Ceaseless practice


This an an approximation of a talk I gave on May 31, 2017 at Bright Sea Zen, the sangha led by my dear friend, Kate Hartland.

“The meaning of zazen, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other.  Zazen doesn’t start when we start making effort, doesn’t stop when we stop.

We can’t do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.”

From “Guidance in Shikintaza,” by Reb Anderson

I want to use this passage from one of our chants tonight to talk about the notion of ceaseless practice.

The universe practices ceaselessly.  Everything that’s happening right here, now – everything that’s happening everywhere – is the universe’s practice.  The universe is universing.  This is Buddha’s practice. It is Buddha nature expressing itself.

Buddha nature expresses itself ceaselessly.  The universe practices ceaselessly. E ndlessly flows forth; erupts; gives its all; gives it all up for the sake of . . . giving it all up.

Kate and I just had a nice visit at her house before our sit.  She definitely delivered on her promise to make a wicked grilled cheese sandwich.  The sandwich and time with her were a real treat, yet the main event was a tour of Kate’s beautiful garden.  Kate is an avid gardener, as I suspect you know.  I’ve always appreciated and admired the way so much of her teaching is inspired by what nature teaches her.

Kate’s garden is radiant now.  Many of the flowers are erupting.  The universe erupting as Kate’s flowers.

And, later in the year, when the flowers die, their death is the universe erupting, too.

It’s the same with us.  Each of us is the universe universing.  We are flowers blooming. Our lives – our thoughts, speech and action – are the universe erupting.  And our deaths are the universe erupting, too.

And, yet, many of us, much of the time, don’t seem to regard our lives this way.  We have this gnawing sense of separateness, of isolation, of not-okayness.  And we often, in more or less unconscious ways, respond anxiously to this sense, and often in ways that tend to compound it.  We take refuge in thought, speech or conduct, in situations we create or gravitate toward, that are about escaping from the here-and-now.  That aren’t about nearness to it and intimacy with it.

Why is this?  I don’t know. In some religious worldviews, it’s a mark of our fallen nature.  In some, it’s a pathology; a kind of sickness.

I’m more inclined to see it in the spirit of what Zen types call the “samadhi of play.”  Why shouldn’t the one wish to flow forth and know itself in the many; in and as myriad dharmas, “the 10,000 things”; as you and me?  And why shouldn’t the many, why shouldn’t you and I, truly feel distinct and separate, with the twinge of discomfort that entails (even as it also creates opportunities for joy).  And why shouldn’t all delight in discovering, and constantly rediscovering, oneness-in-manyness and the boundless love manifested in and generated through all this?

But these are just ideas, and, so far as I can tell, the universe universing doesn’t seem to be dependent upon my own or anyone else’s ideas about it.

This is the “we can’t do it for ourselves” part.  We can’t do it for ourselves, because it’s already done.  From this perspective, there’s nothing at all to do. Polishing ourselves – trying to be wiser, more virtuous, more spiritual; shinier, newer or whatever – it’s all futile from this perspective.  This is a come-as-you-are universe.  The universe goes on erupting, despite and as our efforts, whatever our efforts may or may not be.

So why practice?  We practice because of the opportunity it provides to become more and more aware of the universe universing, and to discover ourselves as participants in the universe universing.  It helps us not to resist our participation, just as we are here and now.  To attune.  Zazen tends to help us attune.

This is the “nobody else can do it for us” part.  Nobody else can live our lives, and nobody else can sit for us. Nobody else can practice for us.

Sitting is optional . . . we’re part of it all, no matter what, and the universe goes on practicing as me, whether or not I sit.  Yet this attunement, this particular quality of willing participation, can matter so much personally and collectively.  So much individual and collective suffering is attributable to our resistance; to our attempts to take refuge in someplace other than this.  Someplace we think promises something more.

The quality of our lives – our thought, speech and actions – may begin to change as we attune.  The universe goes on erupting despite our efforts and as our efforts, no matter what, but we do have agency.  We participate.  We have the ability to influence the universe erupting as our efforts.

So what we realize from our practice is simply that we are part of the universe’s ceaseless practice.  We realize that we are already home.  That we are practicing ceaselessly, too.

This isn’t exactly a destination, at least not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about destinations.  The universe’s practice is completely open-ended.  And our practice must take on this open-ended quality, too.

