Prayer Flags Salute Our One Unbreakable Affiliation

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind.

One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”

The other replied, “The wind is moving.”

Huineng overheard this and said,

“Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

Among the human use of banners, there’s something compelling and eternal about Tibetan prayer flags. While the purpose of many a flag is to express one’s loyal affiliation separate from other affiliations, the intention behind making prayer flags is the opposite. We send forth these prayers to dissolve what separates us from one another and clarify the guiding principal of life that we serve beyond the borders of nationality and race and class and even religious affiliation. When we see these bright kites, they cause us to look up and out and become flexible of mind with the breeze in play. They make the unseen seen and seem to carry their own life from within. They are at once joyous and serious.

Our one overarching prayer is that we awaken together.

Right in the midst of our current social turmoil, with all its urgency to do something, is the very time to pause from doing, and renew the strength of one’s center, faith and intention. Enormous challenges are before us that when encountered as a whole easily end up as cynicism, denial or despair. As Buddhists, we know that turning toward the suffering in the world is a long journey – one that requires the excellent sustainable fuel of courage and joy over the lesser motivations of anger and fear. While on one hand, I cannot know the particular suffering of another, there is just this one suffering that links us. How will we sustain our intention to meet throughout our lifetime?

We can learn a lot from these colorful Tibetan “darcho” dancing freely around a rock stupa in the wide open high plateau and now amazingly adorning many a neighborhood porch halfway across the globe.  It’s interesting to note that this tradition did not begin as Buddhist practice and has a felt sense of being rooted in something more primal and instinctual.  Originally used by Bon priests to propitiate local deities and heal the sick, only later did the flags take on the Buddhist wish for the well being of all. On bright colors symbolizing earth, water, fire, air and space, they offer freely sutras and dharanis embellished with images of animals and symbols of enlightened mind.  Some flags pair opposites, for instance, depicting two animals that would often be seen as mortal enemies – a much needed dharma in this time of public hostility and divisiveness.

So what does a Zen prayer flag practice look like in our own time and language? What does it mean to offer a prayer in a practice that teaches letting go of attachment to outcomes? Is that Zen?

There is a difference between our wishful fantasies that lull us to sleep and the awakened wish that inspires courage and response.  In our Zen tradition, while our actual prayers may take on particulars, they are generated not from desperation and fear, but a sense of alignment with the awakened mind to do good for others. Beyond this small identity that wants to be so effective, we can simply ask for assistance without knowing where it will come from. This is true humility.

There is a wonderful and curious line we recite in a particular dedication of merit that says “Whenever these devoted invocations are sent forth, they are perceived and subtly answered.” At once, the prayer sent forth is immediately answered. What is affecting what? Is the wind affecting the flag? Is the flag affecting the wind? Do they move together?  Ultimately, there is no need to think of making prayer flags as having an effect or not. We can let go of that agenda. They are simply the presence of the moment and like posts on the internet or a poem we’ve written, they venture outward past our immediate sphere like ripples in water after a stone is released.

Consider with us this mediation in this New Year.

In a quiet still place, ask yourself afresh and with heart: In what way do I suffer? What suffering around me touches my own life and heart? Extending beyond my tribe to what I know of the world, what comes forth? Is there a link, a common longing? Our prayers derive more strength from their sincerity and simplicity than their sophistication.

Calling this particular shared suffering to mind, invite the skillful bodhisattva energies to emerge from within.  Consider the active response from the point of practice of compassion, wisdom, courage, joy and great vision. What arises to meet this suffering? Most importantly, notice the quality of mind of what meets this suffering. Is it anger or fear or judgment, or is it love or kindness or courage? If it is anger or fear, bring compassion to this and return to the question.

What do you wish for all beings who suffer in this way?

I often think of the many ways we feel unsafe and threatened by one another – fearful of judgment, of violence, of being humiliated, or rejected. May all beings be free from fear distills down to a simple three word prayer. Freedom from fear. What is an image that reminds me of fearlessness?  A bright sunflower? A woman walking on a tight rope?

What moves with our prayer? The flag, the wind, or your own heart? When we send forth these missives, the Buddha has already arrived to greet you. Immediately, we open up to being moved by one another. The ultimate flag we fly each day as Zen practitioners is our own Rakusus, patchwork robes stitched together that which has been discarded, and our prayer is zazen.  Our prayers are not wishful fantasies; they condition our eyes and hands and turn the attention to what matters. What is inaugurated is the unbreakable affiliation with our own buddha nature.

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,


Post Election Buddhist Response

Dear Zen West ~ Empty Field Sangha, Friends and Supporters,

It is an understatement to say many of us are deeply troubled by this recent election marked by divisive threats to vulnerable communities and our natural world already in crisis.  There are times in our practice when we are seriously tested – times when answers and a clear path require us to dig deep and be patient. This election presents one of those times. While the suffering from racism, sexism, and xenophobia is nothing new in our culture, that this hatred and violence is being role modeled in the speech, intention and actions of our nation’s highest representative is a loud bell. This bell rings out for us to develop our capacity for clarity and a response from our deepest seat of practice.

