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.

this field of boundless emptiness

Botataung Pagoda

Every Sunday my family began the day with an early morning Mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral.  Latin Mass.  The rafters resounded with the Credo in Unum Deum and Kyrie Eleison thankfully absorbing my screechy accompaniment.  I lived for those moments of transcendence which set into all of my ten years a deep yearning for total devotion to prayer.  Unlike my peers I needed no bribery for surviving the never-ending chants or the choking scent of the incense censer (interestingly called a “thurible” and for a stunning display of one version check out the last scenes of the movie “The Way” which is about a father’s journey along El Camino de Santiago).  Besotted little Love Dog of the Teachings, I was only too eager to be there front and center absorbing the ceremony and answering back whole-heartedly.

In the afternoons my parents would have their poker parties.  Don’t get me wrong; they were every bit as devout as a good Catholic couple would have been in the wild 50’s of post-war Burma.  But they also knew to feed their attachments to good liquor and cards.  The house would transform into a speak-easy of beautiful men and stunning women navigating around tables of cards, dice and other games I can’t recall.  In the background the strains of Dorsey, Miller, Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters erased all trace of the resonant Latin chants.

That was when my grandmother stepped in.  My father’s mother, a cheroot-smoking, shoe-throwing devotee of the Buddha, was not impressed by the exposure I was getting to the three poisons.  Though I doubt she actually thought of it that way.  Perhaps it was more an issue of trying to neutralize the Latin Mass.  In order to marry my grandfather (who was Catholic), she had to agree that her children would be raised Catholic.  So my father, although his devotion to the mystery of being expressed its way in both forms of worship, lived his life a staunch Catholic with a worldview shot through by a quiet Buddhist thread.  And I, swept off to the Botataung Pagoda each Sunday, lived out both their hopes of the Buddhist lineage.

But I didn’t know that at the time.  Sundays were simply, complicatedly, a day of Latin chants followed by the shedding of frilly dresses for the tomboy pants and a walk along the railway tracks that lead me and my grandmother to the pagoda’s turtle pond.  There she bought large compressed balls of popped corn which I fed the turtles, watching them wait semi-submerged and then rise lazily to break off a piece of the chunk I threw into the broad lotus leaves.  I still can’t eat popcorn without thinking “turtle food.”  These interwoven rituals became my practice roots.  Not grandiosity of the Mass, the priests or monastics, the genuflections or prostrations , the soaring Kyrie or monotonic memorized recitations of the suttas that floated in the background of the pagoda grounds.  These were the forms of religion, vaguely activating in the heart but not captivating enough for devotion.

The turtle pond, however, was a different bright boundless field. At its edge I learned the early lessons of transcending sights and sounds, of leaving no trace and reflecting mirror-sharp reality.  This became and continues as the center of my circle of devotion.

The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning.  You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits.  Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness.  Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything.  Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions….  The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner.  The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds.  The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations….  With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder.  This is how you must penetrate and study.

The Bright, Boundless Field.  In Cultivating the Empty Field: The silent illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu

spirituality, ritual, and being a selectionist-buddhist

Dad&Mum We had our first formal zazenkai today after a few years of hunkering down in formless practice. As formal as it gets, I suppose, given my tendency to laziness when it comes to form and ritual. Yet those moments of chanting and prostrations are a lovely dance we should all take part in if we are to learn to embody practice, to live vow.  And I felt it was important to honour the 7th day after my mother’s death.

Oh.  That’s my father and mother to the left.  They cut quite a dashing couple in the old days – which were actually the new days for them.  New days of hope that the British Occupation would bring them comfort and opportunity – which it did.  I think the picture is taken after WW II and around the time of Great Optimism.  They were both rising stars in the newly formed government, sometime after Aung San’s assassination and the military take over by Ne Win in 1963.  By then, they had learned to weave through the many political ups and downs including losing much of their acquired wealth when Ne Win demonetarized the Burmese kyat.  In fact, they had both retired and built their dream home only to have my father return to work when asked because, drawing from the rhythms of his poverty-ridden childhood,  he couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t need him or a family that ever had enough money to survive.

This was their legacy: work hard, do what’s necessary, never wonder if things could be better, make them better by waking up each morning and doing what is necessary.

Monk: What is the essence of your practice?
Basho: Whatever is needed

So today, we chanted the Honoring of the Bodhisattvas, lowered our bodies to the ground in gratitude for all the Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas, the Stream of All Our Ancestors which now includes my parents and the parents of some of my friends whose mothers and fathers made their transition this week.

