Category Archives: Dharma Bytes

Zen teachings of Elliston-roshi, from the Silent Thunder Order website,

On The Meaning Of Community In Zen – Special Memorial



We want to pay due respect to the passing of Rev. C. T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, two icons of the Civil Rights movement which found its origins here in Atlanta. They did their dead level best to “keep their eye on the prize” as Mr. Lewis would say. The prize was sometimes expressed as the “beloved community” with the lament that we are not yet there, here in the USA. The commensurate term in Buddhism is Sangha, the “harmonious community.” John Lewis and Rev. Vivian, like Jesus Christ, are considered to be Bodhisattvas, enlightening beings dedicated to others. Let us continue the struggle.

4 zen spheres tetrad

My interactive model of the Four Spheres of Zen—that is, those dimensions of reality that both impact upon, and are impacted by, the relationship of our practice to them, and their relationship to our practice—illustrates that while there are only four such, they have six connections, which if viewed as two-directional vectors, result in twelve such one-way channels. This is the fundamental 2-way street, or Path, that all sentient beings tread.

(Note: R. Buckminster Fuller taught that a tetrahedron is the simplest model of a “system,” in that it has an inside, and an outside. No simpler geometry—e.g. a triangle— has that basic characteristic of any system. He also said that if you can accurately name the four main components, and thoroughly describe the six connections, you could be said to “understand” that particular system. Apply it to anything you like, to get the basic idea.)

Thus we can examine the personal sphere of our Zen practice—starting with zazen, of course—and consider how it effects our social sphere; and in turn, how the social sphere effects our personal practice. For example, your spouse and other family members, or your associates at work, may not practice Zen. If and when they discover that you do, being ignorant of the truth of Zen, as well as curious about it, may ask you some fairly awkward questions. Especially if they are religious themselves, and have concerns about the salvation of your soul, as sometimes happens. Conversely, you may find that your Zen meditation is enabling an evolution of your own feelings about it, and how much weight you give to their opinion about it. This kind of sticky situation can lead to strengthening your understanding of the place of Zen in your life, or conversely become a discouraging distraction, even resulting in a kind of “crisis of faith,” a personal, existential koan.

Try the exercise of going through each of the four points and their six connections, in the context of the particularities of your personal situation. In the Natural realm, for example, considerations such as diet, consumption and recycling come into play. In the Universal sphere, we find an asymmetrical relationship, where it, the Universe, may have an immense impact upon us and our practice—as in aging, sickness and death, for example—but we cannot return the favor to any meaningful degree. Much like some of our personal relationships. Let us now add the Three Treasures into the mix.  

4 spheres 3 treasures graphic

This new diagram shows a relationship of the Three Treasures of Buddhism to my four spheres of Zen, featured in prior Dharma Bytes. While we can envision a nesting set of surrounding spheres of influence, from the personal to the universal—all impinging upon our practice, our practice influencing them to greater or lesser degree—the transcendent nature of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha dimensions suggest a halo effect beyond the personal, extending to the social most immediately, but also with implications for the natural and even universal spheres. We do not have time or space to do justice to this larger picture, so we will focus on Sangha for the present. Sometimes it is not so harmonious.


The call went out as usual for someone to cover our Wednesday Workshop, the forum in which we give basic zazen instructions for newcomers, and try to answer any questions they, as well as repeat attendees and regulars, may have. It is one of the most important programs we sponsor, in propagating Soto Zen practice within the American community.

I responded several times to the query asking for volunteers to cover, copying the distribution list, of which there are currently upwards of a dozen volunteers trained to lead the newcomers session. Keeping the list current is in itself a repeat task, as members often become unavailable. I repeated that I would dependably continue to cover 5th Wednesdays, which I use to offer formal training to others to observe my approach, which I learned from Matsuoka Roshi, and have refined appropriately, I like to think.

With the advent of the pandemic, our usual rotational structure of staffing this time slot has been somewhat disrupted, as we cannot simply show up at the Zen center at the appointed time, but have to have support for streaming live online from there, or from at home.

For the first time in my memory, the start time came and went, with no one at the helm.

This was not the end of the world, of course. Anyone who attempted to join online, and was disappointed, had the option of notifying us. And indeed, we had a couple of missed connections, to which I responded online, explaining the glitch, and inviting them to join next time. So no harm no foul. However, if we consistently drop the ball on staffing our announced schedule, whether in person or online, people will just as consistently drop out, and finally give up on us. In retail, the expression is “Three strikes and you’re out.” We need to be dependable, in order to dependably propagate the practice and teachings of Zen.

Giving specific instructions for zazen is, again, one of the most important and foundational planks in our platform of Zen propagation, based closely on Master Dogen’s approach in 13th Century Japan. We train disciple and priest candidates formally, as well as any willing members on an informal basis, in leading zazen sessions. And as guiding teacher, I have usually stepped in to cover in an emergency, as substitute of last resort.

But this time, as I saw repeated calls for someone to cover, I decided that I would not volunteer, and see what happened. In recent years, I have been gradually tamping down my tendency to step into the breach as these situations arise. I am getting older, and we have plenty of younger people who are ready, willing and able to engage in deeper Zen training. Since our incorporation in 1977, I have not missed a publicly scheduled program that was not covered by someone else. But a community cannot survive for long, if it depends too much on any one individual. That is the basic structure of a cult.


Since Covid-19 appeared, we have ramped up our online activities, like everyone else. I am personally currently on call for individual dharma dialogs, booked on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 1 o’clock; Fridays at 8, 9 and 10; plus regular monthly evening conferences with many of our affiliates. I am also a regular panelist on an international world peace movement out of South Korea. So I am keeping busy and staying in touch with the larger community.

I find both, one-on-one and group dialogs, very rewarding, and my correspondents also apparently do. The Q&A sessions tend to bring out aspects of Zen that would not likely emerge, absent the interactive dialog. We typically record them for future archiving, posting or publication. These are traditional aspects of Zen community: keeping contact, sharing dharma, and maintaining some record of the dialog. “We teach each other Buddhism,” as Matsuoka Roshi would often say.


“Mokurai” is the title of the collection of Sensei’s later talks from the 1980s, available online on our websites. It translates variously as “silence is thunder” or “stillness in motion; motion in stillness”—the resolution of opposites in non-duality. Two talks published therein are both titled “Zen Can Bridge East and West.” In the first, given at the dedication ceremony for a new Zen center community, he declares:

A Zen temple is many things to all people. It is, first of all, a place of quiet meditation and tranquility; it is also a gathering place for those persons of searching minds and deep spirits. It is a sanctuary from the noise and pace of the modern world and it is a place of learning ancient knowledge. It is, above all, a place of Enlightenment.

So the primary function of a Zen community (Sangha) today, whether located in the western or eastern hemisphere, is to provide some sanctuary from the madding crowd and maddening pace of so-called civilization, in order to do the hard work of waking up, with as little disruption as we can manage. To the degree possible, we strive to make the Zen center and meditation hall (zendo) a refuge from distraction and anxiety. We are careful to maintain a clean and quiet environment, and we inculcate sensitivity in all members to our central focus of supporting the individual in their meditation. We as individuals come to dedicate our practice to supporting that of others, turning our attention from our own concerns to the needs of the group. Sensei touches on this dual track of dedication, on personal as well as social levels:

Dedication is the key word today. We are dedicating a new Zen Center, but more than that, we must be dedicating ourselves. A Zen Center is empty in spirit if those who attend it are not devoted to Zen and diligent in practicing Zen meditation. Devotion and dedication to a life of Zen must be sincere and deep, a part of each living moment.

So dedicating a place, a building, grounds, the temple layout and meditation hall, is the same as dedicating ourselves. The facility without the Sangha is just an empty building. There is no separation of the individual and the environment, in Zen, just as there is no separation of subject and object. Your immediate surround is not separate from—in fact is—your mind.

In Zen, there is also no actual separation of the personal and the social, though the personal dimension of direct experience in meditation naturally comes first in priority of practice. Each of the Three Treasures of Buddhism—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—has at least two sides, like this, the personal and the social. All three overlap and engage the four spheres of our world, including the natural and universal (see illustration above). Here represented as just touching tangentially, in reality they overlap like a Venn diagram (see illustration below).


The Three Jewels or Treasures of Zen represent our highest values, both on a personal aspiration basis and as a social paradigm. Buddha points to our “original nature,” that is our buddha-nature, which simply means our potential to be fully awakened. But it also indicates the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, and the ramifications of his establishing the original Buddhist Order some 2500 years ago, a community of committed mendicant monks and nuns. This was his contribution to the societal arena. There may have been many other experimental communities at the time in India, as we have also seen throughout the history of America. But the Sangha did not take on the established order head-to-head. It was meant to be an alternative way of life.

Dharma is often translated as “compassionate teaching” and includes the record of spoken teachings as recorded and handed down to successive generations since the time of Buddha, but also points at the truth as manifested in our daily lives. The written record represents a social sharing of dharma assets derived from the intensely personal experience of the Ancestors, while dharma as reality indicates our personal grasp of the deeper meaning of the Dharma in our lives, also derived from our personal experience in meditation, but with a halo effect on our relationships with others.

Sangha indicates and prescribes a “harmonious community,” and generally speaking, as long as we provide and preserve the sanctuary in which people can peacefully pursue meditation, we are doing the most we can do to preserve harmony in the community. A Zen sangha then becomes a microcosm of society at large. The same kind of boundary we experience between our personal sphere of influence and practice with that of others in our Sangha, is true also of the sphere of the Sangha interfacing with that of the larger community, which may not be so harmonious.

3 jewels overlap

The overlapping zones may be regarded as engaging certain of the Six Paramitas, or perfections of Buddhism: Precepts as the ethical or behavioral bridge between Buddha and Sangha; the practice of Contemplation or meditation to comprehend the relationship of our own buddha nature to Dharma, Buddha’s teaching; and applying Skillful Means in the presentation of buddhadharma to the Sangha, and outreach to the broader community.

The nature of the relationship of Sangha to the societal reality may be seen in the formation of the 501c3 NFP corporation that defines the legal entity of the Zen center. Its only reason for being is that as a corporation, the Sangha can exist in harmony with other corporate entities, namely the state and federal governments and their agencies, including the IRS. Economic nourishment of the Zen center is supported by its ability to accept tax-deductible donations. But the entity does not consist merely in its legal form on paper, but in the living presence of its membership in real life.

Like any organic entity, the parts and pieces (members) of the Zen community continually come and go. We regard its dynamic as similar to that of a cloud (J. un), continually condensing and evaporating, shape-shifting. Members may be present for some time, over years or even decades. Others may be short-termers who arise and disappear in a few weeks or months. In light of this reality, we have adopted the motto first posted by Master Sokei-an, a Rinzai teacher contemporary with Matsuoka Roshi’s advent in America, which declares: “Those who come here are welcome; those who leave are not pursued.” The wisdom of this attitude has proven itself time and again, since the incorporation of ASZC.

We have come to define the ASZC community as a creative collaborative, a harmonious balance of the individual with the group. More like a jazz band than a classical orchestra. Jazz musicians have to be very humble and sharing; no one voice can dominate the performance if it is to be harmonic in every sense of the word. And they are called upon to improvise. There may be a chart to follow, staying within the chord progression, but the individual notes are up to the player’s imagination.

The collaborative community is open to all to join, but we do not attempt to decide how each member should participate, or what role anyone should play, other than diligently practicing Zen meditation, and supporting the practice of others to the best of their ability. A productive creative collaboration is usually between two people, who bring different skill sets to the same process. When we introduce a third, or fourth, politics often follow.

So we ask each member to focus on their own development in zazen, and in due time consider how and what they may choose to engage on the social level, functioning within, and in collaboration with, other members of the community. Some join the Board of Directors, others take care of flowers or replenishment of supplies, others lend their expertise online. When there is an obvious lack in our program or administration, someone will usually step up and step in. But nothing lasts forever, and the needs of the organization itself evolve over time. So the management of the community is an ever-changing challenge, a work-in-progress, a real Zen koan-in-motion.

