Posts Tagged ‘Dogen’

almost living

September 3rd, 2015    -    2 Comments


You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. — Dogen Zenji

The time is near
It’s almost done
What seemed forever
left awhile ago
I’m almost sixty
She’s almost driving
One more month
and the day will come
There was that time
you won’t remember
I don’t remember
even yesterday
Memory is a memory
Time tells lies
Words come too little and late
There is no first or last
no then, if or how
no near or far
almost, an impossibility
If you can see
a moment of Zen
the only when
is now

The list of forgetting

August 25th, 2015    -    41 Comments

To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.
To be enlightened by the ten thousand things is to free one’s body and mind and those of others.  –

Mindfulness means to remember that you are here, and to forget the story of where you are not.

So forget the story you tell yourself about your parents, the story you tell yourself about your childhood, the story you tell of your first love, the story of your first marriage, the story of pain and partings. Forget the birth story, the death story, the whole story, the story you keep repeating, the story you’ll never forget. Forget that story, and do not replace it with another.

Forget what might have been and what could still be. The past is gone and the future will arrive on schedule.

Forget the time you ran away, the time you cheated, the time you got caught, the time you found out, the time you broke down, the time you picked yourself up, the time you were left high and dry, the time the milk spilled and the glass broke, the time you’ll never forget. Forget time.

Forget what happened this morning. There is no this morning. There is no last night, today or tomorrow.

Forget your second thoughts, your second guesses, your second glances and second chances. Forget the count. No one knows the count and there is no way to count it.

Forget your worst fears and highest hopes. Forget all fears and hopes. Forget all worst and highest. Forget altogether the habit of make believe when reality is magic already.

Forget your leaps of logic and foregone conclusions. Nothing is ever foregone or concluded. Cover the ground where you stand. It’s enough.

Forget what you thought.

Forget what you felt. Do not resurrect a ghost.

Forget what she said, what he said, and especially what she said. Do not mistake the word for the thing.

Now, open your eyes and do what needs to be done. Having forgotten all obstacles and limitations, all distractions and negations, there is nothing you do not know how to do. Surprise yourself.

You are a buddha.

Any questions? Remember to ask me in person.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Oct. 18
Introductory Zen Retreat, Kansas City, Oct. 23-25
Zen Retreat at Meadowkirk, Middleburg VA Dec. 10-13
Meditation as Love, Kripalu, Feb. 5-7

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Buddha’s last 8 instructions

May 13th, 2015    -    8 Comments

nutshellI hesitated before I wrote that title because there is no such thing as “last” or even “first,” but there is a short list commonly known as Buddha’s final teaching before he died, and so I am sharing it here and now.

Words attributed to Buddha are the basis of much industry, interpretation, and enterprise. Buddha’s teachings were entirely spoken and conveyed for hundreds of years by word of mouth until the first written records were made. This is just the way it is and in one sense it works just fine. Sure, words are subject to erroneous understanding by deluded people, but with a bit of practice and a flicker of clarity, you can look at a modern quotation, especially a popular one, and know instantly that Buddha never said any such thing.

And this is precisely what his instructions foretold. There’s a good chance you guys are going to get this all wrong.

“Last words” are interesting in another way. When you’re present at someone’s death, you don’t know when the final moment will come, or what the critical utterance will be. Sometime later you reflect on what happened last and then decide for yourself what it means. Before her death, my mother told me, “Be yourself and take good care of your family.” She lived for several days after I heard that, and she may have said more that I didn’t hear or recall. But the words I retained were useful for me — simple and straightforward — carrying with them a mother’s hope that I wouldn’t complicate things quite so much.

