Dharma Q/A: Should I Go to Sanzen?

I’m not sure if and when I should come to sanzen. What’s OK to ask and what isn’t? Sometimes I feel like I need more help in practice, that I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s hard to figure out how to put it into words.

I remember my first long retreat. On the second day of sesshin, I was surprised by a voice in the zendo that said ominously, “Sanzen is available with Kyogen. For those who want to come to sanzen, all those on the Buddha’s right, please come now.” I didn’t quite know what sanzen was and had a period of panic, frozen to my seiza bench. Should I go? While a half dozen people rose up without hesitation, I couldn’t move, despite another part of me yearning to leap up and go meet this teacher. The opportunity passed and still frozen to the bench, I felt totally defeated for the rest of the day. What was I afraid of? What would this teacher see if we met face to face? What would I say if I didn’t have anything insightful to report or articulate to ask?

The next day when the same offering was announced, I harnessed my willpower and despite my still present unexplained terror, I felt my body stand up with the others and follow the Jisha outside.  Out in the freezing December cold at Camp Adams on a cabin porch, I had nothing to bring except all of this experience. Cold, confused, hopeful, scared. Though I can’t remember that particular sanzen, I do know I was met with kindness and spaciousness and eventual laughter.

I remember going every day after that. What unfolded was another ten years of intimate meeting after meeting bringing my practice to my teacher (and any other teacher who offered) in whatever form it was taking. It became a touchstone for ongoing investigation into Zen and my life that I both dreaded and anticipated with hopefulness.  Only after many meetings could I see that my original wordless fears rooted in the common karmic burdens having to do with worth and belonging were whole and complete. I had everything I needed in that moment to go meet the teacher with what came up in the process. While I thought I needed to become someone more enlightened and speak Zen poetry like others, there was essentially nothing to hide, nothing to prove.

Our whole life is our practice. What enters the space of sanzen is what is most important to you. Finding what has the most “juice” is key, not intellectual understanding, but what experienced life circumstances and experiences in the zendo grab your attention, cause you pause, excitement, dread, curiosity, fear. Nothing is off limits.

Song of Sanzen

My knees are really hurting me in zazen and my feet fall asleep.

My brother relapsed and is living on the street and I don’t know how to help him.

Today I noticed the new white irises as I walked to the zendo.

I am afraid of dying.

What does it mean when Dogen says this isn’t meditation practice?

I am struggling to find time for sesshin but my partner wants me to spend more time with the family.

I am working with the koan Paichang’s fox and get choked up when they give the fox a burial.

There’s a sangha member who really bothers me and I try to be compassionate but find myself more and more resentful.

Every time I sit, I feel this sense of sorrow and tear up and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.

I am working with being OK with being who I am, but a lot of the time I feel unworthy and that I’m faking it and others can see right through this.

The other day in zazen, all thought dropped away, and there was just the sound of the crow and the wind in the trees.

I’m not sure why I practice.

I had a dream that I was alone on an arid plateau, standing on my zabuton, and a pack of white wolves were off in the distance coming towards me.

I’m not afraid of dying.

My knees still really hurt – isn’t this wonderful?  

The teacher meets you with the response that arises naturally through the encounter. As a teacher is a spiritual friend who has been on the path for some time, she or he is able to respond from experience and help reflect and point you to your own inherent wisdom. The medicine for one person at one time may not be the medicine for another at another time. It might be sharing silence to be together with a painful truth that is emerging. It might be pointing out something the student is not considering. It may be suggesting a particular practice. It might be spontaneous mutual laughter at our human foibles. It may be the teacher shares his or her own practice with similar difficulties. If the student is stuck in the world of form, emptiness is the medicine. If the student is stuck in the world of emptiness, form is the medicine. Kindness is medicine and challenge is medicine. The empty field is wide open.

My teacher used to say so many questions get answered in the sanzen line it makes his job easier. That is, as soon as we ask for this meeting, an encounter that comes with the risk of being seen intimately by another, a process begins as we mull over our own personal koan before we arrive. This inner process is vitally important. But, we have to get off the comfortable bench and enter the playing field if we want to experience this.

I tell people if they want to practice Zen in earnest, to make sanzen a regular practice. While I see many formal students every other week, others may wish to come monthly or every other month or quarterly. When “things are up” frequency may increase or meetings spread out in times of ease or integration. It’s not so important to have an articulate question as it is to be willing to present yourself completely. In the process, we notice where we hide. We notice where we might want to appear more enlightened than we are, or to appear less enlightened than we are.  Sanzen is how we find out how practice adapts to our life circumstances unfolding from our own personal koan. Our defenses that distance and divide are invited to rest back so the truth of the moment can spontaneously emerge. Ultimately, we find the teacher within and release into becoming completely who we are. All we need is the willingness to show up.

With palms together,



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

Face to Face: Raising a Water Buffalo

(Excerpt from a talk at the Face to Face Sesshin, January 30, 2016)

Homage to the Buddha, the great tamer of wild beasts
Homage to the Dharma, the tea and rice of training
Homage to the Sangha, this dazzling team of white water buffalo

During our copying practice on this retreat, I have discovered my favorite section in Dogen’s Kajo. Da’an “ascends the seat” and gives this talk to his sangha:

I have been at Mount Gui for thirty years and have been eating Mount Gui’s rice and shitting Mount Gui’s shit. I have not studied Guishan’s Zen but just see a single water buffalo. When it wanders off the road and begins grazing, I yank it back. When it trespasses onto other people’s rice fields, I whip it. In this way, I have been taming it for a long time. Such an adorable one! It understands human speech and now has transformed into a white ox. All day long it walks round and round in front of us. Even if we try to drive it away, it does not leave. [Tanahashi trans.]

There they are, another pair, great kindly teacher Da’an reflects on his years of training with his own teacher, Guishan.  There is something about thirty years. Kyogen used to say, 10 years to make a student, 10 to make a teacher, and another 10 to make a master. I’m not sure where he got this formula, but I can resonate with this understanding as a farmer, entering into that final decade in this short human life span where what’s most interesting is the not knowing, giving up on proving oneself, accomplishing something, attaining anything.