In living and working with this illogical riddle of group practice, we encounter a higher, or at least a different, level of friction & frustration. If we recognize that this, too, is Dharma, then we are in a good position to learn from the process, and to mature in our practice. One of our current board members recently suggested that the administrative side versus the personal practice side are akin to the left- and right-brain functions of the mind. I think this an apt metaphor. I also feel that service to the community, especially on the administrative side of things, may be the highest level of contribution in that it can seem so un-Zen-like at times. But like a cloud—un—if we remember that the current Sangha is as diaphanous, and as precious, as the shade and rain from a cloud in the sky on a hot summer day, we can embrace any and all dimensions of Zen, from the trivial to the transcendental.

Please continue to support your Sangha in these challenging times. They are your extended Dharma family.


Free at Last

JULY 2020 Dharma Byte

“Free at Last”

I can still hear the famous lines spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King back in 1963, and inscribed as an epigraph on his tomb, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty I’m free at last.” They resonate through my memory with the full force and stentorian tone they had at the time. I miss that voice, and wonder what MLK would have to say at present, if he had lived to witness the recent racist killings and general suppression of his ethnic progeny. It gives pause, if not lie, to his “I have a dream” vision for America. When I Googled the phrase, which had “about 7,970,000,000 results,” the first hit was “Free At Last Bail Bonds” in Atlanta, Decatur, and East Point, Georgia, ironically making my point.

I have written about freedom before, as envisioned in the founding papers by the Founding Fathers, as witnessed from my position of white male privilege, and as conceived in the teachings of Zen. The three do not match up.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution, supposedly guarantees certain rights to all citizens by preventing congress from passing laws abridging them. These include freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of peaceful assembly, and petition for redress of grievances (1st amendment). The right to keep and bear arms (2nd establishing a “well regulated militia”). Freedom from quartering of soldiers without consent (3rd). To be secure from unreasonable search and seizure without legitimate warrants (4th). The right to due process including access to a grand jury, protection from double jeopardy and self-incrimination, and just compensation for private property taken for public use. The right of defendants to a speedy trial, to a lawyer, an impartial jury, and to know your accusers and the charges and evidence against you (6th). The rest cover such rights as to a jury for federal civil law suits (7th), protection from excess bail or fines and cruel and unusual punishment (8th), non-enumerated rights (9th), and non-federal unspecified rights reserved to the states or the people. All in all, the Bill of Rights apparently accumulated as specific instances of how the Constitution protects its citizens against the predations of their government.

When we review this litany of so-called “rights,” we may be forgiven if we develop an air of skepticism as to how this is all working out in the 21st century, especially for those on the low end of the inequality spectrum. It is wise to keep in mind the different aspects of “freedom to” as opposed to “freedom from.” Our social compact attempts to define freedom as occurring between people, rather than freedom absent the societal surround. The latter is where I think Zen differs, and will get to that later. First, “freedom” raises some questions.

Do we truly have freedom of religion in America, that is, freedom from the imposition of a state religion, and/or freedom to pursue our own religion? Can we have freedom of religion when our religious leaders insist on congregating to worship in the midst of a plague? We can choose not to follow our leaders, but then we have to ask why do we have leaders in the first place, if their decisions can cause the death of their congregations? What kind of freedom is that? Do we have freedom of religion when our political leaders are obviously biased in favor of, and/or make a mockery of, any one of many world faiths?

Do we have freedom of speech, of the press, of peaceful assembly, and redress of grievances, when police officers shoot first and ask questions later; when anyone disagreeing with the administration is primaried out of office, or fired; when the press is labeled the “enemy of the people”; peaceful protestors are attacked and dispersed in front of the White House; and the Senate leader refuses to even consider any bill redressing grievances passed by the House? Do we have the rule of law when any one senator can bring due process to a screeching halt based on personal pique?

Do we have freedom to assemble when it may cause the infection and death of many in the assembly? Do we have freedom from assembly when our leadership insists on it, on pain of political punishment if we refuse?

Do we have the right to keep and bear arms (setting aside for now the argument as to what constitutes a “well regulated militia” and who is a legitimate member of it), when if you do brandish a weapon, even a toy gun, or a Taser, to resist a neighborhood vigilante, squad car patrol, or no-knock home invasion, it only brings down a hellish fusillade of death from police, swat teams, or “stand your ground” vigilantes, upon you or your loved ones? What good is the right to bear arms when they, those against whom you are attempting to defend, have unlimited firepower?

Do we all have the right to bear arms when, other than law-enforcement, only self-anointed white militia and power groups can safely do so in public, where black power groups would face massive retaliation? Those of us who remember the Black Panthers can testify.

Does the right to refuse quartering troops in our homes really mean anything, when anonymous troops can be marshaled to occupy the Lincoln Memorial on a whim? When troops can invade our homes without a warrant, or even a knock on the door? Does the right to unreasonable search and seizure exist when the weaponized decide what is reasonable?

Does the right to safety in our homes still hold, when we are facing eviction by unscrupulous landlords?

Do we really have the right to due process, such as access to a grand jury, when paid advocates can file endless delays, and the 1-percent can afford to out-litigate the 99-percent forever? Or to a speedy trial, when the courts are hopelessly constipated, and those who cannot pay the fines or make bail are incarcerated until the rusty machinery of justice finally gets to their place in the pipeline? When prisons are debtor prisons, or drug-war warrens?

Do we have the right to face our accusers, when the president of the country can defame anyone with immunity from prosecution? When any social media deviant can launch an anonymous campaign to undermine anyone online? There are now businesses that specialize in recovering peoples’ reputations! For a fee, of course.

I could go on. But I think you take my point. Such “freedoms” and “rights” as can be “guaranteed” to us by others can also be suspended by others. This is one reason why, in the history of Zen, you see that there was little faith placed in the governing forces of the time. Zen masters were known for refusing recognition of the powers-that-be, famously in the multiple rejections of the purple robe offered to the National Teacher. Just imagine what a different world it would have to be, for POTUS to offer to bestow such recognition on a Zen priest in America.

You may argue that these freedoms articulated in the founding documents never were meant to apply to all, considering that some of the authors were slave-holders. And that those today who most vociferously defend them in principle, do so from a bubble of wealth, power and privilege. Meaning they may hold true inside the bubble, but not necessarily outside the bubble. It is tempting to think that we could pop the bubble, and that eventuality was also countenanced by the Founders, the right to revolt against an unjust or corrupt government.

But Buddha did not go head-to-head with the authorities of his time and place, apparently. Though it is apparent that many of his followers were of the same high warrior class, even of his own clan. Maybe they wanted to avoid the draft. Maybe they did not want to play second banana to the Brahmins (note that upper case is proper). But they did change the rules if you wanted to join them in their experiment. You had to leave the caste system, social status, wealth and power, et cetera, behind. You had to adopt a new business model, the begging bowl.

So today we may consider a similar choice, in the face of a similar dilemma. The basics of suffering have not changed: it is still existence, craving, cessation and path. Nothing new here. But the way we construct our approach to living a Zen life in the modern milieu is the challenge. We cannot find true freedom in the blandishments on offer from our leadership. If we closely examine the particular freedoms in the Bill of Rights, we find that they fall apart under scrutiny. We are left with finding freedom in the only place it was ever to be found. As my grandmother would say if you had lost something, “One thing is sure — you will find it in the last place you look.”

The last place we look is the first place we look in Zen, which is zazen. On the cushion, separate and apart, though not totally, from the chaos and confusion of the public arena, we may find what we are looking for. True freedom has nothing (or at least very little) to do with the apparent freedom, or lack of it, that is bestowed upon us by our form of government. Though as some wag said, paraphrasing, a democratic republic is the worst form of government until you consider all the rest. And Americans will always do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.

The best form of government is self-government. No matter what agreed-upon model of social order you may be living under at the moment, that humble truth is not affected. It is always the best of times and the worst of times, as there is only one time. Please make the best of it.

Happy Interdependence Day!    

Bill of Rights

Dropping Off Without Relying on Anything


“Dropping Off Without Relying On Anything”

intelligence and courage

photo- Courtesy of ABC News

In the face of the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus — or more accurately, by the negligence of human beings in their stewardship of the resources of the planet — we have all discovered that there is very little we can truly rely upon, especially the due diligence and judgment of our political leaders. Although, apparently, the kindness of strangers is still operative, at least to some degree. One thing we can rely upon is the venality of human nature, in taking advantage, even of a crisis of this magnitude, to pile up ever more wealth and try to accumulate ever more power. This reflects a stubborn unwillingness to hear the message of the virus, echoing that of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” All human behavior, in self-striving against the flow of reality, is in vain.

In Zen, even the activity of pursuing insight through meditation may be in vain, owing to an inept practice, or a lack thereof; and/or a fundamental misunderstanding. As the Ch’an poem “Trust in Mind (Hsinhsinming)” reminds us:

Now there are sudden and gradual in which teachings and approaches arise

Whether teachings and approaches are mastered or not reality constantly flows

We can get caught up in the appearance of the teaching, and miss what it is pointing to. But generally, the practice of zazen is not considered to be in vain. Indeed, it is the essential behavior that may save us from our own vanity, and particularly from the pursuit of vain ambitions, including worldly wealth and power. As Master Dogen reminds us in his interpretation of an earlier Chinese poem, “Acupuncture Needle of Zazen (Zazenshin),” translated by Shohaku Okumura Roshi, one of my formal teachers, this practice has been central to all Buddhas and the Ancestors of Zen, whose lives can hardly be considered to have been in vain:       

The essential-function of buddhas

and the functioning-essence of ancestors

being actualized within non-thinking

being manifested within non-interacting

Being actualized within non-thinking

      the actualization is by nature intimate

Being manifested within non-interacting

      the manifestation is itself verification

The actualization that is by nature intimate

      never has defilement

The manifestation that is by nature verification

      never has distinction between Absolute and Relative

The Intimacy without defilement

      is dropping off without relying on anything

Verification beyond distinction between Absolute and Relative

      is making effort without aiming at it

The water is clear to the earth — a fish is swimming like a fish

The sky is vast and extends to the heavens — a bird is flying like a bird

Brief enough that it can be quoted in its entirety here, the poem is a variation on an earlier version that Master Dogen apparently came across on his sojourn to China in his mid-twenties. With unparalleled succinctness, this poem in its unique, unfolding form reinforces the functional legacy of the lineage, sums up the difference between its actualization in practice (of non-thinking zazen) and its manifestation in our life (of non-interacting consciousness), and makes the point that this direct experience is all the verification we could hope for, all the verification that we need. And that it is clearly manifest in the life of Nature — e.g. swimming fish and flying birds — all around us, for those whose “eye of practice” (from “Self-fulfilling Samadhi, Jijuyu Zammai) can reach it.

But I want to focus mainly on the one line, “The intimacy without defilement is dropping off without relying on anything.” I think it particularly appropriate to our practice during this time of social crisis.

Those institutions to which we turn in times of crisis for maintaining our sanity, or for succor and salvation — namely the reassurances of religion in the face of the predations of nature, and the promise of science and technology to confront and overcome chaos — prove unreliable, woefully inadequate actually, in meeting the scale and speed of the present clear danger, especially when commingled with the third force of political ideology, with its short-sighted insistence on corporate economic gain over individual health and safety. Thus the pandemic becomes the messenger of doom, when its manifestation was all too predictable.    

