Turning Words

a Zen blog

Great Thought May 7, 2015

Filed under: Dharma Talks — Jeff @ 2:15 am


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center on April 29, 2015.



Dongshan asked Yunju, “I heard that a monk named `Great Thought’ was reborn in the Kingdom of Wei and became the king. Is this true or not?”


“If his name was `Great Thought,’ then even the Buddha couldn’t do it.”


Dongshan agreed.



I came across this koan last week while paging through Zen’s Chinese Heritage, Andy Ferguson’s wonderful compilation and translation of some of the most important teachings of some of the most important Chinese Chan masters who laid the foundation for Zen as we have received it via Japan and Korea.


Yunju was a great teacher who died at the turn of the tenth century. Dongshan was his main teacher.


Koans are stories of these teachers and their students – and they’re our stories, too, of course.


I thought I’d use this koan as a launching pad for talking a bit about thought in zazen, and in Zen more generally.


The sentiment that may seem to be expressed in this koan and so many other Zen teachings is that the main problem we confront in and through Zen is thought. Mental activity and constructions.


If we just cease to get lost in thought, to cling to thought even when we’re certain our thoughts are right and trustworthy, we’ll be free in the way we imagine Zen can make us free. This is why we came to Zen, right?


And it’s true that our early instruction in zazen is, in part, about developing the ability to disengage from thought gently when we become aware we’re lost in it.


There is a certain kind of freedom – a greater sense of personal agency – that one may gain by gaining a perspective on one’s thought, one’s cognitions.


Much of the time many of us are completely lost in thought, and we just accept whatever is coursing through our minds as our perspective. As the perspective. And so it is, if we let it be so.


We all know the philosophical proposition “I think, therefore, I am.” Much of the time, for many of us, however, it’s really more like, “I am what I think,” but without being fully aware that’s how we’re operating.


Yes, of course, meditation can and does help us develop the capacity to “go meta” on the endless stream of mental matter that’s always bubbling to the surface of our awareness, and this can be a really transformative thing for oneself – indeed, for our relationships, and for the world.


But you’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to stay in that place always. We inevitably become lost in thought again.


It’s not just you. It’s all practitioners, even those who’ve been meditating for decades.


In Zen, this meta observation deck is not someplace we expect and strive always to remain (though there are some schools of meditation that do seem to hold this out as the goal).


Imagine you could remain there. Perhaps you’ve even had what seemed like particularly “good” or “deep” periods of meditation that had this quality and now seem like the standard by which all other meditation periods – even time off the cushion – should be judged.


But what lies beyond or sits above that perspective?  Has one really found IT – the Great Thought, the Great Place, the Great Perspective one has been seeking?


What is this perspective? Is it the One True You? Is it ever-enduring – in the background, even when it’s not my conscious foreground – or is it contingent, like other things we observe? How can you know?


Perhaps it really is just turtles all the way down.


Thinking we’ve arrived somewhere, even that we’ve glimpsed someplace, is just confirmation that we still imagine there’s someplace else to go.


In reality, our thoughts and our being lost in thoughts – monkey mind, as we call it – is it, too.


Thinking there is someplace to go, and searching for that someplace, and the very impulse to search: All part of it. Part of who we are. Part of this.


Yes, we can reduce much optional suffering – our own and others – by gaining a perspective on our tendency to become lost in thought. Becoming better at noticing that; less prone to running completely on autopilot, to being captive to and defined and pushed around by our unreflective throught-stream. We can become more reflective and less reflexive. There’s big upside here.


But we ultimately must gain a perspective on our perspective seeking and perspective gaining, too.


(And, even this perspective is something we can’t let become too precious, precious as it is.)


Zen practice is not primarily about just becoming more cognitively reflective or somehow detached. About somehow occupying some superior mental space.


Zazen presents a chance to sit with all that arises and all that is, including our discomfort and distraction, and the impulse to search for escape from discomfort and distraction.


The impulse to search for the ultimate escape from existential discomfort. To glimpse behind the veil we imagine is there.


In time, we may come to see – even to know, to feel in our bones – that this impulse is like “trying to bite your teeth,” as Josh recently told me some Zen sage once said.


