Nurturing Intention

I started practicing karate when I was a teenager, and soon after, I began to notice a phenomenon that now seems, to me, ordinary. A new person would come to the dōjō, love it, and declare that he was going to dedicate his life to the martial arts. And then he’d disappear. It seemed, in many cases, that a person’s longevity was inversely proportionate to his or her enthusiasm. I understood that not everyone follows through on everything, but the predictability of this always seemed strange.

By the time I started to see this in the Zen world, it just seemed sad and familiar. During my time in Alaska, two young people came and spoke with me very seriously about the prospect of ordaining as a priest.  They had never come to sit with the AZC; in fact, they’d never sat anywhere, with anyone, ever. In both cases, I suggested that before they change their names, put on robes, and enter a monastery, perhaps they should just come and sit with us, but the response was that they wanted the “real thing,” not this sit-in-the-morning-in-someone’s-living-room, play-acting version of Zen. I encouraged them to come; they didn’t come. That was the end of it.

Another young man wanted to travel with me to Japan one summer to train at a monastery, but he didn’t want to come sit with the AZC there in his own town. He told me without any irony how serious he was, how committed. It’s easy, after a string of these encounters, to just dismiss someone like this, but I do believe that as he made his case to me, he did feel that serious — he did believe that he was that committed, even though he had no idea either of what he was asking for or what he was rejecting. He was, in his way, sincere.

I suspect that this same scene is played out at Zen centers around the world, all the time. In Anchorage, someone would come and sit for the first time and stay talking with me in the doorway for half an hour afterwards, thanking me and saying she’s finally found her true home. And I’d never see her again. It’s recognizable even mid-conversation — you feel, with some certainty, that this exuberant hello is really goodbye.

Since I started this blog, a couple of people have written to ask for help in getting into a monastery in Japan. These are people with no teacher and no experience, just an idea that they know exactly what they need to do: become a Zen monk and train in Japan. I asked if they could sit with a local group, maybe cultivate a relationship with the guiding teacher there. In both cases, there was a nearby group, but in both cases, attending was out of the question. They wanted the “real thing.” Sitting with a bunch of ordinary people in jeans and t-shirts is fine for some, but not if you really want to solve the great matter of life and death.

I struggle sometimes to understand what this is all about, and how best to address it. Some people are just flaky, or flighty. That’s true anywhere. Most have created a narrative about the practice, or themselves, or both. If it’s the practice, it’s often connected to the idea that it’s all or nothing, that one either ordains and trains like Dōgen or stays home (unfortunately, this often brings with it the idea that the people actually attending the Zen center are fooling themselves); if it’s about themselves, then perhaps it’s that they see, in that first encounter with Zen, a vehicle for becoming the person they want to be, disciplined and compassionate and wise, and special.

Both of those narratives are mistaken. If we want to say that Zen is all or nothing, that’s not wrong, but “all” doesn’t mean what we think it does (nor does “nothing,” for that matter). However, we can just as easily say that it’s neither all nor nothing, that it’s just this. It just is what it is. If it’s sitting once a week on Sundays, that’s what it is; if it’s sitting six hours a day in robes in a 600-year-old building, then it’s that too. What it isn’t, in any case, is the version of it that you can’t have right now. And as for Zen making us who we want to be, that just isn’t the case. It doesn’t even do the Hallmark-card reverse: making us want to be who we are. Zen is about letting go of who we are. It’s radically not special. Along the way, as we navigate what that all means, it can even be a little depressing.

And yet, underneath all these misunderstandings and misguided intentions, there is what’s called hosshin (発心), the awakening of the mind to practice. Hosshin is the original wake-up call, the one that lets us know — even though we probably can’t articulate why or what it means — that this is important. Teachings tell us that this hosshin is what leads us to shugyō (修行), actual practice. Shugyō leads us to bodai (菩提), or letting go of the self. Bodai leads us to nehan (涅槃), letting go of letting go. And in the Zen tradition, we say that nehan then brings us back to hosshin, where we start the cycle over again. (One of my teachers describes this like turning a screw — if you look from the top, it seems you’re just going in circles, but if you look from the side, you see that you’re constantly going deeper and deeper.)

In short, hosshin is important. But by definition, when that mind is first aroused, it will bring with it all sorts of delusions and misunderstandings and immature views of what it all means. Someone looking at Zen from the perspective of hosshin cannot know what the practice really is, nor can they even begin to guess what it might produce. It’s just this feeling, this recognition. It’s what gets us through the door. Without it, nothing happens.

So when we see it, we see something precious, something to be nurtured and encouraged and supported, like a child. But often it also brings with it a childish view, one that is impatient and self-centered and unforgiving.

I feel a lot of love for these young (they’re usually young) people who come to the practice as if they’re on fire. I was like that — every wrong idea I’ve ever heard about the practice is one that I’ve had myself. When I was about twenty, I wrote a long letter to a teacher I’d met (a student of Thich Nhat Hanh’s) announcing that I recognized her as my true teacher, that I wished to formally be her student and dedicate myself wholly to her teachings and to the Dharma. She was the only teacher I’d ever met, but I just knew. It wasn’t that I knew about her, though I respected her deeply — it was that I felt, in my bones, that there had to be more to the practice than what I was doing, and that I had to be special for knowing that. I told her I was awaiting her orders, ready to jump and do whatever she needed me to do. I was ready.

