger, I didn’t have space to listen, (well, I was listening, and that was to my very familiar “woe is me” soundtrack) until finally something drew me forward to meet this mother sheep.

Retrieving her lamb for her was not only saving the lamb, it was saving myself, from myself. So when we practice precepts deeply, it’s hard to say in the end who is helping whom. Saving all beings really means just that, saving all beings. My teacher likes to talk about practicing these precepts “from the inside out.” Often the precepts that read as prohibitory rules can feel very constrictive at first, and we can obscure their subtle action by imposing a spiritual superego to monitor, judge and criticize our actions, guaranteeing another part of us that will often secretly work to undermine that imposition and align with our instinct. The precepts go beyond this inner good/bad split and the goal of “finally becoming a good person,” and invite us to let go and become intimate with listening and responding. (Though genuine “feeling good” or joy does come with practicing for the sake of practicing).

Listening to lambs separated from their mothers means not only listening to those around us but listening as well to lost lambs within us. In zazen, we open up to our deepest innermost experience and widen our circle to the furthest horizon, nothing left out. Inviting our awareness in and down is equally balanced by expanding out and up. What are the lambs inside of us that need to be heard and returned? What forgotten innocence or tenderness could use our attention? How can we have empathy for others if we do not know what it feels like to be small, to be lost, to be lonely? Tending to these lost and cut off parts are also the practice of the Buddhist path, without which we become glib and pine for a transcendence that excludes this world, the world right before you this instant. The precepts have a particularly powerful quality when we practice from a place of “happy to be alive.”

Every lamb is born in the right season. Just listen.

Palm to palm,


Cultivating the Mind of Gratitude

When one learns giving well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving.  – Zen Master Eihei Dogen

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, if we can take a moment to look inward and ask ourselves the question

What does it mean to really give?

What is our response?

We may think of images of gatherings of friends and family, meals shared, gifts unwrapped, and perhaps the offering to community groups caring for others, to schools and spiritual centers. Maybe we recall times when we’ve given with love, and other times we’ve felt overburdened by demands, or have given too much and become depleted to the point of resentment or begrudging. We may have some judgment of ourselves or others as giving people or not – feeling selfish one moment or generous the next. We may consider the pain of the enormous inequities in the world, and those who lack basic goods, those with great excesses. While all of these conventional views of giving have merit, Zen practice invites us to brush these away and investigate the question from another direction entirely – one that starts from within by cultivating the mind of gratitude.

The mind of gratitude is our awakened heart that flowers from the ground of being we uncover in zazen – not as a special mind state separate from who you are, but intimate apprehension of this constantly giving and receiving universe right in this very place. Without changing anything, how is this moment complete giving and complete receiving? What is it you lack? Where does the fear of giving reside? To discover what it really means to give, we should pause, and notice what it really means to be alive in this moment to moment cycle of receiving and giving.

In zazen, taking the posture, letting go of the mind coursing through its abstract world, we come back to our root. Noticing the floor or earth holding you in the palm of its hand. Noticing the breath filling the lungs giving life. Noticing the sweet tickle of a bird trill. Noticing your exhalation feeding the ficus. Noticing how you keep the company of the one sitting beside you. Noticing how your practice allows others a place to come practice. Not one thing begrudged. When we wake up to how we truly exist, gratitude begins to take the place of fear and protectiveness that drives our withholding.

Waking up to the constant natural flow of all things invites our participation, a release of things that do not stay the same, entrusting flowers to the wind, and giving of ourselves that has to do with being our selves – being born and dying are both giving. I remember being with my mother when she died of lymphoma assisted by hospice. Being able to remain present and open and attend with my family this work of dying, breath by breath, I realized was the greatest gift she’d given to me, this teaching about the mystery of death when all the day to day exigencies are completely unimportant. My mother had a difficult life, and carried the burden of being toughened by alcoholism in the generation before, sexism of the time, and poverty of the Great Depression, but at the end, the power of this common passage was undeniable, and she shared it freely just by virtue of it happening, of her being who she was completely. At her funeral, I smile with the bittersweet memory of the song she requested – Frank Sinatra’s, I Did it My Way. That was my mother, undeniably. This is how dying is giving. She gave me the gift of clarity and choice.

