Dirt and Water

My-Year-Of-Dirt-And-Water smallTracy has a thing she talks about sometimes—which I now think about a lot—that has to do with “holding two things at once.” We’re not always so good at it—we want things to be one thing or the other, to have some clarity.

The first time she mentioned it, she basically used “holding two things at once” as a definition of how religion works. Beyond the classic of relative and absolute, just as a day-to-day question, how do you hold the beauty of the world along with all the sadness, without letting either one go or saying that one is truer than the other? How do you accept responsibility for others when there are days when it feels like you can barely hold your own life together? For any kind of spiritual path to be alive, we have to move beyond the idea that we’re supposed to choose. Or even that we can.

Tracy’s book, My Year of Dirt and Water, came out just a few weeks ago. There are a lot of ways of talking about it, and I’m never sure which to choose. It covers the year I was in training the longest (when I was bouncing between Zuioji and Shogoji), so we were apart, with Tracy still living in Japan. It’s about her, us, Japan, the monastery, pottery, Zen, Alaska, aloneness, love, practice, and what it is to pay attention. It’s all those things, but in my mind, it might really be about this question of holding more than one thing at once. Being married while also being separated. Being whole while knowing that some things never heal. Moving on while seeing, clearly, that you’re always here, and that this is where you’ll always be. It’s beautiful.

I know no one else can read this book in exactly the way I do—until I saw a draft a couple years ago, I didn’t know much of what had happened during that year apart. I got to see myself through Tracy’s eyes, when she visited the monastery. It was at once new and utterly familiar, a momentary slide back in time. We’re not those people, yet when I watch them, I know them, and I know us a little better than I did.

Today is our anniversary. We’ve been married seventeen years, together closer to twenty. Along the way, she’s put up with a lot from this clumsy, struggling priest. She’s amazing. I am ordained in a once-celibate tradition; I’m someone with responsibilities to teachers and teachings and a community, all of which pull me in a hundred directions, and I know I fail in an equal number of ways, including sometimes failing her. Yet if I weren’t married to Tracy, who teaches me so much, I know I would fail in a thousand more. That’s part of what I hold. There is no this without that.

I hope some of the readers of this blog might enjoy Tracy’s book—for the Zen, yes, but also just for the honesty of it, and for the language. If you do, I hope you’ll let me know.

Do Nothing At All (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 2)

HipstamaticPhoto-554218618.998587This is the second part of a 6-part series on Keizan’s Zazen Yōjinki(“Notes on What to be Aware of in Zazen”). You can click here for Part 1

Let’s continue: “Drop through this bodymind”—bodymind is an important word—”and you will be far beyond such forms as sitting or lying down. Beyond considerations of good or bad, transcend any divisions between usual people and sages, pass beyond the boundary between sentient beings and Buddha.”

On the surface this sounds really big, but if we look more closely at what Keizan is doing, we see he has keywords, and the keywords are what we need to look at:

“Drop through this bodymind”—bodymind is a key word—”and you will be far beyond such forms as sitting or lying down.”

He’s also drawing contrasts: “Beyond considerations of good or bad, transcend any divisions between usual people and sages….”

But when he does this, he’s saying, there’s this and this—it’s not this or this. And then he sets up another one and he says how about this and this? It’s not that or that. He keeps talking about being between: “…pass beyond the boundary between sentient beings and Buddha.”

If we imagine that there are sentient beings, then we imagine that there are buddhas. And if we think it through, we might imagine that there’s a kind of a spot in the middle: that there’s someone who’s halfway here and halfway there.

Don’t imagine, he says, that this is either/or. And don’t imagine that this is a spectrum. Any two things between which you might get stuck—you have to drop it! It’s not a progression. It’s not win/lose. It’s something else.

And then he says, “Putting aside all concerns, shed all attachments. Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses.”

Do nothing at all.

There’s a perception of zazen—even by people who do zazen—that zazen is a kind of doing nothing.

There’s another perception of zazen, which I’ve mentioned a number of times before: maybe zazen isn’t doing nothing, but still, somehow it’s outside of the realm of cause and effect. This is a very popular idea. In this view, when you’re sitting in zazen, you’re not creating any karma. You’re beyond morality. You’re beyond questions of consequences. You’re kind of frozen in space and time, untouched, and untouching. I’ve heard this many times, from many teachers. However, as I’ve said before, it’s ridiculous. That is not what Keizan is talking about, though if we’re not careful we might read that into it. “Do nothing at all” can sound like we’re separating ourselves somehow, or we’re putting ourselves in a bubble.