“If his name was Great Thought, then even the Buddha couldn’t do it.”


Zen is not ultimately just about contending with our thoughts. The goal isn’t to replace small thoughts with a Great Thought; our small, local, enmeshed perspective with some imagined uber perspective in which we hope and expect always to abide.


Our small perspective is the big perspective. Like box and lid, or two arrows meeting tip-to-tip in mid-air, as the sayings go.


This is it.


And this is not a thought.


And it’s not not our thoughts.



Our possible impossible vows

Filed under: Dharma Talks — Jeff @ 2:07 am

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Greater Boston Zen Center one Tuesday night during the summer of 2012. I’m posting it now to complete my series of talks about the major elements of our liturgy.



I’d like to talk a bit about the Four Vows — how I have come to understand and experience them.


Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The Buddha way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.


We’ll often hear it said in Zen circles that these vows are impossible to fulfill, and indeed they are.


There are beings suffering everywhere that you and I will never meet; there is suffering in our midst we’ll never perceive.  There is the starving, AIDS-afflicted child in Africa, and also the colleague I see in the hall every day who doesn’t share her sorrows with me.


There are forms and causes of suffering that no person can end alone:  war, poverty, global warming.


The Four Vows are aspirational and inspirational.  They prod us to help as we can, to strive to help more than we think we can – but, of course, we cannot literally save all beings from all forms of pain, sorrow, and hardship, at least not in the relative sense of saving beings.


This is a difficult reality — downright depressing, from one perspective, if we allow this truth to sink in.  And this discomfort, if we permit ourselves to experience it, hopefully does move us to do something.


Impossible as it is to save all beings from all suffering always in this sense, however, the Four Vows also have a paradoxical, even teasing, quality.


Infinite beings.  I nonetheless vow earnestly to save each one.


Really?  You must be kidding.


Actually, our translation of the first vow doesn’t say “infinite” beings, it says “numberless” beings.


What does that mean, “numberless beings”?  Zero beings?  Zero and not zero beings?


Just as this line — each of our vows — truly and profoundly recognizes the distinctness of each and every thing, and the reality of personal suffering, it also, and equally, truly and profoundly speaks from the perspective of that being in which all beings participate.


The perspective from which there is no subject, verb and object.


The perspective from which there is no possible and impossible.


No savior, saving, or saved.


This is the perspective of the absolute to which one’s attention frequently is called by Zen teachers and texts.


Someone very dear to me is an alcoholic.  I have been pained by and struggled with this fact for years, as have others I know who care deeply about this person, who I’ll call Sam.


I have tried — many have tried — to help Sam acknowledge and address this condition.  Over the years there have been individual and collective efforts to appeal to and influence Sam through reasoned discussion, a jointly authored letter of concern, interventions of various kinds, accompanying Sam to AA meetings — you name it.


Sam has seemed to recognize his drinking as a problem and make a real effort to stop at times, but most of these periods have passed, with Sam cycling back into a phase of denial (often belligerent denial), alienation, and darkness.


Alcoholism, as I’m sure many of you know, is a complex condition, with a variety of possible contributing causes that differ from person to person.  Some are genetic; some environmental. It’s no easy thing to address. The data on long-term recovery from alcoholism are not very confidence inspiring.


The periods of struggle and darkness have been so hard for me and for others close to Sam.  There’s the sadness for Sam; the desperate desire to see him happy and well.


And there’s my own fear and anger and frustration and sense of loss of Sam as I knew him, and knew us, in the years when he seemed more in control of his drinking, rather than the other way around.


While sitting with many of you one Tuesday night about a year ago, I had this sense that Sam was sitting with us; that I was sitting here with Sam as I sit here with all of you week after week; as I sit here tonight with the heat and the whir of the fans and everything else.  I had this sense of Sam sitting here in this way, too.


This was a turning point in my relationship with Sam.


I had so wanted to save Sam, but my efforts weren’t paying off in the way I had hoped, and they likely were just contributing to our growing alienation.


Sitting in that emptiness, with the numberless beings, Sam and I somehow both seemed less in need of saving.