The thrust of a manuscript currently in editing phase places Zen at the center of the spectrum of societal activities, with those of Theism, or religion, at one extreme, and those of Rationalism, or science, at the other, outlined in a chart of eight dimensions of each:

            DIMENSIONS                       RATIONALISM        THEISM         ZEN         

  1. 1. Questions asked: How?                          Why?               What?           
  2. 2. Problems defined: Chaos                          Sin                   Ignorance      
  3. 3. Attitudes nurtured: Perseverance               Faith                Doubt            
  4. 4. Entities trusted: Evidence                     Savior              Self-Nature   
  5. 5. Methods used: Experiment                  Prayer              Meditation     
  6. 6. Truths claimed: Verification                 Belief              Identification
  7. 7. Goals pursued: Knowledge                 Salvation         Vow              
  8. 8. Conclusions drawn: Evolution                    Creation          Co-arising


The main point in including the chart here is to illustrate that those beliefs of theism, versus the findings of science that we usually turn to in times of crisis, are failing us. In large part this is because most people are confused between the two, vacillating back and forth with short-term goals that are intended to maintain or re-establish the status quo, while confronting the stubborn nature of the viral contagion, exacerbated by the self-centered striving of human nature. These are “known issues” in Zen, and human intervention based on a toxic mix of religious belief and pseudo-science, conspiracy and superstition, only adds to the confusion and chaos. Bad actors on all fronts continuing their mindless compulsions, such as cops killing black folks, only add another circle of hell to today’s Dante’s inferno. This is what is meant by “hell” in Zen — we create it. The implication is that, by making other choices — changing our behavior — we might be able to create heaven on Earth.

Note that the Question leads scientists to ask How they might fix the problem of the pandemic, by pursuing immediate and long-term solutions through the Method of Experimentation, which unfortunately takes time to develop actionable Evidence, time we do not have to spare. Asking Why is a Theist’s attempt to rationalize the unspeakable tragedy of massive human suffering in the framework of a loving Creator, through Prayer directed to a hopeful Savior, but all to easily turned to a blame game between competing factions. The Zen person asks What can be done, turning to Meditation to find workable answers in our original Self-Nature, which is the real-world meaning of “trust in Mind.”

Note also that where the Rationalist might define the Problem as a manifestation of Chaos, including that engendered in the minds and behaviors of fallible human beings, the Theist might interpret the emergence of the virus and the ensuing slaughter to the vengeance and punishment of Sin, as seen in the eye of the beholder, of course. The Zen practitioner sees “the whole catastrophe” (Zorba the Greek) as yet another manifestation of Ignorance, both of a primordial, innocent sort — of simply not knowing what we are doing, in its full measure of karmic consequence — in this case the careless slaughtering and consumption of other sentient beings; but also of the willful sort — that we have been through this before, collectively, and so should have some awareness of the fact that if we continue to pursue the same out-of-balance relationship to Nature, It will continue to rebalance the scales, to our great regret.

So here is the hard part. From a Zen perspective, we cannot comfort ourselves with the smug assurance that a benevolent deity is overseeing everything, not to worry. Nor can we feel absolute confidence that science will somehow save our bacon at the eleventh hour, as in our hopeful, historical revisionism retelling past such calamities, or our fantasy-based world view of daily human life around the planet even in the best of times. Instead, we find ourselves forced to embrace Master Dogen’s prescription of dropping off without relying on anything, the nostrums of religion, and the sci-fi visions of science, included.

What we are left with is the realistic — not overly pessimistic nor optimistic — attitude adjustment of “dropping off without relying on anything,” anything at all, to materially effect the circumstances, Buddhism’s all-encompassing “causes and conditions” of the situation in which we find ourselves. We do not take it as a special message from our Creator, unleashed as tough love for his chosen ones — which we will survive, or if not, find ourselves in Her/His presence in heaven. Nor can we presume that the forces of science will save us from the ignorant activities of our fellow human beings, with the notable lack of altruistic motive working the levers of power. Though some would beg to differ, we cannot even rely upon our method of meditation to have any direct effect on this or any other circumstance. If we see zazen as an escape, we are hopelessly trapped. Zen embraces suffering wholeheartedly.

Viral Zen



Usually, “viral Zen” would suggest the process of the pursuit and propagation of Zen practice as analogous to that of epidemiology in general: The notion that there is something being transmitted that is below or beyond the threshold of perception; that it requires a carrier host, and face-to-face transmission to its next victim, etc. In order to understand the analogy a bit better, I looked up viruses on the Internet and found the following:

Can viruses reproduce on their own?

A virus is a microscopic particle that can infect the cells of a biological organism. Viruses can only replicate themselves by infecting a host cell and therefore cannot reproduce on their own. … It has been argued extensively whether viruses are living organisms.

What are the characteristics of a virus?

Viruses are infectious agents with both living and nonliving characteristics. Living characteristics of viruses include the ability to reproduce – but only in living host cells – and the ability to mutate.

So viruses may be said to be by definition a kind of boundary phenomenon, somewhere between the living and the non-living, at the intersection of organic and inorganic chemistry — which of course are categories invented, or discovered, by humankind. The dominant focus on the new coronavirus epidemic is indicated by the line showing the scope of the search engine’s survey: About 11,880,000,000 results (in 0.68 seconds). Thinking about this situation, two things immediately came to mind — my recently developed model of the four contingent spheres — the personal, social, natural and universal — and certain teachings of Zen. Boundaries between the spheres do not separate them from, but join them to, each other:

Concentric Spheres of Zen

Any two-dimensional representation of an n-dimensional reality will obscure as much as it reveals. What is not apparent in the chart illustrated is the intricate interconnection of all four spheres. It seems to suggest that the personal is far from the universal, but actually all four interpenetrate each other on intricate and intimate levels. The vectors of interaction go both ways, our personal actions effectuating influence outward, but the outer dimensions exerting consequential causes and conditions inwardly, upon our individual personal spheres.

The current crisis provides an extreme example of the interface of the personal with the social spheres, and the invasion of both by the natural world. Some may argue that the virus is not a natural-, but a human-caused phenomenon, and there are those who would insist that it is the result of an intentional conspiracy. In any case, it is an example of the universal sphere impinging upon the other three, an anomaly but one that is not truly unique.

That is, the virus is a sub-microscopic assemblage of independent particles of organic matter including DNA or RNA that instructs it to operate much like a wrecking ball. It is not what would ordinarily qualify as “sentient” — exerting a mechanical/chemical demolition upon itself in the process of disrupting the cells of the host animal — nor is it what we usually mean by “natural.”  Migrating to humans in the case of Covid-19 apparently as an unintended consequence arising from butchering a bat for purposes of selling meat in an open market in China. I assume that parallels may be found in the plant kingdom.  

The first Zen teaching that sprang to mind is from the founder of Soto Zen in China, Dongshan Liangjie, in his liturgical poem, “Hokyo Zammai – Precious Mirror Samadhi”:

So minute it enters where there is no gap

So vast it transcends dimension

[but] a hairsbreadth’s deviation and you are out of tune

While speaking of the deep Samadhi to be experienced in Zen, this description sounds analogous to the coronavirus in action, being a minute but ubiquitous particle that is nearly impossible to contain or stop. It becomes capable of crossing nearly all boundaries of nations and geography, riding along with their hosts, the highly mobile human race. Social dimensions of daily life exacerbate the spread of the virus, bringing new and ominous meaning to the last line of the stanza. We can be out of tune, in the sense of losing whatever safety we enjoy from infection, with the slightest deviation from what are, for many, extremely restrictive preventive measures.

We are social animals, and resist giving up our accustomed comforts and pursuit of pleasure, even in the face of a global threat. A related example, highlighted by Buddhism’s traditional practice of celibacy, is the hormonal attraction of sex, which is driven by the trans-personal purpose of the species, reproducing for the purpose of survival. Survival of the species, not the individual, it goes without saying. The spread of STDs, particularly HIV and AIDS, illustrates the power of desire to overcome caution. We are seeing this same heedlessness on a different scale in peoples’ insistence on living the good life as usual, in spite of the dire warnings of experts in public health. This is human nature, which tends to selectively filter information in favor of personal preference.

The coincidence of these seemingly unrelated areas — the impersonal, unconscious world of the virus imploding the social and personal realms of accustomed normalcy, through what must be admitted as a natural process — may be regarded with a sense of irony, or as an example of the ubiquity and comprehensive nature of Buddha’s teachings.

Four Noble Truths

The first of the Four Noble Truths declares that there is no existence exempt from change, commonly translated as “suffering.” The second points out that our personal suffering ensues with craving of all kinds, initiating with the craving for existence itself. This existential catch-22 (a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions — online definition) is at the heart of our personal dilemma when things go wrong, but is always present, in good times or bad. The cessation of suffering is dependent upon our giving up the very self that is the source of craving, which sets up a kind of Mobius-strip, self-fulfilling prophecy, captured by a statement and question from Master Yunju Daoying, and quoted by Master Dogen:

If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person. Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing?

This is taken from Dogen’s Extensive Record, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dharma Hall Discourse #38, “The Difficulty of Such a Thing.” The “thing” under consideration here is the true nature of our person, the awakened Buddha-nature, not the self-nature that we imagine to exist, either in this incarnation or as an eternal soul. In the face of increased suffering brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, we lose sight of the fact that nothing has really changed. Birth is the leading cause of death, and we are constantly faced with danger. No one anywhere is safe. The urgency of this message is not germane only on the social level, but is the single salient defining fact of living beings.

“The Clergy Letter Project,” an online entity that publishes my Dharma Bytes, directed by Michael Zimmerman — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 via — recently posted an article that included:

The article ends by saying, “I hope you can find activities that make a difference, both for you and for your community. By focusing on these good actions perhaps we will be able to move past the despair that feels so oppressively heavy right now.”

Despair is certainly understandable in the present circumstances, as is higher anxiety, states of depression, and even the ostrich-like behavior of some cohorts being reported in the news (with apologies to ostriches, who as far as I know, do not really hide their heads in the sand). But according to the Zen view, the current situation is not really atypical of life on the planet, but merely outsized in scale and forced into our active awareness by wall-to-wall media coverage. Not only has the human race survived global threats in the past, but life itself has recovered from nearly total extinction more than once, if we are to believe the geologic record.

The great fear now is that we are witnessing the sixth, “Holocene” or “Anthropocene” extinction, which is thought to be exacerbated, if not basically caused, by the actions of humans, thus the name, in cavalierly tinkering with the environment. Certainly the slowness of response to, and stubborn resistance in accepting the reality of, the current crisis proves the self-defeating nature of postponing the inevitable, typical of human corporate behavior. Fold in the death-wish of some religious fanatics welcoming anything that hastens the Apocalypse. Not to mention the inevitable inertia built into large-scale group dynamics. Individually, we may be capable of turning on a dime, but herding our fellow cats is subject to geometrically expanding chaos, especially when the catherds are in terminal confusion.   

While Zen-inspired social protocols really do not prescribe turning our backs on reality, or resorting to Zen meditation as a kind of navel-gazing retreat, as sometimes popularly misconstrued, Zen teachings do tend to emphasize the big picture: The personal and the universal cannot actually be separated, and the social and natural are bounded by them as well. If the present situation seems unsafe, it is because it was never safe, and never will be. But in spite of its hyper-realistic assessment of the true conditions of our existence, we cannot say that Zen is not optimistic, if not in the usual sense of attachment to outcomes: 

On the great road of Buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way — Dogen Zenji

This sign-off, from one of our practice leader’s emails, relates Master Dogen’s fundamental admonition that we practice under any and all circumstances. That in fact the changing conditions of our existence are, themselves, Zen practice. There is no gap in time or in space, or as we would say today, in spacetime. It is not that the conditions we are facing today are just fine; they are wrong and should not be happening. But they are wrong because of behavior of human beings, not the behavior of a virus. Covid 19 is just being the best little virus it can be. It is not conscious of our existence, except as a magnetic attraction to fulfil its destiny. It is not personal. This is a universal principle: “All things are like this” (Dogen).

The meaning of the pursuit of Zen, and the urgency of its practice, does not change throughout spacetime. This is one reason the Four Truths can be considered noble: They do not interact with changing conditions and circumstances. What they are pointing at is naked reality, stripped bare of our pretensions to being the center of the universe. We may be, but only as observers.

