Travels along the Gandaki River, Nepal

I am a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I study the Earth’s climate, especially in high-altitude regions.  I am also an ordained Soto Zen priest in the Everyday Zen community, and I co-lead a sitting group here in Albuquerque with my dharma brother Keizan Titus O’Brien (  This past December, I traveled to Nepal as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to begin studying the impacts of climate change along the Gandaki River corridor.  The Gandaki is one of the major rivers of Nepal and it transects remarkably diverse landscapes from the arid Tibetan Plateau, across the high Himalayas, through the Siwalik foothills, and into the humid Terai plains. Our research team included an atmospheric scientist (me), an economist, a water resources engineer and several graduate students.  The trip was officially a ‘research planning trip’, meaning that our goal was to meet with Nepali partners and get a feeling for the lay of the land, and to see how the different cultural groups along the Gandaki perceived climate change and how they were responding to it, with the aim of developing a full proposal to study the problem.  Several of us on the trip were long term Buddhist practitioners, and we were very keen to see if there might be an intersection between our climate change work and our Buddhist practice here in the birthplace of the Buddha.

When we arrived in Kathmandu on Christmas day, the first thing that hit me was the air pollution.  It was orders of magnitude worse than anything I have ever seen.  The air everywhere was smoky with car and motorcycle exhaust.  It was overwhelming, and it was not a welcome start to our trip.  We checked into the Samsara Hotel (that’s really the name of it!) and immediately went up into the foothills outside of town for a Christmas lunch at my Nepalese colleague’s mountain home.  It was nice to get out of the air pollution and have some time to relax while gazing at the gorgeous Himalayan snow peaks that surrounded the site.

The next day was focused on meetings with local NGOs working on the climate change issue in Nepal.  It was very inspiring to meet with the World Wildlife Fund, which is involved in many aspects of rural community development that I would have thought was well beyond the core focus of the WWF.  It turns out that NGOs in places like Nepal provide the kinds of support that governments provide in more affluent nations.

Our first glimpse of the links between Buddhism and a response to climate change came here.  One of the heads of the local WWF is from the Upper Mustang region and is a devoted Tibetan Buddhist.  There is a terrible problem with deforestation in the plains of southern Nepal, especially around Lumbini, where the Buddha was born.  The WWF has committed itself to planting 108,000 trees every year for 10 years in and around Lumibini.  They plan to native plant trees that would have been around at the time of the Buddha, including ashoka, sal, pipal and kadam.  The region is an important carbon sink, and this project has the potential to really improve wildlife habitats, improve water quality, and, in the words of our colleague at the WWF “build connectivity across the landscape to facilitate wildlife movement while promoting harmony between humans, wildlife and nature.”  He spoke with real passion and emotion about how this project is a direct expression of his Buddhist practice and how he has been conducting it with the support and guidance of his Tibetan teachers.

Our next meeting was with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.  The Vice Chancellor of the Academy, Dr. Jibaraj Pokharel, warmly welcomed us into his office.  The centerpiece of his office was a magnificent seated Buddha figure.  After we settled down and his staff brought us tea, Dr. Pokharel began the meeting by recounting the story of the Buddha’s awakening.  I must confess I was a bit confused by this – did he know that I was an ordained person and that this was a key interest of mine?  Apparently not, but it appears that he often begins meetings with this story.  How lovely it would be if we always began our meetings with stories from the life of the Buddha!  Again, we found that this group recognized that a response to the broad problems of climate change could be firmly rooted in the Buddha’s teachings of interdependence.

After these initial meetings, we flew to Pokhara and then drove (very very slowly) along the Gandaki River, between the magnificent 8-km high peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna to the southern fringe of the Tibetan Plateau and the town of Jomsom.  This drive crosses one of the strongest climate gradients on Earth, driven by the intense orographic rain shadow of the Himalayas.  As we drove, we transitioned from the very wet jungle-like terrain on the southern slopes of the Himalaya to the drier, higher elevations dotted with pine trees (very reminiscent of our beloved Sierra Nevada in California) to the semi-arid deserts of the Tibetan Plateau that reminded us a bit of New Mexico.

In Jomsom, we met with local community leaders who spoke of the disruptions they have experienced from droughts and changes in precipitation patterns that they attribute to man-made climate change.  It wasn’t clear to me, as a climate scientist, that everything they attributed to climate change was really an effect of a changing climate.  Some of the issues they described may have been related more to local changes in agricultural practices and water use.  But still, it was clear here that the communities are keenly aware of climate change and view it primarily as a problem foisted on them by bigger countries like India and China.