And our fears, anxieties and judgments, and my own and others’ efforts to make Sam a “project,” didn’t seem to have the same ability to hold us captive at that moment.  Our delusions — mine and his — indeed were inexhaustible.  Opinions, fears, judgments, emotions — all bound to keep arising endlessly.


And they could be ended — ended by knowing there’s no need to end them.  Ended by dropping the delusion label, accepting them as features of the moment, and knowing they needn’t color my outlook completely, and always, nor dictate my every action.


A Dharma gate opened during that sit, a gate that always was open, and which remains open now.  Each moment, each encounter, a gate.


The gate is open, even when I see no hope and am sure it’s closed.   The way is boundless, even when I think it’s impossibly narrow.  Sam and I are walking the path, even when I feel lost, when he seems lost.


The Buddha’s way is our way.  There’s no Buddha but us Buddhas.  We can’t help but embody Buddha.


The Buddha way is unsurpassable because it is none other than this.


Right here.  Right now.


This very moment that has arrived.


And this can’t be surpassed, much as we might try in our own ways to transcend it.


Sitting here with Sam, I knew Sam was Buddha, that I was Buddha, that our struggles are the Buddha’s struggles.


Realizing this, encountering Sam in daily life has been different.  Less tension-filled.  For me for sure, but also for him in relation to me, it often seems.


For my part, I’ve found it easier just to be with Sam.  And, when it has seemed appropriate, to encourage in a gentle, un-pushy, less needy way that Sam seems actually to experience as encouragement.  I do think I’m increasingly meeting Sam as Sam, and not as someone who is constantly falling short of my own selfish, idiosyncratic image of what a “perfect” Sam would be.


Sam has been in a considerably better space at the moment, and he has been for some time, but I’ve also found it easier — though not entirely easy — not to freak out completely when there are signs that maybe things won’t be better indefinitely.


[Sam’s condition very much has been up and down during the nearly three years since I gave this talk.]


I’d like to think this capacity to relate to Sam and his condition a bit differently has been one small factor among many others that are helping him deal with his condition differently.  I honestly don’t know.  When we have visibly cheered up someone who was crying, or found a cure for some disease or whatever, it’s more clear that we’ve made a difference, that we’re saving beings.


I do know there’s been a small, but important, shift in our relationship. This shift certainly has helped me, and I do think it likely has helped Sam just a bit.


I can trace that shift back to the realization, sparked by sitting with you, that Sam and I and our struggles are part of this greater stream of life, and that things are always okay from that perspective — or, rather, things just are.  Suchness.


So perhaps holding these twin perspectives together — the relative and the absolute; the reality that there is terrible suffering we should work to end, even though we can’t possibly end it all, and the reality that all is ultimately as it should be at this very moment, which is simply to say it’s the only way it can be, actually as it is — and letting these perspectives be “not one, not two,” can help motivate us to act skillfully to do some good in the world; to avoid a detached complacency, on the one hand, or despair and/or less skillful action, on the other.


Perhaps our impossible vows are possible after all.


Dedicating our practice May 6, 2015

Filed under: Dharma Talks,Practice — Jeff @ 12:58 am


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Boundless Way Temple on February 19, 2015, during our annual Coming and Going Retreat. It is the next in a series of talks I have been giving about the major elements of our liturgy.  A recording of the talk, along with many other lovely talks from the retreat, can be found here.


I went skiing with two Swedes a few weeks ago. At the end of the day, I asked them – rather innocently, I thought – “Did you have a nice time?”


One of the two, who has become a close friend over the past five years, and who now lives in the U.S., said, “It was a great day.”


Our other companion, who I’d just met, said nothing. I looked at my friend, wondering whether he’d had a bad day, despite outward appearances.


My friend explained that this is an awkward question for Swedes. Theirs is a fairly collectivist culture, and yet also a fairly competitive culture. This question puts Swedes in a bind.


On the one hand, everyone is supposed to have an equivalent experience.   That’s the ideal. On the other hand, people really don’t have precisely equivalent experiences, and people do desire to have a comparatively good experience.


My friend has known me long enough, and been immersed in U.S. culture long enough, to have felt compelled to respond to my question. Not so for the other Swede.


From this cultural frame of reference, revealing how he felt about the day – good, bad, or in-between – would have been to engage in a comparison of experiences, which is verboten.