She never wrote back. I waited and waited, but that letter didn’t come. When I think of it now, I’m embarrassed for what I wrote — not for the feeling behind it, but because I sense that she saw, in that letter, what I have come to recognize in people who appear from nowhere and say they want to move to Japan and train in a monastery. I was that guy. But I also feel grateful. She wasn’t my true teacher. I wasn’t her true student. Her silence — whatever her reasons — freed me to find my way to where I am today, to my teachers, to this tradition.

Mostly, when I think of that letter, I feel unsure about skillful means. That teacher saw a choice to either feed my intention or starve my delusion — she chose to starve the delusion, and from where I stand, that was exactly the right thing to do. And yet, and yet– When someone comes to me with great delusional dreams of jumping in head first, bald and bigger than life and engulfed in flames, of course I see the delusion, but my heart wants to feed the intention, to try to find a way to the mind that just now recognized, for the first time, something so huge and doesn’t know what to do with it, or even what it is.

When I talk with other teachers about ordained disciples, they’ll sometimes talk about the one or two that “got away” as if completely losing at least a few people in that way is a foregone conclusion, a predictable outcome. There’s an assumption that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the balance just won’t be right.

I, for one, have not figured it out. How to applaud with one hand while wielding a sword in the other? I don’t know.

I really don’t.

A French translation of this post can be found here.

Monasteries and the Real World

When I was a teenager, one of my teachers told us about his list of “required” experiences. These were experiences that he felt were prerequisites to being a fully alive, aware person. I remember nothing of that list except one: spend a night in jail. I asked him if he’d ever spent a night in jail. He had. (I have not.)

Twenty-five years later, I wonder how much of his list I’ve covered, and how much it’s changed. If I were to meet him and tell him about my life, would he feel that my life is on track, or would he only see gaps in experience? What about things I’ve done that he has not? Would he find them threatening? Would he dismiss them as distractions?

I’m aware, both in the Zen community and in myself, of our tendency to define what is real and what is not according our own experiences. It’s natural. Anyone who has kids (this is especially true of new parents) probably has the experience of talking to a childless friend and thinking, “This guy doesn’t know anything about the real world. He has no idea.” And many young people have the opposite experience — talking to a friend whose life revolves around her children and thinking, “Wow, she’s completely lost in her narrow little world.” When we are among the initiated, we imagine that it couldn’t possibly be any other way; when we are outsiders, we mock the people on the inside for their self-importance.

So it’s natural that in the Zen community, we tend to advocate a kind of training similar to what we ourselves have experienced. There are only a few Zen teachers in the US who are products of a traditional monastic system, and as a result, there are only a few who feel strongly about passing that system on. There are some on the extreme other side who feel monastic practice is a complete waste of time, then a majority in the middle who feel that it’s OK for people who are into that sort of thing, or who feel it might have value in small, manageable chunks. But, at least for the moment, there is very little energy behind establishing monastic training opportunities for the current and future generations of Soto Zen priests.

That’s how I see it, based on conversations with other priests, attendance at national meetings, and perusal of what’s written on various Zen center websites. A few teachers may still hold up “the monastery” as a kind of abstract, romantic ideal, but much more often, the language we hear is “outside the monastery,” or “beyond the monastery” (if the monastery is mentioned at all). Many, many teachers reference the monastery not as an ideal, but as something that is fundamentally at odds with modern living. It’s the problem with Zen. And when I read such statements, I always wonder, “Who is the audience here?” If American Zen teachers are already not actively advocating monastic training, then against whom are we arguing? At this moment in the history of Zen, abandoning monastic practice is hardly a revolutionary move.

I think there are legitimate and constructive conversations to be had about this: What is monastic training? What’s it about? If there is a goal, what is it? What does it produce? How has it justified its existence up to now, and do those justifications hold up in a modern, Western context? If yes, then what causes our cultural resistance to such practice? And if not, why not? What aspects of the monastic tradition in Japan can find traction in the US? Which require modification? Which don’t stand a chance from the start? And how do we determine such things? If we attempt to establish an “American” monastic model, what is our inspiration? Modern Japanese monasteries? The monastic guidelines (shingi) left behind by Dogen? By Keizan? Do we go back further, to the shingi from China? Do we go back to the beginning, to the birth of the monastic sangha in Buddha’s time and take our cues from that original structure? American culture hates rules, but it also has a deep puritanical streak that connects to the tradition of the vinaya (browse almost any Buddhist blog’s comments section to find people insisting that any monk who is not celibate and poor is a scam artist, a sexual-predator-to-be who’s just in it for the money).  How can we fund monasteries in the US, knowing that the Asian models of patronage just won’t work?

At the center of all of it: What is a priest?

These are really interesting questions. These are among the most compelling questions I’ve ever encountered.