The backstory is that Da’an’s assembly is awaiting the revelation of their leader’s awakening, what mystical passage he engaged with old Guishan. Finally, it will be spelled out to them!

Kyogen talked a lot about the working of this teacher/student relationship. How the student awakens without moving from the position of the student. How the teacher becomes the student of the teacher within the student. Da’an and Guishan are students of each other, but in different ways. Learning what can’t be learned, teaching what can’t be taught.

This teacher/student relationship is interesting. It becomes the seed of all our relationships, the archetype of how we meet each moment, each phenomenon in the world. Do we need a teacher in Zen? One firm answer to this is, “No.” The dharma is free. The realization does not belong to any particular religious group or tradition. You can take a tree as your teacher, a child, a stone. However, for some (and I include myself in this), it’s helpful to have someone who has thoroughly done the training, made a lot of errors, clarified a few bits and pieces of the dharma. A specialist in karmic obstacles in you will. That’s helpful.

So, for 30 years, Da’an says he “ate rice and gave it back in the latrine.” (A more polite version from Francis Cook) Da’an in training – completely digesting the dharma bite by bite, day by day, until it became the cells of his very body. Bowing at the altar day after day until every cell of his body bows. Stirring the soup until every cell of his body is stirring the soup. Sitting zazen until every cell of his body is sitting zazen.

What’s shitting? Releasing back what is no longer of value, a natural activity. Before the modern advent of toilets that whisk away our excrement, that shit would be called “night soil” and be offered out onto the crop fields to fertilize the earth, back into the dark. Nothing wasted, everything serving in the stream of change. Zen is not about swallowing something whole, not about hanging onto anything – that would be of no value to you or others.

However, we do have a choice whether we allow it to work on us. Are we willing to be open to all the tastes of Zen training? Sweetness –yurt wind chimes singing in a January storm. Sour – irritated waiting for the bathroom. Bitter – resentment at my teacher’s correction in the zendo. Pungent – hot curry in my buddha bowl. Salty – the tears of release letting go of doubt and fear. This is a recipe for good training. If we only want sweet, we will have a hard time traveling along the path.

Da’an says he didn’t learn any Zen from Guishan in 30 years. What a thing to say –can you imagine being in school for 30 years studying, say, to be a doctor and saying you didn’t learn any medicine? But this is a great compliment to Guishan. He didn’t learn any Zen because we can’t learn Zen from anyone. It’s like selling water by the river as they say. Zen isn’t a thing. It’s a doing. Or, a better way to say it is that the student is the doing of Zen. The teaching is waiting on this patiently, listening. The student must reach. The teacher cannot do the student’s reaching.

Da’an says he did nothing but raise a water buffalo. How interesting as we explore sesshin practice, our experience of this form, to note that there are two distinct kinds of water buffaloes. This family animal familiar to south East Asian cultures include both swamp buffaloes and river buffaloes. The swamp buffalo wallows in mud holes which it makes into its horns. The river buffalo live in the deep waters. Raising up a water buffalo means sometimes at sesshin, wallowing in the mud hole of karmic arising, sometimes a river buffalo, immersed in the deep waters of zazen.

What’s a buffalo? An undeniable powerful primal force, one that won’t be ignored. Da’an doesn’t get rid of his buffalo. Yes, he “yanks it back” when it’s trampling others gardens. Yanks it back when this buffalo is about to eat the last piece of cake leaving none for others. Yanks it back when it gets into a judgmental rant about the buffalo sitting next to him. Yanks it back when he’s about to leave the toilet paper role empty and towels on the floor in the bathroom. Woops, hey you, get back here! Day after day of training.

Notice how Da’an doesn’t say that Guishan trained this buffalo. No, Da’an did the training of his own buffalo and Guishan showed him how.

Now this is what I find most remarkable about this short talk Da’an gives his people. The phrase, “Such an adorable one!” What awareness of the love and compassion needed to take up this path. In another translation, Cook says others look at this young buffalo and say, “Oh, you pitiful creature” suggesting his peers are moved with compassion as they bear witness to Da’an’s efforts. Da’an notes that this buffalo used to “pay too much attention about what people said.” I think this is the pivotal move in this statement – though Da’an disciplines his buffalo, it is based in a kind of love and understanding. It is not based in blame, judgment or contempt. Because Guishan has done this training, he guards the space for Da’an to do so. So, you do not want a teacher who doesn’t make mistakes, you want a teacher who makes mistakes really well. That’s thoroughness.

Eventually, Da’an notices that this buffalo has become domesticated. He’s transformed into a white water buffalo – dazzling white! He can’t even get rid of him! What is domesticated? It’s certainly not docile! He has become at home in his own skin, at ease wherever he is. His power starts to serve others. In East Asia, water buffalo are like family members – they plow the earth and give rich milk.

At Empty Field, we’ve coined this word, “sesheeny” – it’s the post sesshin state of mind that has this dazzling quality – everything is OK. We’re more at ease, aligned, less self absorbed. More available to life, more ready. When we look in one another’s faces, we see this “sheeny” shining there. What is it? If we try to grab onto it, it escapes. Yet, once you’ve a little practice under your belt, you recognize it immediately. Sessheeny. It’s what keeps us going forward in practice, and allows us to somehow forget how hard the first few days of sesshin are when we sign up for the next retreat.

At sesshin, we get a taste of tea and rice. A taste of this pure and undefiled place. The ground of no doubt. We open to this fact that we’ve been steeped in this deep river all along. To meet this dazzling white buffalo doesn’t end practice, but instead begins practice with clear direction. You can’t get rid of it when you become a person of practice, a person of training, even if you try.

Thirty years, Da’an says, of arduous practice. Nothing but tea and rice. Nothing but turning his attention, one hundred percent, to what is right in front of him. Dogen says he doesn’t rely on anything else in practice. Right now, what meets the eye. Sesshin sets up circumstances conducive to doing this practice that we can enact in each moment in our day of our lives. We don’t need to go off and become a monk to raise a dazzling white water buffalo. For us lay people, frequent sesshin in enough. It’s all here for the taking. Returning to our practice in the muddy mud holes, returning to our practice in the deep river. You might notice today, if you spot a white water buffalo sitting across from you at the oryoki table, a dazzling creature serving you tea, or sweeping the walkway, or better yet, looking at you in the mirror.

