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


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…”

Ever Mindful


Detail of the Birth of Siddhartha, mural at Korean Monastery, Lumbini, Nepal


“I haven’t seen you in a while, ” said Zen Master Bon Haeng as I sat down for a koan interview at the zen center the other night.

It was true.  I haven’t been sitting with the Open Meadow sangha since I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, about half an hour away from my home.

“Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, huh?  Jon Kabat-Zinn started that.”

This was also true.  Kabat-Zinn began the Stress Reduction Program at the UMass medical school  in 1979 based on the premise that meditation could be an effective tool to help patients manage chronic pain.  A meditator and student of Buddhism for several years at that point, Kabat-Zinn understood that human beings create much of their own suffering.  He had a hunch that by allowing people to become aware of their response to pain moment to moment, they would have an opportunity to change their relationship to their experience.  Decades of research have confirmed that hunch.

“He used to practice here, didn’t he?” I asked the zen master, referring to Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Kwan Um School of Zen, respectively.

“Yes, ” he replied, continuing our streak of saying true things to each other.  He then went on to recall how he and Kabat-Zinn, or “Jonny,” as he referred to him, were students of Zen Master Seung Sahn in the early Seventies, along with another youngster named Larry Rosenberg.  As Bon Haeng explained it, Jonny and Larry had traveled to Asia and decided that “zen was dead there.”  They returned disillusioned, determined that a new, “American zen” needed to evolve from the teachings that had migrated from the East with traditional teachers like Zen Master Seung Sahn.  While they respected his teaching, they no longer saw the point of practicing the rigid, formal, and very foreign forms and rituals that he had brought with him from Korea in 1972.

When they approached Zen Master Seung Sahn with their desire to strike out on their own, he responded that once they had finished their training with him, they were free to do as they wished; to leave before their training was complete, however, would be irresponsible.  The Dharma they passed on to their own students could be misguided, perverted, or, at the very least, incomplete.  They parted ways with Zen Master Seung Sahn anyway, and the trails they blazed have profoundly impacted the spiritual landscape of America for the past 40 years.  Larry Rosenberg joined with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield to found the Insight Meditation Society, and Jon Kabat-Zinn took the practice of mindfulness out of meditation halls and into the mainstream institutions of America.

It’s mindboggling how much a part of the popular consciousness the practice of mindfulness has become, but what is lost when we separate the practice from the Dharma?  Three things, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng: the concept of No Self, the idea of Impermanence, and what Zen Master Seung Sahn called Together Action.  Practicing only for ourselves, both Zen Masters insist, is incomplete practice…

The Melodramas That Surround US


Giant Buddha statue outside the Japanese Temple, Bodh Gaya, India


“To become awakened, one must give up his identification  with the melodramas that surround him.”  Swami Ajaya

This one-liner of wisdom came across my path via the spiritual-quote-a-day tear-off calendar near the coffee pot at work.  This calendar, which appears year after year at this gathering spot, gleans wisdom from across traditions; sometimes I find them helpful, often times not.  As a Zen practitioner, I tend to find many of the quotes either too wordy or too esoteric, but this one struck me like an arrow, as any good teaching should.  Definitely a keeper, it went on the bulletin board next to my work station after its designated time had expired.  That’s a great place for it because, like all good teachings, I forget it every single day.  Spiritual practice is a process of continual remembering.

Friday night was a very important time for “re-membering” in the sense of reconnecting with a spiritual community and the intention that we share.  It was Inauguration Day, a day that shed a bright, harsh spotlight on the melodrama that the country and the world is currently embroiled in.  My partner and I had the opportunity to join our voices with about 200 others at kirtan, the ecstatic singing of the myriad names of the Divine that has been part of the Hindu tradition for millennia.  Prajna, the kirtan wallah who leads the band on harmonium and leads the voices in chanting, used to bring us all together on a monthly basis until she “retired” last year at the age of 70.  Basically, she called an emergency kirtan because she felt that, given the urgency of the situation, the world needed our voices.

