Category Archives: Dharma Bytes

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

Too Little Too Late

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE: Zen and Climate Change

There are few issues raising as great a concern, and few as assiduously avoided, as that of climate change, and its potential impact on the world we live in. Of course, proximate causes — seemingly intransigent and intractable threats such as posed by mass shootings, particularly of schoolchildren — must take priority in our daily lives over relatively distant and invisible ones such as global warming.


Watching the Democratic debates for the looming presidential campaign, and the Republican response, such as it is, is a bit like watching a flock of ostriches squabbling with each other, while trying to keep their heads firmly ensconced in the sand. The only candidate who ran on an unashamedly platform putting climate change first and foremost resigned from the race after gaining too little traction in the early going.

Disappointing is a cosmic understatement. All issues are not equal. We need a sense of priority that is in line with reality. All opinions are not equal. We need the information to make a decision, at least as much as we need to make that decision. Making decisions in the absence of information, or based on faux facts, may be very much in vogue, but is fraught with unintended consequences, also cosmic.

Speaking of which, meanwhile the other party is partying like it’s 1999. Or rather 1959. The relatively wealthy, and their handmaidens, are happily exploiting the resources of the planet they happen to own or control. Regardless of the fact that their very consumption is fueling the decline of the environment. Regardless, but not oblivious, in my judgment. Although if believing a lie is necessary to looking at yourself in the mirror, you tend to become a true believer.

Speaking of which, the older of a famed pair of anti-climate-science billionaire brothers — who, not incidentally, made their fortunes in fossil fuels — died recently. His assets are estimated at fifty billion dollars. That’s billion with a “B,” as we used to say, when billionaires were not so commonplace. I look upon this particular life-and-death story as a fifty-billion dollar failure.

By that I mean, what good did it do for this person to die with fifty billion dollars in pocket change left over, so to speak? On what projects might that money have been spent, projects that may have been beneficial or productive? If not to himself, then to others? Where will that wealth go now? Left to his heirs, who are most likely already well-fixed? It would sponsor one hell of a first-class funeral.

If you are hearing class envy, listen again. The wealth is no longer enjoyed by the man, who is dead. He no longer owns it. He never did, really, other than in the Marxian sense that ownership is determined by utility. To what utility, what grand purpose, did he put the power of all that wealth, during his lifetime? Conservative causes is the conventional answer. What is conservative about denying climate change? What are we going to conserve, if not the planet? 


The Metta Sutta admonishes “Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.” We tend to think that if we win the lottery, all our problems will be over. Even fifty billion dollars could not buy off aging, sickness and death.  


One of our lineage teachers, Okumura Roshi, was asked about the heedlessly expanding population of humankind. He remarked, with a certain melancholy and irony, that he is afraid that, with all our success, we may be like a cancer, one that is killing its own host.

I would not fear that we are killing our host. That is, the planet will survive us. But we (or the powers of Nature, or God, if you like) are definitely stretching, to the breaking point, the ability of the planet — particularly the infrastructure of human civilization — to support seven-and-a-half-billion people, and counting. As a result, more people than ever in history are now in migration or ensconced in camps.

If we think a bit about how cancer works, suppressing our usual fear and loathing for a moment, we can see that while cancer can and will kill its host — if unimpeded by medical remedies — it will only kill the one human or other being that is its host. It is not contagious. Thank goodness (or God, if you like) for small favors. Imagine what it would be like, if you could contract cancer from contact with a patient. Or worse, if it were airborne, like Ebola. Hazmat suits all around.

Similarly, while natural disasters may kill off large groups of people in the area of impact, they do not typically harm those fortunate enough to be elsewhere on the planet. At least not directly. But we are all interconnected, as Buddhism teaches, and as we are all learning, to our chagrin.  


The biblical injunction is “the fire next time.” We are seeing the first embers of that conflagration, along with increasing heat waves parching large swaths of forest and grasslands around the globe, with consequent loss of crops to feed the locals, or to export to other countries, including the privileged “first world.” The latest to go up in flames is the Amazon, which has too many fires, and too little resources to combat them. Do not hold your breath waiting for other countries to come to the rescue. The world threatens to become one big food desert. Some of these fires may be set intentionally, as seems to be the case in the Amazon. Hopeful farmers and potential developers of the land (more golf courses) gleefully setting the “lungs of the planet” (the Amazon is estimated to provide up to 20% of our breathable atmosphere) ablaze in order to reap short-term benefits. The Tragedy of the Commons writ large.   

But wait, there’s more! Along with fire this time comes water. Ice melting on land masses drains directly into the ocean, like filling a bathtub, but without the retaining walls. Greenland, which our current POTUS lusts after as real estate for yet more golf courses (the only sport that requires consumption of acreage of real estate), is the current poster boy. Icebergs already floating on the ocean will not raise the level, like ice cubes in your drinking glass. But the loss of the reflective white cover on the “blue marble” will heat up the more absorbent, darker waters underneath. Which will, in turn, contribute to greater storms making landfall, and flooding of surface waters.

Throwing in the other two of the Four Elements: Earth is doing its part in the form of increasing frequency and severity of quakes, thanks to fracking, as well as tectonic plate movement. Wind fills out the quartet in the form of increasing power, duration, and frequency of perfect monster storms. It is becoming more likely that all four — earth, wind, fire, and water — may hit at one and the same time and place, or in rapid succession. Maybe we will get lucky. Maybe storms will extinguish fires.


As if all this gloom and doom is not enough, there is something else, even worse, to worry about. A recent article reminds us, just in case we were becoming complacent, that there is a gigantic, active super-volcano underlying Yellowstone Park, one of twenty such around the globe. I’m betting that it will blow at just about the time all the coastal cities have been flooded, causing massive in-migration seeking safety on the higher ground of the heartland, where, Surprise! It appears that if God still has His hand in it, as Theists believe, he is a remarkably perverse and vengeful Guy. Or maybe He just has a wicked sense of humor.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Conquest, War, Famine, and Plague — with their relatively puny, human-driven calamities, will be put to shame by the scale of damage done by the insentient forces of Nature, no respecter of persons. In this context, it really doesn’t matter whether human beings are contributing significantly to the engine of climate change driving the destruction, or whether we could do something to stop it, because we are obviously unwilling to do so. Just witness our so-called leaders in Congress, and around the world.

It also matters little who wins the next election cycle in the so-called free world.

If climate change is true, it is really game-over for the human race as we know it. But we have had a good run, enjoying dominion over the Earth, and stewardship over its non-human denizens, for some time now. But we blew it.

The other “critical” issues of the day — immigration; inequality; promiscuous use of guns and ammo; the so-called “rise” of white supremacy (when did it ever decline?); and the resultant carnage, food and water shortages — all pale in comparison to inexorable climate change. Again, if it is really true.

Proposed solutions to these problems, such as the much-lampooned southern wall, are equally inconsequential. We are going to need a wall, alright, but one to hold back the ocean — which estimates forecast may rise as much as 23 feet. That is going to have to be one heck of a “beautiful wall.” If you think immigration is bad now, imagine what it will be like when all the coastal cities in the world have to be abandoned.

These social difficulties, and the human-caused atrocities that accompany them, including any and all tribal conflicts — up to and including genocide — are intimately interconnected with climate change. And, to a great degree, driven by it. But IF climate change is true, the other threats of the day simply do not compete, and are not worth the hot air, let alone the time, money and energy being devoted to them, in the so-called war of ideas.


Candidates for high office, presenting supposed solutions, are like ants in a nest being threatened from without. They turn their attention to those things they can do — like trying to save the eggs, or the queen — because their vision is limited to what is in front of their eyes. Meanwhile, the colony is swamped by the flood, consumed by the fire, blown away by the hurricane, or buried in the avalanche. They cannot, or will not, acknowledge the worldwide tsunami creeping up behind them, looming over all other disasters.

If we assume that the oceans will continue rising, and the other elements will continue to vent their wrath on the continents, we can predict that millions of people, including those privileged by first-world status to enjoy living on the coastline — where most of the population of the USA now dwells — as well as those in the poorer, lower-lying coastal planes in second-, third-, and so-called s-hole countries, will have something in common, at long last. They will all have to flee the rising tide. Which means that they will move inland, first to the cities enjoying higher elevations, but with already inadequate and crumbling infrastructures; or, in fewer numbers, to those forests and plains where the fires increasingly rage.

What this will do to demands on the already failing interior cities, the parched breadbaskets of America and other nations, not to mention factory farming, and the fishing industry — which meanwhile has lost its ports and docks along the coastline — is unimaginable.

As Buddhism teaches us, all is interconnected. Which is wonderful when it works, but disastrous when it falls apart.

This does not mean, however, that those benefitting financially from the identified multipliers of the aggravating effects — such as emissions from fossil fuels — really do not believe that global warming is actually happening, their protestations to the contrary. In fact, I suspect that the wealthy are even more convinced of the coming apocalypse than the man on the street. I assume this is one reason they are attempting to secure even more of the gross output of the world economy than they already receive. If the world is going the way it seems to be going — if the worst-case scenario is the inevitable reality, or simply the most likely outcome — it behooves the powerful to salt away all the capital they can, because it is going to be very expensive to survive the coming holocaust. Not everyone will survive, and like all good fathers, we want to make sure that we and our loved ones get ours, let the devil take the hindmost. But there is an obvious fallacy in this thinking.


Even if you manage, individually, to control trillions of dollars in liquid assets, they will be insufficient to hold back twenty-plus feet of ocean, or triple-digit heat every summer. The infrastructure you would ordinarily depend upon to respond to and facilitate your massive 11th-hour investments in your own safety, or that of your family, will have long since crumbled in disarray. Manufacture and distribution of the various necessary materials and parts will have been fatally disrupted. Mobilization of the entire military will prove inadequate to the challenge, let alone your measly private army.

The truth of our past president’s admonition, “You did not build that.” will become increasingly clear. You may have built your own fortune, through ill-gotten or other gains, but you relied on your connection with the grid to make it work. Off the grid, we are left to our own devices, which reduce to survival mode.

This is one example of the Mahayana (greater vehicle) view that no one individual can be saved, while leaving others behind, contradicting the Hinayana (lesser vehicle) view. Which latter seems to inform the worldview of our so-called leaders.

I am not suggesting that the one-percent are fully cognizant of the import of global warming, or that there is some vast, anti-99%, corporate conspiracy, though corporations seem congenitally competitive with real persons. The captains of industry, like most of us, are probably just reacting — on a knee-jerk, monkey-mind level — to seeming threats to their sense of entitlement and hegemony over the economy, their vaunted control over their fate, and, to a lesser degree, that of their progeny. So-called conservatives are very consistent in wishing to conserve themselves first and foremost, along with their status quo. They may not feel the need to conserve much of anything else, for anyone else.

We have already seen, all over the globe, the tendency of the haves to wall themselves off from the have-nots, the dreaded hoi polloi, the untouchables. The gated community is the familiar local, seemingly innocuous, current example of this trend. But it has roots deep in the history of human civilization, examples being the ancient walled cities, castles of the Middle Ages, the Great Wall of China, and the feckless French Maginot Line. Everyone agrees that in an age of air travel, these attempts at walling out the enemy, or simply excluding the “other,” are laughably ineffective.

But there is more than one way to build a wall, notwithstanding the present, lamentably retrograde questionable activity around the southern border of the USA. For example, we have the technology to wall off the atmosphere itself, with mega-scale geodesic domes, including internal atmospheric controls. The structural aspect of this is an engineering reality, proposed by R. Buckminster Fuller (one of my heroes and mentors), himself a vital advocate of sharing the world’s resources fairly. Checkpoints at all entries can provide the desired security, allowing in only the birds of our own particular feather, creating the ultimate of inner circles, members of which lord over not only energy resources but the very air we breathe, along with the water and food needed to survive. Which is every oligarch’s dream come true.

The cartoonish, coal-and-oil consuming caricatures of leadership in our country, as well as the other great powers around the world, including the do-nothing, dithering Congress, have been accused of being traitors. They have arguably betrayed their own citizens, but in this matter they are not only traitors to their nations, but to the human race itself. Other species will survive — they are more agile, and already migrating to safer climes. Many are more nimble evolutionarily. They adapt more rapidly, gestation periods between generations being much shorter than ours (think chickens), much larger litters and broods. Think fleas.


We humans think we need huge, immovable infrastructures — called buildings — just to ward off exposure to the elements when Mother Nature is on her best, most benign behavior. What are we going to do when they fail to resist the huffing and puffing of the biggest wolves ever to howl at our doors? We can’t take them with us, like the much-ridiculed teepees of the native plainsmen. The old chiefs will get the last laugh, but none will be exempt from a fate brought on by their conquerors.

The old spiritual describing the Final Days may finally be coming true, quite literally:

Oh sinner-man — where you gonna run to (repeat 3x)

All on that day?

Run to the rock — rock was a-meltin’ (repeat 3x)

All on that day?

Run to the sea — sea was a-boilin’ (repeat 3x)

All on that day?

Or more contemporaneously, “You can run but you cannot hide…this is widely known.” Trouble is, the true extent and implications of climate change are not widely known, and not even acknowledged by those who should know better. The old saw — that it is impossible to accept an inconvenient truth when your income depends upon your not accepting it — holds truer when stakes are higher.

The wealthy are usually able to buy themselves and their loved ones out of trouble. They imagine that they can always just move to higher ground. In this case, however, there ain’t gonna be no high ground — no mountain high enough, no valley low enough, no river or ocean wide enough — to escape the cosmic karmic consequences of tipping the delicate balance of Nature, disrupting the Samadhi of the planet.