Face to Face: Becoming a Student in Real Life

(transcribed from the first day’s talk at the 2016 Face to Face January retreat where we were studying Dogen’s chapter “Kajo” or “Everyday Activity”)

Homage to the Buddha, our original cook, Shakyamuni
Homage to the Dharma, everyday rice and tea
Homage to the Sangha, those awakened to rice and tea

How fitting that our founder’s altar should be arranged on a piano. Hundreds of years of teachers and students, the musical score of this Zen way. And as I look over at this altar and see my teacher’s picture there….that was taken at the Empty Field Zendo – there’s a hint of my elbow in his side as I’m to his left in front of the altar. How fitting – mercy, how he listened to my years of struggle! Fifteen years as his student, and still his student now even after his death. Face to face. Eye to eye. Nose to nose. Two human hearts, two flawed beings, two perfect buddhas, awakening together. Hundreds of years of this.

In this retreat, we are studying Dogen’s chapter called Kajo – everyday activity, about everyday life. Kajo means that which is habitual in one’s home life. Like many of Dogen’s talks to his students, I get the sense he wrote this from a place of deep love, right out of the experience of his own path. He wanted his students to stop chasing for enlightenment in the place where it did not exist. His own life was not easy. He could have chosen to assume a role in the aristocracy, like Shakyamuni Buddha, but instead, after seeing his mother’s death when he was quite young, decides to follow a more pressing call. There was much corruption in the religious circles at that time in medieval Japan, Buddhism intertwined with political power struggles having to do with whether this temple or that teacher was in favor with the various ruling elite family or not. Like us Dogen wanted something sincere, something genuine, something satisfying.

When Dogen finally went to China where he would meet Rujing, he encountered a tenzo, a senior in the temple on a boat who was doing manual labor as a cook in his old age. Dogen asks him, Can’t you get someone else to do this? The tenzo looks at him curiously and tells him he mustn’t know too much about Zen. A bit of a double take for someone practicing as long as he has. You don’t know to much do you? But Dogen listened. He asks the tenzo, What is practice? Everywhere, nothing is hidden, says the tenzo. So it is now, on January 28th, exactly 773 years later, in a home in Corvallis, that we study the words to his students on the transmission of the dharma as everyday tea and rice.

Just like Rujing’s koan Mushin talked about this morning, How can you purify something that is already pure? there’s a koan Dogen offers us here that we can carry around this weekend, keep company with. If drinking tea and eating rice have been transmitted for a long time and are present right now, what is drinking tea and eating rice? We should each find our own answer to this question.

What is your answer?

Don’t answer too soon. Don’t explain anything.
See what comes to you this retreat.

While on one hand it seems too obvious, on the other, we might balk a little and think, what could tea and rice possibly have to offer towards shedding light on my struggles in life? I do that kind of stuff everyday and still don’t feel enlightened! Certainly it can’t be as easy as that! Luckily, the priest Daokai is totally on board with this quandary and asks the question for us:

Priest Daokai, who would later become abbot of Mount Dayang, asked Touzi, “It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice. Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching?”

Daokai is also doubtful that the deep meaning of the Buddha ancestors is the same as eating rice and drinking tea. Surely there must be some other means to awaken people, to teach people to wake up. How familiar to our modern sensibilities. It is the same way when we wonder, What am I missing? Is there some other practice I should be doing that will move me along? Some teacher that will reveal the truth? If so, please, could someone just let me know what that is? It’s important to Dokai and is not a frivolous question.

It’s with some irony I am recalling our recent lay teacher conference last week in Portland. We ask the same thing too. What new practices are you integrating into Zen? Bodywork, writing exercises, and so on. I must admit, I too get excited about our creativity in teaching. But I know from my 30 years as a farmer, after all the new names for approaches and fancy techniques have come and gone, growing good food is about something really simple, all about timing with water, sun and good earth. No shortcuts. My teacher Kyogen in his later years (how fortunate I should be his student in his later life) said much the same about Zen practice. He said, You know, after all we have done by way of innovation (and that’s quite a bit), it comes down to this – zazen and precepts. You just have to do the practice. Now there’s some everyday rice and tea. Plain words: Just do the practice. I don’t think that’s going to fly off the bookshelves. But there it is.

If we don’t know where to start with answering this koan, about the meaning of rice and tea we can start with the rice and tea that’s right here on retreat. What is this rice I am eating? What is this tea? We can completely let go of the idea of tea, listen to tea, drop you versus tea, forget inside and outside. Where are you when drinking tea? Who are you? What’s not tea?

Everyday activity. This Zen tradition is about living up close and personal. Young priest Daokai has some pressure on him to do some magic (as any new teacher I can identify with, ahem) as others are looking to him to enlighten them. He’s “got it” on one level, but faced with teaching others, goes back to looking for some power outside of what is right in front of him. Like me, he is refining his understanding but is not yet mature.


It is telling that, although Dogen could have just written his message more directly, that Kajo is chock full of stories of teachers and students, full of human stories. It reads like a play in many acts.

Here’s one answer to this koan: Most intimate. Tea and rice are most intimate. You know what I’ve come to realize is the hardest thing about Zen practice? Not the long hours of zazen, not the bizarre and frustrating Zen koan language, not this not that. No, it is the practice with others. Face to face. When I first came to practice with my home temple, Dharma Rain, they talked a lot about the need to be “willing to be seen.” I totally didn’t get it. What can they mean, I’m here aren’t I? Is there something more than just having my body show up to the zendo? I think the question made me feel even more inadequate at first. Now I realize there’s a big different between showing up and being willing to be seen. The willing comes when we can relax and allow ourselves to be received, to be part of the flow. It is hard to explain, but there is a noticeable difference. This is why it’s easy to have a distant teacher – someone who doesn’t see you in the morning with puffy eyes, doesn’t watch you interact with your child or argue with your partner, doesn’t encounter you when you’re confused or sick or angry. And vice versa. How easy to have a distant student who doesn’t see you, the teacher, mess up or get irritated or have conflicting human needs. Everyone’s on best behavior, but only for so long. Intimate. Up close and personal.