But before we can address any of them, we need to move beyond the popular idea that the monastery is somehow different from the “real world.” This idea is everywhere. I hear over and over again that we don’t need monastics, because monastics can’t possibly understand the challenges of ordinary people. People refer to monastic life as something sheltered, a way of hiding from “real life.” They say, “Get a job.” This could only make sense to someone who is looking at monasteries from the outside.

One night in the monastery, I slept in a closet to hide from a monk who had gone down to the local village, gotten drunk, and decided upon his return that this was his night to kill me and the monk in charge. I just stayed where he couldn’t find me, and the next day we found our mutual ways back into the normal routine. I watched a monk trying to break a sleeping monk’s face with a kyosaku (but missed, luckily – it was dark). One evening after dinner, after hearing the next day’s job assignments, a monk who felt he spent too much time in the kitchen jumped completely over a table and tried to strangle the shuso (chief novice). I watched a fistfight break out over how much or how little monks should be involved in politics. A monk went crazy one day and basically destroyed a room, like a wild animal trapped indoors. We all waited in the hallway for it to end, then went in and silently cleaned it up.

For a time, the head monk, hell-bent on saving money, tried to force us to eat rotten pickles every day – so rotten that they had turned from yellow to a deep blue. One afternoon, I just went into the woods, dug a hole, and buried them.

In winter, when the head monk had to suddenly leave for medical reasons, some of the junior monks holed up in a room for three weeks. They were free, and their version of embracing freedom was to close the door and keep their little kerosene stove burning constantly, with the windows closed, essentially gassing themselves into a constant toxic sleep. They’d stumble out from time to time, looking intoxicated and confused, then wobble down the hall to raid the kitchen. During that whole period, I don’t think I ever heard any of them actually speak.

A monastery is not some romantic place where people spend their days serving each other tea and thinking about saving all beings. When we look beyond the schedule of ceremonies and zazen, what we find in monasteries is an experiment in intimacy. It’s an intimacy with others — more than once, I’ve heard it likened to a pot full of potatoes, rubbing against each other until they’re all skinned and shiny white. It’s also an intimacy with yourself. If you sit six hours of zazen a day, every once in a while, zazen will slip away and you’ll find yourself thinking about things — a recurring theme, guaranteed, will be, “What the hell am I doing here?” You have time in a monastery to go over every mistake you’ve ever made, to dissect every regret, to luxuriate in self-doubt.

More than anything, it’s an experiment in saying yes. We say yes to the bell, to the schedule, to the demands of being, in many ways, glorified custodians (if you go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 3am, that’s not just an 18-hour day, it’s 16-18 hours of actually working). We say yes to seniors, putting personal issues aside. We say yes to the tradition, to the 24-hour ritual enactment of the life of Buddha, eating this way, standing this way, sleeping this way, sitting this way. And under all of it is the fundamental yes, the one where we decide not to leave, to stay where we are. We agree to move in concert with these crazy people.

In this way, we start to understand what it is to move beyond preferences. A mantra in the monastery is suki kirai kankei nai (好き嫌い関係ない) — essentially, like and dislike are irrelevant. If you’re like me, then in the beginning, you hear this to mean, “Don’t whine.” But it’s much more than that. It’s at the center. When my daughter just bumped her head and my son is tantrum-screaming as if he’s on fire, but it’s something about which cup I gave him, I have lots of preferences about how I would like things to be. And none of them matter.

When we default to the idea that the monastery is another world, we both demonize and romanticize it — we insist that its differences make it irrelevant, and in doing so, we imply that it really is a magical world where bodhisattvas stroll around, unencumbered by human problems. The most basic stance of Buddhism, from its first day, is that human experience is universal — we all see the world through the lens of our own narrative, and in doing so, we all create criteria by which we judge (and thereby distance ourselves from) this moment. We all separate the world before us into “like” and “dislike.” We all believe, consciously or unconsciously, that some things are more “real” than others. We all, I suspect, have a hierarchy of experience.

And if pressed, I’d bet that most of us believe, deep down, that there is some place a person can go to “get away from it all,” a place for retreat.  There is no such place.

There is only this place. In a monastery, too, there is only this place. When this is all there is, how can this be unreal?

When this is all there is, how can there be someplace else to go?

I, Roshi

When I was a pimply-faced high school kid, I used to go to a dermatologist I’ll call Dr. Selmer. I disliked him intensely. He was always strongly recommending acne remedies that had, in his own words, “basically the same side effects as chemotherapy.” That seemed insane, even sinister. I never did this to his face, but my way of showing my family how little I respected this man was by refusing to refer to him as a doctor — I called him “Mr. Selmer.”  I remember seeing how much power that had, how wrong it sounded, how it made my parents cringe just a little every time.

