writing the sutra of our life: a chinese detective, zhuang zi & hard nails

108zb-black-gold-post_2 Lokesh, the Tibetan monk, embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and conscience in Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan detective series, says to anti-hero Shan: “Jamyang told us his story…It is but for us to understand it. He left us the sutra of his life. We simply need to learn how to read it.” One of the most compelling detective series with a strongly Buddhist and pro-Tibetan message, Mandarin Gate(1) is the latest in the life of Chinese detective Shan and his eternal battle to fight wrongs with right. Jamyang is one of the characters in the novel but with Lokesh’s pronouncement, he can be any one of us.

How do we write the sutra of our life? How do we read and understand such a sutra? Sutras are complicated things, filled with mysterious allusions and verbal illusions. Recently, I had the absolute joy of being part of an art show with Kaz Tanahashi. Over a quiet lunch together (a snow squall had kept others stranded in their homes), I asked how best to study Dogen whom I said, “Is complicated though seemingly simple.” He chuckled and nodded: Dogen is in opposites. He writes “self” but he means “Self.” If you don’t know opposites, you cannot know Dogen.

I wish I could say that helped. It did in a reassuring way that one suddenly realizes the mountain is confirming it is a rather large and ofttimes impenetrable mountain which requires a good guide or key to its mystery. And it leaves me wondering what are the keys to these impenetrable lines of mysterious symbols and signs I’ve carved into my life. My spiritual life – though I hesitate to call it that any more, being saturated by the demands of the mundane world. Then again, that is what it is in its truest form be it Zen or any other form. Chogyam Trungpa wrote in The Myth of Freedom(2) that the intent of the discipline of practice (sit, cook, eat) is to go deeper into an intimate relationship with boredom. That is, we drop past the labels, preferences, gold stars (he calls them ‘credentials’) and addictions to form. We enter the naked lines of our scriptured life. We become entirely what we are in each moment, mountain, river, cloud, sky.

Our problem is that we tire of this ‘just is’ and want some reassurance we are on the right track. The unspoken demand is that this will be value-added to our life, our personality, our internal sense of worth. It will be a ‘credential,’ what Linchi called a ‘rank.’ I understand that it is hard to keep plugging along without some reinforcement. Truthfully the dishes wouldn’t get done without that promise of dessert after. And this is the key to understanding the sutra of our life: we make it all contingent on something happening for us (not in us).

After all, it says that in the suttas, sutras, and every teaching. Hearing the stone on the bamboo brought enlightenment! Seeing the ember, the raised finger…

Gutei-cropWait. What was that story? Gutei’s finger in the Mumokan! Gutei answered questions by raising his finger. His attendant started copying him and Gutei, seeing his mischief cut off the attendant’s finger. As the boy ran away crying, Gutei called to him and raised his finger. The attendant attained enlightenment! Boom! See, we take the raised finger as propellant to full realization and run around flipping it out. Instead of appreciating the simplicity of the one-fingered teaching, we elevate it and ritualize it.

There are all kinds of interpretations of this koan. The boy’s understanding was superficial. Teachings have nothing to do with fingers (sometimes they might with some fingers but we’re not going there today). The usual commentaries focus on owning our wisdom and not mimicking our teachers. The subtext to that is rarely mentioned; once upon a time our own teachers copied their teachers as did Gutei of his teacher Tenryu, finger and all. And there is the impenetrable “copy, yes; copy, no.”

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh (may he be held in love and peace as he traverses the realms at this moment) makes a strong point that holding onto any teaching (as in holding onto to the raft that gets us across to the other shore) is to violate the percepts. He is quoted in the preface of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree(3) that “if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.”

While this subtext of rigidly copying our teachers calls for compassion for our limitations, the ultimate intent of practice is in learning to write our own sutra, penetrating our own mind. To fully study our self as Dogen teaches, we need to uncover our tendencies to get caught in various levels of mind. In the Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi)(4), Confucius (the mouthpiece for Zhuang Zi) is guiding his pupil Yen Hui who is taking on an immense task of transforming a nearby king’s evil ways. Yen Hui had come up with various strategies all of which involved force and intimidation, most based on literal interpretations of Confucius and in his own pride. The master tries in many ways to exhort Yen Hui to see that forcing others to be benevolent is not the best approach. Finally, Confucius tells Yen Hui he has to fast. Yen Hui is baffled because he does fast and Confucius tells him it is the fasting of the heart/mind that is necessary.

