being a time being: dogen, katagiri & the flight of vultures

timebeing1The sight of five vultures waiting at the end of the driveway can be a good thing. What is the good and what thing they point to is, of course, unknowable in the immediate. And yet. That single view is enough to send me wandering on time travels to worlds of worry, regret and wondering what if.

Vultures waiting are a powerful icon for time lost, frittered away. The body/mind unbinding with nothing left but the shell of a vessel poorly treated and meagerly used. I stepped out of the car quietly not wanting to set them on flight; that would have truly signalled the end. So I watched them as they watched something off in the northeast field, unmoving yet intimately related.

Dogen¹ writes exquisitely of time as inseparable from being, time-being or more succinctly being-which-is-time. Uji. It takes a moment to drop into what that feels like because the cascade of moments seems external, impenetrable and inexorably outside our control. Our perception insists that time moves relentlessly and mercilessly as we are dragged along in its wake. No wonder I quail at the sight of an icon of endings.

Katagari² describes “The Pivot of Nothingness” as this present moment – which doesn’t exist because past is vanishing and future has yet to unfold leaving a void, a turning point, a pivot into the next unfolding. For ease of communication, we tend to position ourselves through language. “Here I am.” But the terminology fractures when we drop into the “here” “I” and “am.” Each is a construction of something from the past and a reaching into the future.

In this “here” is a train station into which pulls all manner of locomotives taking me “there.” The room where this or that happened which lead to that or the other not happening. The city where choices ended and others failed to manifest. The bus, the subway where I choose this direction and not that, where one meeting lead to another but a different route missed the intersection of time and another being.

In this “I” are a hundred thousand variations that appear to be a seamless evolution from a past point and into a hopeful future. The aspiring astronaut, the acolyte of science, the lost and wandering characters who make up this play of fools. Examined closely, the appearance of an unbroken tapestry is so heart-rendingly false. More a wildly designed quilt with each patch having emerged from an unknowable confluence of causes, conditions and other beings-of-time.

As I “am” is not enough. There is always something taunting from the future that was planted by a promise from the past. Always something that is insufficient, undeveloped and wantonly wasting time. This am-ness is a counterpoint to what philosopher Evan Thompson³ calls “selfing.” It is an accreted stuckness that takes a wake up slam of vast proportions to dislodge it from the delusion of permanence.

timebeing2And the vultures took flight.

In this pivot of nothingness which contains all that is necessary and sufficient is what Dogen says is the complete moment. Like the firewood and ash¹, it “fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.” To paraphrase, we cannot call here the beginning of there, I the end of you, or am the end of was.

When you are right on the pivot of nothingness, free from the pictures created by your consciousness, you see time from a universal perspective. There is no gap where you feel separate from time, because your life is the whole dynamic world of time, and all sentient beings are the content of your life. Katagiri, p.78


¹Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed), The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Vol 1. Shambhala 2010

²Katagari, Dainin (Edited by Andrea Martin), Each moment is the universe: Zen and the way of being time. Shambhala 2008

³Thompson, Evan, Mind in Life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2010

showing up where life blooms

I read one of the most beautiful statements the other day, so compelling in its simplicity that it blew me away.

Life just keeps showing up in front of me.

It opens a post on the zen blog Contemplative Spaces titled Lucky day, Lucky guy.  And that in turn opened up more reflective paths as I continued with Katagiri’s You Have To Say Something.  Somewhere in the rich chapters, Katagiri writes that we tend to live away from where life blooms.  I’m an avid gardener and at this time of year I’m desperate for Spring.  The weekend with its glorious sunshine and melting snow had me hinting to Frank that maybe the vegetable boxes are ready for weeding.  There’s only 8 inches of snow in them, how hardpacked can it be!  Bows to his sweet heart, he actually went out to try and weed them.  Apparently, as much as I am living a few weeks in the future, the earth is not.  So I sat with the anticipation of the magnolia blooming, the Nishiki willow putting out new tendrils, and the inaba shidare, a Japanese maple that glows magenta.  This is much like I live my life – just past where it blooms.

