The Emperor has clothes, after all


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on March 6, 2014 at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the Boundless Way Zen meta-sangha’s three-week Ango retreat.  Audio recordings of this talk and others given by BoWZ teachers are posted here.


Emperor Wu of Liang invited Mahasattva Fu to lecture on the Diamond Sutra.  On the rostrum, Mhasattva Fu struck the lectern once with his stick and immediately climbed down.  The emperor was astounded.


Master Zhi asked, “Your Majesty, do you understand?”


“No, I do not.”


“Mahasattva Fu has finished the lecture.”


(Blue Cliff Record, Case 67)


I began looking for a koan to use as the launchpad for this talk about a week ago.


I poked around the koan territory I’ve been wandering in recently.  Not finding much inspiration there, I went back to the earliest koans in the miscellaneous collection and worked my way forward to where I’ve been wandering lately.  Still nothing, so I even peeked ahead of the koan I’ll next bring to dokusan.


No single koan lept out during this exercise, declaring, “Pick me.”  Hmm.


What did leap out, however, were two themes that seem to me to run through our whole koan curriculum, so I thought I’d make them the subject of my talk tonight.  I mainly want to talk about the second of these themes, but I need to touch on the first to set up the second.  I’ll come back to Mahasattva Fu’s lecture on the Diamond Sutra when I get there.


The first theme . . .


Surveying the koan curriculum brought home to me more than ever how it — and the Zen project writ large, I suppose — is, in part, about exploring our relationship with real and perceived constraints.


Many of our early koans seem to challenge one’s current perceptions of what’s possible, and so challenge us to take a closer look at what we experience as constraints.


Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.


Count the number of stars in the heavens.


Say something without moving your lips or tongue.


Some koans even use metaphors of physical entrapment.


You are at the bottom of a 200-foot dry well.  What do you do?


Many of us, perhaps most of us, come to Zen feeling trapped somehow.


Some part of me cut off from another part of myself.


A mind or spirit trapped in a body.


A solitary being cut off from the world I inhabit.


One being among many inhabiting a realm that can’t be all there is.


Some type of dualism.  Some version of heaven and earth, or heaven and hell.


We’re sure there is someplace else we must get, something more to know.  There must be a secret passageway to a place beyond, and we sense that Zen might offer us a map to find it and the key to open the door once we get there.


The early part of the koan curriculum seems to meet us where we’re at in this regard, even as it begins to challenge us to see that the “something more” we’re looking for is just this.  The “someplace else” we’re seeking is right here, right now.


The heat is turned up progressively, of course, as we’re challenged in increasingly direct ways.  Like this zinger (from the Blue Cliff Record), for example:


A monk said to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire — I wonder whether this perishes or not.


“This perishes,” said Dasui.


“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other.”


“It follows the other,” said Dasui.





And so it goes, until we come to the end of the curriculum, where, among other things, we encounter the precepts as koans.  Perhaps by then koan practice, and sitting practice, and everyday life practice have helped us let go of some perceived constraints and helped us see constraints we must accept in a new light.


The open secret, of course, is that the freedom we seek is found in the realm of constraints, not someplace else.


There is a “through the looking glass” quality to grasping this open secret, to be sure.  As we desperately strain to peer through the glass, what’s on the other side appears faint and blurry.  Passing through, I find myself.


Same old me.


Relatively speaking, there seems to be something to get.  Absolutely, not so much.


And this brings me to the second theme that seems to run through the koans. . .


Perhaps it’s more of a conceit, or a device, than a theme.


Like the koan I ultimately chose for this talk, the set up for many koans is an exchange between a wise teacher and a seemingly less wise student.


Often there also is a supporting character who is in the know, like Master Zhi in today’s koan.  Or Mahakasyapa, the student — and the only person, we’re told — who broke into a smile in the sermon where the Buddha simply twirled a flower.


We might more or less consciously identify with Master Zhi or Mahakasyapa as we pass through one of these koans.  We, too, get it.


But I’m not talking about them.  I’m talking about the seeming stooges.  The characters who are portrayed as hapless.  The characters who just don’t seem to get it.


