Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

what keeps me going

February 19th, 2019    -    61 Comments

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About twice a year I spend six hours sitting still and quiet with a small group of total strangers in the converted attic of a century-old house in a tricky neighborhood near downtown LA. That’s what I call a beginner’s Zen meditation retreat. These days, an event like that is probably considered old school. But that’s how we used to learn and practice meditation, and some of us still do: in real life in a real place with real people in real time. When I got home, I had a message from an old friend who said she wasn’t calling for any particular reason. That’s what friends used to do too. Just be friends for no reason.

Today, these two events are so rare, so nearly impossible to believe, that it makes me want to write them down. I don’t write many things down anymore. Someone asked me about that recently. He said, “You don’t write on your blog much anymore.” And it’s true, I don’t. I tried to give him an answer why. There’s the matter of privacy, and the wrenching realization that I have exploited much of my life and family for the sake of . . . just for the sake of me! And then there’s the sad situation that not as many people read anymore. They say they do, but they don’t read blogs, don’t read books, and don’t even search the internet as much as they did last year, let alone last month. It’s even true of me. I read a whole helluva lot all the time but I don’t buy books very often anymore. I borrow them for free from my library’s digital database. And you might argue that kind of reading still counts but I know it doesn’t count for the author or the library.

Last year my hometown library canceled my library card because I hadn’t been to the library for two years. I called up, confused and upset. I told them I read about three e-books a week from them, and they said, but you haven’t been to the library. And you might say setting foot inside a library doesn’t count, but I know it does count when it comes to keeping the library open. Every year they have to fight the good fight at City Hall—where the not-so-hard choice is between keeping the library open or providing water and sanitation services—and so they keep cutting the library hours into fractions of fractions of fractions. They renewed my card because I asked. Librarians will do that for you.

Two weeks ago I heard from a writer at a magazine who was working on a story about “the evolution of iPhone Buddhism and someone said I should talk to you.” I told him I didn’t know what iPhone Buddhism was (although I could make a cynical guess) and he confirmed that my guess was right. Someone is seriously suggesting how important the phone is for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and practice today, and I admitted that I don’t use a smartphone so I couldn’t comment, but I could suggest a revolutionary new mindfulness app: put the goddamn phone down!  The advanced version would be: turn the goddamn phone off. He said that was the most profound thing he’d heard anyone say on the topic.

Whenever I do a beginner’s retreat I am reminded why people would leave their homes, turn off their phones, take off their shoes, come up two flights of stairs and sit with strangers in silence all day.

The reason why is that something is missing from our screens. There’s no social in our social; no life in our life. There has to be something real, something that can’t be digitized, monetized, and sold. And there is. It’s what keeps me going, and perhaps it will keep you going too.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
March 31, 2019, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

This post was originally published on Mar. 21, 2016, and look! It’s still going.

they didn’t see

January 23rd, 2019    -    5 Comments

If you don’t see the Way,
you don’t see it even as you walk on it.

—Identity of Relative and Absolute

Over the last 20-plus years, I’ve heard my teacher tell a lot of stories. Actually, I’ve heard him tell one or two stories a lot of times. One of them is about Maezumi Roshi visiting a psychiatric hospital.

A member of the sangha was having trouble, and she had ended up in psychiatric care. When Maezumi heard about the powerful drugs the doctors were giving her, he said, “We have to go get her.” So they went to the hospital. Maezumi was wearing his traveling robes. There were many times Maezumi wore Western clothes, so for this trip, he must have thought the robes were appropriate.

They were standing near the day room talking to the staff about a discharge. The room was full of patients. Some were visibly disturbed or aggressive. Maezumi just stood there, a funny little man in a weird get-up, and didn’t say anything. One of the patients walked up to him carrying a chair. He signaled for Maezumi to sit down in it. Maezumi sat. Then the guy pulled up a chair and sat right next to him. And so did others. Soon Maezumi was sitting in a circle of psychiatric patients. Everyone was still and quiet, like it was nothing special.

When you walk the Way it is not near, it is not far
If you are deluded you are mountains and rivers away from it.

My teacher says that none of the staff or doctors even noticed what had happened.

“They didn’t see,” he would say everytime he told the story.

I used to wonder what it was that they didn’t see, and why. For awhile I thought he was saying that the whole event was come sort of glitch in the matrix, a hidden world on the other side of the space-time continuum. Zen students can be deluded by woo-woo like that.

“Oh,” I’d repeat, “they didn’t see!” still not seeing.

Not so long ago I realized what the doctors didn’t see: what was right in front of them. Reality. What most of us don’t see even as we walk on it.

