Leaving Lexington


“Leaving Lexington…” I’ve texted this phrase a hundred times if I’ve texted it once, but on New Year’s Eve, I sent this message for what will likely be the last time. Packing the last of my belongings out of my bachelor pad and into my car, I headed a couple of towns west to move into my wife’s home. It isn’t a far move, but the distance isn’t the point. In a small way that’s significant to no one but me, it’s the end of an era. I am the last member of my family to inhabit the town that my grandfather immigrated to from Ireland in 1915. As he put it in “The Girl From Donegal,” a poem legendary to a dozen or so surviving family members, “I hit the road for Lexington, that place of great renown; no brass band played and no parade did welcome me to town.” I can honestly attest to a similar lack of fanfare upon my humble departure 100 years later. But it isn’t simply family history that makes this move interesting. It’s something more than that… something deeper. Buddhist Stuff. Namely, attachment and impermanence.

I like to think of myself as someone without strong material attachments, but the process of sifting through the detritus of my past sketched a slightly different picture. It’s a curious experience indeed to physically handle every single object that one owns. I was faced with artifacts of life phases gone by that have survived move after move after move. Books. I’m speaking primarily about books here. I’ve tried to travel light, and over the years I’ve instigated periodic purges, donating or selling books to try to lessen the load, but some are more difficult to part with. Spiritual books, mainly, books by teachers who have told me what I’ve needed to hear when I’ve been ready to hear it; Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, Steve Hagen, Joseph Goldstein… the usual suspects, really, for American spiritual seekers of my generation.

I’ve read and reread all these books and would likely read them again, but in contemplating the prospect of moving hundreds of pounds of paper yet another time, I had to consider what I was really clinging to. I had an interesting conversation once with a young person who grew up downloading all his music. He suggested that the reason we oldsters are so into our albums is that we feel a need to somehow “own” the music rather than to simply experience it as it plays. There might be something to this theory. Perhaps I subconsciously want to own the teachings contained in the dozens of books on my shelf, to display them like trophies, or like souvenirs from far off places I’ve visited. Ram Dass reminds us in Grist for the Mill that “the Dharma belongs to no one.” He found this point so important that it’s the first line of the book… before the page with the table of contents… so I sold all his books to a metaphysical bookstore in Cambridge.

Interestingly, however, I hung onto my albums. I’ll probably get rid of them eventually, but not today. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan… the usual suspects for American spiritual seekers of my generation. I haven’t actually owned a turntable in close to twenty years, but these old records fall into a category of belongings that is so common, so legitimate, that it was recognized in print by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous: stuff that I can’t let go of YET. Although Bill Wilson was referring specifically to “defects of character” or mental habits when he wrote that “even the best of us will discover to our dismay that there is always a sticking point, a point at which we say, ‘No, I can’t give this up yet,'” the psychological mechanism of mental attachment is very similar to that of physical clinging.[1] Hence the tremendous power and effectiveness of ritual.

Ram Dass speaks of an Indian fire ceremony in which participants ritualistically place whatever they want to get rid of inside a coconut and toss it into a fire.[2] In 12 Step Recovery parlance, this is known as “letting go of old ideas.”[3] In my case, the process also involved letting go of old relationships, or at least loosening my grip on them to let them slide into their proper place in the past. It occurred to me as I looked over all of my stuff that, just as I’ve clung to books and albums that are physical artifacts of my life, I’ve dragged along physical artifacts of other people’s lives, as well. People who are no longer alive. A father, a brother, a past girlfriend… It occurred to me also that these things are more than just mementos; they, like gravestones and monuments, represent a desperately futile attempt to create permanence. We can fool ourselves for a little while, but eventually, everything must go. Ourselves included. I thanked each one of those departed individuals as I dropped their stuff off at the thrift store, placed it in a donation bin, or simply threw it in the trash.

Attachment involves a lack of acceptance of impermanence. Throughout the process of downsizing my belongings, not only have I come to accept the impermanence of loved ones, I’ve come a little bit closer to accepting my own impermanence. I am not these hundreds of items that I possess, nor am I this body. What am I? Don’t know. I do know, however, that at some point in the not so distant future, someone will be sifting through my stuff after I’ve died. Maybe they’ll grab a memento or two, or pick up a piece of my writing, smile and say, “I’ll probably get rid of this eventually, but not today.”

