Posts Tagged ‘zazen’

10 steps to start meditating

October 26th, 2015    -    No Comments

gobelet-forme-basse-verre-a-whisky-24-cl-strauss-luigi-bormioli1. Make the room quiet. As if no one were inside.
2. Eat and drink moderately. Empty before you fill.
3. Set aside all involvements. Do not invite disturbances.
4. At your sitting place, spread a thick mat. To cushion your knees.
5. Put your cushion on the mat. To elevate your spine.
6. Sit upright. Like a mountain.
7. Align your head. Ears over shoulders; nose over navel.
8. Keep your eyes open. Lower the gaze.
9. Give up. Thoughts, ideas, and judgments.
10. Breathe and be still. You can.

Adapted from Dogen Zenji’s Fukanzazengi.


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practice no harm

October 4th, 2015    -    2 Comments


When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.


For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

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

Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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a healing summer

July 5th, 2015    -    1 Comment


During a three-month summer ango, or training period, a novice monk is selected to serve as the head trainee at the monastery. He or she will monitor the practice inside the meditation hall, acting as a model and mentor for those who join in. The monk maintains order, harmony, motivation, and discipline through the depth of his or her own samadhi, the non-distracted awareness that is the healing nature of meditation. Ango means “peaceful dwelling.”

A simple ceremony marks the beginning of the training period, when the student formally enters the temple to begin the term of service. The trainee and the teacher will commence a long stretch of silence sitting side by side in zazen, doing their work alone and together. The student will swim through a flood of fear and crawl over a mountain of doubt. The work will consume light and dark, days and nights on end. At first he will cherish nothing more than the thought of escape, but in time he will plant himself deep in the ground and give up the search. On the last day of training, the student will enter a place he has never been. It will be in the exact same place he’s never left, but the walls will be gone, a cramped and airless room transformed into a universe of living things. He will know perfectly well how to take good care of it.

But this is still the first day, and he has no idea where the path is leading.

Ceremonies in the zendo are orchestrated, the script ordained in the manner of a thousand students and a hundred teachers before. The student stands before the teacher and expresses humility and gratitude. He moves to make his bows, but the teacher waves him off. There is no need for formality between them, no show of rank. The two are fellow travelers, and they will make this trip as one.

With palms together, the student speaks the last public words that will pass between them until they reach the other side. The room is quiet. Nothing stirs. Paradise comes into view.

“California weather is peaceful and calm. May your days go well.”

May you enjoy peace and healing this summer.

In gassho,

Adapted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

when all else fails*

April 29th, 2015    -    15 Comments


This week we had the horrific earthquake in Nepal and the riots in Baltimore and so all at once I heard from people I haven’t heard from in a while. Something was in the air. I love hearing from people, just not quite as much as I love meeting face-to-face with those same people. What brings us together is always the same thing.

Terror, sheer terror.

People contact someone like me because they are afraid. To one degree or another, we are all afraid. We are afraid because we thought life would be different. We thought that we would be happy, for instance, or at least be able to handle things. That our work would satisfy, the money would be enough and the marriage would last. That our kids would be okay. And that their kids would be okay. That we would be one of the lucky ones, safe and in control. We wouldn’t get old. We wouldn’t get sick. And no one would die.

Spring is sweet and summer is easy, but one day you’ll find yourself in the middle of a hard winter.

I try to keep things sunny around here but then I remember what line of business I’m in. I’m in the getting old, getting sick, and dying business.

Life is suffering. Everything falls apart. It’s overwhelming and irreversible. There’s no place to hide. What the hell are you supposed to do now?

A couple of weeks ago I sat a beginner’s retreat on the East Coast and this time nearly everyone who came was a beginner. Oops. In the dining hall before the retreat started I looked around at the mostly middle-aged and older group of total strangers and was afraid. They would never be able to handle the sitting, I told myself. I’d oversold the whole Zen thing again. Whatever they thought they were in for, none of them was ready to face the reality of Zen, even so-called beginning Zen, which is no different from advanced Zen, which is no different from life as it is. They were probably as terrified as I was. I made silly jokes and hardly ate a thing.

But then we began sitting, and sitting some more, and every time the bell rang to sit again everyone showed up in their little spot, day in and day out, in silence, sleepy and sore, emptied of bright ideas and escape routes. It seemed like forever but a minute later the last bell rang on the last day. They had survived.

Before the end, everyone spoke for the first time. An old fellow said his wife had died last year and he was restarting his life. This was his first step.

One woman had returned after the first night without a wig to cover her head, and she was bald from chemo. She didn’t say one word about it and neither did anyone else.

Another woman said she’d woken up a year ago and realized that although her job was to heal children and families, “I was the one who was sick.”