A rumor being bruited about whispers that the mission to Mars — I am not making this up — is actually a plan to abandon our burned-out planet for a brand new one, giving new meaning to the “throw-away society.” Guess who the Lords of Mars are destined to be? First, of course, we must colonize the moon, just as we colonized the earth. While all this is surely possible — and for a sci-fi fan like myself, an exciting prospect, and maybe even the ultimate destiny of the race — it is not likely that we can move fast enough to stay ahead of the wave of destruction that is pursuing us. As Satchel Paige warned, “Don’t look back — something may be gaining on you.” In light of what is gaining on us, and the speed at which it is moving, all such speculation of hopeful salvation through space exploration is just another distraction, a new and dangerous (to humanity) form of lunacy.

The rabid denial of climate change and global warming on the part of our glorious leaders may simply amount to another piece of prestidigitation, sleight of hand, to keep the rubes looking over there, whilst we do our dirty work over here. Keep them thinking that we really do believe our own propaganda, shining the light on climate change, race relations, immigration, or war, so that they keep fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile we can make progress on saving ourselves.


At some point the thought has to cross your mind: Well, if worst comes to worst, I will be long dead and gone. May I remind you of the principle of rebirth, to pop that bubble. It is not only that our children — and their children; and, possibly their children, if the denouement manages to last that long — will be here to face the consequences. But according to Buddhist rebirth, they will be us. The Bodhisattva Vow reminds us that no one individual can be “saved” — whatever that means to you — until and unless all beings are saved. Take that for what you like, another way of putting it is that there is no escape, not even for first-class passengers or private jets. No one gets off scot-free in the realm of karmic consequence.

I am not asserting that I know for sure that it is too late, but we can all agree that the response to the potential is far too little, so far. The better part of valor is discretion, on any scale. If we must err, let it be on the side of assuming that any effort to reverse the tide of history is doomed to be too little, that it is already too late to stop the deluge. Otherwise we are just postponing the inevitable.

I am not a doomsayer, or an alarmist, nor do I tend to be pessimistic. I like to think that I am a realist, much like Shakyamuni Buddha was, in his time. But different times call for different tacks. We may be facing suffering such as the historical human world has never seen, or at least been conscious of. And the coming crisis may be the first of its scope to be fully documented and televised all over the world, to those who still have access to the power grid, and media reception. That normal people are aware of this possibility, if not inevitability, is testified to by the popularity of disaster films coming out of Hollywood. But they are not the most extreme of fans of future dystopia. There are apparently many believers of extreme biblical prophecy that actually look forward to the apocalypse. They fancy that they will be saved, while the rest of us can go to hell.

What I do know is that, while we may want to point to past instances where people, including the denizens of the USA, came together to confront a crisis — WWII being the go-to default — there are at least as many instances in history where the crisis du jour precipitated a massive failure on the part of humanity: WWII. Political revolutions in particular have a peculiar habit of reinstating the same old same old system of class-ordered domination, only the players have changed places, like musical chairs.


So while it would be wonderful to be able to assert a panglossian view of this best of all possible worlds, doing so would require ignoring what we know of human nature. As my grandmother would often say, “Someone is always coming along to take the joy out of life.” In Zen, we aspire to buddha-nature, not human nature. As more and more humans occupy the planet, the side-effects of people doing what people always do, and what only people can do, can only increase — i.e., get worse — especially as conditions deteriorate. Like putting more and more rats into the same maze: at one point they begin to turn on each other. Or tying two cats’ tails together and throwing them over a clothesline: they tend to take it out on each other.

As a conjecture, just consider seven billion people (now past 7.5) enjoying an average of seventy years’ life expectancy. The total life experience of the present population approximates 490 billion years (70 x 7). The universe itself is only a little under fourteen billion years old. Thus the current life experience of the human race, in the aggregate, is 35 times the age of the entire universe. Seventy years ago, one average lifespan, the world population was about 2.5 billion. At that time the population represented 175 billion life-years in toto. But nearly 100% of those people are no longer living. So the 175 adds to the 490 to arrive at 665 billion. Going back another 70 years to another extinct generation (remembering that average life expectancy trends downward as we regress), in 1880 the world population is estimated at about 1.5 billion. So that would add another 105 billion life-years, bringing the total in the past century and a half to 770 billion. And so on, in a finite regress to the diaspora out of Africa.

Could it be that we are approaching the ignominious end of the glorious human story? I invite you to do the math on rebirth, as another example, taking these numbers into account. Perhaps everyone who has been reborn, or is to be reborn, is now living — or will be in the next generation or two, when the world population is projected to reach 10 billion by the middle of this century. Assuming that fears regarding the climate turning malign turn out to be unfounded, which is definitely not a given. Perhaps the intent driving rebirth peters out if those reborn keep repeating the mistakes that led to rebirth.


The Metta Sutta presents a microcosm of this dilemma, if the backstory is to be believed. Ostensibly, Buddha delivered this sermon because the trees in the forest where monastics of the Order camped out (J. sorin) were unhappy. Why would they be unhappy? Just imagine what it had to be like for hundreds of human beings to camp out in the same small area of the woods. No indoor plumbing, remember. No sewer lines. The stress on the natural environment had to be overwhelming. Remember the aftermath of Woodstock? They had porta-potties, and it was still a huge, hot mess. This teaching may represent the first sermon on ecology every recorded in history.

So what’s a Zen person to do, when all the signs seem to be there, portending that, indeed, this is probably not going to end well?

First, we must remember what Buddha actually taught, and its relevance to today. The contrasts are stark. In his day, the power of the few to inflict damage on the many was severely limited by today’s standards. The ego of those in power was not inflated by the global reach of media, exacerbated by an international cult of celebrity worship. But the fundamental truths of suffering (S. dukkha) hold true throughout time, in spite of stark differences in local and global circumstances. The three marks of dukkha — impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality — have not changed. The Four Noble Truths are noble because, like the noble gases, they do not interact with changing circumstances in the environment, however drastic. The Existence of suffering, its Origin, Cessation, and Path, hold true.  

But the worldview propagated by Buddha and his followers was in many ways less constricted than that of our present philosopher kings, fiddling while the world fumes. For example, let it be known that Buddhism has always proposed that there are beings on other planets, namely the buddhas and bodhisattvas who came to Earth just to hear him teach (talk about drawing a crowd!). The flat-earthers were all in Europe. So there may be hope yet, somewhere out there, beyond this third rock from our little sun. Maybe the aliens will finally take pity on us and save our bacon. Maybe the lucky ones will be reborn on a planet led by sane people. May all beings be happy indeed, but with reality as it is, not as we would try to remake it. Buddha did not live in a fantasy world of his own imagining.


Let me conclude this necessarily inconclusive essay with some timely if scary reference material from the world beat. The following are up-to-the-day-of-this-writing quotes from the Washington Post online, for your reading pleasure. If you can take pleasure in calamity. They document some of the telltale signs of potential impending doom, suggested above. This publication predated the massive fires now consuming the Amazon. It is impossible to keep up.

The comparison between ice melt in 2019 and the last big one in 1912 is telling, as regards our human perspective on things. On a geological time scale, the heat domes occurring over that span may as well be happening on the same day. Seven years is the blink of a gnat’s eyelash. Nature is not cutting us any slack. You can read the entire report at: not

Capital Weather Gang

The Greenland ice sheet is in the throes of one of its greatest melting events ever recorded. As a result of both surface melting and a lack of snow on the ice sheet this summer, “this is the year Greenland is contributing most to sea level rise,” said Marco Tedesco, a climate scientist at Columbia University. The Danish Meteorological Institute tweeted that more than half the ice sheet experienced some degree of melting on Tuesday, according to a computer model simulation, which made it the “highest this year by some distance.”

Already this year, the ice sheet has endured exceptional melting. Between June 11 and 20, the ice sheet lost the equivalent of 80 billion tons of ice, the National Snow and Ice Data Center computed. Melting covered about 270,000 square miles, the most on record so early in the season. Temperatures leaped nearly 40 degrees above normal at the time. The current record-setting heat dome parked over the ice sheet is bringing nearly cloudless skies and temperatures up to 30 degrees above average. Given the ongoing melt event, “there is very good chance we will have a record-breaking [low] surface mass balance,” Tedesco said. The depleted surface mass on the ice sheet is directly tied to its contribution to sea level rise.

Twila Moon, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, says the bigger picture of Arctic warming, permafrost melt, spring snow melt, ice loss and other trends are the major concern, as compared with short-lived melt events. “Any individual melt event is not the thing that is putting Greenland over a tipping point,” Moon said. The Arctic overall is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the globe, which is a trend that has been firmly tied to human emissions of greenhouse gases. “It’s a direct consequence of human-caused climate change,” Moon said. There’s still time to take action and limit Greenland ice loss, she emphasized, saying that decisions we make now about greenhouse gas emissions will “have an influence on how much and how quickly we lose ice in Greenland and all around the world.”



Nice to end on a somewhat optimistic note. But again, Buddhism is not overly optimistic, just as it is not pessimistic, in spite of its emphasis on suffering and karmic consequences. Buddhism is simply realistic, and zazen is its realistic, down-to-earth method. Zazen lends practical application to our lives, whatever straits, dire or otherwise, we may find ourselves facing.

The despair that we feel when we sense that we cannot do anything about these threats to the very existence of the human race must be tempered by the fact that we can do what Buddhism teaches, summed up at the end of the Heart Sutra: “Know this as truth and do not doubt. Proclaim the Prajna Paramita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom) that says ‘Gone gone to the other shore; attained the other shore; to beyond the other shore (having never left)’”. The other shore is right here.

Zen’s solution begins at home, with each of us, in our personal practice. The social dimension stems from there. Zen does not promote top-down solutions. In terms of engaged Zen, zazen is “The most you can do,” according to Matsuoka Roshi. In your zazen you can determine your own resolution to the impermanence and imperfection of life. Then, leaving the cushion, you will be enabled to do your part to effect those around you. Zen may be our best hope for saving the world, but that is not its mission. Its mission is to save us from our own ignorance. It does not relieve us of suffering at the hands of Nature, nor that inflicted upon us by our ignorant fellow humans, or our shared karmic consequences.           


In the closing paragraph of last month’s Dharma Byte, I promised that I would finish my commentary on the intersection of Zen and Science as a TO BE CONTINUED


The latter four Dimensions: Methods Used; Truths Claimed; Goals Pursued; and Conclusions Drawn; will be the subject of next month’s Dharma Byte. If you have any questions concerning the above, or my comments on the next four, please do not hesitate to send them to me. I will do my best to address your concerns.

The central theme of the manuscript is the juxtaposition of Zen with the positions of Rationalism and Theism, their worldview and implications for our society. The chart by which I illustrate this comparison:

chart for DB

The first four Dimensions amount to a brief on the subject Field, its focus and framework as established by its provenance and precedents, or received wisdom. This consists in a body of doctrine, in the case of Theism; philosophies, as well as proven theories and established laws, in the case of Rationalism; and the written record of experience of the ancestors from countries of origin, in the case of Zen. 

The latter four move into action in the present, beginning with Methods of training and practice; findings in the form of the kind of Truths claimed in each Field; the recommended objectives of the endeavor, in the form of the ostensible Goals pursued; and some of the Conclusions drawn from the exercise. Let’s examine each in order, focusing on the comparison of Rationalism and Zen, setting aside for now the contrasts with Theism. For those, you can read the book.


It may seem a reach to claim that Zen’s method, zazen, is scientific. While the results may not be measurable in the objective sense—though many studies in areas such as brain science are closing in on this goal—the approach is definitely respectful of the scientific dictum to observe, dispassionately, and let the data flow to us, rather than trying to control outcomes. We also control for variables, such as the influence of the environment, by setting up a temperate, moderate space (the zendo) for the practice of zazen. The sameness of the surround in terms of light, temperature, sound, and even odors, amplifies the differences we experience in the practice of sitting in the same posture—and during sesshin, facing the same wall—for extended periods of time. This relative control of circumstances allows the natural process of adaptation, sensory as well as cognitive, to set into place.

Each time we engage in Meditation, in other words, we are mounting the central Experiment of Zen, once again.


In reviewing remarks from several reading groups while developing this text, I was caught off-guard by a professor of philosophy referring to my remarks as “claims.” Further, they amounted to claims that I needed to defend, and he provided some of the more salient counter-arguments. Thus I began to develop a deep respect for the rigor of philosophical argument, and technical criticism, that I had hitherto been blithely unaware of, along with its playing such a critical part in the world of letters and commentary. With the help of this trained academic and others, the text was hopefully improved beyond my somewhat sophomoric level of simply asserting claims without rationale.

Thus, when we claim Identification as a truth of Zen or Buddhism—in the context of Verification in Rationalism, philosophical as well as Scientific—we must include certain caveats in order to confess the limitations of language in capturing experience, as well as those of immeasurable effects. For example, verification in philosophy and Zen experience amounts to mostly a matter of agreement of testimony, rather than physical effects that can be replicated—with certain exceptions, such as those brain experiments aforementioned. Nonetheless, the point is that all the testimony and objective verification in the world is no substitute for direct experience, the sine qua non of Zen.

Buddha’s definition of the Truth of Zen, from which my terms are derived, as a matter of self-identification with the Truth—rather than an objectively measurable truth, via incontrovertible evidence; or one based on belief, devoid of evidence—which he declared to be superior to the two alternatives, is itself an assertion that cannot be confirmed other than by direct experience. Thus, Zen’s nondual grasp of duality cannot be adequately expressed in language, which is inherently dualistic, nor can it be proven a priori. This explains Soto Zen’s reliance on the central method of zazen.