[1] Anon., (1952). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 66

[2] Ram Dass, (1976). Grist for the Mill, Harper Collins, p. 53.

Return to the Mother

Author posing with a street cow, Varanasi

It’s been just over three years since I travelled to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land with a couple of hundred members of the International Kwan Um School of Zen sangha.  It doesn’t seem like that long; I think of the trip often, and most of the pictures on this blog, with the exception of the recent Thailand photos, are from India.  My brief time spent in that vast, strange, and beautiful land got pretty deeply into my bones.  I had the privilege of spending  a night under the Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and the courage to bathe by darkness in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  Both of these experiences can only be described as “life changing.”  After I’d returned home, an anonymous friend commented that such profound experiences take a long time to sink in; the psychological effects take a while to manifest.

I’m not sure if the psychological effects of my trip to India have manifested yet, but the opportunity to process the experience has.  Not long after I got back, I submitted an application to display some of my photographs in a gallery at the local library.  I was told there’s a long waiting list.  Last week, the library contacted me to inform me that one of the galleries is reserved for me for the month of November, 2015.  A year may seem like a long time to prepare for a gallery showing, but I tend not to move very quickly.  As I sift through my photo archives, I look forward to distilling my India experience through writing as part of the selection process.  I’ll be interested to see what insight the light of three years’ time shines on an adventure that was at once overwhelming and exciting.

What I find most unbelievable looking back is that I went there without a camera.  I didn’t own one at the time, committed as I was to the “full experience of the moment.”  I’d long been convinced that carrying a camera was an unnecessary distraction, that concern with setting up the perfect frame to capture a great photograph detracted from the enjoyment of the experience.  There may be truth in this, but thank God I relaxed my stance.  By the day after we arrived, I knew I couldn’t not have a camera.  The photo ops were way too good.  India is relentlessly colorful, with unignorable juxtapositions of modern and ancient, poor and affluent, sacred and profane around every corner. My photo exhibit will be titled “Walking In The Footprints of The Buddha.” I hope you enjoy the images, and, as they say in the trade, may they be of benefit to all beings.



Footprints of The Buddha, Maha Bhodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

The Guest House

Traditional Thai guest house on Mae Klong in the village of Ampawa

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness.
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


I chose this poem to share with the sangha after evening sitting recently at Open Meadow Zen Center, or, more appropriately, it chose me. I had signed up in advance to do a reading, but, as so often happens, I’d neglected to select anything until the day of the sitting. Shortly before leaving for the zen center, I grabbed Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi (New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p.109) and randomly opened to this page. The poem jumped out at me not only because it’s short, and a short reading is nice after a long sitting, but also because it reminded me of one of my favorite zen stories.

A hermit meditated in his mountain cave for years. Every night as he sat, a group of demons arrived outside his door, disrupting his silence with their horrifying shrieks and howls. Every night he’d run outside and shout right back at them, demanding that they leave him in peace. He’d stomp up and down and throw sticks at them until he collapsed from exhaustion, but the next night, the demons would be back at his door. One night, sensing the futility of his actions, the hermit finally gave up. When the demons showed up, he walked outside and said, “Come in. Sit by my fire and have some tea.” The next night, the demons didn’t come.

This idea of making “friends with our demons” is pretty widely regarded as being an effective way to deal with fears and neuroses, but Rumi takes the practice a step further. Beyond merely tolerating unwanted mental states, or even being hospitable to them, Rumi implores us to actually be grateful for them. To do this, I think, takes a broad mind and a big heart.

The practice of zen is a practice of continually putting aside our preferences. The teachings remind us again and again that aversion is simply the flip side of attraction; both are forms of attachment, unskillful mind states that don’t serve us on the path. If my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that I have no idea what I need, no idea what’s good for me. My practice, then, is to not reject anything that arises. The only option I’m left with is acceptance.

