What’s Your Zazen Like? Zen Students Answer

Zazen includes a minutely precise study of our body/mind phenomena. We open to our intimate experience without judgment by staying centered and receptive, returning to “now” by releasing attachment to thought, moment after moment. At first, most of us need to engage some concentration practice to gather the attention as well as find inspiration in our intention through our rituals of bowing and chanting. When I was first practicing, I had no idea what other people were doing on the cushion. My inner critic imagined everyone in deep samadhi while I was struggling with anxiety or a troubled relationship. Below are real accounts of the dynamic and ever-shifting inner landscape from formal Zen students regarding their first and last 5 minutes of zazen. May these candid accounts encourage your own curiosity about the world this body/mind called “me” is always creating on its own, and what is beyond that creating.    

 In gassho


Q: What is your zazen like the first and last 5 minutes?


 For me the first five minutes are pretty chaotic. I bow three times, chant some things, read a precept, and then settle in. I move my legs first and take a deep breath. I start my timer. Usually in the first two breaths, I feel some dread and doubt that I can sit here for 40 minutes but I just sit through that and it relaxes. I usually let go of what is happening by noticing it and then letting it pass. I then just start to use my breath as an object and follow it. The last five minutes can be restless but in a different way. Usually, I feel the spaciousness of zazen and can watch the restlessness with a little more ease. Sometimes, I do zazen in the middle of the day I am pretty antsy about starting work so this time can be more restless. 


When I first sit down I allow the stage Storyland to run its course.  Lately, Storyland doesn’t last very long because I’m not doing anything interesting.  I then slip into Objective where I am aware of the air around me, sounds, physical sensations, etc. I softly recite the Sino-Japanese version of the Robe Verse.

The last five minutes I start to think about the session being over. My mind drifts back to Storyland and what is on the agenda for the day. My rule is that I can stop whenever I want, but I can’t bolt. I cannot end on a knee-jerk impulse to quit. I have to do at least eight more breaths before stopping.

Pam F.

I begin with a bow. I am saddened by the emotional impact Covid-19 is having on healthcare practitioners, so I begin with Tonglen. My breathing is relaxed and steady when I begin formal zazen. Today thoughts drift through my mind lightly — what cookie am I going to bake today, my Jizo statue which I placed before me when doing Tonglen, the beginning lines of a poem. Toward the end I am relaxed and present. There is no desire to be someplace else. I still have some occasional thoughts, but they come and go easily. Even birds come and go and I am not distracted. When I end my sitting time, I hang out with the green backyard. Very much a “being with” time. No rush to be anywhere. I bow.

This is today and not always my experience. Sometimes I am restless.  Sometimes I feel resistance. Sometimes something more specific is on my mind. Recently it was “present moment.” The above is today.


I have different experiences depending on the circumstances. Lately, the first five minutes, I really sink down in — in part in relief from distractions and anxiety, in part from sensing the dark place to be. My brain seems to want those brain waves of meditation. I meditate in front of a window so after awhile, my eyes open and my senses feast and give thanks. 

When I get distracted, or on those days when I can’t settle in at the beginning, I often go to the chakras and breathe up through each one, welcome in its energy. It opens me up.

I often have distracted periods in the midst of meditating; I also have creative interaction with consciousness working on problems in life. 

Last five minutes: If I am distracted towards the end of sitting, I sometimes chant the Heart Sutra or another sutra. Sometimes, the distraction that came in the middle has gone by the end, and I am caught by surprise as the bell rings.

I do three standing bows down to the earth at the end. Feels very good for body to bow.  


I sit down and light my candles and incense. If I remember, I take a few deep breaths and do a quick body scan to make sure I can settle in. And then I settle in. How to describe that? I rest my mind in a bigger mind, in awareness, in emptiness, in the infinite, in presence. It’s like taking a deep dive into warm water and dissolving a little. And I practice self emptying —letting go of anything that is not essential. And I rest.

I’m not usually aware of the last five minutes, but if I find myself wondering when the timer will go off, it’s another nonessential thought.

Nothing special. A lot that can’t be put in words.