A caveat emphasizing a “major goal” is perhaps called for, in that there are many goals in Zen, as well as the projects of Rationalism, just as there can be said to be many sub-goals in the programs of Theism. Knowledge may be an inadquate choice for Rationalism, as there are others such as Control (e.g. of the environment, including the populace). Vow may be confusing as the goal of Zen, as a vow implies a goal that has not yet been achieved, or even an open-ended approach to existence, sans goals as such. “We vow with all beings, from this life on throughout countless lives, to hear the true dharma,” as Master Dogen expresses it in “Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon” otherwise known as “Dogen’s Vow.”

However, adopting a goal as broad as Knowledge also suggests that today’s wisdom may be contradicted and replaced by future knowledge, as exemplified by the successive revolutions in physics, from Newtonian Mechanics, to Relativity, to Quantum Physics. Revolutions in knowledge call for revolutions of thinking, and even vocabulary, which is true for both Fields. This partially explains the history of revisionism in Zen, where in Buddha’s own original teachings, the “First Sermon” articulates the Noble Eightfold Path, where the “Lotus Sutra,” considered his final public teaching, teaches that actually there is no Path. This seems contradictory when interpreted dualistically, which is the whole point of Zen training—to slip the bonds of dualistic thinking.

However, dualistic thinking is not rejected in Zen, as reflected in a stanza from “Trust in Mind (C. Hsinhsinming)” which reminds us that “To move in the one Way do not reject even the world of senses and ideas; indeed to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment.” The rational, discriminating mind is, however, seen in perspective of the intuitive, wisdom mind. Zen is a gut-level approach to life. As such, it allows for the irrational. In this view, chaos is a higher form of order. Living by vow in the face of the unknowable unknown is the only rational response.


Side-stepping the faux debate between Creation and Evolution may seem to be a cop-out, but in the text I delve more deeply into this deeply cynical social and political conflict. Suffice it to say that Evolution, branded as a competing belief for the First Cause, is not. It is instead a pattern of natural process, substantiated by massive evidence, more in the realm of How things come to be the way they are, than Why they do so. Again, the Why questions are in the philosophical or religious realm, and when they are not readily answered with credible evidence, they become a Who-class response: God as “Who”.

Co-arising, as a central conclusion of Buddhism and Zen, is not easily explained, nor easily understood. In fact, it is said that if and when you come to truly understand it, the comprehensive model of which is sometimes referred to as the “12-fold Chain of Interdependent Arising,” you understand all of Buddhism. The same may be said of each of Buddha’s main teachings. Stated in its utmost simplicity, that this arises, means that that arises. If this does not arise, that does not arise. If the causes and conditions are favorable, life is manifest in predictable patterns. If disruptive causes and conditions ensue, life may be cut off.

The main premise, as I get it, of this subtle and complex teaching, is that the effort to determine ultimate causality, as a linear model, is doomed to futility. Each cause as identified is also an effect, in an endless regress to a beginningless beginning. Each effect is also a cause, and both causes and effects are seen to be operating in a geometric expansion over time, not a simple, linear cause-effect relationship. In quantum theory, causes and effects can move either forward or backward, without violating the basic principle. This suggests that time itself does not necessarily require an arrow pointing in one direction only.

The twelve links in the Twelvefold Chain—Ignorance, Mental Formations, Consciousness, Name and Form, the Six Senses,  Contact, Sensation, Perception, Craving, Clinging, Becoming, Birth, and Aging and Death—are all interlinked to each other, though they seem to manifest in an orderly unfolding of growth of the sentient being over time. Ignorance, the first link, can be reverted to at any point in the process. (If you count 13, you are correct – Perception is not usually included.)

Co-arising, like the theory of Evolution, is not a contender for First Cause, competing with the Big Bang, or the Word of God. It is not a belief, but evidenced by the manifold interaction of environmental and natural influences upon the present reality. The constant flux of change witnessed in natural as well as social contexts may appear as chaos, but upon closer examination, is revealed to be an elegant, interactive play of self-fulfilling and self-regulating causes and conditions. The outcomes may not privilege human survival, however, so do not pass the litmus test of the actions of a benevolent, human-centric God.       

In summary, Zen thinking finds no disagreement with Rationalism or Science, except perhaps in their most extreme speculations. Theism or Religion, and some forms of philosophy, offer more opportunities for debate, owing to the lack of evidence for claims made, and insistence on inerrant authority. Thus, Zen in general leans toward the scientific side, and away from religiosity.

However, Zen does not take the reductionist-materialist approach to presuming no underlying mystery, even to those things we think we can know, predict, and even demonstrate. Some questions do not have answers, to paraphrase a famous quote. In Zen, the answer to the present question may be a deeper question. In this, I think the Zen quest finds commonality with the scientific quest. But Zen is more personal, including the observer as a necessary part of the equation.  



Matsuoka Roshi would often declare Zen has no conflict with the findings of science, which is one of the marks that distinguishes it from certain religions. However, the larger category, or philosophy, of rationalism, of which science is a member in good standing, may propose some hypotheses with which Zen would find reason to disagree. In a manuscript I am preparing for publication one day, I set Zen against the opposing fields of Rationalism and Theism for purposes of contrast, and clarifying differences with Zen, as I understand it, in particular. 

By the time this MS is published, if ever, the above comparison chart will probably undergo some modification, but it will serve our purposes here. Setting aside for now any discussion of Theism, or religion writ large, let us focus on the eight Dimensions between Rationalism and Zen. One caveat: I am not, and do not pretend to be, an expert or authority on Rationalism or Theism, but owing to my practice-experience in Zen, can speak with some confidence as to the importance of the dimensions attributed, and how and where Zen differs.


The first dimension I feel important to examine is the question that each Field attempts to address. Generally, philosophies and religions tend to seek answers to the great Why questions: Why do we (and the Universe) exist? Why me, Lord? etc.  But some wag insisted that in Zen, we do not try to answer the Why questions.

The questions that Science in particular, and Rationality in general, approach are more in the How category: How do things work? How did things get to be the way they are? How can we accurately predict future behavior (of things in the physical realm, of people in the “soft” sciences). Though sometimes these are explained as Why answers, which is just an example of imprecision of language, or semantics.

I contend that Zen does not place its emphasis on either the Why or the How, other than in very general terms, such as how to practice zazen, and why we prefer it to the other meditations on offer. Rather, Zen focuses on the What: What is this so-called reality? What are we (not Who, which presupposes a personal entity)? And above all, What to do about it? Zen is a school of action. The greatest action we can take, in the face of the unknowable, according to Soto Zen, is zazen.

In this, Zen is more scientific than religious, coming down on the side of Rationalism, and certainly not promoting a “Who” answer to the ultimate conundrum of existence, as does Theism. The What question was raised by Huineng when first meeting his ultimate successor: “What is it that thus comes?”

Our attitude in zazen is more What than Why, or even How, once we are past the newcomer instruction stage, which deals with the practicalities of How to do Zen. What is it that we are doing, actually? What are we facing in zazen? and What does it all mean?


Again side-stepping the Problem of sin for this essay (buy the book!), Chaos as defined in Science and Rationality, and Ignorance as defined in Zen, have some close parallels. The choice of Chaos for Science reflects its generalist application to external issues of survival in a threatening world, its can-do attitude which sets aside personal issues for the sake of objectively identifying and solving crises as well as daily problems of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Most of these solutions consist of management of resources toward greater efficiency and sustainability. And they tend to define the world environment as a set of givens, which are ever-changing in detail, but are not dependent upon a particular observer. One goal of science is predictability, the ability to know the most probable outcomes of a given approach to, say, raising crops in the desert, so that not a lot of time is wasted upon solutions that will not work.

Zen differs in that Ignorance is a personal issue. For this reason, the observer is never left out of the equation, from the very beginning of Buddha’s discourse. The whole point is to overcome or transcend our personal ignorance, which incidentally also plagues the scientist striving to come to objective solutions to problems. The uncertainty principle, particularly in its popular understanding as the effect of the observer upon that which is being observed, captures this technical koan.

But defining The Problem as Chaos, uncontrollable and unpredictable reality; and Ignorance, as those blinders that get in the way of our seeing reality; are really just opposite sides of the same coin of sentient being. A being cannot really be separated from its environ, just as the environ cannot be perceived by other than a being. The two are intricately interconnected, as Matsuoka Roshi would put it.


Perseverance and Doubt are used to describe two legs of the Zen stool, the third being Faith, though the latter is more a matter of trust, or confidence, in the teachings of Buddhism, and in our lineage teachers, than that of blind faith in something or some belief for which we cannot produce evidence.

Perseverance and Doubt—as attitude adjustments entering into and sustaining Zen practice—reflect that whatever the What of Zen is, it cannot be known a priori, but is a matter of experience, and observation.

This is similar in Science. Assumptions about outcomes are not helpful in either endeavor, and can even get in the way of seeing, and consciously registering, data stemming from the study.

Perseverance in scientific endeavors suggests dogged adherence to principles of the scientific method, as well as a willingness to postpone gratification until sufficient detail and peer review confirm the initial “Eureka” moment of the project.

Doubt in Zen provides a similar palliative to the tendency to hope for, and cling to, any premature indication of some kind of insight into the effects of zazen, or the teachings of Zen. Buddha himself is attributed with warning against Fifty States that may arise in meditation, an appendix to the Surangama Sutra, in which he addresses this all-too-human syndrome.

Perseverance in the face of Doubt, evolving to become Great Doubt, is one of the key catchphrases in Zen, summarized by Matsuoka Roshi’s “Don’t give up!”


Evidence for rationalist endeavors such as Science, and Self-Nature in Zen, may seem to be very different categories. But Evidence, technically, is that which can be replicated by others in like experiments, of verified as personal testimony by experts in legal disputes, for example.

That there is something called Self-Nature, Original Nature, or Buddha Nature, likewise, can only be verified by personal experience. This is a slippery slope for some, as this type of Evidence does not usually rise to the level of that required by Science, in that it may be measured, and independently verified by others.

Of course, the argument may be offered that even scientific experiments, yielding hard and verifiable Evidence that can be demonstrated by others, are not ever exactly the same. It is literally impossible to create the exact same conditions in any two experiments. But here, we accept rules-of-thumb, such as “close enough for jazz.” Which is not a slam on jazz improvisation, nor on scientific observation. For purposes of predictability, close is often good enough, as in horseshoes.

In Zen, the point of exploring the possibility that we do not really know ourselves is not to be able to prove something to others. If it works for me, it works. If it does not work for me, I have to be honest about that. Until it does. This is why in Zen we say, “Only you will know for sure.” Though your teacher may have some inkling.

Zen is “round and rolling, slippery and slick,” as my teacher used to say. Even if we do come to know our Self-Nature in some undeniably genuine way, it is said that “Don’t-know mind” is the original mind. Or “Not knowing you know is best!” as some Master lost to memory commented. To know what it means to not know, and be happy with that, is one of the central koans of Zen.


The latter four Dimensions: Methods Used; Truths Claimed; Goals Pursued; and Conclusions Drawn; will be the subject of next month’s Dharma Byte. If you have any questions concerning the above, or aspects of the next four, please do not hesitate to send them to me. I will do my best to address your concerns.

Everything is Always Walking, Not Just Mountains

2019 06 DB pic

When I asked for suggestions for a topic for this month’s Dharma Byte, the publisher of our newsletter replied, “One topic that comes to mind is the present day twisting of Zen teachings. Two instances: I remember the saying, ‘No worky, no eaty,’ which—besides being somewhat racist against Chinese people learning English—was twisting Hyakujo’s saying (“A day without work is a day without food.”) from one of self-discipline to one of threat (e.g. if we kids balked at doing our chores).

“More insidious is the twisting of the concept that every individual has a different perspective on things (and hence one should actually listen to others rather than wantonly dismissing their view), to the bizarre political view that, “Truth is whatever I say it is.” Politicians may be doing us all an unintended favor by so blatantly manifesting what most of the rest of us also do, only more subtly.”

This first point is central to Zen: Any meaningful discipline is necessarily self-imposed. When we attempt to foist an attitude or opinion on others, to “teach them a lesson” (or as Albert the Alligator once explained to Pogo the Possum, “I don’t want to teach him—I want to learn him!”), they will learn a lesson, all right. But it is not likely to be the lesson we intend to learn them. Indeed, they will probably form an opinion about us, most likely an unflattering one. Teaching in Zen is largely by example. E.g. observing silence oneself is the best way to model it for others.

Many meditation and retreat centers endorse imposing silence on their attendees, as a rather innocuous example of this approach. And for good reason – Americans in particular are known to be a rowdy bunch, usually oblivious of the impact their loquaciousness and general loudness have on the people around them. But to have silence imposed from without as a discipline is to miss the opportunity to have imposed silence upon oneself as a choice.

When an individual suddenly or gradually becomes self-aware that they are the only one jabbering away on the third or fourth day of the retreat, it can leave an indelible mark that is not soon forgotten. Peer pressure, up to and including shunning, does not have its robust history in society for no reason. Beyond kindergarten, middle and high school levels, one would think adults would gladly observe silence on their own, for a change.

As an historical aside, the origin of no work, no food is attributed to a biblical aphorism, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” from the New Testament by Paul the Apostle, later cited by John Smith in the early 1600s colony of Jamestown, and by Lenin during the 1900s Russian Revolution (if Wikileaks is to be believed). Several such familiar tropes (e.g. “the blind leading the blind” – Buddha) appear to have had earlier provenance in the East, which prompts me to wonder if somehow Western sources got ahold of these bits of wisdom back in the day, but did not properly attribute them. Or perhaps great minds run in the same channels, no matter when or were they appear in the world.

The second, emerging meme—that all opinions are equal, and therefore somehow differences in worldviews rationalize the refusal to agree on anything—is truly lamentable. There is a kernel of truth in it on the personal level, to which we will return. But on the social level, it becomes an excuse for lazy acquiescence to whichever version of truth least challenges our status quo, and serves our self-absorbed, selective memory. Dismissal of the views of others is not so much wanton, as it is cavalier—though it certainly betrays a disturbing lack of modesty, in regard to one’s own opinion. But an arrogant lack of concern for the opinion of others is, I think, the more grievous fault. 

