Thursday, July 30, 2009


Hi all,

I thought I'd try something new and ask for feedback. One of our members loaned me his recorder while mine is being repaired, and posted a talk to his website. The quality is pretty good, so I thought I'd link the talk. Let me know what you think, and how it compares to the written blog in the comments!

The Practice of Prostration

Be well,

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Every week I come here and talk about Zen practice, so for those of you who have been here before you’ve heard me likely talk about there being two fundamental activities; this universe being made up of two fundamental activities which we can call plus and minus, birth and death, male and female, we can call them all kinds of things but for tonight I’d like to talk about them in terms of these two activities of unification, or dissolution, and arising, or diversification.

When we grow up in this world, in this culture, we become enculturated, we become very much aware of only one side, one part of this complete activity of diversification/ unification, and that’s the diversification side. From the time that we are very young, we are encouraged to find ourselves, to define ourselves, to figure out who we are, and what we are, and what we want to do, and what we want to accomplish, and what we want to have.

One of the ways we clearly clarify this is by comparing and contrasting ourselves with everything else that we can perceive in this world.
So we start to create this world view in which there is me standing here, sitting here, me being that which is contained within this skin bag of the body, and everything else, which is what stands outside of me. Just before the sit we were talking about the eight-fold path. The first of the steps in the eight-fold path, which is the path to the cessation of anguish, of suffering, is right or complete view.

This is where we start in Zen practice.
Coming from a position of perceiving only this diversification side, the manifestation, or arising side as being the complete activity, we sit down and begin to look at the world, we begin to look at ourselves and we begin to investigate the complete activity, we begin to experience the full activity, the complete activity which has as its content, indeed, this activity of rising and diversification, but also, the activity of dissolution or unification. In the form of Zen practice, the various activities that we do in Zen practice are very strongly pointed at rounding out this side that we pay so little attention to, the minus or dissolution, unification activity. All of the practices that we do are really aimed at allowing us the greatest opportunity to experience this. So, now I come to what I actually want to talk about tonight, which is the practice of chanting. I already can feel people squirming in their seats... “Chanting? NOOOO!!!” I’ve talked a lot about sitting, and I’ve talked a little bit about walking meditation but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about the practice of chanting. Part of it is because on Tuesday we have a lot of newcomers, and chanting, I find for many people, is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of practice.

People are really uncomfortable with chanting, even more than they are with the sitting, even more than they are with the walking. But it’s important for us to understand what the function of chanting is.
So in Zen, being the experiential school, we don’t like to talk so much ... so I’m going to have us do a little bit of practice tonight where I hope we can get the spirit of this practice of chanting. So, chanting...when it comes time to do it...when the Jikijitsu says, “Take out your chant sheets and turn to the `Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra’”.

Immediately, the diversification activity begins, it fires up, we begin to think about ourselves, we begin to become really strongly self-concerned. We start to think about, “What is this I’m being asked to chant?”, “What am I supposed to do about this?”, “How do I do this?” Then we pull it out and look at it and say, “What does this mean?”, and “What does it imply if I’m chanting it?”, and “What does the person across from me think about me chanting?”, and “How do I sound?” and “What does this mean anyway?”...we keep going around and around.
It’s a very strongly engaging diversification that starts to take to place, even at the thought, even at the insinuation that we might be doing some chanting. A lot of ego comes up...a lot of self.

There are two practices in Zen, or two approaches to practising this activity of dissolution, that we use in Zen practice. One is a passive approach in which while we are sitting we gradually, little bit by little bit, allow our grip, allow our tight hold on ourselves to let go, more and more and more until we dissolve into the situation, the experience. We can do this in many different circumstances. Maybe if you like music, if you listen to a really beautiful piece of music, just practice letting go of yourself little bit by little bit by little bit, until it’s as if you are absorbed by music, there is no sound, there is no you listening to the music, there is just music... WE are not separate FROM.
A moment later, the self arises and we diversify and we say "that was beautiful" so this is the passive activity of dissolution, of minus. The other form, the other way that we practice this activity in Zen is to actively unify or to actively dissolve and we can do this through walking but I find it particularly effective when we do it through chanting.

So, I’m always a little bit sad on a Tuesday night when we chant, because there is this powerful potential with about 40 people here, that so often is squandered. When we have 40 people together there is this powerful potential in chanting for us to have an experience of the complete activity...dissolution, unification and diversification. So, rather than flapping our gums all the time, what’s important in Zen practice is to experience.

Now, I can understand that there are people coming in for the first time, some people that were sitting down in my row were very quiet, I couldn’t hear people chanting, it’s totally understandable, coming to this weird environment with people dressed in black uniforms and chanting this weird stuff and “I don’t know what I think about this”.

