Man Up A Tree


Prayer flags and pilgrims beneath a tree.  Mayadevi Temple, Lumbini, Nepal


Eventually we understand that all solutions come to us by themselves, if only we stop trying to control.  – Stephen Mitchell

I’m no good at koans.  Which is as it should be.  I tend to live most of my life in my head rather than fully centered in my situation, and a correctly answered koan is basically an indicator of someone who is completely present in the moment.  Every now and then, the zen master will lob me a softball, and if I’m having a good day, I might be able to clip it off the corner of the bat.  During the ten years I’ve been practicing, I’ve learned to take heart in the humble honesty of demonstrating exactly where I’m at, and after leaving a koan session, I no longer slink back into the dharma room with my tail between my legs and my head full of “I should have saids.”  I’ve attained enough to understand that this is not an intellectual exercise; if I’m trying to “come up with an answer,” then I’ve already missed the ball.  And yet I keep trying to think my way out of koans…

I recently stopped into a new independent bookstore in my town.  In the “Spirituality/Philosophy/Religion” section, I happened upon an enticing volume titled “Zen Koans With Answers.”  I opened to the page titled “Man Up a Tree,” a classic koan that I’ve been wrestling with for years.  As I’d suspected, there was no answer, just a couple of things that clever students could do or say to try to fool the teacher into thinking that they were not clever students.  Things that I’ve already tried, only to be met with a response of “No, thank you” by the zen master.  The one thing that I haven’t done in a while is sitting meditation… not on a regular basis, anyway, and that is most likely the key to “solving” the koan.  Of course, a koan is not a riddle to be solved, but a situation to be held in the cradle of “don’t know” mind.

What does it mean to hold a koan? It does not mean to search for an answer, but to wait for a response to appear, which, for me in most cases, means sitting in that “don’t know” space and becoming comfortable with it.  When I approach a certain anonymous friend of mine seeking help with a problem, he’ll often say “that’s your koan for the week” as he reflects that problem back to me in the form of a question.  This does not mean that he is expecting to hear an answer to the question, or a  solution to the problem, next time we speak, although that might happen.  As Zen Master Bon Haeng puts it, “if an answer appears, then an answer appears.”  If not, then we become more curious about this “don’t know.”  This is good practice.  If I’m actively searching for answers, then I’m in trouble.  As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Big mistake.”  When I remember that my job is to stay present, then I’m in good shape.  If an answer appears, I’ll be there with a cup of tea saying “nice to see you.”

Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth.  His limbs are tied and bound, so his hands cannot grasp a bough, and his feet cannot touch the tree.  Another man standing under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from China?’  If he opens his mouth to answer, he will lose his life.  If he does not answer, he evades his duty and will be killed.”  If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?

from The Whole World is a Single Flower, by Zen Master Seung Sahn

Enough is Enough


“This is enough” was always true.

We just haven’t seen it.

– Rumi

It’s difficult to see truth, though it’s never hidden.

Clarity is its nature,

obscured only by the din of our desires,

our insistence that THIS is obviously not enough,

that just a little bit more would quench

the ache and restlessness that is

nothing more or less than Truth’s longing to

remember itself…


You won’t hear the call that THIS is enough

out of nowhere over the rush of traffic…

you have to listen for it.

Truth does not shout, does not call attention to itself,

it operates on the principle of “attraction rather than promotion.”

Truth does not advertise:

Delusion does.

And it does it well.



Knowing Ourselves


In New Hampshire, we know ourselves by winter.  – Robert Frost

I don’t live in New Hampshire.  I did, for a long time many years ago, but I have since moved back to my native Massachusetts, just south of the Granite State.  Not so far south, however, that we’re not given occasion to slow down for two or three months every year, to go inward, to reflect, to take stock, and, in the words of local hero Henry David Thoreau, “to front only the essential facts of life.”  I would amend Frost‘s words, if I may be so audacious, to read “in New England, we know ourselves by winter.”  And this year, in this corner of the United States, winter is not going softly into that proverbial good night.  Though the calendar tells us that spring is a week away, as I sit here now looking out my window at the woods outside of Boston, snow has been steadily falling for the past twelve hours and is expected to continue for another twelve, and the view is nothing short of sublime.  Practically everything in my field of vision is white save for the flashes of crimson, black, and muted gold of the cardinals, chickadees, and goldfinches that jockey for position at the thistle seed feeder hanging from the cherry tree outside the window.  Except for the snowflakes and the birds, there is no movement; time has stopped, and I’m left with the simple silent beauty of a forest snowfall.

