The Zen Toolbox

Abraham Maslow famously said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” I use some variation of this a lot in conversation, almost always in a negative way — it’s easy shorthand for saying that others are narrow or deficient or unoriginal in their approach. In one stroke, it can explain why, for example, a manager seems incompetent, or why institutions seem so resistant to change. If only they had more tools.

I’ve been noticing in the last few months how easily this relates to Zen teachings — and teachers — as well. Some in the monastic system believe strongly that monastic practice is the only path to the heart of the teachings. Others place all their chips on the precepts, so that everything they like is seen as an expression of the precepts, and everything they don’t like is a violation. It all comes down to just that. Some who embrace koan study say directly and indirectly that koans are everything, or at least, if you’re doing zazen but not engaging koans, you’re missing half of your body.

And then there is the zazen-only school, which finds support in the teachings of Kosho Uchiyama-roshi and is (I sense) increasingly popular in the West. It feels strange to say this as a Soto Zen monk, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with this all-or-nothing focus on zazen. Maybe it’s the implicit suggestion that it’s a return to what the ancient teachers (Dogen, or Bodhidharma, or maybe even the Buddha himself) really advocated. But more than that, I think it’s my feeling (biased, I confess) that it’s not really challenging. The discipline of zazen is challenging, of course. Zazen itself is hard work; coming back to it is hard work. But too often, the rhetoric around zazen-only practice feels like wish fulfillment: this is why I got into Zen, and this is something I like, so this must be the only thing that has any value or carries any authenticity. Even if every cell in your body resists doing zazen, philosophically, at least for many, I think it’s easy to get on board with it. Other aspects of the tradition do challenge us, directly, on a philosophical level: a hierarchical student/teacher dynamic, bowing, ceremonies as expressions of “offering,” robes…. It’s easy to look at those practices that make us itch a little and label them as “extra.”

If I’m honest with myself about this, I can see that I’m no different: on some deep level, I’m pretty convinced that good posture, a “yes” attitude, and some serious culture shock are the keys to just about everything. It’s a pretty simple vision.

In the Soto tradition, the people formally known as “Zen masters,” or shike (師家), are not necessarily the ones with the deepest realization or the most expansive wisdom — they are the people with the greatest overall knowledge of the tradition itself, particularly of monastic life. They are experts in the monastic system; they are the guides of monks in training. In many cases, these people are selected and specially trained to be vessels of that knowledge. Some, by virtue of having acquired that knowledge through other means, are simply recognized as having that rank. Without a shike around, you cannot have a formally recognized training monastery. At least one person there needs to be that resource.

In a sense, then, the shike is a generalist. We need those people. But we also can’t all be them. Some of us, through temperament or training or our teachers, have nothing but a hammer. What to do with it?

One of my teachers is always encouraging young Zen priests to find their “second specialty.” (The assumption is that every priest’s first specialty is zazen. In the West, it’s not a stretch to suggest that most priests are, to varying degrees, experts in zazen. But in Japan, it’s different, so this suggestion of a “first specialty” is sometimes a kind of attack.) He is an expert — at this moment, perhaps the expert — on how to fold transmission documents. There’s a whole tradition around this one tiny thing, and he knows all about it. Every year, when they hold a precepts ceremony for hundreds of people at a time at Eiheiji, he’s there in a back room, teaching young monks how to properly fold lineage papers. If you’re like me, your first response might be, Who cares? But that’s the point. Nobody cares. And so he stepped up and became that guy.

In Japan, there is so much to this tradition, and there are so many priests, that this idea of a second specialty is just practical. As I’ve written about before, even talking about Buddhism is considered a kind of specialist track. Not nearly all priests do it; if there’s a need for it, they can call up the guy across town who has cultivated that skill. There are priests who are experts in transmission ceremonies, so that other priests don’t have to be. Some focus on baika (a kind of sutra-singing), shōmyō (an even more specialized chant-singing), copying sutras, writing dedications of merit, reading dedications of merit, composing certain kinds of half-mathematical Chinese poems, and about a hundred other things. Most don’t, of course — the vast majority of Zen priests are specialists only in conducting funerals and memorial services, and even then, not really experts. They know a basic form, and no one around knows if that’s right or wrong, and that’s enough to get by. But if they want to take up a focus, they can do so, and no matter how obscure or trivial it may seem, it will be appreciated by the larger community. In the same way that ordained practitioners are responsible for more of the minutiae of the tradition than are lay practitioners, among the ordained, some priests agree to know a lot about one thing so that the others don’t have to.

In the West, I think it’s more complicated. In larger communities such as San Francisco Zen Center, we find the model of the kesa expert, or the cooking expert, but in most centers, there is just one priest, so specializing can seem impractical. Often, be it a result of training, or one’s teacher, or one’s temperament, part of the response is to keep things very simple. Even for those with a wide knowledge — and appreciation of — the tradition, there are limits, in a small Zen center, to how much of that can be shared.

All of this is on my mind as we plan our family’s return to North America (to Halifax, Nova Scotia). I know what I would like to do. I would like to build a monastery, a place that is alive with practice by the local lay community, but with an engine fired by full-time monks and nuns. It’s not that I’m necessarily qualified to do this, by the way. I am not a shike. It’s just that so much of my training, and so much of what I would like to share with others, finds such a clear expression in that monastic setting. And it’s not that I want everyone to be ordained, or that I think the monastery is the only vehicle for the practice; it’s that I want to be able to point and say, “That! That’s what I’m talking about.” That, and I deeply, deeply love that life and that schedule.

But building a monastery is not realistic, not today. Even if I can find the path to that goal, I won’t arrive there tomorrow, or even in the next 10 years. So, how best to use the tools I have now, in the workshop I’m actually in?