The opening scene of our play begins with Fuyo Dokai and his student Tosu Gisei. I do not know when this exchange happened, but because we do know their dates of birth, it’s possible that Tosu could be in his late 20’s, maybe 29, and Fuyo, 11 years his senior, could be about 40. Although Zen stories make it look like these brilliant masters pop out of nowhere, have a single conversation and then get enlightened, this is not the case. They have been at it for some time. And we can guess a little about their own karmic affinities by some of the stories about their lives. They had real struggles and concerns just like us, and engaged in many failed attempts to find the right path for them that would finally bring satisfaction and relief to their spiritual quest.

One account says that Fuyo started out on the Taoist path studying practices for immortality. It’s too bad he didn’t live in this modern era, because we’ve got tons of these kinds of devices! Just go into a store for special youthful creams, self help books and workout equipment. So I can only imagine that this naive hope we all secretly share to elude the ravages of time appeared one day to have its limits. A hope that often gets checked simply by looking in the mirror.

I also imagine Fuyo may have also had an affinity for image of the Taoist lone sage and perhaps, like many of us (I include myself) wanted to just practice as the solitary being, not be bothered with others, rise above this dusty demanding world. Make a clean escape. Perhaps one day, he realized the loneliness of that was getting him nowhere. We can imagine this of our old friend Fuyo, many cul de sacs on the path of practice. Of course, he did live until 72, so perhaps a few of those Daoist practices gave him a boost. No harm done.

And then there’s his teacher, Touzi, Tosu Gisei. I imagine him more the intellectuial sort – literary minded, attracted to esoteric teaching and the more complicated the better. Someone seduced by intellectual intrigue. According to Keizan, he studied Yogachara (which is a system of thought you practically need a PhD in Sanskrit to understand) until one day he exclaimed, “This doctrine is obscure, what good is it?” How familiar to us modern seekers with access to so much information, so much written dharma. How complicated the thinking mind can get when looking for the truth of this moment. So instead of complicated doctrine, he starts to take up Zen and look directly into his own heart-mind without the props.

A later story about Tosu says that at one time his teacher sent him off to a monastery to learn from another teacher. When found absent in the meditation hall after he arrived and the Ino goes and finds him asleep in the corridor. When questioned about this rude behavior, he replies, “Fancy food doesn’t interest someone who’s sated.” Can you imagine? The word “cheeky” comes to mind. But true enough, he’s no longer engaged in chasing words and phrases to wake up to his own existence. He’s ready for the real thing.

So these monks, these seekers, like us, had many years of trial and error before this conversation. They were reenacting Shakyamuni’s path based on their own karmic affinity until they knew what drinking tea and eating rice was. Reaching the place of the unborn, the undying. The place of no doubt. And then they continued on, constantly refining. Once sated, the continued eating.


My teacher used to say that there’s only one constant between teachers and students. And this is that the teacher becomes a koan for the student. What we want in a teacher and what we need in a teacher may not be the same thing. What a paradox, to awaken in relationship to another, someone who cannot give you anything. Dogen says here awakening to the truth is not found in the exotic, does not belong in the past, is not in words or esoteric practices, does not belong to famous teachers. No, instead he says there’s no need to rely upon anything else than drinking tea and eating rice. Like Mushin’s nest she so beautifully described, we need to leave the nest of our imagined enlightenment, into which are woven postcards of awakening from the images of others. (Of course, if these postcards inspire us to leap out of the nest, that’s great. But usually they just make us dreamy.)

I want to use a story of my own early days as a new student. Since we often hear teachers talk about their own teachers in romanticized (ie. forgetful) ways, like when Dogen talks about his teacher Rujing as “The Old Buddha,” I’d like to offer a more realistic view. When I met Kyogen, I knew he had something I wanted that I couldn’t name but felt compelled to return to. It made no sense to my rational mind. Since we had almost nothing in common on a basic human interest level, I had the most difficult time relating to him. Early on I drew the shocking conclusion that he just plain didn’t like me. That I was an annoyance. Of course, the more I thought this, the more evidence piled up to support this embarrassing fact. I would try to make small talk and he would drift away or look blankly back at me. He didn’t seek me out or laugh at my jokes or offerings of conversation. He certainly wasn’t impressed by my Zen insights! It became useless, until finally, I just said to myself, fine, he doesn’t have to like me, but I am determined to see this path through regardless. I was not about to give up. This is my last stop! Of course in hindsight, I was trying to fit Kyogen into the map of my known world and feared the worst base on my own early trauma growing up. The question of liking and not liking isn’t even relevant. I find the reflection amusing now, because his love was always shining great and clear. He was waiting patiently for me to arrive.

One translation of this fascicle refers to the rice and tea phrase as “coarse tea and thin gruel.” It’s not an easy path to have a teacher. Sometimes it’s coarse tea and thin gruel. Something not easy to take in. A teaching that is disappointing, not the medicine we want. On sesshin I try to accept with a little sadness when the Tippy Cloud South is weak in the morning. Then I understand the diluted taste often brings out something stark and haunting. Hundreds of years of teachers and students – heartbreak, struggle, opening, release. No two alike. And the gratitude there is profound. We teachers are often guilty of telling a romantic story of our studenthood that’s only romantic in retrospect.

Dogen’s chapter Kajo is a nourishing meal for the dis-ease we suffer from in our own skin. Such compassion for his sangha. When he recalls the words, the “everyday rice and tea” of his teacher, the old buddha Rujing, he remembers him saying in the hall:

Right at this moment, put down the burden you are carrying.

So, please, come back to your own seat and ponder this koan, What is drinking tea and eating rice? Sit with this question and don’t answer it too soon. Put down the burden you are carrying.

Freedom in Words – the Art of Copying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palm to palm,

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

Face to Face: Learning to Trust

In Zen, there is only one way to truly awaken, and this to awaken in the context of relationship. Despite all the Buddhist iconography of a singular individual sitting in meditation, there is no enlightened being whose enlightenment ends at the boundary of their own skin. We awaken through relationship, within relationship, because of relationship, and despite relationship, this last one being very subtle. Despite our imperfection, this face to face relationship serves the dharma perfectly and we inherit the skin, flesh, bones and marrow of the lineage, and the long broad stream of practitioners who came before us.