Our trip continued down to Lumbini itself, where we visited the Maya Devi temple at the Buddha’s birthplace, and Kapilivastu, the site of the Shakya clan’s palace, from which the young Prince Siddartha escaped to begin his life as a monk.  We had several additional meetings aimed at launching the new Lumbini Center for Sustainability, where the explicit focus is on bringing the teachings of the Buddha to bear on problems of environmental change in Nepal.  The chancellor of Lumbini Buddha University joined us and spoke eloquently about the need to bring the Buddha’s teachings into the discussion of how we respond to climate change.  We then traveled to Chitwan National Park, where deforestation is rapidly bringing tiger habitats into close proximity with human populations, and then finally we returned to the Hotel Samsara in Kathmandu to rest a bit before returning to the USA.

I am not a specialist in development, but I wonder to what extent has ‘climate change’ become a catchall for the wide range of (legitimate) grievances that people in small, poor countries have with their larger neighbors?  I can certainly understand that tendency, although I am not sure how helpful it is.  In Nepal, the response to climate change is primarily focused on adaptation rather than on mitigation.  Despite the terrible air pollution, Nepal is fairly low on the list of the world’s greenhouse gas emitters (between Uganda and Namibia), so they feel that it is China and India and the United States that need to take primary actions to stop global warming.  My sense from the Buddhists we encountered on the trip was that they felt that local actions are consistent with the Buddha’s teachings and that they can be helpful in staving off the worst effects of climate change.  Very notably, the Buddhists we met with were not despairing about climate change or even complaining about it very much.  Instead, they were all focused on the local, concrete actions they could actually take, right now, that could help the situation.  It was a very pragmatic, down-to-earth approach that I found refreshing.

The Buddha famously refused to address questions beyond the scope of his teachings.  Instead, he exhorted his students to focus on suffering and on its cessation.  The Buddha’s teaching on the origin of suffering implies a local, proximal response.  Rather than concerning ourselves with some ultimate, cosmic cause of suffering, the Buddha’s teachings emphasize steps we can take ourselves.  I think some of this spirit infused our Nepalese colleagues in how they are approaching the problem of climate change.  Even though poor countries like Nepal are extremely vulnerable to manmade climate change, they can’t really stop China and the US from emitting greenhouse gases.  One potential approach to climate change might be despair, which is certainly a very human response.  Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work finding the steps that we can take locally, however small, to do our part.

I always think about a story the great folksinger Pete Seeger used to tell about the power of individual, small actions:

“I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us.

“I imagine a big seesaw, and one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand…

“One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction. And people will say, ‘Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?’ Us and all our little teaspoons.”

— Taisan Joe Galewsky

Theodicy, the Book of Job, and the Four Noble Truths

“Our habitual pattern is that whenever we encounter anything undesirable and unappealing, we try little ways within ourselves to avoid it.  We could watch ourselves doing that.  The little things we do, the little areas in which we try to entertain ourselves — that process which takes place all the time — is both the product of suffering and the producer of suffering.  It is the origin that perpetually re-creates suffering as well as what we are constantly going through as the result of suffering.”  –Chogyam Trungpa

The four noble truths are a remarkably coherent picture of human suffering, and of the ways we can end the vicious cycle.  The first two noble truths – the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering — are the diagnosis of the problem, while the second pair of noble truths, the cessation of suffering and the path, are the prescription.

The first noble truth is the simple acknowledgement of suffering.  There it is.  We can actually acknowledge that we experience suffering in our own lives.  It’s not just something that happens elsewhere, we can cultivate enough attention to our experience that we can actually see suffering as it unfolds in our moment-to-moment experience.  That’s an important first step.

The second noble truth acknowledges that suffering actually has a cause that is knowable.  We can watch how that cause plays out in our own moment-to-moment experience.  Last time, we were looking at the contrast between the Buddha’s teaching on suffering and the quintessential Judeo-Christian story of suffering, the story of Job.  Recall in that story that Job is a good man, a righteous man, who is put through a series of tests by God, who was persuaded to do this by Satan as a test of Job’s faith.  All of these terrible things happen to Job, and his friends all tell him that he must have done something terrible to deserve this outcome, because God should not let bad things happen to good people.  This is the most traditional understanding of theodicy, and it goes back to the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy.

This is the crux of the story of Job – why would God let such terrible things happen to a good person?  Ultimately, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind and basically says, “You can’t understand my reasons.”  Which really seems to suggest that that the question of theodicy is largely irrelevant in the Judeo-Christian context.  The story seems to acknowledge that one’s virtue is not sufficient to save one from pain.

This actually seems to jibe with our own experience as modern people.  We know good people who have died from cancer, or in a car wreck, and we don’t spend our time speculating on what they may have done to deserve these fates.  We know that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time and that thinking about some ultimate cause is basically fruitless.

The Buddha refrained from engaging in speculative discussions about the ultimate cause of suffering, and famously there were fourteen ‘unanswered questions’ about the nature of the universe that the Buddha specifically declined to address because they were not relevant to the problem of ending suffering.