I don’t know.

And I’m torn. So central to this practice is the teaching that in doing just one thing, we can express every thing. The whole thing. No one aspect of the practice is lacking — each is a full, wide-open gate. Zazen is full and complete, and through it, we can know the point of practice. If we do it fully. Bowing is the same. Sewing a robe is the same. Chanting is the same. Cooking is the same. Just by listening fully, I am saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done. I believe that. And so I am interested in this idea of a second specialty. I would like to see teachers take responsibility for just that one thing, whatever it is, and explore it so deeply that their investment in it makes them a doorway to something more.

But the other side is that there is something more, and it’s not measured only in depth — it’s also measured in variety and scope. Zazen is a full expression of the practice, but at the same time, there is much more to this practice than zazen. And when that doorway of the teacher opens, that’s what we should see: “Oh, this too. And this. And this.”

There’s a common belief in the West — and, to a lesser degree, in Japan as well — that the most authentic transmission of Zen is the one that is the most pared down, the one that keeps just the bare essentials. I understand that impulse. But I think it’s not enough to keep alive the parts that we like the most, or that we think have the most staying power.  We also need to take a look at the parts that will die without our intervention. A hundred years from now, what will we have saved?

What is the hammer? And how, with these hands, do we wield it?

Thoughts on Not Thinking about Non-thinking

Bamboo ForestOne of Dogen’s favorite encounter stories goes like this:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”

Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”

The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”

Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

I’ve had the privilege of interpreting some interesting talks on this short exchange. It’s a good example of how translation has limitations — it’s equally befuddling to readers in Japanese or Chinese, but unavoidably, the confusion is a little different depending on the language. “Thinking” here is shiryō (思量). “Not thinking” is fushiryō (不思量). And “non-thinking” is hishiryō (非思量). The fu in “not thinking” is a common negating prefix, similar to “un-” or “non-.” And the hi of “non-thinking” is also a common negating prefix ― really, the difference between fu and hi is negligible, except that hi might tend to be associated with a few more words with negative connotations (as opposed to words that are negative in a purely technical sense). So while “not thinking” and “non-thinking” seem to have caught on in English for the purposes of telling this story, they could have been reversed, with no real loss or gain. That is to say, linguistic analysis will not bring much clarity to this encounter.

Like so many of these types of teachings, the party line is that if you’ve experienced what’s being described, it makes perfect sense, and if you haven’t, well, nothing anyone else says or does will clarify it for you. And like most things in life, that’s basically true.

There is one hint we can gain from language, though, and I bring it up because I have never once heard it discussed in English. It’s this shiryō. Shiryō is not a common word for “thinking.” There are other words for “thinking” that start with the same shi (which itself means “thought”): shii, shikō, shian. But the ryō is very specific. Ryō refers to measurement. Which means that this dialogue, from the start, is not about just any kind of thinking. It’s not, for example, about daydreaming. It’s about the aspect of mind that measures and evaluates, that holds a yardstick up to experiences or to thought-objects. It is a kind of directed thought. That, I think, is important to keep in mind.

If you are the teacher talking about any of this, the audience assumes that you have a direct knowledge of non-thinking, at least. That makes this kind of topic interesting; it also puts the teachers to the test, explaining something that, at least by most assumptions, no one else in the room has any real hope of understanding in the course of the explanation. This kind of story keeps Zen teachers in business. I mean that only half-jokingly. We really do, I think, want someone to speak to these questions, to put a face and an experience on these hard-to-grasp dialogues from centuries ago. I want that. But if someone could really say “It means this,” Zen teachers wouldn’t have much left to talk about.

The most common understanding of this conversation assumes that “non-thinking” is somehow a higher state than either “thinking” or “not thinking.” In that reading, the monk asks, “How are you directing your mind in zazen” (again, as opposed to “What kind of thoughts arise in zazen?”)? And Yaoshan replies, “I direct my thoughts to not directing my thoughts.” The monk asks (reasonably), “How do you do that?” and Yaoshan says, “By not directing my thoughts at all.” That’s one way to read it, anyway. Here, both thinking and not thinking are seen as mistakes ― Yaoshan clarifies that by “not thinking,” he’s really doing something which transcends thinking all together. The word “transcend” comes up a lot in this telling.  That’s the version I’ve heard the most, and the only one I heard for years.

Last year, for the first time, I heard a different interpretation. It goes like this: “Non-thinking” is not superior to either thinking or not thinking. Instead, they are all necessary, all simultaneously-functioning aspects of mind in zazen. So zazen includes (misdirected) direction of thought. It includes the decision to try not to pursue that directed thought. And it includes a state of mind that isn’t concerned about whether or not to think in the first place. All are present; none are completely inside of our control, or beyond it. Right or wrong, this version is very kind, very sympathetic to the actual experience of zazen. Looking out at the faces of the monks listening to that talk, I could see that a few were frustrated by the ordinariness of this description of sitting, but most looked as if they were being told for the first time that their experience of zazen really is zazen.

Both versions, I think, are true.

I want to add one more to the mix, just for fun. It occurred to me in the days after interpreting that kind talk, and though it may be too simple, I think it may also be a good starting point, one that puts this dialogue a little closer to our reach. Here it goes:

In our ordinary, waking lives, our brains are lit up with alpha, beta, and theta waves. Alpha waves can feel creative and inspired; beta waves are strongest when performing analysis; and theta waves are associated with more complex, generative thought, as in complicated visualization exercises. All three, in different ways, are part of the process of directed thought. Delta waves, however, tend to be really strong during just a couple activities. The first is deep, dreamless sleep. The second? Zazen. Delta wave activity is not reflective of directed thought ― it is about receptivity, expansiveness, openness. For years, researchers thought that delta waves were the absence of activity, like the brain’s “pause” setting. After all, we have no sense of “I” in deep, dreamless sleep. Nothing in that state resembles ordinary thinking. And we don’t even remember it. It’s just something an outside observer can notice on an EEG.

