Seeking and Finding Meaning

I gave this talk on June 3, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Centers Spring Sesshin held at the Providence Zen Center. A recording follows the text.

This is Case 12 in the Blue Cliff Record:

A monk asked Tung Shan, “What is Buddha?”

Tung Shan said, “Three pounds of hemp.”

This koan, and others like it, seems to express many of the qualities for which the Zen tradition is famous, or perhaps infamous, among them obscurity, irreverence, and paradox.

A Zen practitioner coming to a teacher with a question like this is just trying to do what human beings try to do: make meaning. The late developmental psychologist William Perry said, “Organisms organize, and the human organism organizes meaning.” We are meaning-makers.

The question, “What is Buddha?” can be reformulated as, “What’s it all about?”  And also, “Who or what am I?”  And also, “How do I fit in?”  Needless to say, if we’re asking questions like this, we’re not quite sure what it’s all about, or who or what we are, or how we fit in.  This sort of uncertainty, or not knowing, can feel intensely, existentially uncomfortable.  We want relief from that discomfort, and we start seeking relief by seeking conceptual answers to questions like, “What is Buddha?”

We’ve made meaning, or made sense, when everything seems to fit together; to cohere.  We’re seeking integration; a sense of wholeness and integrity; coherence.  We feel disjointed “inside” and the world seems disjointed “outside.”  We want all the parts “inside” us to fit together harmoniously; we want all that’s “outside” us to fit together harmoniously; and we want “inside” and “outside” to fit together harmoniously, too.

Tung Shan (aka Dongshan) was the ninth century Chinese teacher to whom we trace the start of the Soto school of Zen in which we practice.  He was a famous teacher during the Tang Dynasty, the heyday of Zen in China.  Some of our most important Zen texts are attributed to him.  Hundreds of years later, Dharma heirs of Tung Shan developed koan practice based, in part, upon recorded encounters between Tung Shan and the monks he taught—stories like the one with which I opened this talk.

On first blush, Tung Shan’s response to the monk’s question—“What is Buddha?”—may indeed seem obscure, irreverent, and paradoxical.  Hearing Tung Shan’s response in this koan for the first time, many of us may think, “Huh?  The monk is asking a clear question about Buddha nature.  Why does Tung Shan respond so obscurely by referring to three pounds of hemp?  The monk is asking a serious question about a sacred matter.  Why does Tung Shan respond so irreverently, seemingly dismissing the monk’s question and referring to something so mundane.  The monk is asking a straightforward question.  Tung Shan’s response seems like a joke or a riddle, not a sincere answer.”

Tung Shan indeed is responding sincerely.  His response is not obscure, irreverent, or paradoxical.  To the contrary, it is as clear, serious, and straightforward as the monk’s question.

If Tung Shan’s response initially seems obscure, irreverent, and paradoxical to us, that’s because we’re expecting a different sort of answer.  We’re looking for, and think we are inquiring about, something extraordinary; something extra-ordinary.  Tung Shan instead points to something completely ordinary and concrete, and so his response seems wrong or intentionally confounding.

Hemp was used to make paper, cloth, and rope, among other everyday items, in ancient China.  Tung Shan’s monastery and others like it were major cites of literary production.  There would have been 30 or even 300 pounds of hemp at his monastery at any given time, used to create paper on which monks transcribed sutras, the robes the monks wore, and other everyday items.  Hemp would have been as ordinary as rice or water.

Tung Shan is telling the monk in the simplest, most straightforward way possible that Buddha is right here.  Teacup Buddha.  Morning dew Buddha.  Temple dog Buddha.  Questioning monk Buddha.

Tung Shan is telling the monk that the meaning he is seeking is in plain sight.  That the robe he is wearing, and also what’s inside it, is the very robe of liberation.  He is telling the monk that the answer to his question is not an esoteric or abstract idea, but this very life; each and every feature of it.  He’s saying that the knowledge we seek isn’t a philosophical or theological formulation, but the experience of knowing oneself and all else as interlaced threads of this vast robe of liberation.

Nothing could be less obscure, more reverent, or less puzzling than the way of being to which Tung Shan is pointing.  We simply need to welcome and live into it.  Zen practice is a context and path for living into this truth.  Our resistance to it—our desire to contain and control reality—tends to decrease if and as we walk the path.  We ultimately discover ourselves and all else as the meaning we have sought.  It was ready-made; already waiting here for us, as us.

Could the lint on my cushion really be Buddha?  Could my life really be a Buddha’s life?  As Bodhidharma, the first great Zen ancestor, wrote, “that which is real includes nothing worth begrudging.”  Nothing is excluded from the Buddha realm; nothing exists that is not Buddha.

That perspective can create some confusion with respect to questions about ethics, justice, and social action.  I’ll try to dispel that confusion in a future talk.  For now, I’ll just say that I think our capacity to respond and engage in the most skillful way possible depends greatly upon a non-conceptual awareness and experience that all is Buddha.

Thanks for listening. As always, our dialogue is what I most look forward to about our time together.

Kyōgen’s “Man Up a Tree”: A Jukai Reflection on Lineage and the Precepts

I gave this talk on April 8, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 5 in The Gateless Gate:

Master Kyōgen said, “It’s like a man up a tree, hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet won’t reach a bough. Suppose there is another person under the tree who asks him, “What is the meaning of Boddhidharma’s coming from the west?” If he does not respond, he goes against the wish of the questioner. If he answers, he will lose his life. At such time, how should he respond?

This is one of those koans that has stuck with me over the years. The image of this man up a tree is at once so odd and so relatable. He’s clenching a limb with his teeth, holding onto his life precariously. He must be panicked, painfully aware this is going to end poorly no matter what, even before someone else comes along seeking help.

How much longer could he hold on? Thirty seconds, maybe? A minute? Still, he hesitates to let go of the tree to face the inevitable; hesitates to respond to another soul appealing to him as a Bodhisattva.

I remember feeling so pained for the man up the tree the first time I read this koan. Anguished. I feel for him still. Of course, we are the person up the tree. Which of us hasn’t been stuck before, and felt it?

We’re going to celebrate Jukai this afternoon. Three of our friends here today—Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca—will take up the Bodhisattva Precepts, formally dedicating themselves to the Zen way of life.

This koan is perfect for today, because Jukai also is about a certain tree. During Jukai one receives a scroll tracing a lineage of Zen ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha to oneself. This lineage traditionally is understood as a family tree—a new family tree. Many Asian cultures, including those of China and Japan, which sequentially formed the Zen tradition as we initially received it, place great emphasis on ancestry—upon one’s identification with and location within a community conceptualized in terms of kinship through time.

It can be a bit hard for us Westerners to fully imbibe what this means to many Asians even today, in all its complex valences that entail both benefit and burden. But for many this sense of lineage is deeply felt. Many people in parts of Asia still deeply appreciate and honor this attention to lineage. That’s not to say this strong identification with ancestral lineage doesn’t feel limiting and otherwise burdensome at times. For example, tensions between the old and the new, and between the individual and the community, are prominent themes in Chinese poetry, prose, and proverb throughout history.

In Jukai, as in rituals in other traditions in which one affirms one’s commitment to an intentional way of life, one receives a new name. This happened to me—and, I think, some others in this room—when I participated in the Catholic rite of Confirmation many years ago. Today, Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca each will receive a Dharma name. In Japan to this day, Zen monks, and likely also some non-monastics, actually change their name in the civil legal records after taking the precepts. This is no small matter in that cultural context. Symbolically and practically, they’re saying they’ve jumped from one family tree to another.