I almost always spend the first five minutes or so working with my posture, breathing and settling in. As I sit this becomes less of what I’m working with. Usually I spend the next 10 minutes sort of thinking. My internal clock will tell me I’m half way through the 30 minutes, and I get more serious about sitting and not just sitting there. The second part is more of a settling down, clearing out, easy steady breathing of body and mind. It’s also a good time to check in with how I am in my body, emotions, and consciousness. It’s one of the most important things I do all day, even though I don’t have anything to show for it.


When I begin zazen, I try to get my posture upright and still comfortable. Usually I begin counting my breaths but only for a few minutes while scanning my body, getting in touch with how it is feeling. Often there is arthritis, and I have to crack my fingers and move my wrist to release the tension there. Once I’ve taken a quick scan physically, I try to become still because moving my body creates more thinking about my body and being still keeps my mind quieter. Lately, I’ve been using the image of the incense brazier as my base and my upper body being the incense stick that is held. This brings my energy down so my body and mind settle into open stillness. In my last few minutes of zazen I’m sometimes just wanting to stay in the deep ocean, or I’ve already resurface and feel ready for zazen to be over.   


Physically, when I first sit down on the cushion I start by finding my posture and focusing on the breath. Most of the time, I have to consciously relax my shoulders down and back. I watch the breath slow over time and notice any sensations, aches and pains, or recurring thoughts. Mentally, the first five minutes are kind of a mess. It takes a while to bridle my wild-horse mind. It gallops off, forgetting about the breath, making plans and lists, remembering the breath again. After five minutes I’ve (usually) settled in and focused on a point in front of me, paying attention to my breathing.

The last five minutes are the same as the rest of the zazen session —acknowledging thoughts (including, “Isn’t it time for the bell to ring?”), trying to let them go, and coming back over and over until the bell does ring. 

Practice in Times of Uncertainty — Zen Students Respond

Times of disruption, anxiety, and confusion challenge us to dig deeply into our practice. We are searching for stability, clarity, and an authentic response to the mass suffering and challenges during this pandemic. Even though it’s hard to maintain discipline and get support from others while social distancing, it’s critical to clarify our intention to respond with purpose and energy. Below are responses from formal Zen students at Zen West ~ Empty Field on their own reaching and how that looks and feels in everyday life. May we, together with all beings, realize the awakened way.

 With Palms Together,


 What is your most important practice during this time of change and uncertainty?

Pam — Gratitude and Wonder 

 In the morning I sit for zazen in a little cubby at the back of my kitchen. It’s at the back of my house, and I am able to look out the windows at green all around. I am actually quite surprised at how many trees I can see. It is so easy to slip into gratitude. The best, though, is being in my backyard, feeling the air and the sun on my skin, watching the birds zoom in for a landing at the bird feeder. Feeling nature’s abundance. At the back corner are some raised beds. One is full of garlic growing. Another is covered to make a hoop greenhouse. A couple weeks ago I planted some peas, old seeds, maybe one or two years old. I wondered how many would actually germinate. Well, earlier this week I peeked in to see tiny green sprouts! I checked in again a couple days later to water and noticed a creature had already nibbled on a few. It was probably slugs in hiding. What was different for me was my attitude.  It was more of “leave some for me” than annoyance. Yes, there will be less for me, maybe they will nibble all, but this morning I thought, “we are all in this together,” even with the slugs.

Seiryu – No Fear

Walks through the life blooming all around me/you/us. 

Zazen in the context of the Heart Sutra. I am in a Liturgy Class up at Dharma Rain Zen Center, and this month we were chanting the Heart Sutra at home, reading Okumura about it, and then writing about it. The no … no … no … put me right into the middle of change and letting go of certainty. But then it also led me to letting go of uncertainty. “With nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita and thus removes all hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear.”  I’m not telling stories to myself about myself so much, so I am able to see and react to what is going on.  