Your mind must become one, do not try to understand with your ears but with your heart. Indeed, not with your heart but with your soul. Listening blocks the ears, set your heart on what is right but let your soul be open to receive in true sincerity, The Way is found in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.

UBC professor Edward Slingerland states it clearly in a lecture on Chinese philosophy (i.e., with a key to those mysterious lines; see video). Zhuang Zi says:

Hearing stops the ears (it’s at the level of doctrine).
Mind stops with signs (it’s a process of matching up names to reality).
Qi is empty/tenuous and opens to things themselves.

We get caught at the ears (think sound of tree falling); we chant and are caught in mind, mapping to reality. It is only when we cut through these iron-hard nails that hold together our doctrines and assumptions that the sutra of our life can be understood and then written in clear, unimpeded language. That means willing to be vulnerable in our ignorance, exhausted by our anger, and bruised hopelessly by our attachments. With no desire or hope of reward. So write your sutra without the traps of facts and figures, without the compulsion to line up philosophies with actions. Rather write with a boundless transparency and simplicity of what you eternally are becoming.


(1) Pattison, Eliot, Mandarin Gate (2012). Minotaur Books, NY
(2) Trungpa, Choygam, The Myth of Freedom (2002). Shambhala Publications, Boston MA
(3) Buddhasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (1985/2013). Wisdom Publications, Boston MA
(4)Chuang Tzu, The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly) (1996). Penguin Books, London UK

paradise in plain sight: lessons from a zen garden by karen maezen miller

IMG_1860 In an exchange with Karen Maezen Miller, author of Paradise in Plain Sight, I wrote, “I have Paradise on standby (pending a number of other activities that crowded my schedule).” I suspect that truer words were never written, spoken or lived. If I learned but one lesson from Paradise in Plain Sight it is how determined we are in obscuring that it is. Our days are filled not with what inspires and impassions us but with things that eat time and offer little nourishment. And then we are astonished that we feel overwhelmed or incapacitated.

Maezen Miller takes us on a gently disciplined stroll through her life as she cultivates this clear seeing of paradise. First, she tells us that paradise means an “enclosed area” and ultimately it is the enclosure of our own backyard, our own life. The lessons of how to tend to that life are offered through teachings stories of her experience in tending simultaneously to her own life and the Zen garden she tends.

It’s actually quite simple. First, she writes, find a garden. I looked out my window at the dishevelled stretch of the west garden. Well, that was exciting, I muttered to myself, at the same time realizing this is how I meet whatever I notice in my life. In the first chapter Maezen Miller brings us into the push-pull of her own life, decisions that should have been made but weren’t, tentativeness about going this way or that, until a chance word turns it all around: “The whole thing was built for Zen.” The real estate agent likely meant the garden itself; Maezen Miller soon discovers it means the thing was built for the whole of Zen, life itself.

Of course life doesn’t come in neatly weeded plots of springing-up roses and gracefully bowing willows. It was heartening to read that ground is hard to break in her world too. Apparently Zen teachers don’t get pre-tilled soil or Super-Gro on demand. They too struggle with the Great Matter. In the chapter “Moon,” she offers the tenderest of teachings by her own teacher, Maezumi Roshi.

“Whether we see a crescent moon or a half-moon, in any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking?” Maezumi said in the talk (she had transcribed for him). “Perhaps you are more logical than me,” he laughed, “and you don’t wait for the day your life will be full.” p. 42

Maezen takes up the teaching and points to the way we see ourselves as lacking because we mistake the waning moon of our abilities as a true diminishing of who we are.

Your heart is always whole, just as the moon is always full. Your life is always complete. You just don’t see it that way. p. 44

The moon is always full. It is our vision that waxes and wanes. And that is the purpose of practice, to see that fullness.

The point of Zen is to settle on the ground. Feet, knees, butt: on the ground… There is no Zen that is not on the ground. p. 29

DSC_0162It’s reassuring, especially if you garden, to know all that time in the dirt and mud is not just for putting a pretty face on the house. It has been cultivating the solidity we all crave so we can be unshakable in the storms and upheavals of our lives. This solidity defines the spaciousness which is crucial to understanding what life truly is about. And if what life is about must be spelled out: It’s bamboo. Really. Strong, solid yet hollow bamboo which stand firmly planted yet boundless in its infiltration of the ground. It reminded me of the Bishop’s Weed my cousin gave me. Boundlessly indestructible. Maezen Miller crafts a manifesto of being out of her war against bamboo (and I grasp mine against the Bishop’s Weed); it is only a war with ourselves.