How do we make sense of all this today, from our cultural perspectives and for our purposes? How can and should we think about lineage when focusing so much on ancestry seems foreign and anachronistic to us; when the traditional lineage we depict in Zen draws attention to some people to the neglect of countless others; and when some of the people depicted were disappointing (or worse) in some ways, however insightful and helpful they may have been in other ways. Viewed from one angle, our Zen tree looks pretty gnarly, even rotten or hollow in places.

The people listed on the traditional scroll our Jukai participants will receive are mostly men, and almost all of these men were monks. Eliot, Kent, and Rebecca also will receive a chart tracing the lineage of some prominent women and non-monastic ancestors as a way to begin to acknowledge and honor the fact that this tree has long been sustained by a much more diverse community of people committed to the Zen way than has been formally recognized, including people like us living ordinary lives.

Some people listed on the traditional charts, whether in my White Plum lineage or other lineages, transgressed one of more of the Ten Grave Precepts in some grave way. Some did so repeatedly.

Perhaps a bit like the man in Kyogen’s koan, we find ourselves up a tree that we discover to be gnarly and rotten or hollow in some places. We find ourselves out on a limb. What a precarious position. Should we hold on? Can we hold on? What is there to hold onto? What will we be avoiding or neglecting if we continue to hold on by our teeth?

Perhaps the best place for the man in the tree to be at this time is exactly where he’s afraid to be—on the ground. Perhaps things won’t end as he fears if he lets go of the branch on which he’s found himself, and to which he’s clinging. With a view from the ground, balanced on his own two feet, perhaps he will be able to see the whole tree more clearly; discern and appreciate the parts that seem more solid and secure; get some distance from and perspective on the parts that seem less so.

Perhaps falling from the tree branch to which one has been clinging can be more like Alice’s experience falling down a rabbit hole (much as I hesitate to use that term in this age of social media-fueled partisanship). Down the rabbit hole, Alice became larger than other things at times. If we can think of our Zen lineage tree depicted on the traditional chart as something smaller, like a bonsai tree, our perspective on it may shift.

In the art of bonsai, we both take the tree as we find it and we actively shape the tree. We need to think of our Zen tree this way. We are not only shaped by it; we can shape it; we must shape it. Even now, Zen adepts across the globe are reshaping the Zen tradition in myriad ways, opening it to people who have been excluded or marginalized, altering old forms and creating new ones.

Our sangha has been questioning the traditional forms and structures for the past few years, as well it should. We are looking at how what we’ve received has shaped us and how we want to shape this tradition and our practice within it going forward. We’re becoming more like the bonsai artist than the man up the tree.

I’d like to mix metaphors for a moment as I wrap up this talk to touch on the other primary element of Jukai, the precepts themselves. I want to relate them to lineage and, as I do, try to refigure both. Instead of thinking of lineage only, or even primarily, in the traditional way—as a line traced through a succession of formally recognized teachers—I see it more fundamentally as Indra’s Net, another Buddhist metaphor. Indra’s Net includes each of us. We’re all jewels in this net.

It’s easy—too easy—to focus on the jewels in this image, but the rope that connects the jewels to one another is equally important. In fact, in a real net, the jewels, or nodes, are literally formed with the rope. Each jewel is a meeting of beginning-less rope; each jewel is constituted by encounter.

I see the ropes in Indra’s Net as the precepts. They’re what connects us; binds us; in a very real sense, forms and constitutes us. The precepts show us how to be in right relation with one another. How to manifest together as the clear, colorful, bright, and variously shaped jewels we are.

Conceived this way, as a net, our lineage chart doesn’t trace in a single, temporal line of successive generations of teachers. The lines, or ropes, of Indra’s Net extend and crisscross in all directions through space and time, connecting each of us. Each and every node in the net is the net’s center. Many centers, none of them primary.

Many of the traditional forms we’ve inherited communicate these ideas poorly, but I choose to see them in this other way, too. This is part of the logic behind inviting people to create a personal lineage chart for Jukai. I also want to encourage anyone who has taken Jukai to have others in and beyond our sangha place a mark on the back of their rakusu, in addition to the inscription and stamp a teacher has made.

Each of us is an heir to and custodian of the gnarly, wonderful, living tree that is the Zen tradition. It needs constant shaping and tending. Let’s not relate to it like the man up the tree, clinging to it for dear life with our teeth. Let’s tend and shape it well together.

Opening to Suffering, Bearing Witness, and the Middle Way

I gave this talk on Saturday, December 17, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center Rohatsu Sesshin.  A recording will be available here.

This is a version of the Rohatsu story, the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment:

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is not told exactly the same way in all schools of Buddhism, and all include elements of folk history and fable.

Raised in a life of privilege and luxury and protected from all knowledge of pain and suffering, young Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of 29 is said to have left the family palace to meet his subjects, at which time he was confronted with the reality of human suffering.

Having been confronted with the Four Passing Sights, (a sick person, an aged person, a corpse, and a holy man) and greatly troubled by them, the young prince renounced his life, then left his home and family to discover the truth of birth and death and to find peace of mind. He sought out one yoga teacher and then another one, mastering what they taught him and then moving on.

Then, with five companions, for five or six years he engaged in rigorous asceticism. He tortured himself, held his breath, and fasted until his ribs stuck out “like a row of spindles” and he could almost feel his spine through his stomach. Yet enlightenment seemed no closer.

Then he remembered something. Once as a boy, while sitting under a rose-apple tree on a beautiful day, he had spontaneously experienced great bliss and entered the first dhyana, meaning he was absorbed in a deep meditative state.

He realized then that this experience showed him the way to realization. Instead of punishing his body to find release from the confines of the self, he would work with his own nature and practice purity of mental defilements to realize enlightenment.

He knew then that he would need physical strength and better health to continue. About this time a young girl, Sujata, came by and offered the emaciated Siddhartha a bowl of milk and rice. When his companions saw him eating solid food they believed he had given up the quest, and they abandoned him.

At this point, Siddhartha had realized the path to awakening was a “middle way” between extremes of the self-denial he had been practicing with his group of ascetics and the self-indulgence of the life he had been born into.

Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a sacred fig and began to meditate. According to some traditions, he realized enlightenment in one night. Others say three days and three nights; while others say 45 days.

When his mind was purified by concentration, it is said he acquired the Three Knowledges. The first knowledge was that of his past lives and the past lives of all beings. The second knowledge was of the laws of karma. The third knowledge was that he was free of all obstacles and released from attachments.

When he realized release from samsara, the awakened Buddha exclaimed,

“House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the Unformed, the mind has come to the end of craving.” [Dhammapada, verse 154]

Buddhist legends say that Mara, a sort of trickster god, wished to stop Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment, so he brought his most beautiful daughters to Bodh Gaya to seduce him. But Siddhartha did not move. Then Mara sent armies of demons to attack him. Siddhartha sat still, and untouched.

Then, Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to a mortal. Mara’s demon soldiers cried out together, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha—These soldiers speak for me. Who will speak for you?

Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.

Source:, by Barbara O’Brien, updated on June 21, 2018 (adapted)

I should say as I begin this talk that I’ll be making a couple of very brief and general references to some of the horrors of war.  I won’t be including much detail, and certainly not any graphic detail.  I hope and expect these general references won’t be too unsettling for anyone, but I just wanted to provide this advance notice that they’re coming to try to help ensure that.

Last week I was in Sarajevo helping facilitate an ongoing dialogue among senior leaders of key Israeli and Palestinian stakeholder groups seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This group importantly includes representatives of Jewish and Muslim religious nationalist stakeholder groups.  Prior peace processes have failed largely because they only included secular-political actors and worked only from the top down, rather than from the top down, bottom up, and middle out.  The initiative in which I’m involved attempts to correct for these problems.  It’s beginning to bear real fruit.