Sometimes that student is a prominent person, like Emperor Wu of Liang, who also appears in a handful of other koans.  These prominent folk tend to fare especially poorly, at least on first blush.


As I surveyed our koan curriculum looking for inspiration for this talk, I found myself really appreciating these characters, the supposed stooges.  Even inspired by them.


Here I was, wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight . . . and I find it in other people wandering around, looking for inspiration and insight.


This is where much of the action is in these koans — much of the insight, the invitation and potential for us — I think.


“Not knowing is most intimate,” we like to say.  “Only don’t know.”


But is there still a hint of special knowledge in our not knowing?


As long as we’re identifying mainly with Mahasattva Fu or Master Zhi, perhaps there is.


As long as we think we get something Emperor Wu doesn’t, perhaps there is.


We can settle into our not knowing, and this, importantly, may make us a bit less anxious in our approach to life; perhaps relatively free of certain questions with which Emperor Wu is wrestling.  Perhaps we’ve come to feel just a bit more at home with ourselves; a bit more at home in this vast universe.


Mahasattva Fu, Master Zhi and, yes, Emperor Wu — each of them, and all of them together, are presenting themselves with integrity.  And each is an aspect of who we ultimately are.


I really appreciate how Emperor Wu, or that seemingly clueless student in so many other koans, helps us see how easy it is slip into a frame of mind in which there’s something more to get, something special, and, by god, perhaps we’ve got it.


That frame of mind from which we may overlook our own haplessness and ignorance, and the opportunities presented by those features of life we experience as constraints, as barriers.


If, on the other hand, you happen to be someone who identifies with poor, picked upon Emperor Wu all too easily — well, good for you.


“Emperor Wu was astounded.”  What a wonderful response to this.


Not knowing is most intimate.




A koan about religious tolerance (or is it?)


About a year ago, we changed the way we work with koans in BoWZ.  Rather than skipping over koans that appear again in later collections, a student now must work with them multiple times.


I’m currently working with Case 65 in the Blue Cliff Record.  In John Tarrant’s and Joan Sutherland’s as-yet unpublished translation of the BCR, which James Ford shared with me, the koan is titled “A Philosopher Questions the Buddha.”  This koan appears earlier in our progression as case 32 in The Gateless Gate.


Here it is:


An outsider asked the World-Honored One, “I do not ask for the spoken; I do not ask for the unspoken.” The World-Honored One just sat still. The outsider praised him, saying, “The World-Honored One with his great compassion and mercy has opened the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.” He then made bows and took his leave.


Ananda asked, “What did that outsider realize to make him praise you?”


The World-Honored One said, “He is like the fine horse who runs even at the shadow of a whip.”


This koan is very interesting to me at the moment for two reasons.


First, having passed through it quickly before, I stumbled on it this time.  I read it the morning I expected to present it to Josh in dokusan, then again that evening, just before we began to sit.  In other words, I hadn’t really stepped into it – entered it, and allowed it to enter me – and so my presentation of it in dokuan was off-the-mark, and I didn’t pass through it.


This is a really good reminder that we do not realize something unless we realize it in the moment, even if we’ve realized it before.


This is one way in which we can see the wisdom of working with a koan multiple times.


Second, this is a powerful, early example of religious tolerance in Buddhism.  I’m not sure this feature of the koan really hit me the first time around – and so we see another way in which there’s wisdom in working with a koan multiple times.


The World-Honored One is the historical Buddha, of course.  Ananda was one of the Buddha’s most senior and respected followers.  The Zen tradition regards him as the second Indian patriarch, just one step removed from the Buddha in the (at some points likely mythological) line of transmission that includes all living and departed Zen teachers.


The outsider in this koan was not a follower of the Buddha, not part of the clan.  In another translation, the koan is titled “A Hindu Questions the Buddha.”  Perhaps this “outsider” stood within the major religious stream within India then, as now.


This outsider clearly gets it, and Ananda, one of the Buddha’s most senior disciples, clearly doesn’t.  (Ananda apparently came to his realization very late in life, but he was revered for his big heart and incredible memory.  He is credited with preservation of many of the Buddha’s key teachings.)  The fact that an “outsider” gets it is clearly fine from the Buddha’s perspective.  In yet another translation, the Buddha is said to have been “respectful for a long time” after this man’s opening remark.