Heartfelt conversations have unfolded over the last two weeks, many tender, some difficult. We are becoming intimately aware of how painfully divided we are as a country and how hard it is to meet and talk with each other across this divide. While many in the country are celebrating this election with cheer, others are experiencing overwhelm, anxiety and isolation.  Opinions in the media have been answering the question, “How did we get to this point?” and “What will happen next?” But the real question from the perspective of practice may be this: “How will I be changed?”  What will authentically emerge from our practice to meet these times?  It is from this place that we have some choice, a choice that requires us to not turn away from suffering around us.

As people of practice, our first task is always to begin with our own inner landscape – to recognize, embrace, and bring perspective to our very human protective reactivity. To rely on zazen and the precepts, return to center, and remain open.   But becoming centered is only half of practice – the other half is finding the function of this unconditioned mind in the world.  From our commitment to alleviate suffering, a path of action reveals itself, not from righteousness or fear or cultural pressure to act, but instead from interconnectedness, energy and clarity.

How do we practice from a place of interconnectedness in such a divided world? Sometimes we are called to take a stand, as individuals and as a community. As Buddhists we are confused about what it means to take a stand, thinking practice means to “be OK” with things as they are or to have no reaction. This misunderstanding cuts off the wise use of fear that, with insight, transforms into tender concern and awareness of our common vulnerability, and the wise use of anger, that with insight, becomes vital energy that helps us overcome incapacitating fear, to take risks, and act in a way that serves.

  News of an upsurge in hate crimes over the past two weeks have been disturbing – middle school children chanting “Build a Wall” or a Mexican American told to “Go back home. Make America great again.” Campaign threats to women, to people of color, immigrants, and our natural world cannot be dismissed.  Without wishing to alienate anyone who sees in the president-elect a better future, it is impossible to ignore the karmic suffering resulting from the campaign’s rhetoric of contempt and disregard, promoting violence in already strained relationships in our families and communities.

To take a stand means to take a risk, to allow our hearts to be impacted by what we see, and without promise of outcome, or approval from others, or personal reward, to choose one path of action over another. Taking a stand means to show up in body, speech, and mind, and commit to act in difficult situations for the sake of all beings. Taking a stand means to be willing to get it wrong, to see where we are complicit in the problem, and make corrections. I want to share the wise words from fellow teachers at the Brooklyn Zen Center in their recent post after the election: “We must be careful never to use the Buddhadharma as a means for turning away from the violence of the world and our place in it. The Buddhadharma is not a sedative to get us through painful times, but a powerful teaching that frees and bolsters us to carry out our intention to work diligently for the liberation of all beings.”

We must consider that for many of us who have societal privilege because of the color of our skin, or religious affiliation, that this moment of alarm will pass all too quickly and the usual personal concerns reassert themselves. Rather than adjust to a new norm, we are called to confront and respond to hate crimes against those at risk. We are called to protect the earth upon which all life depends. This commitment calls for building bridges with our brothers and sisters who hold different opinions, and taking responsibility for our own blindness and bias that has also contributed to this moment in time.

The time to begin this commitment is now. To have the shadow side of our society in plain view is extremely clarifying. Each of us is endowed with a gift to bring forward to meet these times for these are the exact conditions that bring forth the most powerful and inspiring vows. I ask that we join together in this mutual commitment to support one another’s authentic response and as a sangha to reach out to those at risk and stand up to hatred and violence with compassion and wisdom.

With palms together in refuge,

Seido Martin,  Zen West ~ Empty Field Guiding Dharma Teacher

Along with the ZW~EF Guiding Council:

Jinyu Buffington

Josu Dahlgren

Futai Robertson

Senkei Robertson

Seiryu Rosenberger







Orlando and The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals

Adapted from a talk at Zen West five days after the Orlando mass shooting

We offer the merit of the Chant of Boundless Compassion this evening to:

All those who lost their lives in the Orlando massacre

To their loved ones and the Orlando community who suffer in its wake

To communities threatened by hate and delusion embedded in the dominant culture

Particularly our brothers and sisters who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi or Trans, Latino or Muslim

May we meet as one heart across this empty divide

End the path of violence as a means of solving our differences

And embody the path of awakening without fear together.

When I came back to the farmhouse from our Wednesday night sitting, I was surprised to find my husband up late in front of the computer watching CNN. As I moved closer, I saw the senator from Connecticut imploring his fellow legislators to consider the impact of not responding to the Orlando mass murders.  In reverent silence, we sat watching some of this 15 hour filibuster to press a vote on gun control. The bullets from Orlando continue their path right into our lives here as we listen to the names of those killed by mass shootings that have become a norm in our country. They say, Wake up! Wake up! How grateful I felt for this earnest senator’s courage to stand up and speak.

It seems incredulous that only a few months ago we were at the Oak Street zendo and I was giving this same talk after the Roseburg shootings. Here we are again trying to clear a space where we can simply be with the unfathomable event in a very honest human way with all our mixed reactions, thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears. The same basic question is asked – What is our response? How are we guided by our practice?

