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?”

More “From the Mouths of Babes”


Our four-year old daughter, Carys, crawled into bed with us before 6:00 a.m. the other morning, as she often does.


She announced her presence by saying, simply, “I’m made of love and stars.”


Now, if that’s not a perfect way to think of oneself, I don’t know what is.  And, it’s true, literally and figuratively.  She’s literally made from our love and from the material the stars provided.  She’s figuratively made of the love and wondrous mystery that pervades this universe.


Carys offers up zingers like this daily.


She recently asked me whether love comes from light.


This past weekend she asked, “What’s the meaning?”


“What’s the meaning of what?,” I responded.


She gave me what seemed like a knowing smile and said, “Just, what’s the meaning?”



On being a student


The student-teacher thing may be one of the strangest features of Zen for many non-practitioners and new practitioners.


Every religion has its leaders, and Zen is no different.  But one-on-one interaction between student and teacher is a more prominent and fundamental feature of Zen than it is in many religions (or the Abrahamic traditions, at least).


During Zen practice sessions and on sesshin, one has the option of meeting with the teacher to discuss one’s practice (or life or whatever) and/or to work on koans.  These meetings are called dokusan.


Meeting with a teacher is not obligatory, but few committed practitioners pass up the opportunity.  I suppose one could be committed to practice long-term without participating in dokusan.  To my thinking, however, one would be missing out on one of the richest things Zen has to offer.


Many committed, long-term practitioners also establish a shoken relationship with a teacher.  Shoken translates as “seeing one another.”  This is a primary relationship with a particular teacher, though, in BoWZ, where we’re fortunate to have multiple teachers, it is by no means an exclusive relationship.


[Aside #1:  Though the vast majority of practitioners with a shoken relationship will not become Zen teachers themselves, new Zen teachers almost always become teachers by receiving dharma transmission from their shoken teacher – typically after decades of working together one-on-one.  Unlike most other religions, one can’t become a teacher by attending a seminary, a rabbinical school, or whatever.  But producing a Zen teacher is not what a shoken relationship is about.  When that happens – and it happens exceedingly rarely – it seems to me that it’s a byproduct of the shoken relationship (and no doubt a lot of other things, like the student’s willingness to make the huge commitment that teaching requires and, certainly these days, the community’s receptivity to this potential teacher).]


Other religions have their traditions of spiritual direction, and that’s essentially what the student-teacher relationship in Zen is about.  I began my sitting practice in the Christian contemplative tradition, which has a long history of one-on-one spiritual direction, particularly in monastic environments.  I am profoundly and eternally grateful to the wise, insightful and compassionate teachers who gave me their sustained time and attention during those years, including Thomas Keating and Martin Smith.  Martin generously met with me weekly while I was a student at Harvard Divinity School (and, later, he was the celebrant at our wedding ceremony).


[Aside #2:  I once heard Thomas Keating talk about one of the risks inherent in religious communities in which teachers have something of an exalted status.  He was offering his own reflections on what he observed happening in some eastern religions, as I recall, but he no doubt also was shining a light on the risk generally.  That risk exists in any religious community, as I know he appreciates.  It’s the risk that the role will go to the teacher’s head, and so be deleterious for both the teacher and the rest of the community.  This is something of an occupational hazard, he was suggesting.


I observed Father Keating conducting himself in ways that discouraged others from projecting “guru” status onto him.  I observe the same conduct in our Guiding Teachers in Boundless Way Zen.


To my thinking, a key indicator that one has found a solid, grounded, trustable religious community and teacher is that there is little, if any, idealizing about anything, including the community’s leaders.  Community members hold appropriate ideals as aspirations, but they recognize the need for constant, individual and collective effort and attention in order to put the aspirations into practice, and they don’t delude themselves about the extent to which they are actually doing so.


The leaders set the tone.  In BoWZ, our teachers intentionally make it difficult to project wild ass things onto them, onto “Zen,” or onto anyone or anything else.  That’s a healthy thing.]


So what happens in a shoken or other spiritual direction relationship?


Well, in my experience, you just get to know one another.  Really well.