Importantly, however, is that while the Buddha’s core teaching didn’t address theodicy, it did emphasize that there is a knowable cause of suffering.  But instead of focusing on some ultimate answer, he focused on a much more proximal answer to the question of suffering, and this is the second noble truth.  This is important – it’s not that the Buddha didn’t talk about the causes of suffering, but perhaps we can say he didn’t focus on the ultimate causes of suffering; instead, he focused on those causes that we can actually do something about.

About this, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:  The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.

So Trungpa very elegantly outlines the problem.  Whenever we encounter some unpleasant experience, our tendency is to turn away from it, and to try to turn our attention to something pleasurable.  We do this over and over again, and it is this very act of trying to turn away from what is difficult that feeds our suffering.

Trungpa goes on to say “. . . we prefer to spin around in circles rather than look around and extend outward.  Our actions are colored or flavored by a kind of fundamental ape instinct.  Our only guidance is our own very fermented body odor and mind odor.  It is like the blind leading the blind.  We are just sniffing around.  In this stupefied state, you are willing to step into a corral or den, like an animal, not knowing that the consequences will be painful.”

This is the first pair of noble truths – first, understand the problem, then understand its proximal causes, the things you can potentially do something about.  The third noble truth tells us that if we remove the causes of suffering, then suffering itself will dissipate.  Trungpa goes on, “In order to cut the root of samsara, the strategy is to unplug or disconnect everything.  We could actually unplug the refrigerator of samsara.  It might take several hours to defrost; nevertheless, as long as we have unplugged that particular refrigerator, defrosting is going to happen.  So we shouldn’t feel that we are stuck with those karmic situations.  We should feel that we always have the opportunity to interrupt the flow of karma.  First, we have to interrupt our ignorance and secondly, we have to interrupt our passion.  By interrupting both our ignorance and our passion, we have nothing happening in terms of the samsaric world.  We have already unplugged the refrigerator.”

We just passed the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a German Lutheran pastor and an ardent anti-Nazi, one of very few in the German church and he was murdered by the Nazis in 1945.  He was an important influence on the American Civil Rights movement and on Martin Luther King in particular.  Much of his writing touches in different ways on the problem of suffering and theodicy, and in general he emphasized the need for people of faith to be active participants in the world.

In this concluding quote, he touches on what I think is an approach to the suffering that is consistent with the Buddhist teachings we have been discussing.  He emphasizes the power of staying close to the the pain we feel and de-emphasizes the need to find some ultimate answer:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”


Dogen’s Zazen Instructions, part 3

Dogen’s third instruction is succinct: “Sometimes I spring quickly leaving no trace, simply wishing you all to drop off body and mind.”

We talked about Dogen dropping his whisk recently. It’s the 13th c. formal zen version of dropping the mike and walking off stage. But unlike Kanye, Dogen dropping the whisk and “springing quickly leaving no trace” is not a celebratory assertion of personal genius, but rather the ultimate prayer for every being to realize for themselves their beautiful, inherent, liberated uprightness, fundamentally unobstructed by conditions or any other beings.

When Dogen leaps clear, we leap clear. In the Korean Zen tradition, short intensive practice periods are called yong min jong jin, or ‘to leap like a tiger while sitting.’ This is like our playing freely and going wild on our cushion.  The practice of dropping off body and mind is a radical letting go. So radical it may not even be recognizable to us as letting go. True letting go is often experienced as being with, or abiding in. Our letting go is not a nihilistic or fearful running from, but instead is a courageous turning toward and settling into. It can be a subtle business; but it can have aspects of decisiveness that Dogen alludes to here.

Our decisive agreement to awaken with all beings together forever, we may notice, is for most of us not about running off to India to feed the poor, or off to a monastery to be a monk. Sometimes it can be that too. But for most of us the challenge is to be in the midst of the conditions of our life as it is, and carefully investigate what hurts, what wants, what impulses are dragging us around – and what isn’t. Sometimes, we are reminded that the mechanisms of our craving and confusion are built of pretty insubstantial stuff, and we glimpse “the one who is not busy.” Actually, daily zazen practice puts us in much needed regular contact with that person, who has already dropped off body and mind. We ourselves leap clear, and join Dogen out there in the radiant field beyond self and other, this and that.

Peter and ox in field

Dogen’s Zazen Instructions, part 2

Carrying on with our investigation of Dogen’s five-part approach to zazen, let’s move to the second kind of instruction he proposes. He says, “Sometimes, within the gates and gardens of the monastery, I offer my own style of practical instruction, simply wishing for you all to disport and play freely with spiritual penetration.”

gate1Another wonderful series of phrases to hear and be encouraged by. We of course are not exactly practicing in a formal monastery, but we do in fact have extraordinary wrought iron gates festooned with animal spirits and regional motifs, and there are lovely gardens here in this little adobe office park compound. Talking to someone with extensive experience in other Buddhist traditions, he remarked that when he encountered our way here at first he was a bit concerned, shall we say, by our apparently stuffy formality. He said he was reassured when I opened my mouth to speak that what I was talking about sounded like good friendly practical advice and recognizable Buddhist teaching. I am glad to hear that!