Time and again in our practice, we must confront the idea that there is a goal, a destination, an ultimate point.  This idea can arise in many different ways, sometimes with a positive, sometimes with a negative tinge: a belief that there’s something wrong with my sitting practice, or that my practice is going really well; a belief that I’m virtuous or not virtuous; a belief that I’m not enlightened and never will be or that I’m finally realized.

However this idea arises time and time again, time and time again we must let it go.

So it’s all sort of like the line in that old folk spiritual:  “My life goes on in endless song. How can I stop from singing?”  The universe goes on universing as me no matter what.  Goes on in endless song.  So why not sing in tune?

As we let go of our gaining ideas over and over and over again (including our gaining ideas about supposedly losing), we tend to begin to manifest a positive quality of poverty of spirit.  By this I mean simply that we become more at ease with our practice and with ourselves and our lives.  We tend to increasingly practice without striving.

Another word for this quality of practice with poverty of spirit is reverence.  Simple reverence.  Reverence with a light touch.  Reverence with a sense of humor.  Reverence that is loving, but not too precious.

Reverence for the 10,000 things.  Reverence for your own life and experience.  Reverence for others’ lives and experiences.

Experiencing things this way is a cue that our personal practice is aligning with the ceaseless practice of the whole universe.

The universe, you and me practicing together.  Each breath.  Each step.  Each supernova bursting.  Each grilled cheese sandwich.  Each flower blooming.  Ceaselessly.


Email to HDS Spiritual Formation for Transformative Leadership Class Participants

This is the text of an email I sent last week to the students in the Spiritual Formation for Transformative Leadership course I’m co-leading at Harvard Divinity School with the amazing Liz Ruqaiyyah Lee-Hood.  I’m posting it here because this course has offered me the opportunity to reflect a bit more upon my experiences in both the Christian contemplative tradition and the Zen tradition, as well as some of the similarities and differences I see between them.  I remain deeply appreciative of, and still feel intimately connected to, the Christian contemplative tradition, even though I’m firmly grounded (and only engaged) in Zen practice today.  Note that I asked our students to read Markings, the (posthumously published) spiritual journal kept by Dag Hammarksjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations.



I hope you’re having a great experience so far in the Spiritual Formation for Transformative Leadership course. I also hope to see you at the end of your October 3rd session, when I plan to visit again.

I began this note on a return flight to Boston, having spent the past week in Jerusalem. I am thinking of all of you, and about our brief visit a few weeks ago. I did not manage to say most of what I intended to say, so I thought I would send this email with some follow-up thoughts. I was supposed to talk mainly about contemplative practice, and I particularly wanted to follow up with a few more thoughts on that topic.

Picking up from where I left off when we were together . . .

Don’t Spare the Dharma Assets

I shared with you a verse from my Zen community’s version of the Shorter Precepts Recitation. This is the series of vows one traditionally makes when one becomes a committed practitioner on the Zen path. In my community, we also have a Longer Precepts Recitation, but its content is essentially the same, and both the shorter and longer versions of the precepts are recited by lay people and priests alike. Monks and nuns in Asia typically must make a much longer series of vows, but my emerging western Zen school does not currently have a true monastic element – and, in any event, we find these more compact sets of precepts to be sufficient expressions of our core commitments.

The precept I shared with you has been a living koan for me for many years:

Using all the ingredients of my life, I vow to take up the way of not sparing the Dharma Assets.

“Dharma” variously means teachings (as in the recording teachings of the Buddha), truth, and “ants, sticks and grizzly bears.”

(Stop and think about that for a moment.)

Or, as the towering 13th century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen said,

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.

The Dharma Assets are simply “all of the ingredients of my life.” As you travel together in (and beyond) this course, I encourage you to take up one of the following questions (which are just different ways of asking the same thing):

  • How can I best make use of what’s here, now, including what’s inside me – whatever troubles or confounds me; whatever seems risky and real to me; whatever I genuinely would care to do that is not for show?
  • You’ve read Dag Hammarskjold’s reflections. What would/does living this precept look like for you?
  • If, as Hammarskjold claims, the path to holiness in this era necessarily leads through action, what action(s) do you feel compelled to take?