You talk.  About anything and everything.


About the deepest stuff in your heart and head.


About the deepest stuff in the universe.


And, as or more importantly, about the seeming minutea.  The stuff of everyday life.


And how all this intersects.


The conversation unfolds over many years, through a lot of ups and downs.


(Though the focus tends to be on the student, it’s not just the student’s ups and downs that the relationship travels through.  And, as we’re often reminded by BoWZ’s teachers, the learning in these relationships flows in both directions.)


This is not therapy, though awareness of psychological dynamics is useful in this context, as it is everywhere else in life.  It’s a kind of mentoring relationship, I suppose, and one that may have many of the qualities of a good friendship.  It won’t necessarily feel chummy all the time, and it probably shouldn’t.  Like any close relationship, it’s going to feel uneven, perhaps even cool, at times.


Good friends care enough about us to challenge us.  Good friends are people who are hard to bullshit – and we should know we’re only bullshitting ourselves if we try to bullshit them.


In my experience, a teacher will sometimes say something that surprises and provokes, even jostles, me a bit.  This has left me agitated once or twice.


(In BoWZ, however, I have detected none of the roughhousing I’ve read about some teachers in other Zen streams visiting upon their students, sometimes with seeming amusement, in the name of prodding them toward “realization.”)


At times comments that jostled me a bit seemed well considered; the product of some perspective that developed over months or years.  Others seemed to come from nowhere; an intuition arising in the moment.  Perhaps others were the product of indigestion.


Some of these comments seemed brilliantly on-the-mark.  Others seemed just plain wrong – at the moment, and for hours or days afterwards, until I could understand or accept the point.  Some still seem wrong after much time has passed.


And even comments that persist in seeming wrong are right.  They’re right because they were offered in a spirit of goodwill.  And they’re right because their wrongness is grist for my mill.


In an important sense, it really doesn’t matter whether a teacher gets it “right” or gets it “wrong,” from my perspective, in a given exchange.  What matters is how I receive what he or she offers, and how I receive him or her.


Whether I see the rightness-in-the-wrongness, and the neither-right-nor-wrongness.


For most of us, teachers are people who both instruct us and evaluate us.  But there ultimately is nothing to learn in Zen (or in life); there is no test we must pass.


It’s all right here.


And, it’s also true that a good teacher will have useful, insightful things to say that arise out of his or her own experience, and his or her observations and intuitions about a student’s experience.  Pound-for-pound, what I hear BoWZ teachers say (and what I see them do) has more nutritional value – for me, at least – than what I hear from most other people I know.


One of the useful things a teacher may do in time, if we invest in developing a relationship with him or her, is to shine a light on places where we tend to get stuck, encouraging us to notice and examine these sticking points.  From a Zen perspective, getting stuck often means clinging to some certainty about ourselves, about others, about “how the world works,” about “the way things are,” about what I should be doing with my life, or whatever.  It can also mean grasping, aversion or anger, as those impulses tend to seize us.  These sticking points may be more or less conscious, and a teacher may help us bring them into view, or into sharper view – not in quite the way, or with the same tools, that a therapist would, but in the course of discussing our experience of the practices and perspectives of the Zen path.


Whatever else typifies a “good” teacher to your thinking or mine, a good teacher is one who is present to us here and now in the dokusan room, and who encourages us to be present, as well – and, of course, who is integrated and responsible enough to conduct him- or herself appropriately in the context of an intimate relationship of this particular type.


My shokun teacher, Josh Bartok, is, so far as I can tell, really good at being Josh, at meeting his own life, and at meeting me.  That’s a useful example and form of support to me.  It’s encouragement to try to be good at being Jeff, at meeting my life, and at meeting him and others.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “I’d might as well be myself.  It seems everyone else is taken.”


The practices, perspectives and stories that the Zen tradition has bequeathed us are touchstones for the conversations between Zen teacher and Zen student.  They help orient us.  Unlike the way practices, perspectives and stories are held within some other religious traditions, however, Zen’s practices, perspectives and stories are taken as reliable pointers, rather than dogmatic Truth.  They point us to our own experience, which is the wellspring of the only truths we can know.