There’s a reluctance about the form of practice.  I feel it in myself even now after these years of lighting incense, bowing, prostrating, and stepping back before turning away from the altar.  As if somehow I would like this Buddhism to be something pure and separate from the religiosity of my childhood, the cathedrals and the black-frocked Christian European priests speaking to us poor Asians as if we were just south of a Neanderthal lineage.  And yet I resist the neo-spirituality I find that sucks in Buddhism as the panacea for and talisman against all sins past and future.

So yes, I’ve shopped my way around but in my defense it was only because of my ignorance of the many factions (I use that deliberately).  I grew up in a cultural Buddhism which had little to do with meditation and a lot to do with chanting at the pagodas, prostrating and feeding male monastics.  That said, a bit of buffet-surfing was to be expected and having (quickly) settled in Zen, I am quite content and even allow my Latin-Mass Catholic heritage to relish in the rise and fall of Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya.

Still, I have to say that meeting so many on this path who are caught in the confounding of being spiritual and being non-religious frustrates me.  Even more do claims to a Selectionist-Buddhism, as if that makes it more spiritual, annoy the heck out of me.    If there was one thing I learned standing my parents’ deathbed – even a decade apart – was that rituals don’t help ease the pain.  That’s not why we step into that space.  Rituals offer an opportunity to see how our mind grabs the nearest thing and makes it fuel.  That’s all.

And that’s likely the most important teaching we will ever receive whether it’s lifting a cup of coffee to our lips, checking the rear view mirror before backing out the driveway, packing our life’s belongings to cross an ocean, or bowing to the stream that awaits us as future ancestors.


Note bene: Interestingly, I am reading Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy by David Webster.  He has a fascinating thesis on spirituality having been hijacked by the New Age and the buffet mentality of seekers.  The book is good if somewhat problematic in being poorly edited, the occasional philosophical rant and difficulty with having to infer whether he’s talking about “authentic” or “let-me-look-spiritual”  spirituality.  But I’m liking it and, for the more philosophical among you, it may be worth the read.  (He actually does a great job of it on his blog post, Spiritual But Not Religious.)

it all bodes for bodhi day


Tomorrow we commemorate the enlightenment of the historic Buddha.  I would have loved to have been at Rohatsu this year because it is one way to deepen my practice and share in the power of community.  But that wasn’t to be and, in many ways, it turned out for the best.  I had the good fortune to spend last week at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) on a week-long retreat on the Abhidhamma taught by Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki.  While there I also had the terrific opportunity to meet resident scholar Mu Soeng whose book, The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra, is a worthwhile read for its interesting translation of the Prajnaparamitta.

There were many things to love about BCBS as a venue.  Private rooms are definitely a plus.  There aren’t many but for a small retreat (about 20 people) there were ample.  The farmhouse and surrounding forest evoke the deep silence that fosters deep practice.  Of course, it’s a study center so we can be forgiven for the occasional wildness; I think someone had two servings of the carrot cake!

View as I exit the dorm

View as I exit the dorm

The course itself was a challenge for me and not just because I haven’t actually dug into the Abhidhamma in any detail.  My classmates were an astonishing lot.  A sales manager, a health fund manager, a teacher, an executive of an IT firm, a couple of mindfulness program teachers, and a few folks from areas of Buddhist practice that intimidate me.  Never mind.  They all intimidated me.  And they filled me with envy for their facility with Pali, the suttas, and all manner of questioning the structure and form of the canon.  It made me wonder if my years in Zen has been a total waste with regard to actually understanding anything about Buddhism.

As I wandered the book-ladened rooms of BCBS, I reflected on the seeming inaccessibility of the Mahayana sutras and equally seeming accessibility of the Pali Canon.  In part, it may be the way in which each is conveyed and taught; in part it may be that my own experience of Zen is one of unrelenting practice with little to ground it beyond studying the Heart Sutra and dharma talks on Dogen.  There’s no question that the current love affair with Neuro-Buddhism has put a definite cramp in actually learning and practicing Buddhism but that’s a matter for a different post.

The next day it snowed

The next day it snowed

Waking up to the real nature of one’s own practice is important.  After all, that is the intent of all those hours cultivating the mindfulness muscle.  Reflecting on my own path, it seems I’ve delightfully flowed with traditions whose teachers (authors) and sanghas were welcoming and able to convey the ways of practice that were helpful at the time of contact.  That’s quite typical.  We gravitate to the sources of warmth and comfort which take away – or promise to take away – our suffering.  And to be honest, I’ve rarely resonated with teachers outside the Zen tradition.

Then I met jhana teacher Leigh Brasington who was at the same retreat and in our chats about the different yanas and what they demand of us, he called himself a “suttayana-ist.”  I liked that.  It pretty much sums up the totality of Buddhism.  Then again, when you read (yes, you must) Bhikkhu Sujato’s History of Mindfulness, you may wonder which sutta are we yana-ing after!