I’ve been involved in this particular initiative for the past six years, but I’ve been doing work like it for nearly 30 years.  I moved to Boston in 1995 to study at Harvard Divinity School, where I intended to get a Ph.D. in comparative religion, focusing on intersections between Zen Buddhism and the Christian contemplative tradition.  I started to doubt the wisdom of that decision almost immediately.  Much of my coursework seemed too abstract and disengaged.  

Midway through my first semester the New York Times ran a story about the massacre at Srebrenica near the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia.  Nearly 8,400 Bosnian Muslims—mostly men and young boys—were murdered systematically by Serbian soldiers.  The article included a picture of a Muslim woman who had taken her own life rather than be killed.  That picture moved me to tears.  It made me want to understand how and why religion sometimes gets entangled in and seems to help fuel violence.  I wanted to do something to help.  So I reoriented my studies to focus on that question, and on conflict transformation and peace studies more broadly.

Last week, after my meetings ended, I borrowed a friend’s car and drove three hours north of Sarajevo to Srebrenica, the site of the horrible massacre that had unsettled me so fundamentally, prompting such a major shift in the direction of my life.  The site is now a cemetery, memorial, and genocide research center.  I spent a few hours there, mostly walking among the gravestones, making sure I caught sight of every one of them.  I also read and listened to some of the tributes to those buried there.  Sadly, there are 20 or so fresh graves in the cemetery.  Victims’ remains are still being discovered in the forests surrounding Srebrenica 30 years after the massacre.

What does all this have to do with Rohatsu—our celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment?  I want to trace three connections: allowing oneself to be moved by others’ suffering, bearing witness, and the middle way.

The first theme I want to highlight is opening to suffering:

In some versions of the Rohatsu story Prince Siddhartha’s father actively insulates him from exposure to the realities of sickness, old age, and death.  We hear that he lived his whole life in his father’s palace without awareness of these features of human experience.  His father even hoped to conceal them from him on the excursion about which we read, but Siddhartha nonetheless was confronted with them.  

I find it hard to believe that anyone could live into their 20s or 30s without awareness of sickness, aging, and death.  I can imagine a parent wanting to protect their child from hardship, however, and I also can imagine a young person in a privileged position delusively feeling rather exempt from the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death.  I can imagine a young person—and older people, too—not tuning into and being moved by others’ suffering.

Whether or not the Buddha’s turning point came precisely how it’s reported in our Rohatsu story, it seems his initial, transformative opening occurred when he allowed himself to notice and be moved by others’ suffering.  He became so affected and unsettled by others’ suffering that he completely upended his life.  We also should acknowledge that the lives of his wife and child also were upended—a feature of his story about which I feel very uneasy, I must say.

Many of us come to Zen practice quite absorbed in our own suffering and seeking escape from it in ways subtle and not-so-subtle.  Many of us hope Zen might offer a ticket into the sort of palace the Buddha left.  We figure Zen as a path to bliss.  It’s very important to see the Buddha’s own felt awareness of suffering not just as his motivation to experience enlightenment but as the inception of his conscious experience of enlightenment.  This motivation—bodhicitta—is enlightened experience, and we must maintain it.

It’s also very important to note that the young Sujata’s compassionate response to the Buddha’s suffering is part of his—and our—enlightenment experience.  This was another decisive moment in the Buddha’s awakening.  He accepted the reality of his own suffering by accepting Sujata’s kindness.  Having pushed himself to ridiculous extremes in search of someplace beyond our ordinary experience, he accepted his creatureliness and dependence.  

The second theme I want to lift up is bearing witness:

We’re told the Buddha, nourished by milk and rice and a fresh perspective, returned to meditation, and soon had a series of deep insights.  We don’t hear much about the nature of his ultimate realization as this version of the Rohatsu story ends.  We just hear that he “realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.”  

What does that mean?  Another version of the story ends with the Buddha saying, “I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way together.”  In other words, the Buddha experienced the unity of relative and Absolute, and not as an idea.  He experienced himself and all else as one—as distinct but not separate.

But before the Buddha has this realization he is visited by Mara, who attempts to prevent the Buddha from having it.  The figure of Mara, and other “gods” we encounter in the early Buddhist scriptures, may seem anachronistic—quaintly mythological—to many of us today, but the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment parallels some other ancient stories about religious figures in this way.  Think of Jesus, who also is said to have gone on a solitary quest, spending 40 days and nights in the desert, where he was tested by the anti-god Satan much like Mara tested the Buddha.  

However else the ancients thought about demons, they certainly understood, as we do, that demons can be in our heads.  We can think of Mara as the voice of delusive separateness that breeds violence and other forms of suffering; that voice in our heads that tells us we’re separate from other beings and there’s someplace other than here that we should be.  Mara’s soldiers bear witness to this delusive view and aspiration, just as those Serbian soldiers attested to and acted upon the deranged view that they were separate from and superior to the Muslims they slaughtered; that they could reach a promised land if they could just be permanently, existentially separated from specific others.

When Mara asks who speaks for the Buddha, he doesn’t conjure a chorus of angry soldiers. He simply turns one palm up and touches his other hand to the ground.  Heaven and Earth speak for me, he is saying.  They bear witness to me and I to them.  Each thing bears witness to and speaks for all others; no separation.  Were I to harm another being, I’d be harming myself.

It’s interesting and important that, in this story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he is contesting a god.  Mara is asserting that he is above humans; that Buddha is trying to transgress the divine realm.  The Buddha’s response to that assertion, and the path he opened, is summarized well by a line in the Heart Sutra we just chanted: “Far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.”  The binary that lies beneath all others that bedevil us is the heaven-earth binary.  Buddhism pierces that binary, and Zen Buddhism absolutely obliterates it—as a rigid binary, or dualism, that is.

We are called to bear witness to and act in accordance with the reality that form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form.  That heaven and earth are one.  We’re called to bear witness to our inter-being; our interdependence.  This bearing witness demands that we practice non-harming and speak out and act up against harming when we see it.  It demands that we act to promote healthy connection among all beings.  We can never be disconnected, but we can act as if it’s possible to disconnect.  We are sure to cause harm if we do.  The Srebrenica massacre is an extreme example of that delusive line of thinking and the harm it can cause.

Finally, the third theme I want to highlight is the middle way:

The Rohatsu story is a story of one person’s discovery of a middle way.  It’s a very personal story in one sense, but this person obviously goes on to try to help others find their middle way, personally and also collectively.  We absolutely must find the middle way collectively, not just personally.  There really is no solitary middle way.  Finding our middle way is increasingly urgent on so many pressing issues, like climate change, for example.  The conflict transformation work I’ve been involved in in the Middle East and elsewhere is about finding a collective middle way in hope of averting more tragedies like the Sbrebrenica massacre.  

It is possible to bridge our differences—even our most intense and seemingly intractable differences involving our core, identity-defining values.  I see this happening in the work I do.  This work makes me hopeful.

A common misconception about this sort of work is that it inevitably resolves toward a facile, perhaps even dangerous, both sides-ism.  The assumption is that seeking a middle way in conflict inevitably leads to a mid-point between the parties’ starting points—and one that requires unacceptable compromises of one’s values.  This is simply not true.  

Parties sometimes meet in the middle through well-structured dialogue around deep differences, but sometimes one party moves completely to the other side; moves entirely to the other person’s perspective.  Either way, parties have opened to one another, at least if the outcome is a product of genuine, deep dialogue and deliberation.   If you doubt this, email me, and I’ll send you a study that proves it.  Actually, proof is in the news: the recent Respect for Marriage Act is one good example of this possibility.