So, I’m immensely grateful when life just keeps showing up in front of me.  (Oh, I could sing that line!)  My brother showed up unexpectedly laden with take out food for our dinner.  This left me free for the afternoon to dust off the table where I practice my brush painting.  Life showed up in some awful attempts at copying Hakuin’s lotus pond.  It showed up again in an enso that’s a definite keeper.  And again, in a playful rendition of 108 in kanji script – my new logo.

Painting took me to another of Katagiri’s chapters on Kyogen’s painted rice cake.  Making a rice cake requires the ingredients of a rice cake (rice, fire, so on).  Painting a rice cake requires the utensils of painting a rice cake: paint, brush, canvas – or in my case, “rice” paper.  A buddha is like the painting of a rice cake because it too requires the coming together of the elements of being Buddha: the Bodhi Mind, practice, and so on.  I highlight the word, practice, because this is where life shows up for me, time and time again.  In the anticipation, arising, and being with the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations & consciousness).  These are the ingredients with which, in Katagiri’s terms, I paint my life.

But the real question is, How do we, as the painters of our lives, use our colors?  Which colors do we choose?  If we use the color called “this present moment,” we can paint our life with it, but it’s very narrow.  If we use the colors of the past and future, we can paint a broader picture of our life, which is a little better than just painting our life in the present only.

This is a lovely teaching: the present moment as a narrowed view on canvas.  As for the past, oh!  How I love the black ink of my past for how it slices up the white space into seemingly organized chunks.  These past moments by themselves can be narrow too, I suppose, along with the pigments of my imagined future.

On the table is a box of different coloured ink sticks sent to me by a dear friend.  Time to mix up a new batch of visions!

Thank you for practicing,


joyful openness of the heart

I’m torn between continuing with Katagiri’s books and using this week to bring forward the words of women zen teachers.  It’s one of those conundrums (not a koan, just a conundrum) one encounters, I suppose, in trying to find tasty nuggets of teachings that are immediate in their impact, emotionally and culturally.  In the end, it was an academic exercise because, I was somewhat chagrined to discover, I don’t have many Zen Women on my shelves!  Joko Beck, Joan Halifax, Maurine Stuart, Diane Eshin Rizzetto and Grace Schireson.  That’s it.  This calls for more mindful consumption at my local bookstores for Zen Women writers, not because I think there are better teachings to be had but because I wonder if some challenges in practice would benefit from teachers who are intimate with the conditioned female self.

In reading Katagiri’s book You Have to Say Something, I fell into the chapter titled Opening your heart which lead to certain considerations.

For anyone living a spiritual life, the most important practice is openheartedness.  But dealing with life with compassion and kindness is not easy.  We tend live in terms of “me.”  But if you’re interested in the spiritual life, you will have to consider more than just yourself.

This is a challenge not just because of the self-protectiveness we train to deal with a lifetime of disappointments but because opening to others includes a willingness to be vulnerable to the consequences of their actions.  There’s another part to this that is the cultural baggage of being female: I’m constantly told I have to consider more than just myself.  It might be related to my generation but the roll call of all the women I work with says, perhaps not.  It feels like a conundrum: realizing a spiritual life means not only risking hurt but also could continue to foster a gender myth of willing self-sacrifice.  At the same time, if there’s an element of truth in the myth (as there often is), sacrifice should come easy.  It doesn’t and I think it goes back to the willingness to experience the vulnerability of opening the heart.

At the beginning of a retreat, Roshi Joan Halifax commented that she had heard that evening so many stories of hurt, of “being dropped from arms that should have caught (us).”  Joko Beck writes in Nothing Special,

…I am struck that the first layer we encounter in sitting practice is our feeling of being a victim – our feeling that we have been sacrificed to others.  We have been sacrificed to others’ greed, anger, and ignorance, to their lack of knowledge of who they are.