For now, let’s read “Do nothing at all” as simply “Don’t fabricate.” In our activities, in our lives, in our practice, our default is to either push or pull. In everything we do, we push or we pull. We’re always pushing and pulling. Last week I said we always contract—it’s the same. There’s something that makes us tight. When you push, you’re tight. When you pull, you’re tight.

In zazen, if something comes into your mind and you think Oh, this is not zazen! I should not be thinking about this, you push. Even if your body looks serene, you’re contracting, you’re trying to hold something back. And then, when that idea is replaced by something that’s just too good to ignore, too juicy—either because it’s a memory that you kind of like to torture yourself with, or because it’s a fantasy that just has its own appeal—then you start to pull. And you know what it is to pull. You know what it is to hold onto a rope and to try to pull something towards yourself. You hold on. The effect is the same. In the body, in the mind—it’s the same, whether it’s attachment or aversion. You’re moving this way or you’re moving this way, and your body is dealing with that and your mind is dealing with that. You’re here in relationship to something.

What Keizan is talking about over and over and over again is the idea that there’s a space that’s neither. You don’t have to push or pull. That sounds obvious, but there are very few moments in an ordinary life when we don’t do one or the other. So we’re invited to consider: what is it to do neither? What is it to be here—not just in this posture but in this moment, neither grasping nor pushing away?

In kinhin, depending on how much you pay attention to your feet, you may be aware of your center of gravity. And when we’re balanced, when we say that we’ve found our center of gravity, that’s a moment when we’re neither pushing nor pulling.

Now, sometimes when you do kinhin, it’s very forced. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just because that’s how it feels that day, and so you lift your foot and the feeling is “now I’m going up, and now I’m going forward, and now I’m down” and it has a kind of robotic feeling. You’re really putting your energy into this thing, and so the actions feel contrived. Everybody who has done kinhin, I suspect, has had the experience of almost losing their balance—we’re doing something so simple, and yet it can be hard.

But there are other days—again, you don’t get a gold star for this!—when you do kinhin and you find that instead of lifting and moving and lowering and stepping, the movement is more like that of a gyroscope. At the end of the exhalation, when your foot is all the way down but the next foot hasn’t yet started to lift, you’re balanced. You’re completely balanced. You’ve found your center of gravity in that moment.

And sometimes when you start to lift, instead of feeling like you’re falling to the left, it’s more like you’re turning, and as you’re turning you can feel yourself moving around this point that you recognize. You recognize the point in the middle; everything is a kind of dance around that balanced point. It feels very, very different. This is not every day! It’s also not a “sweet spot.” This is the momentary absence of contraction.

The way that you find out what it is to push or to pull is not simply to stop. I can’t say “Stop pushing!” and then everyone stops pushing. This practice is more subtle than that. It’s the practice first of noticing what it is to push, and noticing what it is to pull. Zazen is a place to experiment with that.

But it extends to everything, so that when you’re in a meeting and you think of the thing that you really want to say, but the conversation is still going, and you kind of start half-listening to what everyone else is saying because now you’re rehearsing the thing that you’re going to say, and then eventually you’re barely hearing anything that anyone’s saying because now you’re looking for your opening to say it—you’re pulling! Or you could say that you’re pushing some things and pulling others.

When I tell my children to be patient, I really want my children to be patient. This is a virtue that I want my children to experience. But they’re nine and they’re seven, and they’re just not very patient. When they’re saying “Can we go? Can we go? Can we go? Can we go?”—in that moment, they are not patient. That’s the reality of that moment. This moment is only ever this moment. It is never the one that I want it to be. It is never the next. It’s this one, and this moment looks exactly like this and it feels exactly like this. So when my kids are saying “Can we go now? Can we go now? Can we go now?”—maybe we can’t go now. But I can respond in one of two basic ways. I can say, “No, we can’t go right now.” Or I can say, “YOU NEED TO BE PATIENT! WORK ON IT!”

In the first, there’s no push and there’s no pull. This is just reality. The reality is that they want to go and we can’t go yet. There’s no inherent friction there, there’s no problem. In the second, I’ve identified a problem and have pushed it on to them. Now we’ve completely disregarded the reality of whether we can or can’t go right now; instead, the issue is that they need to change who they are. I do this all the time. I fall into this all the time. “You need to STOP!” But when I say you need to stop, I’m really talking about the future, not right now. I’m trying to bulldoze someone into the next moment or the next moment or the next moment, where the situation is different. I’m not just staying still in the face of what is right now. What is right now, whether it’s a problem or not, is what is right now. I can’t pretend that it’s not. I can only respond.

