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,


Dharma Q/A: What About When the Newness Wears Off?

After the newness wears off, how do I sustain my practice and make sure it doesn’t end-up in the closet next to the saxophone I don’t play anymore? 

I can empathize! How many of us have that great thing we started and never continued? I also have a dusty violin in the corner of my study and a 20 year old quilt that just needs its vine appliqué to be completed. When we come to Zen practice, and experience its value despite the effort, it’s natural to want to secure this new thing because we get how good it is for us even if it’s hard. But if we look closely, this is more of the mind’s anxiety about the future that has not arrived which takes us away from the trust of this very moment, trust in our own intrinsic buddhanature. Someone asking this question is already completely endowed with the way seeking mind needed to continue on the path with openness and wonder one foot after the other, which is the only way we truly do anything.

When the newness wears off, that is when we can really begin a new level of practice. We can be very curious about the “same old ho hum” mind and  look again at what is happening. How does the mind disconnect from lively engagement when not entertained? Is today’s zazen really the same as yesterdays? Is my body the same as yesterdays? Is my mind the same? What doesn’t change? Over decades of practice, many of us go through a number of spaces – sometimes buoyed by the great wide ocean, other times braving a midnight storm, or sometimes parched in the wide open high plateau. Regardless, it is all the same path, one step after the other.

What might be helpful to know is that how we feel about practice is not a reliable motivator for practice. It’s like if I only brushed my teeth when I felt like it, I’d probably not have so many teeth. Practice is the same, it must be habituated in the body so that I show up to the cushion whether I feel like it or not. That is why it’s better to sit 5 minutes 5 days a week than 2 hours once a week. There are endless supports for habituating practice – zazen, sanzen, bowing, saying Zen verses, devoting time to study, and most importantly staying in touch with sangha. We keep each other practicing just by showing up together.

My teacher used to give this quote attributed to Emerson when people felt that there small daily actions weren’t adding up to their ideal of the practitioner they think they should be:

Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.

For our purposes, the “thought” here refers to our original intuition or aspiration with which we started practice. We all have some version of this intuition, when we really hear the dharma, that we are meant to awaken and have in us everything we need to actualize this in this lifetime. Please, trust your practice. As our chant says, travel the pathways, embrace the territory and treasure the roads. 

In gassho,


Cultivating the Way: Taking Up the Tools of Practice

The following talk was given on the first day of the late summer Empty Field retreat on our organic farm. It is a time of year that anticipates many of us taking up a more intensive commitment to practice in the fall during our 100 day Ango period that begins on Sept 4th and ends on December 13.

Homage to the Buddha. Homage to the Dharma. Homage to the Sangha.

Welcome friends. Sixteen years of this retreat on this land called Cultivating the Zen Way – cultivating a way of life that has meaning and vitality. To “cultivate” means to prepare the land, to break up the soil, in order to bring forth life. An earlier root of this word of cultivate is colere, means, “to inhabit.” So there are a lot of similarities in the way we train to become farmers and the way we train in Zen and I want to call on the poetry of one of our traditions farming masters, Wendell Berry, who show us what it means to take up practice in the landscape of this very life.

You could say farming is about three simple things: showing up, listening, and having a few good tools. Showing up is not “ho hum” showing up, but showing up completely, ready and willing even if you don’t feel like it. Most plants don’t care about your mood, they would like you to turn the water sprinkler in their direction and move some weeds out of the way so they can freely bask in the sun. Listening means listening on all levels – to all the conditions, the soil, the wind, the slope of the land, the angle of the sun, the needs of beets in June, or celery in July, the hunger of a flea beetle in heat of August. This includes our own intuition, our body, and most importantly our own heart’s desire.

But what I’d like to take up this first day of sesshin is this piece of becoming intimate with “a few good tools.” In Zen, everyone receives the whole tool kit right from the get go – almost the minute you walk into the door, you’re given the collection. How wonderful is that? And even though the tools given to teachers look a little fancier, in the end, they are simply tools to help others use their tools better. What are the tools? They’re a rather finite set – zazen, kinhin, bowing, chanting, mindful work, the robes and the bowls. We should take care of these tools – they are marvelous, subtle and reliable.

On the farm, I have a harvest knife no longer manufactured that has been with me many many years. The square red painted handle worn down to brown wood, the carbon steel blade filed down to half its width. So sharp you could shave with it. It feels like an extension of my body, so much so, I lose it all the time! I have threatened to quit if I am ever parted from this knife, value of about $12.99, because I’m not sure I can cut with another. It is a joke around here at the farm. I’ll stop and exclaim “Where’s my knife?” (as if this has never happened before) and the crew, bless their hearts, will start earnestly looking all over. Losing it isn’t about carelessness as much as it’s simply that I forget it’s not attached to my body like my feet and head. Of course, I always find it – placed somewhere where I have paused to pick up some twist ties or cut the stalks of kale. This is how we should be with our tools of Zen practice – over time, making them an extension of our body. And even when we lose them, if we look with some earnestness, there they are. Across time and space we meet Ryokan in the same condition:

Picking violets
By the roadside
I absent-mindedly
Left my little bowl behind–
O poor little bowl!