(What does the outsider realize?  We all need to realize that for ourselves, of course.)


This case seems to me to be making a point about religion and religious boundaries, in addition to other points it’s making.  This is the purpose of identifying the Buddha’s interlocutor as an outsider (or a Hindu).  Otherwise, why not just start the koan “A man asked the World-Honored One . . .”?


Note that there’s a fourth character in this koan, the narrator (and a fifth, you or me).


The narrator ushers us into “insider vs. outsider” mode almost imperceptibly.  It’s so seemingly natural to label people according to their traits, views, and social groups.


But is this really a koan about religious tolerance?


The Buddha doesn’t seem to see this guy through a “my religion, your religion” lens, as the narrator of the koan apparently does (or else playfully entices us to do).


Jesus was not the first Christian, as they say, and here we seem to be seeing that the Buddha was not the first Buddhist.


For the Buddha, this apparently was just an encounter with another human being who saw what he saw.


No religion here, and so no religious tolerance either, one could say.


Just a genuine encounter.  Presence.


Appreciation without labels.


Appreciation whatever the labels.


Form is Emptiness and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on Saturday, August 3, 2013, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.


“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.”

From the Heart Sutra

There is a risk in any religion that we’ll get lost in ideas and lose contact with the rest of life — that our ideas about our practice, the nature of reality or whatever may become a barrier to really experiencing life fully and vulnerably as it arises from moment to moment.


Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, famously said, “Pray God that we may lose God for the sake of finding God.”


Eckhart clearly understood that our ideas about what we’re seeking can get in the way of actually finding what we’re seeking.


There’s a way in which Zen is all about imploding conceptual barriers.


Within BoWZ, I think we’re pretty good at not approaching Zen as a thing, as a philosophy.  We’re pretty good at practicing Zen in a way that helps us lose Zen for the sake of finding life — or, better yet, at practicing Zen as nothing that needs to be lost, because Zen practice and the rest of life are synonymous in a way that enhances our experience of all of it.


Still, we have our concepts, sparse and spare as they may be, and so there is some risk of getting lost in them, of thinking they sum it all up.


The concept that’s most central to this Zen project is expressed in the Heart Sutra as the unity of form and emptiness.


Form is exactly emptiness.  Emptiness, exactly form.


We often express this same notion as the unity of the Relative and the Absolute.


Personally, I find this way of thinking about things very compelling as notions go.


It’s a good story, in part, because it’s a simple story, yet one that resists oversimplification.


For me, it’s also a good story, because it seems to comport with my experience.


There’s this particular perspective from which all phonomena, including oneself, seem distinct.  And there’s this perspective from which things seem unitary, seem as one.


One angle sometimes can predominate, and sometimes intensely so.


There may be times in our lives when we feel intensely separate, intensely isolated; in moments of great physical or emotional pain, for example.


And we may have experiences — in sports, dancing, on a sailboat, in the wilderness, drawing or painting, on the cushion — when we feel utterly lost in it all, as if there were no I, no me.


And then there’s this angle from which we may experience ourselves and all else in a both-and sort of way.  As distinct-and-not-separate.


James Ford often points to the shifting nature of our experience, of our perspective.


Sometimes this perspective.


Sometimes that.


Sometimes both.


Sometimes neither.


In this pointing we can see that form and emptiness aren’t things.


In fact, these terms and the relationship between them are catnip for the this-and-thating part of our mind that tends to get in the driver’s seat, assume our subject position without us noticing, and so to dominate our awareness.


Then it starts spinning stories.


This is good.


That’s bad.


I want more of this.


Less of that.


If you tend to relate to the relative and absolute as ideas when you hear those words used in our liturgy, or in a book, or in a Dharma talk like this one – if you tend to think there’s a philosophy or a grand cosmic conceptual framework embodied in those words – then I encourage you to encounter them in a spirit of playfulness instead.


As philosophy, these words really are pretty slippery.


But, perhaps we can let them be slippery like a slide.