I’d planned on adding more to this post until my wife and I attended an evening of Rumi’s poetry and ecstatic dance put on by a local Sufi organization. This expression of Truth through music and movement renders the use of words ineffective by comparison. As a zen student, I’ve long misunderstood the Sufi paradigm of the individual as lover and the Divine as Beloved; it seemed to me a mental construct that merely reinforces the delusion of separateness. In reality, the Sufi path has little to do with concepts and everything to do with experience. What happens is that the illusion of separation is played with as a means to achieve unity. The idea of God as Beloved is the most apt metaphor with which we can approach our relationship to Totality. Have you ever loved another human being so completely, so fearlessly, so regardless of consequences that you held absolutely nothing back and cared not whether you lost yourself entirely in the process? Good for you if you have. Can you imagine taking the risk of risks and making that juicy, reckless leap of faith without the knowledge that your Beloved is even there? That’s what Sufism invites us to do. That’s the very zen spirit of 100% commitment with which Rumi dares us to leave our lights on and our doors open. It’s a tall order, but when you really stop and think about it, what do we have to lose?


Where Did They Go?


Golden Buddha at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in PhitsanalokSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Thailand isn’t zen country. It’s deeply Theravadin, home to the “Doctrine of the Elders,” also known as Southern Buddhism, as it is characteristic of all of Southeast Asia. Other teachings took root farther to the north – Mahayana Buddhism in India and Tibet, and zen farther to the east in places like China, Japan, and Korea. True teaching, however, knows no geographical distinction, and takes place whenever one is slapped out of a dream and into reality. One morning during our recent pilgrimage, my wife, Jennie, and I stopped with several members of her family to make offerings at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in Phitsanalok, the town about halfway between Bangkok and Chaing Mai where her mother was born. We were told that the Wat is home to the most beautiful golden Buddha statue in the all of Thailand.

Candles, large bowls of sand for incense, and round trays for flowers were arranged along the portico outside of the temple. After making my offerings, I stood lazily in the morning heat waiting to get inside the temple when a streak of gray whizzed past the corner of my eye. I heard a sharp “Thunk!” and spun quickly to look behind me; I thought someone had thrown something. Turning back forward, I realized what the gray object was: a tiny pigeon chick. Glancing upward I could see its mother in a nest at the top of a column high above the marble floor. The chick couldn’t have been attempting a first flight; it was far too small and nowhere near fully fledged. It must have been accidentally nudged out of the nest. Whatever had happened, the fragile bald chick lay there motionless at my feet. It lay there dead at my feet.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat

I was stunned into the reality of the present moment until a temple attendant came along and matter-of-factly swept the newly-born, newly-dead bird out of the portico with a straw broom. It appeared as though this was not the first time that this had happened. The attendant’s gesture seemed cold-hearted until it occurred to me that what had happened was a tragedy only in my own mind, conditioned as I am to the belief that life is vastly preferable to death. It also occurred to me that this unfounded belief is rooted in simple fear of the unknown.

Reflecting on the incident, I considered that the bird’s life, while brief, may well have been fortunate. My mind was drawn back to the words of Rampuri Baba commenting on the dogs, cats, rats, and monkeys that invariably hang around the temples in India; there’s really no earthly reason for them to be there. If it’s food they’re looking for, there are far better places to hang out. Rampuri speculates that these animals are drawn by the energy of sacred places… perhaps they heard the Dharma in a previous life and are attracted to the sound of the chanting. I’m no ornithologist, and, as such, can’t arrest to the level of sensory development of such a young bird, but even if she or he couldn’t hear the chanting, smell the incense, or see what is reputed to be the most beautiful golden Buddha in all of Thailand, the tiny pigeon felt the energy. Somehow, I feel as though I can attest to that. It seems likely that the vibration of love and devotion followed that being wherever it went after leaving its body on the marble floor of the temple in Phitsanolok.