Welcoming address to retreat participants, January 28, 2015


            Having just returned from our Face to Face retreat, one week later, I am savoring the subtle dharma explored there. Practicing intimately in a small group is perfect, an environment where we could delve into these questions and quandaries about relationships in Zen practice with teachers and sangha. How is it that we awaken? What about fear and trust, about self power and other power, what are our misunderstandings and what do we already innately know? We entered into one particular story of the teacher, student and sangha relationship through Dogen’s Twining Vines. We then asked these questions of how to address the longing from our deepest heart in the context of relationship.

During this retreat, we practiced jundo, a daily processional between seven different altars to honor the Buddhist archetypes of wisdom and compassion. One of the altars was dedicated to our past teachers and guides, holding the smiling bright faces of Kyogen Carlson, Jiyu Kennet Roshi, Chozen Bays Roshi, Robert Aitken Roshi, the Dalai Llama, among others. Because Zen practice honors lineage (this face to face experience that traces back to the original Buddha) it begs the question of its purpose.  What is it for? What is the role of a teacher? What is the role of a student? What about the risks? Exploring these questions, without having preconceived right or wrong answers, reveals something about how we go about living our lives, and where we might begin to grow.

In Zen, we often say that everything that meets the eye is our teacher, everything is Buddha. The dirty dishes in the sink, the black lab on the kitchen floor, the laptop computer, the news of a plane crash, the green moss on the old apple tree. When we live life like this, awake, moment to moment receiving the immediate teachings of what we meet — I call this the high bar of practice. From that place, life is no problem whatsoever. Everything proclaims the truth. How often do we know this?

Unfortunately, for most of us, this is not the norm and takes many years of practice to actually come upon. The pull towards autopilot, absorption in our problems, and the deep belief held in the viscera of the body about our separation from life, is a highly engrained comfort zone. It is comfortable, at least from the perspective of the managing self, which we dislike leaving. Our grasping mind that arranges our comfort is so familiar to us, that we hardly question. We often begin to do so only when suffering become acute enough to suggest another avenue in living life. When I first came to practice, I knew there was something missing, something to resolve and the ideas of Zen spoke to me. I was also very wary of others, having been hurt in the past, and was unsure of what I would find. I vowed when I attended my first sitting group, that if there was any excessive solicitation or false friendliness, I wouldn’t return. Luckily, no one seemed to care one way or the other whether I was there (bless their hearts). They welcomed me in an open way, and thus began my practice. Gradually I began to trust my own impulse to find out about this dharma and appreciate my compadres on the path. The rest is history. Or more accurately, that moment of way seeking mind now becomes this moment of way seeking mind.  I now know there are endless dharma gates to plumb, and clarifying our delusion becomes more and more subtle. Still, I can say I have learned a lot about trust and have gained what seems like a bottomless faith in our awakening.

My teacher, Kyogen, had a way of responding to the question Why should we have a teacher or join a sangha? He would say that enlightenment is like gravity. Everyone, without exception, is subject to it. But there is a difference between knowing this and not, in the same way there’s a difference between dancing and falling down, where at any one moment, we can either align with gravity or fight it. What blocks us from aligning with this truth is right in front of us, but we can’t always see it. He said it’s like having a smudge on your face, something you can only recognize when it’s pointed out by another. We have all kinds of ideas about what’s wrong with us that are often far afield. But a teacher listens, and kindly may point out, How about that smudge?  Usually, we just see it implicitly in the process. Oh! Hmmm, well…..maybe I’ll take a look at that. Our practice is completely our responsibility.

I would also add to my teacher’s understanding of this, that it’s not only the smudge that we miss. Many of us fear that we’ll be “found out” as being particularly awful or lacking if we engage another in self reflection. We equally fear our own light. Being blind to our enlightened mind is also like having a great jewel on the forehead, shining brightly, which we also miss, unless it is pointed out to us. We miss our dark and light nature equally. So it helps enormously to have friends to encourage us on the path, and a teacher is a spiritual friend that commits to the process of awakening in a special way. How many of us also know and trust our own essential goodness?

So, the question moment to moment is how do we both take responsibility for our practice and call on the help of others? Practicing intimately with sangha is to relate to others who also have grappled with their sleepiness, their skepticism, their doubts and fears, their addictions and anger.  Because there is something very important at stake, it feels that opening up to others comes with some risk. Especially for us independent types, we’d much rather figure it out for ourselves than ask for help. Will I be hurt? Will I be misled? Who can I trust? How do I know? These are excellent questions to explore, as we look more and more deeply into what we can rely upon. A teacher’s role is to act as a bright mirror and help you find this out, to find out where your real center of gravity resides.

It is said that it is easy to be enlightened in a cave. Without this intimate face to face meeting, we make a comfortable world, but one where we sense that something is lacking. I liken this to having a mind like a hall of mirrors. Because I am a big proponent of making time for solitude and contemplation, I know the limit of this mind space where at some point, everything I think and see is what I already know.  What often moves me from this spot is simply boredom in my own conclusions! We can only grow when we meet an other. An other is something we don’t already know, something that doesn’t quite fit, and ultimately, something that makes us stretch and grow. It is in the stretching and growing where we become more ourselves. That is what it means to be a Zen student, to simply be willing to lean into the relationship and trust the process.

Dogen uses the metaphor of twining vines to express how teachers and students grow together. This is not a linear one-way hierarchical relationship, akin to a college professor who has a particular domain of knowledge and skills and certifies their students — that they’ve received, understood and mastered that package with some sufficiency.  A Zen teacher and student relationship is much more mysterious. When entering into a teacher/student relationship, many of us harbor an illusion that the teacher will give us something special, something we are lacking. But a Zen teacher has nothing to give anyone.