Because we do have different experiences, and experience things differently, my skiing companions explained that this taboo often leaves Swedes feeling jealous, but not having any way to contend with that feeling. As a result, they said, it can be hard for Swedes to take joy in others’ joy.


My friend tried to explain how these cultural patterns are born of the cold and darkness that makes life up north so hard. They’re a recipe for group survival in harsh conditions.


I told them that the ideal I’m more acclimated to, at least in my little corner of the U.S., is taking joy in other’s joy, even though most of us probably practice it quite unevenly. It’s a nice idea, they agreed.


I was also thinking, of course, of one of the closing dedications for our sutra services:


Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now. The wind blows, waves fall on the shore, and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads. We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men, ants and sticks and grizzly bears. Let wisdom go to every corner of the house. Let people have joy in each other’s joy.


I really appreciate our dedications. For me, they answer the “So what?” question about our practice. What is our practice about?


And I’ve always loved this particular verse.


Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now.


Other dedication verses also open with this reminder. I find it so interesting that this verse, which is about dedicating our practice, opens with something akin to a statement of fact; some might also say an article of faith:


We’re alive. All is alive. And all is blessed.


Notice this! Wake up!


After this or another opening reminder, other verses tend to transition into what we might think of as more clear cut dedications: to all being; to those who suffer from calamity, cruelty and war; to specific people who we know are suffering.


With this verse, we chant:


The wind blows, waves fall on the shore . . .


The alarm clock rings.


The dog scratches its neck.


An email arrives.


Buddha nature pervades the whole day.


. . . and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads.


Compassion does have a way of finding us in our “dark and broken roads.” We may be particularly open to others’ helping hands and the compassion that fills the universe, including our own broken hearts, in moments when we feel lost or down. And, of course, that’s precisely the same love available, and that we may feel, in the wind blowing on our face; the surf pounding against our chest on a warm summer day; that email arriving. Whatever our current life circumstance and disposition.


We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men . . .


We dedicate ourselves to this practice, for all it gives us, and enables us to offer to others, with gratitude to those who have sustained it and transmitted it to us. It’s truly something to be cherished, preserved, and developed.


And we dedicate ourselves to . . .


. . . ants and sticks and grizzly bears.


Chanting and hearing this for this first time was one of the moments when I knew Zen was for me. I remember laughing out loud. I was hooked.


This is both playful and serious, of course. Matter of fact. Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, ants, sticks and bears included. The 10,000 things.


And it is our animal nature; the baser parts of our human nature. We, too, are crawling on the ground, like ants. We are dirt and sticks. We can be grumpy and brutish, like bears. We dedicate ourselves to these parts of ourselves, too. We’d might as well face them. We’re enmeshed in it all. We’re in the stew.


Let wisdom go to every corner of the house.


I hear this less as an expansionist, missionary aspiration, than as yet another reminder of what’s here already. This practice is so much about just noticing, I find; about letting be; about getting out of the way – or, rather, coming to know in our bones that we are part of this, and this is the way.


Let people have joy in each other’s joy.


Can there be any doubt that we’d all be happier if we could learn to practice this collectively and consistently? This is the pithiest little ethical mandate I know.


And, like the phrase before it, I think it’s as much descriptive as it is prescriptive. People taking joy in others’ joy. This is the way. The motion and frequency of the universe, to which we can tune in and with which we’re invited to cooperate.


Such a simple principle.


Yet, it’s the work of a lifetime, it seems.


And of generations, across cultures.


The Answer January 13, 2015

Filed under: Dharma Everywhere — Jeff @ 3:34 am

This weekend I was sitting near the fire in the main base lodge at Mt. Snow, contemplating life.

Looking up, I noticed for the first time the circular object in the lower right hand corner of this photo, with its “What is it?” inscription.

Then I noticed the word above it and to the left.

This is it.



The Five Remembrances May 14, 2014

Filed under: Dharma Talks,Practice — Jeff @ 2:11 am

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 30, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



I am of the nature to grow old;

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health;

There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die;

There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change;

There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions;

I am the beneficiary of my deeds;

My deeds are the ground on which I stand.