And so this tradition of teacher-student relationship practice, viewed from 40,000 feet, is something of a mutual support society, I suppose.  A context in which people help one another strive to show up to their lives fully – with all ten toes submerged, and the hair on their heads, too.


(And with their hair on fire, to mix this metaphor.)


And this relationship, these conversations, are themselves touchstones that – along with other important relationships, conversations and experiences that both are and are not part of formal Zen practice – help one orient and navigate through the varied moments of one’s life.


Meeting with BoWZ’s teachers, with Thomas Keating and Martin Smith, and with other teachers, formal and informal, over many years, and in combination with other practices and experiences (sitting meditation, intensive retreats, koans, various forms of service, marriage and family life, etc.), has helped me in so many profound ways.  For example, all this has helped me:


  • Grow to feel more at home in the universe, and in my own skin.


  • Become less intense (in ways I didn’t always know I was intense), and so perhaps a bit more gentle and, I also hope, perhaps just a bit more generous and kind.


  • Accept the fact of death, so I can accept the fact of life.


  • Discover that the life I’m actually living is the life I truly want to be living.


Deep bows.


Two Must-Read Zen Books


James Ford and David Rynick, two of Boundless Way Zen’s four guiding teachers, have new books.  I’ve read both now, and I think they’re fantastic.


They also are very different books, even though they’re both spiritual autobiographies of sorts, and even though they have the same basic purpose:  to encourage us to embrace and be embraced by, and to be awake to, life more fully.  James and David each do this by offering us a window on their own experience, and on how Zen practice has helped them meet their own lives.


If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life is James’s book.  It is organized thematically around topics one might care to know something about while walking the Zen path, or while thinking about stepping onto it.  Topics like the following:

  • What “enlightenment” (which James prefers to call “awakening”) is and is not
  • What Zen folk do that makes their practice Zen practice:  sitting meditation, koan introspection, meeting with teachers, etc.
  • Zen’s ethical precepts


As James explores these topics, he tells his life story, and the story of his religious development, in particular.  It’s something of an understatement to say that James has covered some religious ground over the years.  He was raised in a Baptist family; he was a hippie in San Francisco in the sixties; he was part of two Zen communities, receiving dharma transmission in the second, before taking a long hiatus from Zen; he flirted with Sufism for a time; he found Unitarian Universalism; he returned to Zen as a student of John Tarrant, from whom he received transmission a second time; and he eventually co-founded Boundless Way Zen, while also serving as a UU minister.


Everything James has to tell us about the Zen way is born of and grounded in his own life experience, which he shares generously.  This sharing includes some quite personal details – details about his hippie years, for example, and about the murderous thoughts he had more recently (i.e., as a Zen roshi) after someone offended him in the checkout line of a grocery store.  This is James fully exposed, showing us his joys and struggles, and showing us how Zen practice has helped him understand and meet those joys and struggles.


I’ve never read a book about the major perspectives and practices of a religious tradition that is this autobiographical, nor, before reading these books, had I read an autobiography that does double duty as a book about the what-and-how of religious practice.  I might have appreciated and enjoyed reading James’s autobiography as such, or reading a further book by him about the perspectives and practices of Zen, but I enjoyed this practice-guide-as-autobiography all the more.  It’s an original approach, and it definitely works for me.


Borrowing a line from Torei Enji’s Bhodisattva’s Vow, David titled his book This Truth Never Fails:  A Zen Memoir in Four Seasons.  The book takes the form of a journal written during a particularly big year in David’s life:  the year in which he and Melissa (Blacker, David’s Zen teacher wife) established the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in which David received dharma transmission from his teacher, George Bowman.


But the book doesn’t exactly read like private “notes to self.”  David clearly is aware that he is writing to and for others, even as he writes to and for himself.  (Does anyone ever write a journal without considering possible audiences other than one’s future self?)  On the other hand, the book doesn’t read anything like James’s teacher-to-student practice guide, as personal and self-revealing as James’s book is.


