ever onwards

As you read this, I will be winging my way back to Upaya Zen Center for the last Core Training Retreat of the Chaplaincy Program.  Has it been all this time already?  It’s been a blur of books read, papers written, field trips, internships, and now the birthing throes of the “Final Project” leading to (hopefully) ordination in March.  

Oh but that’s too far in the future.  There is yet the harvest to get through – squash and tomatoes, chili peppers and pumpkins.  There are brilliant coloured leaves to wade through yet and knee-deep snow drifts that lie in wait for the inquisitive cat to burrow into.  There is a world that needs to turn on its axis for a sliver of a moment while we waddle towards enlightenment.

There are Jizo and Manjushri Bodhisattvas to be manifested and Buddhas to grow.

There is Rilke to read!

As if he listened.  Silence, far and far …
we draw back till we hear its depths no more.
And he is star.  And other giant stars
which we cannot see stand about him here.

Oh, he is all.  And really, do we wait
till he shall see us?  Has he need of that?
Even should we throw ourselves before him,
he would be deep, and indolent as a cat.

He has been in labor for a million years
with this which pulls us to his very feet.
He who forgets that which we must endure,
who knows what is withdrawn beyond our fate.

The Buddha

Rainer Maria Rilke (transl. C.F. MacIntyre)

step into the fire – kalyanamitra & constructive social change

On 2011 March 12, nineteen Chaplaincy candidates in the Upaya Chaplaincy program received jukai as part of the two-year training.  Along with us, three other spiritual friends received the kai and another took novice priest ordination.  This last is significant for being a ceremony in which two women Zen masters ordained a woman.

I suppose all ceremonies are significant for being a moment in which the dharma is pulled further and further into the future.  It is a turning point in which past and future converge for constructive social change.  But how can we hold this delicate vision in an even more delicate and fleeting instant as it occurs?

As Frank and I sat in our favourite restaurant having brunch, he transmitted a powerful dharma from The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach.  Lederach explains Elise Boulding’s concept of a moment as being a “two-hundred-year-present.”  This is how it works: remember the hand of the oldest person you held (your grandmother, great-grandfather) and that of the newest member of your family.  Subtract the date of birth of the oldest person from the potential date of the passing of the youngest.  This is your 200-year present.  My “200-year present” spans from 1899 to 2080.  As Lederach writes, it is the moment “made up of the lives that touched (him) and of those (he) will touch.”

A spiritual community must also take this broad scope of time.  We cannot as spiritual friends hold to the narrowed vision of attraction and repulsion in each moment.  As each cohort of practitioners steps into the fire, this 200-year moment becomes the turning point from which our future is born.  As a practice that is based in a heart-to-heart, hand-to-hand connection we are touched by hands that have touched a lineage of teachers; and we, in turn, touch hands that will be touched as teachers.

We cannot be limited by the moment.  Our practice, to be effective in creating change, must encompass and be the compass of all that has gone before and all that is to come.  To ask for and receive the kai is a commitment to “such a view of time (which) must take place within what we touch and know but never be limited to a fleeting moment that passes us by.” (Lederach)

Thankyou for practising,


step into the fire – helping Japan and the world

The irony doesn’t escape that I’ve been out of the worldly loop because of the Chaplaincy Core Program at Upaya Zen Center. Although there was some time to get online it was limited and I’m only just getting caught up on the tragedy in Japan.  Adam Tebbe of Sweeping Zen and Nathan Thompson of Dangerous Harvest have put together ways we can help.  [Edited] Maia Duerr of Jizo Chronicles also has a list of suggestions and commented “The Tzu Chi Foundation is one of the oldest socially engaged Buddhist organizations — they are launching an initiative to help relief efforts in Japan. Please consider supporting them.

Please take advantage of their generosity in compiling this information.  A permanently maintained list is also available on the Ways to Engage page here on 108 Zen Books.

It was a remarkable week of topics ranging from precepts and paramitas to complex systems theory and resiliency.  Nineteen Chaplaincy candidates received jukai along with three others, and we all participated in the novice priest ordination of one of Upaya’s residents.  It was a reconfirmation of my jukai taken in August 2010 but so much more intense because I went up to the altar with two women who represent creativity in and dedication to practice.

At this time with so much suffering and trauma erupting in the world, it helps to be with those whose vision is set not only on bearing witness to that suffering but engaging in compassionate action.  The Upaya Chaplaincy graduates have engaged in the world wholeheartedly from the Gulf disaster to transforming organizations.  These are large footprints to step into but the world gives us little choice.

Whether it is for Japan, Africa, Burma or your small square of earth, please consider how you can step into the fire.

