1. Will meditation help me focus? Yes.
2. Can I meditate without sitting on the floor? Yes.
3. Can I meditate without being a Buddhist? Yes.
4. Do I have enough time to meditate? Yes.
5. Should I start? Yes.
1. Will meditation help me focus? Yes.
2. Can I meditate without sitting on the floor? Yes.
3. Can I meditate without being a Buddhist? Yes.
4. Do I have enough time to meditate? Yes.
5. Should I start? Yes.
Years and years ago when I was young and busy and my mother was alive, I would rarely call home. So when I did, it was a sign. If my father answered, he wouldn’t stay on the line for longer than a minute because he knew something was up, and my mother would have walked into the kitchen and looked at him questioningly.
“It’s Karen,” he’d say as he handed her the receiver.
Then she would get on the line and say, “Karen.”
And just like that she was there, all of her, for me, which was why I called, and I would start crying.
I called because I was going to make a C in Contemporary American Poetry. Because I’d totaled my car. Because I was going to get married. Because I was going to get a divorce. I had called because I needed her, which happened a lot more than just the times I called, but I was the one who isolated herself, the quiet one, the one who stayed away. And she always let me.
One time in my early 30s, I had to have surgery for endometriosis. This is a diagnosis that doesn’t need major surgery these days, but in those days it meant a week in the hospital and six weeks at home. When I woke up a day after surgery she was sitting in a chair opposite me and although I’m sure this was part of the plan I couldn’t imagine how she had transported herself to my side. She had a bag of books or magazines or work papers with her and she was settled in and I knew that she wouldn’t leave. She stayed a week with me in the hospital and a week at home where she brought me soup and crackers in bed like it was nothing and she asked nothing. She always knew how to ask for nothing.
Later on, older and married again, I moved to another state and I was for some time unbearably sad and afraid of what I’d done. I called that time and asked if she would come for a visit.
“I was just waiting for you to ask,” she said.
When I go to a retreat like the one last weekend in Massachusetts, the group of us, mostly strangers, sit with one another in a silent room for five or six or eight hours a day, and there isn’t any conversation. We sit in the quiet, and walk around in the quiet, and follow the schedule to show up at certain times and be quiet together again. And after awhile or certainly by the end you might realize that you have been sitting in a net, and that you are actually part of the net that’s holding you and everyone else up. After all that time and right before you go home you have the chance to speak. Someone will say something like this:
This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve read all of your books and they’ve helped me so much and I always told myself that if I ever had the chance I would come to one of your retreats and then I saw that you’d actually be here and I couldn’t believe it and I had to come.
There are usually tears by then and not much more to say, but so much more you can’t even say, and I want them to know everything my mother wanted me to know if I ever asked.
When I travel around the country for meditation retreats, they usually take place in rooms that weren’t designed for Zen meditation. We may come together in a converted barn, for instance, or a basement, conference room or classroom. All that matters is that the room be empty. Then into the space we put a little bit of the form, or appearance, of a Zen retreat.
That means a bell, a statue of Buddha, and if allowed, a candle and incense; cushions or chairs; and a schedule of seated meditation, walking meditation, and chanting services throughout the day. It sometimes seems to me like we fashion a retreat out of popsicle sticks, but somehow it works.
To a beginner, the form appears strange. It’s rarely anything you’ve done before; classical Zen is not exactly a free-for-all. It’s important to see that the form of a retreat isn’t imposed, like a rule. It is offered, like a life raft. Form gives us a place and a way to rescue ourselves from ourselves. What do I do now, our crazy mind shrieks. Do this, form tells us. But how, we wail. Like this, the form shows us, and we have one less thing to fret about.
One of the first things I invite people to do at a retreat is write down the name of someone who is suffering, someone other than themselves. Even though people come to a retreat to get something—something called Zen—we automatically receive the benefit of our own practice. The point is to extend the benefit to others. The names go onto our retreat sick list which is chanted out loud as part of each day’s service. People might offer the name of someone who has cancer or is going through a personal calamity. Someone ill, elderly, or near death. We all know someone in those straits, and those are the first names that come to mind.
At the first morning service, people are self-conscious. Anyone would be. They are chanting things they don’t understand, mumbling words and syllables that don’t make sense. The chant leader is trying to find the right rhythm and pitch; the names on the sick list are mangled. But this is practice: everyone doing everything together for the first time. There is no criticism spoken, but of course, we often judge ourselves harshly.
With each service, the chanting grows clearer and more confident, and each morning the sick list grows a little bit longer. In our empty room, our minds are growing clearer. We think more compassionately of others when we stop obsessing about ourselves. We might approach the chant leader and ask, can I add one more name to the list?
On the last day of retreat, the chanting is strong and beautiful. The words merge in one voice. All are alert and present. The chant leader makes a point of sounding out each syllable. The names are carefully pronounced, and the list is twice as long. That’s when I hear the names of our children, partners, and parents: people who may not be distressed except by what we say to them, what we do to them, what we expect of them, and what we think of them. We have, by the last day, forgotten ourselves, and in that forgetting, taken responsibility for everything and everyone. After saying the last name on the list, the chant leader intones the final benediction:
May they be serene through all their ills
and may we accomplish the Buddha Way together
And in that instant, they are, and we do.
Even when it’s made of popsicle sticks, there is room in the raft.
Come sit by me.
Zen Retreat: Meditation as Love
Feb. 5-7, 2016
A woman came to the retreat in Kansas City in October. With her doctor’s permission, she had driven three hours from Iowa to be there. She was 34 weeks pregnant and, as you might expect, radiant. But in her case there was a little more to it: after nine years of infertility, miscarriages and stillbirth, here she was. The chance had been so slim, the journey so grim, she never believed she could get this far.
The truth is always like that: unbelievable.
She smiled all weekend. Fear and doubt had fled her face. She was beginning to let herself feel blessed. After we parted, I kept an eye on her as the remaining weeks passed. The baby was late. In the final days she went to and from the hospital over and over in false labor. Her burden was heavy. Nothing seemed to happen. The good news never came. I was worried.
Up close, possibilities seem to disappear.
Two days ago she sent me the first pictures of her newborn son swaddled in her arms. One look and I recalled that wide-open sense of wonder. Love surpassing all pain, resting in the infinite circle of light. The night has passed! The baby has come! Suddenly, everything is perfect, everything is possible. Not one thought creased either brow. Together they have attained grace.
Mother and child are doing beautifully.
The promise of a spiritual path is like this: to return to the natural state of fulfillment and ease. The old masters call it “the circle of wonder.” In it are the boundless love of a mother and the eternal innocence of a child. To be sure, the journey is difficult. Obstacles mount. Expectations fail, hope sinks, fear overwhelms, and you have to do it alone. Alone! Not even the helpers can help.
Who among us is willing? Who indeed.
Last weekend I sat a retreat with many newcomers. Newcomers uplift me, and yet, I worry. Silent retreats are always powerful, but this one struck like thunder. Not everyone could ride the storm. Alas, in Zen as in life, there’s no shelter at the side of the road. No avoiding, no denying, no way out. Fear must be overcome. Peace must prevail. Near the end of the retreat, the newest newcomers came by ones to see me alone. How is your retreat? I asked, although the awed stillness on their faces told it in full. Wonderful, came the quietest replies. Amazing. Lovely. Indescribable. Life-altering.
Doubt fled my heart, and I let myself feel blessed. The night has passed; the prophecy has been fulfilled. Now peace is at hand and the possibilities are endless.
Let it begin with me.
And he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:6
Merry Christmas Everyone. Peace on Earth. Goodwill to Men.
1. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
This 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.
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.