We humans are storytellers.  It seems to be in our nature, and allowing ourselves to get lost in tall tales can be immensely captivating.


I’m rather partial to a good spy story myself.


Yet we can become too captive to these captivating stories, perhaps especially the most functional ones, the best ones.


The real deal is what’s unfolding right here, now.


We may tell stories about it, and we may filter it through our stories, but it’s not a story.


It can’t be held captive by us, and if we know we’re grounded in it, and are it, we’re set free.


Bounded and free.


Form and emptiness, the relative and the absolute, the divisible and the indivisible, the divisible within and as the indivisible:  this is a powerful story, and it captures something that serves as both challenge and invitation to our critical faculties.  One dimension of who we are — this bicameral brain of ours — seems to crave these this-and-that stories.


It actually manufactures these stories it craves.  Usefully manufactures them, so long as we can see them as stories, and not let them dictate our actions (though we sometimes may choose to act according to script).


I personally find the spare, playful story that’s central to our Zen tradition more compelling, and more comprehensible, and more comprehensive, than the much longer and much more elaborate metaphysical narratives of some other religious traditions.


But only if I relate to it playfully.


Our ideas, however appealing, and however effective as pointers, are cheap substitutes for the personal experience of really touching life with our whole being.


To my thinking, Zen is simply about cultivating our capacity for whole-being touching.


Helping us touch, moment by moment, what’s always right before us.


And perhaps progressively bringing our personal — and, ultimately, I do hope — collective stories and ideas more in line with what we see and learn and feel from that touching.


Honoring our best stories and ideas, while holding them very lightly.


Reincarnation, and love of life

Reincarnation is one of those flash point metaphysical concepts in Zen, rather like resurrection in Christianity. It has its would be defenders, its would be debunkers, and its would be reinterpreters/metaphor makers.

I’m in the latter group, to the (very little) extent I’m in any of them. Mostly, I think the whole discussion is uninteresting, like just about any other metaphysical discussion, and certainly not where the real action is.

This said, I’ve long carried an image of what may happen when I die. It’s the image of a kid at the end of a trip down a slide or a roller coaster ride, with a big smile on her face, saying, “Can we do it again?”

Do I really expect this to happen? I don’t know. But this is my disposition toward life now, and, whatever happens when this life ends, I hope it’s my attitude then.

I love this life.

I realize how fortunate I am to feel this way.

I recognize it’s relatively harder for some (perhaps many) people to feel this way, due to varied socioeconomic, political, genetic, environmental, and other factors.

And feeling this way isn’t necessarily the measure of a good life or a worthy life.

Will I feel this way as I die? Again, I don’t know.

Life is hard. My life has been hard in some ways, at times.

Things change.

Attitudes can change as things change, and though I do believe many of us have a significant capacity to determine our own attitudes, even in challenging circumstances, I don’t know the limits of that principle as applied to my own life.

This attitude generally has remained a constant for me during challenging times, or has eventually returned in full force when the challenging times were especially challenging. I do think there’s a fundamental resilience that’s widely (though not necessarily universally) shared among us humans. Researchers like Daniel Gilbert seem to agree.

In my experience, there is something fundamentally solid and trustable about this ever-changing existence, if only we allow ourselves to trust.

Whatever the proximate or cosmic scale future may hold, for now I’m grateful for this attitude, and for the ingredients of my life that help sustain it: family, friends, meaningful work and other commitments, relative good health (despite some significant challenges in that arena the past couple of years), Zen practice, etc.

I have found Zen practice helpful in sustaining this attitude. If Zen is about anything, I think it is about learning to love this life, and expressing this love by honoring this life, and helping create the conditions in which others can do the same.

Here’s a short video of my daughter and me tubing in the snow yesterday. We kept doing it, again and again, for 90 minutes — an accomplishment for a four-year old, I think.

At the end of each ride she asked, smiling, “Can we do it again?”

Zen metaphysics


This koan (case 29 in The Blue Cliff Record) comes about as close to expressing a Zen metaphysics as anything I’ve seen or heard:


A monk said to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire—I wonder whether this perishes or not.”

“This perishes,” said Dasui.

“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other?”

“It follows the other,” said Dasui.