The bird died at the beginning of the day that would be the culmination of our pilgrimage to Thailand. We had come to return Jennie’s mother’s ashes to the place of her birth. Her name was Nola Saisakorn, and her family’s memorial stupa is at the foot of the hills outside of town, on the grounds of a temple built by her father. A couple of dozen more family members joined us to walk the newly cleared, freshly cemented path through the woods behind the temple. There in a clearing stood the family stupa, some fifty feet tall and recently refurbished for the occasion by a thoughtful and devoted cousin. The photographs and ashes of Jennie’s grandparents are sealed behind a glass door in the pale yellow façade of the stupa, and behind the glass doors on each of the other three sides are three shelves; Jennie’s grandparents had nine children, and there is a place for a porcelain urn containing the ashes of each of them. Five orange-robed monks led us in chanting as we circumambulated the stupa three times.

The clouds broke as Nola’s ashes were set in the stupa by her eldest and only son, revealing a rainbow halo around the sun. The monks all concurred that such a sunburst is an extremely rare meteorological occurrence in that area. Was this a sign of a soul’s ascension on wings of love and devotion? I’m not qualified to comment. I’m merely recording what I saw, and it was beautiful. I don’t know where people go when they die. I don’t know where birds go, either.


Better to Give

Naam Phoo making offering to Thai monk on Mae Klong

“The meaning of generosity is very clear.  All human beings have possessions.  But why do you obtain and keep these things? Are they only for your own pleasure, or do they help you to help others?”  So begins Zen Master Seung Sahn’s discussion of the Six Paramitas in The Compass of Zen, his compendium of the essential teachings of the three main schools of Buddhism [1].  In the Mahayana tradition,  the virtue of generosity is generally regarded as foundational to the path of liberation.  In his introduction to a collection of essays titled Dana: The Practice of Giving, Bikkhu Bodhi explains that “in the Pali suttas, we read time and again that ‘talk on giving’ was invariably the first topic to be discussed by the Buddha in his ‘graduated exposition’ of the dhamma.” [2]   Why such strong emphasis on this quality of behavior that isn’t explicitly regarded as a component of the Noble Eightfold Path in its own right?

The answer to this question is pretty simple: the practice of generosity is the most direct route through the all-pervasive delusion of separation between me and all other human beings to the reality of oneness.  This delusion, created by thinking, can not be dispelled by more thinking;  it can only be cut through by action.  “When you help someone else,” Zen Master Bon Haeng has told me, “you’re really helping yourself.  There’s no separation.” I’ve seen him demonstrate this principle more than once. There’s a traffic island at the intersection of Route 2 and Alewife Brook Parkway where panhandlers usually stand; we pass it on the way to the Cambridge Zen Center. Without missing a beat in the conversation happening in the car, he’ll roll down the window and hold out a dollar bill for the homeless man or woman to take. No fanfare, no “teaching” involved, just simple, spontaneous, appropriate action for the sake of someone else.

I recently returned from Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country where the concept of “merit” is deeply entrenched in the local rituals. I’ve long disparaged this idea of gaining merit as reeking strongly of the Catholic religion in which I was raised, where good deeds done in this life are considered karmic money in the bank to ensure a comfortable position in the next. “The true Buddhist practitioner,” insists the Righteous Judge in my mind, “has no thought of self. Action is taken for the sake of others, not for the sake of one’s own future well being.” Merit-seekers, it logically followed, are deluded. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d never actually witnessed religious Buddhists in the act of meritorious offering. In the 12-Step Tradition, this is commonly known as “contempt prior to investigation.” Thankfully, my trip to Thailand afforded me the opportunity to investigate.

On our first night there, my wife, Jennie, and I, stayed with her family in a traditional Thai riverside house in the village of Amphawa. In the morning, a monk from a monastery farther down the Mae Klong canal paddled by in a wooden boat while making his daily alms rounds. We stood on the concrete walkway along the canal in front of the guesthouse to await his arrival, but the Mae Klong is a tidal waterway, and the tide was out; the monk’s boat could come no closer than 30 feet away from us. I observed all of this, wondering how the situation was going to play out… How would our donations make it from the shore to the boat?

It went line this: Naam Phoo, a young woman who manages the guest house, gathered up the packages of food, envelopes of money, and flowers that we’d amassed for the occasion and put them into a large basket. She kicked off her sandals and walked down the concrete steps to the mud exposed by the receding tide. Sinking deeper with each step, she was almost knee-deep in sludge by the time she’d reached the boat. Bowing, the monk accepted the offerings. Naam Phoo bowed back. Words are not exchanged in the formal practice of alms giving.