— The Five Remembrances



Tonight I’ll continue exploring features of our liturgy by talking about The Five Remembrances.


This short verse from the Pali Canon is as spare, and non-metaphysical, and direct – even “in your face” — as anything one encounters in religion. It tells it like it is, and does so succinctly.


It doesn’t make any speculative truth claims.


It doesn’t draw lines between chosen and un-chosen, saved and un-saved.


It doesn’t make any promises.


It doesn’t idealize.


At first blush, this verse may not seem to offer any comfort in light of the stark realities of this life that it describes – and, let’s be clear: comfort is what we seek.


This verse spoke to me deeply the first time I heard it, and it continues to speak to me deeply today. For me, personally, it is our most important text; at the core of what we do, and of what Buddhism is as a religion.


If we want to live fully and skillfully, we must eventually see and accept things as they are. Buddhism offers so much to help us live fully and skillfully, but accepting the inescapable facts of this-worldly life is an essential part of the equation. It is the essential part, really. Unskippable.


We won’t live as fully and skillfully as we can unless and until these seeming barriers become gates for us.


And this acceptance must occur moment after moment after moment. Much of our default programming points us in another direction.


The Five Remembrances are aptly named. Many of us need to be reminded constantly of these facts of life, either because we try to avoid them, or because we anxiously obsess about them and need to meet them in a new way.


Life manifests as change everywhere and always. It can’t help but do otherwise. This is obvious enough.


It’s the balanced accepting part that’s hard for us; so often, some form of avoiding becomes our refuge. Repeating The Five Remembrances each time we gather makes it harder and harder to hide. More and more evident that our efforts to escape are futile, and counter-productive.


The first four of The Five Rembrances remind us that we are “of the nature of change,” offering us no escape from that fact:


  • We grow old, if we’re lucky.


  • We become ill along the way. Some of us are born with serious ailments, and spend our whole lives coping with them.


  • Ultimately, we die.


  • Those we love are “of this nature,” as well. No one, nothing, is immune. Partings are unavoidable.


Do any of us really doubt this?


But do we really accept it – and not just casually and conceptually?


So much psychic and physical energy is exerted, so much social, political and economic activity is generated, to try to evade these inescapable realities.


That’s not all bad, of course. Quietism and defeatism aren’t noble responses to the facts of existence. By all means, let’s cure diseases. Extend life, if we can make the time worth living. Our urge to avoid old age, sickness and death propels much valuable social, political and technological effort and innovation.


And it also breeds much avoidable anxiety, conflict, misuse of resources, and misdirected energy and missed opportunity. So many forms of escapism – substance abuse, consumerism, and the like all can be that.


As we truly accept the basic facts of our existence, we tend to cherish life more. Live and love more fully and intimately.


The final remembrance is equal parts prescription and description. In this realm of constant change, the only solid ground – indeed, our very being, is what we do (and say) right here, right now.


Our actions and speech are rubber and road, and here-now is where they meet.


This is it, so far as we know and seemingly can know. This is conditioned by our own and others’ deeds in past moments. This is conditioning future moments, just as past moments have conditioned the present.


Each of us is the beneficiary of our deeds in this moment. We lie in the beds we make, so we should make our beds with care.


The present is our opportunity to shape the future. What preceded this moment conditions the present, but now is our opportunity to address what we’ve left undone in the past, or know we’ve done poorly.


Meditation and our other practices may tend to increase our capacity to conduct ourselves skillfully, to show up as the precepts encourage us to show up. If and as we do, that can have ripple effects, seen and unseen.


This past weekend I was home alone organizing things in our basement – creating a craft table area for the kids, an exercise space for my wife and me, a storage area. My family came home, and our eight-year old son made a big fuss about how I was encroaching on his indoor soccer space.


I had little patience for this at the moment. I told him to calm down. He didn’t, so I told him to go upstairs and leave me alone. I had a project to finish, and I couldn’t deal with the whining. He went upstairs in a huff.


Not skillful.


I got my bearings, went upstairs, and asked him if he’d come back down to help me make decisions about the layout of the space, including an area for him to play with his soccer ball.


We talked it through, and came up with a sensible plan that satisfied everyone. He was great. So cooperative when I was truly listening to him and demonstrating concern for his concerns.