“Putting aside all concerns, shed all attachments. Do nothing at all.”

This doesn’t mean “don’t respond.” It doesn’t mean “be passive.” It doesn’t mean “don’t try to fix something that’s wrong.” But we only fix things that are wrong—fix them—in the future. Things don’t get fixed. Things become the things that they are, and we kind of steer them toward eventually being the thing that they are. In this moment, nothing gets fixed. It’s impossible, because for something to be fixed in this moment is for this moment not to be this moment. In this moment, you have what’s been offered.

“Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses.”

Don’t create. Again, because these are instructions for zazen, zazen is where we start. You sit in zazen, and you try to make zazen out of zazen. We have this koan, the one my teachers returned to more than any other:

Nanyue went to Mazu to ask, “What do you intend by doing zazen?”  Mazu said, “I am intending to be a buddha.”  Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.

Mazu said, “What are you doing?”  Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”

Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”  Nanyue said, “How can you become a buddha by doing zazen?”

 It’s the same thing. Making zazen and making a buddha are the same thing. It’s an art project.

I sit and I fold my legs up just like this, and I put my hands just like this, and my shoulders are back like this, and then eventually my breathing is just like this, and then my mind…is the mind…of ZAZEN. Sometimes I can do that for a few seconds, just at the beginning—I can project onto zazen this idea of calm and spaciousness and acceptance and focus. When I do that, I construct zazen—just like I’m making a craft with paper and glue. That is not it.

They use different language, but Keizan and Dogen are saying the same thing over and over: don’t measure this. Don’t imagine that there’s a platonic ideal of zazen and that you’re working toward it. Throw that out!

The only zazen is the zazen that’s real, and the only zazen that’s real is the zazen that’s happening right now. The one that happened last week where it felt really good—it’s not real. And the one that you envision ten years from now, after you’ve been doing this every day and it’s really become a part of yourself—also not real.

The zazen of the person next to you that seems really, really solid, that person who sits like a rock—that’s not real. There’s one zazen that’s real, and you’re in it.

Don’t add something to it. Don’t try to shape it. Don’t try to sculpt it. Don’t try to give it a story. Don’t push. And don’t pull. And another thing: “don’t push and don’t pull” doesn’t mean there’s a sweet spot. It doesn’t mean there’s this magical place in the middle where you’re just in between doing this and doing that. “Don’t push and don’t pull” is wider than that.

If we imagine there’s a sweet spot, then we fall into the same trap again and we imagine that every time I’m not pushing or pulling, it’s going to feel just like this. But tomorrow, not pushing and not pulling feels different. And the next day it feels different. And the next day it feels different, because again, that’s the only one that’s real.

When you’re walking, you’re doing kinhin, that’s the only kinhin that’s real. Can you walk forward without pushing? Try it. This has ramifications far beyond sitting or walking.


You Know What You’re Doing (Keizan’s Zazen Yōjinki, Part 1)

12034305_1638362479736451_4630572736537283963_oLast year I talked at Zen Nova Scotia about Keizan Jokin’s “Notes on What To Be Aware of in Zazen” (ZazenYōjinki), a text I feel an impulse to uphold—not just because it’s so good but because it’s so rarely part of the dialogue around what zazen is (or isn’t). Below is a slightly edited version of the first of those talks, with a few changes for clarity but all of the rambling quality of how I actually speak. My deep thanks to Mike Landay for so patiently transcribing this talk and all the rest. 

At most temples and centers, when we chant the lineage, we stop at Keizan. It’s Dōgen, then Koun Ejō, then Tettsu Gikai, then Keizan Jōkin. The lineage divides in two from there, so he’s the last ancestor common to us all. But the fact is, we don’t treat him very well. We say that there are two founders, Dōgen and Keizan, and if you go to a full temple in Japan that has all of the statuary and all the stuff, there will always be a little statue for each of them; if not that, at least a little scroll for Dōgen and a little scroll for Keizan. Either way, they both get to be there. But even though we say that Keizan is the other founder, there’s a bias. He founded one of the two head monasteries, Sōjiji, and people who train at Sōjiji have a very strong feeling about him. But for everybody else, he’s kind of second, if that. The result is that we tend to overlook what he wrote—and what he wrote is remarkable.