  • Be quiet
  • Drop your personal agenda
  • Lose all wars
  • Give up your seat
  • You’re as ready as you’ll ever be
  • Reject nothing
  • What appears in front of you is your liberation

And my favourite: Start over. Always start over.

DSC_0161Finally, though I wished it had been at the beginning, she takes us into the weeds! However, without the tantalizing tales of how the Zen garden came to be, how her life unfolded petal by petal, how roots take hold and vines entangle, I don’t think I would have been ready to take up a vow to live all weeds as an intricate part of my life.

Maezen Miller’s book is an invitation to stop using the constructed clocks around us to define paradise, that enclosed area which we render as a cage or a trap. She appeals to us to seek out the natural timing of our heart beat and the rhythms of our breath so that we can design a space that is livable, sustainable and truly boundless.

Paradise cannot be deferred or put on standby. It wouldn’t matter if it was because that would not keep it from unfolding. It would just keep us from seeing it.

Maezen Miller respectfully reminds us:

Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken, awaken!
Take heed!
Do not squander your life!


On a personal note, this book has been an a-maezen gift (yes, I just did that) as I enter my 7th decade this week. Half of it has been spent trying to avoid weeds and overgrowth while tentatively plunking down the flowers in all my gardens. At least now, the trowel looks like an old friend.

most intimate: zen lessons from roshi enkyo – book review

Pat Enkyo O’Hara roshi is the Abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City, a frequent visiting teacher at Upaya Zen Center, and traveller into the Himalayas on medical missions. Now she offers her teachings on Zen in Most Intimate: A Zen approach to life’s challenges (Shambhala Publications).

The book begins with the greatest challenge we encounter on this path of practice: intimacy with ourselves. It widens the circle of inclusion then to relationships and then all the sticky, icky stuff that gums up being with self and others. Sex, suffering, anger, work, death & dying. Joy and peace, too. Like any practice period though, it’s the journey through the sticky stuff that opens us into healing and making peace with who and how we are. Enkyo roshi brings all this to the cushion and mat with a light touch for both the joy and woe of being human.

Zen is a way of being in touch with our wholeness – our self without the overlay of what may have crept through in our history, without the stories we make about our life, without the defensiveness or delusions that we have built up to protect ourselves. Too often what we consciously or unconsciously use as “protection” can become a frame through which we view all of life; it is a distorted frame – a prison actually.

We are very familiar with that prison. Despite its constraints and filtering of our view, we often prefer to lie in it spinning imaginings of a life both unlived and unlivable. Yet what we think is so safe is only an illusion and what we guard against so stridently is the very intimacy that can set us free.  “(I)ntimacy with ourselves…with our lovers, partners, and close friends. (Enkyo talks about) intimacy with the work we do and the colleagues with whom we work, intimacy with our community and with the great earth – intimacy with everyone.”

Chapter by chapter she walks us down these paths we work so hard to avoid. And at every step of the way she shows us her own human side and the Bodhisattva vow that keeps us committed to continually entering into places that are frightening.

A long time ago in China, a Zen student asked if any sages had ever fallen into hell. His teacher answered that they are the first to go there! The shocked student asked, “But if they are enlightened, why would they fall into hell?” The teacher looked at the student and with a smile said, “If I didn’t fall into hell, how could I help you?”

Whether we are facing our suffering or joy, Enkyo reminds us that this is our intention: to willingly fall into hell so we can help each other. She points out that we resist our pain (and therefore our joy) out of habits of mind and by doing so we miss the opportunity to become intimate with what is our life in that very instant. Paradoxically, when we cultivate that open-hearted equanimity, we also are available for the surprise of joy which comes “when we least expect it.”

Through stories of her own experiences, Zen teaching tales, question and answer sections and, most important, clearly described practice sections, Enkyo gives us a map and guide to traverse the most challenging terrain in our lives.