That’s the spirit with which I see Buddha’s last instructions. A human being, surrounded by devotees and dependents, with a final chance to bring peace and ease to a population crazed with fear and grief. I have simplified these from a scholarly translation, but in a nutshell, this is what Buddha tells you to do here and now:

1. Want little — Suffer less.
2. Be satisfied — Enough is enough.
3. Avoid crowds — Be alone and quiet.
4. Keep going — Don’t turn back.
5. Pay attention — Guard your mind.
6. Meditate — Or you are lost.
7. See for yourself — Cultivate wisdom.
8. Don’t talk about it — Do it.

“Now, all of you be quiet and do not speak. Time is passing and I am going to cross over. This is my last admonition to you.”


Based on “Eight Awakenings of Great Beings” by Dogen Zenji. From Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

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the problem with you is me

April 27th, 2015    -    23 Comments


Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.

— Dogen, “On Nondependence of Mind”

For a week I’ve had a thought every so often to write a blog post entitled “Leave No Trace.” Then the thought would disappear and I wouldn’t do it. When I sat down just now to write, I realized that I had not visited this site for twenty-eight days or written anything new for thirty-nine days. In the meantime, my site meter had stopped working. The traffic stats for this website thus appear as a vast empty stretch of tracelessness, as if a flock of birds could fly right through it. Something probably happened over the interval — a few visits here, a few there, two thousand spam comments — but nothing was recorded so I don’t know or even care. While I was so nobly intending to hold forth on the Dharma wisdom of “Leave No Trace,” the Dharma was expounding itself without me.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Your site meter can stop and it doesn’t mean you are dead. You can do nothing and everything still happens. You can leave no trace and you won’t fall into a void of extinction. But you might notice that you are a little less self-obsessed, a little less devoted to fame and popularity, less dependent on recognition and praise, less inclined to argue and blame. This is the subtle and profound wisdom of Zen instruction. You don’t lose anything when you leave no trace but the notion of your own ever-loving importance.

The Dharma is always expounded in the absence of self.

When I first began to attend Zen retreats, or sesshins, I’d see the short admonition posted throughout the retreat grounds. Leave No Trace was taped to the corner of the bathroom mirror, propped by the coffee pot, and hanging above the kitchen sink. It secretly pleased me because I thought it validated my own tendency toward obsessive-compulsive tidiness. Wipe your feet! Clean up after yourself! Rinse your own cup! It does quite literally mean those things, but it also means much more. Leaving no trace is a practice that goes on well after you clean your shoes, brush your teeth, and wash a lifetime of coffee cups. No trace is aimed at getting rid of all the petty offenses, inconveniences, and problems in your life: namely, you. Or should I say, me.

Do I have a problem with you? That’s me.

Am I irritated? That’s me.

Do I feel unappreciated? That’s me.

Distracted? That’s me.

Disrespected or misunderstood? That’s me.

Do I feel the need to explain my personal history and point of view so that you can validate my experience? That’s me.

Am I angry at you? That’s me.

Am I struggling with things around me? That’s me.

Do I feel vulnerable, ashamed, defensive, unworthy, or victimized? That’s me.

Uninspired, resistant, and unsure? That’s me.

Do I feel like I leave a big blot of ugly trouble wherever I go? Every day.

Water birds are not dependent on a particular place. When they are on the ground, they function on the ground. On the water, they function on the water. In the sky, they function in the sky. They function perfectly and intuitively wherever they are, moving from one place to another by spontaneous instinct, never lost and never leaving a trace of where they’ve been. So can we live like that?

But wait, one time a bird pooped on my head. (True, it really happened to me.) Isn’t that a trace of the bird?

No, it’s a trace of me needing to have the last word.

Please everyone: clean up the crap you leave behind, stand clear of the crap I leave behind, and just keep going. This is the fundamental truth and beauty of the traceless path.

Photo Credit: “Birds in Flight on Water” by Joe Myeress



7 ways to make Thanksgiving mindful

November 18th, 2014    -    2 Comments


Of course you want it to be good. You’d like the mashed potatoes to keep warm, the stuffing to stay moist and the gravy to taste homemade. You’re hoping the pies turn out, the guests turn up and the TV gets turned off. You’ll be grateful to have it over with, but can you take a week of hectic cooking and turn it into a mindfulness practice?