You can’t really talk about Keizan without talking about Dōgen, and we know a lot about Dōgen because everything in this Sōtō Zen tradition seems to point straight at him. The Dōgen of our imagination was very upright and very strict, kind of pure. He had an idea about bringing back something that was authentic. So he developed monastic forms, and those forms were very much about moment-to-moment practice. He wasn’t so interested in what other people were doing, he wasn’t so interested in ceremonies, or at least not in the kinds of ceremonies that have since become standard in Sōtō Zen, in which people chant and then offer merit. That really wasn’t his thing.

His idea of ceremony was that when you brush your teeth, you do it just like this—after chanting a verse. And you hold a cup just like this. And you open a door just like this. That was his sense of ceremony. When he died, his whole funeral was that his disciple Koun Ejō chanted a very short little sutra three times—and that was it. That was the end, and it feels appropriate, given who he was.

The joke about Dōgen is that everybody wants to train the way Dōgen trained, but that probably the only person who trained the way that Dōgen trained was Dōgen. In all likelihood, the tradition started to change as soon as he died; no one had the patience to do every. Little. Thing. Just. Like. That. So immediately people start tweaking it, or they said, “You know, every fifth day you can skip that one part,” and so on.

Koun Ejō followed, then Tettsu Gikai. And so we arrive at Keizan. I have to confess, I don’t know deeply about Keizan’s history. I don’t know where Keizan came from – or maybe I did at one point but I’ve forgotten, because I’m wrapped up in all of this too. But when Keizan came along, he was considered to be a popularizer of Sōtō Zen. Until that time it had been a bunch of people in a monastery in the mountains with very little contact with the outside world, following this rigorous schedule. Then Keizan came along and he made it make sense to people outside the tradition. And one of the ways that he did that was by synthesizing with things that people were already doing, including these ceremonies in which we chant and we offer merit. So under Keizan, ceremony—in the sense of ceremonial—achieved a new importance.

What we find today is that even though there was kind of a political decision to acknowledge Keizan as a second founder—and honestly, I think it’s realistic to say that the lineage may not have continued without someone like Keizan coming along—there’s always been this feeling that Dōgen was the pure thing, and that Keizan somehow muddied the waters a little bit. It’s as if he’s earned our gratitude, but maybe not our full respect.

One genuine distinction between Dōgen and Keizan is that up until Keizan, the story of the lineage is that the Buddha transmitted to Mahakasyapa, Mahakasyapa transmitted to Ananda, and so on, and it was one-to-one: one teacher, one student, and then one student, and then one student… all the way to Dōgen. Still just one—Dōgen had one student to whom he transmitted (or at least one student we would call his successor). That student had one successor. That student had one successor. But that student was Keizan, and Keizan transmitted to two, and that was all it took for the Sōtō lineage to explode, because those two transmitted to a few, and then a few, and a few, and this thing that had been a straight line suddenly had branches, and the branches had branches. So today, when we chant the lineage, we only chant to Keizan because that’s the last name upon which we can all agree.

That too was instrumental in keeping the school going, but when we tell the story, there’s a little bit of Come on… you couldn’t choose one? It seems wishy-washy. Keizan’s just not coming out on top.

Keizan was not as prolific as Dōgen, but he wrote a few things of huge importance. One is what we call now the Keizan Shingi, which was his set of monastic standards. Up until then, everyone trained using the Eihei Shingi, which was Dōgen’s set, but today no one does; if you train at a monastery in Japan, you’ll basically follow a modified version of the Keizan Shingi, in part because it just feels more practical. There were philosophical reasons why, for example, in Dōgen’s schedule the monastic day begins the night before—in his schedule, there’s a moment in the evening when it’s no longer the day that it has been, and now it’s the next day. These things make sense if you go through old Chinese texts. But Keizan said, “Well, we wake up in the morning, so the day will start the way normal people think that the day starts.” That, I think, was well received.

Keizan’s other really critical text, which we too often forget about, is called Zazen Yōjinki, “Notes on What To Be Aware of in Zazen.” These are his zazen instructions, and they are not the same as Dōgen’s—not in conflict, but definitely not the same. They don’t feel the same. Here’s the opening, just a taste (translation from The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza):

Sitting is the way to clarify the ground of experiences and to rest at ease in your Actual Nature.

Dōgen, in his instructions for zazen (Fukanzazengi), says, Zazen wa shuzen ni wa arazu: “Zazen is not learning Zen.”