The meditation comes easily, effortlessly.  Awareness becomes whittled down to only this moment as the cosmos so generously hands us what we endeavor so diligently to create in the Dharma Room: a sparse and calm environment free of distraction where the mind is ultimately left to itself.  It occurs to me that I’m in the same space of quiet expansiveness that I was blessed with seven years ago when I sat a week-long silent retreat at Diamond Hill Monastery on the grounds of Providence Zen Center, the international headquarters of the Kwan Um School of Zen.  Snow had just started to fall as I drove down there with Sung, a sangha member from Open Meadow Zen.  It was beginning to accumulate as we walked up the dirt road to Diamond Hill.  “If you have anything to say to me, say it now,” she half-jokingly said, “because we won’t be talking for a long time.”  And with that, we disappeared into the silence and routine of Korean-style practice.

It snowed every day for the entire week.  We began each day sitting in the 4 a.m. darkness of the large Dharma Hall, and my fondest memory of that week was opening my eyes as the chukpi was sounded to signal the end of the morning sitting period.  As breakfast was brought into the hall to be eaten temple-style, while still seated on our cushions, the light of false dawn illuminated the surrounding woods just enough to show us freshly fallen or still-falling snow.  I felt the awe, excitement, and happiness of a child waking up on Christmas morning.  During periods of outdoor walking meditation, the temple became the world, fresh and new, each step an act of creation, every wooded path untrodden.

That’s the hook of the snowfall:  the freshness, the unfamiliarity, the profound sense of interest I feel in looking out of this window I’ve looked out of a thousand times.  Gone is the false belief that I’ve seen this moment before.  I never tire of watching the snow fall.  With awareness, there is no boredom.  How do I hold this awareness, this appreciation, this sense of interest in this present moment when the skies clear, when the snow melts, when the flowers bloom, and when the air is full of activity and distraction?  Perhaps this is the question that Frost alluded to with his observation that “we know ourselves by winter.”  He didn’t say “we know ourselves in winter;” he said “we know ourselves by winter.”  To know myself by winter doesn’t mean that the snow has to be falling for a day straight in order for me to find this sacred center.  Having experienced this, it is available to me at any time of year, and at any point on the globe.  As Black Elk said of his Vision Quest, “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the hoop of the world.”  John G. Neihardt, Black Elk’s biographer, offers the following footnote: “Black Elk said the mountain he stood upon in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ‘But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added.” [1]             Joseph Campbell remarked that this gives us an indication that Black Elk had a clear understanding of the relationship between symbolic reference and direct experience.

To borrow a phrase from Campbell, the epic snowstorm that I’m in the middle of right now is a “reference point,” meaning that it has deep intrinsic value that is not limited to the experience itself.  Peak experiences are called “peak experiences” because we don’t get to stay there.  We have to come back down sooner or later; that’s Impermanence.  A true practitioner develops the innate capacity to incorporate those experiences into his or her daily existence when the snow stops, when the silent retreat is over, or when the Vision Quest ends.  Very easy to write.  Not so easy to do.

The good news about impermanence?  I won’t have to shovel my car out for another nine months.



The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”

[1] Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska         Press, 1932, p.43.


The Only Thing You Need to Know…


20141005_114106“The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”  – Anonymous

This time-tested battle cry of the old-timers of Alcoholics Anonymous echoes down through the ages, reverberating off of the painted cinder block walls of floor wax and bad coffee-scented church basements across New England and beyond.  I’ve heard it so many times over the years that I stopped hearing it for a while, relegating it to the status of a trite, folksy cliche, of which there are so many in AA.  Upon entering more deeply into zen practice and 12 Step practice, however, I’ve come to appreciate and embrace a more boots-on-the-ground, head-where-my-ass-is approach to the whole “spiritual component” of AA, as it is so frequently and oxymoronically referred to.  Spirituality, of course, is not a “component” of anything, but rather the totality of everything.  This notion that spirituality can somehow be compartmentalized is simply a sleight of hand that the ego employs in order to substantiate its own existence and keep itself in control of things.