Titles, at least in Soto Zen, are tricky. When other priests in Japan send me correspondence, they usually append shūshi (宗師, “religious teacher”) to my name; occasionally, they’ll even write rōshi (老師, “old teacher”) — no one uses the term to my face (I’m 39!), but in writing, those kinds of exaggerated honorific titles are just a way of showing respect. It doesn’t mean much. Most people here call me Koun-san, with the san meaning absolutely nothing, but people who know something about Zen might call me oshō-san (和尚, harmony + esteem, often translated as “preceptor”), or maybe Koun-oshō-san (if you hear ossan, that’s just oshō-san getting contracted, usually to convey something a little bit casual). Our neighbors have taken to calling me sensei recently. Sensei is most often translated as “teacher,” but that doesn’t do it justice — it’s used for teachers, but also for doctors, or for the school nurse, or for artists of a particular standing, or for older musicians, and on and on. Sensei is what you call someone when you recognize that their standing or category probably merits its own term, but you don’t know what that term is. It’s handy that way. Literally it just means “one who is ahead,” so it’s a recognition that a person clearly has something to offer. It’s very possible that the neighbors call me sensei because my wife is a university professor, and it’s just more comfortable to give us the same status.

All these titles (and there are many more) share one thing in common: they are never, never used by the person in question. That is, the neighbor can call me Koun-sensei, but I cannot call myself Koun-sensei. Even just to say that I’m a teacher, I have to use a neutral term like kyōshi (教師) — sensei is a term of respect, and here, culturally, it’s understood that one does not do that when referring to oneself. Ever.

So it’s always jarring for me to see Western teachers sign their email with “Roshi” or “Sensei.” The practice is not universal — in fact, the majority of priests in the US don’t do this (a high percentage don’t even use their Dharma names). But nor is it uncommon. I see it all the time. And what I’m mostly seeing is correspondence among colleagues, where, regardless of one’s vocation, it might be a little strange to refer to oneself by title, given that most of your colleagues are basically the same rank. I suspect the self-use of honorific titles is much more common when priests are dealing with laypeople. I realize that for many priests and centers, it’s probably too late to be addressing this; I also know I’m hardly the first to bring it up. But still, I’d like to appeal to those who don’t use these titles publicly, especially young priests at the start of their careers, to not go down that road. I can’t see the benefit of it.

Part of the confusion –among priests and laypeople alike — is that rōshi means something different in the Rinzai world. My understanding is that in much of the Rinzai world, rōshi is a real title, something one graduates to. There is an actual moment when someone becomes a rōshi. Even then, in Japan, that person would not use the word to describe him or herself — there are no real exceptions to that. But at least it’s something measurable. If you ask a Rinzai teacher, “Are you a rōshi?” my sense is that in many cases she could answer definitively “yes” or “no.”

There is no such graduation moment for a Soto priest. If you live long enough, and if the people around you feel either respect or affection for you, you might find one day that you are a rōshi. That’s all. Maybe it will never happen. It’s not really something to aspire to, largely because it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone involved. One priest in his sixties told me that the first time he was called rōshi in a conversation, his response was to go to the washroom and look in the mirror to see if he’d suddenly aged. Many priests are never called rōshi, regardless of how long they live. (There is one exception to this, which is that the central monastic office titles of dōchō, seidō, godō, and tantō often, as a custom, get rōshi appended to them, but even that is not true in every monastery).

But at least in the Soto world of the US, rōshi is often used to signify a specific rank. Some people insist on it the way that an insecure college professor might trip up every introduction by always saying, “Actually, it’s Dr. Smithson.” I think most people find that kind of insistence off-putting, but to be fair, at least “Dr.” is a technical title, one earned in clear and measurable ways.  Rōshi and sensei cannot be earned — they can only be given. I’ve met novices who spoke openly of their goal to be a Zen teacher. That’s a serious mistake. That’s something that comes to us, not something we seek.

There’s another phenomenon in the West in which students refer to their teacher not as “Smith-roshi” or “Jones-roshi,” but simply as “Roshi,” with a capital ‘R.’ I can see how that might become a default in a given community, among common disciples of the same person (though it rings very strange in my ear, even then). But to refer to your teacher as “Roshi” when speaking to someone outside of the group reveals a kind of arrogance, a worldview in which only one person in the world deserves such a title.

I want to advocate for us, as westerners, treating these titles as people in Japan do. But I want to be clear: the Japanese approach to this issue is not superior because it’s Japanese, or even because it’s traditional. It’s superior because it’s more respectful — of priests, of the relationships we have with priests, of the relationships we priests have with others, of the living dynamic that is always in play between teacher and student, guest and host.

We say in this tradition that the student makes the teacher; we even go so far as to say that when the teacher confers transmission on the student, the student simultaneously confers transmission on the teacher. We are mutually self-actualizing. A teacher does not exist in a vacuum; a teacher appears at the moment that a student does. I became a father when my son was born, not before. That seems so obvious, yet we have people with no students calling themselves Zen teachers, or even Zen masters. The complement to “teacher” is “student”; the complement to “master” is “disciple.” Whatever language you use, if you don’t have both, you have neither. Zen master, then, is a technical term, nothing more — perfectly appropriate for someone who has disciples, and embarrassing for someone who does not.

Rōshi and sensei are not technical terms, but like teacher or master, their power comes from a relationship with someone else. If someone calls me sensei, that person is taking a step forward, asking me to be that role. When I address an older priest as rōshi, it’s the same thing — it’s me consciously conveying, “I want to relate to you as someone who is learning.” In Soto Zen, so much of the burden is on the student; this is just one simple example.