Well, I have no answers.  Not for me and definitively not for you.  I do know that I am hungry for a bit of scholarship that, like my defunct septic bed, is not buried in collapsed layers of impenetrable metaphors.  It’s hard not to feel that way immersed in rooms like these.  But that may just be another delusion that will set back my potential for enlightenment.  But that should not stop you.  Have a rousing awakening tomorrow!

Library off the classroom

Library off the classroom

Main library

Main library

Sat in left chair after breakfast each morning

Sat in left chair after breakfast each morning

My view at every morning's sitting

My view at every morning’s sitting

Dhamma Hall

Dhamma Hall

BCBS_books3 BCBS_books2 BCBS_books1

the industry of zen & buddhism

Ah! There you are*.

I’m rather chagrined to discover I’ve been MIA for almost a month.  There are no excuses but many reasons; and as I type I’m scrolling through my eCalendar to wow you with some of the amazing accomplishments that have come to pass in these three or four weeks.  Well, perhaps I overstate myself.  It seems the biggest accomplishment has been that I got through the weeks, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, only arrive right here where I began three years ago.

Over those weeks, days, and moments, a challenging question has been worming its way through my mind: Is this Zen?  Is this even Buddhism?  Perhaps this is a poorly conceptualized version of the more powerful question, What is this?  What is this?  Or perhaps this is an important space to open up (again) that cultivates the discernment between the Industry of Zen/Buddhism and the embodiment of it.

Not-Zen/Not-Buddhism is typically easy to spot albeit not easy to resist.  Beer labels, perfumes, furniture, bars, restaurants, clothing, and most objects can safely be tagged “Not-Zen.”  However, it is useful to consider that the intent of using the term for a product is to increase sales through a subtle promise of a mind-state.  And yet, if that is the case, perhaps we find ourselves reduced absurdly to include things like books, audio files, dharma talks, zafus, zabutons (and the love of words most people in our life circles would neither understand nor use in daily discourse), and even dharma teachers, priests, temples, zendos, and the odd kit with kaboodle.

Is that absurd?  I’m beginning to think not.  It’s been my observation that when we first encounter something which fulfills the promise of a mind-state more easeful than the wild, vicious, tumultuous one we inhabit out of habit, we quickly slip from the embodiment of that state to the Industry of what promises to accomplish that state.  Meditation helps you feel calmer?  Great!  Sit longer, download more meditation tracks!  Buddhism explains the state of your world?  Awesome!  Get a few more books, buy a few more buddha statues to fill the spaces!  The world too filled with distraction and pain?  Great!  Go on more retreats, enforce more silence in your schedule!

The sad thing is I don’t think I’m exaggerating.  The early stages of the path are filled with opportunity to be infatuated with what we think is Zen and Buddhism but which, on closer examination, is only a promise heard in a moment of desperation.  And what a seductive promise it is with its purring engine and fine, fine aerodynamic lines!  The vehicle of Buddhism – especially the Zen model rolling off the production lines – has us begging for the keys.  And we fall prey to the Industry of Buddhism which is in fact the after-market industry and occasionally comes frighteningly close to “Pimp My Ride.”

But in the fine print of the ownership papers lies the true intention for taking this baby out for a spin.  The intent of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular  is – and has always been – embodying  openness to the dynamic between our experience and our avoidance of it.  There’s no promise of elevated mind-states or visceral joy in catharsis in the fine print.  There is only bearing witness to the slip-slide-skid and the compassionate action of turning into that skid.  And yes, there are some forms in practice that facilitate our skillfulness to embody its intent.  However, and sadly so, the more enamoured we are of specific forms of practice – be it meditation, insight cultivation, retreats, or what have you – the easier it is for the Industry of Buddhism to aid and abet our avoidance of who we are in this and every moment.


*This is our little ghost cat, Desirée.  She’s 14 years old and this is first time she’s allowed me to cuddle her.

entering zen: the wabi-sabi of practice


Whatever it is,
I cannot understand it,
although gratitude
stubbornly overcomes me
until I’m reduced to tears.


Entering Zen by Ben Howard is one of those stealthy books that can overcome you page by quiet page.  And at times, as I read it in a cabin tucked into the misty Catskills, it did reduce me to tears.  There is a simplicity in Howard’s words, something that makes this book and his blog posts (One Time, One Meeting ) a place of exploration that is simultaneously safe and challenging to enter.

These 75 essays offer teachings on Zen that show the practice as basic yet intricate, ordinary yet elegant.  To shine these jewels of practice, Howard draws from his immense knowledge and wisdom of literature, poetry, Buddhist practice, and an intimacy with his own life.  The tone of each chapter is by turn filled with delight at a child’s creativity, nostalgic for ways of living long gone, and delicate in unfolding a complex concept like sabi or wabi sabi.