In taking a seat and wearing robes, observe it for yourself later on. — Case 32, Book of Serenity

It used to be that if I was giving a talk or leading a workshop, I would put on a sleek J. Jill outfit and use a PowerPoint. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, or alarm anyone else, by doing anything Buddhist. I was an entertainer of sorts, and I was good at it. But entertainment doesn’t last. So I gave up trying to be popular and started going out in my robes to do what we do in Zen: sit. Instantly, it made everything easier. I didn’t have to make up what to say, and even strangers were consoled by it. I realized that it wasn’t me that made the difference, it was the robe.

In Zen, the teaching is said to be conveyed from teacher to student by “the robe and the bowl.”

The robe is the Dharma, or the teaching. The Dharma is as it is with nothing extra, nothing fabricated. It’s a powerful thing—what is—and it heals—when nothing is added to it—so maybe that’s why Maezumi wore his robe into the room where people were sick and suffering, their minds spinning in psychotic storms. It must have seemed like heaven to step into the quiet calm of his non-distracted presence, or samadhi. A passerby might have thought he was one more crazy person in a room of crazy people. And that would have been true too. Wherever he went, Maezumi left no trace of himself.

The robe was a signal that he was there to share the Dharma, pure presence, which shares itself when we don’t add our judgments to it.

The Great Way is not difficult;
it only avoids picking and choosing.

—Verses on the Faith Mind

I ran across a survey the other day asking “What is the greatest challenge Zen faces in the West today?” That’s a pretty common question among those who compare good versus bad, right versus wrong, past versus future. People have opinions. The truth, however, could not be clearer. The Way is not difficult. Reality is not hidden. There are no challenges to being present except the walls we erect by our judgmental mind, liking one thing and disliking another, cherishing our views of this or that.

It reminds me of Maezumi Roshi in the psychiatric ward. The doctors and nurses whizzing past, lost in their expertise, seeing only diagnoses and prognoses, cases and labels, in a room full of human beings just like them.

The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking
And there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
March 31, 2019
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

bloom

January 9th, 2019    -    No Comments

Let all karma be wiped out and the mind-flower bloom in eternal spring!

This April I’ll be returning to the wide-open prairies of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin to observe the flow of spring amid the stillness of Zen. All levels of practitioners are invited to join this weekend of seated meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), chanting, and Dharma talks.

Holy Wisdom Monastery is less than 10 miles outside of Madison. This ecumenical center welcomes visitors with inspiring views, comfortable rooms and lovingly prepared meals. It is the perfect place to come alive again.

Spring Wind: A Zen Retreat
April 11-14, 2019
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Registration open

what we do for love

December 13th, 2018    -    3 Comments

A practitioner at a meditation retreat asks a question.

Q: What am I practicing here that helps me be more present and connected in my daily life?

A: Here, what you’re practicing is presence and connection, so that you can be more present and connected. Although right now you’re in a different place doing something different than usual, this really is your daily life. Yours alone. Even among all of us gathered here in one place, no one else is having the experience that you are having. Furthermore, if I were to tell you that practice is transactional, that if you sit like this you’re going to have a certain wonderful experience in your other, “normal” life someday – that would be a lie. This isn’t a transaction. Practice isn’t a product, a course of study or a life hack. There are not two things: your life and your practice. They are the same thing. You never leave your life, and the point is to never leave your practice. It’s all one thing.

We are here practicing being human beings. This is the practice of being a human being. In the old days they called Zen the practice of everyday life. You think, “This isn’t my everyday life. This is the opposite of my everyday life.” But nonetheless, this is your everyday life. Since the very beginning, and I don’t know why, human beings are not so good at everyday life. Unless they really practice everyday life.

Can I practice handling just this moment, however it is? Because when I’m out and about in my everyday life, I’m perfectly fine until someone does something that I don’t like or something happens that I don’t want. That’s where it gets tough, and it can get tough every day. It can get tough today. This environment here is very artificial and contrived. We’ve arranged ourselves in this nearly empty room, everyone in funny clothes trying to sit still and be silent. We don’t intentionally add stress here, but you experience stress here. I promise you that in your life, you experience stress. Can you sit it out? Wait it out? Breathe it out? Refrain from involving yourself in sticky situations that you don’t need to be in?

I can only speak from my own experience. At a certain point in my everyday life, I just could not handle it! I didn’t want any more of it! I tried everything I could think of to fix the problems and nothing worked. So when I finally sat down like this, it was an act of complete surrender. A sign of total failure. I’m going to have to do this on my own, I said. I’m going to have to figure out how to be a human being, with a life that has other people and things in it.

