Practice Without Scattering Flowers

walking monks

I’d like to introduce a “case” if you will from our founding ancestor Dogen. This is from the Eihei Koroku, the compendium of his short practice discussions mostly given to the monks living and practicing with him in the temple he founded, in the 13th c. These talks were translated by our guiding teacher Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, and Rev. Shohaku Okamura.

The talk goes like this:

In ancient times, someone was high up in a tower and saw two monks walking by. Two heavenly beings were sweeping the road and scattered flowers behind the monks. When the monks returned, two demons shouted and spit at the monks, and swept away their footprints. The person observing this finally descended from the tower and asked the two monks what happened.  The two monks said, “When we were going, we were discussing the principles of Buddhas. When we were returning, we were in engaged in random talk. That is the reason.” Realizing this deeply, the two monks were repentant and continued on their way.

Listen, although this story concerns the two monks coarse realms of consciousness, if we examine it minutely, this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.

An ancient said, “Although it was like this, it was exactly because those heavenly beings scattered flowers on the road that the demonic spirits could see the two monks.”

If there had been no road upon which the heavenly beings could scatter flowers, and there was no means for the demonic spirits to observe them, then what could have happened? Great assembly, do you want to clearly understand this? Nobody in previous generations has discussed this, but I will now speak about it:

After a pause Dogen said: Buddhas do not appear in the world by depending on the sixteen especially excellent meditation methods, which generate the spiritual powers. Even when ordinary people with sharp capacity practice these kinds of meditation, the cessation of outflows does not occur. When tathagathas expound the teaching, the cessation of outflows does occur.

A complex talk I think. But I love the immediacy of the image, and so I chose this because when we have a strong image like this I think we can carry it away with us for contemplation later. The image can float up for consideration maybe when it feels applicable.

So in essence, we have a dissection, dissolution, and even involution of our conventional dualistic view. The story can be read as a pretty straightforward morality tale, and that seems like the original intent. Monks talk about Buddha, and angels descend and rejoice in their goodness; when they talk about mundane matters, demons follow them around spitting. So the monks “repent” and likely vow to be more studious and diligent. I think we can all relate to this – we want to be good people, good citizens, and good zen practitioners – even maybe good Buddhists.

But Dogen begins to indicate how this is not the true Zen way, or at least its not a complete understanding. He says about this story, “this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.”

I like this use here of the word “sentimental.” We must remember that in Buddhist psychology, “thoughts” and “feelings” are seen as equal, along with all manner of sensations. Of course, even science shows us that thoughts generate feelings, and vice versa, which concretely shapes our experience of our bodies, and vice versa. We are complex happenings, and these distinctions are all provisional. Our problems often seem to involve getting stuck in the sensations, in the divisions, and in the appearance of external-seeming conditions before our eyes and other sense organs. And especially caught in notions about them being “good” or “bad.”

When Dogen says “if such thoughts do not arise” we might think he means that we should therefore somehow find a way to not think. Many other “Zen” teachers have said as much. You may have noticed this is easier said than done. Our brains think. Dogen nowhere says that they shouldn’t. But he does say that we are not simply our thoughts. There is a fully functioning reality (that we are already uninterruptedly participating in) beyond our mere dualistic, linear thinking.

This reality, he says explicitly, is not found through “meditation”, of any kind (even “the sixteen especially excellent” methods!) Once again we are reminded how our zazen practice is not “meditation.” We are not freed from our “outflows” by anything we can “do or not do.” Someone asked about “outflows,” and this is a good question. I think we can substitute the word “projections,” as used in a modern psychological sense. Like when Carl Jung said that when you fall in “love at first sight,” one should be highly on guard, because what is almost invariably occurring is a massive projection of one’s inner anima or animus (one’s inner psychological male or female counterpart) onto this other person, who is simply acting as a screen for the light of your own “outflow.” That is maybe a helpful way to consider one aspect of this.