In practice we become aware of having been sacrificed, and we are upset about this fact.  We feel that we have been hurt, that we have been misused, that somebody has not treated us the way we should have been treated – and this is true.  Though inevitable, it’s still true, and it hurts, or seems to.

Though inevitable. It’s taken me a long time to understand it is inevitable; careening off each other will bring an unavoidable hurt as much as it will an ineffable joy.  Beck goes on to write of practice as acknowledging that we have been sacrificed and cultivating our awareness of the need to retaliate, to react.  And then, to see how we too sacrifice others on the altar of our desires.  This is where the openness is crucial: seeing our own willingness to sacrifice others and yet, and yet, to not do so because that is the only means of ending the cycle.  The willingness to make a sacrifice whose intent is the end of suffering is not perpetuating victimhood but ending it.  In fact, it strengthens the heart so it can stand up to and speak out against abuse in all its forms of rejection, unrealistic demands, and neglect.

The first dharma name given to me was Joyful Openness of the Heart. I was not wrong to see the conundrum-not-koan in it.

Thank you for practicing,


vast spring water

Finally, you will come to a vastness that is like spring water endlessly coming up out of the earth… From where does this spring water come?  Not from anyone’s small, individual territory.  The water that comes from your territory is limited, not deep.  The original nature of your life, or of your study, or of your personality or character is the spring water that comes up from the vastness of the earth.  This is where you have to sit down.

from Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri

The second time I felt a deep inexplicable connection was during an all-day sitting at a zen center nearby.  It was my first all day sitting and I was very scared about my ability to get through it.  The first rounds of sitting were fine and then we settled in for the dharma talk.  The teacher sat on a raised platform in the middle of the room and his attendants worked around him to set up the microphones, podium and his papers.  He simply sat, letting it all happen without directing the push and pull of wires, tables and tablets.  When it all seemed almost ready, his personal assistant moved in and gently began to arrange the folds in the teacher’s robes.  He straightened the pleats, layered the material around his teacher’s seat and legs, and smoothed the wrinkles of the robe along his back.  The teacher sat unmoving, surrendering with complete trust to the ministrations of his assistant.  I felt a huge swell of emotion rise from the depth of my body, so intense I thought it would emerge as a gasp or a cry and shatter what had become a thick silence.  In dokusan, I tried to explain what I had felt but it was beyond words.  I think I only managed to say something about wanting to be “in service like that” to which the teacher replied that it took a lot of time to become a teacher’s personal assistant.

I wasn’t sad or disappointed that he failed to hear what I was trying to say.  I’ve come to understand that often in trying to verbalize our experiences of connection, we can convey a neediness, an ambition or a greed.  Where before I used to feel offended, now I’ve tried to listen carefully and direct my self-inquiry to clarify my intentions without diminishing the experience itself. The truth is I don’t even think I knew what it was I experienced in these connecting moments.  And, delusions are numberless.

I went on to practice in other centers and with other teachers, watchful for these “spring water” experiences.  It remains as a marker that there is a vastness beneath the concepts and formulations of practice.  Although I’ve not been blessed with the same intensity of connection, in the years of practice which include experiences of deep joy and profound anguish, one thing has remained from both experiences.  There is a connection that transcends the gaze and there is a move into service that is beyond any act, singular or collective.  Experiencing it cannot be forced through any form of practice.  It will not adhere to any rules of engagement.  But its presence is always available and always absolute.

Thank you for practicing,


Next: Friday

this silence

Zazen is the right gate for entering the Buddha-dharma.  But the Buddha-dharma is actually human life.  So this zazen is not an exclusive practice; it is the most fundamental practice for all sentient beings.  For instance, when you really want to know who you are or what the real significance of human life, human suffering, pleasure, Buddhist teaching is, very naturally you come back to silence.  Even though you don’t want to, you return to an area of no-sound.  It cannot be explained, but in this silence you can realize, even if only dimly, what the real point is that you want to know.  Whatever kind of question you ask or whatever you think, finally you have to return to silence.  This silence is vast; you don’t know what it is.

from Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri

The larger questions of life and death tend to escape me.  In my practice, I find myself circling around on questions that are about the relational aspects of practice.  If there is good to be done eventually, universes on the brink of disaster to be saved, I think it will come as a side effect of saving relationships.  This is probably the toughest part of practice for me: dropping under the conceptual frameworks and experiencing the relational.