So, to sum up, these are three lessons from our Rohatsu story that speak to me deeply right now, following my visit to Srebrenica:

  • We need to let ourselves be moved by others’ suffering and accept others’ responses to our own suffering;
  • We must bear witness, actively and concretely, to the reality of our non-separateness and inescapable interdependence; and  
  • We must continually seek and open up a middle way, not just personally and “spiritually,” but collectively, socially.  Genuine spirituality is social.

The enlightenment story is a story of continual opening to our own and others’ suffering.  It’s a story of one person who set foot on a path of engaging others in goodwill, conscious of our radical interdependence, to address and transform our suffering.  It’s our path, too, and it’s indeed the only Way.

What is Enlightenment?

I gave this talk on Saturday, November 5, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 6 in The Gateless Gate, The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower:

Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakūta, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahākāśyapa broke into a smile.

The World-Honored One said, “I have the eye of the treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.

The title of this talk is “What is Enlightenment?” I want to respond to this question very directly today. This always has been a tricky thing to do, and it’s especially tricky these days.

It’s always been tricky because—as so much Zen literature tells us—words can’t capture it, even as they are it. We can never get our minds around it because we are trying to make subject object, and there ultimately are no objects; no subject either, really. It’s sort of like wrapping paper trying to wrap itself.

Speaking about enlightenment is especially tricky, or maybe even dangerous, these days because the Zen tradition is evolving in important and necessary ways in response to justifiable critiques of how some of our predecessors have represented and related to the notion of enlightenment. Enlightenment sometimes has been portrayed as a personal attainment that elevates one above others in presumed worldly and metaphysical hierarchies.

This representation of enlightenment is misaligned with Western Buddhism’s growing—and very welcome—emphasis on social justice, on the natural world (with us very much just one feature of it), and on less hierarchical, more egalitarian forms of community life. Zen’s core teachings arguably always have pointed us in these directions, but there’s too often been an element of pride, elitism, and authority games in how enlightenment has been represented in practice. The notion of “Zen stink” is a corrective to all that, but also proves its existence.

Anyway, like others who have been aware of the challenges and dangers of addressing this topic directly, I feel compelled to do so periodically. People frequently ask me some version of this question, and maybe the same happens to you. The word enlightenment is so magnetically attractive to so many people, there’s so much confusion surrounding it, and this confusion carries real potential for harm. As one of my favorite law school professors used to say, there’s good confusion and bad confusion; productive, generative confusion and unproductive, even harmful confusion. The idea of enlightenment, as opposed to the reality of it, seems to produce both types of confusion.

I guess this is all a way of saying, here I go. I’m doing the best I can, and I hope this is useful to some of you.

I could have opened this talk with any number of readings, but I chose the famous koan I read earlier for several reasons. In Zen lore, this is where it all begins.

In the second part of this koan we hear that Zen is “not established upon words and phrases.” It is a “special transmission [from teacher to student] outside [Buddhist] tradition.” I think it’s very likely this stuff about the Buddha making self-aggrandizing claims about his own insight and authority and his transmission of that authority to Mahakasyapa was added to reinforce the credibility and claims to authority of early Zen teachers in whose footsteps we walk. There were a lot of disagreements among schools of Buddhism and emerging sects of Zen in those days. There still are disagreements today.

So let’s focus on the first part of the koan. The Buddha “twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile.” I think it’s much more probable that something like this really happened.

Heard from one perspective, it sounds like this is a story about an esoteric, secret teaching only Mahakasyapa gets; a realization he alone attains. But is this the best reading of the story? This clearly is a koan about enlightenment as a core feature of our tradition. But what is enlightenment?

Here’s my understanding: Enlightenment is this unfathomably vast and wonderous universe; multiverse, perhaps. Boundless. Enlightenment is this vast and wonderous universe just as it is right now, with me as a feature of it. You and I and all features of this wonderous universe are distinct, but in no sense are we separate.

When the Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it, that is what he’s saying. This is it! Behold!

We can also talk about enlightenment experiences, and that is what Mahakasyapa’s smile of recognition represents. When we are aware that this wonderous universe, with oneself as part of it, is enlightenment, that is an enlightenment experience. The universe is looking itself in the mirror in these moments. The wrapping paper is unwrapping itself; recognizing the unity of giver, receiver, and gift, as we chant during Oryoki practice (meal practice during susshin).

But—and this is important—all those listening silently to the Buddha who didn’t flash a smile of recognition are no less enlightened—no less enlightenment, that is to say—than Mahakasyapa with his knowing smile.

Talking about all this renders the notions of enlightenment and enlightenment experiences too noun-like when what I’d really like to convey is more of a verb-like quality— changing, awakening, interbeing. That verb-like spirit is conveyed in the dedication verse we heard chanted earlier this morning: “Infinite realms of light and dark convey the Buddha mind. Birds and trees and stars and we ourselves come forth in perfect harmony.”

Have you ever seen a lava lamp? You know what I’m talking about, right? Imagine a large blob floating around inside the lamp. It’s shaped like one of those inflatable punching clowns kids play with. The blob has a large, oblong body, a thin neck, and a small head.

We can think of our conventional experience and awareness as a view from the head of this floating, shape-shifting blob when the head is all the head knows. But the whole blob is the realm of enlightenment, and the head is not separate from it. When the head realizes that— really realizes this, experientially, not just grasps it conceptually—that’s an enlightenment experience. That perspective and experience can sink into our bones, becoming pervasive and ever-present. We realize everything is the center of the universe, myself no less or more so.

What’s more: This realm of enlightenment, Indra’s Net, the Great Robe of Liberation, isn’t a blob. Not only is everything center, there’s no inside or outside. It’s boundless. It isn’t an it. Physicists like Carlo Rovelli, who have found inspiration in Buddhism, are discovering the universe is boundless and nothing exists apart from anything else. So I’m just describing the natural order, mind-blowing as this may seem from the perspective of our conventional awareness.

So what? What is this realization good for?

Well, here’s the negative response; what it’s not good for. It’s no good if we seek it and, once glimpsed, hope to possess it as a personal attainment, though many of us will try. It can’t be grasped that way—which is only to say it can’t be grasped at all.

I’ve titled this talk “What is Enlightenment?”—as a question in this specific form—for a personal historical reason. When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the mid-1990s, there was a modern-day New Age guru in the area that I used to see around Harvard from time to time. His name is Andrew Cohen, and his organization used to publish a magazine titled “What is Enlightenment?”

That question struck me as pompous then, at least when coming from Cohen, because Cohen himself struck me as pompous. I heard that question, coming from him, in a bait-and- hook sort of way. Like: “What is Enlightenment? Sure, let me tell you, since you’re dying to know but obviously don’t get it. It’s this thing I’ve got that you don’t have, but if you hang with me it may rub off on you.”

I saw Cohen around Cambridge a couple of times, always with a few fawning acolytes in tow. He clearly was as impressed with himself as they seemed to be with him. He was quite rude to them, in fact. Cohen’s organization ultimately collapsed as students, and even his own mother, came forth with allegations of psychological abuse and financial impropriety. If you relate to the notion of enlightenment that way, you’ll eventually get what you deserve—and those around you unfortunately won’t get what they deserve. It’s just rotten.

So don’t conceive of enlightenment as something in the realm of personal attainment. If we seek it that way, with neurotic compulsion, delusions of grandeur, and subtle or not-so- subtle aspirations for control, nothing good will come of it.

Many people who manifest as profoundly grounded, wise, and compassionate never have a dramatic enlightenment experience. I’m pretty sure that those of us who do are on the remedial plan. Some of us seem to need a cosmic jostling more than others. If you do have a dramatic enlightenment experience—well, good for you. That and $3.00 will get you a cup of coffee. Stabilizing, plumbing, and integrating that experience will be the journey of a lifetime.

And the positive answer to the “So What?” question? What is this realization good for, positively speaking?