David invites us to eavesdrop on his conversations with himself – conversations about his insecurities, about breakfast, about the flowers in the temple garden.  He even invites us to eavesdrop on his conversations with the flowers in the temple garden.  This is a stylized, first person account of passing moments and days during the course of roughly one year, written mainly in the present tense.  It is a book about David’s noticing, and his reflections upon his noticing, written with great generosity toward, but without too much notice paid to, us, his readers.


Yet this “my life as it’s happening” approach has everything to do with what David hopes to convey to us.  Roughly halfway into the book, we learn that he tried to write a more conventional practice guide, but that the process and product felt hollow to him.  David wanted the writing process to feel alive and full, and the product to convey the fullness and aliveness he feels (even in the depths of his experience).  He encourages us to notice the stuff of our own experience by sharing his own noticing, up close and personal.


If James’s book is more practice guide-as-autobiography, David’s is more autobiography-as-practice guide.  Both books show and tell, but David’s does much more showing than telling.


It was a lovely experience reading these books together (and I did, in fact, alternate between them).  Like their authors, the books are excellent companions.  Read them and you’ll get a sense of what this Zen project, as expressed within BoWZ, is all about.  You’ll also glimpse the brilliance of having multiple teachers in one community, and you’ll know how incredibly fortunate we are to have these two guys as two of our teachers.


Practice benefits


Josh gave a lovely – and, as he put it, somewhat heretical – talk last night about some ways in which Zen practice may be useful to us.  We’re constantly cautioned against having “gaining ideas” and reminded that Zen isn’t principally about the benefits people tend to experience, like becoming less reactive, the health benefits studies have begun to confirm, and the like.  But Josh was saying that it’s okay to appreciate whatever benefits we may experience as byproducts of our practice, even as we practice without seeking them (in theory, at least).


Josh opened our discussion after the talk by inviting each of us to share something about the ways in which we have experienced Zen practice as beneficial.


I felt this immediate impulse to share – to contribute, to be useful, I suppose.  I had a response percolating, but I couldn’t articulate it at that moment.


A couple of other people spoke, saying things I really appreciated, and then I had to leave early to catch a train home.


And I’ve been sitting with Josh’s invitation since.


And what ultimately came up for me is this:  I experience practice as Jeff Jeff-ing.


The bird sings.


The burning wood cracks and whistles.


I sit.




Wrestle with a koan.


Meet with the teacher.


I’m not really quite sure why I practice anymore, except that there’s somehow an expressive quality to it.  It’s a response to life.  A way to express the reverence and gratitude for life that I feel (which is a point Josh made, as well).


And it’s a communal response, which feels important to me somehow.




I walked through Boston’s Public Garden on Friday on my way to a lunchtime meeting in Cambridge at MIT.


I hardly noticed the stunningly beautiful fall day.  Through most of my stroll through the garden, I was silently lecturing someone who had pissed me off that morning.


A man playing an erhu snapped me out of it.  The sound of that Chinese string instrument is haunting, almost agitating, yet eerily beautiful.  And the sound beckoned me back — back to the moment, back to the wondrous day that it was.


I had never seen this musician before — not anyone playing the erhu — in nearly two decades of walking this path.


I passed through the Public Garden again on my way back from Cambridge, this time silently lecturing someone who had pissed me off the day before.


Until I heard that sounds again.


How tempting the catnip.  How wonderfully, strangely, reliably we’re beckoned back . . .


The end of moral superiority?


It’s getting harder and harder to be a self-righteous curmudgeon.


For years I’ve congratulated myself on being physically active – getting regular exercise and standing, rather than sitting, at work – and been mildly, privately critical of those who let themselves go entirely.


Mountains of data confirm that our bodies evolved to move and that the sedentary lifestyle so prevalent in, and, increasingly, beyond, the west is sapping our personal health and vitality.  (The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, and Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds, the fitness writer at The New York Times, provides a very good, very accessible survey of the research, if you’re interested.)  The body is a temple, after all.  Treating it like a clothes rack will be the ruin of our healthcare systems, and so our economies.