Dogen wrote teachers and students practice mutually, like twining vines. This is a beautiful image. As squash vines grow they reach out for the light and then curl back into the dark. When they’re planted close together, they become inseparable in their branching and reaching. This is the dance I have learned with my own teacher – each movement is mirrored and followed, and the territory of actual lived life, in this soil, this day, these circumstances, is thoroughly explored. There is no formula – only the natural urge to grow in a certain way, the map of which is held in the heart. Teacher and student learn together.

 Gourd vines entangle with gourd vines means that Buddha ancestors thoroughly experience Buddha ancestors; Buddha ancestors merge with Buddha ancestors in realization. This is transmitting mind to mind.

~Eihei Dogen in TwiningVines

            Although I hesitate to say anything is necessary, I know that engaging a teacher on this path was essential in helping me find the way to align with gravity, and that has made all the difference. My heart holds the deepest gratitude that this single person, now gone, agreed to accompany me on the messy trek, without any guarantees of what would happen. At some point we come out of our caves and look around. We see more deeply into others, and by doing so, see more deeply into ourselves. Zazen, the dharma, the teacher, the forms, and the sangha are all mirrors in service of this awakening. Ultimately, what we awaken to is relationship itself, this dynamic interplay between the one and the many. Our practice is entirely our responsibility. No one can take a single step on the path that we must take ourselves. And yet, how do we come to trust another to serve this process? The growing vine embraces the growing and becomes itself fully. Though the vines twist and turn, the fruit is always perfect.

Palm to palm,




The Fertile Ground of Zazen

The most exemplary nature is that of topsoil. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as a history or memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. ~ Wendell Berry

Being a farmer certainly made me prone to Zen practice. It was not such a big leap from the hand hoe to the cushion. Day after day, cultivating the earth regardless of the weather, not knowing what is actually happening, is also the art of zazen. At first, this earth doesn’t look like much – a dark substance, impersonal and distant. Some days are a lot of work – the digging fork takes a lot of muscle, and large bits and pieces of moldy organic matter stick up from the mud. But then, just when winter seems endless, the season shifts and the soil dries out. Becoming friable with continued working, it warms up to your touch. Tiny sprouts emerge, and seemingly before you know it, a blossom starts to swell on a twining vine.

Zazen is a lot like this. When we first start practice, we can’t always see what becomes of a single meditation, just as a farmer can’t really see what becomes of one day of working the land. Is this helping or hurting? How come my mind continues to be so busy? If we take up this daily practice however, over time we start to see something shift and change, the heart soften and become more pliable, and the mind grounded and ready. Naturally, we often just want the fruit, immediately, but if even one day were removed from a year of caring for the soil, there would be no fruit, not one moment is expendable. Farmers and Zen practitioners come to discover there is no use worrying whether it’s a good day or a bad day, it is just a good day. Zazen is just a good day. This is immensely freeing because it’s right in this place without compare when we really begin to take up our life in full.

 Zazen is enriched by all things that die and enter into it.  For every sweet pepper and crisp cucumber on the dinner plate, Earth touching buddhacountless microorganisms have cycled through birth and death to create the ground in which they emerged – mites and springtails, worms and spiders. Scientists know that the soil that looks inanimate to our eye (rudely referred to as “dirt”) is constantly in dynamic flux. In the same way, when we sit still and let go of our attachment to experiencing the world through our thoughts and turn our attention to the ground underneath, what drops away reveals this bright awake heart/mind – responsive, receptive and ready. The whole of the Buddha’s teachings are understood through the practice of zazen.

So much of modern life involves piling on more and more, much more than the ground can digest, so that when we sit zazen, a cascade of thoughts, memories, involvements and emotions often emerge with a vengeance. We have lost the appreciation for fallow time, for the mind and body to catch up to one another. So sitting zazen can be very revealing about the choices we are making in our lives day to day and over time.  Little by little, we can see into the ocean when the waves die down.

For zazen, the instructions are simple, but the doing is hard!  One: Sit upright with a grounded base and open relaxed upper body. Two: Attend the breath. Three: When you notice involvement with thoughts, let go, returning to your immediate experience.  It is our human nature to hold on and try to keep the things we love, and push away the things we don’t want. This is the way we usually navigate the day. But it is very interesting how we come to see that there is no winning this game, no end to it, and that the underlying energy beneath this is one of anxiety and separation, which becomes the source of suffering. So zazen is an invitation to broaden the view and reconnect with an awareness that is our birthright. We can say what dies nourishes the ground, this inherent bright clear mind, but in truth, dying is more like evaporating. We notice the ground, this mind more intimate than our brain’s thought processes, has been taking care of you all along.

One of the beauties of a small farm is its intimacy. After 25 years, my hands have touched every square inch of this land, planting and hand weeding. Likewise, in zazen, we become intimate with the landscape of our minds, noticing the familiar grooves, the rough territory, the sweet warm spots, and come to understand the limitless ground that supports it all. Shining the light of the Buddha’s teachings on this landscape brings great life forth. Surprises emerge and we begin to navigate our lives in a whole different way. We entrust ourselves to zazen like we trust the soil to nourish the tomatoes and sunflowers. We take care of our meditation, and zazen then informs us, wordlessly and without fail.

Take care of your meditation and trust the teachings of the Buddha will find you.

~ Palm to palm,


Just A Moment Ago – What Zen Teachers Do

A moment ago Kyogen in prayer

So much undone,

Now, all is as it should be –

A mystery.

~ Kyogen Carlson’s Death Poem

I just received this poem in the mail today, three months after my teacher’s death. Every year, my home temple keeps this New Year’s tradition of members writing a poem to be read in the event of their death. I can imagine Kyogen this time last year, getting ready to move the entire DRZC campus to new ground – all the unknowns, the risk, the excitement, the frustrations, the million undone things. And yet, all as it should be. His dharma to the core. Why do we think we know how this life should go?

I had a dream the other day. He and I met in the doorway between my kitchen and living room, chatting on about nothing special, until I turned and leaned towards him, reminding him he was dead. (Kyogen had a way of forgetting really practical matters.) He seemed delighted and surprised and we both agreed how special the visit was, and hugged. He was curious in life, and remains so in death. I woke with a full heart. This life, just a moment ago.