It’s about the relationship between this realization and action—how we show up to life. As Torei Enji wrote in the verse Bodhisattva’s Vow, “Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.”

In Western religious and humanist traditions, “contemplation” is a common word for the experience and embodied perspective we call “enlightenment” in Zen. Though he was no fan of religion, I think the great 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell got it right when he wrote about the relationship between action and contemplation; the relationship between the fruits of his own reflections and practice and how they compelled him to show up to life. In an essay On the Value of Philosophy, Russell said contemplation—or enlightenment as a personal experience, we might say—is that:

quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists [our] true freedom, and [our] liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Beyond Belief II

I gave this talk on Saturday, October 1, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen CenterA recording is available here.

This is from the Record Dongshan (who I spoke about in my last talk, using Tung-shan, another way his name is translated to English):

When Dongshan was ready to leave his teacher Yunyan, Dongshan asked, “Later on, if someone asks me if I can depict your reality, or your teaching, how shall I reply?”

Yunyan paused, and then said, “Just this is it.”

When he heard that, Dongshan sank into thought. And Yunyan said, “You are in charge of this great matter. You must be most thoroughgoing.”

Dongshan left Yunyan and was still perplexed; he didn’t quite get it. As he proceeded he was wading across a stream, and seeing his reflection in the water, he had some understanding. He looked down in the stream and saw something, and then he wrote this poem:

“Just don’t seek from others or you’ll be far estranged from yourself. Now I go on alone, but everywhere I meet it. It now is me; I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.”

Let me repeat those last two lines: “It now is me; and I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.” One must understand that suchness is me, but not limited to me, to merge, or accord one’s experience of oneself, with suchness; with Yunyan’s “just this.

I just substituted the word “experience” for “understanding” because Dongshan isn’t telling us that we primarily must develop an intellectual understanding that I myself am suchness (though I am not the whole of it). He’s telling us we must come to know this beyond belief—in our bones. We must know it in such a thoroughgoing way that we forget it. No more wondering whether the dog, or we ourselves, or the stars in the sky, have buddha nature.

I began my last Saturday talk with a passage from the Record of Dongshan that precedes the one I just read. (You can find a recording of that talk on our website.) In that earlier reading, Dongshan asks his teacher Yunyan why he can’t hear nonsentient beings, like stone fences and tree groves, expound the Dharma. He’s read that nonsentient beings do, indeed, expound the Dharma, but he doesn’t (yet) experience them that way.

Yunyan responds by holding up his fly whisk. Dongshan, focusing on the object in Yunyan’s hand he still thinks can be contained by concepts like “nonsentient” and “inanimate,” misses that this gesture is also Yunyan himself expounding the Dharma. As teacher and student talk a bit more during this encounter, Dongshan has an initial opening. Still, his confusion persists. He’s glimpsed something, but he doesn’t yet grasp it securely—or, rather, he doesn’t yet see that what he has glimpsed grasps him.

I ended my talk last time by foreshadowing today’s reading. I mentioned that Dongshan eventually would have a wider and deeper, more penetrating, opening when he saw his reflection in a stream. In that moment, Dongshan would realize that he, like all else, constantly expounds the Dharma. Dongshan goes on to become an eminent teacher, of course, establishing the Chinese predecessor to the Soto School of Zen (in which we are situated) and leaving us The Five Ranks, one of our most important texts.

Good for Dongshan. But what about us? Can you also hear yourself expound the Dharma? Learning to hear what Dongshan heard, resonating with what he heard, is one aim of our practice, even as our practice expounds the Dharma whether it presently feels that way or not.

Learning to hear what Dongshan heard, resonating with what he heard. Resonating.

Sometimes as I sit, as my monkey mind stills and tension I hadn’t even been aware of begins to leave my body, I sense a sort of purring or humming. It’s not a sonic sensation exactly, it’s somehow vaguely more physical. I feel it subtly coursing through my body, I feel my body as it, and yet it doesn’t seem to originate from or be isolated to my body. It doesn’t seem to originate from or be isolated to any one thing. It seems to be a feature—a base level feature— of everything. At these moments, it seems I’m just consciously tuning into and noticing something that’s always there, even during moments when I’m not tuned into it consciously. There’s really no activity on my part, and yet I become aware that I’m a part of this. I’m just opening myself to experience beyond my four walls, so to speak. Beyond, or through, all walls. I’m making myself receptive.

I don’t have any idea whether I’m describing something that’s known to and verified or verifiable by science—some sort of wave energy humans are capable of sensing, which resonates in and through all phenomena at a specific frequency. It doesn’t really matter, because I experience this sensation as a Dharma gate whatever may explain it—even if it’s a figment of my imagination.

For me this sensation is one experience that transports me out of the myopia we seem to be prone to inhabit. Our small mind awareness. When this sensation arises, small mind begins to experience itself as lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind. I experience myself as a distinct feature of Great Mind but not separate from it.

And I realize that this experience and Great Mind and all that exits, even myself, is not my doing. I didn’t will the totality of “just this” into existence. I don’t singlehandedly sustain it. I have some limited scope of agency over my own experience and the experience of others near me. I do contribute in small, mundane, mysterious ways to creation and the maintenance of it. I have some weaker (if still significant and potentially consequential) ability to cause ripples that affect others’ experience throughout space and time.

But I realize there is no justification for the grandiosity our small minds can claim for themselves when they don’t feel lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind. Sometimes this grandiosity shows up in our stories that claim too much credit for things. And sometimes this grandiosity shows up in our stories that pin too much responsibility on oneself for unfavorable causes, conditions, and consequences; stories that leave us feeling too much guilt and shame.

If and as we cultivate an abiding sense of small mind nestled lovingly in Great Mind, we become increasingly free to develop and express our gifts, and to enjoy doing so, without a compulsion to attract attention or to boast publicly—or, perhaps more likely for many of us, even to boast privately, by elevating oneself above others in one’s own mind. From this perspective we can take appropriate responsibility for our own conduct and its consequences, feeling remorse and apologizing when we have caused harm, but knowing with great confidence that our admission won’t be used against us in a trial in which we can be banished from the Universe.

From this perspective of small mind feeling lovingly and securely nestled in Great Mind, concepts like sentient and nonsentient, animate and inanimate, fade. Everything expounds the Dharma. I hear, or feel, and know myself expounding the Dharma in my own way, and I experience everything else expounding the Dharma, too.


We know the universe ultimately has “got this.” And that “this” includes me.

What teaches you this? What reminds you of this, on or off the cushion? What helps you stay centered in this awareness and to be gentle with yourself if and as this awareness ebbs and flows? I look forward to our discussion.

Beyond Belief

I gave this talk on Saturday, September 3, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center. A recording follows at the end of this post.

This is from the Record of Tung-shan:

[Tung-shan asked Yün-yen why he could not hear nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.

Yün-yen raised his fly whisk and said, “Can you hear it yet?”

Tung-shan replied, “No, I can’t.”

Yün-yen said, “You can’t even hear it when I expound the Dharma; how do you expect to hear when a nonsentient being expounds the Dharma?”

Tung-shan asked, “In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?”

Yün-yen replied, “Haven’t you seen it?  In the Amitabha Sutra it says, “Water birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha’s name, recite the Dharma.”

Reflecting on this, Tung-shan composed the following verse:

How amazing, how amazing!

Hard to comprehend that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma.

It simply cannot be heard with the ear.

But when sound is heard with the eye, then it is understood.

Tung-shan is the Chinese teacher to whom the Soto Zen stream in which we swim traces its start.  He lived in the Ninth Century and was a contemporary of Lin-chi, to whom the Rinzai stream traces its start.  These two streams really weren’t so different then, and they aren’t so different now, but we humans tend to magnify and objectify distinctions to assure ourselves we exist.  