So we can hold this question, what does it mean to be giving, let go of limited ideas of the social exchange of material goods and resources, and notice what emerges – find the mind of gratitude inside without having to add or take away. Of course, it is vitally important that we turn the tide of squandering material resources both personally and as a culture, but the doorway to that activity is to clarify the way we exist, completely dependent upon one another, to give to our neighbors, friends, or strangers like giving flowers to the wind. Our meal verse says: May we all realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver and gift. Coming to stillness, we can then move with the flow, and give with wisdom and compassion, including all dharmas, including ourselves.

Palms together, giving thanks,


Transforming Anger: A Brilliant Sea of Clouds

The Ninth Grave Precept

Do not indulge anger, cultivate equanimity.

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

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

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

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

Notice who really suffers from our anger.

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

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

~ In gassho,


Living within the Buddhist Precepts

Last week we talked about the Buddhist precepts, the ethical guidelines of how to live in harmony with one another and this great earth, as being a whole and complete practice unto themselves. In my tradition, the precepts are given and received as an entryway into practice, where we commit to do our best to engage and live with these guidelines. At each nodal point along the Zen path, the precepts are again given, received, and renewed. Finally, upon our passing from this world, they are conferred to us after our death.  What might seem like a simple set of rules common to many traditions – to do good, to do good for others, not to kill, steal and lie – become not so simple when we take them up in everyday life. Our vow is to sincerely engage and become intimate with them, for it is impossible to keep them perfectly.

There are many themes to unfold in the study of the precepts, but I want to bring out this very profound aspect unique to Buddhist ethics, that points to the reliance on awakened mind functioning among complex causes and conditions of the world. The precept we talked about this week is the one that says, “Do not steal – honor the gift not yet given.”  Its commentary from Bodhidharma and Dogen reads: “In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, holding no thought of gain is the precept of not stealing. The self and the things of the world are just as they are; the mind and its object are one. The gateway to enlightenment stands open wide.”

This commentary is asking us to reflect on the mind that steals, that is, the mind that sees objects separate from self, and moves from a sense of lack. Although we may not be robbing banks, we all partake of this deluded mind – when we want to steal some time, some credit for something we didn’t do, something perhaps that wasn’t freely given to us, or so called “petty theft” of small objects from the workplace. Practicing this precept is not about starting a criminal investigation, but simply honestly noticing our deep sense of lack, and opening up to the awakened original mind’s natural contentedness and appreciation for the abundance of what is already given – air, food, friendship, a flower, the sun, the rain. Zazen facilitates keeping these precepts by simply sitting with things as they are, not pushing, pulling, stealing or attacking. We must bring compassion to the stealing mind, and once noticed, let go of self vs. other, open the awareness to the truth that nothing can really be gained, nothing really lost – and move into action from that place, uniquely meeting the circumstances that are before you.

The precepts are not only a state of mind, but also an activity in the world. Below is one translation I like (borrowed with permission from Clouds in Water Zen Center) that uses language showing their activity in the world. Rather than rules that punish and are clouded by guilt and self condemnation, this way of precepts is about practicing with joy, in the way that shows us we already express this when we most true to our own heart. More on this later topic next time …

Palms together,


Three Collective Pure Precepts

With purity of heart, I vow to do no harm.
With purity of heart, I vow to do good.
With purity of heart, I vow to free all  beings.

Ten Momentous Prohibitory Precepts

1.  Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is.  I take up the way of Non-killing.

2. Being satisfied with what I have.  I take up the way of  Non-stealing.

3.  Encountering all creations with respect and dignity.  I take up the way of Not misusing sexuality.

4.  Listening the speaking from the heart.  I take up the way of Not speaking falsely.

5.  Cultivating a mind that see clearly.  I take up the way of Not being deluded and not giving or taking intoxicants.

6.  Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer.  I take up the way of Not talking about others errors or faults.