I have not written in almost a year and feel a little rusty. Taking care of our growing sangha has been my greatest joy and seemed to call for more face to face exchanges than print – dharma talks, koan play, sanzen, meetings and retreats. Words in sesshin becoming the call of a crow, tall grasses bending in the wind, the scent of vegetable stew. Where are they now? A moment ago. Every time I talked with Kyogen with apologies for not being more connected and involved in the new Siskyou temple project, he would reply, as it should be. He was proud of our group and often shared his experience of “the

DRZC Retreat to Finish the Zendo 2008
DRZC Retreat to Finish the Zendo 2008

early days” when he and Gyokuko were starting out and there was lots of coming and going. During his Zen West talk in 2013, he encouraged us to find and clarify our personal life koans, and to be there for one another on the path. As he observed with curiosity the amount of experimentation we were doing, he said he too innovated a lot in the early days. Now though, he had told me, In the end, it just comes down to two things, zazen and precepts. You just have to do the practice.   

What is it a Zen teacher exactly does? In a recent article by Norman Fischer, he quotes Huangbo clarifying a point to a student, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.” Upon transmission, I too joined this curious passionate tribe of no teachers of Zen. What is there to do? What do we hope our teachers will do for us? It is a mystery as to why it is arranged this way – that this dharma requires us to move towards another, and for them to move towards us – lest we create a convenient dharma of our own making and reinforce our safe and illusory islands. There is a common Zen saying about teaching, for the person, engaging the person, picking up grass, falling into grass. Examining and pointing out delusion, falling into delusion, both serve the way. Holding up a bright mirror, my teacher sat with me and watched my effort – trying to be good where I was already good, trying to be loved where I was already loved, trying to grasp the truth where I already was the truth. Until the effort was completely exhausted, he sat there “doing nothing.” (I’m also sure I didn’t let him get a word in edgewise). But of course, this doing nothing is a great doing nothing, and like no other gift I’ve ever received. In the end, plum blossoms open naturally in the spring.

Many of you have heard me talk about my favorite plant – the night blooming cereus – a gangly awkward spiny succulent with long reaching shoots. As a houseplant, it just keeps going on and on with great vigor even with only a drop of water. It

Night Blooming Cerius Opening

never gives up. You’d have to run it over with a tractor. Once every seven years, it pushes forth a beautiful bud and in the middle of the night, a gorgeous flower with a halo of spikes and a haunting sweet scent opens. By morning, it folds up and drops off.  The week Kyogen died, I realized how extraordinary it was that two buds opened, one after the other. As I told Frances Eido Carney this story at his funeral, she understood completely and replied, The teacher says to the student, Look it’s easy!  Over the last few years, I realize that I see the world now through my teacher’s eyes, much like I imagine one sees through their parent’s eyes when you become a parent. It is odd to say in the face of losing one’s best friend that there is a kind of sweetness that occurs after death that is surprising. Unhindered by the physical plane, Kyogen moves freely in my hands and feet. Every day we meet face to face. There you are!

I am grateful to our sangha, the willingness and interest to study Kyogen’s teachings this coming season in our study group. Kyogen left little written dharma and I look forward to revisiting his now familiar stories. Over the years, when his students asked him to write a book, he’d reply that there was so much already out there, nothing more was needed. Upon his death I realized that his book was written in the lives of his students, face to face, and the inspiration came to me to begin interviewing and recording these stories for the next generation. Although this may take a few years, I look forward to beginning soon and getting to know my teacher all over again in the eyes of his students.

A moment ago a determined frightened succulent blind to her nature

So much more I wanted to ask, nothing unsaid

Now, all is as it should be – picking up, falling into

Look, it’s easy

This bright mystery seen face to face.

~ Palm to palm,



Zen Ritual: I Love Thee, I Love Thee Not

At some point in practice, what we call Zen “forms,” the ritual activities of bowing, being mindful of how we place our shoes, holding our hands in shashu, become a struggle for everyone. It’s exactly in the midst of that struggle – if we take it up fully, looking into its source, staying connected with our intention to practice – that freedom unfolds.

Because ritual often take place in groups, it can also trigger internal tension between the desire for independence and desire to be one with group norms, or bring up associations of past religious experience in which personal disappointment or even abuse took place. For new and old practitioners alike, at any time, the forms may feel awkward and uncomfortable, appear confusing or extraneous. We like this, but don’t like that. We have better ideas for more preferred forms, or wonder why we have to do them at all. Isn’t awakening free for all, our enlightened mind intrinsic to our being? Why then are we doing these things? It’s OK to ask these kinds of questions – but also notice what we are protecting, and question that as well. Here are the corollary questions that help us with our answer:

What is it that has brought you to practice in the first place? What is it we seek?

Loving or hating form is excellent grist for the mill. You don’t need to be “cured” of it, or begrudge it, like eating your peas before you get to desert. There’s nothing wrong per se with any of these responses to form – in the community – it’s acknowledged and even celebrated. There’s no prize for compliance. Instead, (and even better) there is a palpable response that comes from engaging the ritual when we open up a little to its teaching, listening deeply to the wisdom that comes forth as we practice. The ancient Zen forms, continually in the flux of adaptation, are offered freely to those who wish to explore their compassion.

My teacher is a role model for embracing those struggling with the ritual. I can see him lighting up when someone finally admits, say during a long retreat, “My knees hurt and this isn’t fun.”

Yes! Yes! Exactly! The Master replies.

This is not because my teacher wants to see people suffer (quite the opposite), but because he is admiring an honest relationship with practice and with the teacher – this being as we are, a beginning where the mind beyond liking and disliking can emerge. We may imagine everyone else is having a fabulous time doing these practices 24/7, but that’s impossible and sometimes we torture ourselves with spiritual ideals. This is a practice for real people – welcome fellow travelers! Engaging ritual offers us a dharma gate at any moment – we can simply begin by letting it be a mirror for the truth of our experience in this very moment – not fighting that or trying to change it, but simply being thus in this moment. What a relief!