In Zen, however, all opinions are definitely not equal. Experience counts more than expression. Whereas in many enclaves of modern society, our elders are likely to be elbowed aside as out-of-touch, out-of-date relics, in Zen they are still accorded a modicum of respect—based on the quaint notion that wisdom is, indeed, more likely to accumulate with age, than to appear spontaneously in hormonal youth. Notable exceptions to the contrary allowed for, but merely proving the rule.

However, all worldviews are distinctly different on the personal level, a revelation that should temper the tendency to presume that one’s personal view is, or should be, the dominant social view. According to Zen, you are the only one that has your world. It is born with you, and it will die with you.

This does not lobby for the idea that the objective world has no independent reality, of course. It is the beginning of humility to recognize that we waves are not the ocean. The basis of both the ebullience of life, and the poignancy of death, is waking up to the fact that, at one and the same time, we are each a small, but unique, part of a greater reality.    

It is a healthy thing to look at what passes for politics these days, as providing a kind of insight into the very nature of politics; and of human nature itself. Which the last statement in the quote points out: blatantly manifesting what most of us do on a more subtle level. We hear the argument for “transparency” bandied about in demands on government, from neighborhood to city, county, state and federal levels. But it would be difficult to imagine a more transparent administration than the present one in Washington. It is as fully transparent as the Emperor’s New Clothes. And what it reveals is just as appalling.

When it comes to what we are doing in propagating Zen, the argument may be made that other religions and philosophies are, basically, promoting the same thing. That is, “know thy self.” The difference is that in Zen, knowing the self is seeing through the self—to the underlying emptiness, the ultimate transparency.

Master Dogen points to the uncertainty of what we can know in several instances. In the current Tuesday CloudDharma book, “The Mountains and Waters Sutra” translated by Shohaku Okumura. Roshi reinforces this point in regards to how we see the colors and shapes of the mountains, and how we hear the sounds of the waters running through them. No two of us see and hear the same thing. Further, no one can be sure that they are seeing the “true color” or hearing the true sound. This is an uncertainty principle applied to perception itself. That mountains are “always walking” is another assertion of this indeterminacy, and an instance of mokurai, the interpenetration of motion and stillness, and stillness in motion.

I think it advisable to apply what scientific knowledge we have of the surrounding causes and conditions to understand the great Master’s statements, to demystify them somewhat. Dogen himself insists that the sayings of the Masters should not be considered incomprehensible. This is a kind of cop-out. It is our charge to see what they mean in our own meditation. But that kind of insight can also be informed by what we know of reality that may not be readily apparent.

We seem to be doing the walking as we hike through the mountains, the ground being relatively still. But we know that the earth’s mantle is always in motion, owing to plate tectonics. And that without the fluidity of the waters flowing through nature, from the atmosphere to the ground and back, there would be no life, no human beings, no ancestors and no buddhas.

Depending on causes and conditions, what ordinarily manifests as one state of matter can also change state. That which is solid can become liquid, given enough heat or large-scale disruption, such as an earthquake. People who survive such a disaster are often bereft of their prior sense of stability and dependability of the very ground itself. Like landlubbers on the sea, they cannot get their bearings. That which is liquid can become solid, with freezing temperatures, or crystallization as in a super-saturated salt solution. Gases become super-fluid when near absolute zero, and solid when under immense pressure.

The reference to Master Dokai’s address on the “constant walking” of mountains is similarly accessible to reason, if we step back and see mountains as manifestations of the surface of the earth. Dogen reminds us that:

Although the walking of the blue mountains is faster than “swift as the wind,” those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains, do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear the reason for this. To doubt the walking of the mountains means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not know, has not made clear, this walking. Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains.

All things are like this. What is actually happening at any moment around us, and directly beneath our feet, is largely unknown, unknowable. Like the tip of the iceberg, what we can know is not only a small piece of reality, but also obscures the rest of the story. It is also a matter of relative perspective, and positioning. As master Dogen makes clear elsewhere, seen from one angle, a mountain looks like an individual peak; from 90 degrees to that axis, it is seen to be part of a ridgeline.

That the mountains are “blue” is likewise a matter of perspective, as well as one of mutual agreement. Green and blue are analogous colors, sharing the primary blue. One man’s green is another man’s blue, without splitting hairs. None of us sees precisely the same color, the proof of which is the extreme of being color blind.

At a distance, the surface of the mountain, including the forested slopes, will appear blue, green, or other colors depending on the season of the year, of course, but also on the angle of the sunlight, and the amount of humidity in the atmosphere. Before the reflected light strikes the retina, it is filtered through all these contributing causes and conditions. If we zoom in close up on the mountain, the color changes dramatically, as we enter into the shaded density of the canopy and the underlying brush.      

Everything is in some degree of motion at all times. The great Earth is rotating at roughly 24 hours per cycle. With the equatorial circumference at about 24,901 miles, that puts the velocity of the surface of the earth at the equator—relative to its center, or a static marker—at about 1,000 miles per hour. The atmosphere is also rotating, of course, with some lag between the three states of matter—solid, liquid, and gaseous—which contributes to tidal cycles and weather conditions. There is not a particle of matter on Earth or in the cosmos that is not in motion.

The startling thing about this is that Zen posits the same causes and conditions for the mind. Even sitting as still as possible in zazen, the various functions of the body and mind do not come to a stop. In spite of the “false stillness” Buddha asserted the discriminating mind imposes upon perception, we cannot but begin to experience this more dynamic reality. The stiller we sit the more it moves. But as Master Dogen mentions, most people do not know their own walking, let alone the constant walking of the mountains. There is no separation between the two.

Not only are the mountains always walking; everything else is as well. It is, indeed, a dizzying dance. Along with Master Dogen, I think I will sit this one out.     

ZEN — THE QUIET REVOLUTION – May 2019 Dharma Byte

The Real Revolution Begins at Home

It has always seemed to me that what Buddha did, in establishing the first Order of monks and nuns in India, was revolutionary. But we have to be circumspect in asserting such assumptions, as the cultural and political context of the time was so different from ours. What may appear on the surface to have been a counter-cultural departure from norms of the day, may not have been. That is, the Buddhist Sangha may have been only one of many such experiments in alternate lifestyles. In America today, proposing that we all move into the forest, where we spend long hours in meditation, pausing only to go begging through residential neighborhoods for our meals, would not only be considered radical; it would probably land us all in jail.

To make such a public display of our practice path today would invite pushback, in an era of confrontational identity politics, and special-interest movements. This is why Zen is, in my estimation—revolutionary; yes—but it is the quiet revolution.

Zen meditation (J. zazen) itself looks non-threatening, from the outside. The only thing we claim it threatens is the ego, or constructed self. It seems an innocuous exercise in self-improvement, with its emphasis on silent illumination. Socially, Zen communities present as well-intentioned groups of like-minded people, at most a harmless cult. But those who get inside a Zen center come to see that it is the opposite of a cult, in that we strive to train every individual to lead, or at least to define their relationship to the group in a proactive, creative, collaborative way.

But we should not underestimate the power of Zen. Including its effect on our personal lives, of course, but also the ripple-effect on our larger community. There is something radical about sitting stock-still for extended periods of time, doing nothing in particular; not even thinking. That we embrace the process of change that emerges, to be a form of intentional personality disintegration, would be alarming to many, especially those in the mental health industry. Better to take a pill to calm down, than to risk going out of your mind.

That substantial groups would flock together from time to time, to spend whole days, even weeks or months, engaged in purposeless activity, should be even more disconcerting to the overseers of a society that values productivity above all, other than profit. Which terms are virtually synonymous, in a capitalist milieu. But the main social or political issue with Zen practice, fully understood, is that it leads to true independence. Not only of thinking, but even of motive. Whatever their protestations to the contrary, the powers that be would not welcome true independence on the part of the hoi polloi.

If they did, we would not be persuaded to engage ever-more excessive levels of consumption, in all categories of the material world, as well as the social. The appeal to identity in politics is a kind of consumerism of the self. We want to be the “best version” of our selves, which includes, implicitly, a substantial level of material comfort. We also are sold the idea that we need to identify with, and back, that flock of birds that appears to display the same feathers as ours.

To introduce into this picture the idea that sitting still enough, for long enough, may threaten the underpinnings of this societal scam seems ridiculous on its face. But the personal revolution that zazen can bring about can also knock the supports out from under our unthinking obedience to the dictates of the culture.

We ordinarily categorize meditation as a personal choice having certain effects upon us, helping us to conform to and accept our lot in life. Or to be better able to improve upon our circumstances. The well-known, positive effects of meditation on are not to be gainsaid. But the complete footprint of zazen is impossible to measure, as Dogen reminds us, in his teaching on “Self-Fulfilling Samadhi”:

Hundreds of things all manifest original practice from the original face; it is impossible to measure. Know that even if all buddhas of the ten directions, as innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, exert their strength and with the buddhas’ wisdom try to measure the merit of one person’s zazen, they will not be able to fully comprehend it. 

In this startling claim, Master Dogen asserts that even the buddhas do not comprehend the full import and implications of zazen. Any “merit” is usually to be understood as primarily personal, one supposes, including the well-known benefits of meditation to daily life: more balance in one’s physical being and health; more calmness and less anxiety on the emotional level; more clarity and less confusion in the mental realm. These are all to be expected from a modicum of meditation, if pursued wholeheartedly. And this eventuality is certainly preferable to the alternative.

When we begin to be at ease in our own skin, patient with ourselves on the cushion and off, then we also begin to be more at ease with others. This in itself is a radical departure from the current politics of promoting suspicion and fear of others who are not birds of my particular kind of feather. The Loving Kindness Sutra (S. Metta Sutta), if taken to heart in this society, would turn everything upside down, with its call to take all beings, not just those in your inner circle, and not even solely of your species, into consideration:

May all beings be happy
May they be joyous and live in safety
All living beings whether weak or strong
In high or middle or low realms of existence
Near of far born or to be born

That’s a tall order, if we take it to be our charge and responsibility to make sure that all creatures of the Earth are happy. Remembering that the Buddha was nothing if not practical, however, we realize that he meant all beings should or could be happy with existence, but just as it is. Including aging, sickness and death. So to that extent, we are off the hook. In fact, it may be argued that humankind’s efforts to make things better—for fellow humans, but occasionally for other sentient beings—often result in unintended consequences that have actually made matters worse, especially for the latter. So the main take-home here may be to stop interfering with the natural order of things, and make an effort to reduce our footprint to as close to zero as possible. This is one meaning of the hoary Zen phrase, “Leave no traces.” Which has now been adopted as a motto by some current environmental movements around tourism landmarks.

We in Zen, Soto Zen in particular, are sometimes regarded as pacifistic to the point of being out-of-touch, owing to our emphasis on zazen-only, which looks to the uninitiated like feckless navel-gazing. But if you are engaged in zazen on a regular basis, wholeheartedly committed to its practice, “dropping off without relying on anything” and “making effort without aiming at it,” you are doing “the most you can do” on a personal level, according to Matsuoka Roshi.

Further, if you are enabling the propagation of Zen practice by supporting your Sangha by your presence and financially, or leading meditation sessions as a practice leader, you are doing the most you can do on the social level. Of course, any additional altruistic activities you choose to pursue are all to the good, and up to your discernment as to their appropriateness for you and your lifestyle. But make no mistake as regards the political and societal implications of your efforts.

We can do no better than to train others in getting beyond and seeing through the accepted norms and memes of the cultural milieu to the hollowness at their core. We are all familiar with the axiom that it is far better to teach a person to fish than to provide fish to the person when we can afford to. Zen has been referred to as fishing with a straight hook. There is no barb to trap the fish. Each fish swims in the water to the extent of their ability. If we train folks to become truly independent, we should have trust in Mind that they will independently decide what to do with their new-found freedom. They may not take up our personal favorite of the causes of the day, but they will engage in those that are best suited to their causes and conditions, their personal makeup. Who are we to try to decide this for them? We cannot know what they will be facing.

In Zen, we are training an army of multi-generational citizens of the world, whose members will be well-equipped to meet and master the problems of the times. It may have gone too far on certain fronts, as the doom-sayers are always ready to warn us. It may indeed be too late to return to the norms of yesterday, both on the natural and social scales. But Zen is always contemporary. It has survived the unthinkable conditions of the past, and will meet, head-on, the unimaginable world of the future. More than politics, the arts and sciences, the STEM branches, sociology, anthropology, or psychology; Zen practice will stand us in good stead. It is, truly, the quiet revolution. But it will be heard ‘round the world.


Why Zen Does Not Teach Mental Techniques

Matsuoka Roshi would often entwine his middle and fore-fingers, raising them aloft and declaring, “Mind and body are just one; they cannot be separated.” This is not an example of belaboring the obvious, or debating the Cartesian separation of spirit and body, one of the primary memes of Western culture. It is a concise way of explaining why Zen emphasizes the physical, rather than the mental, in its meditation, zazen.

The question often arises, Why do we not emphasize mental practices, such as meditating upon compassion, for example? Thich Nhat Hahn has done so, in his writings for Western students; and the Buddha himself is said to have conveyed such messages, notably in the “Metta Sutta,” or “Loving Kindness Sutra,” with its refrain, “May all beings be happy.”

Virtues are Innate
The first principle, I suggest, is that human beings are already innately compassionate, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that we witness in the public sphere; as well as in our own behavior, or inner feelings, toward others. The reasons this innate compassion does not always come to the fore, are all the usual suspects—the underpinning traits of self-centered striving and personal clinging—that Buddha analyzed as the main source of Dukkha, suffering, in this life.

