Monday, March 30, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given June 12, 2007.

I think one of the concepts or Buddhist teachings that is most often heard about or read about in books is the teaching of compassion. I often am questioned why I don’t speak about compassion very often in the zendo. This is because in our tradition we understand that it is very easy to get caught up in an intellectual conceptualization of compassion; we think, “I should be compassionate.” We translate this as, “I should be nice, I should be kind, I should be forgiving, and understanding towards others.” But as soon as we engage in this conceptualization of self and other we miss compassion entirely.

There are many words in Buddhism that are translated from Sanskrit or even Japanese, and you’ll often hear me complain about the quality of the word in English which is used to translate. Compassion is not one of them, in fact, quite the opposite. I find the word compassion to be quite good. When we look at the Latin word, the Latin root, we find that com means “with” and passion means “suffer”. So when we look at the word compassion it has very little to do with being nice or being kind; it means “suffering with”. What is meant by that?

I speak about manifesting one true nature, letting go of our sense of duality, our sense of separation, our sense of being alone, outside of all other things. This realization—one true nature, oneness—is the foundation of compassion. When we come into a relationship, when we come into a situation, and we clearly experience that we are not separate, we are not outside, we are not different from this thing that we take to be other—outside, the environment, the situation—then what is happening is not happening to that thing; what’s happening is not happening to that environment; we suffer with. This is the manifestation of compassion.

Out of this realization, out of this manifestation of oneness arises prajna—wisdom. As prajna arises we manifest, we act. When we act from this position of compassion and wisdom, there is no concept of self, there is no concept of other. The appropriate action arises spontaneously out of the situation.

There is an old example of this: one master said, “it’s as if we have two hands and in each of the two hands arises the idea of self.” When one hand views the other hand as fundamentally separate form itself, we have a problem. One hand catching fire, the other hand begins to think about it, “oooh, that other hand is on fire. Should I help it? Well, if I help it I risk hurting myself. If I help it, it might cause problems for me. Hey, maybe if I don’t help it, I’ll benefit.”

When it’s put in a metaphor like this we can think it’s ridiculous; we can think it is a really odd way of looking at things. But when we step back and we understand that these two hands are part of a single body, when we understand that these two things are not separate as they have taken themselves to be, that they are fundamentally one, this doubt dissolves, this inability to act disappears, self concern evaporates, and there is simply the action of help. We are one.

This is the fundamental position of the Buddha way. But we don’t talk about it so much. What we do is ask that we open up our senses, that we deepen in our awareness and experience it.

How? We come to this formal practice, this zendo, and we are asked to sit in close proximity to one another, right beside one another; we’re asked to act as one. Harmoniously in this practice of sitting and breathing. Harmoniously in this activity of bowing and standing. Harmoniously in this activity of placing one foot in front of the other. We’re asked to act as one.

As we deepen in our awareness, as we open up our senses to what is going on around us, we begin to experience, we begin to witness for ourselves, the effect that others have on us. We begin to experience that this person moving around beside us effects our own stability. We find that in sitting still ourselves, we effect the people around us; we strengthen their ability to sit.

We find that when we don’t pay attention when we are walking, when we fall out of step or allow a gap to happen, that every person in the line behind us is affected by it. As we deepen in our sensitivity, as we increase our awareness, we begin to become aware of this, and we begin to realize that each of us has a responsibility in this formal practice, that in entering into this practice we accept a commitment to bring ourselves to bear in this practice, because we are all comfortable with coming for the support, we are all comfortable with coming to receive what we can get from this practice. But what starts to dawn on us after a little while is that we also, even at the most beginning level, have an obligation and an opportunity to apply ourselves fully, and in doing so contribute, to support.

Because regardless of whether it’s our first time or whether it’s our one-hundredth time, how we manifest in this moment effects all things. This attitude, this awareness, begins in the zendo. We can learn this through this simple activity of sitting, and walking, breathing together, bowing together, being careful and considerate of how we conduct ourselves in the context of the formal practice.

But it’s not limited by the walls of the zendo. If we take this developing awareness out into our lives, into our relationship, into our jobs, we find that there is no difference. This fundamental position that we are all one is present in all things, in all activities, in every relationship, in every situation that we find ourselves in. So as we continue through this practice, we find that more and more to engage in practice fully means to accept responsibility for our lives, to accept responsibility that in each thing that we do, in each activity that we engage in, in each choice that we make, we affect all things in this vast universe.