So these terms are useful, even important. I would like some teachers to stop using them to describe themselves, but I would also like to encourage those teachers who shy away from such terms to stop resisting, to allow the people around them to take that brave step. Making that space for others, regardless of your own discomfort, is a profoundly generous act.

In my experience of this tradition, generally speaking, priests default to humility. When a priest writes a letter, the smallest print on the page is his own name; it’s the same on the return address. When priests introduce themselves, they mention either their teacher’s temple or their own, but they do not say that the temple is big or small, nor do they refer to their own rank in the institution of Soto-shu. They don’t say how many disciples they have, and the more famous and respected their teacher is, the less likely they are to actually refer to that teacher by name. If these things have any relevance, they reveal themselves naturally. If not, then who cares?

At the same time, when someone comes to me as a priest, I understand that I am being asked to serve in a particular function, to stand in that position (I wrote about this a few months ago over at Wild Fox Zen).  In that circumstance, in that kind of relationship, Koun is not the point — the role is the point. In a very real way, the robe is the point. And though they’re not separate, they’re also not one and the same. (My karate teacher used to remind us, “I’m friendly, but I’m not your friend.” He’s the teacher; we’re the students. The price of admission to that relationship is the forfeiture of other kinds of relationships. And when it’s worth it, it’s really worth it.) When a priest is called upon to sit on the high seat, to expound the Dharma or confer the precepts, then it is the priest’s job to sit there without apology, without hesitation, and to become that function, to bring all the stillness or thunder to that role that he or she can. That’s our part of the contract, to say yes and yes and yes, to let go of showing who we think we are, and instead to offer ourselves as a mirror for others, to rise to that occasion, that expectation, that moment.

But it’s also the priest’s job, when it’s over, to get down from that seat and to let that moment be over, to let the role be defined by whatever comes next, not by what just happened.

What I can do is offer everything I have; what I cannot do is tell you how to feel about it, or how to label it. My actions and my words should point to the Dharma, not to myself.  If my actions are words on a page, people should have to squint to see my name at all.

Making Space

If you’ve ever been to Japan and visited temples here – especially the more famous ones – you were probably impressed by the scale. Dharma Halls, especially, tend to have incredibly high ceilings, but the room is basically empty; you might find yourself looking for the beams, trying to figure out how it stays standing. The Dharma Halls of Eiheiji or Sōjiji, when no one is around, can feel like empty stadiums, or really ornate airplane hangars. It can all seem a bit excessive.

But if you were to visit those same rooms in the morning, during chōka (朝課, morning service), you might have trouble finding a place to sit among the 200-plus monks in training, temple officers, and visitors. It’s not wasted space.

I haven’t written too much about the technical side of nyohō, in spite of the name of this blog. One of the more difficult aspects to describe, for me, has to do with space, so I thought I’d start there.

We say that there are three faces of nyohō: food, clothing, and shelter. In adhering to these teachings, we look at three aspects: materials used, color, and size (or amount). So on a purely technical level, there are nine discussions to be had: food in terms of ingredients, color, and amount; clothing in terms of cloth, color, and size; and housing in terms of materials, color, and proportionate space.

From the point of view of the tradition, “housing” refers to the sōdō, or monks’ hall, where monks do zazen, eat, and sleep. It expands outward from there to include the whole temple (which, if it’s a monastery, is also referred to as a sōdō). But that’s just a starting point, a useful reference to something measurable. The point is to apply these teachings to the space we’re in, to our homes, to our own location.

How do we determine the “correct” size of something? This is not about big or small. It’s about finding what is just right.

We see this idea most clearly in ōryōki, the bowls traditionally used in temples for formal meals (行鉢, gyōhatsu). The ō in ōryōki (応) means “appropriate”; the ryō (量) is “amount.” When servers come with rice and soup and vegetables, we hold out our bowls and signal when we’ve received just what we need. If you’re not hungry, you need not take a lot; if you’re a big eater, you can ask the server to fill the bowl, then to fill it again later on. One of my teachers is fond of pointing out that in the Zen world, equality doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing – it means everyone gets what they need, no more or less.

In a building, of course, “just right” can’t be determined on a purely individual level. Buildings are group spaces; “enough” has more to do with function than with whether someone is big or small. A simple example can be found in the sōdō:

D, E, F, and G are the jō, where monks sleep, do zazen, and eat (in this case, five monks side by side). Each space is about 3’ x 6’, big enough (barely) even for me. (Bedding and personal possessions are kept in a short cubby called a kanki (N). But what I want to point out is the space in between the jō, marked by ‘O’ and arrows. Most of the time, nothing happens there, but there are ceremonies in which people get down from the jō and do prostrations, facing one another. So this space is measured in terms of that function – it has to accommodate two average-sized people bowing, foreheads to the ground, without bumping into one another. That much space, and no more (because in the nyohō world, nothing goes to waste).