Turns out there’s a genetic component to liking exercise:  there’s a gene that influences how we respond to fatigue, and one that affects how easy and rewarding exercises feels, and one that influences how the body regulates energy.  Etc.


It’s still quite possible to acquire the taste.  Once you do, you won’t want to stop.  The problem is, starting is harder for people whose genes don’t predispose them to enjoy, or at least better tolerate, the work required to become and remain fit.


I don’t know whether I have any of these “exercise genes,” but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I do.  Regardless, the exercise gene notion has bucked me right off my high horse.


There is, of course, at least a partial genetic component to many forms of addiction, from alcoholism to overeating.  I suppose that makes it hard for one to be too snooty about being moderate.


There’s no single gene for anything, as Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and atheist, rightly reminds us, but genes apparently have a big influence on many of one’s dispositions and behaviors.


Here’s one that completely blows me away:  our genes significantly influence whether we are conservative or liberal!  You heard it:  that idiot, _____________ [Obama or Romney, Maddow or Limbaugh], may view the world the way he or she does at least partially because of his or her genetic makeup.  Same with you, oh you-who-fills-in-blanks.


A handful of important values undergird our social landscape, each of which has an opposite: caring/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.  Conservatives actually are tuned to give each of the positive values their due, whereas liberals tend to pay heed mostly to just two of them (caring and fairness).


(As for me, I’ve long been center-left – a compassionate moderate, if I do say so myself – and so I feel well justified in continuing to feel better than the remaining 94% of us – that’s 47% + 47% – who are hopeless ideologues.)


I learned about the genetic basis of our morals while reading a fabulous new book by my favorite social scientist, Jonathan Haidt, whose academic research on the psychology of morality I’ve tracked for 15+ years.  It’s called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.


Haidt actually is pretty convinced that moral righteousness isn’t going away anytime soon, and he successfully (in my non-expert estimation) shows how it’s essential to our survival to this point in history and our continuing evolution.  He recognizes the need for people of different orientations/perspectives to be able to talk to one another civilly and work together productively, and the ultimate goal of his book is to help us do just that.


I can’t recommend Haidt’s book highly enough.  It’s easily the most important book I’ve read in, well, since I last declared a book “most important” (which I probably do every few years).  You absolutely must read it.  If want one very open-minded, big-hearted, incredibly creative social scientist’s view of what it is to be evolved members of our interdependent physical and social environments, you’ll be well rewarded for reading this short, engaging, insightful book.


And if you don’t read it, there can be no excuse.  You’re clearly an apathetic misanthrope.


There’s surely no genetic profile for that, is there?  🙂




I didn’t attend Boundless Way Zen’s weeklong sesshin this year.  It ended today.


I found myself “participating” sympathetically throughout the week, sometimes almost telepathically.


I was really missing our sesshin-attending sagha-mates at Tuesday night’s sit at the Greater Boston Zen Center.  My legs became strangely tight and painful, much like they would after days on retreat, and not at all like I normally experience after 20+ years of 1-2 25-minute sits most days.


Sitting at home during the week, I sometimes felt like I was sitting in the zendo at the Boundless Way Temple, where our sesshins occur.


Lying in bed one night, I could almost hear the day’s closing chants, which end with this stark, ghostly reminder of how precious this life-time is:


“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.”


Long sesshins are wonderful.  I have benefitted immensely over the years from the many week+ retreats I’ve attended — intensive practice periods, during which one sits and meets with teachers from early morning until late at night.  I look forward to attending more of them in the future.


And extended, leisurely periods of time with family and friends, or with oneself, also are wonderful.  For many Zen practitioners, and perhaps mainly for those of us with younger children and/or spouses who are not Zen practitioners (sympathetic, like my wife, though they may be), devoting a full week to sesshin each year can be a real challenge.


Most people still in the workforce have limited vacation time, and vacations may need to be coordinated with school schedules and a spouse’s schedule.  Even if one can arrange time for sesshin, a week at a Zen retreat may mean a week of family vacation lost.


