the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by – part 3

DSC_0010It’s going to be a couple of months of dealing with koans¹. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say it’s going to be a few lifetimes of dealing with koans. Notice I wrote “dealing with” and not “working with.” As someone who not only flunked out of koan studies but also remedial koan practice, I’ll not be your bright North Star – other than to serve by nefarious comparison. I also think we tend to deal with something more than work with it (which implies some level of commitment) because we rarely know it’s a koan until smacked full in the face with one.


The Dog Ate My Zabuton Koan

I walked in and said, “Teacher, the dog ate my zabuton so I couldn’t practice.”

She tipped her head to the right and smiled. “How did the dog manage to eat your zabuton?”

‘She doesn’t get it,’ I thought. Aloud I replied, “The dog ate it. He just did. Maybe he’s not a good Buddhist.”

“Ah. Or maybe he’s just a dog. Where was your zabuton that your dog could get to it?’

I scuffed my toe.

“Dog is dog,” she said. “And you know better.”


On the surface, the previous three posts have dealt with issues of the Plum Village Lineage Dharma Teachers and their document intended to resolve conflicts. You can read about it (in order) herehere, and here. Underlying the issues of what one global sangha has done to make it possible for individuals to seek support and recourse in cases of conflict in their sangha are an innumerable number of accretions and assumptions of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner. Or more accurately, a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings. These are very different paths and the former may not always end in liberation.

When we are caught in our need to belong, to not be criticized, to be accepted, we are vulnerable – and all the more so when the philosophy of the captor organization is couched in concepts of peace and love and oneness. In our fear of being disconnected from the tribe, we buy into the constructions that seem like Buddhism but are not. If you want to delve into the ways we have bought into a constructed institutional Buddhism, I strongly recommend reading NellaLou’s post Precisely the problem? Typical of her deadly swordship, she points out the ways we risk becoming a mindless cog in the massive machinery that can be Buddhism:

Institutions and systems are made up of processes. These processes get codified—more in theunwritten (sic) rules, rituals, codes of behavior, habits and hidden agendas (include shadows in that) by the laziness of participants than in what is actually written down if anything is written down at all. Laziness in that once comfortably ensconced in an institution, it’s pretty easy to hand off control and thought and critique to that institution and simply become a piece of the machine.


Some of that persuasive environment in a sick institution can include undermining individuals, coercion, guilt, enforcing conformity at all costs, punishing outliers, etc. This leads an individual to self-doubt and unmoors moral anchors making them far more pliable parts of the machine. It’s cult like behavior that leads to insecurity and increases dependence on the institution by the individual. It’s co-dependence all the way down.

This is the point: without transparent and courageous leadership, we – who are hitched to these massive vehicles – are easily dragged away despite our own moral anchors. At the same time, without our own inner leadership that must be unrelenting in its willingness to blast away personal delusions, we are fodder for anyone who talks the ethics talk. And who wouldn’t be? It gets tiring being oh-so-watchful over my anger, greed, and delusions. It wears me down to constantly check in on the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of my thoughts, speech, and actions. It’s hard not to flip the truths of impermanence, nonself, and suffering on their heads and claim anything goes because nothing lasts, there’s no one to hurt, and samsara just is. So much easier to believe that if our leader is ethical, we are in a position to benefit from a received knowledge of their values.

But we know better. Truly. We know better in that moment when we turn away from something that doesn’t feel right. We know better in that moment when we said nothing because belonging was more anxiety-reducing and speaking out. We know better when the sound of our voice denying malfeasance carries into our spirit and rings false.

Yes, we know better than to think someone else can do the thinking for us. And we know that the cost of that unwholesome choice is ultimately having choice taken away. I’m not talking about the choice of staying in a corrupt organization. The choice we lose is the choice to honour the life we have and the death we practice.

NellaLou’s uncompromising conclusion:

If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?

Living Truth IS the very matter of life and death.

NellaLou’s second post, Buddhist Exceptionalism, drives the point home. Believing that our path as practitioners of the teachings of the historical Buddha make us Buddhists is the first step in not knowing better. It is the first loosening of the knot that ties us to our “moral anchor.” Our attraction to the putative safety and support it affords us as captialized-B Buddhists is the first magnetic event that destabilizes our moral compass. We can continue down that path, caught by the desires of our teachers and sanghas who are caught themselves in their delusionary states. And pretty soon that capitalized-B is the way in which we keep people quiet or ostracized so that our world is not rocked by facts or reality, ethics or responsibility.

I told a friend last week that I have given up on Buddhism. I have.

But I know better than to give up on buddhist practice.