Secondly, while it may be necessary to teach others such values as generosity, the first of the Buddhist perfections (S. paramita); or the practice of compassion; any such teaching is limited to what can be expressed in language, and therefore necessarily conceptual, not actual. The pedagogical theory amounts to hoping that—by going through the motions, and focusing conscious attention on the concept—true compassion, or generosity, or patience, et cetera, will one day arise.

Personal versus Social Practice
There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it is limited, or one-sided. We should take care to divide Buddhist teachings and practices into two parallel tracks—the personal versus the social—for the sake of clarity, and not to confuse the one with the other. Particularly when it comes to the attitude we adopt in zazen.

On one level, our Zen practice is intensely personal. On another, it is social in its application and import. It is not for naught that Soto Zen stresses the personal practice of zazen over all other methods, including such techniques as koan practice, meditating upon an illogical riddle, of the Rinzai sect; and the various mental preoccupations taught in more traditional forms of meditation, such as Vipassana. I am not trained in either of these methods, so my comments should not be taken as a critique. I am only pointing out the difference in Zen meditation, as I understand it.

Physical versus Mental Technique
Carl Bielefeldt, in his estimable “Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation,” remarks this point, that Master Dogen does not give us any mental techniques. All of the basic instructions that he chose to transmit, and translate, from the original Chinese “Zazengi” teachings are of a physical nature. I suspect for the same reasons that Sensei emphasized the physiological, in his direct teachings. In his writings, for public talks, you will find a spirited emphasis on the social implications of Zen.

On a personal level, we approach zazen with an open mind. We do not direct our attention toward something like compassion, because we do not know for sure what true compassion is. Whatever ideas we may have about it are second-hand, derived from someone else’s teaching about it, or from social memes, peer pressure and other sources, such as the opinions of friends and family. On the downside of the social end of the spectrum, we witness all manner of atrocities committed in the name of compassion, including the unintended outcomes of well-intentioned “do-gooderism.”

Not that this should dissuade us from trying. But we should keep an open mind as to the true intent of our actions toward others, particularly whether we are unconsciously looking for a desired outcome. If we are practicing “pretend compassion,” meaning taking actions that look kind and caring on the surface, but are attached to feelings of self-worth; or expectations of improved behavior, on the part of the targets of our compassionate activities; this is not really compassion. We may be “practicing” compassion, in the same sense that a pianist practices in rehearsal. The real music comes out only later, in performance on stage, before an audience, or in the recording studio. The word literally means “suffer with,” so any exercise of compassionate activity should begin with the recognition that the doer of the good deed, and the receiver of any ostensible benefits, are both in the same boat, at the end of the day, as we say.

Discovering True Compassion
Setting aside the social dimension, and returning to the cushion, I suggest that we can “thoroughly examine in practice”—to borrow a recurring Dogen trope—the meaning of compassion, without any particular instructions about it. How are we suffering with others, in zazen? What are we suffering, exactly? What is the most compassionate thing we can do for others? For ourselves?

My answer, and I trust that of all the Ancestors, beginning with Buddha, is wholehearted meditation, zazen. Matsuoka Roshi insisted that zazen is “the most you can do.” This does not mean, of course, that we do zazen instead of taking action on the social level. Zen is not an escape from reality. But the most we can do is to practice zazen ourselves, in order to clarify what compassion, generosity, or patience means; not only in a transactional sense, but to us, personally. And the most compassionate thing we can do for others is to teach them how to do likewise.

Note that I use the word “how,” not “why.” And I do not say teach them to do zazen, period, as if I know what is best for others. Zen is for everyone, but not everyone is ready for Zen. This is not a crusade, where we presume to suggest, that what is wrong with another person is that they are not sufficiently like us, in either their behavior or worldview. Even Buddha recognized this fact. When told that some local pundits had come only to criticize his teaching, he is said to have said, “They are free to go.” Zen takes the long view. Some may come to apprehend Dharma in this lifetime; others may take a little longer. It is not our responsibility.

Criticizing Self and Others
The teachings of Buddhism are not meant to be held up to criticize others. Any doubt that arises is to be reflected back upon oneself. We see everything in the “mirror of Zen,” most particularly our own faults. One of the problems with having a pat understanding of compassion—or any other virtue—is that, contrary to its true meaning, we begin to compare the actions of others to that standard. The slippery slope into “the burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness” (Hsinhsinming) becomes irresistible, if we presume we know what compassion is. The curious expression “Judge not lest ye be judged,” by contrast, betrays the selfish motive—avoiding having others judge oneself—while, in the same breath, touting the wisdom of suspending judgment. As if we can have it both ways. True compassion often looks like cruelty to the recipient, as in the exercise of “tough love.” In Zen, we expect to be judged by others, if often unfairly.

Absolute versus Relative
That body and mind are not-two in Zen is one example of its non-dual outlook. Not only body-mind, but all other dyads in the realm of conceptual thinking, are also not-two. But this generalized statement of the absolute aspect, of relative reality, is not merely an objective description of a universal truth, applied to sentient being. In zazen, it becomes an operative principle. If we want to improve our mind—in some way that we imagine to be an improvement, such as being more compassionate, kind and considerate, or patient—our most direct route is through the body. As Dogen says, make the body sit, rather than trying to make the mind behave. The ox-mind is tethered to the body-cart just as strongly as the cart is tethered to the ox. It is much easier, and more accessible, to approach mentality through the body. Just as it is in exercises from which we expect physical results, such as enhanced muscular strength and endurance.

The Paramitas, Precepts and all other ancillary teachings of Zen do not supplant zazen. As Master Dogen asks, “What Precept is not fulfilled in zazen?” Just by sitting still enough, for long enough, we will resolve this dilemma. The personal level of practice necessarily precedes the social level. TNH, Sensei, Buddha, and others bother to try to teach the positive outcomes of practice, as an inducement to taking up Zen practice; not as simple nostrums they expect people to adopt.

It is true that practicing patience—or music—is necessary to come to the turning point of being patient with others—or performing music that transports others. As Van Clyburn noted, when he misses practicing for a day, he notices the difference. When he misses for a few days, his audience notices. But we cannot be truly patient with others, unless we become patient with ourselves, first. We can try, but our efforts will probably have unintended, and disappointing, outcomes.

Hearing the True Dharma
In all cases, personal practice comes first. But if we give ourselves an assignment for mental meditation, it is akin to having another piece of music in mind, while practicing the composition before our eyes. To extend the analogy, zazen is more like jazz, than classical music. We improvise with the instrument, but without notation, other than a chart of the chord progression. Practicing Zen is like free jazz. We throw away the chart. Finally, the Zen life is listening to the music, rather than playing it. Or, perhaps more completely, humming along with it.

Whatever the metaphor, and whatever virtue you value, trusting your Mind to reveal the reality of it, sitting with the aspiration rather than an expectation, still enough for long enough, you can not go wrong. But do not take my word for it.

What is the Meaning of Homelessness in Zen? – Mar 2019 DB

Homelessness in America is now the “lifestyle” of over half a million people; in Atlanta alone it affects seven thousand. I know homeless people; and have had some in my own family. This article, however, is not about my personal issues, but about the meaning of homelessness in Zen Buddhism. The teachings of Buddhism are not to be used as criticisms of others, but as a mirror reflected back on the self. So we are not interested in blaming others for unsatisfactory and unjustifiable conditions in our society. As a designer by training, however, I am interested in looking for solutions. And many other people appear to be engaged, as well. But please believe me, this is not a plea, nor even a suggestion, that you should be engaging in so-called “good works” as part of your Zen practice. Not my call.

To speak of leaving home (J. shukke) in Zen is not to rationalize that those who are suffering exposure to weather, and other deprivations associated with living without shelter, are somehow okay; that they are like the mendicants and hermits of old. How each person we see on the streets and alleyways of our cities, and, increasingly, in rural areas and small towns, has come to this situation is likely a unique story. There are many commonalities, of course, having to do with “poor choices,” as the critics like to point out; including involvement in addiction, and other maladies. But these stereotypes, while carrying a grain of truth, do not necessarily point to a solution. “Just say no” is not a viable option, in many cases.

Some sobering statistics from around the world suggest that the problem is not an American one, and that “throwing money at it” may not be the best approach, at least as long as the use of that money is in the hands of politicians and their agents, however well- intentioned. East Germany has been the beneficiary of largesse from West Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall, but has remained essentially flat, in terms of overall financial recovery. So where does the problem begin?

In Zen, it is a standard to say that it begins at home, with the individual. But this is not the same argument of the “haves”: that the “-nots” are responsible. And it does not lobby for the opposite, that the haves are to blame. But it does suggest that for there to be the homeless, there have to be those who are not. And that no one is really not part of the equation, if not part of the problem.

In Zen, we do not try to reform society, or impose our superior world view upon the great unwashed masses. Instead, we believe that, at base, all problems in living, including equitable distribution of resources, begin with the reification of the self, and the consequences that ensue. Our approach is not, however, to accuse those who are not actively helping the homeless, of indifference or cruelty; but to suggest that even the homeless share this same issue. But this does not excuse not doing anything to help, either.

So what is a person to do? Like any other problem area, from a design perspective, the first item of business is problem definition. You may define homelessness as a problem of such-and-such provenance, but I may define it differently. In design circles, we utilize such team approaches as brainstorming and research, following up with analysis to produce findings, conclusions, and recommendations for action. The theory is that the more thoroughly we define a given problem, the more likely the solution, or many solutions, will be found in the definition. If we somehow manage to fully define any given problem, limited to reasonable parameters—such as homelessness in the neighborhood, or in this city; versus country-wide, or world-wide homelessness—then the full solution is implied in that definition. At least, it is a start in the right direction.

In any such research program, you want to include all stakeholders to the problem. One segment is the homeless, themselves. You would want to interview as many as feasible, to asses their personal causes and conditions, the strategies they are using to cope, and the attitudes that they have, regarding their own situation. On a case-by-case basis, some of the common stereotypes may be reinforced; others may be demolished. Whatever the results, this phase would begin to present a holistic picture of the world of the homeless. At least for the population studied.

Another set of stakeholders would be those who are already engaged in trying to solve this problem. This would be a “key person” study, fewer folks involved; but more in-depth with each respondent. Again, stereotypes may be confirmed, such as those in it for political advantage, etc. But we may be surprised, at the depth and breadth of the crusaders, working altruistically for other beings.

I am considering embarking on such a program, to bring Zen to the homeless, based on my own bias that it might help. Of course, in dire straits, where Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy—for water, food, warmth, shelter, clothing—are lacking, it is not likely that meditation will do much good. It will certainly not magically solve all the problems. But it may be a step in the right direction.

I am inspired to consider such a program of personal research, owing partly to some familiarity with the problem on a personal level; but also by a sense of surprise that there are so few homeless people, relative to the general population. Since we are approaching 330 million people in the USA, and 555 thousand homeless; then—do the math—there are nearly 600 who are not homeless, for every person who is. Even allowing for other disqualifying demographics, including age and income, unless there is something amiss in the math, this does not seem an intractable problem, at least not on a numerical basis. If half of that number, 300, cannot take care of one, what does that say about the community at large? Weren’t most early tribal groups around half that number, say 150 members?

Of course, barriers to sharing are not found solely in peoples’ minds and personal circumstances, but baked into the cake of the culture, as powerful memes. So no fault-finding here. Just trying to get a picture of the severity of the problem, in terms of numbers.

Bringing it down to local focus, the city of Atlanta’s population is approaching 500 thousand, while the homeless float around 3 thousand. Again, several hundred living inside, for each individual living on the streets. Round numbers.

I am not suggesting that we turn Zen practice into a program for the homeless; that we should all dedicate our lives to this cause. But if some of their needs are being met by others more capable of dealing with the issue than we are, then maybe adding meditation to the mix can provide a benefit, just as it does in our lives.

We are certainly not qualified, either as individuals or as a group, to compete in delivering support services to the indigent, with those who have been committed to the problem for years. And I am not suggesting that because you are a Zen practitioner, that you should adopt this, or any other cause, such as the death penalty, as an appropriate part of your practice.

In fact, I feel that what we are already doing, by exposing people to Zen meditation, is about as radically positive and revolutionary a program as you can devise. It may be that sharing it with the disadvantaged may have a greater return on our investment, in the sense of improved prospects of the participants, than we may expect. It is certainly worth a try.

When we consider homelessness as the pejorative that it is in our cultural context, we cannot but be impressed by the disconnect with its meaning in the countries of origin, and the development of Zen. Not that those countries are immune from the modern curse of homelessness. But the original meaning of being homeless (J. shukke), is the true condition, or “true home,” of any and all sentient beings, including humans. To be truly homeless at heart, in spite of outward appearance, is the rarefied awareness of the enlightened. We are enlightened to the fact that, whatever grass hut or mansion we may occupy at the moment, it is no more our true home than another planet. At least not for long.

If this aspect of, and attitude toward, the homeless could take hold in our society, it might go a long way to relieving the stigma, and sense of failure, associated with finding yourself on the street.

There is a burgeoning awareness, something like the conspicuous consumption of the gilded age, that all the McMansions, penthouses, and multiple homes around the world, are today’s wretched excess, much the same as yesterday’s. Like the Titanic, they are glorious in their ostentatiousness, as long as they do not run into the iceberg of reality. Once the ship starts going down—and everybody’s ship is going down, sooner or later—the gold-plated lifestyle does not amount to much more than that of the homeless.

We start out in a crib, once free of the womb. Then progressively expand our outreach. Onto the floor, learning to crawl, work the stroller, then walk, then run, then the tricycles, bicycles, eventually the auto. More and bigger rooms, both public and private. Then as we age, run the tape back, until we eventually find ourselves back in the wheelchair, the crib, and eventually, on our deathbed. This is not morbid, just the usual dynamic.