I know for myself that internally, I aim toward not being too tight, or too loose with the forms. You can look at any seasoned practitioner, and they inhabit these forms with a kind of ease and grace. Some may incorporate more forms or less, but in any case, our Dogen/Suzuki way is very much involved with these formal expressions of basic etiquette. It’s not the only way, but it is definitely an important aspect of our way. The Japanese have been known for masterful expressions of this kind of etiquette geared toward mindfulness (ikebana, tea ceremony and what not), and much of this understanding has been said to relate to their encounter with the Zen tradition.

But as Dogen points out, we play and sport freely with these forms. The point is not to become a Zen drudge or a paragon of renunciation. While many people may experience frustration at there being any rules at all, many others who are drawn to our way for its formalism come face to face with their perfectionistic tendencies, and have to learn to literally lighten up. Sometimes perfectionists can be real floor stompers; I have been known to resemble this remark.

So this business is indeed practical. This is an important point, really. Nothing we do here is for purely aesthetic purposes. It may sometimes be beautiful, but that is more of a by-product. When the Buddha started his community, he didn’t get a bunch of rules from a burning bush, or set out to create a new gorgeous ritual edifice. All the hundreds of vows monks take in some of the older traditions were reasoned developments, practical instructions to help monks stay out of trouble and focused on their studies and practice. Our way is like this too; we fold robes in certain ways and bow at certain times together so that we can put our preferences down for a minute and just let go into group activity. Such basic stuff, but this really is where our training occurs. The verbal teachings are crucial, but no more and possibly less important than experiencing the actual practice with our whole body and whole heart.

gate2We should keep a gently playful attitude. It is easy to lose, and maybe difficult to regain sometimes. But we can do it. Dogen reassures us of this. So, while this business of spiritual penetration is itself the great matter of life and death, we are told to be light of heart about it. You are hereby cordially invited by Buddhas and ancestors to have fun in your practice, and with your discipline.

Dogen’s Five Part Approach to Zazen

dogen4I’m planning to take a series of talks to discuss a chapter in Taigen Dan Leighton’s book Zen Questions. Taigen in turn is discussing a passage from Dogen regarding his five approaches to zazen. Tonight I plan to give a general overview, and address the first approach.

The Eihei Koroku is one of the two primary collections of Dogen’s teachings. The Shobogenzo is the more famous, and we have discussed it before. It is Dogen’s 95-fascicle magnum opus, which includes his most famous longer essays. The Eihei Koroku is a compendium of hundreds of short Dharma talks to his students in the training temple. They tend to be more pithy, succinct, and often quite funny or poignant; they can certainly be enigmatic. The following is numbered 266, and was delivered in 1248.

Sometimes I, Eihei, enter the ultimate state and offer profound discussion, simply wishing for you all to be steadily intimate in your mind field.

Sometimes, within the gates and gardens of the monastery, I offer my own style of practical instruction, simply wishing you all to disport and play freely with spiritual penetration.

Sometimes I spring quickly leaving no trace, simply wish you all to drop off body and mind.

Sometimes I enter the Samadhi of self fulfillment (jijuyu zanmai,) simply wishing you all to trust what your hands can hold.

Suppose someone suddenly came forth and asked a mountain monk, “What would go beyond these kinds of teaching?”

I would simply say to him: Scrubbed clean by the dawn wind, the night mist clears. Dimply seen, the blue mountains form a single line.”

So you might notice there are five approaches here he is delineating regarding transmitting the teaching to his students. I also notice immediately how they involve supportive, nourishing attitudes, prayers if you will, for his students. That overall is certainly the most important point, or quality; sometimes it’s called grandmotherly kindness.

He distinguishes 5 approaches here; the number five shows up regularly in Zen. Five ranks, five mountains, five houses, five schools…in Chinese cosmology there are five elements, and we could go on. In other places, Dogen has much longer, and in some cases shorter lists. So I don’t think five has an intrinsic importance, but as is so often the case, I don’t think its coincidental. Dogen is ever upholding the tradition by playing with its idioms and forms – poetically “sporting with them freely.”

Tonight let’s concentrate on the first line: Sometimes I, Eihei, enter the ultimate state and offer profound discussion, simply wishing for you all to be steadily intimate in your mind field.

I think it might be more helpful to actually begin with the second part here, skipping over what “entering the ultimate state” might mean for a minute. I think it is important that we not get caught by that first line until we understand the direction of his idea. We have to get the gist of it. This is important with Dogen and other Zen texts, because I think we can get an overall feeling or gestalt that supersedes the confusion that often can set in when our rationality gets going. Lines from Dogen remain elusive. Even when we seem to get it, later our understanding may disappear again, or change meanings in obvious or even in subtle ways.