Freedom, release or relief, from this process – which we desire in order to fulfill our genuine aspiration and vow to experience reality, including other people, on their own terms beyond our self-clinging and desires and projections – is found only in “hearing tathagathas expound the Dharma.” Ok; so what are these tathagathas, and what is the teaching they expound? The word literally means “Thus Come Ones,” or realized beings we call Buddhas. In a real sense, they are our actual teachers and spiritual friends with whom we gather to practice and receive instructions. But in a deeper sense, it is the birdsong outside the window right now, or the traffic on the other side of the building. It is the sensation of the floor beneath us, the cool of the air conditioned air emanating out of the vents. It is our direct undeniable experience of these things, that no one can take away from us. In each of these sensations, we are “thus come.” And all things are similarly “thus come.”

In zazen, we practice “dropping off body and mind.” It’s like pushing in the clutch – the projection machinery continues to perhaps churn, but we choose to not actively engage it. It’s like those old projectors in school where you could turn out the bulb, but the fan kept whirring and the spools kept turning. But our attention is no longer fixed on the magical display that was just being projected. In time, our relationship to the display begins to shift. We don’t cling so much to it. We maybe still laugh or cry, but more for the release and genuine humanness of laughing or crying, hopefully not so much because we are freaking out about the show. But that will happen too, and even that’s ok.


Taigen Dan Leighton at Valley Dragon, July 10, 11, and 13, 2015!

One of our guiding teachers, Taigen Dan Leighton, will be visiting again from Chicago!

There will be three events, including a just added book signing at Bookworks!

Friday, July 10

7 pm:

book-signing and talk for his new book,

Just This Is It:

Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

Bookworks: 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW, Albuquerque 344-8139

Saturday, July 11

12:30-5:30 pm:


Just This Is It:

Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

Dragonfly Yoga Studio: 1301 Rio Grande Blvd NW #2, ABQ

($50 suggested donation; no one turned away. Kindly RSVP)

Monday, July 13

6:30-8 pm:

zazen and talk

Dragonfly Yoga Studio

Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness


The joy of “suchness”—the absolute and true nature inherent in all appearance—shines through the teachings attributed to Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), the legendary founder of the Caodong lineage of Chan Buddhism (the predecessor of Sōtō Zen). Taigen Dan Leighton looks at the teachings attributed to Dongshan—in his Recorded Sayings and in the numerous koans in which he is featured as a character—to reveal the subtlety and depth of the teaching on the nature of reality that Dongshan expresses. Included are an analysis of the well-known teaching poem “Jewel Mirror Samadhi” and of the understanding of particular and universal expressed in the teaching of the Five Degrees. “The teachings embedded in the stories about Dongshan provide a rich legacy that has been sustained in practice traditions,” says Taigen. “Dongshan’s subtle teachings about engagement with suchness remain vital today for Zen people and are available for all those who wish to find meaning amid the challenges to modern life.”

The day will be interspersed with discussion and periods of zazen (silent meditation.)

Taigen is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.”

Location: Dragonfly Yoga, Albuquerque


12:30 Zazen

1:00 – 2:45 Dharma talk and discussion

2:45-3:15 break

3:15 – 5:20 Dharma talk and discussion

5:20 Closing vows

Please contact for reservations.

There is a suggested donation is $50.00, but any donation will be absolutely fine.

Taigen will also be providing an opportunity for dokusan (private practice interviews) to interested practitioners. Please contact if interested.

Calculating the Difference

During World War II, when I visited a coal mine in Kyushu, they allowed me to go into the mine.  Like the miners, I put on a hard hat with a headlamp and went down in an elevator.  For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast.  Then I started to feel as if it were going up.  I shone my headlamp on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily.  When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but once the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising.  The balance has shifted.  In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.

Saying “I’ve had satori!” is only feeling a difference in the balance.  Saying “I’m deluded!” is feeling another.  To say food tastes delicious or terrible, to be rich or poor, all are just feelings about shifts in the balance.  