But zazen changes that. In zazen, we can have the same basic brainwave patterns as in deep, dreamless sleep, except that we are completely awake and aware. We know where we are. We know what we are doing. We even notice if a fly buzzes by. But still, we remain in this expansive, open state. It’s not directed thought. But it’s also not the absence of thinking. Not at all. It’s something else.

So I find myself wondering if perhaps the monk and Yaoshan are just having a very technical discussion about the nature of zazen. It’s not a contemplation. It’s not a visualization. It’s not thinking. On the other hand, it’s not some kind of brain-dead state, a blankness. It’s not not thinking. It’s a lucid, non-grasping, receptive awareness that, while it sounds like a big deal, is actually something we can understand very well. It’s mental activity that is something other than thinking. It’s a place we can always go, even if it’s a place that few people recognize at all.

I don’t mean for this to be reductive. But I do want to pull away, even if just for a moment, the idea that zazen is some rarefied state, or that Yaoshan was doing something special, or that one can only bring authority to this encounter if they’ve plunged to the deepest depths of this practice. When we think what it might mean to not think, or what non-thinking is, it’s too easy to make the experience as complicated as the language around it. It’s not wrong to frame it in larger-than-life mystical terms, but we should know that there’s another way as well.

And no matter how we approach it, in the end, we have to approach it from the inside. No one can do this for us. What it is we’re receptive to when we sit, and what it is that makes up that awareness ― these are things that an EEG cannot measure. And neither can we.

Waiting for the Sincere Question

moss buddhaMy grandmother — we called her Oma — struggled with Alzheimer’s before passing away a few years ago. One evening after dinner, during her last Christmas visit with our family, we were sitting around the table — Oma, my brother, Tracy, and I. Oma took a cookie from her plate, held it up, and asked, “What is it?” One of us, in the gentle way that people do, said, “Oma, that’s a cookie.” She looked irritated. Again: “What is it?” We all glanced at each other around the table. This was awkward. This time, one of us started to explain how a cookie is made. “Well, there’s flour, and egg, and this one has chocolate chips.” Then this 90-plus-year-old woman, who in her lifetime had probably baked about 80,000 cookies, shot us all a very lucid, fiery look, as if we were all disappointments. “I know how to make them,” she said. She held up the cookie again. “What IS it?”

And so the four of us found ourselves staring in earnest at a cookie in an old, shaking hand, really unsure of the answer. What was she asking us? We all looked hard at that cookie and said, “Wow, Oma, I don’t know.” That was how we left it.

There is an old rule that a teacher should not speak of the Dharma unless requested to do so three times. This always seemed silly to me. How does one reject the first two requests? And since the rule is well known, wouldn’t people just ask three times quickly? Isn’t it a kind of game?

Perhaps. But now I see it more clearly. It’s a way of insisting on sincerity. And like all the rules, it evolved in response to a problem — namely, that most questions are insincere.

Especially in Zen, there is a misunderstanding about what we are asking when we ask. And why.

So much of the Zen tradition rests on dialogues in which traveling monks challenge a teacher. The monk throws a curveball, and when the story is good, the teacher hits it out of the park (or throws one right back). It’s all very dynamic, even explosive.

And so we get this unfortunate term, “Dharma combat.” There is a strong idea in the Zen world — even stronger in the West, where people tend to be more familiar with the literature and with those stories — that Zen is aggressive, that a good Zen exchange has these steps:

  1. Someone is tested.
  2. Someone is shot down.
  3. The “answer” either makes no sense (“The snail outside my window”) or appeals to an absolute view of reality (“My friend, there is no question, and no questioner. A songbird! I rest my case”).

I’ve encountered a lot of this in person. Now, from Japan, I need only look at online forums or comments threads to find more of the same. Perfectly intelligent people, when Zen is mentioned, suddenly start tossing around Song Dynasty-era metaphors and accusing each other of being attached to views. There are a few good reasons why some people really hate Zen. This is one of them.

What’s missing in this kind of Koan Theatre is a genuine desire to help. It’s play-acting. It’s insincere. What we forget when we imagine those ancient dialogues is this: the traveling monk didn’t question the teacher because he wanted to win. He wanted to lose. He was searching desperately, risking everything, to find his true teacher. So when he asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” he wasn’t trying to see if the teacher had the “right” answer or not. He wasn’t checking if the teacher’s understanding matched his own. He was asking because he really wanted to know. He didn’t want the teacher’s understanding to match his own. He wanted the teacher’s understanding to blow him away, and if he really didn’t have any hope that it would, he wouldn’t bother asking the question. He just moved on.

Likewise, if the teacher saw the monk coming and thought, “I’ll teach him a thing or two,” well, I hope that the monk just kept walking. A sincere question, in this tradition, will never get an answer. At best, it will get a skillful response. Just as no one can blow your nose for you, no teacher can tell you what you most want to know. Why? Because if it’s a really good question, the teacher also doesn’t know. She can’t know. But a teacher might know how to help you to know. There’s a big difference.

The teacher must sincerely want to help. The student must sincerely want to be helped. A poetic, hard-to-grasp image, if it is part of a response, is only compassionate if the teacher believes that this particular image is actually more helpful than a straightforward one. The goal cannot be to obscure, or to look wise, or to add a little Zen flavor. Likewise, one can only penetrate with an absolute view if the other person is clinging fiercely to the relative; it can only be an antidote. Never a weapon. Never a way of shutting it all down.