The “you’re not him” platitude isn’t simply a call to humility; at its best interpretation, which, for the moment, I’ll assume that I’m making,  it is a call to action and an admonition against launching a flight of fancy into the world of concepts.  How easy, how comfortable, how convenient it is to think about God, to ponder Greater Meaning and Higher Power from within the safety of my own intellectual framework, as was so often done during those late nights in the conversation pit, a drug-addled tradition immortalized long before my time by the characters of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, who so often stayed up late into the night talking – wild! – and drinking wine – great!  How useful was that endeavor in my own journey some thirty years after Ray Smith and Japhy Rider graced the bungalows of Berkeley?  To be honest, it was extremely useful insofar as it informed my process of cycling through the seductive labyrinth of ideas and substances to land on the meditation cushion and in the aforementioned church basements.

Buddhism is, to my understanding, less of a philosophy or a religion, and more of a psychology.  It offers us nothing more or less than the opportunity to develop the capacity to look at our own minds.  Not a promise, just an opportunity, an opportunity that holds the key to ending our own suffering,  not forever, but moment to moment. Also known as Forever.  The Buddha offered sort of a bottom-up approach to this problem of being human, rather that the top-down approach that was on the table prior to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree.  The practice isn’t so much about connecting to a Higher Power as it is about connecting to our own experience.  In other words, our heads tend to already be in the clouds, so to speak.  Our work consists of coming back into our bodies.

It comes as a shock to many of us that we create the overwhelming majority of our own suffering.  We seem to believe that we have no agency in that suffering, lacking, as so many of us do, the understanding that it isn’t the circumstances or events of our lives that create suffering, but rather our response to them.  “Pain is inevitable,” I’ve heard echo off of the painted cinder block walls.  “Suffering is optional.”  In other words, it’s how we relate to the pain of our lives that determines our degree of suffering.  It’s our job to decide how we relate to our pain.  The world is full of others who can help us make that decision, but no one else is in a position to take away our suffering.

What is problematic about the “Higher Power” approach to the “spiritual component” is that it feeds the illusion of duality and sets us up to search for a solution outside of ourselves, which is the hallmark of addiction.  Our suffering arises out of this idea of separation, which creates the notion that something outside of me will fix me, fill me, heal me, or complete me.  It’s a fools game, of course, because there’s really nothing “out there.”  The self is looking for itself outside of itself, and guess what?  There’s nothing to be found.

There’s nothing to “get,” which is good news, because both Buddhism and Recovery (which, in this writer’s humble opinion, aren’t different) aren’t about getting things; they’re about getting rid of things.  Getting rid of all the stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of reality as it is in this moment.  And the biggest chunk of stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of this world?  The unfounded belief that “me” and “this world” are two.  Ego will do everything within its power to substantiate this belief.  It’s this desperate attempt to control our experience that gives rise to what the old-timers call “playing God.”

So I can take it as read that I’m not God.  What, then, am I?  Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to this as Great Question.  The first time I sat down for a koan interview with his student, Zen Master Bon Haeng, he asked me, “What are you?”  It’s a no-brainer , I thought.  He’s starting me off with the easy ones.

“I’m a human being.”

He hit me with a stick.

There is nothing to grasp…

p.s. please excuse the gender bias of the old-timers. They are, after all, old-timers.

top photo: summer reflections on a pond, Pisgah State Park, Hinsdale NH


Stoplight Mystic

20171126_142929The veil seems to lift at the unlikeliest of times.

It was only a stoplight, a pause at an intersection towards the end of my morning commute, one that I’ve stopped at a dozen times this month alone… The guy in the Range Rover in front of me, who’d been driving like more or less of an asshole for several blocks, tried to beat the light then changed his mind; the car came to a lurching halt halfway across the stop line.  I could see his face reflected in the driver’s side rear-view mirror of the Range Rover.  He looked less than pleased.  In fact, he looked irate, banging his fist on the steering wheel and yelling at the windshield.  I have no idea what he was yelling, but I know that there was no one else in the car for him to yell it to, or to yell it at… he was the very picture of rage.

Perhaps it was because I was overtired from working long hours and sleeping short hours, which always leaves me a little unguarded, but as I watched the scene unfold inside the vehicle in front of mine, my heart melted into what I can only call pure compassion.  Not sadness, mind you, or pity, and certainly not the derision that I’m prone to feel toward one in the throes of a public tantrum, just a deep sense of non-judgmental empathy with this fellow human being who was experiencing whatever he happened to be experiencing in the moment.  Turning my gaze to the left, I saw a young man wearing a backpack and a baseball cap whose broad smile seemed to indicate that he really enjoyed standing at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change; whatever he was thinking about, it was good.  The tone of my emotional response to him was identical to what I felt toward the road rage case in front of me.  The same was true of my feeling toward the woman who jaywalked – or jay ran – across the opposite crosswalk; would she  stop running when she reached the sidewalk?  She didn’t.  Was she running for exercise or because she was late?  Don’t know.  Just watching the scene unfold with curiosity, with love, but without judgment or attachment.  These three characters, who I would ordinarily regard with aversion, attraction, and neutrality, respectively, were regarded with simple, unadulterated compassion.  I say “were regarded” because there wasn’t a whole lot of “I” in the equation, and there was no overwhelming need to go searching for my concept of self.