Witnessing this act of selfless sacrifice, it occurred to me that merit is not something gained at some future time, but rather something experienced in the moment by a human being who is available to act for others. It also occurred to me that as I speculated about how the scenario was going to “play out,” the possibility of me crossing the mud flat to the monk’s boat hadn’t presented itself… My “how can I help” mind was nowhere to be found in the situation. Perhaps I was too concerned with indicting the concept of gaining merit to act for someone else’s sake. Zen Master Seung Sahn warns us not to “check other people’s minds.” In 12-Step parlance, the admonition is “don’t take others’ inventories.” Where is my mind in this moment?

As our trip continued, we visited several temples, making customary offerings of incense, flowers, and money before entering. Following Naam Phoo’s example, I tried to make my offerings with an empty mind and a full heart. True merit has nothing to do with expectation, and everything to do with intention.

Making an offering at a temple outside the Royal Palace, Bangkok

[1] Zen Master Seung Sahn (1997). The Compass of Zen, Shambhala: Boston & London, p.198.
[2] as quoted from Tiramit’s blog http://www.dhammafootsteps.wordpress.com

The Difference Between love and Love

Sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Since becoming what’s known in the Kwan Um School of Zen as a Dharma Teacher in Training by formally taking the second Five Precepts of Buddhism, I’ve come to notice something interesting about myself. I dislike correcting people even more than I dislike being corrected myself. Ours is something of a noodgy practice. There are lots practice forms and rituals, lots of dos and don’ts, and it’s taken me a while to let go of my resentment of being corrected. What’s arisen in its place, however, is hesitancy at correcting those who are new to the practice.

I was acting as Head Dharma Teacher at a recent sitting session, and someone was there who was attending for the first time. There’s generally some sort of brief orientation for newcomers to familiarize them with the Temple Rules, but there’s really no time to cover all the bases. As I’ve mentioned before, this practice is largely a game of follow the leader facilitated by periodic correction by more experienced students. This particular newcomer was the boyfriend of my partner’s friend, and I really wanted him to have a good first impression of the zen center. When his turn came for an interview with the zen master, however, he left the dharma room by walking in front of the cushions of those seated, rather than behind, as is proper. This particular faux pas I could overlook, as practice is a little looser at Open Meadow than it is at the zen centers in Providence and Cambridge. What was completely unforgivable in my mind, though, was that he didn’t bow to the Buddha when passing before the altar. How could anyone be so oblivious and disrespectful?

I elected to chew on the dilemma that this presented in lieu of doing anything resembling mindful meditation. As Head Dharma Teacher, it was up to me to keep everyone in line, and this guy was clearly out of line. I knew that I should correct him, but I didn’t want to sour his zen experience. What if he thinks I’m a jerk? What if he never comes back? (Incidentally, he never did come back. As to whether or not he thinks I’m a jerk, I have no idea.) When I passed him in the hallway between the dharma room and the interview room, I had only a couple of seconds in which to act or remain silent.

“When you pass in front of the altar, please bow to the Buddha,” I whispered as evenly and respectfully as I could. Time precluded any mention of the lesser infraction. He nodded and entered the Dharma Room. An appropriate comment and a spontaneous response. Nothing more. As I related my dislike of correcting others to the zen master, he responded with a remark I’ve heard from his lips many times.

“This practice is not about preferences.”

Although my misguided and selfish concern in this instance was to avoid alienating another, letting go of preferences is essentially the gateway to widening one’s circle of compassion. The living Indian saint Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, has said that there is a difference between “love” and “Love,” that being that we love our family, but not our neighbor’s family. We love our spiritual practice, but not all practices. Hence, we experience “love,” but not the “Love” that is available when we love without discrimination. The purpose of our practice is to make this shift from “love” to “Love,” letting our light shine without preference, like the light of the sun itself as it rises in the morning.