Such a small moment, but such a chance to strengthen a bond and to model behavior that I hope will help my son resolve conflict constructively with others.


I don’t want to idealize about this mundane encounter, make predictions from it or make other big claims based upon it. I can’t.


But I will say that the tension, and my initial response to it, were a gate, not a barrier. Past conduct conditions the present, but the main thing that imposes constraints in the present is our narratives about the past, and what’s possible now.


We don’t get a chance to rewrite past moments. They stand.


We do have the opportunity to meet this moment in an intentional way.


The Five Remembrances may strike us as bad news initially, but they’re really the good news. Embracing these facts of our existence, not raging against them, is liberation.


The good news is that everything is of the nature of change.


As a witty theist once said, God created time so everything wouldn’t happen all at once.


And, as the Germans say, machs gute. Let’s make it good.



Gatha of Atonement April 17, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeff @ 12:03 pm

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 16, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


All evil karma ever committed by me since of old,

on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

born of my body, mouth and thought,

now I atone for it all.


– Gatha of Atonement


I began a series of talks about elements of our liturgy a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night. I spoke about the sound of the bell with which our liturgy begins and ends in that talk. Tonight I’ll talk about the Gatha of Atonement, the first verse we chant together.


It’s hard for a lapsed Catholic like me not to chant this verse solely as an act of contrition: as a reminder and admission of how bad I’ve been personally, how big the cosmic hole I’ve dug for myself is, and how endlessly I need to work to try to get myself out of it.


This is a caricature of the Christian notion of sin and repentance, of course, and it’s also a caricature of this gatha from our Zen Buddhist perspective. It is right, and it is vitally important to achievement of personal and collective wholeness, that we acknowledge and try to make amends for the ways in which we have caused harm. To be sure, from one angle this verse is about recognizing my own failures to treat others and all that exists (including myself) with dignity, and about vocalizing my intention to do better.


Yet there is more going on in this verse, I think. The this life, individual accountability, relative dimension of this gatha that may be the primary lens through which some of us view it is complemented and counterbalanced by an atemporal, interwoven, absolute dimension.


Each operative word and phrase in this brief verse is rich with layered meaning from this perspective. Each is worthy of its own talk – of multiple talks. I can only focus on a few phrases, and a few meanings I sense, tonight.


Evil karma


It’s hard to think of two more loaded, contested words in contemporary Buddhist discourse. The classical idea of karma is closely associated with reincarnation, a word that is equally loaded and contested.


I’m going to skirt the reincarnation debate – I’m not very interested in these sorts of dogmatic arguments and metaphysical speculations, anyway – to focus on karma in another accepted, and more prosaic, sense of the word: causes and conditions.


A key insight of Buddhism is that this moment as we find it is the product of causes and conditions that precede it, that have conspired to produce it. Though we can’t always trace and weight the relative contributions of these causes and conditions with mathematical precision, the idea arguably is more in the realm of physics than metaphysics. It’s a pretty simple notion, and increasingly uncontested, even among some theistic religious thinkers, who also see the hand of a God-figure at work.


For tonight’s purposes, I’ll keep the idea of evil karma equally simple, and un-cosmic: among the causes and conditions that conspire to create this moment are causes and conditions that can produce various forms of harm and injustice, some of them extreme. The next line of the verse asserts that these causes and conditions can be traced to the three poisons: greed, anger and ignorance. To be specific, “my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance.”


Beginningless greed, anger and ignorance


This notion of greed, anger and ignorance without beginning is a pointer to the absolute dimension of the gatha. We’re prompted to consider the possibility that these poisons might be in the nature of things; of who I am as a human being; of who we are. Rather than seeing my selfish impulses, anger (expressed or unexpressed), and blindness and false certainties solely as personal failings for which I feel guilty and punish myself, this phrase seems to be an invitation to consider our own and others’ base instincts and impulses, habitual reactions, and present limitations, with curiosity and compassion.


What is it about our circumstances and our programming that inclines us, in some moments at least, toward selfish, angry or biased behavior?


Born of my body, mouth and thought


The next line of the gatha reminds us that we are creatures. We are embodied. And that we seem to be unusual creatures, possessing the capacity for complex thought and communication. And we’re told that evil karma is “born of” these facts.