With each breath that we take this universe changes forever. We engage in this practice and we are encouraged by the jikijitsu, we are encouraged by our friends in the way, to focus, to keep on it, to keep in step. We are encouraged to participate, to become an active part, and aware part of this activity of life which unfolds before us. In this way, traditionally put, we can be born into this life, alive, spontaneous, meeting each moment with compassion, recognizing that we are not separate, recognizing that in each moment what effects one effects all things, not as a concept, not as a thought, not in an oh-it’s-effecting-that-it-must-be-effecting-me way.

There is no gap, there is no pause, in this realization. Immediately it’s revealed. Immediately we are able to act appropriately in the situation with wisdom, with compassion.

So as we continue into this practice, as we continue to do this practice, it’s very important that we don’t view these activities, these actions that we take, as being empty rituals. This activity of walking together, keeping in step, manifesting harmony in activity is not taken as some empty form that we just do. This activity of walking is the manifestation of one true nature—harmony. We should take it with utmost sobriety, utmost seriousness.

Fully walk. Fully sit. Fully breathe. For in the end if we are not able to do these simple activities with all of ourselves, if we are not able to fully commit to the simple activity of sitting, of breathing, of walking, how can we possibly commit fully to things like marriage, or career?

So in this activity of formal practice we must understand that even the most complex situation of our life is revealed here. The activity of engagement is no different, the content of your life is this very moment right before us—the activity which unfolds here and now. There is no activity unfolding in this moment which is insignificant. If we take it as insignificant we take our whole lives as such.

So I encourage each of you, whether you are sitting, whether you are walking, whether you are brushing your teeth or going to the toilet, to turn into this moment, to turn into this activity as the content of your life, to embrace it fully, not thinking of it as mundane or insignificant, but understanding it as the complete content of your life, the complete content of this vast universe, and realize that in truth there is nowhere else to be.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Where is my true home?

Transcription of talk given June 5, 2007

Where is your true home? How do I realize my true home? This is a koan, a problem that we are faced with as we engage in zen practice. Each of us, I think, as we move through this world find ourselves feeling, from time to time, out of place. Each of us, I think, spends a great deal of time and energy in our lives looking for this place where we feel like we belong. There is a term for young people traveling around “looking to find themselves”, searching for a place to call home.
The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that at once all things in this vast universe are one. This moment has as its content all things: people, objects, plants, animals, insects, stones, flowers. All things in this vast universe are one.
Each of us, as we grow as we develop, we begin to fixate, we begin to identify things that we like and that we don’t like. We begin to identify things that make us feel at ease or comfortable and things which we find unpleasant. Fixating these sensations, fixating these preferences, we begin to formulate something, we begin to talk about something, and we begin to refer to it as “I”.
Now these situations are completely transitory, momentary, and yet we fixate them as if they were lasting, permanent, and begin to make statements like, “I’m this kind of person” or “I’m that kind of person”. “I like this and I don’t like that.” “This is what I do and this is what I certainly don’t do.” As we are young, when we are young, this starts off very simply. But as we grow older and older, this concept of a self, this ego identity, becomes more and more complex, and we spend more and more time identifying it, clarifying it and fixating it. But as we do this, as we more and more clarify and fixate this thing that “I am” we begin to find that in an equal amount we become more and more isolated; we begin to become more and more distant, lost, disconnected.
But this is not a fixed state, and in fact the teaching is that this doesn’t even reflect the true state. This idea, this concept of a self, this defined and fixed thing—the ego—is fundamentally empty. When we begin to investigate this thing that we have taken as being so solid, we can find nothing to lay our hands on. What is it that makes up the self? Where is this quality of permanence? It’s not in our thoughts; it’s not in our beliefs; it’s not in our feelings; all of these things change from moment to moment. Even our bodies, it’s said, every cell replaced every seven years. So even in this physical being we find nothing permanent, nothing lasting, nothing fixed, solid. And yet, as we go through our lives we make all of our decisions, all of our judgments, based upon the existence of this thing we call “I”.
As we begin to practice, as we begin to enter into this moment, engaging in this simple activity of breathing, we find that the form of this practice gives rise to these thoughts, we find ourselves coming up nose to nose with these ideas about “self”, these preferences, these choices: “I don’t like to bow. Walking in step is difficult and uncomfortable. Chanting makes me self-conscious. Sitting still makes me uneasy.” If we are able to step outside of this situation, we see that this practice is something utterly simple: to sit, to breathe, to walk. But the challenging aspect of this practice is that we’re asked to manifest harmoniously with the environment that we find ourselves in, to do this with others. And in practicing this, in trying this, we find that we’re all over the place; the simple activity of walking in step becomes a magnificent challenge—why?
We find that with each breath, with each step, we slip, we slip out of this moment which presents itself to us, into the world of our thinking mind, into the world of “I”; we separate and fixate “I” in distinction from everything around us. This habit is something that we rehearse and that we engage in over and over again in our lives, constantly creating separation, creating walls, calling things inside and outside, self and other, and we buy it, we believe it completely, to the degree where we would even defend it as being something which is good. And yet, as we go through our lives we find that deep within us we feel alone; we can feel lost, homeless.
The teaching of Zen is that in this moment, already, you stand in your true home. This very moment has as its content all things; we are not separate. Separation exists as a function of the mind. In this moment all we need to do is simply let go of this idea of a self which stands in distinction to all things, to let go and to experience this moment as complete, to experience the vast potential of this moment, which is nothing other than our selves.
KATZ!!!(sharp shout) This is a technique that has been used for centuries. In this moment of the shout where are you? In this moment of the shout each of us enters into this moment fully without reservation. Immediately, upon this experience we separate, break apart, “ahh, what was that;” we begin thinking again. But in the moment that I shouted where was “I”?
Each of us goes about this world looking outside, looking for home, looking for love, looking for a place to belong. If we are able to enter into this moment just as it is, this moment which has as its content our life, we find that there is nothing lacking, there is nothing outside. If we are able to penetrate this, even for a moment, if we are able to let go of our fixated self, we can understand, we can experience, we can realize, that in this moment there is no other place to be. We stand and always stand in our true home.
The first step, the first thing that we need to do when we come to engage in practice, is to investigate this, to become aware. Through this practice of simply paying attention, following the breath, we become aware of this sensation, of this feeling of being separate. We can become aware of the situations, the experiences that we have, that bring it about. But in practice, rather than running from it, rather than going and trying to find that thing that’s going to make us feel better, we come to sit and we turn to face this experience; “What is it? What is it that makes me feel separate, alone?”
So, as you continue to engage in your practice, contemplate this question; “How do I realize my true home?”