I will never know what my grandmother was asking when she held up that cookie. But I do know that the question was a sincere one. She genuinely wanted to know — it was important to her, and she knew she couldn’t see the answer. And as she continued to ask the question, as we wrestled to find a response, we also took on some of that sincerity. We felt the intensity she brought to that exchange, and we tried to match it. I don’t think we satisfied her. She still wanted something more. But “I don’t know” — that was pretty good. That’s always a good place to start.

I’ve been invited this month to respond to Zen-related questions from Reddit users. You can eavesdrop on the conversation here (where they’re collecting questions), or you can register with Reddit and participate. I think it might be fun.

An Attempt at Instructions for Zazen

fukanzazengiLast summer, as I was re-reading Carl Bielefeldt’s Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, I received a very kind email from a reader asking me to offer my take on how to do zazen. I have no idea how many times I’ve offered zazen instruction in person, but in reading that request, I realized that I had never tried to write it all down. Furthermore, it had never really occurred to me that I have a particular take on it — when I explain it to someone else, I’m very aware of both Dogen’s instructions and things I’ve heard from my teachers. But the timing — that book, with this request — inspired me to look more closely at how I approach zazen, how I hear the explanation in my head.

Much of Bielefeldt’s book (which I cannot recommend highly enough) chronicles the evolution of Dogen’s “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen [Fukanzazengi]” from an earlier draft to a later one, showing that Dogen’s understanding of zazen — both how to practice it, and how to express that practice to others — was evolving. Dogen passed away when he was 53; if he’d lived to 80, I have no doubt that the zazen instructions we read in temples every evening would be different, somehow, from what they are.

I am fond of complaining that we rely too heavily on Dogen in this tradition. That doesn’t come from any complaint about him or his writings — not at all. But it seems to me that in the 800 years since his death, we should have a few more people to reference. More teachers should have stepped forward with their own understanding of the tradition. Or perhaps the institutions around this practice should have given greater voice to those who were trying, in vain, to be heard. In any case, 800 years later, it’s still pretty much all Dogen.

So on planes and in line at the bank, I have found myself picking away at my own instructions for zazen. Of this, I’m sure: if I had tried to write these instructions 10 years ago, they would have been very, very different. And I sincerely hope that 10 years from now, these instructions will be equally different, that they will have evolved with my understanding of the practice. If all goes well, I’ll read these instructions when I’m an old man and wince a little, seeing more clearly then what I don’t see clearly now.

But today, at age 40, I think this is my best effort. I put out these instructions (some are pretty standard, but a few are not) not to rewrite anything, but to put myself on the spot, to make myself open to whatever discussion or comments might follow. This is a work in progress. More than that, I do it in the hopes that it might start a dialogue, and that others might feel a push to publish their own instructions. I would very much like to read them.



Choose this place.

Whenever you can, sit with others. When you can’t, sit with others. Let others sit with you.

Wear the kashaya. Just as Buddhas sit in zazen while zazen is the activity of Buddhas, Buddhas wear the kashaya —  the kashaya manifests the shape of a Buddha. Even if there is no robe, just wear it.

Do not put yourself into sitting — come empty handed. Do not make zazen — let sitting reveal itself. Do not use zazen for this or that — sitting is neither means nor end.

Spread a blanket or mat and place a zafu on top. Sit down, marking the center of the zafu with the base of the spine.

To sit in the full lotus, place the right foot over the left thigh, then the left foot over the right thigh. Rest your left hand on your right hand, palm up — the middle joint of the middle finger below aligns with the middle joint of the middle finger above, and thumbtips touch as if trying not to, just near enough to feel the electricity between them. This is called Sitting in Practice.

Reverse the legs; reverse the hands. This is called Sitting in Verification.

Sit in practice today and in two days. Sit in verification tomorrow and yesterday.

If not full lotus, half lotus. If not half lotus, rest the foot of the raised leg across the calf of the lower leg. Or kneel. Or sit on a chair. Remember that this body is the buddha’s body. Do not harm it. Also, do not underestimate it.

Always place the knees below the hips, the pelvis tilted forward, the lower back slightly curved. Establish a posture that need not fight gravity.

Be the tree beneath which other buddhas sit.

Press the hands below the navel; let them move with the breath. In full lotus, rest them on top of the heels. In any other posture, support the hands with a blanket or cushion.

Once seated, rotate the torso at the hips in wide circles, then in small ones until the spine is holding the earth in place; pull in the chin and stretch the back of the neck upwards, lifting the sky.

Take seven long breaths. As you inhale, fill the body with a wind that loops through your feet and across your thumbs. As you exhale, do so slowly, continuing until your breath has touched the far corners of the world. Exhale until nothing remains.

On the eighth breath, just breathe.

How long must one sit? How many breaths? Ancient buddhas did not measure zazen in minutes or hours.

Let in all sounds — hear the shifting of the continents, a bird turning in flight. Facing the wall, see beyond the horizon. Feel your heart beating, your lungs moving, your skin expanding and shrinking, the magnetic draw of your thumbs. Breathe in the stench and the perfume of the world. Let your tongue rest flat in your mouth, and taste.

Mara visits during zazen, but not as visions — visions, if only glanced at, will pass by like shadows. Nor will Mara come disguised as desire — desires, confronted directly, lose their power to haunt. Mara will visit as a weight on the eyelids, bearing the soft seduction of sleep. Open your eyes; if they grow heavy or the world blurs, open them wider. Keep the room cool. Let light in. Explore the waking world, not dreams.