Joel — Zazen

For the time being, sitting meditation is the practice that is important during this time of uncertainty and change. When I sit, I breathe in and I breathe out. I feel the wind, watch the hummingbirds fly around the new not-quite blueberries, listen to my surroundings. I also notice the push inside me toward my small protective self, and sometimes I find myself lost in some protective reaction. Then I simply breathe in and out, return to what is happening around me and beneath me. I feel my legs against the ground and the length of my back, my body breathing in and breathing out. When I leave the sitting practice, my life is strangely different. I listen to things differently. I respond deeper. I take my time with things. I return to the care of the stuff and people of my life. And also, I can carry a little more of this Covid Mountain around with me, and I can feel what I am feeling with it whether fear, curiosity, or marvel. 

Adele – Loving Kindness

My practices during this time include Metta and Tonglen. I say a Metta Prayer as I spoon hot food into containers at the food bank cafe where I work, or when I make sandwiches. I think, “May the person who eats this be well, may they be healthy, may they be at peace.” It’s a little prayer that I hope ripples out into the community — and I think it makes the food taste better.

 Meiju – Daily Touchstone

My most important practice right now is just sitting zazen in the morning. It’s the same thing I did every day before the situation started, and I intend for it to be the same thing I do every morning when and if the situation is resolved. 

It’s helpful for me to have something of a touchstone, a dependable and normal part of life as the center of an opportunity for learning in the midst of this situation. It feels like an opportunity for groundedness despite everything that’s going on.

Komyo – Wholehearted Response

What is most important right now in practice is responding to the moment wholeheartedly. When tired, fully tired, when anxious, fully anxious, when grounded, fully grounded, when uncertain, fully uncertain. Practicing with not clinging or rejecting causes and conditions as they are in the moment creates a freedom from which my response to myself and the world can be spontaneous and embodied.

When I can honor anxiety in myself without pushing it away or wishing it gone or otherwise considering the state deficient, I step into a space where the state of “anxious” simply exists, and from this place I can respond with compassion for myself and others for all the causes and conditions that manifest as anxiety in this moment. When grounded, I can honor the causes and conditions that manifest the state of groundedness without attaching to having “done something right” to achieve groundedness or having successfully pushed something else away effectively enough to achieve a state of groundedness, I can simply acknowledge that causes and conditions are manifesting as groundedness in this moment. Practicing in this way expands my view so I can see into and honor the interplay of intent and thusness.

This compassionate and responsive stance to “things as they are” is to embody the bodhisattva way. To embody the practice of meeting and responding to the causes and conditions as they are without clinging or aversion is to bow to the Being-ness of all things.

Kensan – Giving the Bodhisattvas Passage

I’m experimenting with viewing bodhisattvas as archetypes. Each embodies awakened spiritual human qualities; qualities that are embedded in my higher self. I can invoke a certain one when facing a particular challenge.  In this way I provide passage for that energy. Bodhisattvas are mythic figures, yet they functions within my personal psyche as well as the collective psyche of the world. I hope to not just study but to find their energies within myself.  

I will look to Shakyanumi as the central figure, surrounded by: Manjushri, Prince of Wisdom; Samantabhadra, Functioning in the World; Avalokiteshvara, Heart of Compassion; Kṣitigarbha (Jizō), Monk as Earth Mother; Maitreya, Future Buddha; and Vimilakirti, Unsurpassed Layman.

I’ve only begun working with this. Already, I feel less alone.   have seven spiritual friends accompanying me. I feel like I’m in the center of a mandala, protected by eons of wisdom.

Futai – How Great the Robe of Liberation

 I stay at home to not spread the virus. I notice how spring is happening all around. And …

How great the robe of liberation

A formless field of benefaction

Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching

We free all living things

I put on my robes and sit. By sitting in this way I am wrapped in Buddha’s teaching; this wordless, giving, boundless, life communion. I think of and feel for all those suffering and the sadness feels satisfying and complete. I welcome Avalokiteshvara  and Jizo into my body and mind. I’m not in a hurry.

I show up to help at the Goldson Food Pantry to get food to those in need. 

I am grateful for the koan of change and uncertainty; the ground below.

Senkei – Welcoming All Experience

Sitting outside in the morning, listening: Rooster’s crow, bird’s sweet call and response, gentle water flowing into the pond, the crying howl of a dog, the whoosh of hummingbird wings, and the insistent drilling from the woodpecker. That one enters my heart and I feel it mirroring pain and hurt, my own and that of the world now. I feel sad a lot these days; it’s good to know it and let it fill me. Not the normal way I practice, but it is what’s here in my body, in the world body. So I am opening and allowing it in. Listening and feeling. … Be kind to myself, be kind to the world, this is my practice for now.

