Zen 101

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Stillness and Revolution

With respect for all,
Good Morning,

The time is 9:07 and I am sitting outside at our patio table. The sky is a brilliant blue, cloudless, spreading from horizon to horizon. Public radio is offering “Performance Today” giving me a selection of beautiful classical music and for a moment here and there I am floating along the rivers of violin. Beautiful.  

The birds are at the feeder and I’ve filled the birdbath. Suki is at my side, Kathryn is in her “chambers” doing her morning rituals involving coffee, chess, and radio. What I am describing is our fairly typical morning time, although we usually begin in the studio with conversation and coffee. Today we both woke early.

Coffee, paper, pen and the world around me; this is my life, or a god part of it, for if not pen and paper, then brush and canvas. It is a world of discovery through stillness and application through action. We sit in stillness and the world as it is rising up around us knocking on our consciousness.  We walk in stillness and the world around us becomes a soft stream joining us in each step.  Letting our self created ideas of is and ought come and go, there is only this sound, that sight; this thought, that feeling.  What a wonder it is!

So, reflecting in the stream of the morning’s stillness, our lives take on a character.  We will manifest that character through our actions during the day and night.  Who are we?  What are we capable of?  What is in front of us this morning to do and how will we be in the doing of it?

Will we be gentle in tongue and step?  Will we be compassionate for those who are angry and hurtful toward us or others?  Will we be the buddhas we already are if only we were to allow ourselves that level of vulnerability and freedom? 

I don’t believe we will be as we wish.  I believe to be the person we would wish to be takes practice and deliberation.  It takes discipline and a willingness to reside in doubt.  Few of us have these attributes of character, although we each have the capacity. My prayer for the day is that I will, myself, bring into the world the love and compassion I feel and do so without fear.  Now that makes my morning a first step toward liberation and revolution.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Keep it Real

With palms together,

There are days when aspects of our lives seem overwhelming and there are days when everything seems like a dream come true, delightful and to be cherished. We tend to seek one and avoid the other. I have learned this is a mistake because we are always too close to actually know which is which, and indeed, they may not be different at all, depending on our point of view.
There was a Buddhist sage who taught us that to choose one or another takes us away from the Dharma. Why? Because the Dharma is simply the direct experience of reality. This is where we practice to abide. So, the "good" days and the "bad" days are neither good nor bad, they are simply and completely, our days.
To have a preference and to abide in that preference takes us away from what is actually there before us. Our life as it is in that moment, and the fact is, there can be no other moment. So, when happy, be happy; when sad, be sad. There is nothing more.
If this sounds a bit pessimistic it is not. What can possibly be greater than being awake in each and every breath? Regardless of our experience, each experience is but one facet of a greater diamond called our life. When dark here; light there. We might consider the flowers that bloom or the birds that sing or the clouds passing overhead. We might remember those who came before and those who will be to come in this vast eternal golden braid. Our pain on one day may be our joy in the next. But even if its not, it is still ours to experience and ours to learn from. 
May we each remain in the present, period.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Zen of Holy

The Zen of Holy

And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I the LORD am holy, (Lev.20:23)

In the beginning they say the holy spirit swept across nothing and in a word the world was born.  That same spirit breathed life into mud and told the mud to name everything.  In the final chapters, so they say, the holy spirit told humankind to be holy, and to do so all they had to do was follow a few rules, and so they tried…but the rules were too difficult, don’t you know, and so?  We humans once again fell from grace.  Yet, in doing so we fully realized ourselves and THAT who always was and always will be suddenly goes silent: when all is One, there is no one.

Zen practice is like that, isn’t it?

We come to Zen seeking something, often salvation, a new life, a better life, or a life worth living. Such lives are hard.  They are hard because we need to let everything we know and care about fall away in order to be truly present. Being present, awake in the moment opens our hearts and minds. We can become afraid. We don’t know what will become of us through such an act; it is a serious leap of faith. So serious it is that few of us are either capable of, or are willing, to go there.  So, what do we do? Well, I think its  like we side step our way through the gates of bliss not knowing fully what to expect and yet expect our rewards will be greater than our efforts.  

A rule with a different view:  We often believe if we sit on a cushion long enough keeping an “open” beginner’s mind, our thoughts, fears, and concerns will fall away.  We chant:  “how wondrous and glorious are the clothes of enlightenment, formless yet enfolding all treasures. Wrapping ourselves in the Buddha’s teaching we free all living beings.”  We put on the robe. But not in any sort of serious mind, we just put it on. Like the saying, “the clothes make the man”  perhaps we think if we wear the robe some level of holiness will rub off on us and a buddha we will be. Within a second or two we forget all about the Buddha’s teaching, the robe, and frankly, anything else because we are now facing a wall, thus facing ourselves.

Master Dogen essentially argued that when we take our seat in the manner prescribed and practice in this way, we are in a state of what he called “practice realization.”  I call it “holiness.”  In the holy there is no two, no other, nothing impure, nothing profane.  In fact, even holiness evaporates. There is just this breath, then the next.  There is just this thought falling away and that thought falling away.  And in this know nothing place holiness arises.

Holiness is nothing special, it is with us in each and every breath. The sutra says there is nothing sacred and nothing profane, in fact, as we practice, holiness itself is rendered meaningless and in that moment, it too, falls away.

The Zen of Holiness then is a holiness gained, therefore lost. We don’t walk on water, but we do love each other.  We don’t perform miracles, but we do treat each other with a profound compassion. We don’t go to heaven, but remain here in this most needy world, offering a way, just a way, for each of us to live fully and completely.  May we each realize such holiness.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Zen itself teaches us nothing. Zen is a method that can lead us to a way of being, but is itself just a method. That method is deceptively simple and it is there for us within each and every moment we are alive. May I suggest, then, that we each stop, sit down, focus on our breath, and feel ourselves alive in our bodies?