This is one side of nyohō, an important one. We establish, physically, an atmosphere of practice, a place of encouragement. We orient ourselves toward the practice, but we also create spaces which are themselves oriented in the same way. This is not magical; it’s not feng shui. It’s something felt. It’s an opportunity to look beyond our own preferences and allow what looks mundane to be an integral part of our own intentions.

That’s one side. But another is that we are where we are. Wherever you are, wherever you’re reading this, that is your place of practice. Space is determined by function, but function is also determined by space – if a sōdō is not built with a particular ceremony in mind, then that ceremony has to change. This is your location, and in this moment, the question of how you arrived here is irrelevant. It’s what you do now, what you’re doing now.

There’s an incredible generosity in trying to put a teaching like nyohō into practice, in shaping that space for others. But there’s an equally great humility – and power – in using the space you’ve been given. Traditional Zen training, in so many ways, is an exercise in putting ourselves in smaller and smaller boxes, in closing the walls in around us. In a monastery, we literally give up our idea of what is “mine,” but even if we’re sitting at home, we do zazen according to a prescribed form. We accept those boundaries. We don’t move. It’s my experience that when we make the box so small that it seems we can’t move at all, when we choose that, the box ceases to be a box, and the world around us opens up into a vast field,  open sky, ocean in all directions.

Do you feel constricted, right now, in your life? Where are your walls?

What, for you, is your function? How do you make that the function of where you are, in this moment?

How do you measure your world?

(Sodo image above borrowed from Practices at a Zen Monastery — Clothing, Eating, Housing: Being in Harmony with the Dharma by Tsugen Narasaki, published by Zuioji Senmon Sodo.)

Two Hands

Please pick something up and hold it in your hand — a pencil, a coffee cup, your keys, whatever is nearby. If you’re reading this on your phone, then just for a moment, allow your attention to shift away from the words on the page, and towards the act of grasping the machine in your hand, the sensation of it, the weight. Even just this — paying attention to the sensation of ordinary activity, noticing that we are always touching something — is something we do very rarely.

Put the object down. Now pick it up again, but with two hands. Hold it with two hands. Feel that. Notice how using both hands changes your posture just a little, how it makes this simple gesture so much more deliberate, so much more careful. So much more generous. Notice how, especially if it’s a small object, using two hands allows you to treat it with so much more care. You hold a coffee mug the way you might hold a kitten. With two hands, you don’t just grip a pencil — you hold it with your fingers, as you would something breakable. This is something we almost never do, not unless we choose it.

This simple choice is one face of what is called hōrei (法礼). The hō is Dharma. The rei in this case refers to a kind of etiquette, so in my head, I tend to translate hōrei as “Dharma decorum.” But the rei also means “gratitude.” We should keep that in mind. Hōrei applies to human interaction, of course — how we serve a guest, how we approach a teacher, how we receive a gift, and so on. But on a more basic level, it speaks to how we treat the world, how we stand as both host and guest in each moment.

In a monastery, there are almost endlessly specific physical instructions, for how to stand from a seated position (using your index and middle fingers as support, if there is a table in front of you), how to brush one’s teeth (with the right hand, left hand covering the mouth), how to enter certain spaces (from the left side of the entrance, left foot first), and on and on — and those are just a few that don’t require synchronizing with the movements of those around you (there are many, and they get complicated).  All of these can be considered expressions of this etiquette, and they can take years to learn, and even more years to really integrate in a natural way.

But the most basic principle of hōrei can be expressed very simply:  use both hands.  Whatever you are doing, whenever possible, use two hands.  If you are opening a door, open it with two hands.  If you are shaking someone’s hand, use both hands.  Even when it seems like overkill — like picking up a fork at the start of a meal — use two hands.  Like so many aspects of Zen practice, this may seem silly or useless or like a waste of time, but if you really apply this, it will change the way you approach your life.

Holding a coffee cup with both hands is holding a coffee cup one hundred percent.  Nothing is withheld.  The action is given full value.  If you are drinking coffee with a friend, try it both ways:  drinking one-handed, then holding the cup with both hands.  When we drink with one hand — the normal way — we do nothing with the other hand, or we use it to gesture, or perhaps we even use it to prepare our next bite of something.  That is to say, we multitask, and in doing so, we do not commit to any one thing.  Every action is partial.  Zen practice, as I understand it, is total commitment — to this action, to this moment, to this encounter.  Drinking coffee with one hand is not total commitment to that action. There is something we are holding back, something we are keeping for ourselves.

When I type on this keyboard, I touch the keyboard; my legs touch the chair; my feet touch the floor. If someone were to ask me what I’m doing, I might say, “I’m writing,” but that does not begin to cover it. There’s an intimacy in action, all the time. When I get stuck on an idea, I put my hands on my face and read the words on the screen. When I stop mid-sentence, unsure how best to proceed, I squeeze the carpet with my toes. I take great joy from this blog, from the comments that come, from that dialogue. It feels like communication, like a reaching out. But right here, in this room, in this city, far from anyone who reads these words, there is a world of contact.