That might be what he is pointing to, actually. With a very deep perspective (from the ultimate state), Dogen says that he offers guidance to encourage us to be “steadily intimate with our mind field.” Our mind field can seem like a mine-field: dangerous and unpredictable. It is actually quite challenging to remain steadily intimate with that vast and complex mystery. What even is a mind field, anyway? Dogen is encouraging us to check it out, right now.

It is encouraging just to encounter such pointing-out instructions. We hear words like “steadiness,” and “intimacy,” and about something called a “field of mind,” which can feel like a much better verbal formulation for the activity occurring within and around us than some of the other, more prevalent alternatives. Exposed over time to such ideas, they begin to take root and slowly transform our lives, hearts, and minds. With what aim? Well, we can look to the last lines of Dogen’s talk here and their poetic evocation of a freer heart mind. That is our direction: a more flexible, fluid, and responsive emotional, intellectual, and spiritual practice of being. Sitting together, as well as studying the words of our spiritual forbears and ancestors, is largely our way of accomplishing this, that we in time become able to weave more steadily and intimately into our lives and worlds.


Ages and Stages

Astasahasrika_Prajnaparamita_Dharmacakra_DiscourseAstasahasrika Prajnaparamita Dharmacakra Discourse

[The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. ]

I was reading in a recent Buddhist magazine a brief overview of the Four Noble Truths, and I really got a lot out of it. I think my understanding of those truths has developed recently, which is cool to see, and I have found my way back to finding them more truly touching. For a long time they felt cold or something, or I did toward them. But there have been tons of teachings I have been responding to, so it wasn’t as if this coldness from the Noble Truths was a stopping block. We all know this experience, that we respond to different things at different times. I’ve been getting back into jazz lately, for instance, sort of backwards through afrobeat and Erykah Badu, who I’ve had in heavy rotation for sometime now. Reading Dr. Cornell West etc. A lot of great Zen teaching there – my teacher even has Coltrane in his dokusan room, so that is where we are coming from. I played A Love Supreme for my art students today. They didn’t get it. But they will!

So we find teaching under our feet, and in our hearts and minds, in our loves and friendships. But then there is practice, which is the glue, or the solvent, depending. This would make dogmatism, complexity, esotericism, occultism, or curriculum-based training something of a charade. Theater can be helpful too, but we are generally aiming toward a non-dual thing here. So, in our tradition, for good or ill we don’t emphasize stages and ranks or special practices. Sometimes it gets said that we “start on the top of the mountain.”

I used to think I knew what that meant, but I think I appreciate not knowing anymore. Whew! I can let go of that one too. We are valley dragons, after all, so maybe we end up in the valley. Anyway, I can still see a point there. I think I would say that I appreciate our way (in as much as we have one as opposed another) as being very, very open. As long as you sit there for a little bit, and stick with it for awhile checking out a consistent habit, I think there is an expectation that each person will find their own way. It’s kind of radical Montessori-style meditation, meaning I hope that it’s tailored and sensitive to the needs of the student – or in this case the practitioner.

I think as Modern people maybe this is a really good way for us. We are awash in ego-challenging information, and tons of it, virtually non-stop. That can be stressful, but it can also initiate growth and evolution. I might say spiritual evolution, but I think that is really easy to misinterpret, so maybe better not to say. My point is that I personally like having a practice that allows for personal tailoring, with a clear intention or direction. As long as you just sit there, and aim toward a relaxed settled attention to what is happening, you can visualize, you can count breaths, use a mantra, dream, circulate chi, do kegels, pray your ass off, it is ok. It’s hard to accept this when we are practicing in the midst of fire, that its ok, whatever is happening there. Or maybe more importantly, not happening.

So we don’t give you the four noble truths on day one, and say chant this every day for three months and then come back, maybe take a test, and we will give you the next bit. Maybe some people would like that, and I am sure someone is doing that out there. Our whole point is that we aim toward creating a space where for 35 minutes a week you can sit in upright noble silence, and find there what you will. Supplemented of course with dedicated daily home practice. With a faith that this is in itself a noble, awesome activity, without doubt. That is also nothing special whatsoever.


Theory and Practice

One of the challenging things about studying Dogen – or any of the formal writings from our tradition – is that it only gives us a one-sided view of the practice.  These formal expressions don’t tell us what monks really practiced in the monasteries, what their teachers really taught them about the practical aspects of the practice, or what they taught newcomers to the practice, or how they talked to each other informally about the practice.  I wanted to bring this up because I have often wondered about the basic Buddhist meditation instructions of following the breath, of counting the breath, and how they relate to Soto Zen.  As far as I can tell (and I may be missing something), Dogen’s writings nowhere mention these basic meditation practices.  Instead, we are told that zazen is simply the ‘dharma gate of repose and bliss’ and that we should ‘drop off body and mind’.  For sure, these are beautiful and inspiring words, but they don’t offer a lot of practical guidance about what we do when we sit on the cushion.  So I wonder – is this what Dogen taught his monks?  Did he ever teach them to follow the breath?  What did the monks talk to each other about informally about their practice?  In our current Soto Zen practice, most teachers do in fact teach following the breath or counting the breath.