This is my current reality.  We have school-age kids.  I have missed a week of family vacation time for the past several years by attending our weeklong sesshin.  My family is truly supportive of my Zen practice, and yet this just feels like too much.  It certainly feels like a huge loss from my perspective, even though I know there’s much to be gained from intensive periods of practice.


One of the big projects inherent in Zen’s migration west — one of the big opportunities we’re presented — is about adaptation of the traditional forms and practices to this new context-era.  Numerous features distinguish this new context-era from those in which the traditional forms and practices evolved, but perhaps none is more prevalent and salient than the relative leveling of lay life/practice and the path of priestly and/or monastic life/practice.


This leveling has many causes and many implications.  It is bound up with other progressive trends, like democratization and increasing gender equality, in ways that make them impossible to separate entirely.


The practice of sesshin developed in context-eras in which there were sharp distinctions between the laity and monastics, whether they be lifelong monks or young men spending some months or some small number of years in a monastery as a rite of passage.


And these monks were mostly childless men.  If the monastic life was their permanent vocation, it was their livelihood, their work.  They begged and contributed to the institution’s other income producing endeavors throughout their lives.  If they were passing through, they begged and contributed to those same endeavors while they were there, knowing they would eventually return to lay (and likely family) life and some form of work less conducive to spending weeks or months on a cushion all day.


Fast forward to today . . .


On the one hand, a week isn’t a long period of time, particularly compared to the month+ retreats that are common in many Asian monasteries, even still.


On the other hand, see above.


From one perspective, perhaps there is something to be said for making a stoic effort to attend longer retreats, despite family and work obligations and opportunities, but I’m not much moved by that perspective.


These sorts of discussions and thoughtful experimentation are happening within BoWZ, and I’m very excited to be part of this organization and this project.  In addition to our annual weeklong sesshins, we have several shorter sesshins each year and numerous daylong intensives.


The weeklong (or longer) retreats truly are wonderful.  For some, “shifts happen” in these longer, intensive periods of practice, and perhaps would be less likely to happen for them in another context.  Bonds develop.


And, I must say, in recent years I have found my most profound shifts happening, and my most transformative bonds developing, within the context of family life.  Of course, Zen practice, including the weeklong sesshins I’ve attended, has been hugely supportive of this.  That’s the point, as BoWZ’s teachers continually remind us.


One of the really exciting and heartening things about this BoWZ project is the community’s recognition that Zen practice needs to work in the context of people’s ordinary lives.  Indeed, that Zen is our ordinary lives.


And, yet, there is a tradition that we have received, and that tradition transmits to us a treasure trove of forms and practices that people have found powerfully useful for awakening to the full richness of this ordinary life.  The adaptation/experimentation project is tricky.


It’s important not to cling slavishly to traditional forms, holding up intensive practice — the longer and more frequent and more ardent, the better — as “real Zen.”  And it’s important not to dilute the forms down to nothing.  They’re nothing in one sense, of course, and yet most definitely not nothing.


At least until our youngest (who’s now four) goes to college, I suspect my rhythm will be marked by frequent short retreats and daylong sits, and only very occasional long sesshins.  I settled down relatively late in life, and I am fortunate to have participated in many longer retreats before starting a family.


Every Zen practitioner should experience longer retreats.  If one feels one benefits from them and can swing it, one definitely should participate in them regularly.  Looking over the arc of my 20+ years of sitting practice, I now see them not as more valuable than other forms of practice, but as differently valuable — and as having been differently valuable particularly at specific points in my own journey.


For those who find that hard to do or otherwise legitimately undesirable, however, I’m very interested in seeing us continue to develop adapted forms of intensive and/or extended practice that offer folks some of the immense benefits of longer intensives in more flexible packages.  Not as a substitute for sesshins, but as a complementary sort of opportunity.  The wonderful, much westernized, “drop in and out freely” Ango practice period that’s occurred at the temple (and, simultaneously and by extension, at many of our homes) the past couple of years is a marvelous example of this.


I look forward to the time when longer sesshins fit more comfortably into the parameters of my life.  And, in the meantime, I really look forward to those family vacations.


And to continuing to be a part of this living, communal project of ours . . .