In most cases, our ordinary way of thinking only considers differences in the balance.

Human beings put I into everything without knowing it.  We sometimes say “That was really good!”  What is it good for?  It’s just good for me, that’s all.

We usually do things expecting some personal profit.  And if the results turn out different from our hidden agenda, we feel disappointed and exhausted.  

–Kodo Sawaki Roshi

We live our lives immersed in the subjective world of me and mine.  Everything is evaluated in terms of the relative balance of our preferences.  That this is even a framework that could be questioned is beyond most of us before we come to practice.  It’s the water we swim in.  Zazen is the practice, the realization of stepping outside of this framework.  It’s not a preparatory practice that we do so that some time down the road we might be able to have some special experience that allows us to see outside of the framework.  When we sit down, take the posture, and bring our awareness to our breath, body and mind, we immediately set aside this subjective agenda.  It’s not that the agenda disappears.  We notice the thoughts about this balance arising all the time during zazen.  My knee hurts.  I wonder if it would hurt less if I move it just a little bit.  I wonder when the bell is going to ring?  I hope the dharma talk isn’t boring tonight.  I have some acid reflux.  I wish I had taken an antacid before zazen.   

On and on it goes, but because we have made a commitment to just sit in nonreactivity, we don’t act on those impulses.  We notice them and their ceaseless arising, but by not engaging with them, we get some perspective on them, we see how this constant stream of evaluation is entire subjective world.

In his commentary to this passage by Kodo Sawaki, Uchiyama Roshi says about this point:

Good or bad luck is always our main concern.  But in reality, is there good or bad fortune?  There isn’t.  There are only calculations using our expectations as a yardstick. . . it’s human to have expectations, but clinging to them causes suffering.  If we can loosen our grip on expectations and settle down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment, we find unshakeable peace of mind, and a truly stable life unfolds.  Doing zazen is ceasing to be a person always gauging gain and loss and evaluating life according to such calculations.

This idea of settling down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment is the key point, I think.  Our practice doesn’t make us into some sort of super-beings who are always grooving on whatever is going on.  But we can come to see that whatever our experience is, is just the side of the balance at this moment.  It may meet our preferences or not, but we can settle into that moment with some ease and spaciousness.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in the relative world.  We still have our jobs and our families, we vote in elections, we have to buy new tires for our car, we have to fix the water heater, we have to make choices all the time.  Even during zazen, when the instruction and the commitment is to not move, we sometimes have to move.  When that moment arises, we don’t beat ourselves up about it, we just move, quietly and efficiently and don’t make a big deal out of it.  Zen isn’t quietism, and we don’t use our spiritual practice to avoid making the hard choices that we face in a normal human life.  Instead, zazen gives us room in which to inhabit our lives without getting so terribly wrapped up in the constant subjective analysis that we usually live with.

This is a subtle practice, and while our words can point to it, it’s not something that we can necessarily grasp with our conscious mind.  As Dogen Zenji wrote in Genjo Koan:

Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

We live in a multidimensional world but can only experience the four dimensions of space and time.  The other dimensions can be intuited, but perhaps not directly grasped.

This reminds me of something that Shohaku Okumura taught in a sesshin he led at San Francisco Zen Center many years ago.  He said (and I am paraphrasing here):

When we make a map of the world, we have to use a map projection and because of that, there is always some distortion.  The point of zazen isn’t to throw the map away or to make a better map; instead, the point of zazen is just to sit directly on the Earth.

This is an intuitive practice.  We can talk about it at the edges, we can point to it indirectly, but ultimately, it’s something we have to experience directly.