Contemplative Practice

“Contemplation” is a term that initially was associated most closely with the prayer practices and theology of the Christian mystics, as it arguably still is today, at least within academic circles. Because the practices, experiences, and ideas about which some of them wrote have analogues in other traditions, however, the term is often used to describe similar, and sometimes even very different practices, outside Christianity. For example, the silent prayer practice described by the anonymous 14th century Christian author of The Cloud of Unknowing is very different from Sufi dance and many of the practices of the Jewish Kabbalists, but you will hear one describing all of these practices as contemplative today. Of course, Islam and Judaism have their silent prayer practices, too.

As I explained when we met, I initially learned to meditate nearly 30 years ago from Tibetan Buddhist monks, and I continued to use various Buddhist meditation practices outside the Zen tradition for perhaps two years. I was still a Roman Catholic, but I was not attending mass regularly during that particular interlude. Somewhat ironically, I learned about Christian contemplative prayer in 1992, while reading a book by D.T. Suzuki, who introduced a generation of westerners to Zen. I soon sought teaching in Christian contemplative prayer from the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating, who (with others) has done the Christian world an incredible service by exposing non-monastics (ordained and lay) to contemplative prayer through the organization Contemplative Outreach.

I still cannot believe I did not initially learn of this wonderful practice by people in my own birth tradition. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, the Christian tradition of contemplative (i.e., silent) prayer was kept alive for centuries in monastic communities (Trappists, Carmelites, etc.), and most Catholics (and perhaps even most priests) never spend a significant period of time in a monastery or otherwise interacting with monks. Second, there are many other types of prayer practice in Catholicism (e.g., petitionary prayer, prayers of adoration, and praying the rosary) that are universally known and accepted, and there have been times and places in both the pre-modern and the modern eras when contemplative prayer has been discouraged or even challenged by some church leaders. Some Christian mystics write about direct communion with God or even the possibility of union with God, and this notion is theologically contentious for some Christians.

I practiced Christian contemplative prayer for roughly the same period of time (about 15 years) that I have practiced Buddhist forms of meditation, including Zen. I know both the Catholic and the Zen traditions well, and draw inspiration from both. Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, there are some Christian Zen practitioners, and even some priests who have become fully authorized Zen teachers, like the Jesuit Robert Kennedy.

Centering Prayer, as the particular form of contemplative prayer taught by Contemplative Outreach is known, involves returning to a chosen sacred word or to one’s breath when one is lost in thought. The first form of Zen meditation most people encounter involves returning to one’s breath when one is lost in thought. Needless to say, these practices are very similar in terms of what one does during a prayer/meditation period. Generally speaking, one is attentive to whatever arises, and one gently returns to a reference point, like the breath or a sacred word, when one discovers one has been focused exclusively on a thought or sensation. In my form of Zen practice, one eventually drops the reference point device, adopting a form of practice called “shikantaza” in Japanese, which is often translated as “just sitting.”

The main difference between these practices is how they are conceptualized, or theologized, in each tradition. Christianity obviously is a theistic tradition, and Zen is nontheistic (my word). You will hear some Christians (including Father Keating himself) say that Zen meditation is a practice of attention, whereas contemplative prayer is a practice of intention (to be nearer to God and to “let go and let God,” as Centering Prayer practitioners often say). Having practiced intensively in both traditions, I do not think that is quite right. We sit with a particular orientation, if not exactly an ardent intention, in the Zen tradition, too. And we also “let go”; we eventually come to sit without expectation, or even use of a device, like a word or the breath.

Zen is a relatively “concept light” tradition, at least compared to the Abrahamic religions, but there is a central metaphor: We live in a realm of the Relative (teacups and tears, jazz and joys) and the Absolute (?), of Form and Emptiness, and, as we hear in the Heart Sutra, “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form.” (Even this ? is too much.  Nothing extra.  And, yet, our questions are part of the Dharma!)  Or, as Zen folk say, the nature of reality is “not one, not two.”

Zazen (sitting meditation) is one practice in which we non-discursively meet this reality; we attend to what arises here and now not just to cultivate a more calm, undistracted mind (for whatever utility that might have psychologically or in daily life), but because we may find that we begin to lose that sense of separation between ourselves and the rest of life – that sense of isolation that drives so much manufactured earthly suffering – and because we believe that the here-and-now is (to borrow a theistic word) sacred. Utterly mundane, and utterly sacred.

We are marinating in the stew of life-and-death. Learning to savor the stew and accept that we are the stew/one of its ingredients.

A Zen practitioner walks through the mist. At what precise moment does her robe become wet?