Enough said.

I believe

This is the text of a talk I gave this morning at the annual Credo service at the Unitarian Church of Sharon.


The modern translation of Credo is “I believe,” and the word creed has come to mean a statement of religious beliefs.


Being asked to talk about my religious beliefs presents something of a problem for me.  I’ve come to think beliefs aren’t the most interesting or important – or even an essential – element of religion.


In fact, I’ve come to think that metaphysical beliefs can, for many – present company excluded – be a real impediment to development of a sense of wonder and reverence, of a broad and deeply felt connection to the universe, other beings, and oneself.  For me, these are hallmark traits of mature spirituality.


Any praiseworthy ethical framework flows from this sort of orientation.


I suppose I do have my religious beliefs (including those just mentioned), but they’re quite spare.


I didn’t arrive at this perspective through a syllogistic reasoning process or an act of mental will, though I certainly have done my fair share of thinking about religion.


I was raised Catholic and still have a deep appreciation for the mystical tradition in Christianity.  I’ve always had what I’d call a contemplative orientation.


As a young child I was troubled by the confusing and inconsistent ways in which people used the word God – it seemed like the free space in Bingo, or that proverbial blank to be filled in however one might wish – and yet I felt the deepest connection to . . . to . . . to what?


I made a secret shrine in a construction zone near the new subdivision to which we moved when I was eight or nine, and I sneaked away to pray there several times a week.  I read the Bible, Jonathan Livingston Seagull – for those of you old enough to remember it – and all the Hardy Boys novels, of course, in a quiet little monk’s cell I made on my closet floor.


I eventually attended a Jesuit university.


In my late 20’s, shortly after finishing law school and entering law practice, I began to meditate.  I soon became very involved in a movement called Contemplative Outreach, which is reviving the ancient practice of silent prayer within the Christian community.  It was started by a Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Keating – a lovely man who has had a big impact on my life, and on the lives of so many others.


I also encountered Zen during this period, initially through Kyudo, or Zen archery.  I studied with Kanjuro Shibata Sensei, an archery master and the Imperial Bowmaker of Japan.  He lives in Boulder, Colorado, much of the year.


I spent a great deal of time on silent retreat at monasteries and convents in Colorado and New Mexico.


During this era, I began to feel that my world, that I myself, was divided between interior and exterior, between the contemplative perspectives and pursuits that had become so important to me, on the one hand, and the rough-and-tumble world of business and corporate law, on the other.


Unable to reconcile these seeming poles at that life-stage, in 1995 I turned down an offer of partnership in a good law firm to study at Harvard Divinity School.  I planned to get a Ph.D. and become a scholar of comparative religion.


It turned out to be an absolutely brilliant move, but not for any of the reasons I thought I was making it.


During my first year I took a class on comparative theologies in which one session’s readings, and much earnest discussion regarding them, focused on the problem of syncretism – of combining religious perspectives and forms.


In reality, all religions are syncretistic, a fact too few religious people appreciate.  The overt syncretism of Unitarian Universalism is one of the things that attracted me to it.


One of those class readings and the discussion that flowed from it revolved around questions like, “If a person borrows from Christianity and Buddhism, might his brain be reincarnated in a newborn’s body and the rest of him end up in heaven?  Are these people putting themselves in some sort of metaphysical jeopardy?”


I’m not joking.


In the very probing, yet balanced, manner of the scholars I had come to learn from, I reflected for a moment, then raised my hand and asked the group,


“Are you seriousWho cares?


This didn’t endear me to the professor or most of my classmates.


Around the same time, the NY Times published a huge expose about the battle of Srebrenica, which occurred in July 1995, near the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia.  Thousands of Bosnian Muslims were massacred in an assault the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia later declared to be an act of genocide, and the worst mass slaughter on European soil since World War II.  It seems NATO – the Clinton administration and other western powers – may have let Serbian General Ratko Mladic overrun a supposed UN safe zone where the Bosnians were encamped.  It was inconveniently located in territory western officials believed would have to be ceded to the Serbs in order to achieve a peace accord.


The NY Times article contained a picture of a Muslim woman hung from a tree limb, a rope around her neck.  She killed herself to avoid being killed.  I broke down in tears.