The woman next to her said she had three children and she loved them but sometimes she had to get far, far away from them.

A man said he had bought one of my books for his wife but she wasn’t much of a reader so he read it and then he went on my website and now they were both here together. He smiled a lot, and she did too.

“It was a hard winter,” the next man said before tears overcame him and he thanked everyone just for sitting with him all weekend. “It made a difference.”

Nearly everyone cried. And everyone laughed. Hearts were light and minds, clear.

They’d done the only thing you can do when all else fails: sit down for a while, and then get up and go on back home.

*and it will.


meditation is love

March 9th, 2015    -    7 Comments


Whether we know it or not, everyone comes to meditation for love. And the good news is, everyone leaves with it. It can’t be any other way, because we are each beings of immeasurable compassion. This runs contrary to the way we think about ourselves — our motivations, virtues, and abilities — but the way we think about ourselves is usually stingy and wrong.

We typically think we lack compassion, or the capacity for unconditional love. We want to define it, learn it, teach or acquire it. But none of us lacks it in the least. We are simply unaware of the compassion we possess, preoccupied by the judgmental thinking that darkens our hearts with fear, greed, and anger. When we quiet our thoughts through meditation, we finally see the truth about ourselves. This kind of seeing is called “waking up,” like waking up first thing in the morning before your headed is clouded by even a single distraction.

The awakened mind has two natural attributes. One is compassion, what some would call love. The other is clarity, what some would call sight. They are not really two things. Each is a function of the other. When you see, really see, you just love. When you love, really love, you just see. You see things as they are, not as you expect, and in that wide-open clarity is love. read more

I really want you to come

October 28th, 2014    -    8 Comments


Sunday Morning

By Bobby Byrd

Two old guys walk single file
Slowly and wordlessly around a room.
A white curtain filters the sunshine.
Outside is the hot desert sun.

The two men are shoeless. The smaller,
the guy in front, is limping because
40 years ago in Vietnam a kid in black pajamas
shot him in the head and almost killed him.

The other guy dodged that war,
lived in the mountains, lived in the city,
wife and three kids, drank a lot,
wrote some poems. A candle flickers,

incense burns. The floor is clean
because these two men cleaned it.
Three others were here but they left.
The man in front slaps two wooden

clappers together. The sound startles
the man behind. He takes a deep breath.
The men stop walking. The first man
lights a stick of incense and places it

in front of a statue of the Buddha.
They bow to their cushions on the floor.
They sit down cross-legged and stare
at the wall. Their legs ache. It’s been

three days now. Not much longer.
One of them is the teacher
one of them the student. It doesn’t
make much difference which is which.


I’ve been traveling some lately. I’ve been traveling enough that when I sit down in my own living room, I feel like a piece of cheap, soft-sided luggage tumbling out of the baggage claim shoot on Carrousel 4.

When I go someplace, I never know who’s going to show up. A fair number of the people I expect to show up are nowhere in sight, but the empty spots are always taken by the otherwise ordinary folks who walk through the door.

I was about to head over to Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this month when my host asked me if I could spend a part of the visit sitting with Bobby Kankin Byrd and his sangha in El Paso. “He really wants you to come,” she said, telling me that Bobby Byrd was the “Dalai Lama of El Paso.” Meeting him, I could see why. If His Holiness is the embodiment of the great monastic lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, then Bobby Byrd is his counterpart in El Paso. He’s a rumpled guy with a head of gray stubble and a giant smile, a fellow who cares a lot about many important things but who is never more than half-serious about himself. He’s a poet, a publisher and a Zen priest, which must be the holy trinity of lost causes, especially when you do them in El Paso. He and his wife Lee are the founders of Cinco Puntos Press, a small and very independent publisher of artfully rendered and lovingly cultivated books. They treat their books like you would your children if you adored your children every minute of the day. He sits with a group of die-hards every Sunday morning in a zendo about the size of a toolshed, a magnificent toolshed I should say, in a blooming backyard. I came because he asked me to and I liked it there an awful lot. I liked the people very much.

Bobby gave me the latest book of his poems, Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary. This poem came from it. It tells you exactly why I will haul myself off to the next who-knows-where to sit with who-knows-who happens to be in the room that day. One will be the teacher and one the student. It doesn’t make much difference which is which. What matters is that we come anyway.


Poem excerpted from Otherwise, My Life is Ordinary ©2014 by Bobby Byrd. Printed with permission of Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso.


how do you become a Zen priest?

September 17th, 2014    -    7 Comments

scan0034This question has been posed to me a lot lately, in radio interviews and podcasts you can listen to all day long on this page of my website, and in personal conversations. It seems to me that when I answer it, the listener is at least mildly disappointed.