Zazen is not some volitional practice. Whatever Zen it is, it isn’t Zen that you’re doing. And then he goes on to say: in fact, it is the Dharma gate of joyful ease. So they’re starting out on the same page. Here Keizan is saying: “Sitting is the way to clarify the ground of experiences”—that’s worth talking about—”and to rest at ease in your Actual Nature. This is called ‘the display of the Original Face’ and ‘revealing the landscape of the basic ground'”

So he’s beginning from this idea that there’s a starting point, a kind of home base for a human being. He calls this the ground of experiences, actual nature, the original face, the basic ground. And then he says we’re clarifying this and we’re revealing this, and we’re resting at ease in this.

When we encounter anything like this, it’s critical to not go where our mind automatically goes, which is to think of whatever this is as something other, or something lost, or something obscured.

When he says your actual nature, we think Oh, I have another nature that’s not my actual nature! And it can sound very exciting because I have a real one… I’m going to find it! I’m going to sit in zazen, and I’m going to reveal the thing that is true, and all the other stuff will just disappear! There’s adventure, there’s something you’re going to find. There’s a diamond, there’s a pearl.

That is not what he means. I’m sometimes hesitant to say something like that, because who knows what anyone actually meant? But I’m confident about this, because he’s coming out of a conversation, and the conversation is never that. The conversation is never that there is something that is the kernel of you, or that is an unformed part of you that should be formed because that would be somehow more true.

The conversation is that you, right here, right now, are one hundred percent—but also that it probably doesn’t feel that way. Why not? A lot of it has to do with this notion of resting at ease. We don’t rest at ease.

In the same way that the brainwave patterns of zazen so often happen to be the same as the brainwave patterns of deep dreamless sleep, the experience of zazen has to do with when you’re not trying to do zazen. The only thing more difficult than doing something correctly is not trying to do something that you think can be done correctly while you’re doing it.

What happens, then, is that when we sit, we take up this posture… and then we contract around it.

If you do yoga, you know that in order to stretch a muscle you have to contract a muscle. There’s no pure stretch unless you’re on a rack. Intuitively we understand this, so we sit here and we think I’m going to stretch my mind, and the way that we stretch our mind sometimes is by contracting everything else. Or, more to the point maybe, we think I’m going to stretch the part of my mind that I think is the spiritual part of my mind, and the way that I’m going to do that is by clenching the rest of my mind so that nothing else can interfere, nothing else can come in.

Guilty? I am.

This is why—or this is part of why—when we do a Newcomers’ Night, I ask everyone to go ahead and contract from the beginning. Take a memory or a fantasy or a regret or a hope, and just go ahead before you even start: wrap yourself around it like you’re a cat with a ball. Hold it and play with it—exhaust yourself around that thing. And then experience just dropping it. Not pushing it out, but getting tired.

If you don’t really recognize what contraction is, then you don’t know what it is to let go. And most of the time we don’t realize the degree to which we’re clenching around something.

I was thinking about this recently because I attended a talk by Isshō Fujita in which he led us through an exercise and said that to find the posture of zazen, the first thing you do is you find the posture that it’s not. He continued something like this:

Go ahead and roll your back, roll back on your hips so that your back is round and your head is forward, and feel how even though this feels lazy, at the same time it’s exhausting to sit in this way. You’re actually working really hard, you’re working really hard in your stomach to do this. And then once you’ve done that, go ahead and roll forward, and then roll your hips forward as far as you can so that you feel that stretch in your back, you’re trying to push your belly button down to the ground, and roll your shoulders back. This is the other way we do it. And then drop that.

Zazen is in between. It’s not volitional. Sitting down is volitional; there’s a choice to be made there. But then you sit, and you let the blocks just stack. Leaning back is not a stack. Leaning forward is not a stack. And holding yourself rigidly in place means the stack isn’t supporting itself. But somewhere in there, you can find a place where your body isn’t doing anything.

Now, I’m saying this and you’re thinking, Ah, there’s a right way. And I’m going to find it. Next time I’m going to find it and I’m going to do it just like that. And I’m going to find the place in the middle and as soon as I find it there’s going to be a locking sound: ker-chunk! And I’ll just stay. Right. There. That’s not it. That’s not it either.

If you watch sped-up video of someone doing zazen, it is never a person who is perfectly still. If a person is perfectly still the whole time they’re doing it, I’m going to come out and say: they’re doing it wrong. Because in that perfect rigid stillness, there’s no relationship to the body. That’s someone who’s just able to clench for forty-five minutes. What you really see when you see people doing zazen, if they’re doing it in an active way and an honest way is that there’re sitting still, but every once in a while there might be a little turn, or they kind of find their neck a little bit. They’re always in the process of settling in.