I knew then that the academic study of religion, or of theology, at least, was not my calling – at least not then.  I retooled my program, and my path, by combining my legal background with my interest in religion and international affairs.  I created a course of study in international conflict resolution, and eventually ended up teaching and practicing in this area at Harvard Law School for several years after I graduated.


I eventually returned to private law practice, but I’m now also part of an NGO that helps create and support broad-scale peace processes to end civil wars, as well as broad-scale national dialogue processes to help avert them.  We helped end Nepal’s civil war in 2006.  Our current project is in Lebanon, and it’s beginning to spread elsewhere in the Middle East.


The meditation practice I began 20 years ago seems to have contributed to the progressive dismantlement of the religious conceptual framework I inherited.  I sat alone during 10 years in the middle of those 20, until eventually finding a spiritual home in the Zen tradition.


I’m part of an emerging western Buddhist community called Boundless Way Zen – BoWZ for short.  Last year I became one of its very junior teachers.  BoWZ has a strong, if informal, connection to Unitarian Universalism.  Our most senior teacher, James Ford, is minister of the First Unitarian Church in Providence.


I consider myself nontheistic, which I prefer to the term atheistic.  For me, non-theism is about being religious without embracing the idea of god or standing in opposition to the many wonderful people who do.


A revered, ancient Zen teacher once said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”  That’s certainly my experience.


This “not knowing” is not the “I don’t know” of agnosticism.  It’s not the product of indifference or laziness or resignation.


It’s a full-to-the-brim sort of not knowing.


Unlike the author of the author of the late 14th century classic of contemplative Christian spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing, however, I don’t experience this “not knowing” in theistic terms.  That just doesn’t resonate with me, particularly not in terms of the person-like images of God presented in the Hebrew Bible and some of the sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.


For me, this not knowing can’t be contained.  In words, in beliefs.


Or, rather, it’s contained by, and it contains . . . this.



Just this.



Nothing extra.  Nothing less.


Now I look back at that nine-year old praying at his shrine – or throwing a ball, or chasing his dog, or hugging his parents, or staring at the night sky – and understand why Jesus pointed to children, and the lilies in the field, when adults asked him how to enter the Kingdom of God.


He also reminded them that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”



Here, now.



These hands.  No hands but our hands.


My family is new to this community, yet Esther and I saw immediately how it accommodates a range of religious perspectives, including those that emphasize belief more than mine does.  I’m so impressed by the open-mindedness and big heartedness that makes this possible.


Just this includes everything.  In the words of another revered, ancient Zen teacher, there is “nothing worth begrudging.”  Nothing that can’t teach us; no fact, experience or viewpoint that can’t serve as grist for our individual and collective mills.


The modern meaning of Credo is “I believe,” but I understand its ancient usage conveyed a somewhat different meaning – something more along the lines of “I give my heart to this.”


And, I do.


Taking Refuge: Nowhere to Hide


This post is based upon a Dharma Talk (my first) that I gave on October 25, 2011.

I take refuge in Buddha

I take refuge in Dharma

I take refuge in Sangha

The Three Refuges we chant during our Zen liturgy seem to me to be the closest thing we have to a creed in this non-creedal religion. Creeds are statements of belief. In some religions they are the litmus test for “true believers.” They often require one to submit to improbable metaphysical claims and rigid authority structures.

I was a questioning Catholic 20 years ago when I first encountered Buddhism and the refuges.  Elements of the Nicene Creed, which Catholics recite, always have been hard for me to swallow; certainly in any literal sense. Creeds of any kind – even the UU Covenant – tend to press my buttons to some degree.

I know from talking to other members of our sangha that I’m not the only person who has been agitated by one of the traditional Zen forms. Bowing. Chanting. The Four Vows. Whatever. For me, it was the Three Refuges.

But, here they are. We chant them every week. And, though we don’t make much of “being Buddhist” the way some religions do – there’s no salvation, spiritual or otherwise, in simply self-identifying as a Zen practitioner – “taking refuge” by reciting and embracing the Three Refuges is the traditional way Buddhists the world over signal their commitment to this path.