The great Beat poet Philip Whalen was a Zen priest in our lineage and I recently came across a section of poem that he wrote that evokes some of this sense:

Chaos is an ideal state

None of us has ever experienced it

We are familiar with confusion, muddle and disarray

True disorder is inaccessible to us
–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Seamless Practice

Human life is complicated.  There are times of war when firebombs fall from the sky and times of peace when we can take a midday nap by the fireplace.  Sometimes we have to work all night, and sometimes we can enjoy drinking sake.  Buddhadharma is living this life of ever-changing circumstances following the Buddha’s teachings.  –Kodo Sawaki Roshi

Usually we are brought to practice by some difficulty in our lives.  Maybe it’s something acute like a grave illness or addiction, or maybe it’s just the persistent sense that something’s not quite right in our lives.  Regardless of how we come to practice, many people come to the zendo with the idea that a spiritual practice is somehow going to let us leap over our problems and enter into some rarified space where our problems are no longer with us.  Of course, that’s not what Buddhist practice, and especially not what Soto Zen is about at all.

Kodo Sawaki very elegantly describes the human condition.  We have good days and bad days, days or even years of catastrophe and days or even years of great ease.  Our practice is not to transcend these conditions or even to prefer one set of conditions over another, but just to be continuously present to them, continuously present to our life all the time, no matter what.

The key here is continuity of practice.  When Sawaki Roshi tells us to live this life of ever-changing circumstances following the Buddha’s teaching, this is what he means.  He used to teach students to be attentive without suki, which is a quintessentially Japanese term that means literally ‘a space between two objects’.  When continuity is broken, there is a suki, when tension slackens, some laxity creeps in, and this is suki.  We should practice without gaps, without suki.  What does it mean to practice without suki?

During formal practice, it can definitely mean being very strictly attentive to our breath and our posture, moment by moment, and being meticulously aware of each arising of thought and letting it go as soon as it enters into awareness.  It can definitely mean extending that precise and continuous awareness into our formal walking meditation, into our formal meals, into our work period.  By all means, it is good and helpful to practice in this way, without slacking.  But Uchiyama Roshi takes a wider view:

Sawaki roshi always taught us to be attentive without suki, without break, but he didn’t mean that one could never take a bath!  He taught attentiveness to our everyday lives, including stormy and calm days, always guided by the Buddha.

Shohaku Okumura expands on this:  In Uchiyama Roshi’s usage, it means being continuously attentive to every situation in our lives.  When we need to work, we wholeheartedly work; when we can take a nap, simply take a nap; when we bathe, just relax and enjoy.  We can live our complex lives following Buddha’s teachings in every moment.

This emphasis on being continuously attentive to every situation of our lives is a hallmark of our practice, and really I think it has to be the hallmark of any true spiritual practice.  When we do this, we bring every aspect of our lives into our practice.  There’s nothing left out.  It’s not correct to think that we are necessarily slacking when we take a nap.  Or that we are somehow better if we forego break time in order to work more.  In our practice, we place equal emphasis on work time, zendo time, and break time.  By that, I don’t mean that our days are uniformly distributed between work, zendo and breaktime.  It means that we don’t elevate one thing over the other.  In the monastery, during work periods, there are set periods to take a break.  When the bell rings indicating that it’s time to take a break, you tidy up your workspace, set down your tools, and go take a break.  It’s not appropriate to keep working through the break.  We don’t say ‘Oh, let me finish up these few things and then I’ll take my break.’  It’s not heroic to do that.  When that bell rings, the practice is to take a break.

When it’s time to work, we go to work; when it’s time to take a break, we take a break.  When we’re at work, we’re not wrapped up in how wonderful our break is going to be, fantasizing about the scones and tea you’re going to have.  And when we are taking a break, we’re not planning what work we need to finish during the next work period.  I have personally found this approach to be extremely refreshing, and I think it’s a powerful antidote to our work-obsessed culture.

Dogen expresses this idea so beautifully in his magnificent essay called Gyoji, or Continuous Practice:

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

This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or yourself, it is so.