My practice besides regular meditation has been working on art. Although I do make some art normally, it has become a real must-do and a place of refuge for me since the beginning of the Covid virus epidemic. I am writing some of our chants on paper, then I partially paint over the words and include figures like Avalokitesvara, Buddha, and animals. I love this practice and feel it connects me to my zen practice. I really think about the words when I write them, and I feel their meaning when I paint the images. It feels like a devotional practice for me and is something I will be doing for a while. 

Rishin – Zazen Together

My husband Jay and I have been doing a form of “presencing” and checking in as a couple for years, but right now we are more intentional about doing it every day. It is a way to be present to ourselves and each other. We sit down at the start of the week and put a meeting time down for each day of the week. 

What we do when we get together is a simple six-part process that can take as little as 10 minutes, but more often is 15 or 20 minutes. We use a pre-programmed insight timer routine to ring bells at the appropriate time. Part 1 is two to 10 minutes, parts two through six are 1.5 minutes each.

  1. Zazen, paying particular attention to what do I notice in my body, what sensations, emotions, thoughts are present.
  2. Person 1 speaks in the nature of council about what is happening in him/her right now, and/or what was present during the meditation.
  3. Person 2 shares the same way.
  4. Zazen with eyes open, looking at each other, again tuning into our own bodies, what do I sense, feel, think while I am looking at you, how connected or not do I feel.
  5. Person 2 shares as in (2).
  6. Person 1 shares. as in (2).

I also sew masks for healthcare workers distributed through the Corvallis Sewing Brigade. Some of the pinning and ironing of pleats and darts might happen while I listen to a sermon, dharma talk or other podcast, but at least part of each mask is done as if I was sewing my rakasu. I recite a version of metta prayer for the unknown recipients over and over as I sew, putting my energy and prayers into each mask. 

Jukan – Practice while practicing

For me, there are practices and there is Practice. In this time of Covid-19 I have time to expand the practices that I do — Tonglen, Zazen, Kinhin, Gratefulness, even expanded and simple mindfulness. In each moment, I stay present and open and awake to the wonder, the beauty, the fear, the sadness, and the fullness of each moment. These are all-important and necessary things for me to do as reminders of Being-Time.

But my Practice is not something I do; it is instead a place I come from — a place of deep and total Presence to the world as it unfolds to me and in me. I find that when I come from this place, love and acceptance, vulnerability and equanimity, grief and joy flow freely and openly. I can sense the emptiness that fills form and the form that is emptiness. I can react out of a deep place of compassion and love rather than reactive ego. I can know that deep river of compassion that is in each moment.

And so I practice, and I Practice ever being and becoming.

Acts of Kindess

Please share your experience with kindness and compassion here. What acts did you witness that were kind or compassionate? How did you serve another in need or help someone in distress? Include all sentient beings, plants and animals. Don’t be shy!

Choosing Kindness

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all this is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

~ Dr. Howard Zinn quoted in Joan Halifax’s “Standing at the Edge.”

Are you noticing the kindness that surrounds you right in this moment? Even though the mind may be stressed, distracted, or frustrated, what about the kindness of the air that fills our lungs? The kindness of someone cooking dinner? The kindness of birdsong marking the start of spring? It is this kindness of “the 10,000 things” that is sustaining our very existence. We do not usually see the world in this way, but when we take up meditation, it becomes very clear that we are profoundly interdependent with one another, and that kindness that emerges from gratitude is the basic functioning of this interdependence. How can something so simple be an act of defiance?

Kindness (Metta) is the activity of benefitting the well being of another without an agenda for self gain. Compassion (Karuna) is a particular form of kindness in how we meet suffering (for self and other) with an intention to serve, to relieve that distress. In Buddhism, kindness is a central practice that is both deliberately cultivated and also one that points to our most fundamental nature, helping us gain insight into what’s most true about the way we exist. Kindness and Compassion are considered one of the four “heavenly abodes” (Brahma Viharas), that, along with Joy (Mudita) and Equanimity (Upekka) embody the mind of awakening. To live life from these mind states transforms our suffering and the pain of others into insight and interconnectedness.  