Meanwhile, where did all that need for so much elbow room go? Where did it come from? The monk’s cell is notorious for its lack of floor space, and admired for its simple furnishings. The Zen monk’s is a tatami mat, a roughly three by six foot footprint. Seven basic possessions. How much is enough?

If you expand the math to encompass the possessions, including living space, of the population numbers cited, you get another measure of the disparity. How does it come to be, that so many need so much; and that others can have nothing, by comparison.

Another example that occurred to me is that of sports. The angle I want to examine is the relative consumption of space. The best reference I can think of is the size of the playing field relative to the size of the ball. A handball is a pretty small item, but so is the room in which it is played. Of course, the enclosed building housing that room is another matter, with the requisite electrical service and plumbing facilities in the club. A basketball is larger, but the court is more than twice as large, and including the bleachers, begins to gobble up real estate, requiring a stadium. A football is a bit smaller than a basketball, but you need 100 yards of field, to play the game. The baseball diamond, with its outfields, is a bit larger than a football field, but the ball is much smaller, so the ratio is significantly greater. But the grand prize winner, the biggest consumer of all, requiring acreage, is golf. And the ratio—of turf in proportion to the ball—is outrageous. Truly a rich man’s game. Polo may be even worse. It requires the conscription, not just of real estate, but of the hapless horse. As does quarter-horse racing.

They say that people have the kinds of problems they can afford to have. Once we had finally gathered enough roots and berries, our attention turned to other interests.

“How much is enough?” is a question asked in professional design circles, as well as in Zen. In both cases, it has a material dimension, as well as a spiritual one, you might say. How much does it take to survive, or to just get by? And how much does it take to fill that cavernous hole, at the center of our dissatisfaction?

We each have to answer this in our own way. I think it helps to explore the lives of others, who are either relatively disadvantaged by comparison to us; and those who enjoy a relatively grander lifestyle. Usually, the latter gets all the attention, witness such programs as cover the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It is also true that many of the characters we follow and admire, both in fantasy and in real life, tend to be on the upper end of the wealth curve. I guess we wonder how they do it, or how they did it; where when it comes to the lower end of the spectrum, we may suppose we already know how they got there. As a story, it’s just another downer.

But it may be that we are missing the main point. Wherever we land on the prosperity scale, there may be more to life than that. Wealth, or lack of it, whether in financial form, or simply good health, is not the problem. It is what we do with it that counts. In this life, save the body; it is the root of many lives.

What is the Point of Training in Zen? February 2019

First let’s challenge the idea that we are, actually, doing the same thing again and again, when we meditate.

This question comes up often amongst practitioners of Zen. Even those who have been training in zazen for years will sometimes seem to “plateau,” interpreting their experience as flattening out, hitting a wall, etc. And for newcomers, this is often the most persistent, nagging concern, when they do not see immediate results. It is easy to say, “just sit,” in the face of this and all other discouragement that arises, but it is also too facile. We want to encourage raising this point again and again.

Our new Thursday evening program at ASZC, “ZENtalk,” is focused on this question. We interview various folks at different stages of training in Zen, from the rank newcomer to old-timers, as well as the occasional guest who may have no experience at all with Zen, but may be pursuing another, related path of interest. The “show” is featured online on our Facebook page and archive on our YouTube channel, as well as streamed live on Mixlr.

We feel it is increasingly important, at this time and in this cultural milieu, to allow the general audience interested in Zen to hear from people from all walks of life, and diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, profession, etcetera, as to why they practice its strict form of meditation, zazen. Zen is mainstreaming in America, but it is still not understood, let alone practiced, by anywhere near a majority of our fellow citizens. Without first-person testimony as to the uniqueness of Zen’s stripped-down design for upright, “quiet illumination” meditation, it is likely to be lost in the smorgasbord of popular meditations currently on offer in the public realm.

Bill Murray, mentioned in last month’s Dharma Byte in relation to his performance in “Scrooged,” also starred in an iconic film that seems to be in constant rerun status on TV, “Groundhog Day.” He wakes up, day after day, to the same day — marked by the iconic, but irritating, “I Got You Babe” by Sonny Bono — on his radio alarm. But he is the only one who is aware of this anomaly in the ordinary passage of time. As a consequence, he becomes liberated from his obsessive approach to doing what he is supposed to be doing — namely reporting on Punxutawney Phil, the groundhog, an assignment he feels is beneath his dignity — and finds that he has the time to do the many, more meaningful things he always wanted to do, including play jazz piano, and mastering ice sculpture. He also finds the time to fall in love with, and to woo, and win, the love of his life.

The plot is said to mimic the life of a Bodhisattva, according to one online commentator (see The article leads off with a quote from Master Dogen:

The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep. . . . If this day in the lifetime of a hundred years is lost, will you ever touch it with your hands again?

Note the reference to an endless life of sleep. When Buddha came down off of the mountain, the story goes, his fellow ascetics, noting he had changed in aspect, asked him what he was. He is said to have said, “I am awake; I am fully awake.” He was thereafter called Buddha, which means the fully awakened one. We value life itself, going to great lengths to extend it, but in Zen it is considered worthless unless lived fully, in other words, unless we, too, wake up.

This brings up an oversimplification of the fundamental proposition of Zen: We were all asleep last night (with the exception of the night shift), and we all woke up this morning. And we know the difference, which is like night and day. Buddhism suggests that we are still asleep, to a degree, and that we can still wake up from this so-called waking state. And that we will just as surely know the difference.

If and when this change occurs, it changes everything, yet changes nothing. Nothing in the world is magically changed, yet the meaning of our life, with all its dreariness, changes for the better, and completely.

I have to admit that as time goes on, my own daily life often seems to be a rerun of the same-old-same-old patterns of demands and responses. For example, when I am striving to meet a deadline, and especially when nothing seems to be working. Mindlessly doing the same thing over and over, hoping for different results, is a well-known version of the famous line, “that way lies madness,” from “King Lear.”

But in Zen, we intentionally do the same thing over and over: we meditate. So are we hoping for different results, with consequent disappointment? Or are we not expecting different results. Can we meditate without expecting any results at all?

First let’s challenge the idea that we are, actually, doing the same thing again and again, when we meditate. One of the most artful accomplishments of “Groundhog Day” is that the same scenes are filmed again and again, with only Bill Murray’s part differing, as far as can be detected, at least, from the vicarious perspective of the viewing audience.

Having worked on a feature film as prop master — where my role was to make sure that all the material props in a given scene stay where they are supposed to be, take after take, instead of magically moving from one spot to another — I can appreciate how difficult, technically, that must have been. I feel sure that if you were to compare like scenes from “Groundhog Day” side-by-side, you would be able to point out the subtle differences. But in the theater, with the flow of time, short-term memory detail is lost. And the suspension of disbelief allows for the repetitive scene to be perceived as a perfect do-over.

But in fact, of course, it is physically impossible to replicate the same events, the same action, the same dialog, twice. So again, kudos to the skill of the actors, director and cameramen, not to mention the stagehands on the set, for the illusion.

If we apply the same concept to meditation, we can see that it is not really possible for any two periods of zazen to be exactly the same. Everything in the ambient environment is different, though we do our best to keep it the same in the zendo. This does not mean than zazen is a process of paying ever more attention to ever less significant, and trivial aspects of our sensory awareness. But training our mind to note the smallest change that may arise unexpectedly trains it to note the big picture as well. Which seems to be changing at yet an even slower rate. The forest seems to change at a higher frequency than the mountain on which it grows.

More importantly, everything in our life may seem unchanging, but is actually very different from one day to the next. These concerns usually form the content of our meditation, which, therefore, can never be exactly the same, either. Even in the same day of a retreat, each meditation session transpires in a different part of the day, and so cannot be anywhere near the same, actually.

Further, in an hour of sitting, our location on the planet, relative to the spin of rotation, places us roughly a thousand miles east of where we started out, if I have the physics correct. Of course, a star may have gone nova somewhere in that time as well, but as long as it is not old Sol, we are blithely unaware of such a cataclysmic change. All things are like this. Behind the apparent continuity of the surface of our lives, is continual discontinuity. The forces of nature, as well as of human activities, are conspiring to spring the next surprise.

Beyond our own, personal practice, the social relationships we have to the others in the Zen center, as well as in our other daily life communities at home, work and play, are also ever-changing. That we, ourselves, are changing moment-by-moment, means that everyone else that we know is in transition, also. Thus, our relationships are changing moment by moment — squared — so to speak; though they may seem to remain painfully, or joyfully, unchanging.

This is where the life of the Bodhisattva comes into play, in our own lives.

This is the point at which I stopped reading this essay to the Zen center audience. I asked them to consider where they saw the role of the Bodhisattva coming into their lives. Here I would like to ask you the same thing.

First to those unsatisfactory, and even disconcerting, relationships we have with others in our daily transactions, magnified and multiplied by today’s engagement with media, both social and traditional. There is an expression in Zen, “negative bodhisattva,” which you may have heard, which defines those who are teaching us the Dharma in ways that we may not welcome, or appreciate. In “Groundhog Day,” the obnoxious insurance salesman — who accosts Bill Murray each day, causing him to step into the freezing cold puddle, and whom his character finally punches in the face — would represent the archetype for such unintentional mentors. Well-meaning enough, perhaps, but totally blind to the inappropriateness, and destructive results, of their behavior.

Then there is the little item of our own actions, as being those of a mindless bodhisattva, bumbling along in our own little world, unaware of the trail of debris we are leaving in our wake. We are not consciously acting as a Bodhisattva when, for example, we decide we need to teach someone a lesson. We end up teaching them a lesson, all right, just not the lesson we intended them to learn. This recalls a strip from “Pogo Possum,” the delightful work of Walt Kelly, in which Albert the alligator is irate at someone for some reason. When another character says he should teach them a lesson, he shouts “I don’t want to teach them; I want to learn them.” When we try to learn someone something, they mainly learn something about us.

So perhaps coming to apprehend the Bodhisattva Vow, as a genuine thread in our life, is not so much a matter of awakening the kind of compassion that makes us commit to spending our lives on behalf of others, as it is waking up to the fact that this is what is already happening, whether we know it or not. We may just be doing a woefully inadequate job of it.

When we see that our behavior has effects upon others — either in the negative sense of a counterbalancing reaction to our errors; or in the positive sense that they remain unperturbed by our ignorant and heedless behavior — the logical thing, indeed the only thing, may be to begin to take that into consideration in the first place. Before we act, or react, without seeing ourselves reflected in the big picture, the mirror of Zen. Being a Bodhisattva, then, in the final interpretation, is just being a normal, woke person.

This is what is meant in Zen, I think, by such expressions as “nothing special” and “The Zen mind is the ordinary mind.” This is the mind of Hsinhsinming, the final Mind in which we can, and must, place our trust. Especially when our practice seems to have flat lined, and we are not getting anywhere with it, like so many other dimensions of our lives.

If we can practice without expectations — without even any expectation of not having expectations — then we may penetrate to this deeper level of appreciation, the underlying current that brought us to Zen in the first place; indeed, that brought us into this existence in the first place. It is the very arising of doubt that indicates that we are getting close to something. If we take the feeling of doubt — which is admittedly not a pleasant feeling — as the content of our meditation, then it may have a surprise in store. The very feeling of doubt is the emotional content of faith. In Zen, this is not a blind faith in something we want to believe, but a kind of open-ended faith that, like it or not, we do not have any choice in this matter. We may believe that we can turn to some other path, but we will find that here is only one. It doesn’t matter what we call it. Zen points directly to the original path, the one that is no-path. Zazen is returning to the source of the path.

Dreaming of a Bright Future – Dharma Byte January 2019

“So, to dream of a bright future does not mean turning away from the dismal present. It is where we are, where we sleep, live and die, and where we are to do the work. I hope that your practice of Zen will help you in this regard.

At year’s end it is tempting to fall into the clichés of reviewing transition points of the past year, and projecting hopeful visions of the coming year. It is also traditional to accentuate the positive, in assessing events in the context of a progressive model of history. But I would beg your indulgence to take a different tack, one that directs our attention to our personal practice, in the midst of our social milieu.

After the Rohatsu retreat in December, and remembering the basic teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha around those events, I feel it important to go to a dimension explored in the story of the Buddha, as well as others in the lineage, and which should be an aspect of our Zen practice. We might call it the Twilight Zone of Zen. Or a perhaps less contemporary analogy, Through the Looking Glass.

This will take us on a bit of a deep dive on the dark side. In Buddhism, the “Six Realms” include the upper realms of Tusita heaven; the Asuras, Titans, or angry gods; the realm of human beings; and the lower realms of animals and insects; hungry ghosts; and the denizens of Avici hell, unrelenting suffering. Hells, as well as heavens, are regarded as self-created, in Buddhism. Reality is neutral.

It is natural that we would prefer to look at the bright side, when approaching Zen practice in the context of the chaotic culture of modern times. But “In the light there is darkness, but do not take it as darkness; in the dark there is light, but do not see it as light” according to our Chinese Ancestors. We don’t find the bright side by ignoring the dark side. Instead, we are encouraged to confront our demons.

This premise is not exclusively Buddhist, of course. Each year during the holiday season we are treated to Christian-oriented homilies ranging from archival film of the original “Scrooge” by Charles Dickens to the more contemporary “Scrooged,” starring the inimitable Bill Murray. There is something comforting about these tragedies-turned-comedies-turned-epiphanies, as they all predictably achieve resolution, in the span of an hour-and-a-half, of some of the most stubborn and recalcitrant anxieties and fears we all feel. Would that real life were so simple.