I am now 70 years old and I confess I've spent must of my adult life running around chasing what in the end didn't matter a whole lot. As majority share-holder and CEO of a growing corporation my life was segmented into 15 minute calendar portions. I worked 70 hour weeks, rarely took a vacation day, and never took a "vacation" until after I sold my shares in the company I built and moved in a different direction. It is hard to communicate just how exciting and disturbing that life was. Looking back I see how much I missed. Time with family, time with friends, but then, I had no actual "friends" since everyone I knew was a referral source. Even my friend Bernie did not get the attention he deserved Most importantly, i missed time with myself.

So, here I am at 70 looking back and realizing that while looking back can be insightful, it can also take away from the present. I am married to the most beautiful woman in the world, I am a priest, I am a teacher, and I have a rich and full life right here, right now. Here, then, is the most important life lesson for me: appreciate the moment I am in.

Breathe Deeply,

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Common Sense, Part One

Common Sense, Part One

The phrase “Common Sense” has always bothered me. While seemingly innocuous, the phrase is often used to put intellectuals and academics in their place, meaning, knocking them off their high horse. Since I am both an intellectual and former academic I take issue with that usage.  

The most commonly understood definition of common sense is as follows: “…a basic ability, to perceive, understand, and judge things that are shared by (common to) nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without the need for debate.”  We might say common sense, then, is derived from what might be called common knowledge.  Therein lay the rub. Consider this:  common knowledge is clearly not common, nor necessarily shared by “all people.”  In any given society there will be subcultures, differing religious and political groups, seriously differing experiences, all of which color what each may considerer “common knowledge” and thus the phrase “common sense” may not indeed, be common or sensical.

Establishing the fallacy of common sense, then, leads to several questions.   What do people who use the phrase mean by it? Could it be simply a means of leveling the playing field in a discussion?  Or even establishing in the user a sense of superiority over another? Why use the phrase at all? 

From my experience, when the phrase is used it is usually met by laughter, suggesting it may be used to put someone down through dismissal.  So, when we might say, “So and so has no common sense!”  What do we mean? Partly, I believe we are saying the person doesn’t understand us or, more precisely, think like us. And we would be correct, but so? If we were a society that thought all alike (I don’t know about you) but I would be thoroughly bored, but more, would fail to learn anything.  It is through challenges to our belief systems that we grow and evolve as sentient beings.  

Secondly, I believe saying such things stops dialogue, if not conversation itself.  We may feels as though we have gained an advantage, but instead we have lost it.  Debate, conversation, discussion, and now in the forefront, “dialogue,” is always needed, especially if we are true believers.  Cracks in the paradigm are critical:  hammer on!

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


With palms together,

As Buddhists our practice is to look deeply, to not accept the superficial, and to resist simple, broad brush solutions to complex issues. We hear the word "resist" often in today's social media. It has taken on a political and moral connotation. But what does "resist" actually mean? The O.E.D. says the following:
A verb.
1 verb trans. Stop or hinder the progress or course of; prevent (a weapon etc.) from penetrating. lME.
b Withstand the action or effect of.
2 verb trans. Strive against, oppose, refuse to yield to, (a person, illness, influence, hostile action, etc.); refrain from (temptation); refuse to comply with (an order, a law, etc.). lME.
I suppose I take the second definition, especially the "refuse to yield to" aspect. We are under some pressure to yield to our government and it's edicts. We are like patients in hospitals told to follow the colored lines on the floors. And most of us do, I am sorry to say.
Liberal America, that America responsible for free and open thought, that America opposed to religious or civil persecution or oppression, has yielded too long to the supposition that it is weak, that it is passive and yielding in the face or an aggressive, conservative, right wing..We have even agreed with the authoritarian right in some ways keeping our liberal POV a secret for fear of ridicule.
No more.
While there clearly are exceptions, in most cases liberals are open-minded and passionate about freedom of thought. In most cases we are a forward-looking bunch, a bunch committed to social justice and individual responsibility. While the conservative right, in our silence, assumed the position of moral superiority, we passively accepted that theft.
We failed to have faith in our own ethical position in contrast to the conservative right's assumption of moral superiority based on a fundamentalist ethical position. We assume a relative ethical position, which is to say, our ethics are based in the context of a given situation with one principle rule: bring about the most good over bad for all concerned. Such a moral position allows for differences within and without social systems. It allows for a good that is evolutionary and not stilted by rigid rules which rarely apply to changing circumstances.
The morality of the right is easy: apply a rule. Carry the standard of religious faith as if it is a simple and clear cut thing. In doing so, its like an old paradigm trying its best to fit changing conditions. Yet, it has the appearance of certainty, an appearance we often feel we are in desperate need. It is such a need that can be our Achilles heel.
As Buddhists we know there are no certainties, that everything changes, as change is the true nature of the universe itself. We welcome great doubt as doubt brings questions and questions bring light. We live with great faith in our practice, practice going back to the time of the Buddha himself. As liberals we welcome the challenges of change knowing entrenchment in a belief is a path to darkness.
My commitment is to resist authoritarianism from its smallest glimmer to its full-blown manifestation. My commitment is to support freedom of thought and religion. My commitment is to resist simple solutions to complex problems. My commitment to to always try to see the Big Picture even in the smallest of details. For me, to resist is patriotic, it is the foundational support of truth itself. It is the crack that lets the light in. And folks, we are the light.