Ideally, we engage in kindness and compassion from our most centered still mind, one that is embedded in the mutuality of our existence. This mind relies upon open ready presence over intellectual knowing. This mind is not attached to outcome. When we move from this place, it is hard to say who started this kindness or which direction it is flowing as it benefits not only the one offering and the one receiving, but even those who witness kindness – something we call “the emptiness of giver, receiver and gift.” This is a marvelous way to live, sort of like the moment when you learn to ride a bike without hands.   

While we don’t often call attention to our kind acts for kudos in Zen, there is something happening in our community that we feel called upon as a sangha to support in this very way. This movement called “Spreading Kindness” makes this act of sharing stories also kindness in and of itself. By turning attention to kindness, spreading the message of its value, everyone’s potential to live in a more and more awakened way is enlivened. In short, it’s catchy! This activity has already changed the cultures in schools and businesses, government and religious organizations.

Kindness does not belong to a religion – it is a universally recognized human value. In Zen we say, it is our inherent buddhanature at work when we align with our deeper mind – but others have different ways of expressing it, which is marvelous. What would happen if care and kindness were central values in all our institutions?

But don’t take my word for it that the mind of kindness is itself liberation. Try it out in your practice and see what happens. All of Zen is an experiment, so notice what surprises arrive if you make kindness a daily meditation. While we fear it might be “just one more thing I have to do,” but another possibility is that the practice of kindness enlivens our experience of life, and we actually begin to let go of the stress and reactivity that makes living much harder.

Steps to Realizing Kindness and Compassion

Step One –  Notice

Don’t change anything. Don’t effort. For a week, just notice all the kindness around you. What stranger at the grocery store opened the door for another? What barista honestly asked about your day? What beautiful spring tulip got you out of your head for a moment? Who did you touch? Just notice. Try putting a few sticky notes in prominent places that say “Notice Kindness.”

Step Two – Choose

This step has its own magic. Choose kindness and compassion when it might be hard to choose. We are always interacting with others, people, plants, animals, and the so called “inanimate” world. Notice when the mind is being reactive, irritated, bored or judgmental, and choose to do something kind for another. Don’t think this needs to be elaborate – a kind word or gesture will do. A lovingly handles teacup is kindness. Offering another undivided attention is kindness. Take a breath and see what is needed. What might brings well being to another? What alleviates suffering? Be creative. Let go of “shoulds” and the evaluating mind. Let it come from the heart.

Step Three – Share

Take a moment to share stories from either of the above activities here online, or if you are pressed for time, tell Kensan and he will post them for you. Make this an offering to the community beyond the zendo walls. It is a radical act to share these stories that challenge our media’s fixation on our worst human qualities. We can share our stories without being attached to being seen in any way – but instead, share because it’s marvelous to participate in life when practicing kindness.

The future is an infinite succession of presence. Arrive in kindness.

With palms together,


In Gratitude this Thanksgiving

Dear Sangha ~
        Extending gratitude to you all for your honest and courageous exploration of the practice of Zen together. For the banquet of warmth extended to one another, the cornucopia of creativity, and the generosity in bringing the teachings of awakening to life. My deepest gratitude goes to the simple yet extraordinary fact we effort to create a sacred space to investigate directly the meaning of this one precious life. I cannot imagine for myself a better path.
        While today in our culture we express gratitude for that which sustains us, the meaning of gratitude in Buddhism is beyond thankfulness “for” something, but instead is a state of mind that meets the world as it is. Gratitude is the key that unlocks the door to one’s koan. Whenever I recognize genuine gratitude in myself or another, I know some truth has been realized. Gratitude emerges on it’s own after the sorrow, after we wake up to the truth of oneness, after the attachment drops away. It is the opposite of resistance – rather than something added, it is simply what remains when we surrender. While it is vital practice to extend gratitude towards what brings us and others goodness and joy, gratitude in Buddhism is a profound “yes” to life.