I had little choice but to sit with my agitation and get to know it. Why this discomfort?

I ultimately concluded that my agitation stemmed from two sources.

First, the very idea of “taking refuge” offended me. I’ve tended to think of myself as autonomous and self-reliant. Taking refuge seemed like submission. I’ve tended to think of myself as strong. Taking refuge seemed like an admission of vulnerability, of weakness. I’ve tended to think of myself as engaged and action-oriented. Taking refuge seemed like hiding.

Second, my early ideas about what Buddhists must be taking refuge in troubled me.

What’s Buddha? Another messiah? Hmm.

What’s Dharma? Did I hear doctrine? Dogma? Forget it.

What’s Sangha? Another exclusive community? Only true believers are saved? Can’t go there.

These reactions were conditioned, of course. I’m a product of western culture, in which values like autonomy, self-reliance, strength, action and the like tend to be privileged over values like interdependence, connection, community, vulnerability, and introspection. Then there’s that Roman Catholic upbringing. There’s so much that’s rich and beautiful about Catholicism, and also much I can only relate to in a mytho-poetic way. Perhaps my reactions also were gendered to some degree.

My early encounters with Buddhism actually helped me discover the Christian contemplative tradition. D.T. Suzuki sings the praises of various Christian mystics in one of his books – names that were unfamiliar to me when I encountered them there 20 years ago. I soon learned that a form of sitting practice that’s often called centering prayer today was developed and preserved in Christian monastic communities through the ages, and that there was a budding lay movement (catalyzed by monks) that embraced it.

I sat in that tradition for many years, and I think my sitting practice ultimately contributed to the disintegration of my Christian religious worldview. (This doesn’t happen for most who sit in that context, and I’m not saying it should, but this was my experience then.) I continued to sit alone for 10 years before making my way to Zen.  And, Zen ultimately helped me appreciate the contemplative strain of my birth tradition in new ways.

I decided to take refuge on this Zen path, in part, because I began to feel that what I was looking for wasn’t to be found in solitude, at least not in my case. I wanted a supportive context, open and devoid of dogma, and I sensed I would find kindred spirits along the Zen path.

I’ve ultimately come to think of the refuges much differently since the time I first encountered them. Those old notions have been turned on their head.

These days, I take refuge from the illusion of complete separateness that seems to be the lens through which so many of us see things – our default mode, if you will. It’s the source of endless personal and collective suffering. I take refuge from my narratives and mental constructions that indulge this illusion.

I now think of this taking refuge from as more of an opting in, than as an opting out. I’m choosing to opt into life as it really is. It includes this illusion of complete separateness and all of my narratives and habits that indulge it, but the whole of life isn’t defined by that illusion, even if my subjective experience sometimes seems to be.

We are distinct, but there really is no sense in which we are separate. We’re immersed in it all. We’re of it all.

What do I choose to opt into?

Buddha signifies a couple of things for me.

It’s our potential to awaken to the reality that we’re not separate from the rest of this universe and everything else in it – we’re not a sort of two-dimensional, Flat Stanley sort of sticker of a human being laid over a flat, background universe. Buddha is oneness, and our capacity to experience this oneness – not just to intellectualize about it, but for this background reality to become our new foreground. Our new ground and no-ground.

But we’re also reminded time and again that we’re Buddha just as we are now, however we are. That each of us embodies and reflects this oneness at this very moment. So Buddha – or Buddha nature – must be me, with all of my foibles and failings, my doubts and insecurities.

Buddha when I snapped at my wife about something senseless the other day. Buddha when I apologized after 15 tense minutes had passed.

Buddha as my mind wanders on or off the cushion, brooding about some perceived indignity, anxious about the demands of work and family life, plotting to better my lot, or whatever.

Dharma includes Buddhist texts and teachings, of course, but, more broadly, I see it as the 10,000 things: ants and sticks and grizzly bears, the steam rising from my teacup, that noxious pile of trash, my kid’s tantrum, you and me as distinct beings, and all the rest. It’s the diversity that exists within the oneness. It’s what each being and thing has to reveal to us.