That’s what we’re here to do. And why do we do it? I think it’s why we do everything. Not because we’re high-minded or religious. This is not a religion. It’s a practice. You do not worship Buddha, and you do not worship me. Let’s see for a moment if you can stop worshipping yourself.

We’re here for love, because we have a capacity for love and we want to love and we want to be loved. That’s the connection. It’s not romantic love. It’s unconditional love. Unconditional love is pure presence.

Here we are among strangers. It’s a good idea to find love among strangers. It gets complicated after you know each other’s names and stories. When you know all that, you might find that you can’t relate to someone else. You might not even be able to tolerate them. But here you can simply have respect and gratitude for one another. Here you can just be present with everyone and everything.

It’s a beautiful practice, this practice of presence. It comes in many shapes and forms. Some people find connection on a swim team, or a cooking class, or off-road racing. And then you wonder how does that apply to life? But it does.

What we’re doing here this weekend requires a very modest amount of time, compared to how long it takes to stream a Netflix series. And it is relatively painless. So ask yourself. Why am I here?

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
March 31, 2019

Spring Wind Weekend Retreat
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Madison, WI
April 11-14, 2019

Photo: The Dewdrop Sangha by Rick McCleary.

This is an excerpt from an informal Q&A at one of this year’s Dewdrop Sangha meditation retreats. You can listen to the full recording here.

keep starting over

August 20th, 2018    -    1 Comment

It is important that you encourage yourself to keep starting over, to keep listening to the basic, simple instructions in how to sit, because this is a simple thing to do. But, of course, it isn’t easy.

You are here to face yourself. We are each uncomfortable in some certain way with ourselves and with our lives. Now you are here. You are sitting on your cushion and you are by yourself. You are experiencing yourself. You are breathing your own breath. The most important part to keep in mind is the body. I suppose you might think this is a thinking practice— because we always think that things require thinking—but this is a practice that ultimately requires no thinking. Your body, functioning by itself, requires no thinking. That’s why we can rely on it to guide us.

Let’s pledge to practice with the body we brought. Don’t be critical. Don’t think that you are shortchanged or shorthanded, that you don’t have the right kind of feet or knees, hips, shoulders, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. You are perfectly endowed as a buddha. What do you think? If this practice was good enough for Shakyamuni, is it not good enough for you?

Excerpted from the dharma talk “The Breath is You”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center near Batavia
Upstate NY
Register before Sept. 24

where the fun stops

July 11th, 2018    -    7 Comments

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

a sip of stillness

June 25th, 2018    -    No Comments

I’ve added a one-day beginner’s retreat on Sunday, July 15 in case you need a sip of stillness in your summer. All the information you need to register is right here.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

a teacher is a mirror

May 22nd, 2018    -    No Comments

because your mascara ran
your lipstick smudged
you have spinach stuck between your teeth
because you broke a nail
got a rash
wore a hole in the heel of your sock
because your crow’s feet
your frown lines
the circles under your eyes
because what to do about your hair
you’re going bald
you’re going gray
the roots grew out
you sweat
snore
shit
stink
can’t do it
don’t want to
a lost cause
a waste of time
a lie a fraud a joke
but mostly you’re afraid
afraid to face the mirror
because the mirror just reflects

go straight on

April 18th, 2018    -    1 Comment

Here are audio excerpts from a dharma talk given on April 14, 2018 at the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City.

How to meditate

April 11th, 2018    -    17 Comments

Practicing Zen is zazen. For zazen a quiet place is suitable. Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest. – Dogen Zenji, “Rules for Zazen”

To start, let go of the ideas you may have about what meditation is supposed to look like or what meditation is supposed to feel like. Let the monkey in your mind go to sleep so that you can wake up and reclaim your rightful home.

Unless you have a meditation cushion, or zafu, do not attempt to sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Without adequate support to elevate your buttocks and enable you to anchor your knees on the floor, sitting this way quickly becomes painful. The point of meditation is not pain. Your life is painful enough as it is. The point of meditation is to relieve pain.

What follows are instructions for meditating in a chair. Although you are unlikely to have the perfect chair in your home for meditation, any chair is perfectly okay. So do not delay your practice until your trip to the Furniture Mart.

1. Sit on the forward third of a chair so that your feet rest firmly on the ground. To support your back, place a hard cushion between your spine and the chair back. This will prevent slouching and keep you alert.

2. Space your feet widely apart. Your body is now supported at three points: your two feet and your bottom. In seated meditation, three contact points are essential for endurance and comfort. Your body now evokes the strength of a mountain.