¹Mid-October will be a review of Barry Magid’s Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans (Wisdom Pubs) and November features Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moons’ The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women (Wisdom Pubs).

angulimala and the price of belonging

Every so often, I come back to the story of Angulimala.  There’s a well-written version here and it is one of the most beloved Buddhist stories of salvation.  Angulimala was a brilliant student of a well-known teacher who turned against him when other students became jealous.  The teacher set a task to test Angulimala’s dedication to his teachings: he was to collect a thousand human little fingers.  In some versions, Angulimala was set the task to prove his unquestioning loyalty to the teacher.  In others, the teacher believed Angulimala had slept with his wife and set him up to commit these crimes so that he would be punished by the law, a rather passive-aggressive move on the teacher’s part.

There’s the obvious cautionary message about what teachers can do when caught in their own tangles of desire.  I would say it’s regardless of enlightenment because I don’t believe true enlightenment is a permanent condition anyway.  There’s also the obvious moral call to be one’s own lamp in matters of principled action.   But that’s not really where the power of the story lies.

At its heart, this is a story about the restrictions we place on our vision of others.  We need them be a certain way, to act a certain way, to meet our needs a certain way.  We believe certainty is a scripted safety net which makes life safe within margins.  When that script is challenged it doesn’t matter if the challenge is real or not; the ripples of fear are immediate and cannot be calmed easily.  

It’s also a story about our need to belong and what we are willing to forfeit to have that place where we are accepted as trusted and valued members of a community.  It’s easy to fall into the mind-trap that gives precedence to a felt sense of belonging over principled action because the former “feels” more real, has more “real” correlates with safety than the latter.  We all need something we can hold onto; a dharma name, a robe, a shawl, a jacket.  Nothing wrong with that unless we look away from the coin we’ve used to purchase it.

I don’t claim to know what the teacher and his student should have done or might have done.  I need to spend a bit of time counting the little fingers I’ve collected while thinking I was truly practicing.

an asymmetric responsibility

We tend to get hyper-focused on the precepts themselves – the should’s and do not’s and the infringement of our presumed right to be whoever we are.  We pay little or no attention when committing to the Three Jewels or Three Treasures.  They are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha which are the container in which the precepts are carried.  When receiving the precepts, we also commit to being one with the Three Jewels but that seems to slide by without triggering much anxiety.

I remember standing in the center of the zendo along with four or five others getting ready to do what seemed like innumerable bows that go along with receiving the precepts or Five Mindfulness Trainings.  I had spent hours reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the precepts, For a Future to be Possible, sitting with the local sangha, and doing my best to write truly heartfelt glosses on each Mindfulness Training.  They told me what I already knew (as do precepts for anyone) but it was left to me to work out how that was going to manifest in my particular life.  So there I was percolating along in my head about the meaning of respecting life, being generous, not engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking mindfully, and attending to what I consumed when I heard the words, “We will now take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”

All my baggage careened into my frontal lobes as my mind came to a screeching halt.  Wait.  What?  Take refuge.  I’m becoming Buddhist?  Hold on.

This is common reaction having heard it repeatedly from many retreatants who consider receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  They often ask about the necessity to take refuge if one is not interested in being Buddhist.  Can the precepts by themselves be a necessary and sufficient condition for living an ethical and moral life?  Does one have to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as well?  One dharma teacher pointed out that the Three Jewels are where we turn to for refuge when we have fallen short of the commitment.  In other words, without the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha how would we know the nature of our failing?  I really didn’t quite understand this and perhaps the religiosity got to me at the time.

Over time, I think I’ve begun to understand that the precepts cannot exist outside the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  More than that, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are not signs of religious fervour but ways in which the precepts direct my practice.  If I use Roshi Daido Loori’s translation of refuge as “entering wholeheartedly without reservation,” then my practice of the precepts becomes one of giving myself wholeheartedly to the capacity of all beings to realize their bodhicitta, the accessibility of eternal wisdom to transform suffering, and the unstinting inclusiveness of relationships.  In that light, respect for life, for example, only makes sense when I can perceive and respect, without reservation, the Buddha in every person.  Generosity is only possible when I commit to a Sangha that is harmonious and boundless.  The respect for boundaries embraced by the precepts of sexual conduct, mindful speech, and consumption underscore the deep wisdom of all things being interconnected.  This level of open-hearted commitment is about responsibility for all beings and is the only choice available to us.

“The tie with the Other is knotted only as responsibility.  To say Here I am.”

Emmanuel Levinas

I’m still struggling through the philosopher Levinas’ view of ethics as responsibility which transcends all categories of the other person.  Ethics, in his view (and my limited one), is asymmetrical.  It pre-exists our knowledge of the Other and is independent of the actions, intents, beliefs, and identity of the Other.  Sounds suspiciously like the Bodhisattva vows… and a huge challenge to a mind given to picking-and-choosing where to deliver compassion.  But perhaps it is not as much a challenge if I take the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the container of my practice.