Today I want us to consider Tung-shan’s journey as we reflect on this tendency to amplify and thingify distinctions.  It was a journey on foot to the center of the universe.  Let’s also consider how our practice can help us relax that tendency and the good things that may come from this relaxation.

As we meet Tung-shan in this reading, he’s been traveling around for some time visiting teachers.  He’s been searching for someone who could answer the burning question that fueled his wandering:  If inanimate objects expound the Dharma, why can’t I hear them?  

There was a big debate in this era about the nature of, well, nature.  Existence.  What does it mean to be alive?  Who and what counts existentially?  I move.  Rocks don’t (unless I move them).  The difference seems to be about some vital life energy that I have and the rock doesn’t seem to have, or at least to have so evidently.  Maybe it’s also about the will and cognition, which I seem to have and the rock doesn’t seem to have.  

But what about the temple dog?  It seems somewhere in-between the rock and me?  Does the dog have it, too?  Tung-shan was a contemporary of Chao-chuo, to whom another monk famously asked whether the temple dog has Buddha Nature.

Many people before and after Tung-shan, including some of us, also have had a burning question.  Dōgen wanted to know why we must practice if we’re Buddhas from the start.  I wanted to know when I could stop practicing: where does practice lead and when will I get there?   Tung-shan’s question, Dōgen’s question and mine, the monk’s question about whether a dog has Buddha Nature, and maybe also your questions are really all the same sort of question: Do I have Buddha Nature?  Who or what am I?  Am I okay in the universe?

Though questions like these arise and agitate us from a much deeper, pre-cognitive place, our neocortex, the verbal part of our brain, turns them into linguistic formulations.  And so we go looking for linguistic formulation answers.

“Tung-shan asked, `In which sutra is it taught that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?’”

Tung-shan is doing what brainy people do:  seeking a tidy conceptual understanding, rather than just standing under, standing in, truly meeting, and trusting his own experience.  He doesn’t know yet, or doesn’t yet trust, that his very life is the non-conceptual answer he’s seeking.  A conceptual answer—an object of thought—will never satisfy.  

It’s ironic, but this thought-producing faculty of ours both seeks conceptual answers to the type of questions it produces and senses that no conceptual answer it could produce is likely to put an end to its restless questioning.  You’re sitting in a zendo, so you probably have learned that the standard fare in most religious traditions—beliefs, or ideas that have become rigid objects—ultimately can’t satiate and stabilize us.  They might be capable of anchoring us for some time, but many of us begin to feel unmoored despite them.  We ultimately must develop comfort with being unmoored, and so discovering ourselves as the ocean itself—not as an idea; not as a belief.

How does Yün-yen respond when Tung-shan asks which sutra—which textual, conceptual authority—verifies the claim that nonsentient beings expound the Dharma?  He skillfully points to a text that points to water birds and tree groves.  And Tung-shan has an initial opening.

Yün-yen had tried to open this gate for Tung-shan earlier in their conversation by holding up his whisk.  But Tung-shan couldn’t hear the whisk expounding the Dharma.  Tung-shan was a senior Zen adept at the time, so (supposedly) “advancing” on the Zen path.  But as one (supposedly) advances on the Zen path we encounter the same old obstacles in more subtle forms.  One can imagine Tung-shan thinking, “Don’t hold up your whisk, you old fool.  Don’t offer me that standard Zen trope.”  Meeting a whisk or a finger, or three pounds of flax, or the oak tree in the courtyard this way also is meeting it conceptually.  The I is declaring it can sum up, contain, and possess Yün-yen’s presentation of the whisk within its ideas about it, about Zen, and about tropes.

Tung-shan continued his wandering for some time after his extended stay with Yün-yen.  It often takes some time to integrate an initial opening to the reality that the light shines in and as all things, including oneself.  It can take years for that realization to sink in, ripen, and transform us.  We ultimately find this transformation never ends, because we and all things, sentient and nonsentient, are transformation.  And by now we should know that the notions of sentient and nonsentient are just labels assigned by the analytical part of our mind; useful for some purposes, perhaps, but also likely to be harmful in other ways if we thingify them and lose sight of this thingifying.

Tung-shan had a second, deeper opening sometime after he left Yün-yen.  He glimpsed his own reflection in a river as he crossed it.  Rather than becoming narrowly transfixed on that relative manifestation of the light that shines in and as all things, as Narcissus did upon seeing his reflected image, Tung-shan realized in that instant that he himself expounds the Dharma.  In that instant, he realized his kinship with all things.  With whisks, with all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, with ants and sticks and grizzly bears.

Zen doesn’t ask us to believe anything.  It simply entices and supports us toward the sort of shift in perception and experience that Tung-shan had.  To a life both beyond and encompassing all ideas and beliefs.  A life in which we can take diverse ideas seriously, on their own, always limited merits, but in which we don’t mistake the whisk (or the universe or existence) for our ideas about it.

This has everything to do with ethics, the subject of Jill’s talk last Saturday and the Precepts Discussion Group that begins on Wednesday.  We’re really talking about one of two essential elements of Zen’s approach to ethics.  This first element is compassion.  True compassion for oneself arises from perceiving oneself as Buddha.   True compassion for other people arises from perceiving them as Buddha.  True compassion for water birds and tree groves—for the environment that encompasses and is all beings—arises from perceiving this realm as Buddha.  

The other cornerstone of Zen ethics is wisdom: use of our discriminating awareness, now appropriately embraced and guided by compassion.  Our analytical mind is again part of the equation, but with our tendency to magnify and thingify distinctions, and to isolate and elevate or diminish oneself, in view and modulated down.  

We act wisely and ethically when both capacities are working in concert.

Earlier I said Tung-shan’s journey was a journey to the center of the universe.  Physicists today tell us that the center of the universe is everywhere.  That each of us—indeed, everything—is the center of the universe.  

As Hakuin’s successor, Torei Enji writes in his beautiful enlightenment poem, “Boddhisattva’s Vow”:

This truth never fails: in every moment and every place 

things can’t help but shine with this light. 

Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.

Tung-shan glimpsed this reality, then progressively let go into it and lived it. 

Each of us is called to do the same.

We, too, are called to turn our ear to see the water birds.

Open our eyes to hear our face in the babbling brook.

Beyond Belief

Turning Toward as Refuge

I gave this talk on Saturday, July 2, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

I want to try to weave together three seemingly random things in this talk, using the Three Refuges as the thread that loosely binds them. These three things are:

This feels like a crazy idea and a daunting task; even more so because I don’t want this talk to become too long. I’m eager to get to our dialogue; to hear your thoughts and learn where you would like to take this discussion.

The Three Refuges long have been understood as a declaration of one’s desire to seek liberation, and one’s commitment to finding it, by stepping onto the Buddhist path. I think it’s fair to say that, at the time many of us begin to investigate and then set foot on this path, we conceive of liberation as escape from aspects of our individual and social experiences that feel painful, overwhelming, or otherwise wrong. We turn to spiritual practice and community for what we hope will be a safe harbor.

Here’s the first of the three things I want to try to tie together today: a talk I gave 11 years ago, in November 2011, when I’d just been made a Dharma teacher in GBZC’s predecessor sangha, which was called Waldo (in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson). Yesterday I came across my notes for that talk. I’ve just spent 10 days isolating with COVID, and I spent part of that time sorting through and purging material in boxes in our attic, which is where I found these note. The title of that talk? Taking Refuge: Nowhere to Hide.