        May gratitude today, whatever unfolds, be your guide.  Saying thank you to the universe, I offer (beloved among the Zennies) poet W.S. Merwin’s words below on this inexplicable thank you beyond reason and conditions.

With palms together,


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

W.S. Merwin

Dharma Q/A: Why Do I Seek Realization?

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

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

~ Eihei Dogen in Yuibutsu Yobutsu   

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

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

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

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

With palms together,


Dharma Q/A: Does Atonement Make Peace with the Past?

Does atonement address making peace with events in my past that happened to me, and that were not my doing or my fault?  Webster defines it as “reparation for a wrong or injury.”  Is the Buddhist definition broader?  If not atonement, how does the Dharma teach us to deal with past wrongs done to us? 

This practice of at-one-ment deepens over time as this act is renewed again and again. Reparations for past wrongs may be part of a loving response, but only if that arises from wisdom and compassion not compulsion. At first when we begin studying precepts, the emphasis is on full acknowledgement and acceptance of harm caused by our own body, speech and mind. The angry blowup with our parents, the betrayal of a friend’s trust, the cheating on a high school exam. We recall specifics and have sincere regret. Everything from petty gossip to the taking of life is seen clearly for what it is. While atonement does not erase responsibility for the consequences from our actions, it cleanses the heart and allows us to return to the land of the living, unburdened and humbly willing to transform habitual patterns based in greed, hate and delusion to generosity, love and clarity.

But something interesting happens as we deepen our awareness of the complete interdependence of self and other. No longer is it so easy to harbor resentment for the injuries done to us and be “at one” with what we have also done to others. If we heal our own wounded parts with compassion, we realize the uselessness of harboring resentment towards those who have harmed us. We are the victims of our own resentment. This frees us up to see that they, like us, also suffer from this human “beginningless” greed, hate and delusion. If we look deeply enough, we are really looking in a mirror at the one who injured us. We are not two. This doesn’t “excuse” any behavior or prohibit response to injustice, but instead reestablishes the capacity to love and act rather than remain blind and stuck. We accept the reality of all that has occurred.

Atonement’s broadest function comes when the separate self drops away and we take responsibility “for it all” – the pollution in the river, the school shooting in the next county, the corruption in the government – you, me, and all suffering beings contained in the entire ungraspable arising of causes and conditions arising as Now. There is no past but what is contained in this moment. From this place, atonement points to the perfection that transcends the limited self. It is complete, whole and leaves nothing out. While this proposition may seem overwhelming at first, it is actually one of the most profoundly freeing actions we can take. To be “at one” with this world as it is readies the heart to care and respond to the suffering before us. While the rational mind cannot grasp the extent of its power, we can taste its liberation right from the start the first time we atone together.

Palm to palm,


Dharma Q/A: Frustrated by Koans.

Zen koans are totally frustrating and make me feel stupid. It’s as if everyone gets this but me. Am I missing something?  

Most definitely not! You have everything you need if you’re willing to get a little closer to the koan to find its gem. Even anger at a koan, when realized, becomes most intimate.

Before dismissing them out of hand, consider koans as good medicine, maybe bitter at first, but goes right to the dis-ease. Koans are perfectly crafted to loosen our grip on the usual narrow way of meeting new things with the thinking mind by trying to match up reality to what we already know. The first step is to notice and embrace your resistance – frustration that we can’t “understand” it rationally, noticing limiting ideas about our own capacity, or the fantasies about what other people are doing. We can notice our karmic patterns when confronted by something that doesn’t make immediate sense. When we can notice and put aside this resistance, we can take a step closer and be curious about the koan – the seemingly bizarre exchanges between teacher and student, the poetic imagery, and our own intuition. We should meet the koan as an important messenger that has something to say to us but we have to be patient and listen closely to its spiritual language.

The Rinzai tradition of Zen has honed a specific method of koan work that progresses through a series. Traditionally, this is privately negotiated by the student as they bring their understanding over and over again to the teacher, usually to be met with a “try again” until an authentic response emerges. The Soto tradition, however, has evolved a more organic dynamic engagement with koans that includes a wide variety of entry gates. Not only is the teacher your guide, but the sangha and the whole of your life come together to discover an authentic response.