In this realm of the 10,000 dharmas, of diversity, of seemingly finite resources, and of human and non-human creatures, arriving at this moment on the wave of celecstial and terestial evolutionary history, each of us, like the beings that begat us, must forge a path. This realm often seems, and is, confusing and contingent. I’m inclined to think that greed, anger and ignorance are over-amplifications of tendencies that generally serve us well, individually and collectively, as we make our way:


  • Greed as an over-amplification of our legitimate imperative to satisfy basic physical and psychological needs.


  • Anger as an (often misdirected) over-amplification of our legitimate impulse to protect our fragile bodies, and psyches that are fragile as they develop.


  • Ignorance (aka false certainty) as an over-amplification of the limitations of our senses and cognitive processing powers, and of our need, for many legitimate purposes, to reduce complexity, to filter out some sensory data.


And so we sometimes act (body), speak (mouth), and perceive and process information and experiences (thought) in ways that tend to produce harm and injustice, insomuch as our actions, speech and thought “over serve” legitimate needs and impulses, to others’ detriment.


Now I atone for it all


Right here, right now.


Yes, I express regret for my actions, speech and thought that has hurt others, and I renew my commitment to do my best to live up to my highest ideals – to the precepts. I atone in the sense of acknowledging when I have fallen short of those ideals, and I constantly do, and of being penitent.


But atone has another meaning: to reconcile.  To stop fighting.


I reconcile myself to the nature of things. To my own and others’ creatureliness. To our evolutionary heritage. To the needs and impulses that can incline us toward greed, anger and ignorance when they are over-amplified.


Realizing this, not idealizing about our condition, accepting it, not flogging ourselves and others for our supposed failures to be the perfect angels we tend to think we and others should be – ever pure of heart, in thought and in deed – is an important step toward actually developing the capacity to show up as we intend, and helping others cultivate and sustain their intention and efforts to do the same.


This take on the Gatha of Atonement may be more the very long view from a relative perspective than a view from the absolute. As I said, I’m not very inclined toward metaphysics, and the relative and absolute are one, in any event, as we say. It is a take on this gatha, anyway. It is a useful take for me, and I hope it also is useful for some of you.




The Sound of the Bell April 6, 2014

Filed under: Practice — Jeff @ 11:33 am


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 25, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



[Ring Inkan bell, which sounds something like this: ding.]


I recently committed to giving four talks – five, if we count the one each BoWZ teacher gave at the Temple during the Ango – in March and April. I have three to go, and this seemed like an opportunity to organize several talks around a theme. I’ve spoken before about features of our liturgy, and I’d like to use these next few talks to touch on aspects of our liturgical forms that I’ve wanted to speak about for some time.


[Ring Inkan]


Our liturgy practice begins with this bell, one of several we hear throughout the service.


It could end here, too.


In fact, it does begin and end here.


[Ring Inkan]


Here’s a koan from the Miscellaneous Koan set in our Harada/Yasutani koan curriculum:


Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.


[Ring Inkan]


From The Gateless Gate koan collection:


Yunmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”


[Ring Inkan]


A koan from the Book of Serenity:


Yakusan had not ascended the rostrum for a long time.

The steward said, “All the assembly has been wishing for instruction for a long time. Please, Master, give your assembly a sermon.”


Yakusan had the bell rung. The assembly gathered. Yakusan ascended the rostrum and sat there for a while. Then he descended and returned to his room.


The temple steward followed him and asked, “You said a while ago that you would give the assembly a sermon. Why didn’t you speak even a word?” Yakusan said, “For sutras, there are sutra specialists; for sastras, there are sastra specialists. Why do you have doubts about this old monk?”


[Rink Inkan]


I’ll end this little carol of bells with a poem by the famous British Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, that I’ve always loved:


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.


I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


[Ring Inkan]


This bell with which we begin our service – and each bow, each tone chanted, each drumbeat, each waft of incense, and each breath and footstep that follows – presents itself.


We present ourselves.


All presenting together.


Now. And now. And now.


And so our liturgy begins.


And ends.


And so we carry on.


Right here, now.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.