Be the force of gravity, pulling you deep into the ground; be the weight of a flame. Do not move from this posture. With every cell in your body, every drop of blood, every inch of skin, constantly do not move.

Zazen is not non-doing; it is not non-thinking. Zazen is a deep, dreamless sleep on fire. It is clutching a boulder to your belly at the bottom of the cool ocean. Roots penetrate and plunge downward into the rough textures of the earth. A cloud dissolves into open sky.


Sitting in Practice: gōmaza (降魔坐)
Sitting in Verification: kichijōza (吉祥坐)
The phrase “weight of a flame” is taken from a verse provided by Dai-en Bennage, abbess of Mt. Equity Zendo: “Abandoning myself to breathing out, and letting breathing in naturally fill me.  All that is left is this empty zafu under the vast sky, the weight of a flame.” (original source unknown)


Update January 20, 2019: My gratitude to Saiho Sandra Laureano, of Centro Budista Soto Zen in Puerto Rico,  who very generously translated these instructions into Spanish.


Hello my name is

Dōgen admonished his monks not to go back to their hometowns. “The old women,” he told them, “will call you by your childhood name.” In a week, I’ll visit my hometown for the first time in three and a half years, so this advice has been on my mind.

Dharma names are a tricky part of Zen. In my experience, most people are very excited to receive one, and once they do, they have no idea what to do with it. That uncertainty might be the whole point.

I received the name Kōun (幸雲) as part of my ordination ceremony. My teacher handed me a folded piece of paper, and I, kneeling before him, opened it, read it, and tried not to look disappointed. First, it means “happy cloud” — lots of people get names like “iron dragon,” or “compassion dragon,” or, well, anything with “dragon.” Happy Cloud is not exactly a power name. Second, I knew immediately that no one would be able to pronounce it. I get called a lot of things in the US, even by people to whom I’ve introduced myself: Koan is probably the favorite, followed by a more-than-occasional Koon. The best description I’ve found, over the years, is to say it’s like the “cone” in “ice cream cone,” but you have to stretch it out a little, like you’re from Mississippi.

In my case, my teacher didn’t put a lot of thought into the meaning of it. He took the kō from his own name, Kōsoku, and the un from the full name of his temple, Kiunzan Ganzōji. There’s a lot of talk about how a dharma name contains qualities to which you should aspire, or sometimes it’s a description of where you are, or maybe it’s a kind of personal koan. But my teacher’s approach was more like branding a cow. Koun means, “This is my boy.” That’s a fairly traditional way of doing it, though I think teachers tend to be a bit more poetic about it outside Japan. It’s not at all uncommon for teachers to take one character from their own name and include it in the names of all their disciples. Some people think that seems arrogant; others don’t give it a second thought. I think my teacher’s main reason for choosing the particular combination of characters he did — don’t get me started on how many cool names could have been made between his name and the temple name — was that 幸雲 is a perfect homonym for 幸運, which is a common word for “good fortune.” And that just seemed nice.

Kōun is not my first Dharma name. Twenty years ago, a teacher in the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage named me “Source of Strength.” A few years after that, I received the precepts in Japan for the first time and was named Tōshin (透眞, penetrating truth). I never gave either much thought, and to my memory, no one ever asked me about them. They were invisible footnotes in my story. (I’m sometimes asked if it’s acceptable to receive the precepts more than once, or from different teachers. Yes, absolutely yes. If we’re really following the tradition, we renew the precepts monthly; and receiving the precepts from a teacher is a great way to establish a connection with him or her. Most teachers, if they know you already have a Dharma name, will not try to give you a new one, but most will also grant you a new one if that’s your wish.)

Even after being ordained, I couldn’t find it in myself to introduce myself as Kōun. I shaved my head from that point on, but I had no idea what I had done or what it all meant. I was a priest, but only on paper, only to a few people who knew. In the year following the ceremony, I sat with a group in Seattle, and no one ever knew I was ordained. I actually told a few of them, but I could see they didn’t think I understood what I was saying — they probably assumed I’d received lay ordination and was calling it “ordination,” that I had an inflated sense of it. I saw that reaction, but I wasn’t about to press the point. What would it have meant for me, with no outward signs (but one) of the priesthood, to insist to someone, “No, I really am a priest.” I wasn’t at all sure that I was one myself.

It wasn’t until I entered the monastery that I embraced being Kōun. While in training, of course, there was no choice — in that context, your Dharma name is your only name. But more importantly, in that context, there is only the function of being a monk. I knew, by the time I left the monastery, that part of becoming that function was adopting those outward signs. I had my name legally changed after I got to Alaska. …There are pages to be written about the various nuances of “ordained” and “lay,” but I think that distinction might come down to this: the priesthood is a public role. Spiritual responsibility of ordained and lay are the same; the vows are the same; zazen is the same. But the decision to ordain as a priest is an agreement to let the world watch you stumble through the practice, to keep those windows open all the time. It’s also an agreement to work, in that public role, to create a space of practice for others. And part of that space is a priest who does not apologize for being a priest, even if he thinks he’s a complete failure at it.

It’s difficult to tell, from this distance, how Dharma names are used in the US. I know of some priests who publicly go by their Dharma names, but I don’t know what they call themselves around friends and family. It seems that the most common approach is to use both one’s given name and the Dharma name together, as in Bob “Tetsuryu” Jones. And then there are priests who don’t use their Dharma name at all. That, to me, is unfortunate.

I encourage laypeople to go by their Dharma names in practice spaces (at the Zen center, or at sesshin), and to go by their given names everywhere else; I encourage priests to go by Dharma names all the time. Names confound us in ways that perfectly suit this practice.