7.  Speaking what I perceive to be the truth without guilt or blame.  I take up the way of Not elevating oneself and blaming others.

8.  Using all the ingredients of my life.  I take up the way of Not being stingy and not attaching to anything, even the truth.

9.  Transforming suffering into wisdom.  I take up the way of Not indulging in anger.

10. Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking.  I take up the way of Not thinking ill of the three treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).


Collective Karma

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I am in the middle of David Loy’s catchy title Money, Sex, War and Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution and bow deeply to his call for Buddhists to develop a clearer understanding of the function of collective karma.  Loy points out the unconscious impact of institutionalized habitual ways of thinking and acting, group functions within which we are continuously embedded. The core themes in the title of the book, money, sex and war, become various strategies that exploit our need to make ourselves more real, filling an inner void with things or pleasure, a flight from our sense of unreality and lack. With even a little examination, it’s not hard to see the samsaric result in our lives and communities in this culture of never having enough money, never hooking up with the perfect partner, and engaging in endless military conflict to feel protected enough as a nation. Although collective karma is not the traditional understanding, I also feel that is not enough to wake up to the delusion of our individual creation of a separate self, but to also awaken to the group function of creation of separate group selves and the ways they are also subject to the laws of karma and to emptiness.

One of the problems is that collectives are more difficult to observe in the awakening process than individuals. How do groups wake up? Can the collective become orientated towards service where compassion and wisdom are valued over worldly gain? Can groups awaken and let go of the attachment to self? Consider all the groups and associations that influence your sense of self – family, gender, ethnicity, race, class, culture, subculture, religious, professional and political associations, just to name a few.  What are the ways of being in the world, habitual perceptions and behaviors that are proscribed by each?  How does the boundary between inside and outside function?  Collective boundaries, that are essentially psychological, evolve more slowly, and yet do change as emergent symbols and myths replace outdated structures that no longer serve. The question remains how we practice as Buddhists with these boundaries.

As Loy points out, when it comes to the ecological crisis before us, the technology we’ve devised to control the conditions of existence is now a threat to that very existence. As many consider its cause a political and technological problem, he reminds us it is fundamentally a spiritual problem, a delusion of separation, nation versus nation, species versus species, supported by continuous institutional reinforcement of greed and ill will, a human experience set apart from the true reality of our vital interdependence with all things, sentient and insentient. To practice with this awareness means we notice where we have adopted rigid boundaries unthinkingly and explore the teachings of radical nonduality.  Too often we practitioners focus solely on the individual boundary, the “small I,” and forget to look at the collective boundaries, the “small we,” in which our role may only be as one member among many, but is no less vital.

Can we invite into our practice the reality that much suffering in the world is wrought under the name of a group identity, one group at the expense of another where no one person is accountable. Many Western practitioners are unaware of the way Buddhist teachings of karma worldwide serve to rationalize tragic social injustice of one class against another. In contrast to ways teachings work to reinforce a fragile status quo, I recently ran across some powerful examples of compassion and wisdom performed on the level of the group. A few months ago, a Portland Muslim community sponsored a blood drive on the anniversary of the New York City Trade Tower attacks with the goal of donating enough blood to represent each life lost. Even though their group, including any members personally, did not have to answer for the actions of a separate radical group, they chose an action of selflessness and generosity that recognized a way to address our polarized society and take responsibility for an association by name. Another group, the family descendents of members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, recently made a sacred canoe for a Native American tribe from whom one was stolen hundreds of years ago by their ancestors. Again, these individuals were technically innocent of that crime, but chose to do something to answer for transgressions of a group of ancestors in the past. These are just a few ways group actions that could not have been easy to enact, yet expressed the Buddhist teachings of interconnectedness perfectly.  We should look for and partake in other examples. Inspired by these actions, I hope we can continue to explore this practice edge together on how to work with collective karma, awakening on many levels, for the sake of all.