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.

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.