When we get a new name, we think “Oh boy!” and we cling to it, whether we use it around others or not. We contract around it. We imagine that we got something special, and we obsess over the meaning and why that particular name was chosen for us by this particular person. It all seems so personal. But it’s not.

It’s not that you get a new name — it’s that the rug is pulled out from your old one. Nothing has been replaced, only lost. A name is a powerful thing. If your name is Susan, you’re probably always been Susan. That name is one of the first words you heard, one of the first words you learned to identify with a signifier. You most likely cannot imagine not being Susan. You know where Susan went to high school, who her best friends are, what she likes and what she avoids. You know Susan’s favorite color. You know how she walks, what flavor ice cream she always chooses. There’s a good chance that you know what Susan wants.

But if Susan is given the name Daiji, and if she uses it, suddenly there’s a disconnect. It’s jarring to be called by another name, especially when that name is attached to a particular practice, a specific way of being. Susan might always get mint chocolate chip, but Daiji doesn’t know what to order. Daiji and Susan are not really from the same place; they have a shared history, but Daiji’s is very short, very fresh in comparison (some priests celebrate their ordination day as their birthday — by that system, I’m a much younger man, with a much broader future). Daiji is all possibility. Specifically, Susan does not know how to live the precepts, how to fulfill vow. But that’s OK, because Daiji is the one who took on that responsibility, who was entrusted with saving all beings and cutting through all delusion. Daiji, if we’re lucky, might just see a way.

Again — Daiji did not replace Susan. But trying to authentically be Daiji makes it clear that Susan is not just Susan. Susan, too, is a story. This is transcendence — being Susan and Daiji, but also both, and neither. It doesn’t matter what “Daiji” means, not really. More often than not, that meaning is just an excuse to limit this new identity, to decide ahead of time what this new person is really all about. This is not about becoming your best self — that’s a fallacy. Nor is it about embodying a concept (like “great compassion”) that someone else has assigned to you (trying to be a happy cloud, for me, is not a useful exercise). It’s about moving beyond being this person or that person, about expanding beyond what any one individual can aspire to.

Offering yourself can only be a truly generous act if you first let go of your limited idea of that self. If you can’t do that — if you can only offer up who you think you know you are — then it’s a very small gift indeed.

This tradition offers up all sorts of opportunities for this. We first receive a new name when we receive the precepts; in some cases, it might happen again under a different preceptor. At ordination, we once again can receive a new name (though not all do). Some receive two names at ordination (functioning like a first and last name), but in many lineages, the second name (the last name) is not given to the student until the time of transmission. I see a lot of people in the US publicly using both names, but that isn’t a traditional approach. That second name, historically, is used only on very specific documents, mostly having to do with transmission of one kind or another. It’s almost a secret name. I love this because it means that at these critical moments when the teacher really needs to be fully present, to really empty her cup, she has this support, this other name that she uses so infrequently that she will probably never really get comfortable with it in her lifetime. It’s a way to pull the rug out from oneself when that is most needed.

Dōgen knew how much we need that fresh start, how valuable it is to simultaneously reinvent and deconstruct yourself in the name of serving others. He also knew that it was hard.  It’s basic human behavior to regress a little around our parents, no matter how old we or they are. It’s natural, walking the streets of one’s hometown after a long absence, to fall into the thought patterns of your high school self. These are the forces that define us, that defined us. So he warned his monks, and he was right. When I go home, it’s all too easy to slip into that skin, to inhabit the mind of the person I used to think I knew so well. The old women shout out my name, and I hear it as if I’ve never responded to anything else. It’s a reunion with my story about myself–“Wow,” I think, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

I will have the honor of sitting with the Open Circle Sangha in Helena, MT, on August 12, 19, and 26, 8:30-10am; I’ve generously been invited to speak on each of those days. I don’t know if any readers of this blog live in the area, but all are very welcome to attend. It would be a pleasure to meet you.

Staying Human

In the last post, I referred to the Six Realms of Existence; this time, I thought I might try to expand on that a little.

My take on this teaching is far from the most orthodox version, but I doubt there’s anything original about it. There are certainly schools which envision these as literal realms into which one can actually be born. But the interpretations which make the teaching most relevant, at least for me, view these realms instead as conditions or states which we all experience at different times in our lives, or even at different times of day. It’s highly conceptual — no one has to say even one word to convince me that this particular kind of exploration is not central to actual Buddhist practice. But as a construct, I find it compelling and useful. I find that I actually think about these six realms a lot.