Monday, March 23, 2009

At last! I'm Enlightened!!!

Transcription of talk given May 01, 2007

As we continue to practice, as we continue to bring our minds, our awareness into this present moment, many of the ideas, the concepts that we talk about in practice, stop existing only in our mind, as thoughts, as things that we think about.

The difficulty with the concept of a self which is separate and outside of all the other things in this universe begins to become something which is experienced. Instead of just listening to somebody talk about the difficulty of this “I” construct, we start to experience the difficulty of attaching to our “I” construct. It’s one thing to talk about suffering as an idea, as something that’s outside of us, as something that’s an external situation, but it’s something completely different when we start to experience suffering.

When we’re practicing, as suffering arises we’re not so quick to react to it, we’re not so quick to point our finger and blame and say, “oh, that’s the problem right there. If he would just stop doing that, or if this situation would just change, or if I could have more money or a new car or a different relationship, I wouldn’t be suffering.” We don’t do this so much as our practice ripens. We begin to reflect within. We begin to reflect on what it is about this situation that has arisen that is causing us difficulty.

As we develop some stability of mind and body through practice we bring our awareness to bear on the situation and over and over again we find that it is our fixation with “I”, our unconditional acceptance of something which is separate, lasting, permanent. Upon this assumption we base all kinds of judgments. We begin to create all kinds of preferences for this and that. We decide what’s good and what’s bad, what’s pleasant and unpleasant, right and wrong, what we want and want to avoid.

And when we don’t get what we want we suffer.

And when instead we are forced to come into contact with these things that we’ve decided we don’t like we suffer.

We can find as we plunge deeper into this that the more clearly defined, the more strongly and tightly held this “I” concept is, the more and more situations we find in which we suffer. But as we practice what opens up for us is an opportunity to let go. As we find ourselves within situations in our lives, we begin to become aware of our ego fixation, we begin to become aware of this habit energy in which we grasp onto a self. A situation arises and before we think, a habit pattern has already come into motion.