Thank you for practising,


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

delusion of me

Last night’s meditation was a playful sit toying with self as object and self as subject. In the end it amounted to a mental version of Ernst Mach’s drawing “Self-Regarding Ego” which introduced his Analysis of Sensations.  The drawing is a portrait of Mach sitting on his couch, drawing what he sees with one eye closed – a decapitated self.  As bizarre as the drawing may be it serves a purpose in reminding me that this is what I see of myself each day.  And perhaps that’s not a bad thing because practice is all about losing one’s head, that repository of the imagined self.

Some of the research Richie Davidson referenced in his Zen Brain talk included studies that showed “no unique circuit in the brain for self-processing.”  In other words, there is no part of the brain that is exclusive in conceptualizing, designing or managing “self” as we know it.  How freeing!  If the concept of self is not dependent on one thing, not localized in one place, everything is possible.  By extension this implies that there is no singular practice which will confer insight, enlightenment or liberation.  It also provides a powerful antidote to the posessiveness of identity.

The delusion of self-identification arises when I identify with something rather than identify it as something.  When a thought arises and I lay claim to it as “my” thought, I’m trapped in the net of self-identification.  When I release it as “a” thought, I release concepts of my Self as well.  Davidson described an interesting experiment in which training in meditation skills broke through the “attentional blink” previously thought to be hardwired and therefore not amenable to change.  The attentional blink is the period between two targets presented in close succession so that the second target is not detectable.  This failure in detecting the second target is thought to be because the observer gets locked or over-invested in the first target.  After a 3-month meditation retreat at IMS in Barre MA, observers were able to identify the second target more successfully.  The explanation is that the meditators have cultivated the capacity to not take ownership of the first target.  This allocates more attentional resources to sustain the nonclinging state and an openness to new incoming information.

The final tantalizing information Davidson presented was that intention, aspiration and vow are members of the same family of mental processes which can be strengthened by meditation practice.  Unfortunately it was a broad brushed segment of his presentation and I’m hoping there will be more in the future on the sustaining of vow when it is in moments of conflict.  This has such powerful implications for understanding what creates sustainable behaviours from folding the laundry to honouring our commitment to each other.

In the final analysis, neurological studies may have little to do with whether or not I practice.  Delusions are numberless and I’m quite good at finding that single powerful one to distract me.  However, neurological studies with their message of infinite possibilities do provide us a way of encouraging ourselves and our companion practitioners who may feel they are not made for meditation or who feel discouraged by the sticky periods in a life of practice.

Thank you for practicing,



The self is a performance and therefore not substantial.  It emerges out of conditions but is not reducible to them.

Life is a process of “I-making”.

Notes from Evan Thompson’s talk at Zen Brain retreat Upaya Zen Center

Thompson is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.  There are many reasons to admire someone like Thompson: the dedication to precision of thought and word, the commitment to an embodied practice, the ability to pronounce “autopoiesis.”  I admire the man simply because the backflap of his book articulates his history in very pithy terms: Evan Thompson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.  That’s it.  That’s all.  No overpowering list of books he’s authored (although he wrote The Embodied Mind
with Francesco Varela).  No list of imposing journal publications, presentations, or the cheery notes about spouse, kids, and anipals.  Just a simple statement going to essence.

So, with faith in his ability to get to essence, I have dug into Mind in Life and struggle with the implications when Thompson writes in the chapter Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living:

In every life beginning is unique, but none is isolated and self-contained….  Every beginning has a beginning before it and another one before that, leading back through the receding biological past to its time and place of origin, the beginning of life on Earth.

I’ve made several false starts at trying to understand and summarize autopoiesis here; I’m proud to say I can now type the word without misspelling it.  My limited understanding is that it is the process in which a cell uses the materials at hand to create both itself and the materials at hand in a cycle of continual self-production.  That very process of self-generation also renders it separate from and self-contained in its environment yet continuing to need the materials in the environment to support the self-making.

This is a picture of e. coli.  It’s an autopoietic organism, dynamically interacting and adapting to its environment.  It orients to a food gradient and moves uphill to greater concentrations.  It is focused on self-generation, creating a world in which its needs are met.  The emergence of this world of nutrients and the self-made-thus leads to sense-making of its self-environment dynamic relationship. Sense-making leads to valuing and creating significance of parts of the environment that are critical to life.  That is, value and significance are brought out of (enacted) by the interaction of a living being with its environment.  They are not intrinsic to the environment.

As it proceeds to create itself, it creates value and discernment of its environment.  Not bad for a bacterium.

In all our complexity, moving through our environment, with a type of I-making that arises from a feedback loop of perception and action, we too engage in this “I-making”.  This performance that arises out of the conditions through which we enact living.

Thank you for practicing,