[This book was made available electronically for review through Shambhala Publication’s NetGalley account.]

brewing the dregs – a review of Nothing is Hidden by Barry Magid

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The practice of Zen is a beautiful, transformative, profound, imperfect, corruptible, culturally conditioned tradition and way of life of which I am part and which I am responsible for maintaining and passing on. The medium is the message: there is no Zen apart from Zen teachers and Zen students, doing what they do, devising ever new recipes for brewing the dregs we all need to live and practice.

Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans by Barry Magid is a refreshing exploration of koans and the process of how they work on us. Magid, one of the dharma heirs of Joko Beck, describes his own journey with koans as a “complicated relationship.” Trained in both the Rinzai and Soto traditions. Magid also brings his incisive thinking as a psychoanalyst to the practice of seeing what is “cutting us off from life as it is.” Chapter by chapter, Nothing is Hidden takes us through familiar koans (and some new to me) with a steady pace, shining a new light on each and drawing out sweet juice from the dregs Magid brews. More than just teaching, Magid is surprisingly human and vulnerable in his connection; he speaks of his own journey with Joko Beck in loving terms and holds her insights firmly close. He is fearless in pointing out the lack in modern Zen teachers and students to be themselves fearless while never descending into finger-pointing. In fact, in this search of our true nature, he advises like Master Tou-shuai in the chapter Hui-neng and the Original Face:

Pointedly Tou-shuai asks, where will we look for this true nature? This is a case in which, instead of trying to turn our gaze to follow the pointing finger up into the sky, all the way  to the moon, we should stop and look directly at the finger itself and forget all about the moon.

Caught in the intellectual seduction of “solving” koans, we forget that ultimately this is the workings of a koan: to point us back to ourselves, to return us to just who we are in the process of becoming. At every turning away from this, Magid meets us and blocks the automatic sloppiness of our practice. He flips concepts neatly away from the catch phrases we’ve acquired from hanging around Zen types and Zen gatherings. Starting with Mu (but do we ever end?), he flips the koan by pointing out that the gatelessness is not the absence of a gate for us to get through the obstacle of the koan. It is “wide open just as it is”; it gateless because there is no gate, no wall in which to house the gate, no form, no structure to tear down. It’s exactly this illusion of a separation from our inner self and others that keeps us searching for a gate when none is necessary, Magid teaches in page after page. And the practice is in not becoming obsessed about the knots which bind us but in “re-owning both our perfection and our failures.” However, given our innate tendencies to fool ourselves and get stuck in our desiring mind, the desire to transcend can become a trap in itself. On this Magid is forthright:

Rather than conceal our true motivation behind a veil of high-minded aspirations, we should use practice to honestly explore what has brought us to practice in the first place… (w)e inevitably will discover that we all have a “secret practice,” a personal psychological agenda and fantasy about how practice will relieve our suffering by eliminating those parts of ourselves that are the root of our problems or by actualizing some superhuman ideal.

Guilty as charged. As are most of us, including Zen teachers and their students. Magid is unrelenting in pointing out over and over, the frailties and vulnerabilities of teachers. He takes a pragmatic view (quoting Kant) that we can’t make anything that is straight out of “the crooked timber of humanity.” And he remains equanimous without offering license to their transgressions.

With this and all aspects of our practice, Magid offers a practice of “seeing the grasses by moonlight,” seeing the purloined life hidden in plain sight.  He draws generously from his work as a psychoanalyst, explaining our drives, self-states, and giving the koan work a slant towards the psychological. In this arena, Magid bring some important lessons to Zen; that Zen teachers have much to learn about teacher-student relationships from the growth (and growing) pains of psychotherapists, particularly in the areas of preventing harmful re-enactments of old patterns of attachment and rejection. Ironically, riffing on the theme of harm and the only chapter I felt disappointment about was his exploration of Ch’ien and Her Soul (Are Separated) as parental neglect to the point of (metaphoric?) trauma. This particular fable-cum-koan is rich with teachings about not-one-not-two, denying our true nature, narcissistically following our desires, regret, restitution, grace and forgiveness. But that’s just my hobby-horse.

This is a book in which we need to brew the dregs of our mind; sweet tea seeps from almost every page. I’d advise buying the book and embracing the art of writing large in the margins. It will amount to writing your own life, large and unrestrained.

the unborn


A long time ago, a robin’s egg fell to the deck, looking for all its worth like a piece of the sky had drifted down to rest on the cedar boards. It sat in a dish on the altar for a few years and later became the resting support for incense sticks, itself resting in sand brought home from a North Carolina beach. The blue faded and the shell took on the imprint of burn from an incense stick. It sat faithfully for a decade or more just doing what it was never intended to do yet doing it wholeheartedly.