The unsentimental nature of Zen’s assessment of our situation, the long view that provides a needed grounding in reality — and what we can do about it, if anything — is captured by Master Dogen in all of his teachings, but with startling vision in this selection from his “Extensive Record,” translated by Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura:

Suchness Beyond Struggle

  1. 68. Dharma Hall Discourse

Clearly show this to everybody. Directly reaching what has not been realized from the past to the present, from beginningless time there is the actual suchness. Why should we struggle to become always intimate with it?

A footnote explains only that this particular dharma hall discourse, brief live teachings given to his students, was not included in an earlier (1689) version by Manzan Dohaku, without speculating as to why. In lieu of their more expert commentary, I will attempt to clarify what I think Master Dogen is pointing to.

“Clearly show this to everybody” may at one and the same time be an earnest plea for all to have this insight themselves, as well as a call to action to share it with others. “Directly reaching” is the method of Zen meditation, not settling for the words and wisdom of others, but to find out for yourself, reportedly Shakyamuni’s last instructions to his followers. “What has not been realized” may mean that “what” it is not realized, but real; as well as that for most people, it is never realized, even in multiple lifetimes: “the past to the present” of humanity’s brief sojourn on earth.

But — with Dogen there always seems to be a “but” —  “from beginningless time” expands the horizon to infinity. And from there and then to here and now, “there is the actual suchness.” What we actualize in our practice may be our personal awareness of this so-called suchness, which word, itself, represents the end of the utility of language, resorting to simply pointing at reality beyond words. “Actual” suchness is not conceptual suchness. Look, look! Can’t you see it? Listen, listen! Can’t you hear it? Can’t you feel it? 

“Why should we struggle” was Master Dogen’s initial koan that drove him to China to find an answer. It may mean both: Why do we have to struggle if it — what — is already true and present? Or: Why bother, in the sense that struggling does not seem to be the way “to become always intimate with it.” We are, already, always intimate with it — the what of reality — so it is not possible to become so. But we do not know that we are intimate with it. From time to time, we may think we have a peek in the tent, but it does not last. This is what drives us to struggle to be “always intimate” with it.

Whether we know it or not, we are always in crisis. There is no end to aging, sickness and death, and there is no escape. This does not suggest that we simply “get over it.” We cannot help but do our best to mitigate suffering, but we aspire to transcend it, at the same time. 

On the plus potential side, the pandemic seems to be forcing decisive actions that perhaps should already have been pursued — such as changes in voting and income distribution, medical practices and overwrought consumption — and which may have long-lasting, positive effects upon our society.

More on that later, as we witness what unfolds. Meanwhile, please take good care of yourself. Support your Zen center so it will still be there when you come back.

The Truth is Already True – Part One


Currently we are witnessing a presidential impeachment trial, only the third in the history of the United States. Ostensibly a process of getting at the truth of the matter, it is also a process of obfuscating the truth, deflecting or distracting the attention of the jurors and judges from the truth, depending on whether you are the prosecution or the defense. As such, the presentation is a stark example of the old adage that if you have three people in the room, there will be an attacker, a defender, and a moderator, and the three roles will rotate through the three present. In other words, with two people you can have a true collaboration, but with three you inevitably have politics.

The question of truth becomes one of objective versus subjective truth. And the evidence, via testimony, the paper trail of documents, and other hard evidence — such as the bloody long knives that brought down Julius Caesar — can likewise be the subject of endless dispute as to their veracity, or relevance. Trial lawyers can be forgiven for dissembling, raising smoke screens, and even lying in defense of their clients, as long as everyone agrees that the purpose of a trial has nothing to do with the truth. The adage that it is impossible to convince someone of the truth, if their paycheck depends on their not believing it, holds firm.   


Zen Buddhism does not ignore the lamentable degree to which humankind can ignore, distort, or twist the truth to nefarious ends, but it points away from the disputatious truth of opinion to another kind of truth: the absolute reality, as opposed to our relative perception of it and conceptions about it.

In Zen, we regard the examination of truth to begin within the personal sphere, expanding to the social, natural, and ultimately universal spheres, as touched on in prior Dharma Bytes. Or you might prefer the model of physical versus emotional, mental, and social dimensions. Our meditation, zazen, promotes the development of balance, or Samadhi, in all of these dimensions precisely because it is an exploratory process of discovery, not one of imposing a preconceived truth.

On a relativistic level, we may speak of physical, personal truth, which may differ in kind and expression from emotional and social truths, especially as we mature, and if we happen to visit or move to a foreign country, where cultural memes and societal truths are out of synch with those native to our origins. Mental truths, that are informed by percepts and defined by concepts, may not align with natural, or universal truths. Relative truths, which are primarily a matter of agreement — such as the meaning of language itself — may have little to do with the absolute truths from which they are derived. A “tree” does not know that it is a tree, let alone an “arbre” (French), or “ki” (Japanese).


Another useful model in considering the complexity of the truth that we examine in Zen is that of the Five Aggregates (S. skandhas) — of form, or appearance; feeling, or sensation; thought, or perception + conception; mental formations, or motive and impulse; and consciousness, or awareness — the five divisions of the holistic truth of a sentient being. That is, the truth of which we can be conscious manifests as the appearance of material form; the experience of sensory data; the perception of self and other and conceptions of reality that derive from that; the underlying drives, conscious and unconscious, of the psyche, and ultimately the self-awareness of consciousness itself.

The other Buddhist teachings point to other aspects or dimensions of this preexistent truth – the Four Noble Truths laying out the fundamental principles of inexorable change, which from a human perspective renders existence unsatisfactory, or suffering (S. dukkha), and prescribes the abandonment of our craving in order to arrive at the cessation of our suffering, including our craving for the truth, one would suppose. The Noble Eightfold Path articulates the kinds of behaviors (Right Conduct) and practices, both physical and mental (Right Discipline) that we are to undertake to accede to the kind of view and understanding (Right Wisdom) that Buddhism proposes is in alignment with reality. This is coming to accord with our teachers, coming into harmony with the Way of Taoism, and embracing the Bodhisattva Vow of compassionately helping all others to cope with their own confrontation with this incessant and unrelenting reality.

The Twelvefold Chain of Interdependent Origination provides another model of how we got to be in the situation we are in, the Six Parmitas another for what we can do about it, perfecting the practice of Generosity, Patience, Energy, Forbearance, Meditation, and Wisdom, the sum total of degree of completion of the other five.      


Thus, Zen does not shy away from the overwhelming complexity of the truth that we are confronting as human beings. But it proposes that the approach to resolving and reconciling ourselves to that truth is very simple in concept, if difficult in execution. Zen recommends simply sitting still enough, for long enough, and trusting your original mind. In this process, simple in principle but difficult in execution, we will eventually see through our misconceptions, which are mostly preconceptions, and enter into the truth directly.

Zen Buddhism differs from philosophies and religions mainly in this action-oriented approach to the apprehension of truth. We are to “fully examine in practice,” to use one of Master Dogen’s favorite phrases, any and all aspects of our understanding. It is not enough to study and compile theories and models of the truth. We must find it for ourselves in our experience.

Truth is a slippery commodity. There are innumerable quotes that illustrate this truth about truth, such as the famous line of Jack Nicholson’s movie character in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth of Zen is something like this. It cannot be reduced to ordinary understanding. Even Buddha did not understand it. He taught by examining and expounding upon how our mind works in apprehending, or distorting, the truth. He recommended that his listeners not take his word for it, but work it out in their own meditation. Do thou likewise. The unexamined life is not worth living, as attributed to Socrates.


The primary way that we begin and continue this examination of truth is to question our own assumptions about it. As the great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reminds us:

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

The first is the starting point in Zen. We take vows and receive precepts in initiation and other ceremonies, which raise the question of our own innate, perhaps subliminal precepts – those beliefs underlying our world view (mental formations). When we raise these to the level of conscious awareness, the social and personal tenets which are the operating basis of our behavior, we may find them lacking, especially when compared to the refined Precepts of Zen Buddhism. When we see that our past behavior and its consequences (karma) are based on “beginningless greed, hate and delusion,” and “born of body mouth and mind,” we can begin to divest ourselves of such attachments and aversions, recognizing that they come with the territory of being a sentient being. We did not make them up. 

To Kierkegaard’s second point, in Zen we are not asked to believe what is true, i.e. based on doctrine, but to find it out for ourselves, suggesting that Buddha’s truth will be confirmed by our own, unfiltered experience, particularly in zazen. In expounding a worldview based on such inconvenient truths as impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality, Buddha realized that his teachings would not be popular. They inveighed against comfortable beliefs in a self-existent self, or soul (S. atman), the promise of reincarnation, and, in modern times, they challenge the hope of surviving death and spending eternity in heaven. But they also mitigate against the Damocles sword of impending doom in eternal perdition in hell.  


So the search for truth requires the abandonment of certain biases and prejudices that are a natural part of our mode of operation as sentient beings. As the great sage of China, third Ancestor Sengcan, assures us (Hsinhsinming, “Trust in Mind)”:

The great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences

Absent both love and hate everything becomes clear and undisguised

The smallest distinction however sets heaven and earth infinitely apart

Here he is saying that following the great Way, not merely understanding it, is not that difficult, as long as we eschew preferences. Love and hate indicate the polar nature, depth and intensity of those preferences — not merely a hankering for chocolate over vanilla ice cream — though the “smallest distinction” may seem to imply a trivial level of discrimination. That heaven and earth are set infinitely apart may likewise suggest that heaven is another place, while life on earth is separate. But what is implied here is that heaven and earth need not be apart, that samsara can indeed become nirvana, but for our making distinctions. This may be taken to be akin to the early Christian teachings of the Garden of Eden, and the Fall from Grace of Adam and Eve, by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge or Good and Evil. If good and evil are indeed in the eye of the beholder, then the removal of that mote of dust is the essential task of spiritual awakening.


Truth is, unfortunately, one of those terms cavalierly bandied about, often with careless abandon, by those who profess to possess it. But the truth is already true, whether we know it or not. This may seem to belabor the obvious. But in the current cultural context in which the very meaning and reliability of truth, particularly in public discourse, is under threat, it is worthwhile considering what we mean by “the truth,” especially as regards the deeper meaning of our existence.

In Zen, even truth is not exempt from dualistic thinking. Thus we have absolute and relative truth, Truths with capital and lower-case t’s, respectively. We have many relative truths, but only one absolute truth. And the latter does not depend upon our apprehending it, in order for it to be true. The most famous formulation of this teaching in Zen is “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.” All such teachings point to the non-duality behind the duality, the mystery underlying the appearance. The Tao te Ching contains the formulation:

Caught by desire we see only the manifestation

Free from desire we confront the mystery.

Zen’s final answer is a deeper mystery. As Dogen mentions, finally we are left with ambiguity.

Zen’s Form (appearance) and Emptiness (essence) may be “understood” (again, even Buddha did not understand it) as somewhat analogous to matter and energy as in Einstein’s E=MC2 formula. The philosopher-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller described matter as “impounded” energy — that is, radiant energy in thrall to gravitational or other forces, restrained by it to a limited orbit. Examples include celestial bodies as well as cosmic particles, which, though vastly different in terms of mass, are alike, each falling through a specific curving arc (geodesic) in spacetime, reflecting the sum total of all the various forces acting upon them. The same may be said of the clusters floating in yesterday’s dishwater – clumped together by electrostatic attraction.

Similarly, though we think we well know the appearance of our ordinary reality through the evidence of our senses, it is only in the context of hidden forces acting upon it, such as Buddha’s insistence that our (discriminating) mind imposes a “false stillness” upon reality. For the essential reality to manifest, we must enter into an awareness of change on a whole different level, moment by moment. But in Zen, this moment is fleeting faster than an arrow. This dynamic at the root of existence is one meaning of Buddhist Emptiness: ever-changing.