In other words, continuous practice, living our lives without suki, is not even something we do through our own power.  We may think that to practice continuously means making this titantic effort all of the time, but Dogen tells us this is not so.  Instead, Dogen tells us that continuous practice is the way our lives already are.  Our lives continue, moment after moment, without break, without pause, regardless of our efforts.  Just to be alive is to be engaged in continuous practice.  Even just the moment of aspiration, the moment when we hear these ideas and feel inspired, there is not a moment’s gap as we have already entered the path of continuous practice.

For sure, we must still make our best effort.  We must still practice zazen and make the effort to bring this awareness into our lives, but you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re doing continuous practice properly, and you don’t have to measure how far your efforts may be from your ideal.  From there very start, there is no gap, no suki.  Indeed, how could there ever be a gap in your life?
–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Grinning, with eyes full of tears

All sentient beings are busy making mistakes.  They think their unhappy affairs are happy and their happy affairs unhappy, and are always kicking and screaming.  When you give a piece of candy to a crying child, the kid grins with eyes full of tears.  The happiness that sentient beings speak of is no better than this.  — Kodo Sawaki Roshi

All of us, without exception, want to be happy, and we think that the best way to be happy is to get what we want, and to get rid of what we don’t want.  This is our natural tendency, but it turns out that it’s not really a winning strategy.  All too often, we can’t get what we want, and we find that even if we do get what we want, we can’t keep it together for very long.  The conditions we brought together will eventually fall apart.  So even if we are happy in a given moment, we are tensing ourselves up for the next moment, in which the conditions of our happiness may change.

Buddhism takes a completely different approach to happiness.  The Buddha taught that happiness does not arise from getting what we want and getting rid of what we don’t want.  Instead, the Buddha taught that the way to happiness is to let go of our ideas of gain and loss and to simply stay close to our own life, in each moment, as it is, whatever it is.  In this context, it’s not about getting what we want, it’s about feeling alive to the fullness of life.  We can’t really control our situation very well, and even if we can, it will eventually fall apart as we inevitably age and lose our capacities.  That’s a pretty grim state of affairs, if that’s the only perspective you have.  Buddhism points to a different way.

Kodo Sawaki often spoke about the transience of our normal approaches to happiness, and this is a very poignant image, a small child grinning with eyes full of tears.  As the parent of a toddler, I see this pretty often, and it always breaks my heart.  We’re all like this, with our happiness or sadness dependent on moment-by-moment conditions that are largely out of our control.  We are tossed around by our emotions and by the inherent transience of life.  Any true spiritual practice must point us to a way beyond getting bounced around in this way.

Sawaki goes on:

To study Buddhism is to study loss.  Shakymuni Buddha is a good example.  He left his father’s palace, his beautiful wife, his lovely child, and gave up his splendid clothes to become a beggar.  He practice begging with bare feet and a shabby robe for the rest of his life.  All the buddhas and ancestors suffer loss intentionally.  It’s a big mistake if we become Buddhist monks hoping to be successful in the world.  No matter what, we are beggars from head to toe.

This passage reminds me of how Katherine Thanas, my first Zen teacher, described Buddhism.  She often said that Buddhism is about moving against the current, that it’s pointing in a direction that is exactly opposite of how we normally think about things.  This is a great example of that.  Of course, we all think that gain is good and that loss is bad.  We are hard-wired with this belief.  But many of us find that it’s exhausting to be constantly wrapped up in keeping score, trying to boost our gains and minimize our losses.  We may eventually want to find another way, a way beyond gain and loss.