I remember two occasions when I felt a profound clarity of connection.  The first happened when I was about 8 or 9 years old.  Every year, the local schools got together for a sort of “religious career day.”  Students would dress up in the various robes of their school’s religious orders and stand in a diorama of some form of service.  It was all meant to inspire but my brother was already on his way to being a priest so I had little interest in following any religious life path.  My parents, on the other hand, were staunch supporters of school events and attended each one with all the pomp and ceremony of a royal visit.  Bored and frustrated, I followed them through the buzz of the crowds going from display to display, just pushing the limits of willful sullenness.  Then I saw her: a young girl not much older than I was, dressed in a nun’s habit with a backdrop symbolizing the missionary work of the Methodist Church.  Our eyes connected and she smiled.  That’s all.  No angel music, no light show, no out-of-body experiences.  Just a clarity of vision in that look we exchanged in a room that had become totally silent to my ears.

There would be other times when I experienced this clarity of vision in the other across a room.  In a moment’s connection, something was shared that I cannot describe or reproduce in myself, by myself.  I’ve realized that it had nothing to do with the props: the nun’s habit, the room, the rituals, even the eye contact.  These were ingredients that allowed something to emerge and the world to quiet.  When it first happens, I feel a jolting fear that something is about to be lost, that I’ve arrived too late.  It’s taken a very determined practice to stay only with the connection and not fall into the fear of what might have been lost already.

Thank you for practicing,


Next: vision of service

looks like coming

It’s not possible to separate going and coming.  In a literal sense, I’ve gone from and come to a number of different practice centers.  In the very real sense of life-and-death, it’s been a persistent struggle to embody oneness with what is.  In Returning to Silence, Katagiri writes,”This is just going, just coming.”  He tells the story of Gutei’s one finger: Tenryu, Gutei’s teacher, always held up one finger in answer to everything.  Gutei thought this was a terrific answer so copied it.  The long and short of it was that Tenryu chopped off Gutei’s finger.  This enlightened Gutei to the truth of authenticity, of being exactly who you are without parroting another’s reality.

This is a tough path for a fundamentally deluded person.  How can I skillfully use the teachings without pantomiming the teacher?  At the level of practice, I began with TM and slowly unfolded into zazen.  I don’t recall how that evolved except that it has.  I’ve been sitting since I was 19 years old when meditation began as an attempt to sustain a relationship with a boy friend who wanted to learn TM.  Later, as I faced challenges and disappointments, meditating became first a way to cope with stress and then just a way to be with myself.  As I became involved with mindfulness communities, particularly as a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, practice emerged as a way to be with others.

The process of mimicking the teacher is a natural beginning for any student.  We take on the persona of those we perceive to be more powerful or who, we believe, have salvaged our lives.  We fall in love easily with the person who plucks us from the wild ocean, confusing relief to have escaped death for an enduring commitment of the rescuer.  Inevitably, that kind of clinging, greedy connection will be severed like Gutei’s finger.  When it has happened to me, the pain was overwhelming and the silence made some forms of practice intolerable.  I can’t tell you why I’ve persisted with my practice through such pain, except that it’s now the only thing I know to do.  I think it’s a form of skillful waiting: waking, washing, eating, working, crying, laughing, drinking tea.  Laying down the path, moment by moment, step by step – not because anyone has told me so but because it is what is going to get done anyway.  Eventually, out of that process comes a clarity – first, of what is being practiced and then, an authentic ownership of practicing.