Master Nagarjuna, 14th Ancestor in India, defined Zen insight as “seeing into the flux of arising, abiding, changing and decaying” (attribution lost). The confusing part is the “abiding.” Although we know that everything is constantly changing, things seem to stay the same, at least for the moment. This flux is not a description of something we can “see” in the sense that we can register it consciously, but rather in the sense of “I see what you mean.” However, it must be a declaration of the true condition of things; that is, change definitely exists as the state of change. But it fluctuates at such a rapid rate that we cannot witness it. Nonetheless we must be experiencing it simultaneously in all the senses, not just vision. We notice the changing of the seasons and other longer-term, apparently repeating, patterns.

The fundamental frequency of change, or the minutest unit of time, is called a “ksana” in Sanskrit. I think of it as the “refresh rate” of reality, a micro-second in time. This does not mean that time is a tangible entity, however, or another linear dimension, like the theoretical Cartesian x-y-z dimensions of space. Nor does it imply that time has an arrow of directionality, though eggs cannot be unscrambled.

Another problem in perceiving reality is that we are constantly distracted by the complex and relentless changes occurring both inside and outside of our bodies. But the fact that these subliminal changes are transpiring, whether we know it or not, indicates that whatever we do register consciously may be regarded as a kind of harmonic, like overtones and undertones in music, or the ringing of a gong. Any and all such sensory changes in perception must be resonances on the ksana, or fundamental frequency, whether or not our internal nervous system can ever speed up (or slow down) enough to sense them directly, i.e. to come into harmony.


When we sit in Zen, with increasing stillness we begin to notice these changes in our sensory surround: seeing light, color and motion where ordinarily we do not; hearing sounds of higher and lower frequencies when we are ordinarily unaware of their presence; and feeling sensations of motion and tactility on different scales. We usually adapt to continuous stimuli, and thus they do not register consciously. When we come to the central experience of “stillness-in-motion-and-motion-in-stillness” (J. mokurai), is when we are closest to being in tune with it. As Dongshan Liangjie (J. Tozan Ryokai), 9th Century founder of Soto Zen in China, asserted in “Hokyo Zammai – Precious Mirror Samadhi,” over 1000 years ago:

So minute it enters where there is no crack

So vast it transcends dimension [but]

A hairsbreadth deviation and you are out of tune

Like tuning an old analog radio dial, if you are off the frequency the slightest degree to one side or the other, you get nothing but static.

But we should not assume that we can intentionally tune our mind-dial to the basic frequency of existence merely by wishing it were so, or striving through might and main. From the same verse in Fukanzazengi:

Now when you trace the source of the Way

You find that it is universal and absolute

How can it be dependent upon practice and enlightenment?    

The “source of the Way” may be taken as synonymous with the Absolute Truth for our purposes; or, if you will, the fundamental intent of existence itself. If the Truth is indeed universal and absolute, there is no need to undertake a spiritual quest to foreign lands (as Dogen himself famously did), or venture anywhere other than where we find ourselves in spacetime.

Nor can there be anything special we can do, i.e. zazen, to enter our preexistent reality. The truth that Buddhism points to certainly cannot depend upon our practice of Zen and zazen, nor achieving some special state — “enlightenment” — in order to manifest as it is. But in order to trace its source, we must assume that we do not yet have it. A corollary confusion that might set in is that the Truth is dependent upon our efforts in attempting to ferret it out, the exclusive property of humanity.

The “source of the Way” may also be interpreted to include the meaning of all of existence, if not its first cause, either in the sense of God’s intent, or the Big Bang. In theistic religions, the source is a who — namely God. In science and philosophy, it is a how or a why — when did it all begin and where will it end? But in Zen, it is a what — what is the meaning of this, and our place in it?

In any case, when you trace it directly — through the immediacy of Zen’s method, zazen — you find that there is no place where the truth is not already true, and there are no shadings, no relativity to it. If true, it is absolutely true everywhere in the universe. This is one way of understanding what makes the Noble Truths noble. Like the noble gases, they are inert: they do not change with proximate causes and circumstances. The Truth, with a capital T, certainly does not depend on what we do about it. It is what it is.

More on Zen’s Nesting Spheres – Internal


Continuing our exploration of the four spheres model by taking the opposite approach, starting at the boundary of the innermost sphere of the personal level, and looking inward from that vantage point. We find that social, natural and universal spheres are also reflected in the internal dimensions of the personal, if on a different scale. This illustration reveals the immensely complex and interrelated processes that are going on while we sit. Looking at them as zones or spheres of activities we can roughly relate biological functions to centers of the anatomy arrayed as eight points of focus for breathing in the martial arts, and even more loosely to the eight dimensions of the Eightfold Path.  

Sitting Meditation Scaffold

An historical aside on the meaning of a sphere may be helpful. The analogy of “sphere,” or “dhatu” (meaning “realm” in Sanskrit) was traditionally used to describe the tripartite nature of the Six Senses of classical Buddhism: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In each is found 1: an organ; 2: its object; and 3: its field of interaction, the level of the electromagnetic spectrum on which the transaction takes place. From the organ of the eye — with its object being form, color, contrasts, etc. and its field being light; to the mind — with its organ the brain, thoughts being its objects, and the field being the nervous system of the body; each of the six senses reflects this threefold model, with the sum total of eighteen realms comprising a comprehensive model of sentient existence.

When we turn inward from the boundary interfacing outer social and inner personal spheres (acknowledging Hakuin Zenji’s declaration that there is no actual separation of “inner” and “outer”), we find resonances with the social, natural and universal dimensions. Beginning with the interface of the senses in zazen, we recognize that sense-data is not simply coming from outside, but is also emanating from inside our being. This two-way dynamic is poetically captured in the central stanza from “Precious Mirror Samadhi (Hokyo Zammai)” by Tozan Ryokai, credited with being the founder of Soto Zen in China:

Though it is not constructed

It is not beyond words

Like facing a precious mirror

Form and reflection behold each other

You are not it but in truth it is you 

As we direct our attention either externally or internally, reflecting upon the form of our reality, it is revealed to have multiple dimensions in both realms. Simplifying innate complexity by reducing it to four major spheres impinging upon us, we may direct our attention to one at a time, or simultaneously to all four, taken together.

Nesting Spheres Internal

Note that in this iteration, the arrow is pointing inward. We are enlarging the inmost, personal sphere, as if placing it under a microscope, taking a closer look at its inner layers. Starting at the interface of the personal sphere with the external social, then moving inward, we immediately encounter the social realm of self-consciousness. That is, all of our social engagements have a personal aspect, namely the way we feel about them, and how they affect our worldview. The social dimension of the personal sphere naturally reduces to the evident separation of self and others. Which, while undeniably true, is also only relatively so. It is not an absolute.

Next we encounter the natural realm of biology, including all of the unceasing metabolic and life-sustaining processes of the organism that are proceeding apace, all unconsciously, as well as the biome, host to a world of micro-organisms, which also affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. And on deeper into the universal scale of the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic, where macrocosm meets microcosm of universal influences, such as the so-called random impact of cosmic particles on genetics, potentially altering our DNA. Each of the spheres has multiple levels on which we can trace the effect on our personal practice, as well as the effects of our practice, and indeed our behavior in general, on the other spheres. This amounts to another model in the category of “how it is.”  The zazen chart calls out some of the natural functions that are occurring during meditation.


A useful way of looking at the spheres is to model them as a tetrahedron, the simplest 3-dimensional model of any system (“system” defined as any entity that divides the universe into inside and outside, according to R. Buckminster Fuller). The illustration below shows the four spheres as separate but connected by struts that may be interpreted as 2-way vectors describing the relationships between the four. Counting the struts, we can see that there are six such connections.

4 spheres tetrad

Bodhidharma is said to have suggested a similar four-part model, describing four dimensions of observation in zazen: the breath; physical sensations; emotional sensations or mood swings; and finally, mental machinations of the mind, i.e. conceptual thinking. And of course, any such model is itself an example of the latter. Oversimplifying, his main point is that each of these components of sentient existence is seen to be ever-changing and impermanent. Thus the observer of all-inclusive impermanence must likewise be impermanent.



It may seem redundant to suggest that the personal sphere of practice itself would exhibit an internal, personal dimension. But what makes each of us unique, and therefore renders our practice of this same meditation, zazen, distinctly different, is precisely the personal attributes that are inborn or inherited, i.e. natural. Psychology refers to this aspect of personality as “temperament” whereas learned traits are referred to as “character.” Two identical twins, for example, will exhibit entirely different temperaments, though their process of maturing may bring them closer together over time, through the development of character.

We may regard this aspect of “the self studying the self by means of the self,” freely paraphrasing Uchiyama Roshi’s construction, as our personal karmic carryover, the dimension of personal existence and practice that forever separates our world, and our Zen life, from that of others. The interface of the personal with the personal.

The most immediate and perhaps important of the six is the relationship of our personal world and Zen practice to our own social sphere. Conflicts arise in this connection as friends, family, and co-workers become aware of our Zen practice, which tends to make us outliers in the social context. While meditation in general is mainstreaming in America, concerns from a Judaic and Christian, not to mention Muslim, perspective include that of the salvation of our soul, and that any deviance from the norm may represent some sort of aberration, indicating a maladjustment to society, as well as religious beliefs. This stems largely from the history of “beat” and “hippie” Zen, an unfortunate association that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.



As we practice meditation and study dharma, our internal relationship to the social realm in which we find ourselves, with its uniquely American characteristics, comes into focus. We confront issues to with our significant others who are curious about why we do Zen, or why we do not pursue the religion of our parents, for example. A spouse or parent may be uncomfortable with the amount of time and effort we devote to zazen, especially if they do not practice meditation. While these issues may manifest on the outer, social level, if we are honest we must admit that they have an inner resonance as well. We find ourselves reflecting upon the doubts of others that may occasion or exacerbate the arousal of doubt within ourselves.

Looking at influences from the social realm that impinge upon the personal, we may find our internal reaction to such conflicts affecting our practice, either making us even more committed, and raising or reinforcing doubts we may unconsciously harbor about our own practice. This is the tightrope that the third and fourth generations of Zen followers in any culture have to walk. If you think it was any different in the countries of origin — India, China, Korea and Japan — you have another think coming.

If you allow social considerations to affect your Zen practice, you are confusing the social and personal spheres. If, for example, you find your enthusiasm for Zen is dependent upon the presence of others, waxing and waning with attendance at the zendo, it is not yet genuine practice. If on the other hand you find it difficult to practice in the presence of others, or insist upon imposing your view of practice on others at the Zen center and at home, constantly finding fault, the personal is negatively affecting the social dimension of practice. As the ancient Chinese poem (Hsinhsinming by Sengcan) instructs us:

With practice hidden function secretly

Like a fool like an idiot

Just to continue in this way

Is called the host within the host

This last line reminds us of an ancient model of insight, using the framework of host and guest as an analogy from the personal and social realms to define the inmost consciousness in its dual aspect. The host within the host is the most intimate, the personal within the personal, form and reflection beholding each other. This highlights the struggle between the rational and the intuitive, the various dualities built into consciousness itself.

If you define Zen practice as necessarily “engaged” with activism in supporting or resisting the various social causes of the day, you are conflating the personal with the social. Any relationship to Zen practice, from the hermit in the cave, to the emperor who promotes Buddhism, is engaged. But if your personal practice has not reformed your personal worldview to the point of wisdom, relinquishing personal gain with regards to action and compassion, your social engagement may be just another example of the blind leading the blind. Engaging in dialog over the holidays with your own family can be challenging.

Zen practice begins with the personal examining, and effecting, the personal. Only after substantial inner work — resolving our personal relationship to the true conditions of existence: suffering (S. duhka) and its cardinal traits of imperfection, impermanence, and insubstantiality — can we expect to engage social conflicts with the requisite wisdom and compassion, and no attachment to outcomes.