And more: A Zen practitioner sits inside on his cushion. Another Zen practitioner walks through the mist. At what precise moment does the first Zen adept’s robe become wet?

I mentioned the Ten Ox Herding Pictures when we met. These are a famous series of drawings in the Zen tradition that, together, are a metaphor for the spiritual journey. The ninth picture is often labeled “The Unity of Form and Emptiness.” As my Zen teacher, Josh Bartok, explains this image, we realize:

The source. And yet . . . and yet . . .. Though form is indeed emptiness, form is also form. The one bright pearl manifests through the myriad things. From the beginning, just this has always been it. Time after time, there is nothing but this. This universe of emptiness arises thus.

The final picture is “Returning to the Marketplace.” Again in Josh’s words:

Returning. Here, we dive back into the great fertilizing muddle of life-and-death. We partake and participate. Our debt to the Buddhas and ancestors, and to our own teachers, can never be paid back – all we will ever be able to do is pay it forward.

Although the contemplative orientation to spirituality sometimes is criticized for being solipsistic and quietistic, here we see (in its Zen expression) that it ultimately points us to the here-and-now, but with a vivified perspective on it. The here-and-now matters all the more, and it is no longer self-referential. Mystics in other traditions make a similar case. I provided a bit of background reading on one of my favorite Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, as one example.

We can debate whether or not Zen is a strong expression of the Via Negativa/apophatic theology. I will tell you to make your bows and chop wood, carry water.

As you know, we encourage you to take up and maintain a contemplative practice during this course, if you do not have one already. It does not need to be a silent prayer/eastern meditation practice, but it hopefully will not be a purely cognitive/discursive form of practice either. Thinking is important – and cannot, and should not, be stopped! – but thinking alone seldom “marinates” one well from a spiritual perspective. Our critical/cognitive capacity is an incredible gift that is useful in all sorts of important ways . . . and, yet, thinking often reinforces that sense of existential isolation that seems to be a “default mode” feature of the human condition. Thinking is very useful for pulling Humpty Dumpty apart; less useful for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again – or, rather, realizing that Humpty Dumpty is always, everywhere together in its distinctions. Contemplative practices can help us make contact with life in ways discursive practices seldom can.

So, take up a contemplative practice, and alongside it, take up the “koan” Dag Hammarskjold offers us: If the path to holiness in the contemporary era necessarily leads through action, what action am I called to take?


In closing, I will share one final thing from the Zen tradition. It is our evening/bedtime gatha (prayer), which one hears on sesshin (retreats) at the end of long days of meditation practice:

Let me respectfully remind you,

Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Each of us should strive to awaken . . . awaken . . .

Take heed: Do not squander your life.

I look forward to seeing you all again soon.



Zen as Religion


I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.


Blue Cliff Record Case 77: Yunmen’s Sesame Rice Cake

 A monk asked Yunmen, What is the conversation that saves the buddhas and goes beyond the ancestors?”

Yunmen said, “Sesame rice cake.”


Tonight I want to take up a rather slippery topic:  Zen as religion.

We don’t spend much time in Zen circles engaging in theological reflection – at least not the sort of analytical reflection and discourse that’s common in other traditions.  We don’t concern ourselves too much with definitions and boundaries. It’s not a tradition that demands adherence to any particular beliefs.

There are ideas and principles practitioners through the ages have found useful, based upon their own practical experience with them, but there are no litmus test beliefs that define what it means to be a Zen practitioner.

(To be fair, we concern ourselves with definitions and boundaries some; for instance, in relation to authority within the community, as is true of any other organization, religious or secular.)

There are some western Zen practitioners who don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion.  I suppose it’s possible to view Zen as a sort of psychological system, as some western practitioners seem to do, though I think that’s a limited and limiting frame.

Scholars debate the defining characteristics of religion.  We won’t resolve that debate tonight.  But let me offer one element of one scholar’s working definition of religion as a launching pad for some things I want to say about Zen. Émile Durkheim, the great 19th century French sociologist, famously defined religion this way:

Since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane in the thought of men, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even put in contact with one another.

We see this sort of binary between profane and sacred, between the mundane and the other-worldly, defining religion in the work of other scholars, like Rudolf Otto, for instance.

It’s a fair point.  This is a key insight into much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions – including some strains of Buddhism, I believe – so it’s not surprising that this binary is considered by many to be a defining characteristic of religion.