Where you go to find out the answer to that makes all the difference.

As we begin studying Master Uchiyama’s talks, the first thing he says is that the purpose of zazen is to clarify life in the face of death. So here we are tonight, clarifying our life in the face of mass death, listening for the right response.  Whenever we come across an event that threatens to overwhelm us, I am aware of two levels of response – a direct visceral reaction that is unedited and close to the bone, and a secondary reaction that tries to make sense of the first and fit it into the known world. The first calls for compassion, and the second, our wisdom.  I offer the following as a way to help us practice with our primary and secondary reactions to Orlando and take heart from what I am calling “The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals.”

To open our hearts and make room to be with our first gut response to this event without judgment is vital. It means being compassionate with what is hard to feel as we come to know the particulars of the horror Saturday night at Pulse – the fear, anger, confusion and sorrow, listening to each experience with its own wisdom to teach us and wake us from our slumber. Our culture leaves little room to be with our messy contradictions in a moment of not-knowing. It seems we cannot be left with a single moment of silence but must keep talking and making sense, making something.

What was it like for you tonight as we called upon the spirit of Kanzeon, the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world?  Connecting with this energy as our own heart right here generates the capacity to be awake with the threat to our comfortable and unsustainable individual bubbles. Slowing down and listening in zazen to the name of each person who died at Pulse, what did you notice?  We can make room for everything, there is no right or wrong.

As we gain some distance from our first direct experience, however, we should be careful about our secondary response that often becomes deeply confused with delusion. It is this secondary response that tries to fit what’s happened into our known world. Here we have some opportunity to refuse what makes us smaller by noticing the basis of thought in a separate self with conditioned beliefs about the world in which we live. This is the way the world is now. There’s nothing I can do. Americans will never give up their guns. People are crazy and hateful. It will only get worse. If we want to become people of practice, recognizing the seduction of helplessness and hopelessness is a clue that we have taken Mara’s bait and forgotten our true nature. We should deeply explore and know these states of mind.

As an inoculation against this tendency, I offer a modern reading of how we can join Buddha’s awakening in light of this tragedy and take our stand, not from a separate self, but from compassion and wisdom with all beings.

The Buddha’s Four Ennobling Refusals

1. The Buddha refused to be identified as a fundamentally violent being. Although Shakyamuni taught that the mind of clinging is characterized by greed and hate, he did not teach that this is who we are at our core. Instead, the very purpose of a path of practice points to a heart-mind at our center that is bright, open, responsive and loving. When we clarify delusion, this is what emerges in all beings. Though we see many examples in the media of our violent action, it is a radical act to refuse to lose sight of our fundamental being as awakened.

2. The Buddha refused group entitlement as a path of fulfillment. Born into wealth and privilege, Guatama Buddha left his palace to find another route to answer the question of how to live life in the face of universal inevitability of old age, sickness and death.  We live in a time of increasing tensions between different identities and gross inequalities in power in our communities fueled by fear and ignorance. Orlando places this cultural divide squarely on the table and asks us to take responsibility for our part. Those of us with privilege are particularly called upon to stand in solidarity with those with less power. It is a radical act to refuse to invest in systems that oppress whole groups of people based in sexual orientation, religion or race.

3. The Buddha refused to live in fear and hatred of one another. Guatama Buddha was not always surrounded by appreciative admirers but faced many threats including his murderous brother in law, Devadatta, who plotted to kill him, warring tribes that were the norm at the time, and the taunts of Mara, the embodiment of delusion. The Buddha did not denigrate Devadatta or run in fear, but instead, he predicted that he too would eventually reach buddhahood. Mara was not controlled with violence, but met with steadfast clarity. Shakyamuni refused to be drawn into identification with him. It is a radical act to refuse to be seduced and like the Buddha say, I see you Mara. I see you for what you are.

4. The Buddha refused the seductive positions of helplessness and hopelessness.  Mara taunts the Buddha under the bodhi tree and whispers familiars we all know, “Why bother?” and “Who do you think you are to be awakened?” Although helplessness and hopelessness may visit us all at one time or another in this life, we can refuse them as untenable positions that keep us stuck based in misunderstanding of our true nature. In Zen we learn there is always a right response, no matter where we are, under all conditions. Hopelessness comes when we are attached to particular outcomes and lose sight of what is possible in this moment based on truth and willingness to engage life on life’s terms. Helplessness comes when we think we imagine we are alone. We only need look up and what is before us is the way. It is a radical act to refuse to indulge helplessness and hopelessness and always return to our seat of practice, listening for the response right from the heart.


The Buddha way is not a passive endeavor that avoids conflict and engagement. Alongside the milk of kindness from the mind of Kanzeon, we also have the mind of Manjushri, wielding his sword. Manjushri does not attack living beings with his weapon, but boldly cuts through delusion itself. Both sides are needed.

Please, let us join together in the Buddha’s refusal to identify with delusion and instead,  act in accordance with our deepest nature whether this brings you to filibuster, reaching out to another, or filing a petition. This is the way we answer those who lost their lives in Orlando.

With palms together,