This very essay is an exercise, perhaps in futility, attempting to translate personal experience into social expression, in an effort to clarify it for myself, as well as in the hope of affecting the social dimension of my audience: you and your practice, my dear reader. I have been reluctant my whole life to publish commentary on this Zen practice for similar reasons, resting assured that the person who is now would surely be embarrassed by what the person who was then had to say.




The natural and personal worlds are inseparable from an internal perspective, wherein whatever influences derive from our parentage and nurturing processes of growth and individuation come together to form the sum total of what we are and what we have to work with in terms of natural endowment. In Zen, any superiority in terms of naturally assimilating the teachings of Buddhism is attributed to merit accumulated in past lives, in all humility recognizing what little we can do to attain any such merit intentionally.

As stewards of the natural environment, we struggle with the limitations and stresses that the larger society places on the ecosystem of which we are a part. We can engage directly in improving our conservation and sustaining of resources on a personal level, as well as indirectly in collaborative communal programs. The natural world in turn reflects back on the personal, with positive and negative, as well as immediate and distant effects of our personal and collective actions.

Many of us are concerned that we have already tipped the scales in favor of long-term, irreversible decline in the global balance of environmental conditions that support sentient life, or at least human life, on the globe. Zen will train us to meet this eventuality with equanimity, even if our fellow human beings do not. In messing with Mother Nature, we reach a tipping point where fundamental forces that are more universal than natural, in the sense of supporting the status quo, take over.



The universal relevance to the personal begs the larger questions of the purpose of this existence and our place in it. Buddha’s insight is said to have transcended the personal, social and natural spheres, allowing him to embrace a universal view, or right view, of the overwhelming meaning if existence. He declared that his truth consisted in personal identity with this larger, universal truth, no dual separation. He also indicated that this event was entirely natural, and accessible to all who are willing to make the effort, by touching the earth, refuting the last temptation of Mara, who had elevated him to the status of a god. Zen is nothing if not down-to-earth.

Karma is Zen’s way of explaining things that otherwise elude explanation. Beyond the physical inheritance of parentage and DNA, Buddhism holds that there is some carryover, or “remainder,” from past lives. This obviously slips the bounds of what most would consider the natural boundaries of existence, as do all concepts of otherworldy heaven and hell. However you feel about this particular theory, you would have to admit that no two of us has exactly the same karmic consequences of past actions, or of past lives, appearing in this life.

Here we have to be careful not to mistake this idea for a kind of social cosmic cop-out, excusing us from behaving in our own best interests or that of others. The teachings of Buddhism are not meant to be misused in the employ of self-aggrandizement or societal indifference. Our intent in Zen is to do our best to manifest the teachings of wisdom and compassion in our everyday lives. But we do not know what that means.

Zen’s method for resolving these sticky issues is its meditation, zazen, in which we set aside the judgmental mind for the moment. This personal approach allows us to minimize the interference of the social sphere, and to approach the natural posture, breath, and attention that is at the heart of Zen meditation. In doing so we experience more physical balance, or samadhi: sitting upright in equilibrium with the field of gravity. Along with physical equipoise comes emotional samadhi: more calmness, less anxiety. And mental samadhi: more clarity, less confusion, particularly as regards the teachings of Zen. And finally, we may experience more social samadhi: more harmony, less conflict in relationships to the social, as well as the natural and universal spheres that shape our lives. Like a river, our boundaries are defined by the shore, but the shore is also shaped by the river.  

More on Zen’s Nesting Spheres – External



Please examine my conceptual model illustrating four concentric spheres framing the comprehensive context of our Zen practice. We approach them from the inside out, so to speak — beginning with the Personal, then its interface with the Social, the Natural, and the Universal, outer spheres of our surrounding reality (note the outward pointing arrow in the External illustration below).

Zens Nesting Spheres External

Whether we are looking at it from the outside or from the inside, our basic approach to the method of zazen does not change. But the implications of Zen practice take on a different light. Going from inward to the outward dimensions, we encounter the interface boundaries on an increasingly global scale, from social relationships with family and friends to the larger community of the nation and the world. Inevitably we encounter unpleasant aspects of living in the world, including conflicts in family, livelihood, and the political arena. These also have a halo effect on our relationship to the natural world, including difficult issues with balancing our material consumption with genuine compassion, particularly as regards human management or mismanagement of the resources of the three kingdoms — animal, vegetable, and mineral. These, in turn, engender problems in the realm of social justice and world peace.


Buddha’s teachings include descriptions of reality — how it is, like it or not — including the first Noble Truth of existence of suffering, and the Five Aggregates. Others, such as the origin of suffering, craving or thirst, clarify how things come to be the way they are, culminating in the Twelvefold Chain of Interdependent Origination (my model features thirteen links rather than twelve. I have included “perception” to complete the Skandhas, not called out separately in the original).

12 13 Fold Chain

The cessation of suffering, the Eightfold Path and the Paramitas, amount to prescriptions for what to do about it, how to practice right conduct and discipline, generosity, patience, and all the rest. This includes the admonitions to “fully understand” the existence of suffering, to “abandon” craving, to “realize” cessation, and to “follow” the Path.

The results of following the buddha way, the development of right wisdom and compassion, amount to implicit and explicit promises of the positive benefits of living a Zen life. On the other hand, the downside of not practicing — negative karmic consequences — may ensue. The original, self-inflicted carrot and stick.


Our interactions with the contextual spheres of practice illustrate the principle of the interdependency of all things, emphasizing proximate causes and conditions over spooky-action-at-a-distance, magical thinking, or so-called butterfly effect.

For example, we are dependent upon our social connections to parents, family and friends for our development into fully functioning, independent adults. But if we become overly dependent, or co-dependent, it can have deleterious effects, examples being “smother love” and neurotic, destructive relationships. If on the other hand we try to be too independent, or conceive ourselves of such, it can lead to the mythos of the “self-made man” and other such conceits. When we come to see our existence as inextricably and intimately interwoven with that of others, we can hope to maintain a proper balance in all such relationships. This cuts both ways, in that others may develop an imbalance in their relationship to ourselves, regardless of how we see it or feel about it. Misunderstandings abound in the social dimension. Each of the contextual spheres has this aspect.

In confronting the natural world, if we are not in harmony with how it functions, we may do irreparable harm to the ecological system on which we depend for out sustenance. On the other hand, we may find ourselves in danger of personal injury, e.g. by underestimating gravity; or our body’s ability to withstand exposure to the elements; or risk poisoning from tainted liquids or foods, e.g. mushrooms.

In the context of the universal sphere, we find that we have even less discretion than we do in the context of nature. Earthquake, flooding and climatological forces we would have to place at the boundary of the natural and universal. These geological events, such as the eruption of volcanoes, which recently killed several people who were exploring an active one while on vacation, are examples of catastrophic collision of the personal-social and the natural-universal. It is clear that the so-called natural world, especially at the edge of the universal, is no respecter of persons. We are of it, but it does not depend upon us or our survival.

All four spheres are interdependently evolving, with emphasis on ever greater independence as we move from the personal to the universal. That is, the effects of personal dependency are increasingly lopsided: the volcano can destroy us but we cannot harm it. If we kill off living species, the effect boomerangs on us.    


Even the realm of the social cannot be considered a respecter of persons. This unfortunate truth is what we witness in the majority of news reporting. In the fields of physics and mathematics it is said that the simplest, most elegant solution is most likely to be the correct one. In the messier realm of social and political relations, the same principle may apply. It has been demonstrated that if you continue to pack more and more rats into the same maze, at a turning point of extreme overcrowding, they begin to turn on each other, violently. They blame each other, as they are oblivious to the true source of their discomfort.

It may be that overpopulation of the human race on the planet, now at some seven and a half billion and counting, may be the simplest explanation for why people continue to turn on each other in the post-Enlightenment age. Like rats in a finite maze, there may simply be too many people competing for the same resources. Resources that are increasingly threatened by predations of unpredictable weather patterns resulting from climate change, with resultant drought and forest fires, alternating with storms and flooding, all also at least partly a result of accelerating growth in population.

If this is an accurate assessment of the situation, it is understandable that in one sense no one person or group can be held totally accountable for the crisis, and it follows that each would tend to blame the other, like rats. Divisiveness and tribalism afflicting today’s public discourse can be seen as a natural reaction to increasing pressure just to survive, or to sustain our preferred and accustomed lifestyle. Even the wealthy should recognize that they cannot buy their way out of the current dilemmas facing society. It is the Tragedy of the Commons writ large.

In Zen, we recognize that any solution to such social problems begins at home. We confront these issues from the personal standpoint, beginning with meditation. This is the personal sphere in which we work out our own resolution of our own unique, individual case. From there, we can then work our way out, to the outer spheres in the model. Zen suggests a bottom-up, not a top-down, solution.

Our personal practice of Zen meditation is influenced by, and conversely influences, our social, natural and universal spheres of experience. How that works, and how thoroughly you grasp its impact and implications is up to you.

Next month we will continue with a closer look at the inner sphere of the Personal, where we will find that the Social, Natural, and Universal are reflected on a smaller scale.

Zen ≠ Zazen ≠ Meditation


December is the month that we focus on the life and teachings of that original Monster of Zen, Shakyamuni the historical Buddha. In what follows I will attempt to demonstrate the absolute relevance and modernity of his teachings, as preserved in the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism. As some of these connections are not obvious in verbal presentation, I have included some charts as illustrations of the intersections and interfaces of what are usually presented as separate teachings.


Zen is not the same as zazen, and zazen is not the same as other meditations. It may seem heretical to propose that Zen is not equal to zazen, and that zazen is not equal to meditation. But bear with me. There are so many alternative offerings of meditation today that it is time to differentiate Zen’s method from the rest.

            Zen is not equivalent to its meditation method, zazen, simply because there is so much more to Zen as a philosophy, and as a formative force throughout history. This has primarily been true of the history of the East, but following its introduction to America in the late 1890s, and especially after WWII, westerners in general, and Americans in particular, have become more and more interested in Zen, along with a parallel engagement with other meditative traditions and styles, such as Yoga, as well as other Buddhist and non-Buddhist variations.

            Zen is known as the meditation sect of Buddhism, but zazen is not its sole method of teaching. Zen boasts an extensive literature on buddha-dharma as experienced and expounded by its adherents, beginning with Bodhidharma’s journey out of India, and tracing its evolution through China, Korea and Japan, to the Far East. However, distribution of the Buddhist canon, in the form of written sutras and commentaries, had preceded The 28th Patriarch by centuries, and his bringing Zen from the West to the East was definitely focused on the direct practice of upright sitting, or what we now refer to as zazen, or more precisely, shikantaza.


The great sage’s meditation practice did not conform to the traditional style known as dhyana, or contemplation, though this is how the local punditry interpreted his “wall-gazing Zen.” He was demonstrating shikantaza, or “objectless meditation,” which amounts to an oxymoron. Meditation is defined as the focus of attention on something, and so inherently implies a division of subject and object. If our direct experience in sitting becomes objectless, then by definition it must also become subject-less (which, revealingly, is not a recognized construction in English; thus the hyphen). In the most salient sense, then, zazen transcends normal meditation.

            “Zen” is phonetic Japanese for “Ch’an,” which is phonetic Chinese for the Sanskrit “dhyana,” one of the traditional Six Paramitas of Buddhism. Thus, Zen is actually a misnomer. Which is a good thing, because what Zen is pointing to cannot be named. In Taoism there is a similar idea, paraphrasing: “Naming is the source of all (particular) things; but that which is eternally real is nameless.”


To elicit a bigger picture of the place of Zen and zazen in our world of practice, I would like to refer you to a couple of semantic models illustrating my ideas of the interrelationships, or operative interfaces, of the various dimensions thereof that we encounter both on the cushion and in daily life. Turning to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, we see that they can be modeled as a system, the simplest geometry for which is the tetrahedron (“system” defined as having an inside and an outside):

DB pic 1

    These are usually presented in text in a linear layout, beginning with the First Noble Truth, that of the Existence of Suffering, followed by the Origin and Cessation of Suffering, and finally the Noble Eightfold Path, leading to the cessation of suffering.