This dichotomy between theory and practice comes up in many contexts and traditions and it doesn’t mean that the practitioners are hypocrites for not necessarily practicing in strict accordance with their guiding texts.  Instead, I think there is a useful dialogue to be had between our understanding of the formal teachings and our practical lived experience of practice.  Without such a dialogue, we may think we are somehow practicing incorrectly, but in fact I think practitioners have been engaged in these conversations from the very beginning and across all faith traditions.

It’s not that the theoretical side is wrong and the practical side is right, or that our merit as practitioners is measured by the gap between the two.  Instead, these two aspects support each other.  Without some framing tradition for our practice, our energies tend to be scattered about, but without the concrete experience, these texts are just floating around as ideas.

So I am interested in hearing from you about what you actually do during zazen, and how you relate that to the traditional teachings.


A few words about Buddha’s Robe

I’d like to talk a little about the great robe – the o-kesa – in our tradition.

I’m a little hesitant to approach this subject, because it feels very advanced somehow. It’s like a secret teaching hiding in plain sight. Here some of us are wearing these things, and I sometimes wonder what people must make of it. I wonder what I make of it! The ancestors tell us the robe is really important, but maybe not for the reasons we might think. Or not-think.

This talk was inspired by an artist I just met who is sewing the small robe “vestment” (rakusu) some people are wearing, as “art”. As an artist myself, and as a robe-wearer, I have real questions about converting the robe into what we might call an “aesthetic object.” The robe is a functional thing, but it goes beyond how and what we normally think of as functioning. It certainly goes beyond any idea of art. It’s not that it’s possible to be sacrilegious in making a facsimile of the robe. It’s just that it seems a bit senseless, (quite understandably) a little ill-informed, potentially a little disrespectful. The fact that she (as a European American non-Buddhist) is also having someone write haiku on these dozens of rakusu gets into issues of cultural appropriation and whatnot, and the whole thing is actually quite nuanced and complex. When she brought this up to me, I felt like I was suddenly plunked in the middle of the ocean in a small boat. I take this with what I feel is an appropriate gravity and seriousness – both the tradition, and her calling as an artist to do this thing. I still have questions. But we needn’t lose our seat in a fundamentalist reaction.


Zenkei Blanche Hartman, sewing teacher at SFZC

I practiced for many years in a Buddhist tradition that, like most Buddhist traditions, had the robe in more or less the same arrangement as our robes, but with something of a different spirit. For instance, we did not sew our own robes. If for some reason we had taken precepts and didn’t have our robes with us, we could simply borrow a “temple” robe. There were usually a few hanging in the closet. A group of experienced Soto practitioners hearing about this for the first time would probably emanate a collective gasp in shock! If anything, our tradition can go to the other extreme, of making the robe into something a bit precious at times. Which is actually ok, too. Both are ok, but there are good teachings in our robe tradition that point beyond these attitudes (of attachment or indifference) – and that after all is the point.

So, we sew our robes completely by hand. And with each stitch we say a mantra, or prayer. We are usually taught to say “Namu ki-e Butsu” with each stitch sewed, which is Japanese for taking refuge in Buddha. I’ve said that, but I’ve said other mantras too, just going with the spirit of sewing as I found it. I think “I take refuge in Buddha”, since we mostly speak English, is an excellent mantra. I really love sewing. I think it is one of my favorite practices in our tradition, if we get to pick those.

Dogen said that the robe is itself the very body of Buddha; not other than zazen. He wrote what I just keep finding to be a really compelling essay on the robe, called the Kesa Kudoku. I read it somewhat regularly, and (mostly) just feel “yes, that is how it is.” He breaks down these ideas about things just being inert matter that we manipulate for our own ends. So no, the robe is not just a “symbol” of Buddha. Properly understood, it is Buddha herself. And of course, still just some cloth. This has to be an intuitive, even emotional understanding, not an intellectual thing.

Buddha outlined what kinds of cloth were good for this important garment; you can imagine perhaps silk brocade, or fine linen. Actually, the list starts off I think with “shit-wiping cloth” and sort of goes down hill from there. Leather was permitted if you couldn’t find cloth (in Mongolia for instance). “Rat-chewed” and “corpse-cleaning” are some of the other better cloths listed for the robe. They were all cleaned and trimmed and died ochre of course, essentially sewn into a quilt, as designed by Ananda per Buddha’s instructions to resemble the rice paddies around them. So much teaching here, I can’t even start to get into it.