I’m hedging, of course, when I say that this binary describes “much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions.”  There certainly are strains of most religions that resist the idea that there’s an impenetrable barrier between sacred and profane, as Durkheim imagined.

For example, one might say that Christianity was founded on a degree of resistance to this binary.  Dominant strains within the Greek philosophical tradition that held sway within the ancient world into which Jesus was born maintained that what is ultimately real is removed from this world.  Think: Plato and his forms.  Christianity upended that notion.  Here was God among us.

Of course, the Christian community found itself in schism at times over questions about the extent of this divine-mundane intermingling.  Some Christians really pushed the edge of that envelope along the way, like Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic.  It was orthodox to regard Jesus as the Son of God, of course, but Eckhart also said, “We are God’s sons and daughters, but we don’t realize it yet.”

That has a real resonance with how we sometimes talk about Buddha nature and enlightenment in Zen, as D.T. Suzuki and other Zen scholars have noted.  Of course, Eckhart was tried as a heretic by the Inquisition.  Fortunately for him, he managed to die before his verdict was pronounced.

Does this sacred and profane binary describe Zen?

Yes and no, I suppose.  But, more than most strains of most religions, I think not.

We have our notions of the absolute and the relative, of emptiness and form, yet we’re reminded again and again and again that they’re one and the same.

And, as we think and speak about the relative and the absolute – think and speak about them – they’re notions, of course.  Ideas.  Whatever God or the absolute or emptiness or the ultimately real is to you – well, I sincerely hope you experience it, or come to experience it, as something other than an idea.

The koan with which I opened this talk is typical of so many.  A student comes to a teacher and asks earnestly, “What’s it all about?”

A rice cake, Yunmen says.

In other cases, we hear it’s about . . .

. . . three pounds of flax

. . . a pail of water

. . . the oak tree in the courtyard

. . . even a dried piece of dung

Dung.  Excrement.

Our tradition seems to be making a point of imploding distinctions between sacred and profane; of playfully poking fun at our tendency to make such distinctions; of using that tendency as a nudge toward realization – dangling the distinctions as cat nip.  Lovely story after lovely story like that.

From a theistic perspective, one might say Zen brings heaven and earth together, without obliterating either.  It’s relentless in this way.  It’s the religious equivalent of a supercollider.  A theological Large Hadron Collider.

From an atheistic scientific materialist perspective, one might say Zen brings the dead (the inert) to life.  In this day and age, it’s something of an antidote to the turn in philosophy that attempted to jettison metaphysics – yet still a place, in this day and age, many skeptics feel they can call home.

Tapping on a coffin (in a koan set at a funeral), one monk asked another, “Dead or alive?”  “I won’t say!  I won’t say!” replied the other.

Can this be contained in sacred or profane, heaven or earth, absolute or relative, dead or alive?

This/that mind is concerned with pulling Humpty Dumpty apart and putting him back together again.  That capacity is immensely, immensely useful.  And, even as we exercise that capacity in those situations where it’s useful, we can know in our bones that Humpty Dumpty is, fundamentally, everywhere and always, together in its distinctions.

That potential is one of Zen’s great invitations and gifts to us.

Is Zen religion?

Let me close with another story (also from a koan):

The Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidarma – the 28th Buddhist patriarch, who brought Buddhism to China, where it mingled with Taoism and became Chan, eventually migrating to Japan, where it’s called Zen – “What is the highest meaning of the Holy Truth of Buddhism?”

“Empty – there’s no holy,” Bodhidharma replied.

No separation.

Stunned by this answer, the emperor asked, “Who are you facing me?”

“Don’t know,” was Bodhidharma’s response.

Is Zen religion?

Who are you facing me?

Who are we facing one another?


Passing through Hell

I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

“If you are despised by others and are about to drop into hell because of evil karma from your previous life, then because you are despised by others, the evil karma of your previous life will be extinguished.”

Blue Cliff Record Case 97: The Diamond Sutra and Evil Karma

I just passed through a week from hell.

Two weeks ago this past Monday my 79-year old mother was hospitalized with a serious intestinal condition requiring emergency surgery.  Her system had gone septic, and she was teetering on the edge of death.

I booked the next flight to Colorado, which had me departing the next day at the crack of dawn.

My mom was still in surgery as I landed in Denver, which is a two-and-a-half drive from my parents’ home.  One of my brothers was waiting at the hospital for news from the surgeons.  He called about an hour into my drive to say that our mother had come through the surgery, barely, but was by no means out of the woods.