The sages did, and still do.

Mindfulness practice is exactly like preparing a holiday dinner. In fact, one of the most profound and practical texts in Zen, “Instructions for the Cook,” was written nearly 800 years ago for the monastery kitchen staff. That ancient teaching inspires these 7 ways to prepare your Thanksgiving meal more mindfully. read more

when life comes into focus

June 17th, 2014    -    6 Comments


When life comes into focus, you realize there’s no time to waste.

Form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like a dart of lightning — emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.

Have you ever known a 28-year-old who felt as though his life was nearly over? Perhaps. How about a 58-year-old? Now you do.

In 1222, a Japanese monk named Dogen was 28 years old when he returned from a sojourn to China, a quest in search of the true Dharma. Needless to say, he found it. Dogen came home so energized and committed that he singlehandedly revitalized Japanese Zen into a form still alive today.

Upon returning after a four-year absence, he immediately wrote a short teaching. It wasn’t mystical or philosophical. It wasn’t clever or even original. He didn’t bang his own drum. Frankly, Dogen didn’t get a lot of attention in his day no matter what he did.

Just 1,000 words long, this article was what we might today call a “how-to.” He titled it “Universal Instructions for Sitting.” By “universal” he meant “for everyone.” Dogen had resolved the great matter of life and death — grasped the ultimate reality, the holy grail of a spiritual pursuit. But he didn’t waste time telling stories about it. What seized him as the most urgent thing to do was tell people how to sit in zazen, or zen meditation: still, upright, and as comfortably as possible, with the added assurance that everyone can do it.

Do not use your time in vain.

Dogen was concerned with nothing else because he had realized that anything else would use his time in vain.

He had a head start on this realization because his father died when Dogen was two and his mother when he was seven. Here he was, already 28. He would die at the age of 53. His instincts were spot on.

Concentrate your effort single-mindedly.

At some point while I was writing my last book, it hit me. It hit me like a brick because it was so obvious.  I was never going to be everybody’s favorite fuzzy-headed Buddhist writer. I wasn’t in league with the really well-loved memoirists. I couldn’t pass myself off as a parenting expert, a relationship counselor, a TED talker or a psychologist. I’d topped out as a literary celebrity without ever becoming one.

All of that is just fine and right on time, because I feel the weight and length of my days. They are running out, and I no longer have time for much else. I just want to tell folks how to sit.

A quiet room is suitable. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs.

I’ve become clear on my life’s work and purpose. I know what I want to be when I grow up.

So I no longer go anywhere to do anything except sit with people who want to sit. I know that not everyone wants to sit. But everyone can.

I’ll show you.

Washington DC June 21-22
Houston June 29
New Orleans Sept. 13
Kripalu, Massachusetts Nov. 14-16
West Hartford, Conn. April 17-19, 2015

Fukanzazengi, complete text


no comment

January 26th, 2014    -    7 Comments


It’s kind of weird that I should toss up such a long post on the subject of silence, but that’s how it is. I just haven’t wanted to say anything for awhile. That’s not true, I’ve wanted to say a lot, but I haven’t said what didn’t need to be said.

The world seems awfully noisy these days. When I manage to quiet the first impulse to talk back, I find that nothing needs to be said. There’s a thought: maybe nothing at all ever needs to be said! Should I ever confirm that for myself I won’t be talking about it, so I encourage you to investigate silence for yourself.

Everywhere there’s an argument, a cause, a rumble. An upset in the paper, a battle on Twitter, an outrage on Facebook, a side for, and another side in stark raving opposition. Perhaps this is what happens this time of year, in the fearsome dark and slogging cold (or alarming heat) of winter. We go stir-crazy. We pick fights, name names, make enemies, slam doors, close our ears and pound out open, clever, biting letters, as though our point of view is an urgent and necessary correction to the world’s spin.