As “Modern Americans”, we may feel quite far from an intimate understanding of what all this could possibly mean. “It’s just a symbolic blanket, right?” “Sure…” we say, “but not exactly.” Most of us here keep coming back. None of us appear at a glance to be religious fanatics. No one is clamoring to get their hands on one of these things the priests are wearing; we’re not going online to buy our kit and set up shop as teachers (which happens, sadly). Yet we come and we sit, and appreciate the rhythms of practice, the etiquette, our modest, simple forms. Something already intuits what the robe is, or might mean, or do or be.

Dogen has this wonderful list of all the possible designs of a robe: five panels, 7, 9, 21, 28, 84, and then he goes up to like 84,000. What is he talking about? It’s like that Willy Wonka elevator; it just keeps going up until we break through the glass ceiling of our conventional view. I think what he is saying here is that we are each a panel in this robe, and we are each made up of panels within panels. Endless panels in this one great Buddha robe. So it is important to realize that those of us wearing robes of various numbers of panels have simply found ourselves in the position of helping to facilitate zazen for the community. That’s it. Without zazen there is no community – hence, no robe and no priest.


Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part V

Once a monk asked Changsha, Zen Master Jingcen, “How do you turn mountains, rivers, and the great earth into the self?” Changsha said, “How do you turn the self into mountains, rivers, and the great earth?”

Saying that the self returns to the self is not contradicted by saying that the self is mountains, rivers, and the great earth.  Langye Huijue, Great Master Guangzhao, was a dharma descendant of Nanyue. Once Zhixuan, a lecturer on scriptures, asked Langye, “If originally unconditioned, how do mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly emerge?”

Langye responded, “If originally unconditioned, how do mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly emerge?”

Now we know. Mountains, rivers, and the great earth, which are originally unconditioned, should not be mistaken for mountains, rivers, and the great earth. The sutra master had never heard this, so he did not understand mountains, rivers, and the great earth as just mountains, rivers, and the great earth.

Know that without mountain colors and valley sounds, [Shakyamuni Buddhas] taking up the flower and [Huike’s] attaining the marrow would not have taken place. Because of tiie power of valley sounds and mountain colors, the Buddha with the great earth and sentient beings simultaneously attains the way, and countless buddhas become enlightened upon seeing the morning star. Such skin bags are earlier sages whose aspiration for seeking dharma is profound. People today should be inspired by predecessors like these. Authentic study, free of concern for fame and gain, should be based on such aspiration.

Tonight we are continuing our study of Dogen’s ‘Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors’.  In this section, Dogen is playing with the use of mountains and rivers as a metaphor for emptiness.  It’s a seemingly confusing passage, but I think it’s not that difficult really, although it’s a bit easier to focus on the overall meaning rather than a word-by-word interpretation.

On the one hand, we have actual mountains and rivers: we have the actual Sandia mountains, made of granite and water and trees and snakes; we have the actual Rio Grande, made of water and sandy banks and fish and birds.  Of course, when we look closely at either the Sandias or the Rio Grande, we can see that both are always changing – the sandy banks change after a flood, the water is always changing, and even the granite of the Sandias is slowly eroding.  But we’re not confused, we don’t usually say that the Rio Grande literally consists of everything in the universe.  We know what the Rio Grande is, we know what the Sandias are.

But on the other hand, we know, from studying Dogen, that the Sandias and the Rio Grande really do include everything – without the water evaporating from the Pacific Ocean, it wouldn’t have snowed in the Rio Grande headwaters and there wouldn’t be water in the river; without the sun, the water wouldn’t have evaporated; the late afternoon sunlight on the Sandias is red because of the scattering by particles in the atmosphere, and the Sandias themselves depend on the falling of rain and the moving of water in the rivers for their formation.  It goes on and on – it really is true that the Sandias and the Rio Grande are interdependent.  They are part of one seamless unity.  They are an instance of emptiness.  It’s really true.

In this passage, we see the teachers shifting back and forth between these two ways of seeing the mountains and rivers.  There really are mountains and rivers and the Earth, and they really are empty.  If we aren’t careful we can get stuck on one side or the other.  Before we come to practice, this all seems like gibberish – there are mountains and there are rivers, conventionally understood.  But after we practice for a while, we might get stuck in thinking that it’s all just one thing, but I think this passage is pointing toward another interpretation of the Middle Way – mountains and rivers really are just the same conventional mountains and rivers we have always known, but they are also empty.  Our practice is to simply rest in this truth, sometimes called the ‘two truths’.

In the last paragraph, Dogen refers to some traditional stories to tell us that it’s because of these truths that the Buddha was able to attain awakening and transmit the teaching to Mahakasyapa and that Huike was able to receive the teaching from Bodhidharma.

He shifts gears now and in the next passage, exhorting us to practice with sincerity, not for fame and gain.  This is a classic teaching from Dogen.

In this remote nation in recent days those who genuinely seek buddha dharma are rare—it is not that there are none. Many people leave their households, appearing free from worldly matters, but in fact they use the buddha way to seek fame and gain. What a pity! How sad that they waste their time in unilluminated trades! When will they break away and attain the way? If they meet a true teacher, how will they recognize the true dragon?