How I  touch the world of this room is how I touch the world. In concrete terms, it’s all I can do — it’s all I’m doing. There are teachings that we should treat books with reverence, never placing them on the floor, always holding them just so, because the preserved word is such a precious gift, a link to the world of the writer. But there is a simpler way of looking at it: we treat a book with reverence because it is the thing in front of us. We hold it with two hands because we use both hands to receive a gift, and because we use both hands to make an offering. We hold it gently because this action is the culmination of all of our actions, all of our thoughts, all of our experiences. I drink a glass of water with two hands because that’s drinking with my whole body, and that’s drinking with my whole life.  I open the door with two hands because I only have two hands.

I once heard a Tibetan teacher say something like, “You should drink coffee with the same intensity as if you’re being chased by three tigers.” In Zen, we might change that to say, “Drink your coffee as if your head were on fire.” And in Soto Zen, we might simply lean forward and pick up the coffee mug with two hands, cupping it in our palms.

It’s not so much that your life depends on it, but that this is your whole life.


Yesterday at Sweeping Zen, Adam Tebbe posted a video of Jun Po Denis Kelly, head of the Hollow Bones Order and the creator of Mondo Zen™, laughing about a sesshin in which he “terrified” a whiny participant by grabbing him by the chest, throwing him against a wall, and growling, “Wake up. People are dying.” Jun Po uses this as an illustration of the “ferocity” of Rinzai Zen, and ends by saying that though that ferocity needs to be maintained, it also has to be used skillfully. Adam’s question was, Does this kind of violence have a place in Zen? There’s a lot to be said about it — I understand the concern, but I do think there’s a place for a kind of ferocity, an intensity, even if we don’t often see it in the Soto world.

So I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts about it, but I’m finding that it’s hard to separate out the question at hand from the fact that I feel predisposed to distrust Jun Po Denis Kelly. I have never met him. I like his photographs — he has a powerful look about him. And his resume is pretty great — he’s worked hard to be where he is, and I don’t doubt at all that a deep sincerity has been behind that work. I would say that he comes off as arrogant in the video, but that aside, I actually like that he seems to take a hardline, my-way-or-the-highway view of training. That can be a good thing, assuming other factors are in place. So this distrust I feel may be completely unreasonable; the reason may be too simple to be legitimate. But here it is: it’s the little ‘ ™ ‘ after Mondo Zen™.

The official description of Mondo Zen™ begins as follows:

Mondo Zen™ is based on Japanese and Chinese Zen, updated for the 21st Century. Mondo Zen™ transcends the hierarchical/authoritarian, gender-biased and constraining monastic aspects of traditional Zen in favor of practical, experiential “in the world” engagement. Relying only on direct personal experience – as taught by the Buddha himself – it does not allow mythic constructs to complicate its philosophical orientation. This includes ideas such as reincarnation, soul as personality, bardo realms, past lives, a creator deity, or other faith-based beliefs. It is important that in our practice of Mondo Zen™ we consciously choose to set aside all such ideas at least until we have experienced, tested and evaluated for ourselves a simpler and stronger way of knowing. Why is this important? Because those beliefs and concepts force our immediate experience into a container of pre-defined understanding, robbing us of the experience of deeper insight. By letting go of our attachment to our beliefs and mythologies, at least while we are actively doing this practice, we remove a barrier to insight caused by our attachment to those views.

It keeps going: Mondo Zen™ is “a transmission of Correct Understanding,” “a full heart-mind collaboration between ‘student’ and ‘teacher,'” and so on.

I have trained exclusively in traditional Japanese monasteries, and I would describe Zen in the same way. Of course Zen relies on direct personal experience. Of course it does not allow mythic constructs to complicate its philosophical orientation (though I would add that it also doesn’t allow its philosophical orientation to complicate its philosophical orientation!). Of course it transcends the hierarchical, gender-biased and constraining monastic aspects of traditional Zen — it transcends all containers, and fills them too. This is a strawman argument. This is packaging the obvious as something revolutionary. There is no “update” to be found here. If anything, this stinks of Boomeritis, the term coined by Ken Wilber (a brilliant philosopher, and colleague of Jun Po’s) to describe baby boomers’ inclination to believe that they are the first ones to see things as they really are, and that they will be the ones to establish the new paradigm.

In short, this is just cynical marketing. And though I understand it, I think it’s a crime.

The more famous example of the ‘ ™ ‘ is Genpo Merzel’s Big Mind Process™ (“Big Mind®: The gateless gate to boundless perception”). In some ways, Genpo is too easy a target. His activities had been the object of private derision by Zen teachers for years, then last year, after various scandals were made public, he became an object of public scorn. Much was made of his indiscretions, and along the way, some critics also laid into Big Mind Process™ itself, mostly labeling it a scam, something with no connection to Zen. But in its marketing, Ken Wilber referred to it as “arguably the most important and original discovery in the last two centuries of Buddhism. …With the Big Mind Process, a genuine kenso can occur in about an hour — seriously.” It was called “the third turning of the wheel of the Dharma.” In reality, it’s Voice Dialogue repackaged for a Buddhist audience. And as a tool of inquiry, I have no problem with it; like many others, I am, however, uncomfortable with the over-the-top claims made about it (among other things, if realization is just an experience in your brain, that’s a reductive re-definition of realization).