You can find the final version of that talk on my blog, Turning Words. But there were a number of bits that got left out, and being reminded of that was as interesting to me as rereading the talk I ultimately gave. Here’s one bit I wish I had left in (and I’m quoting from those notes). I said that when I learned “a couple of weeks ago that I’d be giving a talk tonight, my reaction was a wave of anxiety. The thought that’s comforted me between then and now is that a Dharma talk is just speaking from the heart about one’s experience, and perhaps relating that to some Zen text or form or practice. If I manage to do that, I suppose this can’t go too badly. At least that’s what I’m choosing to tell myself.”

Eleven years and many talks later, that way of thinking about a Dharma talk still suits me. All any of us can do is try to speak honestly about and from our own experience. I’m very aware that my experience is just that; just my experience. And while it’s true that each of us is as vast as the universe, it’s also true that I and my perspectives and experiences are limited.

Anyway, the gist of that first talk was that this idea of taking refuge once bugged me to no end, but that my perspective on it eventually shifted. Let me quote my former self again, explaining why the idea of taking refuge once bugged me:

  • “I tend to think of myself as autonomous and self-reliant. Taking refuge [used to seem] like submission.”
  • “I tend to think of myself as strong. Taking refuge [used to seem] like surrender.”
  • “I tend to think of myself as engaged and action oriented. Taking refuge [used to seem] like hiding.”

I also talked about how I initially misconstrued the notions of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, equating them with someone to idolize; canonical, dogmatic teachings; and an exclusive community.

I went on in this talk to explain that I had come to think about myself, our three refuges, and the idea of taking refuge differently.

I had come to see that the autonomous, self-reliant, strong, engaged, and action oriented me— my persona; the way I prefer to see myself and for others to see me—is only part of the picture. I’m also subject to powerful habit energy that trips me up. I’m dependent upon others who also are dependent upon me. And, you know, sometimes I am inclined to hide or to free ride; to turn a blind eye; to not step out and step up.

I’d begun to think of Buddha not as some supposedly perfect being that our teachers were and that I had to emulate, but as something that exists in and as the human condition—both the mud; the precarious potential for a lotus to emerge from it; and the need to tend to what’s beautiful and fragile for it to take root and survive. I’d begun to think of Dharma as the teaching available to us everywhere; in all that we encounter and experience. And I’d begun to think of Sangha as both the community of fellow travelers who have chosen to journey together on this path and the unfathomable unity of everything, everywhere, and always.

Finally, I said in this talk that I’d come to see taking refuge as an opting in, not an opting out—as a turning toward, rather than a turning away from what we would rather not see or experience or contend with or work through.

And that brings me to the second thing I want to hold up and connect in this talk: our recently published Resilient Sangha project documents, which I finally had time to read in full while I was isolating with COVID. I am so moved, inspired by, and proud of this set of documents and the people and process that produced them. I am so sorry this community had to live through something so awful as clergy abuse and I am so impressed by how the community responded, by how people have been present to and have supported one another, and by what the community is now offering other sanghas and all beings by sharing what it has learned and wants others to know.

Every line of these documents is packed with insight and wisdom, truly conveying the Buddha mind. For me, this community and those documents exemplify taking refuge as turning toward: turning toward the truth and the reckoning with truth that the moment required; turning toward one another, with a particular focus on those most injured; turning toward the possibility of envisioning and creating something new, the possibility that a lotus might bloom in the mud. I bow deeply to those of you who led this community, and continue to lead this community, toward a different future.

I think your Resilient Sangha documents are a profoundly important contribution to the Dharma. I hope they are seen, studied, and practiced, and that their true meaning is realized, by people throughout space and time. I genuinely believe they should be and will be read and remembered for eons; for kalpas. I say this not only for the wise and skillful guidance they provide for avoidance of clergy abuse, and for dealing with it when it happens, but also more generally for the model they offer of how to organize and operate a sangha and the proper place and function of teachers. These documents and the small number of others like them, such as the Zen Center of Los Angeles’s Sangha Sutra, mark a new, full turn of the Dharma Wheel, offering us a stronger foundation for realizing— making real—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our time.

The third thing I want to weave into this talk is the Fourth of July. Our union seems far from perfect these days. These feel like the Disunited States of America—or, to borrow the title of a book by a friend of mine, the Untied States of America. I admit to daydreaming at times about moving to some remote place in some other country, never to be seen again. To wanting to seek refuge in the sense of turning away, not turning towards. Maybe comparable social and political turmoil in their times, and the natural human impulse to turn away, is the reason we have so many Zen koans and other stories about monks living as hermits on mountain peaks. I’m committed not to doing that. I have my own turning toward purposes and projects that help sustain that commitment, and now I also have the Resilient Sangha project documents as inspiration.

I must say, however, that I don’t blame those whose spirits feel crushed, and who turn away. Turning toward is hard. I hope we the people of this sangha can continue to support each other in our various social justice activities and ministries; in our joint and individual efforts to receive and turn toward the cries of the world; in our efforts to treat strangers as our own. We really need many people turning toward others more than ever right now.

Buffalo Tails and Russian Dolls:  Reflections on Spiritual Growth

I gave this talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Saturday, January 29, 2022. There’s also a link below to a recording of the version of this talk I gave at our Full Moon Zen sit on Thursday, January 27, 2022. 

This is Case 38 in The Gateless Gate:

Wu-tsu said, “It is like a buffalo that passes through a latticed window.  Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t its tail pass through as well?”

Here’s Wu-men’s commentary on the koan:

If you can get upside down with this one, discern it clearly, and give a turning word to it, then you can meet the Four Obligations above and give comfort to the Three Existences below.  But if it is not yet clear, pay close attention to the tail and you will resolve it at last.

And here’s Wu-men’s verse:

Passing through, falling into a ditch;

turning beyond, all is lost.

This tiny little tail –

what a wonderful thing it is!

Our daughter, who is 13, has strong likes and dislikes.

One thing she really likes is birthdays—her own, for sure, but others’ birthdays, too.  She looks forward to celebrations so much, and that brings all of us a lot of joy.

One thing our daughter really does not like is change.  I don’t think she’s yet forgiven my wife and me for our move from a suburb into Boston two years ago.  As much as she’s come to like where we now live, she still feels the sting of leaving the only home she’d known until we moved.

Our daughter’s love of birthdays and her distaste for change met head on eight years ago, as she was about to turn five.  At times, she seemed excited to celebrate her birthday; other times, she seemed anxious and down.  

I sat with her at bedtime one night to try to understand what was going on.  She said she was sad that she wouldn’t be four anymore; that four would be lost.  

I had bought our daughter a set Russian nesting dolls on a trip I’d taken several months earlier.  Many of you have seen these dolls, I’m sure.  This set had five dolls: five hollow, brightly painted dolls, each one a bit larger than the next.  The four largest dolls separate at the waist, so you can put the smallest doll inside the doll one size up; those two in the next one up; and so on.  When they’re all packed up, the largest doll is the only one you see.  Now it contains all the others.  

I reached for the set of dolls on a bookshelf nearby, took it apart, and started reassembling it.  As I put the smallest one inside the next size up, I told my daughter this was just like when she turned two: one was still inside two.  When I put those two in the third, I made the same point about when she turned three; and I made that point again when I put the first three dolls in the fourth.  By the time we got to the fifth doll, she understood that turning five didn’t mean losing four.  Four would still be part of her.

Growth in most domains of life is like this.  Our perspective and experience may be transformed, but they’re transformed in a way that integrates and refigures our prior perspectives and experiences.  The old and the new; this way and that way; the things that used to seem like binaries, and that used to generate discomfort, become synthesized into a new way of knowing and being that we never could have imagined.  

Like Alice, we can peer into the looking glass, but we can’t know what’s through it until we’re through it.  In this case, however, “through” isn’t exactly a way out.  Getting to the other side; well, what we find might not exactly be another side. 