In the earlier black-and-white film, the ghost of Jacob Marley asks Scrooge, “Why do you doubt your senses?” Scrooge scoffs that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!” (Wikipedia)

Which bravado on Scrooge’s part is immediately demolished by Marley’s knee-buckling scream. While this exchange may represent a contemporaneous interpretation of dreams—or more specifically, nightmares—it also reflects our entirely human tendency to explain the unexplainable in sensible, physical terms. To “explain away” an otherwise unacceptable, frightening reality, a tendency that may explain the underlying motive, and provenance, of all religious belief.

This arcane interpretation of the cause of nightmares apparently still holds some sway today, if Wikipedia is to be believed:

Nightmares can have physical causes such as sleeping in an uncomfortable position or having a fever, or psychological causes such as stress or anxiety. Eating before going to sleep, which triggers an increase in the body’s metabolism and brain activity, is a potential stimulus for nightmares.

The popular online consensus dictionary also reminds us that: “…psychological nomenclature differentiates between nightmares and bad dreams, specifically, people remain asleep during bad dreams whereas nightmares awaken individuals.” It also differentiates nightmares from night terrors, which presumably stem from nightmares, but represent even more extreme cases of anxiety.

The reality of our self-created memes of paradise versus purgatory and perdition is not the issue in Zen; Zen questions the very reality of our so-called reality. There are many catchphrases in the history of Zen that point to this, such as “…like a dream, like a fantasy…” as attributed to Buddha’s own take on reality. The world of sleeping and dreaming is accorded a parallel reality, if not to the extent of the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines.

Suffice it to say that in Zen, we exercise the same skeptical discernment in regard to our dreams, and their meaning, as we do to our daily lives. Someone said that Zen practice constitutes a pursuit of the understanding of meaning; we do not presuppose that we already know the meaning, either of dreams or daily life.

It sometimes seems that the relationship of dreaming to the world at large is shared by large contingents of the populace, especially in “interesting times,” such as we are having now. As the poet prophet Bob Dylan reported, “Everybody’s having them dreams” (Talkin’ World War III Blues).

The relationship of dreaming to life and death is a time-honored concern, touched on by the Bard of Avon in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet: “To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come…” The anticipation and fear of the afterlife, perhaps foretold in dreams, or in the dreamlike states preceding death, as in the story of the “Bhiksu in the Fourth Dhyana” (Shobogenzo; Shizen-Biku; N&C).

Reading this fascicle will give you a broader and deeper insight into Master Dogen’s viewpoint on the folly of interpreting our experience with too high a regard for the state of our own understanding of Buddhism, and its relevance to our life and death. Briefly, from Nishijima and Cross’s introduction to the text:

[The title] refers to a monk who mistakenly thought that his own state was the state of the arhat, a Buddhist practitioner who has reached the fourth and ultimate stage of practice.

The story goes that when he was dying, the monk saw an apparition, an experience that is not associated with being in the fourth dhyana, and so lost faith in Buddha’s teaching and fell into one of the hells. This is a cautionary tale, admonishing us to avoid any conceit as to our own grasp of buddhadharma, and the high stakes of making such a mistake.

For my own part, this attachment to whatever stage of enlightenment one may wish to enjoy, or to hope to enjoy, has little or nothing to do with being reborn, whether into heaven, hell, purgatory, or into this same world. As I get it, the only preference one would harbor, regarding such an event, would be based on a conception—necessarily limited or erroneous, being biased and based on attachment to outcomes—of what rebirth into one or another realm would be like. It seems a moot issue, in that the very preference would distort the outcome.

But in Zen, confusion about such matters apparently comes with the territory of being a sentient being. Even Buddha was “assailed by the hordes of Mara,” according to tradition, the night of his profound insight. The visions consisted of horrific “demons,” seductive “daughters,” and all other such horrors as may be imagined, whether conjured from Siddhartha’s psyche, or from Mara, as the original source. The final temptation is said to be that the young prince was elevated to the level of a god, at which point he touched the earth, signifying his embrace of the ordinariness of his place in the world.

Buddha Mara 

Other references that stand out in my admittedly superficial reading of the canon and commentaries of Zen Buddhism, include Carl Bielefeldt’s pointing out that in Master Dogen’s first written instructions (Fukanzazengi) for his students after returning from China, he chose not to include a line from the Chinese source, which read something like: “When the Path grows higher, demons flourish.” Bielefeldt opines that Dogen wanted to accentuate the positive, if not altogether eliminating the negative, in transmitting essentials of Ch’an zazen to his Japanese students.

Other comments, in passing, hover around the ambiguous nature of dreaming versus waking states in Zen, such as Master Bankei’s response, when asked, that “The enlightened do not dream.” This may be interpreted in many ways, including that the so-called dreams of the enlightened are just as real as waking reality, and thus, by definition, not dreams. Or Dogen’s “Preaching a Dream Within a Dream.”

Another claims that a Zen master went into hell to save his mother, who had passed away recently. Which begs the question, how did he know she was in hell; and how the hell did he go there to save her?

Another, featuring demons again, relates that the abbot of a monastery, having been alerted that a certain monk was sneaking into the kitchen at night to eat meat (which, if forbidden, begs the question of what the meat was doing there in the first place), hid and watched the next night. He saw that the monk in question was possessed by a demon, sitting on his shoulder, which he explained to the monks was where the meat was actually going. So no worries.

Which brings us back to the present, and our conceit that we dismiss the idea of demons with a shrug, confident that we know they are only figments of imagination or perhaps, like Scrooge, a bit of indigestion. Or the dismissal of such paranormal phenomena as explainable within the memes of modern science, e.g. as one of hundreds of mental disorders as identified by the American Psychiatric Association in their massive publication, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM–5),” of which more and more are subject to medication promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, with decidedly mixed results.

Which brings us to the modern equivalent of demons—those ubiquitous and relentless harpies of disharmony and dissatisfaction that are unleashed, like the dogs of war, on a daily basis. They include the absurdist reality theater we blithely refer to as our federal government, which occupies way too much of our bandwidth. We lurch from the guilty pleasure of avoiding our own inadequacies to a kind of misery-loves-company shadenfruede—distracted by the suffering of others to whom we can feel confidently superior. Anyone who doubts the reality of being pursued or possessed by demons, need merely contemplate the close-ups of our ostensible leaders, to see the haunted countenances behind the masks of power.

Another demon is obsession with “news”—actually promotion—about the alternate reality of showbiz entertainment: the latest film; the newest television series; the relentless assembly line of books by celebrities and politicians; the lines between all the above blurring; including seemingly endless new channels of mobile media communication dominated by propaganda of one sort or another.

The commercial side of television (I know, I know, I am dating myself) reveals another set of demons meant to bedevil us into action. Around news programs, advertisers recognize that nobody under fifty, maybe, is watching any more. So the ads are all about the decline of aging, sickness and death, the three marks of Dukkha, and the main demons pursuing the demographic of the audience. In my case, owing to the luck of the draw of the genetic code, I suppose, most of what is on offer is not of interest. Instead, it is an endless list of all those things that I should be worrying about, at my age. Including insurance, retirement income, all the bugaboos that we may be able to do little about, other than worry. But if we do worry about them, we become good targets for promised solutions to our worries.

At the risk of dating myself even more, I can remember when we had three basic channels on the TV set to choose from. Now, there are hundreds and counting. It is an interesting exercise to scroll through all the programs available, plus the prerecorded offerings, just to note what, exactly, they are putting forth as worthy of the attention of the viewer. Channels labeled as “Paid Programming” dish up an unapologetic continuous commercial for some gadget or nostrum that is bound to bring happiness. Or if you cannot afford it, frustration; and perhaps a bit of shame that you cannot live up to the lifestyle expected of a denizen of the 21st Century.

Paying attention to one demon means ignoring another, at least for the moment. One may be more real, urgent and determinative of our future; the other may amount to an intentional distraction from those things that we should be paying attention to. Such as our dreams. The sleeping ones, not the waking ones.

If Buddha was assailed by the hordes of Mara, how did that present itself? If the ancient Masters were able to enter into hell to save others, as is part of the Bodhisattva ideal, the question becomes, How? How did they do so? Perhaps through their dreams, meaning the enlightened do not dream.

In a book titled “Higher Creativity,” the author surveys the use of the hypnogogic and hypnopompic states—half-asleep before and after deep sleep—as creative states of mind: conducive to problem-solving for various artists, scientists, and others in history. The same kind of dream-like awareness transpires in zazen.

For myself, dreams have become part of the reflection in the Zen mirror, of my daily reality. If the latter is chaotic in some regard (or totally), my dreams seem to reflect that reality. If I am boxing myself into a dead end or find myself in a blind alley, that seems to appear with great lucidity in my dreams. The trick is to see it in my daily life, where it appears, and where I am inadvertently causing or reinforcing it, perceived as a negative. But this is not about exercising control. Nor do I assume that I am the author, the lone creator, of the content of my dreams.

First of all, they are so lucid, rich and luminous in detail, color, tone, and interactivity with others, that I cannot be making this stuff up. Whether they amount to some sort of paranormal peek in the tent of an alternate universe, or simply a window on some dimension of this one, I do not know, and do not especially care. But I do think that they offer a legitimate arena for Zen inquiry, just as does daily waking life. Seeming demon-like beings appear in my dreams with some frequency, just as they do in daily life. The behavior of warring tribes around the world is nothing if not demonic. One of the hidden tragedies is that of those committing the atrocities to their own futures. We cannot act on the basis of demons without suffering because of it. There are no winners and losers in this saha world of karma.

So to dream of a bright future does not mean turning away from the dismal present. It is where we are, where we sleep, live and die, and where we are to do the work. I hope that your practice of Zen will help you in this regard. I recommend that you take an all-inclusive, all-embracing approach to your Zen life, including your waking and sleeping dreams. In this way, whatever the future holds, you will be ready for it. Matsuoka Roshi would say that, in doing zazen, you always have a place to go.

Buddha’s Enlightenment: Just the Facts, M’am – Dharma Byte December 2108

“What Buddha was before his insight was the same as what he was afterward, of course. But everything had fundamentally changed, not only in his apperception of it, but curcially, in his actions based upon his new identity.”

Who, where, what, when, and why we are; and how we can live with not knowing.

Siddhartha Gautama sat down one day under the Bodhi tree some 2500 years ago and counting. He was at the end of his rope, and in humility, admitting that with all his vaunted intellect and training (not to mention inborn talent or reputed prior lifetimes of awakening), he did not really know what he really needed to know. He is said to have resolved to solve the problem of suffering in life, or to die trying.

Fortunately, he did not die in the physical sense, but instead “died on the cushion.” He survived the experience, and went on to teach others his approach to meditation. We are all beneficiaries of his compassion in doing so. It was not for himself that he shared his insight with others, but for their sake, instead. His was the first Bodhisattva vow.

Now we are facing not the same, but a situation similar, to what he did. Plus, of course, all the appurtenances of modernity that have accrued in the two-and-a-half millennia since. We should not be confused, however, that the basic rules of the sentient existence game have changed. Aging, sickness and death still trump whatever advances in the hard and soft sciences we may enjoy today.

That we all share in common this inevitable transition (Buddhism does not consider it an “end”) would, one would think, foster a compassionate embrace of all life, as being of the self, rather than of the other. However, those who have not resolved their own situation with regards to suffering tend to take it out on others, as if it is someone’s fault. Thus, we witness endless, unnecessary suffering—inflicted by ourselves upon ourselves, as well as on others—in addition to the natural and unavoidable suffering of aging, sickness and death. This latter class of suffering should be understood in the sense of allowing, rather than unnecessary. We allow change to take place, as we have little choice in the matter.

When we approach this conundrum on the cushion, in meditation, we have an opportunity to regard it with some dispassion. Suffering really doesn’t matter so much, if it is universal. It would be truly unfair if only some of us were subject to the laws of biology, and others were able to opt out; owing to their advantages, for example, in controlling great wealth. To some extent this imbalance in global society is true, the evidence for which being the rampant, inhumane harvesting and oppression of sentient beings for food purposes; as well as oppressing other human beings for purposes of domination, or even genocide.

You have to wonder what kind of thoughts run through the minds of these flagrant despots—who have spent their whole lives, futilely subjugating others to their will—only to succumb, finally, to the ravages of age. It must be much like a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum, when it does not get what it wants.

Any schadenfreude regarding the richly deserved comeuppance of others, if that is what we feel, will not last for long, however. We are all subject to the same rules and regulations as any other living creature. Inequality comes down to a question of “So what?” when we find ourselves at the end of our life’s journey. Even the popular meme of checking off our bucket list, to see if we have lived a “successful” life, begins to look a bit ridiculous in the context of what might have been—as opposed to what actually is—the ultimate meaning of our lives.

So, what to do? It occurred to me, that beyond Zen’s direct approach—of surrendering to this ultimate finality in our worldview, actualized in zazen—we might find a way to think about it dispassionately, by employing the so-called five W’s of traditional journalism. As explained on Wikipedia, the five consist of questions a reporter considers in filing a story:


• Who was involved?

• What happened?

• When did it take place?

• Why did that happen? 

Some authors add a sixth question, how to the list:

• How did it happen?

Each question should have a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

Note that last comment: none of these can be answered by a simple yes or no. This becomes more and more obvious when we consider these dimensions of the story from a Zen perspective: they take on a new and deeper meaning. Let’s consider them one at a time.


First of all, who is it that is asking the question? Framing the question as a who, already implies the answer as a person. Which suggests a self, or soul, which Zen calls into question from the get-go. We can all provide a glib answer to this question quite easily – with our name, for example, as if that tells who we really are. If you happen to be a woman, and get married, even your family name changes. Some keep their family name and hyphenate their married name, as a way of reinforcing their prenuptial identity. In Zen, you are given a new “dharma” name when you undergo initiation (Jukai).