  1. Deva Realm (or Realm of Heavenly Beings). Devas, to use a very recent term, are the 1 percent. A lot of people come to mind as examples, but for today, let’s use Kim Kardashian. I don’t know her — she may be a very kind and generous person. I hope so. But it’s clear that her life is quite different from that of what we might call an average person. She receives unthinkable paychecks for simply being who she is — at some point, surely, she has become accustomed to this. She is adored by many, and she has the means to avoid spending time with those who would not flatter her. She is given opportunities that most could never imagine. Does she suffer? Yes, as everyone does. But she also has the resources to distract herself from her suffering. Not everyone does. Tourists who stay at luxury resorts and treat the staff badly just because they can are trying — in the ugliest way — to taste this realm, to dress up as devas.
  2. Asura Realm. Asuras are beings in a constant state of struggle, ceaselessly competing and fighting. And what they’re fighting for is to be devas. They are consumed with winning, with getting what they think others have or what they think is owed to them. “Asura” is sometimes translated as “demigod,” but that sounds too comfortable. Asuras, like everyone else, experience dissatisfaction. But unlike many others, asuras embrace that dissatisfaction as a kind of call to arms. There is no need to point out one famous one — society encourages us all to dwell in this realm. The story of the American Dream is that if you want it badly enough, you can join the 1 percent, be whatever you want to be, live however you want. Asuras do want it badly enough, but they never get it. They probably couldn’t recognize it even if they did.
  3. Human Realm. We’ll get back to this one.
  4. Animal Realm. Those inhabiting this realm live according to instinct. I’ve heard one interpretation that animals live in a constant state of fear; another is that animals live only to satisfy base needs, without apology. Those two ideas, to me, are not very dissimilar. Animals, for the purpose of this model, define their wants as needs — that misunderstanding is their cage. If you’ve ever thought, “I don’t need to be kind/generous/articulate until I’ve had my first cup of coffee,” you’ve fallen into an animal state of mind. Teenage boys fully inhabit the animal realm, aggressively hunting for sex — real and imagined — like sharks that can never stop swimming, single-mindedly feeding and feeding. Both asuras and animals are consumed by desires, but of very different kinds.
  5. Preta Realm (or Realm of Hungry Ghosts). Hungry ghosts are a popular subject of Buddhist art. They are typically grotesque, with huge, bloated bellies and impossibly long, thin necks, making it impossible for them to ever be satisfied. I mentioned them once in a university class, and a student with some experience in these things said matter-of-factly, “Oh, they’re the addicts.” I’ve never heard that anywhere else, but it’s a perfect way of understanding this condition. An asura is not addicted to success — she’s never had it, or at least not her own definition of it. And a teenage boy is not addicted to sex — he just can’t see that there’s anything else. But an addict is different. An addict gets the fix, but it’s never enough; he knows there’s more, but he also knows he can’t have it. It’s a very specific kind of suffering. If you’ve ever been in an intensely dysfunctional romantic relationship, you probably know something about this realm.
  6. Hell Realm (or, to be parallel, the Hell-Being Realm). Hell, for this purpose, is a circumstance so overwhelming or painful that one cannot even imagine a world beyond it. Those who live in abject poverty live in the hell realm. Those who suffer from incurable, debilitating, degenerative diseases might find themselves here, so fully occupied with the pain of this moment and the next and the next that nothing else seems real, or possible. I’ve spoken with victims of sexual abuse who insisted that the world they live in — where one is assaulted and violated by close family members as part of the weekly routine — is the world everyone lives in, that there is no other world, that to insist otherwise is naive. “Hell” is a dangerous word, and we have to be careful. In this model, people are not put in hell to suffer; their suffering is what defines hell. It’s a place with no windows and no doors, no clear exit.

I’ve heard over and over that the deva realm is the most dangerous — someone in that realm is the least likely to arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, the mind of practice. There are just too many soft distractions from our true condition, and from the true condition of others. It’s critical to the story of the Buddha story that he lived the first few decades of his life in the deva realm, sheltered from the pain of the world. From a Buddhist perspective, the thing society tells us we should want most is precisely the thing we need least. In contrast, though no one wants to be in the hell realm (or would even wish it on another person), being sheltered from suffering is not a problem there–pain is all there is. In hell, if anything, the problem is that we’re sheltered from joy, to such a degree that we might stop believing it can be real.

As I understand it, this teaching is about choices. Each realm is a description of a particular personal narrative, a self-limiting story about who we are, what is possible, and what we need or deserve. A deva has no compelling reason to seek a different way of being. An asura has the same problem — you can’t convince an asura that what he’s seeking is not in his best interest. An animal’s story is all about me and my and mine. A hungry ghost is trapped in her own story of powerlessness and insatiability. And a hell being is so enveloped by the flames of this moment that she imagines that the whole world is on fire and that it will never, ever rain.

Which brings us to the human realm. Humans, in this teaching, are just as messed up and unskillful as we know them to be outside of this teaching. They want what the asuras want; they can be as self-serving as animals; they can be tethered by a single destructive desire, just like hungry ghosts. And when the conditions are there, they can fall into the self-serving mind of the deva or the angry sense of victimhood of a hell being. It’s all there. What makes “human” its own realm, however, is the recognition of complexity. Understood literally or metaphorically, traditions agree that the human realm is the only one where there is a possibility of enlightenment. In literal-interpretation circles, there is a lot of talk about valuing this “precious human birth” — to be born into this middle realm is the ultimate opportunity, not to be wasted. Especially if we’re taking a “you might be reborn as a frog” view of karma, this idea makes a lot of sense. After all, if you are a frog, and if you live out that life according to instinct, what might you do during that lifetime to affect a change in birth the next time around? If a frog just does frog stuff, then there’s a strong chance of just getting stuck in a loop, being born as a frog over and over, with few realistic opportunities to go beyond that mindset.

But humans are designed to get out of that loop, to upset their patterns. We don’t need to take that conservative view of karma for this to make sense. I can be a human being, but inhabit the asura realm, slowly killing myself by working too much at a job where success is measured only in terms of profits and losses, winning and losing. I can be completely immersed in that competitive world. And then, for no good reason, I can be startled by the beauty of a flower growing outside my office window, or I can bump into a friend from a time when I saw my life differently, or someone close to me can pass away, and just for a moment, I can recognize that there is more to my life, and to life itself, than the life I have made. I can see that reality is bigger than what I usually imagine; I can see, even if just for a fraction of an instant, that I have choices. I could turn left instead of right. I could express something more, or something else.

In that moment, I step into the human realm. It may be for just a second, but maybe not — maybe I’ll linger there, breathing it in, smelling the possibility. When we talk about being free from karma, in essence, we’re talking about this — recognizing our patterns and biases and addictions for what they are, and making real choices rather than just doing what we always do, or thinking what we always think, or saying what we always say. It doesn’t mean we’ll make good choices — as I said, humans are messed up. But the human realm is that place of not knowing. It’s being awake and unskillfully floundering around instead of being asleep and complacent. It’s turning off automatic pilot and taking the controls for ourselves, even when we have no idea how to fly.