It’s easy to be here, there’s no pressure, no responsibility, only witnessing,  The weight of the subtle and insidious need to conceptualize has somehow been lifted, and the fascinating thing is that I didn’t ask for that to happen.  All I did was show up at an intersection on the heels of years of zen practice and a lifetime of moments that culminated, as they always do, in the present moment.  It’s easy to forget the role of Grace in spiritual progress; I tend to think that I’m making something happen, when, in reality, I’m just creating conditions, just preparing myself to receive a gift that may or may not come.  There’s no guarantee; nothing is owed to me.  There is no earning Grace.  It’s a gift, not a paycheck, and that becomes abundantly clear when that unmerited gift is received.

Apparently, this is the way the world looks when I’m up before my preferences are, when I’m too tired or too lazy to be bothered with pounding my experience into the pigeon holes of my preconceived notions.  This is the flavor of the universe when I drop out of my head and into my body simply because I’m not up to the task of thinking up things to think about.  Zen Master Bon Haeng once told me that “we begin to become present when we stop preferring our fantasy to reality.”  I’d add that I sometimes begin to become present when I’m a little off my game and I forget to pay attention to my fantasy.  Unfortunately, I’m generally pretty good at paying attention to my fantasy.

The interesting question is, what is it that I find so compelling about the Great Filter, about the web of likes, dislikes, and concepts that I constantly and unconsciously throw over a Reality that needs no interference from me?  It’s really a control thing, isn’t it?Perhaps the more appropriate question is, why do I fear unadulterated Reality?  What is it that’s safer about the fabrication and deception of my fantasy?  An anonymous friend of mine likes to say that when we lie, it’s because we’re protecting something.  I would offer that when we cling to our delusion we’re also protecting something, and, in this context, it seems pretty clear that I’m protecting nothing less than my ego.  What would happen if I just let go, if I shattered all of my precious pigeonholes with one great, sweeping swing of the sledgehammer of complete and unflinching Trust and gratefully accepted whatever wild and unforeseen consequences that might entail?

A little too much to glean from a minute and a half at a traffic light?  Probably.  I’ll try to get some more sleep tonight and we’ll see how things go tomorrow…


view from art installation at Frederick Church’s estate, Olana.


view of said art installation, Penetrable, by Jesus Rafael Soto, Hudson, NY

Awake Awhile…


SAM_0544Awake Awhile
It does not have to be Forever,
Right Now.
One Step upon the Sky’s soft skirt
Would be enough.

Stuck to my freezer by a souvenir magnet at eye level, this short quote serves as a reminder to do two things: to have the audacity to step up and claim the unfettered awareness that is my birthright, and to relax. Ultimately, these are both the same thing. What a relief it is to know that “it does not have to be Forever,” just “Right Now.” Ultimately, these are both the same thing. How easy it is to forget that Forever refers not to the infinite future, but to the boundless present.

It is also easy to forget that what is most helpful to for me to ask of myself is not a definitive and permanent shift in consciousness, but rather the capacity to appreciate those moments in which the filter of my perceptions, of my prejudices, fears, doubts, and insecurities, falls away for whatever reason and however briefly. It does not have to be Forever, and, more importantly, it can not be Forever. Such moments show up in the linear narrative of my life as points of reference, as proof positive that the thing which I seek is both real and attainable.

One such point of reference came into my experience several years ago as I sat a weekend retreat at Cambridge Zen Center. Meals there are taken in the Dharma Room in formal Korean temple style. At the end of the meal, retreatants rinse their bowl with tea, then drink the tea to leave a clean, empty bowl. As I drank my bowl of tea, I saw the light of a paper lantern reflected on the surface of the liquid as a car passed by on the street outside. In that instant, something fell away. Somehow, there was no separation between the taste of the tea, the sight of the lantern, and the sound of the car. Nothing existed outside of that moment, yet in contained the entire universe. It was as if I’d been walking along a precipice holding on to the railing of who I thought I was, only to let go of the railing and fall fearlessly over the edge. Two seconds… three, maybe?… until I thought, “wow, this is cool!”… and that insidious shadow of the belief that I am Someone having an Experience was tantamount to grabbing hold of that railing and hoisting myself back to the “safety” of my conditional existence as an individual, separate self. Thinking creates duality, or, as Zen Master Seung Sahn put it, “When my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same.”