Rujing, my late master, Old Buddha, called such people “pitiful fellows.” Because of unwholesome causes in previous lives, they do not seek dharma for the sake of dharma. In this life, they are suspicious of the true dragon when they see it, and are put off by genuine dharma when they encounter it. As their body, mind, flesh, and bones are not ready to follow dharma, they are unable to receive it.

Because the lineage of the ancestral school started long ago, the aspiration for enlightenment has become a distant dream. How pitiful that people do not know about or see treasure even though they were born on a mountain of treasure!  Where can they find dharma treasure?

As soon as you arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, even if you transmigrate in the six realms and four forms of birth, transmigration itself will be your vow for enlightenment. Although you may have wasted time so far, you should vow immediately, before this present life ends:

Together with all sentient beings, may I hear the true dharma from this birth throughout future births. When I hear the true dharma, I will not doubt or distrust it. When I encounter the true dharma, I will relinquish ordinary affairs and uphold the buddha dharma. Thus, may I realize the way together with the great earth

and all sentient beings.

This vow is the ground for genuine aspiration. Do not slacken in this determination.

This last section is pretty easy to understand – Dogen is encouraging us not to be suspicious of the ‘true dragon’, a real teacher or the real teaching.  He is also telling us that it’s not too late – even if you’ve been wandering around in samsara, that very wandering can be your vow of awakening.  Then he encourages us to take a very clear vow.

I remember reading this passage during my years at Zen Center, when I was really thinking a lot about ordaining, and I sort of gasped when I read this vow, because I strongly felt that I had in fact already taken this vow.  There was something about it that really grabbed me, and even though it took me a few more years before I ordained, there’s something about this passage that continues to inspire me.

I will leave you again with the inspiring words of John Muir, who has a few things to say about how we can come to see that we are, as Dogen said, born on a mountain of treasure, but do not see it or know it:

Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty.

So please continue to join us as we sit among the clouds on mountain-tops and at the bottom of the sea among the dulse and coral.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Beyond Doing and Not-Doing

The late Zen teacher Myo-On Maurine Stuart had a saying that I read years ago and that has stuck with me: “The thing that you can do or not do won’t do.” I think there is something helpful here for us to consider.


First I just want to point out that if we look at our Women Ancestors chant, we will find Stuart toward the end of that list. She made a significant contribution to bringing the Zen tradition to the U.S. She was an artist; an accomplished concert pianist. And significantly in our historically patriarchal tradition, she was a woman. I often like to remind myself that we in the modern world have some things to offer this ancient tradition that is giving us so much – like feminism for instance, and science, and democracy. It’s good to remember, so we don’t think we should be medieval Japanese, or merely subject to some fixed tradition. That is not Zen.

So, what is she talking about here? From a conventional standpoint, her statement is nonsense. Worse, it could be read as a sort of zen provocation, to be responded to with a clever retort. This happens.

But I think she gets at the feeling we start to arrive into, when “shit gets real” as the saying goes. When things get hard, really hard for us, we are forced sometimes to go beyond our limited ideas of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. When we begin to open into that feeling of helplessness, we simultaneously find ourselves drawn to appeal to some greater power. We can call this power zazen.

Twelve Step programs talk about this. The first three steps describe realizing the problem of suffering, recognizing the insufficiency of controlling everything, and turning to a higher power of one’s understanding. I find the parallels with our own tradition inspiring.

In our way we take refuge in the higher powers of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddha is things as it is – fundamentally complex (and fundamentally good) beyond comprehension or control. Dharma is our heart/mind responding to conditions with uprightness. And Sangha is coming together like this to support each other, and face the challenges of being an enlightening being in an enlightening society. All of these capacities (if we are truly honest) are beyond us, as we inevitably experience ourselves in a contracted, alienated way.

Sitting on our own is important. I suggest everyone sit every day, including me. Taigen just celebrated 40 years of sitting everyday, but he’s like us. He sometimes is scheduled, and sometimes he fits it in when he can. Remember, you can do zazen for a minute, for just one breath. But 30 minutes is good too. Sitting alone is good; but just sitting alone without sitting with others on some sort of regular basis I have come to genuinely think might be worse than useless (and I’ve heard ancestors say this is in fact so). Practicing alone can reinforce some problematic tendencies, if done to excess or without guidance, and we remain cut off and prone to our mind’s predilection to avoid and deny the harder stuff. We can’t do it alone.

So, going beyond the thing that you can do or not do is in fact the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha. It may not look like how you think it should look. This is why we listen to the ancestors when they caution us to avoid setting up standards of our own. Which may seem to contradict the teaching that we must go beyond Buddha. These conundrums point us toward a place of surrendering the illusion of total control, which I feel is close to the heart of our zazen practice.