If we want to define who we are, there is a whole wheelbarrow of labels we can throw at it, like genetics, race, sex and gender, plus ancestry, and other traits that we may summon up. A whole industry has grown up in tracing the latter, presumably taking advantage of online databases. By virtue of which we are treated to ads, featuring entertaining stories of customers who, to their delight, discover they are not of the lineage they presumed, but of some other lineage, being more Scottish than German, for example. The question still remains, So what? Is this really determinative as to who, or what, we are?

But when we consider Zen’s reductionist analysis of the self into an amalgamation of the Skandhas—form, feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness; and the Six Senses—the who of things disintegrates. Like disassembling a chariot, an analogy attributed to Buddha. Once the vehicle is lying there, in hundreds or thousands of parts scattered on the ground, where is the chariot?

Who was Siddhartha Gautama, when he sat down under the tree? Who was Buddha, when he arose? If we are to understand, and embrace, the first-person testimony recorded in the Teachings, IT was no longer Siddhartha. It had the same appearance, but its innate self-awareness had changed, on a fundamental plain. It was no longer a “who.”


What Buddha was before his insight was the same as what he was afterward, of course. But everything had fundamentally changed, not only in his apperception of it, but crucially, in his actions based upon his new identity. The many attributes of personality that had defined Siddhartha—prince of the Shakya clan; thirty-three years of age; Caucasian (though that designation had likely not been identified at that time); scion of the warrior caste; six-foot two, eyes not blue; et cetera—no longer counted. for any meaningful level of identity. They had become mere circumstance, the karmic consequences of: “In this life save the body; it is the fruit of many lives” from Zen Master Lung-Ya, as quoted by Master Dogen in Dogen’s Vow (J. Eiheikosohotsuganmon).

On a social level, of course, he still looked like Siddhartha, though the five ascetics he had been training with apparently noticed a distinct difference. When they asked him what he was, or what he had become, he said he was “fully awake”: the meaning of “Buddha,” the fully-awakened one.

So, what he had become was awake. Meaning what he had been, up until this point, was by definition, asleep. Yet he was walking around, apparently awake enough to take care of business; and astute enough to pursue a deeper awakening. This is what is sometimes referred to as buddha seeking Buddha. We are not following our personal intention in practicing Zen; we are following a deeper impulse, the aspiration to waking up completely.

This inchoate motive is held to be innate in all human beings, however pitifully unaware they may be of its presence. It is analogous to Shopenhauer’s analysis of sexual attraction being not the manifestation of a personal desire, but following the mandate of the species. Opposites attract, but only for the sake of the prospective child to be born from the union. Now you tell me. If only we had known this in our extended adolescence, when hormones were raging out of our control, where might we be today?

What was Buddha, after all? Buddha was necessarily the same what as was Siddhartha. But an undeniable transformation had taken place, in an eternal moment in time. What Siddhartha was, woke up to the reality of what he had always been, from the beginning. And the usual labels were now woefully inadequate, to name the truth of the matter. Huineng’s “What is it that thus comes?” elicits: “To name it would be to miss the mark.”


The question of where we are at any given moment moves us—out of the uncomfortable zone of considering what we actually are—onto the slippery slope of theoretical speculation. Harkening back to Einstein’s thought experiments, the ones that resulted in his theories of relativity. They might be considered mere idle speculations, had they not ended in a bang! – the exclamation point of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WWII. And, later—as if the A-bomb was not a big enough bang for the buck—the hydrogen bomb. You can separate the men from the boys by the size of their toys, as we say.

Be that as it may, as we like to say before moving on to what is hopefully not a non-sequitur: where we are at this moment is worth considering from a less-than-conventional point of view. (Note that in mentioning the where of things we cannot sensibly leave out the when, as these doppelgangers come always-and-only paired together, but never separately: when we say “where” we are simultaneously saying “when.”) Zen moves us into a zone more like the perspective of Mr. Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in his musings around Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. Thus we reenter aboriginal spacetime through one of its infinite back doors, so to speak.

If we want to name where we are, there is another whole bundle of concepts we can throw at it, much like those we conjure in defining who we are. We are in America; living in the South; or the Midwest. We are in Atlanta, Georgia; or Halifax, Nova Scotia, or on the road in between. We are on the planet Earth; in orbit; or on the moon. Soon, we may be on Mars. We are denizens of the solar system; the Milky Way galaxy; in some outlier galactic cluster of the Universe, of which there are billions, and billions, and billions, as Carl Sagan would say. If he were still here to say it.

Yet, where each of these locations is, at the moment, is changing moment-by-moment; moving in an endless dance that makes us more and more dizzy and disoriented, the more we know, and so can think, about its whirligig movements. Where you were when you started reading, or where I was when I started writing, this essay, is not where we are now. We will never be “there” again. An old friend used to say, “The most important thing about my background, is that it is different from my foreground.”

Further, I am here, and you are there. We are not at all in the same place. Point zero, on my vertical spatial axis, is the center of my spine and nervous system, and yours is yours. As Matsuoka Roshi used to say, “Your enlightenment is yours, and mine is mine; you can’t get mine, and I can’t get yours.” Same with our personal worlds, and worldviews. Where we are, turns out to be when, who, and what, we are, as well.

Where was Buddha at the time of his great enlightenment? He was exactly where he had always been. There is only one place to be, after all.


There is a famous phrase in Zen: If not now, when? In other words, if you are ever going to solve this universal koan—the “hard problem” in philosophy, psychology, as well as physics—when are you going to do so? There is no time to waste. On the other hand, when and if you do solve it, it will be “now.” For the first time, you will move into real time, by definition real space. Or, according to Eihei Dogen, real being; real existence (Uji):

Time is already just Existence, and all Existence is Time…We should learn it as the twelve hours of today…We can never measure how long and distant or how short and pressing twelve hours is; at the same time, we call it “twelve hours.”

Substitute our current twenty-four hour standard for the twelve of Dogen’s time, and you will see that the great genius of Zen is pointing out that we do not know real time, even though we think we can measure it. He goes on to clarify further:

The leaving and coming of the directions and traces [of Time] are clear, and so people do not doubt it. They do not doubt it, but that does not mean that they know it.

We are sure of our grasp of time, because it is a matter of conventional social agreement; and we do not examine it closely for the contradictions inherent between the concept and the reality. We do not doubt our own misconceptions, which evolve with time:

The doubts which living beings, by our nature, have about every thing and every fact that we do not know, are not consistent; therefore our past history of doubt does not always exactly match our doubt now. We can say that for the present, however, that doubt is nothing other than Time. We put our self in order, and see [the resulting state] as the whole Universe. Each individual and each object in this whole Universe should be glimpsed as individual moments of time.

When we put our self in order, through zazen, we enter into real time. In this space there is room for doubt. Further contrasting our view of reality with reality itself:

The view of the common man today, and the causes and conditions of [that] view, are what the common man experiences but are not the common man’s Reality. It is just that Reality, for the present, has made a common man into its causes and conditions.

Experience, in other words, needs a healthy dose of air quotes around it. Elsewhere, in Genjokoan, he makes the point that “Life must be the bird; life must be the fish.” Life is being us, in time. This is one answer to the what, as well as to the who. Life is the who.

When did Buddha become buddha? He had never not been buddha. Neither have you. There is only one time, though it is both granular and whole simultaneously. It is the “eternal moment” that Matsuoka Roshi pointed to as the reality of space-being-time. “You are not it but in truth it is you” (Hokyo Zammai).


I always insist, when asked, that in Zen, we do not attempt to answer the why questions. They abide in the arena of philosophy and speculation: interesting and entertaining, perhaps, but not germane to a realistic approach to meeting and penetrating the koan of everyday life (Genjo-koan), which is the home turf of Zen.

Buddha was less than sanguine regarding specious speculation in general, and in particular when it comes to the crucial causes and conditions of existence. Ruminations on why things are as they are tend to devolve into beliefs: usually comforting—but unfortunately self-fulfilling—prophesies that cut off, rather than encourage, exploration of the unknown.

For a child, the endless regress of why questions about reality is understandable. Once they learn the power of “why,” they use it to badger mom or dad mercilessly, in an interrogation relentlessly revealing the fact that we obviously do not know the why of any of it.

Even the most assiduous reporter soon realizes the hopeless futility of trying to determine why, finally, somebody did something stupid. The well-worn “motive” for the latest mass killing, for example. It is not that there is not an underlying motive; it is just that it really does not matter. Especially if the perp is also a casualty, and if we cannot, or will not, do anything to act on the elusive motive, once determined.

Why do we practice Zen? is perhaps the more relevant question than, say, WHY DOES IT ALL EXIST? Or any one of the other fatuous why questions that we may entertain, as an adult who should know better. Because it does, that’s why.

Why did Siddhartha do what he did? After engaging in mindless gratification of the senses, followed by equally mindless mortification of the body—both based on theoretical contemporaneous constructs speculating as to how to achieve the highest good—he gave up. Not that he had an alternative; he had tried everything known to his peers at that time, and nothing had worked. Thus the Middle Way was conceived. Or discovered.

So it is easy to understand why he called it quits. It is less accessible to mine the reason why he just simply sat down, as his last act. Or why it worked. The only way we can determine whether it actually worked—or still works, or not—is to do so ourselves. All the secondary reporting—whether from Buddha himself, or his followers—is of no avail. Unless it results in your finding out for yourself.


How is the operative question, the one we can do something about, and teach others. We cannot teach the what: the actual realization of insight; nor predict when and where it may occur. We certainly cannot explain the why. And the who is what we question in zazen. But we can talk about, and refine, the how. This is what we do in transmitting Zen. The stupid-simple instructions on the posture, breath and attention are all that is needed. A word to the wise should be sufficient. If they are not wise, or stubbornly resistant, “You can talk all day and never make them understand,” as Matsuoka Roshi would often say.

The refinement of the how is what we work with in the sciences as well as in art and design. In Zen, it consists of translating the ancient and arcane into the accessible. Our challenge in propagating the practice—the “excellent method” of zazen—is to make it make sense, upon initial consideration, to those seekers who are sincerely looking for the Way in their life. By the same token, if they are not all that sincere, it is not our fault, and a waste of time to try to convince anyone enamored of their own misunderstanding. As the motto on the Zen center states, “Those who come here are welcomed; those who leave are not pursued.” (Thank you, Sokei-an)

We are not engaged in a crusade to persuade or convince others, as are so many of the many movements afoot these days. Zen is the immovable mountain, to which Muhammud must come, in humility. But we must also have humility, about how we go about the process of letting people know where and when the mountain is. We do not expect the mere pursuit of genuine Zen practice to magically make its presence known.

This is why we expend a great deal of time and energy toward making space and time available for folks to practice. And why we make a good-faith effort to let them know. Dana, generosity, is providing an environment conducive to sitting upright in self-fulfilling Samadhi, or silent illumination. Though nothing is silent about it – silence is like thunder. All this falls within the category of how, and is built-into the proposition from the beginning.

How did Buddha come to terms with his self-estrangement from reality? How did he then manage to resolve the koan of everyday life? How did it affect his worldview, which he had fine-tuned over his entire life, most especially the six years on the road? How did it happen that he awoke at about the same age that Christ was crucified? How did he go about establishing the harmonious community without alienating the contemporary culture? How do we now do the same? The many how questions are obviously most pertinent to our quest.


So get up and make your bed, that’s what. As Navy Seal Admiral McRaven recommends in his now-famous (thanks to POTUS) commencement speech to the students of the University of Texas, Austin. Close to the same place where as the Austin Zen Center, I did my ango (practice period) as shuso (head monk) in the when of the summer of 2007. Make your bed, even though it makes no sense, in any logical way.

Master Nyojo (C. Rujing), Dogen’s final teacher in China, was said to have taken a vow to leave his bed every day, like a pair of old shoes. Of course, his bed was probably a thin cot (futon) on the floor, not a space-age mattress and exotic bedframe. But old shoes are often the most comfortable, as illustrated by the reputedly true story of the princess who had to wear a new pair of shoes every day. She cried because the new shoes hurt her feet, but she could never wear yesterday’s shoes, even though they were more comfortable, ever again. The progenitor for Imelda Marcos. Enforced wretched excess is no fun.

Then show up—at work; at the gym; at school; or on that trip to a client or family for the holidays—for all the ostensible reasons that we do the things we do every day. But keep in mind that the foreground reasons are just that. There is a larger reason, looming in the background. Minding the relative rationale, as well as the absolute—the ordinary versus the deeper meaning—simultaneously. It may become more obvious what the real reasons for being actually are, in your life; or that they are, finally, unknowable. Which is worth knowing. The reality floats somewhere between the one and the other, and may not be apparent. In this way we begin to actualize Master Dogen’s reminder of the subtlety of realization (Genjokoan):

[But] the boundary of realization is not distinct for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddhadharma.
Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge or is grasped by your consciousness.
Although actualized immediately the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

Leaving the bed behind like a pair of old shoes—after making it—illustrates the paradigm of leaving behind our old ideas, each time we enter into Zen meditation. Including, most especially, those about Zen itself, and what we expect to happen in zazen. Then carrying that attitude adjustment into daily life, we have an opportunity to read between the lines of our daily experience, to see the deeper or larger meaning behind the relatively trivial, and even petty, associations that we harbor for the passing pageantry of our own life.

The mirror of Zen reflects the good, bad, and the ugly with equal dispassion. We did not create this life—this life created us. We do not know what we are, let alone what anything else really is, at base. Let alone knowing who, where, or when, with any absolute certainty. In spite of our seemingly firm grip on scientific knowledge—of how things got to be the way they are—we really have no idea why. It is better to live with this gaping mystery, than to engage in futile attempts to explain it away. This is the Don’t-Know-Mind of Zen. Enjoy, and be thankful.

Thanksgiving, 2018.