One of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had was several hours spent sitting alone in the branch of an old tree on a moonlit night. The learning didn’t result from that experience; it didn’t consist of thoughts I thought while I was up there, or after I climbed down. The experience was the learning.

That experience and others like it help prod me beyond belief, beyond the false certainty of our creeds and fixed views, which come in so many forms in religion, in politics, in families, in one’s conception of oneself.

What could it possibly mean to believe in a tree? To believe in moonlight?

I’m reminded once again of Dogen’s lovely verse:

Entreat trees and rocks to preach,

and ask rice fields and gardens for the Truth;

ask pillars for the Dharma,

and learn from hedges and walls.

We engage texts and ideas with our whole being, holding them lightly even as we revere the better ones, but, just as importantly, we engage fully and openly with this universe and all that arises.

Sangha, for me, is our little sitting group and our broader Zen family, and it’s also the broadest community that’s the unity of Buddha and Dharma. The community of the 10,000 things, all of them Buddha, all of them Truth, all intermingling and utterly interdependent.

The tragedy of the human condition, in my view, is that too many of us believe and feel we are utterly separate, and so think and act in ways that reinforce those beliefs and feelings in ourselves and others.

There’s also blessing in this; there’s no doubt some evolutionary necessity to this illusion of separateness. But, we also have the capacity to experience not one, not two, and to make that the orientation from which we think and act, from which we express our distinctiveness.

The term spirituality is problematic even for theists, I think, and it’s doubly so for anyone who considers him- or herself non-theistic. I’ve come to think of it as a sense of connectedness to oneself, others, and the universe – and the felt quality of those connections. Sangha.

So, for me, the refuges have come to serve as a reminder that there’s nowhere to hide. We’re in the stew, and there’s no way out of the pot.

These days I try to take my refuge in:

  • The special mess that I am, including my fears, my insecurities, my shame, my greed, anger and ignorance
  • The 10,000 things, especially the 5,001 to which I’m particularly attracted or averse, and which therefore have much to teach me
  • My utter inseparability from, and therefore complete vulnerability to and dependence upon, all of this

This may all sound a bit free-form, and in an important sense it truly is. But these free-form thoughts can be stood on their head, as well. I also want to stress that I do experience Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in the more formal ways those terms are used – the historical Buddha’s teachings and example (and the example of our many other teachers), our Zen practices and texts, and our community – as a refuge. They form a context in which I try to summon forth and present “the better angels of my nature” with the support and companionship of others who are trying to do the same.

The question that agitated Dogen and animated his practice for years was, “If we’re already Buddhas, why must we practice?” There are many possible answers to this question. For my part, I take refuge on this path and in this community because I need to in order to do my best to show up to life in the way I truly want to show up.

I suspect the illusion of complete separateness never loses its attractive force. The trick, I think, is to see it as the doorway of compassion – compassion for ourselves, as well as for others. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha – they prod me toward that doorway, and help me find it again when I’ve lost sight of it.

I’ll conclude with a thought and an image.

The thought is about this word “creed,” which is from the Latin root for belief. “Credo” often is translated “I believe.” But, it’s apparently a modern definition. I’m told the ancient meaning of “credo” was something more along the lines of “I give my heart to this.”

I like that.

The image is this: A revered, ancient Zen teacher is said to have spent his final, dying days walking around a pole in his room, on which he had inscribed the words Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

He clearly found his refuge there, all the way to the end. What a powerful image. What a powerful, final teisho for his community, and for all of us.

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

I can, and do, give my heart to that.


In the beginning . . .


Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new year, but it’s more broadly about creation, about origins.


Today’s class for little kids at our local UU Church (to which my family belongs) was about creation.  The big bang figured prominently in the lesson.


Which got me thinking about myth and science regarding the origins of our universe, and about the politics of all this.


When people relate to biblical and other creation stories as though they’re literally true, rather than myth and metaphor, well . . .


When people relate to scientific explanations of our origins as if a literally true description of the beginnings of the known universe can end one’s search for meaning and intimacy with and within this universe, well . . .


And so biblical literalists and secular materialists face off overtly about the facts of our origins as they talk at cross purposes.


Here’s the key thing:  It’s always the beginning.