It’s the only place to be.


Update June 13, 2013: A French translation of this post can be found here, on Éric Rommeluère’s blog J’ai deux kôans à vous dire… I am always so grateful to find things like this.

I Am a Small Man

Our boy is three years old. It’s a big deal to him. A couple months before his birthday, we started hyping it to him, planting all sorts of ideas in his head about what a three-year-old boy might be capable of. The big one (I still can’t believe we pulled this off) was convincing him that after his birthday, he would do away with diapers once and for all and forevermore be a toilet guy. He made the switch on his birthday, on his own. Unbelievable.

So from where I’m standing, it’s all about what he can do. He can do amazing things. He can ride his balance bike in all sorts of crazy ways and somehow, miraculously, not fall down. He uses the toilet by himself. He dances, he sings, he tells us weird, weird, made-up stories with a hundred characters and no ending. And none of what we see at home compares to what he does at daycare, which is run with military precision — there, he is a model of putting-away-the-toys, quietly-listening-to-the-story, waiting-in-line-for-the-toilet behavior. He can drive me crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not always bursting with pride.

But there are these little moments when it’s clear that for him, it’s a different story. He’s proud of what he can do, and he’s happy to rub it all in the face of our little girl, who is just now starting to walk and still thinks meals are all about dropping things from great heights. But he’s painfully aware, in everything he does, that he can’t yet do everything he wants to do.

There are lots of times when he talks to us and we just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s because it’s a mix of Japanese and English; sometimes, if it’s a word we haven’t heard him use before, we’re not even sure which language he’s using. In the strange little narrative he keeps of his own life, the orange collar on the dog we saw three weeks ago at the park is vitally important, and relevant, and immediate, so he references it the way I might reference something like “the car.” But it can take forever to figure out how we got there, and the frustration he feels in those moments is palpable, even when it doesn’t lead to a total breakdown (which it sometimes does). He knows enough to know that this whole language thing should be a lot easier than it is, but he can’t yet make it so. All the frustration and isolation I felt when I first came to Japan and tried to speak to shopkeepers, he feels when he speaks to his own parents.

With his body, too, there’s just so much that doesn’t yet come naturally. Big buttons are OK, but little ones taunt him. He gets trapped taking off his own shirt. And it keeps happening–Why, his eyes say, does this keep happening? He tears paper he doesn’t mean to tear, drops things he doesn’t mean to drop. He fully inhabits his body, but his body is not yet entirely his.

We see these things, and we feel for him, but we forget, over and over, to try to see it through his eyes. It’s cute when he gets trapped in his shirt. And we have the privilege of knowing that it will all get better — six months from now will be another world, again.

A couple months ago, we got him a little paddle toy — two big foam paddles with duck faces on them, and a sponge ball to knock back and forth. For a while, he used the paddles kind of like golf clubs, just pushing the ball around on the floor. He’d ask me to play, and I’d lob him the ball with the paddle, and he’d get angry and throw the paddle and walk away. It happened a few times. Then one morning, after lobbing it to him again, his eyes filled up with tears, and his face went red, and he shouted at me, “Papa, I’m a small man!” And through the sobs, with some little gestures and a combination of two languages that really don’t fit together at all, he explained that he can’t do what I do, dropping the ball on the paddle and hitting it underhand like that. It’s just beyond him right now. He’s tried and tried, but for today, it’s a no-go. But when I do it (it’s such an unconscious way of handling a ball and paddle, I hadn’t even given it a second thought), it just crushes him. It’s too much.

So much of teaching is putting oneself in the place of the student, anticipating that person’s difficulties and addressing them. That’s the start of skillful means, and it’s hard to remember it sometimes, much less to get it right. For some reason, I have the hardest time standing in my little guy’s shoes. I’m so busy celebrating for him (and congratulating myself) that I lose sight of what he sees, which is a world made of high walls, impossible dexterity tests, and cruel oral exams.

A Tibetan teacher startled me once with her simple description of animals (I still think about this every time I see a cat or dog). Buddhism sometimes includes talk of six realms, which we can imagine stacked vertically, from top to bottom: heavenly beings, asuras, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings. Perhaps I’ll try to describe the purpose behind all of that in a different post — the important point here is that animals are listed below humans, a point that always bothered me a little. I, like many people, tended to think of animals in very romantic terms. A deer, for example, has such dignity, such apparent clarity of purpose, such a beautiful quiet expression. It’s easy to think, “I want to be that.” But the Tibetan teacher had a very clear reason why one should not want to be in the animal realm: animals live in constant fear. They are always on the lookout, even when seemingly at rest. Humans can transcend their fears, but other animals cannot. Now it seems obvious, but the lens I carried made me unable to see it.

One day my little boy couldn’t hop on one foot; the next day, he could. I watched him eat ice cream for the first time, saw how his face practically gave off light. Who wouldn’t like to eat ice cream again for the first time? It’s beautiful, his life. But right now, at three years old, he has no way of really seeing that. Most adults I know don’t see the beauty of their own lives — what chance does a preschooler have?  I’m grateful to be a witness to his life, to see it with my eyes, to be able to tell his story. But, as with each one of us and each person we know, that story is just a story. What I see as an unending photo opportunity is, for him, a sea of confusion; he is the embodiment of dukkha (dissatisfaction). He suffers, and the fact that he’s three doesn’t make that any less true.

I need to remind myself of this constantly. I need to learn to see with those eyes, to run with those legs, to crawl inside the mind of the Small Man.