As we practice we become more and more aware of these habit patterns. We begin to see them. We begin to develop insight into what those habit patterns’ functions are. And invariably these habits serve the self. The way in which we behave, the way in which we react, the way in which we get angry, upset, blame, it’s all so that we can protect this idea of a self. In the presence of evidence, in the presence of experience which demonstrates that this concept of self is flawed. The more clearly a situation arises which asks us to dissolve into it the more strongly we resist it—fear, anxiety.

So Zen practice offers us this space, this space into which we can let go of this fixation with the self. We can engage in this simple activity of sitting, breathing, this simple activity of walking together with all things in this vast universe. And even in this simple activity we find these preferences arising: “oh, the person in front of us can’t keep in step. The person beside us is breathing too loudly, or their nose is whistling or something.” Always something to help us stay separate.

But as we practice simply letting go into this activity of breathing; as we breath in, fully breathing in, breathing in all things in this vast universe, breathing in sound, breathing in space, breathing in environment, breathing in even the idea of a self and arising, filling the belly with everything in this universe. As our breath comes to the top, as we are filled with all things, there is only one thing to do which is to turn and exhale, to dissolve fully as we exhale, exhaling all things in this universe—people, space, the self—completely dissolving into oneness, one true nature. My teacher calls it, “the experience of zero. But this experience is not a state, it’s not an object, it’s not a place. The manifestation of this universe is an activity, the activity of plus and minus. Within this activity there is no resting place.

The root cause of our suffering is that we are obsessed with finding this place, this place in which we can stop, this place in which we can be done. And this place manifests in a million different ways in our minds: the right job, the right relationship, the right financial situation, maybe if we practice, enlightenment, awakening. And we set up these objects, these places, and we drive ourselves towards them, looking for this place in which there is no more activity. But this idea, this concept, is fundamentally empty.

There is no such thing. No perfect relationship, no perfect job, no perfect awakening even.

In the diamond sutra the Buddha says, “give rise to a mind that rests on no thing whatever.” What are your carrots? What is it that you are driving at? What is it that you take as being the condition for your satisfaction?

This very moment is complete. This very moment has as its content all things in this vast universe. This very moment is the content of your life.

If we want to know liberation, if we want to know satisfaction, we must know it in this very moment just as it is. It’s not outside. So as we continue to practice we have to keep investigating. What is it that we take as being outside? What is it that we take as being the source of our happiness, our satisfaction? What is it that we feel that we don’t posses?

Because in these beliefs, in these fixations, is the root of our suffering. And these are not something that have been imposed upon us by something external. They are something that we ourselves have taken up, we ourselves hang on to, and they are things that we ourselves can let go of and become free.

So, as we continue to practice, give up rest. Give up the idea of perfect enlightenment after which you can stand up off of the cushion and walk into life saying, “ahh, finally I am done, I don’t have to bend my legs anymore.” Let go of ideas that draw you out of this very moment. Return to the breath...return to this moment just as it is and embrace the content of your life.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Sound of the Birds

Transcription of a talk given May 29, 2007
When you are hearing the sound of the birds, how do you manifest one true nature?

In our tradition, in Rinzai Zen, this question is what we call a koan. Once we come to the place in practice were we have settled the mind to some degree, we are centering ourselves in focusing on our breath, we come to rest in the present moment, we become aware, we become aware of sounds in the world around us, we become aware of smells, sights, bodily sensations and thoughts.

Becoming aware without becoming caught up in them, fixated by them, we begin to investigate the experience of this moment. And if we are in a relationship with a teacher, we are pressed to go further. In many schools of Buddhism and in a lot of the popular reading material that you find about Buddhism and meditation, you’ll here this term “mindfulness”.

Mindfulness is a very useful tool in practice in that we become more and more aware of our surroundings, more and more aware of the sensory information that we are receiving, more and more aware of how we’re interacting with the world around us, and this is good to a point.

In the practice of Nyorai Zen, Tathagata Zen, which is the practice in our tradition, we have to come to this point of absolute awareness, mindfulness, absolute clarity between what’s being experienced and our subjective self.

But we then have to take a step beyond.

How do we manifest one true nature when we are hearing the sound of the birds? This practice is the investigation of this acceptance of this unconditional fixation to the concept of separation, or an “I” which is distinct and separate from things outside. In our tradition we investigate this practice in a very concrete way. In the experience of this very moment, in hearing the sound of the birds, we simply sit and investigate. We can observe that in one sense, as we sit and we listen there is distinctly “I”, there is distinctly “the bird”, there is space, distance.