Weathered Wood, the chapter which does the latter, is likely my favourite because Howard draws us in with a lovely poignant explanation of sabi and extends it to an appreciation of how our lives progress as a “bloom of time.”  He teaches from the wisdom of Tadao Ando, an architect:

Sabi by itself means “the bloom of time.”  It connotes natural progression – tarnish, hoariness, rust – the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled.  It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting…Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough.

Howard goes on to point out that sabi carries a suggestion of imperfection.  This is not the imperfection of wrongness or improper creation;  it is the imperfection that confirms the authenticity of a life being lived.  And this is the heart of Zen practice: the confirmation that an authentic life is one lived intimately with the truth of imperfection.

Throughout the book, Howard writes with an ease that comes from his skill as a teacher of English Literature, a musician, and his long-standing practice with different teachers.  He brings out the wisdom and compassion of Dogen, Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Toni Packer with the same precise skill as what he extracts from poets Seamus Heany, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder.  It can be intimidating and somehow Howard manages to make the accessibility of the complexities of the dharma seem to be our own wisdom.  And, his consternation at vanity plates that say “ME” notwithstanding, I do feel the urge to whisper at the end of each chapter, “I did it!”

As the current trend in Buddhist writings leans towards snappy phrases and promises of liberation by the last chapter, Howard’s writings are refreshingly honest.  Practice takes effort.  It is worthy of our attention.  It grants us “refuge… more dependable than any bank and more durable than any mountain.”  It is no more or less than this, just this.

the practice of stuckness

Tomorrow is the Harvest Moon.  It’s also known as the Fruit Moon which prompts the question: what have been the fruits of our practice?  What will we gather together with the intention that it nourish us through the cold, dark nights ahead?  If the state of my life at this point is any indication of my stewardship of my spiritual ground, I’d say winter holds promise of a meager diet.  Where did the time go?  What happened to the plantings of six months ago?

Not only has the wild heat of the Summer been unforgiving of the vegetable and flower gardens, this inner heat of dissatisfaction has left me parched in my practice.  It could be a good thing, I suppose: an opportunity to see the places where my character fractures and edges where my ego curls up and withers.  The fact that I don’t like it is irrelevant because once the whole ball of self-reflection and intense scrutiny gets rolling, there’s not much that will stop it.  And the universe helps it along too.

You remember Sprout who pounced his way into our home, leaving a trail of mashed houseplants and mangled Beanie Babies.  He’s now a year old and thriving.

Meet his doppelgänger, Mystery formerly known as No Name.

I came home one Friday evening to find Sprout unusually needy of attention.  His security blanket, Frank, had been away for a few a days and I reframed his utilitarian affections for me as an opportunity to bond.  Apparently, the practice of equanimity was bearing fruit, transforming the typical bitterness I feel about feline fickleness.  And then I wondered if I was having a spiritual emergency when I saw two Sprouts at my feet, asking to be picked up.  It took a moment, a fascinating moment during which I physically felt my brain trying to make the two one, forcing my eyes to reset to a previous configuration.  One not two.

Sadly, though not for No Name, truth always vanquishes delusion.  And now we are left with a mystery, not just about the cat but the manner in which she got into the house and took up residence.  But reside she will, and preside over the reconfiguration of four cats, two litter boxes, and a deferment of my long-desired rescue dog.  The practice of letting go is getting a workout too.

On the bookish front, I’m blessed with two amazing books.  The Existential Buddhist, Seth Segall’s Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings is a tour de force of 9 essays bringing together the Dharma and Western perspectives of mental health.  I had it set for review in October but Frank has absconded with it which reminds me to deepen my practice of generosity and also lock away my new purchases.  The second is by Practice of Zen blogger, Ben Howard: Entering Zen, a collection of Ben’s writings that are always a delight and a deep teaching.  The few chapters I’ve read remind me that there is power in a practice that is softly open and that some things crumble and collapse despite being well-placed and useful at the time of planting.  The third book is a bit of a curiosity called The Heart Attack Sutra by Karl Brunnhölzl.  I have no memory of purchasing this; like Mystery, it seemed to just show up – about the time I was considering cancelling my echo cardiogram and stress echo test because my practice of remembering my mortality doesn’t include fuzzy pictures of a pulsing heart.  (Actually, seeing my heart beat in real-time has to be one of the most profound moments of deep meditation I have ever experienced!)

So.  Yes.  Practice has been a struggle over the last months.  And yet, and yet I know this is precisely the form and purpose of practice: to sit with this discomfort of things out of rhythm and without rhyme.  Dukkha at its most seductive tells us to move away from this stuckness, insists there are more important things to do, critical time that cannot be wasted.  And that is the precise moment to turn into the vast emptiness of practice.