That Doesn’t Sound Like Much Fun


Hindus performing morning ablutions on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India

A guy named Swami Magalananda once invited me to attend a day-long retreat he was leading. He’s a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, or the Hindu path of devotion. The colorful, love-filled gatherings of devotees tend to have very high energy, with lots of music, ecstatic chanting, and dancing in the spirit. Unfortunately, my spiritual dance card was full that weekend, as I’d already registered for a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I told Swami Magalananda a little about our practice; completely silent save for the monotone chanting that’s markedly different from what goes on in the kirtans that he’s used to, a zen retreat consists of numerous sitting sessions punctuated by walking meditation, ritual-style meals, and a work period.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Swami Magalananda remarked.

“No, it kind of isn’t,” I replied after brief reflection. But then again, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spiritual practice that isn’t about me having a good time. It actually has nothing to do with me and my personal preferences, unless I choose to make it about me and my personal preferences. That’s when it gets difficult, because that’s when my ego is threatened.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same. Zen practice has the power to cut through the delusion of “self” and “other” by uniting the sangha in the “together action” of chanting, walking and sitting. When I choose to let my ego get involved, however, I have the power to do exactly the opposite. It’s a strict practice, and although most Temple Rules are outlined our manual of practice guidelines, it’s pretty much a big game of follow the leader. Just show up, watch what senior sangha members are doing, and try to follow suit. This affords tremendous opportunity for mistakes.

I don’t like to be corrected. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t, so there’s nothing special or unique there. The important question is: how do I respond when my practice form is corrected? Do I resent the person who is trying to help me? Do I feel ashamed at having made a mistake? I could spend post after post psychoanalyzing myself, researching my past to locate the root of those feelings, but that’s not entirely useful. As Pema Chodron says, while it can be helpful to look at our lives to see how mental and emotional patterns may have developed, if we consider the possibility of reincarnation, these are likely “ancient wounds.” Lacking the backstory of all those past lives, all we’re left with is moment to moment awareness of those feelings as they arise, and a recognition that we have a choice of how to respond. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to change our karma. As they say in 12 Step Recovery, “if you want what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done.” If you want something else, do something different.

The upshot of all this is that after several years of practicing both Korean Zen and 12 Step Recovery, I’ve come to notice that the work I need to do is always somewhere in between me and the work I think I need to do. My problem is always as immediate as my own mind in this moment. In other words, the problem isn’t that I sounded the wrong number of beats on the moktak at the beginning of a chant; the problem arises as I feed into resentment or shame when someone brings it to my attention. I’m essentially creating division at a point of choice where I could create unity by simply saying “Thank you.” Every human interaction is like that.

A Very Practical Joke

Zen monks at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

Chogyam Turngpa Rinpoche supposedly referred to formal zen practice as “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm.” “But,” he added wryly, “it is a practical joke, very practical.” The forms and rituals that we practice in the Kwan Um School, handed down to us from the Chogye Order of Korean Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn upon his emigration to the United States in 1972, serve a very important function. Like the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous that hold that fellowship together so that individual healing can take place, our school’s forms and rituals create a container to hold the teachings. More than that, however, they are the teachings. True wisdom is not transmitted through words. It’s transmitted through action, as the Buddha transmitted his dharma to the smiling Mahakasyapa by holding a flower in the air atop Vulture Peak. During the time that I’ve been practicing zen, I’ve come to realize that all of the arcane rules and customs that I thought were getting in the way of my spiritual practice are my spiritual practice. They have a way of showing me where I’m stuck in a very real, very tangible way.

A few years ago at Open Meadow Zen, where I practice regularly, sitting sessions were sometimes sparsely attended. One evening, there were only four of us there: me, who acted as Head Dharma Teacher by timing the sitting and leading walking meditation, the moktak master, who lead chanting with a wooden percussion instrument, Zen Master Bon Haeng, and one other guy. When the zen master and that one other guy left the room for koan interview, only two of us remained. The scene during walking meditation looked like this: two grown men in matching grey robes walking really slowly around an empty room. My thought was pervasive and clear… “This is a bizarre way to spend a Monday night.” For the life of me, I couldn’t see how this activity was of benefit to me or anyone else, but I kept walking. For all I knew, the guy behind me was really into it, and I didn’t want to spoil his good time.