On the farm, we have another tool – a special Italian tractor implement called a spader. American tillage tools are rather crude with the land – they whip up or run roughshod over the earth, flashy and fast. Because they never go very deep, tend to create an untouched packed layer of earth at 12 inches or so called a “hard pan” that holds water and impedes the growth of roots. Sometimes even larger machines with huge subsoiling shanks are used to break up this pan from time to time, requiring a lot of tractor muscle to pulverize the big boulders that come up to the surface. But a spader is different, it’s a very slow machine that mimics human digging, rotating these spades in such a way that they impact and fracture the hard pan just right reconnecting the deeper layers and letting water pass through.

We can observe zazen working like this at sesshin in our own experience. Such a simple slow tool, and yet, moment after moment, returning to the cushion, turning the breath in and out, slowing down, this marvelous tool has a way of breaking up the hard pan, what is blocking life, water, earth. What has separated out into unreachable layers in the dark? Zazen is reliable. And slow. Less muscle, more finesse. What are the hard layers around the heart, that defended self that cuts us off from ourselves, one another, our own experience? If we sit earnestly, we will touch that place and soften the barrier.

What we cultivate in Zen is the same as what we cultivate as a farmer (which, by the way, isn’t vegetables, it’s the earth). What the human eye sees as dirt is actually a teaming panoply of bacteria, fungi, mites, earthworms, vertebrates, water, clay, sand, silt and humus held together by sticky exudates. No two teaspoons are alike. What we cultivate in Zen is the same way – it is constant flux, ungraspable, alive and giving. When we align with this, we call it wisdom. It is mostly dark to our eyes but it is known in its functioning. It is being in all its practical mystery.

If we want to plant this fertile Zen garden to cultivate a way of being, we have to clear a space and choose to root where we are. Here, now, and nowhere else. It takes a lot of determination and resolve, but luckily, there are other wild folks around with the same wild idea. My own farming lineage comes through a celebrated gardener called Alan Chadwick – who also had a lot of wild ideas. He was an iconoclastic teacher known to break into Shakespeare amidst the dahlias. He inspired many disciples to take up an intensive style of handwork creating extraordinary gardens all over the country.

The story goes that in order to prove that it could be done, he began creating this one garden on a steep rocky hillside at UC Santa Cruz. People thought he was crazy. It looked like the last place you’d want to put a garden. But his vision was more compelling than the obstacles, and year after year, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, this became a gorgeous productive beauty full of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees called the “Up Garden” that is still going today 40 years later. You should visit there if you want to see how the causes and conditions of the landscape of our lives is not an obstacle to taking up the tools of practice.

During this retreat, I call on our roshi of the farm world, Wendell Berry, to teach us something about the spirit of how we take up the tools of practice cultivating the Zen way:

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,

for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.

Sesshin isn’t easy, particularly the first day. It’s why we practice turning everything back into the ground. Plowing it back under, all of the wandering distracting thoughts, obsessions, the aches and pains, the doubts, the resistance, all back into the receptive earth. Only in this way can something begin to move and shift.

Zazen, breath after breath, all this serves the dark – what happens naturally in the heart beyond our ideas of what is happening. But this cannot be drudgery! This practice should bring new life, giving a wideness and a delight to the air. Listen – what is bringing a wideness and a delight to you at sesshin?


Did you hear the coyotes this morning before the sun rose? Did you taste the plump blackberries in the second bowl? Did you see the turkey vulture raise up effortlessly with the updraft on our field walk? To fail to take up this life, to fail to take up a practice, any practice – life at the expense of life. What does that mean? We live without knowing what it means to be alive. Wendell Berry’s poem is written from a man who knows what it means to be alive in the face of death – to give over to a larger tapestry and take his place in the field.

What is it then that gets in the way of this wholehearted path, taking up the tools of practice in the cultivation of our lives? Sometimes we’re sleepy farmers, drifting off from place to place, not having yet harnessed the will. Sometimes we’re doubtful farmers, I’m not enough, not capable. Sometimes we’re hungry farmers, living from one lack to the next, never satisfied. But what if it’s all simpler than we think! And we just have to show up, listen, and take up the tools?

Wendell Berry’s second poem on this point:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

What if our job is to be baffled after all! To forget our old self for the moment. To practice “as if.” As if we are completely up to the task. As if we lack nothing. As if everything that arrives before us is actually the way.

Touring the world
tilling a small field
to its limit
  ~ Bassho

For this short sesshin, just stay right here, make a space to clear and plow and drive back into the dark what has already served, is spent and no longer useful. There’s no need to wander far or wish for other lands. Here is the place, here the way unfolds. I’ll end with one last poem, “The Beauty We Love,” from Master Berry:

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass,
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

Beautiful! Don’t move from this spot. Inhabit your seat like an old tree. Become fascinated by the feel of the tools of practice from your own experience. Feel the soles of the feet on the warm wood during kinhin. Notice the body folding together with others in the bow moving with the bells. Smell the scent of incense in the zendo during meditation. Place the chopsticks carefully, just so in oryoki. Let us practice and see what grasses emerge from this deep stillness.

More tomorrow.

~ Seido