In that same talk by Isshō Fujita, I learned a wonderful new word: pandiculation. Pandiculation refers to the involuntary movements that we make in response to our bodies. Think of how when you yawn, you stretch. Maybe this time I do it like this, because my body just needs to do that. I don’t think about it. If you think about it, it gets really weird. If you plan it, if you think I’m going to yawn, and this time I’ll do the wide arms, but next time I yawn, oh, maybe I’ll do something else, that’s weird. There’s something that your body just does. You see this with animals, you see this with cats. They just move. This is my understanding of what pandiculation is.

And when we’re doing zazen, if we are actually being active in zazen, if we’re really bringing ourselves to zazen and to this idea of rest, then there are lots of small versions of pandiculation going on all the time while we sit. Not these big stretches, but we’re responding. We’re here, and we’re letting ourselves move. Because it’s not that my mind is sitting in some sort of crystal cage doing zazen, and this is the platform for it that needs to hold it up. It’s that this body–mind is doing zazen: the whole thing, the whole organism. And the whole organism—really, the point of the whole thing—is that the whole organism actually knows what it’s doing.

There’s a degree to which zazen, or the tradition behind zazen, rests on a faith that we already kind of understand what to do. We’re already at a hundred percent. So there’s a trust when you sit. To a degree, yes, there’s trust in the posture because we’ve been taught this, but then once we get there, there’s this other trust that we know how to do this. And so… we adjust a little bit. We trust our bodies to do this. And in that trust, we relax. Not because it’s supposed to feel a particular way, but because it’s not supposed to feel a particular way. It just is what it is.

I’ll post parts 2–6 soon. This and many other talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast; you can support both Zen Nova Scotia and the podcast by clicking here



No Big Deal

I love my wife. And I tell her “I love you”—a lot. When we wake up, when one of us leaves, when we text, when we meet up again, when we go to bed. When she’s tired and uses Japanese grammar for English and sounds hilarious. When our kids are adorable. I just say it. If you were to read a transcript of our daily conversations, you’d probably determine that “I love you,” for me, no longer has any meaning or serves any purpose.

Here’s the beautiful thing: you’d be right. In the beginning, of course, it meant a lot. And it did a lot. I no longer remember the details of the first time I told her (or anyone) “I love you,” but I know I planned for it. I was nervous. Guaranteed, I thought it would change things—my own sense of commitment, the atmosphere between us, how she saw me. It meant things were going to the next level.

And for a long time after, those little stories continued. I really did love her, but “I love you” was transactional. I’d say it in hopes of making her feel good, or of making me feel like a good person. Or I’d say it as a way of smoothing something over, as a reminder that everything’s OK. Or because I thought, well, this is something we do now. If I didn’t say it one day, I’d think that I’d failed. I’d dropped the ball.

But now? I don’t expect anything from “I love you”—no magic, no reward, no orchestra. It doesn’t make my wife weak in the knees; it’s more like a sound I make, or like breathing. She says it too, of course. We pass the phrase back and forth, and the actual words don’t seem to matter much.

When I say I love you, I don’t think I mean “I love you” anymore, not really. I don’t consider “I” or “you.” I’ve been saying this constantly for about fifteen years—now, it’s shorthand for something too big and too complicated to say in words. It includes my entire sense of commitment; it’s my past, and it’s my direction. It’s code. I like to think I also express it in lots of other, nonverbal, ways as well. But “I love you” is the most direct. It’s honest. I just don’t know exactly what it means anymore.

I don’t know what zazen means, either, but I used to think I did. I knew what I wanted from it and what it meant about me. And I thought it was something I did—there was a subject and an object. But after twenty-five years of it, more than anything, it just feels honest. There’s something we recognize in that posture—we know it when we see it, and we know it when we do it. There’s peace and power and poise of a kind we intuitively grasp, and that all adds up to—something. Something I want to express. And the best way I know is to simply do it.

At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of doing something—anything, but especially zazen—for its own sake. Not for gain, not as preparation for something else, but as a complete activity.

I mention this idea when I first give instructions in zazen, but just to plant a seed. I don’t expect anyone to sit in that way on the first day or the first year, or really even in the first decade. We want something from this practice. That’s natural. We want enlightenment or clarity or calm, or maybe we just want to be the kind of person who does Buddhist things. We want to do it right. We want a gold star. Or total liberation, but at least a gold star.