These are my recommendations to new students of koans. Start with one.

Eight koan gates of eight thousand:

(1) If you’re going to argue with a koan, argue wholeheartedly!

Don’t take anything for granted. Notice what drives you crazy about the exchange. What’s so confusing? What triggers you? Once you do this, you may notice you’ve become more intimately entangled and can take up these points one by one. Do not be satisfied by easy answers or the answers of others. Sit with these reactions and find out what matters to you underneath these arguments of yours.

(2) Open up all your senses in the koan.

What is the taste of this koan? What is its sound? Does it have a smell? Walk into it with your whole body in the present moment. Hmmm, taste the salty ocean, there’s a cool breeze on my skin and I hear a bell in the distance. Stay there for a while, notice what comes up. It doesn’t have to make sense. Forget about what the koan means.

(3) What is the one word of phrase that stands out to you?

In the Rinzai tradition, they talk about the “head” of a koan – what has the most salient energy, like “Mu” in the first classical exchange on whether a dog has Buddha nature or not. Take this word or phrase out and carry it around with you in everyday life. See what arrives. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Bring it into your chanting service. Do some free writing about it. Relax. Be curious. Listen.

(4) How does this koan meet your life right now?

What does this koan have to say about the questions you are grappling with? How does Joshu or Nansen help you with the argument you are having with an old friend. How does the old fox meet your questions about your career or sorrow over the county’s political conflict? Is there something here that addresses your suffering or the suffering of the world? How?

(5) What is your felt sense of the koan?

A felt sense is a direct present moment knowing in the body through the language of sensation and impulse. A koan may have a felt sense of being heavy in the heart area, flowing in the breath, or chilling down the spine. As you enter more deeply into the koan, you may notice this shift or change over time. Listening to the body’s wisdom means directing the attention away from reliance on thought and sensing directly what arises as you hold the koan present.

(6) What personal stories are triggered by the koan?

Don’t judge – just notice if you remember a time when you were slapped or were ill, or when you asked what you thought was a dumb question. Remember that experience. Do you see the dharma in it? You can check this out by looking again at the koan for ways these experiences resonate with it or not. Come away with more questions than you started with.

(7) Reread the koan from the perspective of all the characters and all objects as elements of yourself.

Be the dumfounded student, be the wise teacher, be the loyal dog, be the wily fox, be the open oryoki bowl, be Mu. Give yourself a change to see it from different angles and notice what emerges from this that informs your original assumptions. Where do you gravitate more readily? What is opaque?

(8) What are the basic Buddhist teachings embedded in this koan?

As all teachings interconnect, and all koans point to the clarification of emptiness (the view) and form (embodiment), there is no one right answer. However, sometimes an important specific teaching pops out at us, one we are clarifying for ourselves – like the teaching on anicca (impermanence), or maybe dana paramita (perfection of giving), or the Four Noble Truths. Trust what comes up even if it doesn’t make sense at first.


Most importantly, whatever emerges from koan work, stay with it without judgement. Trust your experience. Dig deeper and don’t settle for that land of conclusions where we fall asleep. Koans are like paintings or dreams in that they should never be reduced to one answer, though in any one moment there is only one answer that is authentic. They must be experienced and continually lived out, realized in our walk and talk. When practitioners take any one of the above gates, I notice a shift from self doubt to joy and interest with each new koan. Even joy in one’s stubbornness is a remarkable shift. It’s not a matter of being Zen smart – it’s a matter of just being yourself right where you are in your practice and a willingness to show up. We “solve” the koan in the same way we solve this life.

With palms together,


Dharma Q/A: What Are We Doing When We Bow?

Could you say something about bowing in terms of the form, practice and spirit?

Truly, there is no Zen practice without bowing. When I place my hands palm to palm, immediately this brings alignment, connecting the inner and outer world in a way that is openhearted, accepting, ready and willing. Even if we don’t emotionally feel this in performing the mudra (maybe we’re distracted or irritated) something inevitably shifts as we do this ritual over and over so that it becomes natural.