In the koan with which I opened this talk, the window is a metaphor for enlightenment, of course.  The buffalo—which is you or me—wants to pass from someplace she doesn’t want to be to someplace she imagines to be better.  But she can’t quite get through.  Her tail is stuck.

Hakuin, the 18th century teacher who revived the Rinzai school in Japan, and koan practice with it, regarded this koan as one of eight that are especially difficult to pass through.  I suppose it is, if we conceive of enlightenment as a passage to someplace completely other than where we’ve been, and if we expect to become someone completely new, other than who we’ve been.

To be clear, the Zen way entices us toward a particular sort of growth.  Its teachings and practices both support and embody that growth as we take them up.  I suppose we can call it spiritual growth if we must call it something.  It’s a paradoxical sort of growth, not unlike those Russian dolls.

Why is spiritual growth paradoxical?

On the one hand, our practice may help us grow beyond the existential angst many of us feel; that acute, uncomfortable, fragile sense of existential isolation that propels so much action and inaction which can compound our own and others’ suffering.

The biggest Russian doll is bigger than the whole universe; it is hidden in plain sight, as everything and nothing.  Taking up and continuing along the Zen Way, we may discover and center in this reality—experientially, as the fabric of our being, not as an idea.  We may come to discover and feel ourselves, and everything else, as arising and boundlessly coterminous with that biggest of all Russian dolls.

We can think of enlightenment experiences or insights, if we have them, as glimpses of that biggest Russian doll reality.  But I think it’s best to think of enlightenment, if we’re going to think about it at all, as progressively becoming securely anchored in that awareness and experience.  And not just from the universal perspective, the perspective of that biggest of all Russian dolls, important as it is to cultivate it, and as much as Zen practice is about helping us do so.  But also from one’s own very concrete and particular perspective, as a being interdependently present with other beings.

There used to be a brushwork piece hanging here that depicted a candle burning from both ends.  At one end it said, “Sometimes swiftly.”  At the other it said, “Sometimes slowly.”  

This image depicts the eventual resolution of a debate that raged for some time in the early days of the Zen tradition.  Back in 8th century China, the so-called Northern School of Zen claimed enlightenment comes suddenly, and the so-called Southern School claimed that enlightenment comes gradually.  The image represents the synthesis that eventually emerged: both perspectives are valid.  It can happen either way.

My view of how that ancient debate should be resolved is just a bit different.  Instead of “sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly,” I’d say, “sometimes swiftly, always slowly.”

And that’s a good segue to what makes spiritual growth paradoxical.  It’s all about that tail.

Striving to pass through that window, we may think our tail has us stuck.  If so, we certainly are stuck—but the other end has us stuck.  There’s no escaping our tail-ness, and no need to escape it, as if we even could.  We’re stuck because of how we’re conceiving of enlightenment and striving for what we conceive.

Enlightenment is a slippery word; some might even say it’s a dirty word.  It certainly is a dirty word if one projects into it the pretense of completion; the end of growth.

Our enlightenment is ongoing; never ending.  We can sink ever deeper into the realization that we are what we were seeking—not in a grandiose way, but in the sense knowing ourselves both as distinct beings and as not separate in any way.  We continue to open; to marinate.

And as buffalos with tails, we always will have blind spots.  As distinct beings, there are experiences and perspectives that are not our own.  We can miss things about ourselves or about the world around us.  Each of us needs others to help us see and learn from what we presently do not see.

I once met a teacher who said Zen has nothing to do with ethics.  His point is that Zen is fundamentally about realizing that biggest of all Russian dolls insight, and he believes that awareness has nothing to do with ethics.  That’s a view from the perspective of the absolute, but one that, to my thinking, neglects the unity of absolute and relative.

I’m with the 20th century teacher Yamada Roshi, who summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as the refinement of character.  That biggest of all Russian dolls insight can and must contribute greatly to the refinement of one’s character.  If that doesn’t yet seem to be happening, there’s reason to question how securely one is anchored in that awareness and experience.

As we grow in insight, wisdom, and maturity, we hopefully become less subject to baser impulses and delusive ways of thinking that possessed those smaller Russian dolls within us, cute as they are.  But real maturity is accepting their presence with all humility and tending to them skillfully; never thinking we’re free of blind spots or have otherwise fully passed through some mythical, ultimate gate; and remaining open to new insights from wherever or whomever they may come.

So let’s please each pay close attention to our own tail.

Rocky Flats, Sawada, and Bearing Witness

AUG 4 1989; Rev. Katsuzo Sawada, a Japanese Buddhist Monk in front of state Capitol of Nipponzan Myohoji, continues protest and fast to close Rocky Flats Plant. The fast was started on July 4 by LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mtn. Peace Center and is being carried on by Sawada.; (Photo By Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

My family lived a stone’s throw away from Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, and I was in college in nearby Denver from 1976 to 1980.   I lived in Boulder off and on between 1985 and 1995, first as a grad student, then working as a young lawyer.  Throughout most of this time, spanning nearly three decades, plutonium parts for nuclear bombs were being manufactured at Rocky Flats, a massive, underground, top secret facility just outside Boulder.  

I can’t remember precisely when I first heard Sawada’s steady drumbeat come and go, but it was definitely during the time I was a student in Boulder.  I was in the little cabin in Chautauqua Park where I lived, in a coffee shop, out on a run.  

The first couple of times I heard Sawada’s drum, it was a sonic apparition.  I turned to see the source of this unusual sound, but couldn’t locate it.  The next time I heard it, I turned quickly and caught sight of Sawada, taking broad, swift strides, in full monk garb, beating his hand drum.

This was Sawada’s practice.  Morning to night.  For decades.  

Sawada is part of a Buddhist sect that emphasizes walking meditation and work for peace.  Much to his parents’ dismay, he became a monk as a young man, and ultimately moved to Boulder, alone, to bear witness to the madness of the nuclear arms race.  Many years later, a couple of other monks from his order eventually joined him in Boulder, perhaps, in part, to lessen the physical toll this form of protest must have taken on Sawada.

Sawada’s presence in Boulder–the sound and sight of him at random times during the week–made a deep impression on me.  I got curious about him again a few days ago, after talking about him during our Full Moon Zen Zazenkai last Saturday.  While still alive, he is mostly forgotten now.  There is scant evidence of his life and practice online, though I did find a few crumbs, including an oral history interview that is part of a series of interviews documenting protest activities at Rocky Flats.  It seems memory of Rocky Flats, and even the Cold War itself, is fading.  I worry about that.

Boulder is and was a center of Buddhism’s transplantation and growth in the United States, so it also was interesting to find an article in Tricycle about Rocky Flats.

In 1983, years before I heard Sawada’s drumbeat, I was one of the student organizers of a massive, peaceful protest at Rocky Flats.  Nearly 17,000 people of all ages gathered to join hands around the above-ground perimeter of the facility.

Bearing witness to the cries of the world is an important ideal and practice in Zen.  Roshi Bernie Glassman, my Dharma great-grandfather, made bearing witness one of the three pillars of the Zen Peacemakers order he founded.  

I spoke about Sawada during our Zazenkai, because I was recalling and appreciating both the way in which his meditation was a practice of bearing witness, and how the monks who eventually joined him in Boulder made the practice communal, taking the baton from him throughout days and weeks to sustain the practice.  People came and went during our Zazenkai, according to their availability and needs, yet there was never a time when any of us sat alone.  I had this same sense of bearing communal witness Saturday, as we sat amidst the great turmoil and suffering of the present day.  

The world seems at full boil.  Perhaps what we do on the cushion, and what our time on the cushion inspires and helps us to do when we’re off it, will reduce the temperature just a bit.