3. Place your hands in the middle of your lap as follows: first, your right hand, palm up; then, your left hand, palm up, resting in your right palm. Lightly touch the tips of your thumbs together. Holding your hands in this way calms agitation and restlessness.

4. To check your posture, align your ears with your shoulders. Align your nose with your navel. Tuck your chin in slightly. Hold your head as though it were supporting the sky, and it will neither hang forward nor fall backward.

5. Relax your belly. A stiff, cinched abdomen restricts your breathing. In meditation, you will try to return to the full, rounded breathing of a baby. Watch a baby breathe and see that the belly rises on inhalation, not the chest. This is a good demonstration for you to learn from.

6. Lower your gaze, but do not close your eyes. If you close your eyes, you will be lulled into daydreaming. Meditation is not practice for sleeping; it is practice for waking up. Look at a spot on the floor or on a wall in front of you. Any spot will do, as long as it is not distracting.

7. Close your teeth and your mouth. Take a breath and exhale completely.

8. On your next inhalation, silently count “one.” When you exhale, silently count “two.” Inhale counting “three.” Count each exhalation and inhalation up to “ten” and then start back at “one.” If you lose the count, begin again at “one.” This meditation practice is called counting your breath.

9. When a thought comes up, let it go away by itself, which it will if you do not pursue it.

10. This is the practice of zazen. Do zazen for up to five minutes. Keep a watch or clock nearby to note the time. As you meditate more often, you may be able to do it for longer. Do not be self-critical or impatient with yourself. Do not push yourself. Do not make meditation one more thing you have to do. If you are gentle, encouraging and consistent with yourself, your meditation practice will naturally deepen and lengthen.

Five minutes is not a long time, but it can take a long time to find five minutes to meditate. Usually, the first five minutes or the last five minutes in the day are the easiest to find. You already have them and they are already quiet.

I will be most happy to answer your questions and encourage you to keep going.

practice no harm

February 7th, 2018    -    3 Comments

Cracked_Pavement

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.

Winter Sun Retreat, Madison WI, March 1-4
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, March 18
What is Zen? Retreat, Kansas City, April 13-15

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your questions about Buddhism

October 25th, 2017    -    4 Comments

What drew you to Buddhism? What do you like about Buddhism? Where can you learn about Buddhism?

I didn’t do it. I can’t explain it. I don’t know.

There is the kind of “Buddhism” that people might study in college, meaning its history, geography, and impact on world events. Then there’s a kind of “Buddhism” that people choose to believe in and adhere to, like a political party. These folks think of Buddhism as a philosophy or source of inspiration. Maybe even a religion. They like it better than other alternatives. But the Buddhism that found me is first, foremost and only a practice. It is a way to do things, and not do certain other things.

Whether you’re interested in Buddhism or not, you might be interested in reading my books. Because they are about life. Buddhism is about the truth of life and not anything else.

your bed is your head

September 4th, 2017    -    21 Comments

Every day is a good day — Zen koan

Before your feet hit the floor you’ve already run through the reasons. First, there’s not enough time. It’s pointless. You’ll just have to do it all over again. You have more important things on your mind. It doesn’t matter. No one will see it. You don’t care. You’re not uptight about it. It’s a waste of energy. You hate it. After all, you’re not Martha Stewart.

The bed is a nest of egocentric attachments: our cravings and aversions. In the one minute it takes to avoid making your bed in the morning, you can observe the ways you battle the reality of your life all day, everyday. You might think it’s unfair to deduce all that from a tangle of sheets and pillows, but it’s not an exaggeration.

The state of your bed is the state of your head. To be sure, the bed and its adornments are a mirror of your psyche, a reflection of your thoughts and feelings, the locus of your dreams and nightmares. But more than that, your bed actually is your mind. Like all phenomena that arise within your field of perception, your bed appears within your own consciousness. How do you respond to what appears?

By habit, we respond with dualistic judgment, dividing the whole of our experience into the few precious things we like and the greater load of what we dislike, accepting the former and rejecting the latter. We thus move through our lives as if maneuvering through enemy territory, attacked on all sides by the overwhelming forces of displeasure. It’s no wonder that we have the urge to crawl back under the covers as if defeated before the day even begins.

Luckily, this one piece of furniture not only serves to diagnose our ills, but to treat them as well. Transform your reality. Transcend dualistic thinking. Face what appears in front of you. Do what needs to be done. Make peace with the world you inhabit. Take one minute—this minute right now—to enfold your day in dignity. Tuck in the sheets, straighten the covers and fluff the pillows. Every day is a good day.

Learn to pay attention to your life:

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 17, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

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