Then one day it met a puppy and the shell cracked, cracked some more when it was being carried to safety – although once broken could there be any safety. And there in a plate used for sumi-e ink, it met a kitten who in its joyousness opened it totally to reveal all that it had been, all that it possibly could have been and profoundly exactly what it was in that very moment.


There is so much that we are intended for, so much that is intended for us. It begins however with one and only one intentional possibility: to become what we are. Bird, fish, human. Only after that is fulfilled can we speak of the nuances and ephemeral things-to-become.

And sometimes, we do not, cannot become for so many reasons beyond our ken and control. In those times, we may be given some other role, some other possibility which will do, will have to do for this lifetime. How to do that wholeheartedly? How to rest in that pocket of sand and support the burnt offerings of something beyond our perception?

How to sit without the hope that some intense curiousity or vibrant joy will infiltrate, breaking our shell, opening us. If only to see that what we were intended for is no longer possible. And yet, what we are is immense in its possibilities.

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

the endless training of zen: book review of A Guide to Zen

Zen training is without beginning and without end.  Some days, when the petty ego takes over and the arbitrary lines are drawn between past and future or gain and failure, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.  On those days, it’s helpful to have a guide that takes the sting out of whatever thought may drift by about gaining and failing.

Katsuki Sekida, author of Zen Training and Two Zen Classics, a translation of the Mumokan and Blue Cliff Records, was a teacher of English and trained in monasteries in Japan.  Editor of this condensation of Sekida’s earlier work, Marc Allen was one of his students at the Maui Zendo and has distilled Sekida’s teachings in a compact, helpful book for beginner and more advanced students of Zen.

Sekida starts with practice.  Acknowledging that Zen is “concerned with the problem of the nature of mind,” he makes it clear from the outset that the workings of mind (speculation and reason) are not separate from personal practice which arise from our body and mind.  Unlike most books on Zen practice which give slight service to posture and breathing, Sekida begins with two chapters detailing posture and breath work.  It’s not just about sitting and different poses; he digs deep into the experience of the breath and unravels the questions we have about the relationship between sitting immobile and the nature of mind.  More than any other book I’ve read, he digs deeply into the physiology of breath and there are some useful practices that surface from this part of the book.

I particularly liked the chapter on Samadhi,

the cleansing of consciousness,
and when consciousness is purified,
emancipation is, in fact, already accomplished.

Complicated words.  Sekida slowly and deliciously unpacks them through his definitions of absolute and positive samadhi and the phases of each. Using Linji’s categorization of the conditions of mind, Sekida describes the permutations and combinations of inner and outer focus (concerns) in clear and easily comprehensible terms.  He also makes an important point of self-mastery as the difference between true samadhi and false samadhi.   This, of course, is my hobby-horse – that litmus test between mindfulness based in ethics and mindfulness as a utilitarian strategy for the petty ego.

Sekida also clarifies the experience of kensho in one simple sentence (underlined below):

It may be, therefore, that the sound of a stone striking a bamboo trunk, or the sight of blossoms, makes a vivid impression, and you experience the wonderful moment of realization we call kensho. In this moment, you seem to see and hear beautiful things, but the truth is that you yourself have become beautiful and exalted.  Kensho is the recognition of your own purified mind.

It doesn’t get more transparent than that.

The book ends with a chapter on the Ox Herding Series.  I found it lovely but too much of a shift away from the dropping deep process of practice and realization of mind that marked the previous chapters.  Nevertheless, Sekida does offer some interesting links of his concepts of the physiology of practice and the spiritual metaphor of herding the Ox as steps in cultivating samadhi.  At times it seems prescriptive or predictive of what might happen as practice progresses.  At times it is reassuring that even on the journey of finding and mastering the Ox, there are ebbs and flows of gaining and failing.  I appreciated this the most in Sekida’s teaching: the Ox Herder is not simply a master of the capture and taming but truly the Everyman, vulnerable yet full of potential.

Finally, kudos to Marc Allen for putting together a very portable book packed full of generous teachings.  It’s one I will certainly stick in my pack and pull out often.