They might expect me to say that I spent five years in theological study. That I’d heard a voice or seen a vision. That as a small child playing with a stick in the dirt outside my family’s mud hut, three strangers approached and told me I was a reincarnated monk. Or that I’d always known deep in my heart that I had been placed on Earth to save the souls of sinners.

The question is laden with expectation, but the answer is not. Because that’s not how you become a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen is entirely one’s own doing, motivated by one’s own aspiration, deepened by one’s own practice of zazen. Ordaining as a priest is simply an expression of personal commitment. In my lineage at least, there are no prerequisites to accomplish and no prescribed pastoral, professional, or organizational tasks to perform. No tests or credentials. I don’t write sermons every week, and I have no congregation. My calendar isn’t booked with couples counseling, parochial education, baptisms, weddings or funerals.

“That sounds kind of laid back,” said the interviewer in one conversation.

“So it isn’t a job,” said another.

“There must be a story behind that,” many have said, and there is. Just not the story you think.

This is the story of how I became a Zen priest. One day I sat down in a place I’d never been before and recognized the scent of something I’d never smelled before: sandalwood incense, burning on an altar. How do you recognize what you’ve never smelled before? Heck if I know. I liked the place, and I stuck around.

Everything came after that: subtle shifts and colossal changes. Denial and avoidance. False certainty. Sudden leaps and setbacks. Vanity, fear, doubt, surrender, and finally, love and devotion. One day I knew what I would do. I would take the vows that would commit myself to the selfless service of others forever.

Is it laid back? It is a matter of life and death.

Is it a job? Never-ending.

Is there a congregation? Everyone and everything I meet.

Is there a story behind it? Not anymore.

Read more about Tokudo, priest ordination, at the Hazy Moon Zen Center.

Watch this short video, “Vows” about monastic discipline in Chinese Buddhism.

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does fear exist?

August 25th, 2014    -    5 Comments


I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation with myself.

Q: Is there really fear? If there isn’t, how can we shift our state of mind to release the shackles of what we define as fear?

That’s a very good question.

First, I’ll point out this: fear only exists in your head. It is a feeling that is reinforced by your pattern of thinking.

Thankfully for me and for you, and for others who begin a seated meditation practice, what you notice is how you think. You notice how you think all the time, and what the content of those thoughts are. Generally speaking, they are negative and self-limiting, full of anxious doubt and fear. For instance, how many times do you think to yourself: I can’t do that. That won’t work. That’s not me. I don’t like it. I’m afraid. Not now.

You see, there’s an infinite variety of those thoughts that we empower. When I say “empower,” I mean that thinking alone is what paralyzes us physically, emotionally, spiritually — in every way. We end up being able to “go nowhere.” Even if we are seeking, we set in place an invisible barrier.

How can we transform that barrier? Marvelously we’re given arms and legs so we can actually transcend the limitations of our thinking with our own bodies. You have to use your feet! That’s what I’m getting at. You have to take a step. You are not going to mentally or emotionally move toward something until you’ve literally moved.

Please listen to more of this conversation below on the Inside Personal Growth podcast, and then visit my Retreats page.

clarity and compassion

July 9th, 2014    -    3 Comments

Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden
A wisdom teaching at The Rothko Chapel, Houston
June 29, 2014

Clarity and Compassion: Lessons from a Zen Garden from Rothko Chapel on Vimeo.


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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


kripalu nov. 14-16

June 10th, 2014    -    No Comments


The Straightforward Path: A Zen Retreat
November 14-16, 2014 Friday-Sunday 2 nights

For all levels.

Where can you go to find peace, patience, acceptance, and joy? The straightforward teachings of Zen point directly to your enlightened nature, right here and now. This retreat combines the simple practices of the Zen tradition with loving guidance, including:

Instruction and practice in seated meditation using chairs or cushions
Walking meditation
Devotional chanting
Dharma talks to illuminate the wisdom teachings in daily life

Discover how the power of silence, the strength of breath, and the support of a group practice uncovers your capacity to live with clarity and compassion.

This program is eligible for CE credits.

Join me. Register here.

Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Berkshires, Western Massachusetts
Three hours north of New York City

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as open as the sky

May 27th, 2014    -    3 Comments

kmm some people

Paradise in Plain Sight

Weekend in Paradise, practice meditation and yoga with me in Washington DC June 21-22

Spend an hour in your own Paradise, a radio broadcast.

Art by Julie Kesti

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come to California

August 25th, 2013    -    1 Comment

“In the sun and in the weather, no one else has loved me better.”
Come to California
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Nov. 10
9 am-3 pm
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles

Because we need to save ourselves and start again.

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