Thank you for practising,


wholehearted refuge

Before receiving the precepts, we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  I’d always assumed Taking Refuge to be just as it says: shelter from the storms of dukkha.  Being one with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is like scooting under an umbrella.  What I missed in the process of flitting from precept to precept was the connotation of “wholeheartedness.”

Let me tell you about our ghost cat, Desirée.  Aptly named.  We got her along with litter mate, Slick, about 12 years ago.  Unfortunately, we left for vacation right after and, in our absence, she bonded fiercely with Slick.  Yet occasionally, she’d come to me while I sat at my desk, put a tentative paw on my leg, and allow herself to be picked up into my lap.  She’d crawl up onto the bed and, if I stayed absolutely immobile, she’d snuggle up to my back.  But if I made even a breath out of sequence, she’d evaporate.  We had a Golden Retriever, Bear, who became her Best Buddy.  I’d say they were inseparable but the relationship was totally one-sided, an intense dependency he tolerated like a saint.  Bear died and later so did Slick, leaving Desirée bereft.  She’s stopped crying now and she’s even tolerating our presence for longer and longer periods.  But she still flees to her refuge.  These tend to be in the nooks and crannies of the house.  The latest is this tunnel she dug out of the blanket that covers the zafus and mats at the altar.

For all the safety in a house filled with ample food, water and friends, Des has never really entered the family wholeheartedly, with faith in its ability to tolerate her needs.  The entire house is filled with places she can take refuge.  And this she does but with a frantic frequency that cuts her off from comfort and an experience of love.

Roshi Daido Loori described the meaning of refuge as translated from the Japanese.  It means “to unreservedly throw oneself into” the experience.  Like a child leaping with total faith into a parent’s arms, taking refuge in the Three Treasure is a leap into faith that our practice itself are the arms that will always catch us.  I like his insistence that we must put ourselves into the practice, especially into the precepts.  They aren’t some dead words recited so that we are magically protected.  Nor can we use them to hide out from the world.  Roshi Loori points out taking refuge is not a casual thing, cannot be a “dharma fling.”

I like that.  Never been one for one-vow stands or afternoon dharma delight.

Thank you for practising,


pressed precepts

There was one of those quirky “try this” posts on Facebook that sent me to three different websites from which I collected words and pictures that created the name of my band, its album title and cover.  Silliness that distracted me from something in a long day.  But I am intrigued that the band name is “Beacon Comm;” it was Beacon Communications which I thought sucked as a band name.  The church made my eyebrow raise but the words I had to use for the cover song were interesting: a box where I hang my hat.

This sacred place as a box where I hang my hat.  Fascinating.  Especially when this random set of information kept resonating with conversations I found myself in over the week.  Precepts, Mindfulness Trainings, Vows, Refuge, gravitas of commitment.

More than that, at dim sum lunch, a dharma friend and I puzzled over the reactivity we see in many people to the idea of taking precepts.  Not keeping precepts, because most of us keep them in one form or another.  Taking the precepts seems a huge breath-catching, show-stopper.  Somewhere between the shrimp shui mai and the steamed rice cakes, we stopped being puzzled about the reactivity and started digging into what it meant to actually live the precepts.

In 2002, I excitedly took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at a retreat led by dharma teachers in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition.  Over the years of reciting the Mindfulness Trainings, I’ve develop a deep affection for them and perhaps less for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings when I ordained later.  Somehow the Fourteen seem just a bit more political and prone to a holier-than-thou attitude.  But we recite them too and do our best with them.  There are other sets of precepts one can commit to as well: Bhante Gunaratna transmits Eight Precepts – the standard five with three on speech.  And of course, there are the 10 Grave Percepts of most Zen orders – it’s actually 16 because you have to add the Three Refuges and the Three Pure Precepts.

Ironically, I think I only really understood what I was getting into when I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings.  Honestly, I can’t say I dug deep with the Fourteen MT’s.  And I gave it the best shot I had at the time with jukai and the 16 Precepts.

I have to think about all this.  It bothers me that we can’t separate the call to vow from a sense of belonging to a group.  The taking on of a way of living becomes conflated with a social identity.  Your mileage may vary and it likely has.

When I read this passage in Roshi Daido Loori’s Invoking Reality, I felt my discomfort articulated:

There are thousands of Zen practitioners in our country, many thousands who have received the precepts and taken refuge in the Three Treasures but who don’t really know what they’ve done.  They have no idea what the precepts mean.

“Hello, I’m Genju and I’m a precepts-taking addict.”