What I realized as I chanted my devotion to the Divine in Her many feminine aspects was that it wasn’t just the world (out There) who needed my voice, it was me (in Here) who needed it.  This truth points to a fundamental flaw in the Swami’s statement that one must “cease to identify with the melodramas that surround him.”  As Zen Master Seung Sahn might say, this statement contains a “big mistake.”  (Actually, two big mistakes, one being the gender bias.)  The second big mistake is the perception that the melodramas surrounding me are problematic… it’s the melodramas within me that cause me to suffer.  I’m referring to what Pema Chodron calls my “storyline,” my precious notion of who I am and how I fit in with the world that I perceive as being separate from myself, a world that is never exactly the way I want it to be.  Attachment to my storyline is the cause of my suffering, and it always has been.  Office holders merely present themselves from time to time as convenient scapegoats.


Western practitioner on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India. (Blindfold not recommended for giving up identification with the melodramas that surround you.)

Together Action


school children in Kushinagar, India

Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center.  It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.

The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea.  They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School.  It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press.  In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.

As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one).  As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment.  The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.

Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike.  He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts.  There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food.  The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant.  We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment.  He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.”  This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.

As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within.  Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings.  Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…

Time’s A Wastin’

Bell Rock, Sedona, AZ

I’ve recently been reading Dharma Punx, Noah Levine’s edge-of-your-seat memoir chronicling his life’s journey from drug-addicted California street punk to one of the most visible figures in the contemporary Buddhist recovery movement. At one point in his early recovery, he’d committed himself to the life practice outlined in the book A Year to Live, which his father, Stephen, had just finished writing. The practice is to pretend that you have only one year to live, and to approach your daily life accordingly. Noah threw himself wholeheartedly into this experiment, spending several months in Asia, as he’d often dreamed of doing, then travelling across the United States to visit family and friends to express gratitude and to say all of the things that had gone unsaid. I was so intrigued by the notion of living one’s “final” year as a spiritual practice that I went out and picked up a copy of Stephen Levine’s book to get the info straight from the source, from a widely acknowledged “expert” on the apparently elusive subject of death and dying.

Delving into the elder Levine’s book, I thought, “Wow, this seems like a really valuable practice! I should try it someday.” Immediately, I was struck by the irony of this response, as the very essence of the Year to Live practice is the extinction of procrastination, the destruction of the deeply ingrained notion that I have the luxury of postponing living until some hypothetical future point when the conditions are ideal.  Am I really so arrogant as to believe that death will wait patiently until a time that is convenient to my schedule?  As John Lennon so eloquently put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  He knows better than anyone that most of us don’t hear a warning buzzer or get the courtesy of a terminal prognosis along with the gentle admonition that it would be wise to get our affairs in order.  I began the Year to Live practice, however timidly and however vaguely, on February 22.

What would you do if you only had a year to live?  It’s a huge question that means different things to different people. It certainly means something different to me now that I’m in recovery than it would have years ago.  Before, a one year terminal prognosis would have been a clarion call to recklessness and irresponsibility; today, it’s the polar opposite.  Rather than saying, “What the hell, it doesn’t matter because I’ll be dead in a year anyway,” I’m saying, “Oh my God, it totally matters because I’ve only got a year left to do the work I’ve started in this body,” namely, to clear away the obstacles that stand between me and direct perception of reality.  The practice isn’t a “bucket list” proposition, although it may take on an element of doing stuff I’ve always wanted to do.   Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “One day you will lose this body, then what?”  I don’t think he was referring to the loss of our ability to go sky diving in the Grand Canyon; I think he was referring to the imminent loss of this precious human incarnation as a tool for awakening.  All good teachings point us toward the fact that the time for awakening  is Now, not in some imagined future that, by its very definition, never actually arrives.

What’s interesting about this Year to Live practice is that it’s brought me the realization that one day I’m going to wake up and it will be the first day of the last year of my life. What’s even more interesting is that I’m not going to know it when it happens. The most interesting thing of all, of course, is the fact that it may already have happened. It’s a bold assumption that I’m going to live long enough to complete this experiment, and, like most assumptions, it’s completely ungrounded.


Parinirvana Temple and Stupa in Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died.