            First, we must examine and challenge the use and meaning of the word “suffering” to translate the Sanskrit “dukkha.” Unfortunately, suffering is fraught with narrow connotations of human pain — not only physical, but emotional, mental, and even existential in nature — but I do not believe that that is the intended meaning of the original term. I think Buddha was teaching a universal principle, that of unrelenting and inexorable change, which we interpret from the perspective of personal angst.


This leads to another illustration, one that attempts to paint a picture of the comprehensive context of a Zen life and practice. You may have become acquainted with this concept in a prior Dharma Byte, but here I want to tie it together with the Four Noble Truths. I refer to this as the Four Zen Spheres, meaning those surrounding layers of reality that we find ourselves dealing with, either directly or indirectly, in the ongoing management of our lives. The most central is the Personal sphere, the next level out being the Social, then the Natural, and finally, the Universal. They are not truly separate, of course, but relatively so.

DB pic2



Our meditative practice is centered in the personal experience we find on the cushion, the most intimate dimension, but it is inseparable from the other three. Buddha’s teaching of the Existence of suffering — and his charge that we are to fully understand its existence — ordinarily we would assume to lie in the inmost circle, the Personal. But I propose that its true home is in the outermost, the Universal realm. After all, there is nothing anywhere in the Universe that is exempt from this principle of change. Galaxies colliding are dukkha. That we are each and all caught up in incessant change does not make it personal, from either a positive or negative interpretation. We are neither the chosen, the most favored, beings of this reality; nor are we the sole victims. It, dukkha, is not a respecter of persons.

            The universal aspect of zazen includes that the physical posture enters into a profound stillness, which is at the heart of all motion; and into precise alignment with the field of gravity. The term used to name this profound balance in stillness is “Samadhi.” This zazen samadhi transcends the Personal and Natural spheres, linking into the planet and the solar system. That all form, including solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter are in continual flux, is another example of the Universal impinging upon the Personal. Our very life depends upon these three basic states of matter, as well as the functioning principles of organic chemistry, or biology, which overlap with the Natural. We are not personally in control of these.


The Origin of suffering, usually translated as “craving” or “thirst,” Buddha taught that we are to abandon, again as fully as possible. It would most logically find its home in the Natural sphere, or realm, as craving comes with sentient life, whether of the animal or vegetable variety. Craving as evidenced in the plant kingdom may be a bridge too far for some to embrace as having any validity, but we tend to describe trees and grasses as thirsty, especially under increasingly common conditions of drought we are witnessing as one result of climate change.

            It might prove even more difficult to mount an argument defending a theory of craving as manifested in the mineral kingdom, though certain chemical reactions, and even the simple dynamic of osmosis, or wicking, via capillary attraction, appears to mimic a form of thirst, admittedly inchoate, and unconscious.

            The main point here is that while we tend to own our feelings of craving, and struggle with guilt and other obsessions as a consequence, they are clearly and largely a result of being a physical being — an animal — one endowed with painfully intense self-awareness. “Born of body, mouth and mind” is the operative phrase in Buddhism’s Repentance chant: most of our suffering comes with the territory. And therefore we are not responsible for it, only for what we do about it.

            The Natural sphere is not only the macro environment around us, but also the micro environ within our body, including the biological, chemical and electrical process of breathing, digesting, and the rest of the inconceivably complex process of living that is built into existence as a sentient being. It is all changing constantly, and subliminally to our conscious awareness.


The Cessation of suffering, which we are to fully realize, I would locate primarily in the Social sphere, though we may find the most efficacious means for realizing it in the most intimate inner circle of the Personal, that transformational event Buddha identified as a “turning about in the inmost consciousness,” which is tantamount to salvation in Buddhist doctrine. Personal suffering of aging, sickness and death — which includes birth, as the leading cause of death — is also Natural, and obeys the “dharma,” the natural laws of the Universe. So it is natural that we look for personal salvation in the face of such suffering. And it is understandable that we look to the social level, of advanced medical treatment, for example, for solutions to mitigate our personal suffering. However, in the most fully developed and comprehensive of the Mahayana teachings, the Bodhisattva Vow, we find that no one individual can be saved while the rest remain mired in suffering. In Zen, the most central form, and cause, of suffering is our willful ignorance, and resistance.


The Eightfold Path, which we are to fully follow, I place primarily in the Personal sphere. It forms a bridge into the Social, most obviously, but has resonance in the Natural and Universal spheres as well. While the usual linear sequence begins with 1. Right View, and ends with 8. Right Meditation, in actual practice the sequence is reversed, at least in Zen pedagogy. Some sects, or schools, of meditation  recommend not encouraging students to meditate until they have some grounding in doctrine, studying the basic tenets.

            Zen praxis subscribes to the sink-or-swim approach, trusting the practice of upright, seated meditation to begin to have a positive effect, which will encourage the individual to do the follow-up study as necessary to clarify their experience. Through engaging fully in Right Meditation, the practice of Right Mindfulness (7) and Right Effort (6) will follow naturally. These three comprise Right Discipline. Note that this necessarily begins in the Personal sphere of practice-experience on the cushion, but mindfulness and effort obviously carry over into the Social realm.

            Right Speech (3), Action (4) and Livelihood (5), taken together as Right Conduct, are most clearly engaged in the Social sphere, though our actions and livelihood clearly affect the Natural realm, as in the examples of mismanagement of resources cited above.

            Finally, Right View, and Right Thought or understanding, when combined, are said to comprise Right Wisdom, in the simplified tripartite model, along with Discipline and Conduct. Much like the Six Paramitas — Generosity (S. dana), Morality (shila or Precepts), Patience (kshanti), Endurance (virya), Meditation (dhyana) and Wisdom (prajna) — the last of the sequence is the most important, and said to represent the accumulation of all the above.

            Wisdom consists of the evolution of our worldview to approximate that of the Buddha, or Buddhism, through the trial-and-error practice of engaging the other dimensions of the Eightfold Path (marga), or the perfecting of the other five dimensions of the Paramitas.

DB pic 3


This dissertation emphasizes that, like all such models in Buddhist teaching, as well as in other areas of human endeavor, division into digestible bites does not imply that such conceptual separations are absolute. All diagrams are Venn diagrams, to a degree. The personal cannot be separated from the social, the natural, or the universal, in reality.

            The realm of the Natural, for example brings up the issue of stewardship of the environment, including the motivation for the survival of the species. Extinction of species in the ecosystem, as a result of insensitivity to long-term consequences, and callous disregard for the sake of short-term profit, becomes very personal in terms of its impact on individuals and whole communities.

            Our exhaustive mining of mineral resources provides another example of the connection between our personal needs and the dictates of Nature writ large. The most direct and obvious solution to the “tragedy of the commons” is for each individual to lessen their craving on a personal level. This Natural sphere also offers what is probably the most promising sphere for nonpartisan political collaboration, if the actual cost of energy and material goods were fully accounted for and transparent. It is the realm in which the greatest good for the greatest number becomes most obvious and salient.

            The activity of zazen, which may appear as disengaged navel-gazing, is actually the most direct gate into the Social, Natural and Universal dimensions of our existence. When we leave the cushion and re-enter the Social, the Personal benefits of our practice come with us.


This Dharma Byte is meant to encourage you to engage deeper study of these teachings in concert with your meditation practice, and to consider joining in our new intensive master class, “Unraveling the Heart of Zen,” on its debut Saturday, December 7th, from 9:00 am to Noon, when we will take a deeper dive into the interfaces of Zen and our daily life. Please pre-register to save your spot at:

At the Intersection of God and Buddha



In two of my prior Dharma Bytes, I explored the intersection of Science and Zen, illustrating my thesis that Zen occupies the middle ground between the extremes of Theism and Rationalism, but definitely closer to the latter end of the spectrum. This is because we do not see Zen as a belief-based system of dealing with the world in which we find ourselves, but as an experience-based method, which is closer to the evidence-based truths of Science.

In an interim piece, I explored the ramifications of climate change, an issue that science promises to address, but politics seems to trump – no pun intended – that possibility. And, typically, politics that is based on a theistic view of reality, in which Armageddon is prophesied, and apparently even considered a desirable outcome.

In this month’s essay I would like to take a closer look at one of the central questions that often comes up when discussing Zen with people of other faiths. It will often take the form of “Do you worship Buddha?” or “What do you believe in?”


While it is easy to dismiss such a query as basically ignorant, or even unseemly and aggressive in proselytizing mode, I think it probably indicates something deeper. If we consider why people have beliefs in something they cannot prove, and for which the evidence is scanty, on a psychological level at least I think we can come to some common ground. Something like 25% of the American populace currently poll as not adhering to any particular faith, not identified with any one of the world’s major or minor religions. It is not lost on religious leaders that it is primarily the young, the millennials, who are looking for something else; and that many of them are gravitating toward meditation.

Freedom of religion in this culture is increasingly interpreted as including freedom from religion. Which causes the evangelicals amongst us no end of anxiety and handwringing. They may be genuinely concerned for the salvation of the souls of others, or simply needing to have the assurance of safety in numbers that their belief, or faith, is well-founded.  

My basic thesis here is that we should not be too cavalier about or dismissive of the way others express their faith. There are teachings or at least implications of teachings in Buddhism that smack of similar concepts. Because I am not a scholar, I will not attempt to justify my comments with research and validation from respected sources. I only mean to suggest a more open-minded approach to the interfaith dialog, one that does not aim to convince others, but only to reconsider our own biases and prejudices, which may not be readily apparent. After all, as Master Dogen reminds us:

Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge

and is grasped by your consciousness

Although actualized immediately the inconceivable may not be apparent

Its appearance is beyond your knowledge

If even the most profound insight available in Zen is inaccessible to ordinary awareness, how much more so the subliminal views we may be harboring.

In Zen, or Buddhism, we may hear the expression, “cosmic buddha,” which I think is usually not capitalized, as that designation is usually reserved for the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Vairochana (literally “illuminator,” according to Wikipedia) is interpreted as the primordial, celestial buddha. Brought down to earth, it manifests as the dharmakaya (“essence body”). This was discovered by Shakyamuni, Buddhism’s counterpart to Christ in Christianity, sans claims of divinity.


The three bodies (S. trikaya) are denoted as nirmanakaya (“transformation body”) and samboghakaya (“enjoyment body”) in addition to dharmakaya. These apparently form a ready parallel to the trinity in Christianity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; but are distinctly different in their meaning, again eschewing the Divine.

Briefly, the transformation body is that through which buddhas, or fully awakened beings, appear in the world: in other words, this very corporeal body. The essence body is the actual or complete body in which the separation between self and other is seen as a kind of delusion. And the enjoyment body is, to paraphrase the most amusingly circular definition I have come across, the body in which bodhisattvas enjoy the truth that they embody. Jesus is considered a bodhisattva, or enlightening being, in Buddhism.

I like to think of this tripartite model of our complete body as a form of psychic synergy. Combining the transformation body into which we are born, with the essence body, when fully realized, results in a third new thing—enjoyment—that is not manifest in either of the two when taken separately. Much like a picture without a caption, or the caption without the picture, neither conveys the complete meaning as they do when combined.

These conceptualizations and descriptions are straining toward capturing in words some essential truth that is not readily self-evident (otherwise, everyone would be naturally enlightened). The effort to conceive and define a God, or the Cosmic Buddha, seem to be somewhat parallel, in attempting to express the ineffable.


In order to clarify our thinking around these cosmic concepts, which threaten to devolve into hopeful speculation, it might be helpful to consider the notion of God and intention. We recognize intent in the personal exercise of our faith, whether it be Zen or one of the world religions. That is, we intend to get to the bottom of things in Zen, or we intend to save all beings, the bodhisattva vow. What this actually means is to be revealed in the way we live out our practice in daily life, but we have to admit that some sort of intention is in play from the beginning. We have to accept that Christians and others also exercise a degree of personal intent in the pursuit of their faith, whether it be personal salvation or saving other souls.