Anytime I feel like my opinion is a matter of life and death I’m overlooking life and death.

Dogo and Zengen came to a house to express condolences. Zengen tapped on the coffin and said, “Is this life or death?” Dogo said, “I don’t say life, I don’t say death.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you?” Dogo said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

On the way back Zengen said, “Master, please say it to me right away. If you don’t, I shall hit you.” Dogo said, “If you want to hit me, you can hit me. But I will never say.” Thereupon Zengen hit him.

Some time later Dogo passed away. Zengen went to Sekiso and told him what had happened. Sekiso said, “I don’t say life, I don’t say death.” Zengen said, “Why don’t you?” Sekiso said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” With these words, Zengen came suddenly to an insight.

This is a koan, a Zen teaching story from a long time ago. I encountered it myself a while back and now I’m realizing how deeply it impacted me.  I first came upon it around the time my mother was dying, and I thought at first that it might settle some of my distress surrounding death, and how to prepare, what I should know, how it would be, and if there was a Zen answer that I could enlighten her with. It does give the answer, completely, just not in words. read more

fire and water

May 26th, 2013    -    3 Comments

I have been writing seriously for several months, which means I have been seriously reading. I’ve relied on a furnace of words for warmth and light, and an ocean of wisdom to slake my thirst. Most recently, I have consumed these books, and they have consumed me. I wholeheartedly recommend them for telling the one true story of our lives.

9780670026630A Tale for the Time Being – By Ruth Ozeki. When a woman finds a girl’s journal washed up on her island shore, it becomes a portal through time. A mysterious and compelling story, as well as a fearless presentation of Zen’s deepest teachings. Brilliant.


age-miracles-karen-thompson-walker-paperback-cover-artThe Age of Miracles – By Karen Walker Thompson. When the Earth’s rotation inexplicably slows, the result reads like neither science nor fiction, but the revelation of our hidden nature in unblinking daylight. Observant and insightful.


9780307962690_180X180Wave – By Sonali Deraniyagala.  Her life, family, future and every shred of sanity is washed away by the South Asian tsunami on the day after Christmas. The sole survivor can only say this much. Each word of this memoir is a pearl. Unbearably perfect.


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trouble with buddhism

July 30th, 2010    -    10 Comments

When you’re as easily teased by Buddhist discourse as I am, you can see the same arguments over and over. Among the refrains I keep hearing are the ones I call The Biggest Lies in Buddhism. Believing them is serious self-deception and keeps you in a world of trouble.

I’m not a Buddha. You most certainly are; you may not yet realize it. “Buddha” does not equate to a celestial being or deity but to an awakened one. When human beings live in their natural awakened state, undisturbed by delusive thoughts and emotions, they live as buddhas. Buddhahood is your birthright. You claim it every time you wake up to the present moment. And even when we can’t quite convince ourselves, we practice the way Maezumi Roshi admonished: “as if” enlightened. “I’m only human,” we like to assess and degrade ourselves. And yet we have an entirely lopsided idea of what a human being really is. That leads me to:

My ideas are as good as yours. That’s true, however, no one’s ideas are any good at all. The practice of Buddhism is not intended to democratize personal views, as in Oh, you think that way? That’s OK. I think this way? That’s OK too. Buddhism is not a feel-good club that aims to equalize the worth of everyone’s self-reinforcing preferences; it simply transcends them. We practice Buddhism so we will no longer be blinded by what we think, confused by what others think, or stuck in the understanding we feel compelled to express on a Buddhist discussion board someplace. We practice Buddhism to wake up to how things are. How things are is not how you think they are. As Dogen said, “Your understanding of reality is not reality.”