When my turn in the interview room came, The zen master asked, as he often does, “Did you bring me anything?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I come with Great Question… What’s the point of all this? We’re supposed to be practicing for the sake of all sentient beings, but instead we’re just wearing robes, chanting in Korean, and walking around in a room by ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense… I don’t see the connection.”

He gave me a swat on the knee with his zen stick, as tends to happen from time to time. It’s a very useful teaching tool.

“Did you feel that?”

“Of course I felt that, you just hit me!”

“In that moment, your experience is pain in knee. When you’re doing walking meditation, your experience is just walking. All of this doubt, this like and dislike, this mind stuff, all of this fantasy of yours, it’s not necessary. It isn’t helpful. If you want to help others, begin by becoming present. We begin to become present when we stop preferring our fantasy to reality.”

That’s pretty big teaching. The greatest thing that I can do for others is to get rid of this idea of “I” and “others,” to stop preferring my fantasy of separation. This “very practical joke” of zen, when approached with awareness, has the power to do that.

Why Practice?

Pilgrims at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

I’m giving an introductory dharma talk at Cambridge Zen Center on Thursday, and I think I’d like to say a little more about practice than I did when I gave an intro talk at Open Meadow Zen a couple of months ago. There’s a section titled “Motivations for Practice” in the Kwan Um School’s quarterly magazine, Primary Point. I always check it out to see what drives other people to bow, sit, and chant, and it’s usually a good read. When we’re describing our motivations to others, we tend to take the high road and speak of the grandest ideals at the root of our practice: to end suffering, to stop the Wheel of Karma, to save all sentient beings, and, of course, the perennially “correct” answer, “I sit for you.”

These are all noble ideals, but if I’m honest with myself, I can see that my true motivation for practice shifts from year to year and from day to day. When I came to the practice several years ago, I had a strong desire to end, or at least lessen, my own suffering. This is not an uncommon reason for sitting, or, come to think of it, for doing anything that human beings do. I want to increase the feelings I like, and decrease the feelings I don’t like. This approach is problematic for two reasons: I’m creating “I,” and I’m creating “like” and “dislike.” As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Don’t make ‘I.'” Clearly, then, my reason for sitting must include others; it can’t just be for my own sake. Somewhere along the line, I grabbed hold of this idea of practicing for the sake of all sentient beings. “Now I get it,” I decided. “The purpose of sitting is to become a better person and help others.” This is an improved motivation, but still not so good… Wanting to become a better person, I’m still making “better” and “worse,” still creating opposites.

How’s this for a motivation for practice, then? “To see clearly.” Sure, there’s still some “wanting” there, but considering that I’m starting from a place of ignorance, getting caught up in semantics or waylaid by false ideals like “I should sit for no reason because I’m already enlightened, therefore beyond any continuum of logic” isn’t going to help me get off the ground. (Or “on the ground,” more accurately, because that’s where the cushion is, if you want to get caught up in semantics.)

I think that I’ve come far enough in this practice of zen to realize that I’m a bare beginner… I have no idea what I’m doing. That’s the beauty of formal spiritual practice: I don’t necessarily have to know why I’m doing it at any given moment. All I need to do is to continue my practice as my motivation shifts, as my understanding ebbs and flows. Swami Satyananda said that Kundalini yoga is effective because it’s a physical practice; practitioners needn’t worry about what the mind is doing. He advised students to perform their exercises consistently, and eventually, the mind would settle down. Zen practice has that quality. In 12 Step Recovery parlance, “bring the body and the mind will follow.” The glitch here is that the intellect is the seat of the ego, and the ego always wants the kinds of answers that will substantiate its own existence. Ego always wants to know “why.” Considering again, however, that we approach spiritual discipline from a place of confusion, any practice that makes perfect sense at the outset probably isn’t very valuable.

So, although zen isn’t about belief, there is a leap of faith involved. I need to trust that the practice forms have value, even though it may not be apparent all the time. An appreciation of the importance of all elements of the tradition comes with practice, not before practice. There is, I think, a tendency among American Buddhists to want to modernize practice, to strip down traditions to what is essential. The danger here, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng, is that if we start weeding out parts of the form, we could very well lose something that we didn’t even know was important. So it all stays: the robes, the bells, the incense, the chanting… all the stuff that makes no sense.