But in his commentary to this passage, Uchiyama roshi says:

For us ordinary human beings, the easiest thing to understand is whether we gain or lose.  Our fundamental premise is that gaining is better than losing.  From such a viewpoint Shakyamuni Buddha was a very strange person.  He walked the path of loss without thinking of gain.  Why did he begin on such a path?  All conditioned things are impermanent; therefore the criteria of loss and gain are constantly changing.  Shakyamuni Buddha saw the limitations of this path of gain and loss and renounced it.  he chose a path beyond gain and loss.  He intentionally walked the path of loss to show us the way beyond gaining and losing.    We ordinary people always dream of gain without loss.  The path beyond loss and gain is the life of the stable self that exists before the separation between subject and object.  It is beyond the duality of lucky and unlucky, rich and poor, superior and inferior.  If we’re poor, it’s fine to be poor.  Right there, we can find a dignified stability.  If we are sick, there too we can find a dignified stability.  When we live with this attitude, there’s absolute stability in the Dharma no matter what conditions we experience.

What a beautiful phrase: “dignified stability”.  When we hear this, we immediately know it’s true.  We know there’s a way beyond the rat race of gain and loss, rich and poor.

It is through our practice of zazen that we immediately connect with this place.  When we come to the zendo, assume the meditation posture, and bring our attention to the present moment, we can contact our lives directly, without the mediation of this constant evaluation of how a situation can be worked out to our advantage.  Even if we find ourselves judging our zazen, we can see that judgement with a greater perspective and give it space to come and go. This is what is meant by dignified stability.

Talking to Grief, by Denise Levertov

Ah, grief, I should not treat you

like a homeless dog,

who comes to the back door

for a crust, for a meatless bone.

I should trust you.

I should coax you

into the house and give you

my own corner,

a worn mat to lie on,

your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living

under my porch.

You long for your real place to be readied

before winter comes. You need

your name,

your collar and tag. You need

the right to warn off intruders,

to consider

my house your own

and me your person

and yourself

my own dog.


–Taisan Joe Galewsky

A rose is a rose

Today we’re going to start studying from the relatively recent reissue of ‘The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo’, a collection of teachings by Kodo Sawaki Roshi, along with comments from his dharma descendents Kosho Uchiyama Roshi and Shohaku Okumura.  Kodo Sawaki was an iconoclastic Japanese Zen teacher who relentlessly emphasized the practice of zazen even as he always insisted that zazen is ‘good for nothing’.  Through his students, his style of practice influenced American Zen quite a bit, and while we now recognize that we need a whole range of practices in addition to zazen, Sawaki Roshi’s emphasis on zazen is refreshing and continues to inspire us today.

Kodo Sawaki was born in Japan in 1880. He was the sixth child and both his parents died when he was young,  Sawaki was then was adopted by an aunt whose husband soon died,  After this, Sawaki was raised by a gambler and lantern maker named Bunkichi Sawaki.

When he was 16, he ran away from home to become a monk at Eihei-ji, one of the two head temples of the Soto Zen sect, and later traveled to Soshin-ji where he was ordained in 1899 by Koho Sawada.  However, he was drafted to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

After being discharged in 1906 Sawaki practiced with several different teachers, but eventually began studying Dogen and practicing zazen with the great Oka Sotan Roshi, who was also the teacher of one of Suzuki Roshi’s important teachers, Kishizawa Ian.

Sawaki later became a Zen teacher, and during the 1930s he served as a professor at Komazawa University. In 1949, he took responsibility for Antai-ji, a zen temple in northern Kyoto.  Because of his regular travels throughout Japan to teach zen, and against tradition his not becoming a conventional abbot of a home temple, he came to be known as “Homeless Kodo” (“homeless” in the Japanese referring more to his lack of a temple than a residence). Sawaki died on December 21, 1965, at Antaiji. He was succeeded by a senior disciple,Kosho Uchiyama.

Instead of the customary large-scale funeral services, Uchiyama Roshi decided after Sawaki Roshi’s death to conduct a memorial sesshin for him – 49 days long. Thus he emphasized Sawaki’s stress of Zazen, which can never be replaced by rituals and services. The 49 day sesshin also became the start of what is now called the “Antaiji style” sesshin: Sesshin without toys – no dharma lectures, no sutra reading, no talking, no kyosaku, no samu.  This style of practice is continued today in several Zen centers around the country.