But just because it’s hard to bring a non-seeking mind to zazen doesn’t mean we don’t know what that is. We do, if we look. We know about doing something for its own sake.

This is my simple understanding of practice—to do something over and over, until finally it just means what it is. I love you. It’s not a big deal, but it’s something I need to say.

I moved to Halifax from Japan more than two years ago, and since then, much of my energy has gone into Zen Nova Scotia. Things I might otherwise have written down turned into talks—nearly a hundred of them can be found here. I’m humbled by the continued life of this blog; I want to spend more time here. And I’m grateful for the correspondences and connections that it’s provided me along the way. Thank you. -koun


Clear Voice

shomyo2It’s said that when the Buddha preached the Dharma, he did it in a voice that was somewhere between speech and song; the Japanese expression of this teaching is called shōmyō (聲明 or 声明, “clear voice”) . This half-singing eased the burden on the listener; it made the Buddha’s words easier to absorb.

We have no way of knowing how this sounded, or even if there is an ounce of truth to it. But in an oral tradition, it would not be surprising to learn that formal styles of presentation (beyond repetitive phrasing, a basic element of any oral tradition) were developed along the way, or that they existed in the culture during Buddha’s time.  This question—How to express Dharma?—and its underlying assumption that expressing the Dharma is hard are at the foundation of much of the evolution of Buddhism over the centuries.

Those of us who trace our lineages to Japanese schools inherit this question of voice in two ways. The first is in how we chant sutras. I’m so used to it now that I think of it as normal, but in fact, this deep, powerful, level chanting is highly stylized. It is not intuitive that we would chant in this way. The simple consistency of it facilitates group chanting, but why this thunderous quality? When people chant, what is the feeling?

Tradition tells us that our chanting voices should express five qualities:

  1. Honesty—an unaffected voice, with no attempt at deception. This is listed first for a good reason: to short-circuit our idea of what is or is not a good voice. One’s voice need not be classically beautiful. But it must be sincere. There is something stirringly powerful in the unapologetic voice of someone who is chanting from a place of deep commitment — it goes far beyond having a good voice or a bad one.
  2. Harmony—a gentle, warm, elegant voice.
  3. Clarity—a voice that is clear, transparent.
  4. Fullness—a deep and resonant voice.
  5. Reach—a voice that delivers to every corner of the room.

What interests me about this kind of teaching is how it relates to nyohō, to the question of how we express Dharma. This is not about having a beautiful voice, nor is this kind of half-singing about self-expression. Not at all. It’s about putting what one is expressing before oneself, expressing just that thing. We cannot all have harmonious, clear, full voices, but we can be honest. And in this teaching, honesty means sincerely trying to manifest those other qualities, even when they are out of our reach.

I know that I can never say what I really want to say. In this blog, in a talk, or face to face, what I want most to share with others is precisely the thing to which I cannot really give voice. I don’t mean that as an excuse for when I fail, though I have probably comforted myself a time or two with the magnitude and impossibility of it all.

Perhaps receiving a teaching is a bit like hearing someone humming a tune that feels familiar. It catches—it reminds us of something we already knew, or it just gets into our heads, and when we’re alone, we find ourselves elaborating on it, giving it dimension. Maybe that’s the most we can ask for.

I don’t believe that there is any one correct way to talk about Dharma—we each have our own voice, and that voice will carry to some ears and be just noise to others. But I also believe that some modes of expression have a universal quality. This is true not just of teachers but of all of us. What we show and what we share when we are not speaking is probably the closest thing we have to shōmyō. In the space between words, in that pause, how do we carry this moment? What do we offer with this posture, these eyes, these hands? This breath?

What are we saying right now?

An example of shōmyō in the Shingon tradition. If you have access to a similar video from a Soto Zen temple, please let me know.

For those interested, I’ve established a practice schedule here in Halifax. You can keep connected (and listen to recent talks) by visiting zennovascotia.com or by joining the Zen Nova Scotia page on Facebook. I’m feeling very fortunate to be practicing with such kind people in such a beautiful part of the world.

What Are the Depths to Which You’ll Go?

IMG_3624Buddhism began for me in high school as a thought experiment. It was a bunch of beautiful assertions about the nature of things—more often than not, the absolute nature of things—that seemed awfully hard to test. The idea that you and I might be fundamentally the same, that the apparent differences between us said more about my deluded view than they did about reality, drew me in completely. I wanted to believe it. But mostly, for me, it was poetic talk.