Tapping into the wisdom of Zen activity relies on our ability to take up form as a koan, or question, rather than something we have to figure out or make peace with. We unfold ritual and while doing so, share with it with others. This koan of form and ritual invites a conversation between you and the bow, between you and the chanting, between you and the oryoki bowls. The way to enter this conversation is to ask, What is this? How can we ask this question continually, let the body lead and the mind follow? What happens when we do this?

For myself, the grappling with form emerged much later in practice (I may be a slow learner). In my early days, I had a lot of willingness and curiosity, and not so many negative associations with religious rites. It wasn’t until I was responsible for teaching roles that I needed to work through my resistance to certain expressions in our rituals. Themes in early practice for me with form were about self consciousness and doing it perfectly until the fear and constriction of that dropped away, and let my heart love bowing and bells, which was true for me at that time. Some of the self consciousness came right out of my family of origin who would have ridiculed the ritual I now practice. There’s always a little ouch there.  Rather than fight that, I take care of that “part” kindly when it sometimes emerges – its limited but necessary wisdom helps me be wary of pretentiousness and taking myself too seriously.

Remembering my early days makes me sensitive to the vulnerability that ritual invites – because to have the practice be at all meaningful, we need to let go a little of always “being in charge” and in order to grow, need to find that place of letting go of always knowing and living in our heads. This doesn’t mean to abandon discernment, but it does ask us to trust more than we’re inclined, to lean in. That can be scary, so we accept that too and stay connected to the day to day experience of doing the forms, liking or not liking isn’t so important. Everything unfolds in its own due time.

Although we may come to appreciate and feel at home in the ritual, reconcile our need for individual expression with group harmony, and heal past religious wounds, it’s important to remember that none of these are the purpose of the forms. Our bowing, slow mindful walking, and offering incense, is simply a direct expression of the mind of awakening that we seek, both a means and an end of practice, without anything left out.

When you bow

the world bows back

If and when you struggle with ritual, take heart- appreciate what is happening, remembering your original intent and bring that to the ritual practice. Letting go of judgment or ideas of how you should be, listen as your body engages the form and find what bows back to you.

Palms together,


Five Gateless Gates for Loving Your Untamable Mind

At our recent introductory workshop, one long time meditator asked, What’s the use of zazen if my mind is just completely busy the whole time? It feels like a waste of time. Newcomers often say things like, I had a hard time stopping my mind, and I’m not very good at not thinking. As soon as we become aware of this “monkey mind,” swinging endlessly from limb to limb, or our thoughts being like a drop of water in a hot skillet, bouncing all over, we want it to stop.  It’s common for us to evaluate our zazen as good or bad based on how still our mind is, compared with an ideal of a mind like a clear still lake, a cool calm skillet.  After a while, we may come to accept that the practice of zazen is not to create a particular state, but to change our orientation towards our changing states. And yet, there can still be this underlying disquiet.


However, to give up an idea of gaining a peaceful mind does not mean giving up effort, exploration or curiosity – but instead, to take up this experience of an untamable mind with a new heart. If you resonate with this sense of time wasted in zazen with a busy mind, here are five gates to explore without trying to control the discursive thought generating mind:


Look again

Without trying to change this busy mind, begin to notice everything about its qualities. What is the energy driving the thinking? What’s the temperature under the skillet? Is it anxious, excited, bored, curious? Where is the mind habitually going? The past, future, fantasy, planning? Really get to know your busy mind states – are the thoughts clipped or overlapping, do you stay in one area of concern, or trail in many directions? Do you notice the gaps, even for a millisecond, between thoughts?  No two busy minds are the same.  “Busy mind” is an inadequate label – see what else is going on with your so called busy mind.


Practice 100% Non-opposition

Without trying to change this busy mind, notice the subtle or not so subtle arising of liking and disliking. Oh, that’s a good thought about this weekend’s plans, or, Yikes, I can’t get rid of that thought about angry I am at so and so, and let go of the evaluation. Let go of any idea that thinking itself is at all is good or bad and just be with the sensation of thinking while thinking. Be thinking, be aware of being thinking.


Make Room for the Unseen

Without trying to change this busy mind, remember that like all karma, there exist the seen and unseen effects of our actions. To take up the physical posture of zazen alone is to change something, and this action sends subtle signals to our bodies and minds and the bodies and minds of others. Our intention to investigate the truth of our lives and cultivate wisdom and compassion also has an effect in the world regardless of a busy mind. I have heard many long time meditators who report experiencing generally busy minds for decades also talk about ways the practice has changed their lives. How did that happen? Conversely, to sit in a serene state of meditation does not necessarily translate immediately into beneficial conduct. Invite the big picture. Remember that our measure of the impact of our meditation and practice in general is always limited.


Find the Sweet Spot of Effort

Without trying to change the busy mind, stay very steady and awake with it, like a good friend walking down a garden path. Right effort is continual gentle pressure, like gassho, palm to palm without one dominating the other. Whenever you can, even if it’s just once for a 30 minute period, return. Simply return, and then notice the mind begin its working again. Then return again. The return is more important than the quieting – the return is something we continue to do off the cushion. So find that sweet spot of right effort and don’t mistake giving up completely with acceptance or non-opposition – there’s a certain kind of giving up that is more like self sabotage, creating a self fulfilling prophecy – so watch out for that gremlin, and find right steady effort.


Sit with the Whole World

I love when I hear someone at the end of a retreat express appreciation to their neighbor for sitting so still and steady that it felt “like they were holding them up.” Invariably the recipient is surprised and may feel reluctant to admit how busy and distracted their mind was the whole time. How do you sit with your busy mind and hold up the whole world?  How do you sit for the suffering in the world? How do you sit for a loved one who is ill, for a group who struggles with oppression, for a family in conflict? We just sit, busy mind or no, with the possibility of our collective potential for wisdom and compassion . How could that be measured?

Although there are meditative traditions that train the mind towards particular states, and we open ourselves up to these states in zazen, taming discursive thought is not the point, though refreshing and insightful when it gives us a break. The point of practice is to tame the less accessible implicit thinking regarding the illusion of our separateness, permanence and fulfillment in conditioned existence. To practice these five gates with the untamable mind is to directly work on transforming this implicit though, and without changing a single firing synapse, experience freedom.


Palms together,