If we step outside of the personal we can consider what is the intent of existence itself. That is, if God is the creator of the universe, what is the fundamental intent of that creation? If God is God, he or she does not need the universe to exist for personal reasons. So the intent of creating the universe would have to be for the sake of others. Most religions, which are all human-based (we don’t know about the whales or dolphins), would probably agree that their theism would admit of some intent, that has to do with the existence of humanity. Either we exist in order to come into some appropriate relation to the creator God, or as a test of our ability to conform to the rules of existence, or the religion, or the Tao, the Way, to realize a level of insight that is commensurate with the overwhelming reality of sentient existence. In the absence of God, man would have to invent God.


All such endeavors, including philosophies and the application of rational and scientific approaches to existence can be classified as a search for meaning. For some primitive belief systems, life, and pleasure, provided meaning enough. For others, jaded with sybaritic lifestyle, or regarding its consequences as harmful, a search for deeper meaning ensued. Buddha’s original teaching, the First Sermon, essentially pointed out the futility of each approach — devotion to either the indulgence of self-gratification, or conversely, self-mortification — and resolved that the most direct path to the natural life is the Middle Way.

This may not be as satisfying as coming down on one side or the other of the existential fence. It requires that we surrender our tendency to look for simplistic solutions to complex realities. For this reason, again, we should not too readily dismiss the attempts of others to come to terms with this dilemma. We are not so sure of our own understanding. In Zen we embrace the “don’t-know-mind,” the fact that finally we are left with ambiguity, as Master Dogen is said to have asserted.

In Zen we hear this expression, “your original face.” All beings and indeed all things are said to manifest this original face. While this is an intriguing construction, and must, on its face, be true (how could everything be manifesting some face that is not original?), we might re-phrase it as the “original interface.”


The interface, like that of your computer, consists of icons and symbols (such as these letters and words) that are familiar as a result of acculturation, and training in the use of social media screens. The “face” we are looking at and responding to is a digital interface with others who are engaged in the same manipulation of the media to correspond. Similarly, our consciousness is our interface with reality.

The teachings of Zen do not amount to an attempt to describe an objective reality, outside of the purview of the observer, as science does (although that pesky uncertainty principle comes into play). Buddha being the observer of what he observed was the whole point and meaning of his experience, just as it is of whatever insight we may gain. Nor are they beliefs based on no evidence at all, as is characteristic of theism.


Buddha described his truth as superior to the other two types, in that it is based on a direct, self-identity with a larger truth. In it, there is no separation of mind and object, self and other, et cetera (all dualities merge in non-duality). But acceding to this truth requires the surrender of the self, as do most religions. The self has to be given up to a higher power, or a truth that does not include the self-constructed self. In the case of theistic belief systems, this surrender of one’s life to the will of God or into the hands of a savior, is the road to salvation. Ironically, it posits a self that is eternal, the immortal soul, which amounts to a denial of impermanence, a cardinal tenet of Zen and Buddhism. This contradiction is irresolvable until and unless the individual actually experiences the surrender of the self in reality. Then the differences are seen to be largely semantic in nature, not worth debating.

These concerns often arise as the result of our engaging a practice — Zen — that is not indigenous to our culture. Living in the Bible belt, the odds are greater that one’s family and friends, and even colleagues at work, or select members of our neighborhood, are not likely going to be practitioners of Zen, or even any other form of meditation, other than Yoga, which, secular as it is, is sometimes suspect.


Because we live in this context, we have to engage with it in a way that does not create undue conflict, or unnecessary suffering, for ourselves or for others. When coming into contact with others who hold strongly-felt beliefs, it is helpful to remember that they probably do not have any kind of meditative method that helps them to moderate their defensive response to challenges to their beliefs. In order to carry on a dialog with friends and family, or worse-case scenarios where the corporate culture at your place of employment is oppressively and inappropriately coercive around personal choices such as religious affiliation or non-affiliation, Zen has a few suggestion as to how to handle this interface of the personal and social.

We generally avoid arguing or debate, though doing so skillfully in a proselytizing milieu may be difficult. One approach I recommend, which I learned as part of my professional training in end-user research, primarily for new product development, is the nondirective interview technique used to gather information from focus groups or individuals, depending on market segmentation for the subject under study. The method was developed by Carl Rogers during WWII, when he was tasked with interviewing draftees, who were often hostile and resistant.

In uncomfortable situations, it comes in handy. We learn that we can carry on a meaningful dialog with others of disparate views, without having to have or assert an opinion. We are perceived as good listeners, genuinely interested in the views of the respondent(s). By establishing rapport, and lending a sympathetic ear, we gain their trust, and allow them to open up to us on a deeper level. At the deepest level of dialog, we may find the common ground that reduces seemingly incompatible, even intractable, absolute differences to the relative realm of semantics. At this point, they may even become interested in what it is that allows you to be so empathic. The answer is Zen meditation, sitting upright in the Samadhi of self-fulfillment. If there is a God, he or she is sitting in it.

Returning to Nature in Zen



We have themed our Spring and Fall retreats at Watershed simply as a “Return to Nature.” This, after attempting other approaches such as workshops and specific dharma focus. But the natural environment of Watershed is so rich that any such  additional content seems superfluous. After all, Zen has a history of emphasizing the natural over the artificial. And there is nothing more natural than Nature.

However, Zen has also insisted that the works of man, and indeed the very presence of humankind in Nature is also natural. Master Dogen’s reference to “walls” in “Self-Fulfilling Samadhi (Jijuyu Zammai)” emphasizes this point:

Grass trees and lands which are embraced by this teaching together radiate a great light and endlessly expound the inconceivable profound dharma. Grass trees and walls bring forth the teaching for all beings common people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this dharma for the sake of grass trees and walls.

So while Nature is continually expounding the dharma, and that dharma is what we go to listen to at Watershed, the walls of the zendo — there as well as those at Zonolite — “bring forth” the teaching. There is no dichotomy in Zen, only in our minds.

But returning to nature has another implicit meaning, which is returning to our Original Nature, or buddha-nature. So you might say that we return to Nature in order to give our mind a break from the environment of the city, with its hectic pace and compounded distractions. In doing so, recovering buddha mind may be easier.

We may want to consider what it means to be “natural,” all snide comments about “Mr. Natural” aside. From a Zen perspective, it is natural to be quiet, “the gift to be simple,” and normal to be contemplative. It is also natural to question our own reality, along with our personal opinions and beliefs about it.

When we look at the culture of America (and around the world) today, however, we see that much of the behavior of our fellow citizens, and particularly our leaders, does not conform to this kind of nature. If you have ever witnessed a flock of birds, or a forest canopy full of monkeys, you may remember that they may be peaceful and quiet, but when a threat appears, in the form of a predator, all hell breaks loose. The birds flee as one in one fell swoop, shrieking as they go, and the monkeys explode into a frenzy of chatter and calls, while scrambling for cover.

Similarly, we may interpret the hyper-activity and over-the-top volume and hysteria of our public discourse to be the symptoms of feeling under threat. As I am writing this, a pedestrian walked by wearing a teeshirt with the message, “Keep calm and party.” Much of the popularity of meditation today is likely a reaction to the ever-increasing anxiety level of living in a society whose institutions, such as the political establishment and news media, seem more and more to thrive on conflict, whether real or manufactured. So it is natural to want to escape to a party, or more quiet climes. And to seek refuge in the compassionate teachings of Buddhism.

As a designer by profession, one of the memes and methods I have adopted is to visualize information that may otherwise remain invisible, particularly in the graphic design media. Those familiar with my “semantic modeling” of the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism have seen examples of this, as in the “Internet of Dharma” poster below. (If you would like a poster-size print, please contact or visit ASZC.)

This kind of treatment of Zen’s foundational teachings creates a mnemonic to remember them by, much as the original teachings in India were enumerated. When available only in oral tradition form, i.e. as live chanting rather than written down, the six of this, eight of that, twelvefold chain, etc. serve as prods to memorization.

DB Internet of Buddhadharma

There are many examples of such “models” of Zen and Buddhist teachings in history, meant to act as aids to a Master’s students, in grasping the teachings as a whole, rather than as disparate, disconnected parts. But these constructions were never intended as anything more than guides. The map is not the territory, as we say today. Another salient quote from Dongshan’s “Precious Mirror Samadhi (Hokyo Zammai):

If you want to follow in the ancient tracks

Please observe the sages of the past

One on the verge of realizing the buddha way

Contemplated a tree for ten kalpas

But the admonition was not only to imitate the great masters of the past in terms of meditation, though that is the central method in Zen, but to listen to what they had to say about the dharma as well. The value of tracing the teaching was not underestimated, as may be seen in the Ch’an poem “Trust in Mind (Hsinhsinming)” by the third Patriarch in China, Sengcan:

To move in the One Way

do not reject even the world of senses and ideas

Indeed accepting them fully is identical with true Enlightenment…

Penetrate the Source and travel the pathways

Embrace the territory and treasure the roads

My interpretation of this is that Zen is far from anti-intellectual. It just places the intellect in its proper context of experience and intuition, the empirical method, if you will. Sensory learning, and unlearning, are as important as the world of ideas.

The teachings, the method, and the effect of Zen practice, following the buddha Way, are all intricately interconnected, to use one of Matsuoka Roshi’s frequent expressions.

Enlightenment here is not a goal of Zen, as conventionally (mis)understood, but the condition of pursuing the dharma. Penetrating the source may be the ultimate objective, but it cannot be done by other than traveling the pathways trail-blazed by our ancestors, embracing the same territory they explored, and treasuring the roads they paved for us. While awakening spiritually may be a natural consequence of being alive, it is not to be taken for granted, as our innate birthright. We have to do the work.


A vision of the overview that Zen Buddhism points to arose in my mind’s eye during this retreat, as I was tasked with leading a dialog each day, for the benefit of the others in attendance. So I had to say something. It occurred to me that we may sort the various dimensions of Zen practice into at least four: the Personal; the Social; the Natural; and the Universal. A simple model of these spheres is best illustrated as concentric circles:

Concentric Spheres of Zen


At the center, quite naturally, is our personal practice of Zen meditation — zazen. It consists of finding and following the natural posture of the body, to be able to sit still for relatively long periods of time, in relative comfort. Our tribal ancestors used to sit around the campfire this way, or when hunting, in even greater stillness, so as not to spook the prey. We follow the wisdom of the body in recovering the original sitting posture that is native to maintaining alertness and balance. It is the most efficient, the least consumptive of energy, of the four cardinal postures.


Likewise the breath we are looking for is the natural, deep breathing that is the way the body replenishes its energy. We get far more energy from breathing than from eating. The breath tends to slow down, compared to our usual hyperventilation; and penetrates deep into the bottom of the lungs, in contrast to our usual palpitations.

As the body naturally becomes more still, the breath settles down as well. We experience longer periods of siting without breathing, when the lungs are empty at the end of an exhalation. This is very calming to the nervous system.


As the body and breath come together in a more natural, unified way, it is also a natural result that our attention settles into the present moment, rather than wandering far afield in speculation, worry, or rumination over the past. When we become overly distracted by such mental machinations (“monkey mind”), we simply return our attention to the breath and posture. This in turn reminds us that the present moment, with its rich landscape of sensory impressions, is the starting point for our practice of paying “Attention; Attention; Attention!” as one old Master defined the secret, and method, of Zen.


As we become more comfortable in our own skin on the cushion, we develop patience with the distractions and discomforts that in the beginning are difficult for us to tolerate. As our tolerance and patience with our own impatience matures, our patience with and tolerance for others increases. If you develop patience with yourself on the cushion, it is easer for you to have patience, in the sense of really feeling comfortable, in stressful social situations.

Thus we move into the Social dimension of Zen practice, which will be the starting point of next month’s Dharma Byte. Meanwhile, don’t give up on your Zen practice.