Dependent Origination

Baby goats by the roadside, Bodh Gaya, India

I went to the bookshelf to pull out a copy of The Compass of Zen, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s magnum opus which basically functions as the central text for the Kwan Um School of Zen. I’ve never actually read it from cover to cover, but I’ve chipped away at it bit by bit over the years, and my intention was to chip away a few more bits when a small Kwan Um pamphlet titled “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines” fell out from between the pages. The year before last, I participated in a precepts ceremony at Providence Zen Center in which I formally vowed to keep the second five Buddhist precepts, namely, to refrain from gossip, to refrain from praising self at the expense of others, to cultivate generosity, to refrain from indulging in anger, and to refrain from slandering the Three Treasures of Buddhism. In the Kwan Um School, the adoption of these precepts marks a member as a Dharma Teacher in Training, meaning that one is taking an active role in leading group practice and moving toward becoming a teacher in the school.

I feel as though I’ve been pretty diligent about pitching in and helping with group practice, but I’ve never been really big on studying the formal tenets of Buddhism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As the school’s guiding teacher Zen Master Soeng Hyang puts it in the “Training Guidelines” introduction, “it is not a coincidence that the sutras and other suggested readings are in the last section.  This rich tradition insists on live speech, direct understanding: ‘a special transmission outside the sutras.” In other words, practice is far more important than study, but there does come a time in a student’s development where study can inform practice, particularly the practice of helping others. It is in this spirit that a list of suggested topics for study is included at the end of “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines.”

“Dependent origination” heads the list of topics, and with good reason. This concept represents the core of the Buddhist understanding of the human dilemma, though I’ve never quite understood it. I’ve never taken the time to really look at it, content as I’ve been to assume that the term “dependent origination” refers simply to the fact that nothing exists as a completely independent entity, but rather is dependent upon everything that it is not for its very existence. A tree, for example, depends upon sunlight, air, water, soil, fungi and insects in order to live. Everything in the universe is like that. This, however is a description of “interdependence,” which isn’t unrelated to dependent origination… it just isn’t the whole picture. The whole picture is a view of phenomena as process of interdependence between subject and object.

Spoiler Alert!!! I’m about to answer the most classically unanswerable koan in pop zendom. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” “No.” It does not. If a tree falls in the forest, it emits waves of energy at a certain frequency. The thing that we call “sound,” however, is the process of those waves striking an eardrum and being interpreted by a brain. No ear, no sound.

You’re welcome.


The good news here is that I’m a koan-answering genius (oxymoron intended). The bad news is that I’m still just barely scratching the surface of the phenomenon of dependent origination. Reading up on this doctrine a bit led me further down the rabbit hole. Or, more accurately further out of the rabbit hole, as the dharma has a way of guiding us out of the Darkness of Reason and into the Light of Reality…

In his discourse on Dependent Origination, the Buddha shed the Light of Reality on the fact that mind creates the separation between subject and object, and, in doing so, sows the seed of suffering. All phenomena must arise through a process of interdependence between subject and object because it can’t possibly be otherwise; “phenomena,” “subject,” and “object” were never separate to begin with. Before that pesky tree ever fell in the forest (or, more accurately,as it fell), mind created “tree,” “ear,” and “sound.” It is simply a function of our consciousness that we perceive ourselves as individual entities apart from all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This consciousness is born of a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. There’s absolutely nothing linear about reality, yet we insist on believing beyond a reasonable doubt that all that we survey is “real,” that everything begins, persists for a while, then ends. This ignorance, according to the Buddha, is the first link in a chain of bondage that leads through sensory experience, feelings, and desire all the way to death. So strong have we forged the links of this chain that it’s existence is noted as the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism. Suffering. Bad news. The good news? That would be the Third Noble Truth: there’s a way out.

I’m well aware from my own experience that to attempt to read and interpret a text on my own, will avail me little. “A special transmission outside the sutras,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang reminds us, is necessary. As such, I welcome any and all comments regarding the readers’ understanding of Dependent Origination, as the last 900 words or so speak a little louder of my own confusion than perhaps I’d like them to.