To be fair, in one important way, Mondo Zen™ and Big Mind Process™ are not really in the same category. Mondo Zen™ describes Zen exactly the way just about everyone would describe Zen, then claims that it’s new and improved. Big Mind Process™ takes something that has almost no relationship to any historical understanding of Zen, then says that Zen has evolved into this. Both arise from the assumption — always confusing to me — that Zen and Buddhism are somehow fundamentally irrelevant to “ordinary life,” that they’re broken and have been waiting for someone to come along and make them meaningful again. But each is trying to sell something very different from the other.

Both, I suspect, offer something fairly valuable. I’ve watched videos of Big Mind™ workshops — it looks like a nice therapeutic tool, one that many could benefit from. And I suspect I would like Mondo Zen™, because it appears to be exactly like, well, Zen.

But it’s this “selling” that does not sit well with me.

I want to be perfectly clear: I have no problem with Zen priests trying to make money. A lot of people, in my experience, take a puritanical view that priests should live in poverty, and they begrudge them any income at all. But the fact is that in most cases, even the famous ones live with very little, and the obscure ones barely scrape by. I’m sure Genpo Merzel has a comfortable personal income, but I also know that much of the income generated by his work has gone to support his center. Brad Warner has been very forthcoming about how little he makes from selling so many books, and I have no reason not to believe him. Zen priests struggle. In Alaska, the members of the center, for all their sincere efforts, couldn’t completely support me on their own, so I took another job — that job, in very real ways, was what made much of the activity at the center possible, because that non-priest job gave me the basic security to stay in Anchorage and do my work as a priest. That scenario is playing itself out all over the country, at centers big and small. I know priests who want to retire but can’t, because they know that shaking things up in even the slightest way will cause the center to collapse completely, and they don’t want that to happen. I know another priest who has worked for years as an airline attendant — his community would benefit tremendously if he could be with them all the time, but who will support that? So when a priest takes on another job, or when they get second billing on the yoga retreat circuit, or when they pursue book deals, I think, congratulations. When Zen centers make the decision to flat-out charge for events instead of sticking to a donations-only policy, I sympathize — I’ve been part of those conversations, and those decisions are never, never easy. They’re painful. It’s never about money, never just that, not as an end in itself. It’s about creatively supporting a place of practice and your own work as a priest when, in this culture and in this economy, others can’t or won’t. There are rich, fat-cat Zen priests, but not in the US, not as far as I know.

So if Jun Po and Genpo have money coming in, that’s fine. If it’s because they’re creative, forward-thinking teachers, that’s fine. If it’s even just charisma, that’s fine. I’m not concerned about teachers being successful on that level. In any case, that kind of success is rare.

However, both Jun Po and Genpo are making claims that they have discovered a revolutionary way of sharing the Dharma, one that is uniquely suited to our time and our culture, one that offers a kind of insight and authenticity that is otherwise not available. Then they’re trademarking it so that no one else can steal it. It’s so completely out of place in a tradition like this one that when you first hear about something like this, I think the normal response is not outrage but incredulity. You’re kidding, right?

When Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, he knew what a gift it was to the world. His only thought was to make it available to everyone, as quickly as possible. He didn’t sell it; he saw it as the property of all. When asked who owned the patent, he replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

The Dharma, to me, is the sun. It shines on everyone equally — it is always ever-present, always available. For centuries, we’ve turned to teachers to help us to see that light, to feel that heat on our faces directly. to realize that it was always there. Some teachers are amazing in that role; others are not. Some in our history have been innovators, while others have taken a more conservative approach. Some have taken on that role gladly, with a confidence that can be both powerful and unsettling; others have tried their best to remain invisible. But in 2500 years of teachers, how many have said, “I have found the better way to introduce others to their own true nature, to guide them to true seeing, to awaken them to limitless experience. And no one is allowed to teach this way but me”? Before the turn of this century, I suspect that the number was zero.

Buddhist teaching is a deep sea of plagiarism. Teachers shouldn’t pass off another teacher’s words as their own — that kind of direct stealing benefits no one. But the reality is that if we immerse ourselves in these teachings, if we listen to others with an open heart, if we chew on something we heard for months and years, we lose track, not only of who first said what, but of the more basic question of whether the ideas in our heads are really ours at all. I have thought, “This is the perfect analogy to describe such-and-such,” and thought I was really clever, only to find that the analogy appears in a book I read fifteen years ago. It was just worming its way into my head all that time. I’ve also come up with things that felt like something I’d heard, but after years of reflection have decided, no, that really is my own phrasing, my own illustration of that point. It has to be this way, because we have to bring everything to the table every time. If I love the way my teacher teaches, I will try with every bone in my body to embody that way of teaching. I can’t help but make it my own, but when I sit in the role of teacher, my teacher is also teaching, and so is his, and so are the authors of my favorite books, and so on. “My” style is born of something borrowed, stolen, absorbed, imitated. None of this is mine. It’s not mine to withhold. It’s not mine to begrudge.

And it’s not mine to trademark.