So early on, from before I ever sat on a cushion or met a Buddhist teacher, my version of practice was to look at the person across from me and ask myself, “Are we the same?” The answer was always “no.” I did not like the same music as the other person; I did not look like the other person; I did not express myself in the same way. We had different memories, different worldviews, different trajectories. In the midst of all that difference, I could usually dig out some little thing in common, but doing so felt like little more than an exercise.

Over time, though, the question morphed into something more workable. It wasn’t “Are we the same?” It was “Am I capable of the same things that person is capable of? Do I have the same components in me that make it possible to feel that way, to speak that way, to behave that way? Are that person’s motivations available to me?” And here the experiment changed; here, the answer started to come up “yes.” Every time. Twenty years later, I still ask it, as a reflex.

When I first started this experiment, I imagined that recognizing the self in other, and the other in self, would be freeing. Joyful, even. I could picture the serene look I’d have on my face as I looked at a stranger and saw, with clear eyes, that we are fundamentally not two. It sounds loving, and it can be. But this line of inquiry can be painful, too.

In the wake of the discovery that Aaron Alexis (the man who shot and killed twelve civilians and injured fourteen more at the Washington Navy Yard) identified as Buddhist, there’s been some interesting Internet chatter. That he was Buddhist is a titillating little fact, a surprise in a story that is feeling, with every successive mass shooting, more and more predictable. “I thought Buddhism taught nonviolence,” goes one conversation, and it hardly seems worthy of a response. Buddhism does not teach aggression; the fact that a Buddhist committed an act of violence is a statement on his own unskillful response to suffering, not on the Buddha’s teachings. The actions of a Buddhist do not define Buddhism.

But nor do the teachings of Buddhism define a Buddhist. There is another conversation in all of this, one that I find more troubling: “He wasn’t a real Buddhist, because a Buddhist could never do something like this.” The math behind this is very simple: If a Buddhist could never do this, and if I am a Buddhist, then I am incapable of doing what Aaron Alexis did. And if he and I do not share the same capacity for doing good or bad, then he and I are fundamentally separate.

It doesn’t work that way. We may want it to, but it doesn’t. The fact is, there’s nothing that a human being (any human being) cannot do. The difference, if there is one, is that Buddhists might know that.

When the children were shot in Newtown, I didn’t want to ask what mattered—instead, I turned to Tracy and asked her, “How could someone do such a thing?” I felt crushed by it, like it had stripped me raw. I assumed at first that it was because I have kids, so now I hear that kind of story differently. And that’s not untrue. But the real pain of it, the wound I didn’t want to see, was the question I had managed to stifle in those first moments. I wanted to say there’s a limit and I’ve found it, that here, finally, I can say, “I am not that.” But that’s not the truth. I know. Whether through practice or the constant asking or just advancing age, I know better.

I don’t mean, of course, that I can imagine the circumstances in which I would commit such an act of aggression. It doesn’t mean I understand why. And it doesn’t mean that I could ever be the particular combination of fears and hopes and memories and grasping that is the shooter, any more than I could be who I was last week. But can I prioritize my suffering over the needs of others? Can I objectify another human being? Can I get lost in a heroic story I tell about myself? Can I feel, in defiance of all rational thought, that I have but one option left open to me? I have dark places. I know I do, because at times like these, I go looking for them.

There is another side of this, one that is easy to forget: if we are, each of us, capable of any human act, then we are capable of any show of bravery, any gesture of compassion. Mahatma Gandhi has been a hero of mine since I was ten years old—like almost no one else, he has inspired me by demonstrating the depths to which one can commit to something, the degree to which one can offer up a life. But though I feel great love when I see a picture of his face, I also look upon him, sometimes, with a heavy heart—not because he sets a standard to which I could never possibly aspire, but because I know that I can, and I don’t. We all can. Our heroes have nothing on us.

When we hear of someone committing an unthinkable act of violence, as Buddhists, our reaction should be to make it thinkable. We have to go there, to dig deep within ourselves, to crawl around and search in the dark until we find where, in our own minds, we are capable of treating another life so lightly. We must gaze, unblinking, at our capacity for treating others as disposable objects, or as mere characters in a story of our own creation. Let the media pundits and psychologists try to figure out why Aaron Alexis did what he did–why is not the right question. The question for us is how—not just, “How could he do it?” but “How could I do it?” Because you can. We can. And because soon, someone else, somewhere, will.


I tried to tackle this same subject on One Continuous Mistake a few months ago, but in relationship to my four-year-old son.