The thinking mind may be struggling with what kind of bird it is. Is it a Sparrow? Is it a Robin? But as we sit, as we breathe in the sound, as we breathe in the space and as we exhale “I am”, we find that at once, self, other and distance unify. The thinking mind drops away and there is just this sound.

In our experience of this universe we uphold the self as being necessary, as being crucial. We accept this concept entirely. But in the simple practice of listening we can ask ourselves this question, “having ears open, do we need to try to hear the bird?” Having ears open, already the sound is heard. We have this opportunity to experience this moment, to experience the activity of the universe as it manifests in our life, as non-dual, without separation.

This experience requires consistent, concerted practice. The mind is something which is very busy. The mind is something which we are very attached to. This concept of inside and outside, self and other, as fixated permanent structures is something that we attach to very deeply. Having fixated, having attached to it, we make decisions, we make choices, we make judgments—good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. What’s important is that we understand that these decisions, these choices, these judgments, are based on a subjective opinion, which is based on an understanding of reality as fundamentally separate. And we can in our own lives, in this very moment, experience that this universe, that this activity that gives rise to all things in this universe, is fundamentally one.

This koan, “how can I manifest one true nature when I am hearing the sound of a bird,” is a simple practice that we can engage in with a focused mind in any area of our life. It doesn’t have to be a sound. When we are seeing a flower, when we’re smelling food, when we feel the temperature hot or cold, how do I manifest one true nature? Can I let go into this activity and realize this as nothing other than myself. And this is difficult practice, because as we engage in this investigation, we find that over and over again, what jumps out at us is “I”.

This barrier of self, this barrier of “I” is something which we impose upon reality, which we impose upon this very moment, which we ourselves fixate and attach to. It’s not such a big thing, in fact it’s just an idea. And as we go forward in our practice, as we investigate the content of this moment—the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the physical sensations, even the thoughts—we find that it is in simply letting go of our obsession, letting go of our fixation of self, the idea that we are apart from things, that we can actually experience one true nature.

In practice, this training with koans is not something that is done in abstraction in our minds. It’s practiced in a face to face relationship with our teacher. The question is posed, “how do you manifest one true nature when you are hearing the sound of the birds?” We repeat, “how do I manifest one true nature when I am hearing the sound of the birds?” And the question comes from our teacher, “Demonstrate! Show me!”

The moment we open our mouths, we fixate the self, we enter into the world of trying to explain, we’ve separated, affirmed the duality. In the moment we meet our teacher eyeball to eyeball we are asked, challenged: “let go of your fixation with self and show me the sound of the bird!”

Usually when I talk like this the minds get very busy: “What would I say? How would I respond?” This type of training is something in which you have to let go of all of that. Coming into the moment, coming into the space of this very moment, we find that already we know what to do, already we know how to respond, already we make the demonstration, manifesting one true nature.

I guess this is a look into the realm of the world of Rinzai Zen practice. Having this experience of dissolution, experiencing the manifestation of one true nature, is one side, its practical application is that as we arise, as we have completed the activity of dissolution into zero, into oneness, we can’t stay there. I’ve said over and over again, “this universe is activity, there is no place to rest. We arise. But having manifested zero we arise knowing that this manifestation is impermanent; we don’t fixate to a self as being separate, lasting, fixed and permanent.

We can see clearly a flower is a flower, a bird is a bird, a person is a person. But we also understand that fundamentally all things in this vast universe are one. This experience of one true nature is powerful. And it will alter our behavior, alter our perception of things in this world. It will alter our relationships and alter our work. It will alter who we are, who we take ourselves to be.

So I think that a lot of people come to Zen practice and they sort of loosely want to change, but I think that it is important to understand that as we engage in this practice we want to maintain some control over how it is that we change. We want to keep the things that we like about “I” while getting rid of the things that we don’t like so much about “I”. But the reality of practice is that these things are twins joined at the head. As we let go of one, we find that the other often follows.

Where does this practice go for us? How is it that we will go forward from this place? If I surrender my death grip on the self, what will I become?

These are all questions of ego. Already, in this moment we are not separate from the activity of this universe. Already, in this moment our capacity is infinite. Letting go of our fixation with self we manifest one true nature with all things in this vast universe. Having manifested absolute zero we arise in clear distinction without fixation. When we enter into practice we must let go of this grasping, this desire to know, to predict, our expectation or our projections; enter into the space of “don’t know” and meet this moment honestly, straight-forwardly and completely. This activity, the activity that is this very moment, is the complete content of your life. There is nowhere else to be.