Roshi Daido Loori continues:

There is so much to learn.  The precepts are incredibly profound.  Don’t take them lightly.  They are direct.  They are subtle.  They are bottomless.  Please use them.  Press up to them.  Push them.  See where they take you.  Make them your own.  They are no small thing, by any measure.  They nourish, they heal, and they give life to the Buddha.

It’s a start.  It’s a box where I hang my hat.

Thank you for practising,


no sin, no self

The idea that Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of “sin” has floated through various readings and dharma talks.  It’s also been thrown around dharma discussions by people who come to Buddhism because of the apparent lack of punitive measures.  It intrigues me because I wonder how we slide pass things like the precepts, karma and all that stuff that points to taking responsibility for our actions and making a commitment to not create suffering. True, many practitioners I know (and hold dear) will take a pick-and-choose approach to Buddhism – as they did with Christianity until the drop down menu ran out.  And I openly place myself in that camp all the while knowing deep down that the drop down menu really has only one option.

Like most things, I’ve accepted this pronouncement that there is no concept as “sin” in Buddhism without any real reflection.  It probably has more to do with a need for Buddhism to be different from Catholicism than any deep examination of Buddhist concepts.  Let’s admit it: I want a practice where my actions don’t stamp me with the ink traces of disregulated behaviour.  In other words, I don’t want there to be any evidence of my wrongdoing.  And blindly accepting that Buddhism has no concept such as “sin” allows me all kinds of angles to play when I’ve crossed the line.

Sin is a word that evokes some deep fear and reactions against old learning and experience.  So, I asked myself: what might happen if you let go of that fear?

The online dictionary gives this definition:


noun, verb, sinned, sin·ning.

transgression of divine law: the sin of Adam.
any act regarded as such a transgression, esp. a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.
any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense: It’s a sin to waste time.

I don’t think we like having the edges of our nature defined so strongly but that begs the question.  Does Buddhism have a concept such as “sin”?  Based on the definition, I’d have to say it does.  There are precepts – five, ten, sixteen, three hundred, four hundred of them.  To transgress the precepts is to commit a regrettable action (I’m chickening out and going to the least fearful definition).  So what’s the big deal?  If I have a self, it’s going to transgress, i.e., it’s going to sin.  What arises is not anything other than what has stuck to the word “sin” culturally and religiously – all that hellfire and damnation.  In fact, a “sin” or “sinning” is the only way I can experience my humanity and cultivate self-compassion; it may be the door to seeing the self.  The more important issue is in how I meet that transgression or close that door to insight.

I need to get past the fear of being blamed with no recourse to protecting myself if I am to understand what it means to be upright.  Digging under the word and all its accretions, sin is really just another way of saying, “How was your commitment to practice here?”  And, I think, that is where Buddhism offers more to work with.  To extrapolate from Daido Loori’s book “Heart of Being,” the practice of Buddhism (and Zen) trains us in a different concept of control.  Not the punitive control of crime and punishment but a control that arises out of “championing improvement.”  No stain, no gain, no penance, no absolution.  Simply the insight that to champion improvement is to take up the Eightfold Path as the set of precepts they are.

Thank you for practising,


pachiko – the other tale

Dark and light meld in this revelation of the Truly true story of Hachiko the faithful dog.  I had no idea that there was a sadder version (Oh!  Could there be a sadder version?!)  I knew I had to share with you this wonderful historic drama that sets the original story straight!  Here is an excerpt from Zokyo: The World According to Zebrio:

Almost any Japanese person can recount the story of chūken Hachikō, (忠犬ハチ公, “faithful dog Hachikō”,) Japan’s most beloved dog and national symbol of loyalty, honored for returning everyday to Shibuya’s bustling train station to wait for his master’s return, even long after his death. Few, if any, know of or are willing to acknowledge the pup’s miscreant sibling, taida na Pachikō. (怠惰なパチ公, “slothful dog Pachikō.”)Born in November of 1923, “Hachi” and “Pachi” were two pups from a litter of seven, born on a farm near the city of Ōdate, Akita Prefecture. Their owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo, adopted the pair and brought them back to Tokyo, naming them after the Japanese word “hachi-pachi,” used to describe the sound of popping bubble wrap, a new and popular pastime in 1920’s Japan.

As pups, the dogs were identical, but as they aged, Pachiko grew dark distinguishing eyebrows, that according to historians, later inspired Japan’s bushy eyebrow craze that has yet to come out of vogue to this day. With his distinguished eyebrows, Pachiko soon gained the favor of Professor Ueno as the more clever of the pair, who later remarked in a letter to his wife, regarding all night vigils at the station by the less adroit Hachiko while the professor was away on lecture tours, “You must be kidding! That idiot dog Hachiko waits overnight for me at the station?”

To read the rest of this amazing tale click here.

Thank you for practicing so diligently!