What is instructive about that meditative experience is that it happened when I wasn’t looking, so to speak, when I wasn’t trying to make anything happen. My practice consists of nothing more or less than creating conditions that allow those moments of purer awareness to occur, conditions that bring the “Sky’s soft skirt” within reach of “One Step…”

Crave On!


Mountains of sweets for Diwali displayed at a roadside stand, Lumbini, Nepal

“Hi, I’m Jud,” he said, extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Hi, I’m Jeff.” It was all I could think of to say, thrown off by his spontaneous manifestation as I sat reading the book he’d just published. “Do you know if this is any good?” I joked, holding up the book.

“Nah, I wouldn’t believe a word of it,” he smiled, disappearing down the hall.

His full name is Judson Brewer, his title, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. His new book is called The Craving Mind, and, according to the subtitle, explains “why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.” Our sort of strange encounter took place at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness as we both waited to be interviewed for an upcoming PBS documentary about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program that was started at the Center some 38 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I recently participated in the eight-week MBSR course, and Jud, as you know, is the Director of Research at the Center… I’m imagining that he’ll figure more prominently in the documentary than I will.

It’s a pretty interesting experience to be interviewed
for a TV show. In the finished product, I’ll be one of the talking heads sitting next to a bunch of books or a plant or something, not looking at the camera, and apparently talking aloud to no one. The person that I’m apparently not talking to is the interviewer, who sits off camera and whose voice will not be heard. Her job is not only to ask me questions, but to act as a sort of silent coach from the sidelines. If I’m making a point that’s particularly relevant or useful to the focus of the documentary, she’ll smile enthusiastically, nod encouragingly, or make that rotating hands “say more” gesture.

The interesting thing is that I noticed pretty quickly that I liked the smiles, the nods, and the gestures, and that I wanted to say things that would elicit those responses from the interviewer. The even more interesting thing is that I didn’t make the connection between my conditioned behavioral responses and the book that I’d been reading. If I’m honest about my motives, my desire wasn’t principally to contribute meaningfully to the documentary; my desire was to be liked. I was craving approval like a Nepalese boy craves the sweet, sticky cashew balls in the photo at the top of this post (it all comes full circle; the Universe has no loose ends).

What was that craving all about?

I didn’t have an awareness of, or a name for, that craving for approval until after the interview was finished and I had walked out of the Center for Mindfulness. Before starting my car, I paused to read from Daily Reflections, a book of brief selections from Alcoholics Anonymous literature that I usually read from in the morning. Ironically, I had mindlessly forgotten to do so that day. Excerpted from a book titled The Language of the Heart, the reading reminded me that

“this very real feeling of inferiority is magnified by [my] childish sensitivity and it is this state of affairs which generates in [me] that insatiable, abnormal craving for self-approval and success in the eyes of the world.” [1]

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, a less-than-pleasant defect of character to face in one’s self. The good news is that I’m not alone. So common is the human tendency for approval-seeking that it’s addressed pretty explicitly in the Buddhadharma.

The Loka Dham, ma, variously translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Worldly Concerns, consists of four pairs of opposite states, among which are Fame and Disrepute. Attraction to Fame and aversion to Disrepute keeps us bound to the comfortable familiarity of Samsara, likewise with Praise and Blame, Gain and Loss, and, of course, Pleasure and Pain. In contemplating these Eight Worldly Concerns, I’ve long felt that Fame is a concern that doesn’t much concern me, as I’ve never been concerned with being famous. Lately it occurs to me, however, that the Fame that the Buddha referred to wasn’t necessarily of the variety that lands one’s face on the cover of the Rolling Stone; it has to do more generally with the desire to be looked well upon by others. That concerns me.

As an anonymous friend of mine is fond of saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Holding this thought in mind offers me a glimpse of the freedom that’s available to those who can truly stand in equanimity between the poles of Fame and Disrepute. Awareness of this karmic tendency to crave approval inches me a little closer to the center of the spectrum. Thank God I’ve never wanted to be famous. Hopefully this PBS documentary won’t bring in too many offers…

[1] Anonymous (1990). Daily Reflections, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 103.