What Do You Mean, “No Self?”

Monks’ quarters at Tibetan Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

Some time ago, I attended a talk by Lama Surya Das, who has studied and practised extensively in the Tibetan tradition, and is apparently known to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as “the American Lama.” The talk was held at the Follen Church, a unique octagon-shaped Unitarian church that was built in 1836 in the village of East Lexington, Massachusetts. It’s a building that I feel very comfortable in. My father worked there as a janitor when I was a kid, and I’d play the pipe organ while he vacuumed the carpeted aisles and arranged the missals in the wooden racks on the backs of the pews. Later in life, I came to know the church for the wonderful A.A. meeting that’s held there every Saturday evening at 5:30. I currently live a block down Mass Ave. from the Follen church, and for the past few years, I’ve used the steeple bell as my meditation timer, sitting on the cushion at twenty minutes to the hour and ending my session at the bell’s toll.

Surya Das was discussing his latest book, Buddha Standard Time, which explores the importance of remaining present as the demands on our attention continue to increase in the 21st century. As we entered the Q and A portion of the evening, I decided to raise my hand. I don’t actually remember what I asked because, to be honest, my intention was really to give my local zen center a plug. What I succeeded in doing was, however, in the parlance of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s practice manual, to “point to the gap between my cognition and my practice.” In other words, I publicly fell on my face in an impromptu koan interview. In the course of my question, just for good measure, I’d worked in the phrase “no self.”

“What do you mean, ‘no self?'” Surya Das interrupted very clearly, very loudly, and a little bit aggressively.

The sound of creaking 175-year-old wooden pews was deafening as 100 people turned their bodies to await my response, which never came. I had no answer, which isn’t a bad response when the interview is one-on-one, but it’s a bit unsettling with a small legion of spiritual seekers looking on. Not only did I no longer feel comfortable in the venerable old church, I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin. “Mortified” is probably the single best descriptor. The ensuing silence was awkward probably to me alone, and possibly enjoyed by anyone fond of seeing a true teacher deftly bludgeoning a student with his own arrogance and confusion. I had glibly tossed out this lofty philosophy with no expectation of being challenged. “We’re all Buddhists here, right?” I thought. Isn’t the whole “no self” thing a given?

“How can you say there’s no self?” the onslaught continued. “If I eat, do you get fed? I’m over here and you’re over there. What do you mean by this ‘no self” thing?”

Whatever words Surya Das delivered next were most likely very good and useful teaching, but I didn’t hear the vast majority of them, stewing as I was in my own embarrassment and shame. After the dust had settled and he was on to the next, more cautious victim, however, I understood what he was getting at. I had no actual experience of “no self.” It’s all just heresay to me.

My daily reality, based in ignorance, doesn’t feel like unity and oneness; it feels like clear division between self and other. I’m sitting here in East Lexington typing these words, and you’re out there somewhere reading them. Two different people… that’s the starting point. To deny that is to be dishonest about my situation, which is never an effective way of dealing with a problem. “No self,” from the perspective of my current state of consciousness, is simply a concept or belief, neither of which is something that zen concerns itself with. Zen is about groundedness and action.

Trusting in the dharma, and all great teachings, how does one transform this idea of “no self” from belief to reality? Only by moment to moment practice. This is where the 12 Step Recovery notion of “act as if” comes into play. The basic premise here is that it’s easier for me to act my way toward right thinking than it is to think my way toward right action. I need to emulate the qualities I want to possess. When I wanted to stop being obsessed with drinking, I needed to act like I wasn’t obsessed with alcohol. After a continued period of not acting on that obsession, it was lifted. Likewise, if I want to truly realize the concept of “no self,” I need to start acting selflessly. “No self” is not a philosophy, it’s a practice, one that has the power to save all sentient beings.

I live in the same town as Lama Surya Das, and I run into him from time to time. I smile and he smiles back. In all liklihood, he has no recollection of me or my “failed” koan. But I remember the words he spoke to let me off the hook before taking another question. “You’re a zen guy,” he said, “so I know you have eyes to hear what I’m saying.”