He and I had both been calling my parents’ house that morning to check on my father.  My mother had been caring for him at home, though she was barely able to do so.  My dad wasn’t answering the phone.

My brother went from the hospital to my parents’ house after the surgery and found my dad lying face down on the floor, conscious, but unable to get up, and with a big bump on his head from the wood step he hit when he fell some hours ago.  He couldn’t say when.  He’s on a blood thinner, so falls are risky; they can lead to fatal internal bleeding.

I arrived at my parents’ place shortly after my brother did.  We called 911 and followed the ambulance to the hospital where my mother was still in the recovery room.

As if all this weren’t enough, my wife texted me around this time to say that two falls her mother had recently were caused by strokes, that she was undergoing an urgent series of tests to determine whether she was in immediate risk of another, and that she and my wife’s father would not be able to travel to Boston from the UK (where they live) to visit us later that week.

Stress.  Fear.  Sadness.  Exhaustion.  Hell.

Over the next 48 hours, my mom began to stabilize, the doctors determined my father hadn’t been seriously injured in his fall, and my mother-in-law was cleared to visit us (but still requires more testing and, possibly, treatment).  The aging parent thing has become ten times more intense for us overnight, but the immediate danger for each of them seemed to pass almost as quickly as it emerged.

The koan with which I opened this talk describes another sort of hellish experience: being despised by others.  Perhaps one is despised because of something one did, like taking another life; perhaps it’s because one is a member of a minority racial group or religion; perhaps it’s because of a combination of these or other factors.

It is tempting to read this koan as if it’s about some cosmic algebraic equation; an equality in which we gain future karmic happiness in proportion to our present karmic misery caused by past karmic transgressions.

But this is 21st Zen Buddhism we’re practicing.  That can’t possibly be what we mean.  Indeed, that can’t even be what the ancient masters meant. Can it?

I suspect this sort of good/bad, past/present/future karmic accounting has helped countless people cope with the difficulties of life throughout the ages, including this one – and not only in the Buddhist world, but through similar notions in other religious traditions.

Yet I think this koan extends another sort of invitation.  It’s the same invitation extended by the Five Remembrances that we recite each week.  That verse reminds us that we’re of the nature to grow old, become ill, and die, and that there’s no escaping this.

Life really was hell a couple of weeks ago; it truly felt like hell.  We really are watching our parents grow old, and become ill.  We will say goodbye to them in time . . . if we ourselves outlive them, and we must remember that’s not guaranteed.

The Five Remembrances can be a real shocker for those new to Zen: they certainly have a bubble bursting quality that one doesn’t find much in religion.  But bursting the bubble in which we’re bound to keep searching for that mythical way out, that door from hell to heaven, is only half of the real Zen equation.

Whether we feel we’re in heaven or hell or someplace in-between, the door, the Dharma gate, actually is always right here, and always has been.  It’s a gateless gate.  A boundless gate.  And it leads to this.

Sitting alone at my mom’s bedside in the ICU as she laid there on life support, unaware of my presence, holding her cold, swollen, unmoving hand, hell seemed so . . . solid.  That moment, tortuous as it was in one sense, seemed so solid.

So trustable.

And so bearable.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful for it all somehow.  Grateful for her.  Grateful for the presence of mind and spirit to be present to that moment.

All is blessed. Every day is a good day, as old Master Yun-men said when asked about his own illness and impending death.

Even the hell states.  Even the hell states in which we can’t manage to see that all is blessed.

I credit Zen practice for helping me experience that moment this way.  But I think you know this isn’t the product of some great yogic feat of mental discipline in which we banish all our fears and anxieties or cultivate a stoic detachment from this world of pain and suffering.  Quite the opposite.

It’s by actually allowing ourselves to be in hell when we’re in hell.  And by discovering there and elsewhere, including on these cushions, that we contain hell, rather than the other way around.

Knowing in our bones that we’re part of it all; submitting to that reality.  Finally letting it have us, as, in fact, it has all along.

Knowing that we’re both dew drop and this very dew containing universe. Or, in this case, tear drops.

We find our liberation and our peace in that.  We ultimately find the exemption we’ve been seeking by realizing – by which I simply mean being – the raw reality, the brute fact that we’re not exempt.

Great Thought

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

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

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.