Through all the transitions and evolutions, however, I’ve felt a sense that the song stops short of the last verse, the last note.  Perhaps this is what the Chaplaincy path is about: a transition to practice what is outward-moving, a challenge to cultivate a way of being for others that is built on all the joy and disappointments that form the bedrock of my practice to this point.  Keeping that don’t-know mind is going to be a particular challenge over the next two years.

Thank you for practicing,


Next: gate of silence

looks like going

Dosho Port at Wild Fox Zen informs us that today is the 20th year memorial of Katagiri Roshi’s passing.  This week’s posts for 108ZB were prepared before I learned of the memorial.  Katagiri’s writings, especially Returning to Silence, were a huge influence and support in my practice.  May we continue on and carry his gift of dharma forward throughout space and time.


Tathagata (Buddha) means “looks like going, looks like coming.”  In Buddhism we say, “no going, no coming.” Buddha is just going, just coming. “Looks like going” is a wonderful way to express the Truth.

from Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri

Spiritually, March is likely to enter like  a lamb and leave like a lion.  At least, that’s how it feels in this moment.  My calendar for the first three weeks is a whirlwind of work which allows me to be away for two weeks from the churning of billable hours.  My first job several decades ago was with the federal government; my parents thought I had won the lottery.  A regular pay cheque, retirement funds, paid vacations, sick leave, and extended health care were their markers of success.  I can’t deny that for the three years I lasted in a mind-messing bureaucracy, it was a relief not to worry about finances. Then again, in those spiritually dark ages, the depth of my practice amounted to figuring out the best scuba package offered at resorts in Bermuda.  (It was karmically appropriate that I discovered I can’t dive because of inner ear problems which cause me to lose my sense of direction.)

These days, being self-employed, planning my path to enlightenment requires a bit more forethought.  It takes about a year to set up the contracts and scheduling so that the cost of retreat, training, and what-have-you is covered along with the cost of not earning anything while away from the grindstone.  So here we are,  a year after I made the decision that the next stage in my life is to commit to a path of service.  On March 19th I leave for two intense weeks of training, the first leg of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.  Actually the first leg – or more accurately the first toe – of the journey began with the Zen Brain retreat which I hope you enjoyed reading through the month of February.

I think for the first time in my life, I’ve made a very conscious and deliberate commitment to a process.  As compelling as it was to grab the opportunity when it was first presented to me, I found myself holding back.  This is uncharacteristic, of course, being one who is totally immersed in the thrill of crazy – and Frank will say, crazy-making – decisions.  That list is long: the horses nobody wanted or could tame, the dogs no one could control, the roads others preferred not to negotiate.  But the spiritual path has been more considered yet also directed by unexpected opportunities.

My deeper life has been lived in a shell slowly cracking open, tap by tap.  The first was administered by my Buddhist grandmother who took me to the Botataung Pagoda every Sunday so I would not be exposed to the weekly poker parties my parents held.  Even if my liberation required rebirth as a man, she was going to ensure it was not to be diverted.  The second was my Religious Humanism professor who risked his career and shocked his class by asking us to consider our real resistance to a human Christ.  After much pussy-footing, he growled, “You can’t abide the thought of God’s Son needing to take a piss!”  I was stunned into considering the difference between a cult of personality and the real nature of faith.  Several years later, at the second History of Psychology class, the professor walked up to me, slammed down two volumes of Tscherbatsky’s Buddhist Logic in front of me and said, “Go away.  Come back with paper why Buddhism is cognitive science.”  His action baffles me to this day because he knew nothing about me yet opened a door that lead directly to confirming the form of my practice.

This storyline is only a reflection of what I need to believe has brought me to this point.  It’s just my way of making some sense of how I’ve laid down this path.  But in the end, as Katagiri writes, it’s like trying to understand “fish” outside the context of “water.”

It is just oneness…  Life and death means “looks like going, looks like coming.”

Thank you for practicing,


Next: looks like coming – the path of practice