One of the things I love about Sawaki-Roshi’s teaching, which I also love about Suzuki-Roshi’s teachings, is that they are an expression of his understanding, straight from the heart, not focused on a formal teaching of some particular sutra.  Instead, these teachers were steeped in the practice from the time they were little children, and they were able to express something about the dharma that was original and clear and true to the Buddha’s teachings while at the same time simply expressing their own lives.  I see some of this spirit in our great contemporary Zen teachers, and I think it’s one of the contributions of our Soto Zen tradition to the larger Buddhist dialogue in the west today.

I wanted to begin our study with this teaching from Sawaki Roshi:

To practice the Buddha way is not to let our minds wander but to become one with what we are doing.  This is called zanmai (or samadhi) and shikan (or “just doing”).  Eating rice isn’t preparation for shitting; shitting isn’t preparation for making manure.  And yet these days people think that high school is preparation for college and college is preparation for a good job.

Each moment of our life is exactly an expression of what is called our dharma position.  We spend so much of our lives focused on the next thing and how we’re going to get it that we don’t actually live in the reality of our lives right now.  Of course we should make plans.  Of course we should pay attention to school and getting a good degree and getting a good job.  Sawaki isn’t saying we should ignore those things.  But we shouldn’t get so swept up in our plans and schemes that we lose the preciousness of what’s happening right now.  Even if we’re in school preparing for the job we want, we can be present to the richness of our lives right now.  We shouldn’t disengage from the present moment in favor of our fantasy about some better moment down the road.

This is exactly what Dogen is writing about in Genjo Koan:

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood which fully includes past and future, and is independent of past and future. . . . Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

When we are in the midst of winter, we don’t say “Ah, Spring is now starting!”.  Winter is completely winter.  Firewood is completely firewood.  Suzuki Roshi famously, and enigmatically said “When you are completely you, zazen is completely zazen.”  This is a subtle teaching, but I think it’s so important for us in our modern busy world, so full of plans for the future.  We can learn something of this when we relate to our elders, settled into their lives and embodying this teaching.

Uchiyama Roshi expands on this:  You don’t need to get good grades.  It’s not necessary to go to a famous school.  Just do things naturally and straightforwardly.  As a violet, it’s enough to bloom as a violet.  As a rose, it’s fine to bloom as a rose.  It’s meaningless for a violet to think being a violet isn’t good enough, that you should work hard to produce a rose.  However, if a violet doesn’t become a violet, you spoil your life force.  This is absurd.  Try to express your life force to the fullest.  You want to know whether you’re a violet or a rose?  I don’t know and you don’t need to know.  Life is a possibility; it’s not fixed.  You don’t need to decide what you are – just live your self and naturally bloom your own flower.  Instead of studying in order to get good grades, you should bloom as the flower of this time here and now, because this is the time to study.  If you’re sleeping, reading comic books, or eating lunch during class, you can’t bloom the flower of this time of studying.  Open your eyes wide to read the textbook, and listen carefully to the teacher.

Do you see what Uchiyama Roshi is saying?  He’s not saying that grades are unimportant, but that the motivation to study in order to get good grades is misplaced.  What he’s advocating requires a great deal of maturity.  If we’re only studying in order to get good grades, or if we are practicing zazen only to get enlightened, we’re missing the point, and more importantly we’re missing our lives.  Moreover, if we do these things in order to get something else, we are unlikely to stick with them for very long.

We study at the time of study because that is the expression of our dharma position, that’s what is happening right now.  We sit zazen at 6:30pm because that is when zazen starts and we are occupying our dharma position in the zendo.

I will leave you with the great question from Case 16 of the Mumonkan, a collection of Zen stories compiled in 1228.  This question gets precisely to the heart of Kodo Sawaki’s teaching:

Ummon said:  The world is vast and wide.  Why do you put on your robe at the sound of the bell?

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

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.