No one is perfect. Everyone and everything is perfect as they are, we just don’t view them – or ourselves – to be so. Imperfection lies solely in our judging mind, the mind that picks what we like and calls it best or right, and labels what we don’t like as worse or wrong. This mind between your ears is the source of all conflict, and even then, it is functioning perfectly. Seeing it clearly, we must unleash ourselves from its mastery over our lives. Only then can we hope to repair the mess we have made of the world we inhabit.

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imprisoned with an i

June 23rd, 2010    -    9 Comments

We are enslaved by our understanding of “I”Maezumi Roshi

We are each imprisoned with an I. The I that you think you are, and the I that you think you’re not. The I that you like on good days, and more often the I that you don’t like. The I you interpret, analyze and diagnose. The I you want and wish for; the I that you want to become. The I in obsession, and the I in addiction. And so on and so on, a life sentence of solitary confinement without release. Four dank walls and a hard cot: call it your “comfort zone.”

Imprisonment begins with an I.

We are enslaved by our understanding of who and what we are. By our opinions and preferences. By our ruminations, fantasies, ideas and values. By our knowledge and understanding. Understanding is limited. But our true nature is boundless. How can we understand something without limits? We can’t even come close, but we keep banging our head away at it, like battering a tin cup against jail bars.

What has shot me off in this wretchedly abstract direction is something simple and concrete: our appetite for information, and the habitual way we confuse information with action. Many of us want to change the way we live, and we start by informing ourselves. I can see the point. It’s why, for instance, you might read this blog. Sorry to disappoint you, but other Buddhist bloggers shell out far more information and explanation than I do! Armed with a self-righteous view, they might even yell and fight! Prison riots are exhilarating in their way, but they always end up lengthening your sentence. read more

the 5th grade of impermanence

June 3rd, 2010    -    12 Comments

She’s going to be in 5th grade.

We’re sitting in the school auditorium waiting for a troupe of tweens to begin the spring dance revue. The kids shuffling onto the stage are already beyond their parents’ belief – sprouted up and out, gangly, tangly – and long since beyond their parents’ grasp. My husband whispers to no one in particular: She’s going to be in 5th grade.

These are the kinds of things he says at these occasions. I can hear the echoes: She’s going to be one, two, four, five, eight, ten! As before, I do not respond to what does not need to be said.

He’s having an enlightenment experience. Enlightenment, Dogen Zenji taught, begins with the recognition of impermanence, the moment we perceive the utter and astonishing transience of life, the moment we see through the constructed illusion that anything stays put.

Alas, all conditioned things are impermanent;
It is their nature to come into being and then cease to be.

Truth thus springs from what we see. Spiritual practice starts with a sigh. Enough sighs and you might one day get serious about it.

Do not pass over from the light to the darkness by ignoring practice and pursuing other things. Take care of this essential instrument of the Buddha Way. Your body is like a dewdrop on the morning grass, your life as brief as a flash of lightning.

It is a mistake to think we practice to change our lives, because life changes by itself. We practice to change the way we live, to face the facts of the matter. Because, have you heard? Did you notice? Do you know? Have you seen?

She’s going to be in 5th grade.


Offered in deep gratitude to the full house of beginners who will join me this Sunday at the Hazy Moon Zen Center for their first meditation retreat. You might want to read more about the beginning of my own practice, and the transformative power of impermanence, in this interview.

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A rose colored carpet

January 21st, 2010    -    No Comments

Flowers fall with our longing, and weeds spring up with our aversion – Dogen

I read a book this week that was really a good book, a memoir about how much a daughter loves her father, warts and all, and about how that love transcends age, sickness and time. In the story, the author recalls meeting up with a Buddhist family in Nepal during a bit of youthful wandering, and although she can’t reconcile herself to faith, she dismisses Buddhism in a single gust over that one prickly word we hold so dear: attachment. read more

Silent light

December 23rd, 2009    -    4 Comments

In a mind clear as still water
even the waves, breaking,
are reflecting its light.

– Dogen Zenji

Merry California Christmas from my shore to your door.

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