To place the hands palm to palm (gassho) and bow is a gesture of respect that is recognizable cross culturally needing no translation. Often, we are reticent in the west to do this practice, fearing it conveys some sort of submission or permission. But the bow is just the opposite – it brings integrity to the moment, to self and other, and represents the strength and courage to meet the world as it is beyond our ideas of how things should be.

In Zen practice, we bow a lot! We begin by bowing to one another, to our cushions, the zendo and to the altar. This shows respect for Buddha (awakened mind), Dharma (the teachings) and Sangha (the community of practitioners). Sometimes, bows are assigned as practice, like bowing to a picture of someone with whom you feel conflict or bowing to your workspace each day. I always bow to animals that have been killed on the road.

Bowing is not worship, though there may be the presence of reverence. You are neither bowing to something outside you, nor are you solely bowing to what is inside you in the sense of one’s limited ego or psychological self. Instead, the bow is recognition that there is no fundamental separation between you and the other you are bowing towards, while paradoxically acknowledges the appearance of you and I as we are.

As this is not a familiar custom on the west, the bow is a ritual easily overlooked in its importance. My teacher, Kyogen, was once asked by another great master, “What is the one thing your own teacher taught?” Kyogen replied, “Bowing each moment.” We should look into our direct experience and notice what comes up. When we bring the hands palm to palm and release the body’s rigid stance, we instantly resolve the tension of opposites and rest this mudra in front of the heart, a gesture that marries wisdom and compassion. In full bows, when the hands rise over the head, it is an enactment of placing the Buddha’s feet above your own limited view, resting in awakened mind.

If you are new to Zen practice, you might just begin trying these bows by starting at home or putting the palms together in front of the heart in prayer position as you meet your day. Notice what sensations arise in the body regardless of your state of mind. What thoughts arise? What is blocked? What is flowing? There is no need to force anything to happen, manufacture a special holy mindstate. Instead, let the wisdom of the body take the lead. When I teach full bows to children, I tell them when their forehead touches the ground, it is like releasing all their worried thoughts into the earth and standing up fresh and ready. This is a really good place to start.

With palms together,



Dharma Q/A: How Do I Work with Jealousy?

What can we do when we notice that we have stepped away from the connectedness that we know is true and are instead suddenly faced with feeling separate, protective, or threatened by the other, for instance, in the case of jealousy? 

The most powerful response we have towards any mind state is to mindfully befriend this “birth” that is coming into being. Only then can we look deeply into its source. If we resist and judge, we add suffering on suffering. This doesn’t mean giving into the impulse or believing the thoughts generated from this mindspace, it is more like caring for an upset child whom you love unconditionally while also recognizing this reactive state for what it is.

Daily practice in zazen helps us develop this habit that we call upon in emotionally charged situations – to let go of solving or fixing the unwelcomed state of mind. Letting go of our thoughts about what is happening, we can connect with the felt sense in the body of this mind state with compassion and curiosity. Fundamentally, the “truth” of feeling states like jealousy is not in opposition to the truth of connectedness. Fundamentally, you are still as connected as you were in the moment before jealous arose – true connectedness is not dependent upon your “knowing” it or not. It is not the emotion of jealousy that is often destructive, it is the motion that comes from this – what we do with what is emerging. If we proceed with compassion, we have already reconnected with at least one heart – our own.

If I can befriend any state, I can look more deeply and see what there is to learn here. In the case of jealousy or envy, I can notice how I have reduced to world to a single lacking object that someone has “out there” and I lack “in here.” Compelling as this is, it completely misses the truth of reality in all its glorious ungraspable presence of who you are. There is a brilliant sea of clouds says our precept commentary. We can ask ourselves, how is it this person has or appears to be taking from me what I lack? How is this condition here to teach me? What is it I lack? This is a most excellent koan.

We should thank the people who bring out jealousy or envy in us so that we can explore our full functioning buddhanature and clarify what really matters in life. All of our ego attempts to achieve wholeness fail at some point in the misguided agenda to gather objects or qualities that will finally make us complete and at peace. Mahayana Buddhism says we can experience this now in this flawed limited human life as it is. We should not be too quick to get rid of all the flaws – if you ask your loved ones, our limitations are often some of the ways in which we’re endeared to them and they hold the key to humility, liberation and unshakable peace.

With palms together,