For now, we’re going to leave off the words, we don’t need the words, because in essence the practice of chanting is not about the meaning behind the words. What we’re going to look at tonight is sound. The first thing I want to do is talk about our breath while we’re chanting, because this is an important aspect. When we’re chanting, we make sound, and for everybody here, I know that you’ve been given some instruction in Zen meditation so I hope that there was some talk about breathing. In breathing we’re drawing the breath into our abdomen, breathing naturally and filling our bellies. Then as we exhale, exhaling again from the lower abdomen, this HARA, just below the navel, motivating the breath and pushing out, with a nice straight back. In chanting, we’re doing exactly the same we breathe in, we fill the belly, and then as we’re exhaling we’re making sound, but we’re just making sound with the exhalation. AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW...

At the bottom of the breath, there’s no need to panic. Nothing’s going to fall apart if you’re not continuing to make sound. The next natural thing for you to do is to take in a breath... having completely breathed in, we can make sound:

One of the difficulties with chanting that many people have is a difficulty, I think, that also comes up in people’s lives which is, that we have this really self-centred belief that if we’re not intimately involved in every aspect of everything, the world will collapse, or our workplace will collapse, or our relationship will collapse. So this practice of chanting is also one of experiencing interdependence, experiencing, or developing the trust, or the faith that the practice, that the environment will be supported even if we’re taking a breath in, if we’re catching our breath.

One of the first instructions you receive in chanting is to chant with your ears. So often when start chanting we’re thinking about ourselves, so we’re worried about what’s coming out of our mouths, what we’re producing, so one of the keys in chanting is to chant with your ears, which means to let go into the sound that surrounds you and then simply rise to meet it, O.K?

So, enough of this talk. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to chant. We’re not going to chant any words and we’re not going to use the drum to keep any kind of rhythm, we’re just going to make sound. What we’re going to do is to start off with my voice. I want you to listen and I want you to take a breath into your belly and then I want you to rise and meet the sound with your voice and we’re just going to hold this note. When you need to take a breath, take a breath. When you have completely filled your breath, when you’ve completely filled your belly with air, then turn and, again, come to meet the sound. O.K. I hope that I won’t be doing this for too long by myself. I’ll start chanting and you all join in when you feel ready and we’re going to continue to do this for a few minutes until I stick my hand up into the air. Ok. Ready? AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW...

O.K! O.K...hhmmmm... that’s much different than it sounds when we chanted the Heart Sutra, I think...just a bit!
So my hope is that in this experience of dissolving into sound there’s an experience of both activities... you can hear it... even in the sound of holding the note, that there is a complete giving away to the activity of chanting. The sound rises and has a strength to it and we can feel ourselves dissolving into the sound where “I” chanting stops being so important and there is this sound, just the chanting... and then, we can experience the arising of thought, of separation from sound while we’re chanting... we think “I wonder how long we’re going to do this for”, “I wonder if we’re supposed to stop now”, and you hear the unity, the unification of the chanting fall through. This isn’t a bad thing, but what we’re coming to experience firsthand for ourselves is this complete activity, the activity of first arising as a distinct self, “Oh, I’m going to do chanting”. Then with the sound arising, we experience the activity of dissolution or unification in sound. Then, once again we experience the diversification, the arising of self which separates from sound.

This is just one aspect of practice in which we begin to, not just think about, not just understand, not just conceptualize the activity that is this universe, but we begin to experience it, and to gain a more complete view. So, chanting is not about reciting some old scripture, it’s not about worship, it’s not about religiosity... it is about giving ourselves, or pouring ourselves into, or throwing ourselves fully at the activity of unification, and the experience of the complete activity. O.K., so, now I’ve finished talking, and we try another practice...manifesting this activity as walking...

Friday, July 10, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given November 4, 2008

I wanted to talk a little bit this week about commitment. Last week, I feel a little like I came off a bit off a heavy for those of you who were here. I was speaking about difficulty facing the wall in practice-- how we react or how we respond when, as we continue to practice, difficult stuff begins to come up in our meditation or our life. Commitment seems to be something that we struggle with... I don’t know if it’s a modern thing, or if it’s a cultural thing, or if it’s just something that people have always struggled with ... commitment. Whether it’s committing to a course of education or whether it’s committing to a job or whether it’s committing to a spiritual practice or relationship ... it seems like we have a great deal of difficulty committing.

One of the more common conversations that I have with women has to do with the difficulty in extracting commitment from their significant others. We’re always looking for this way that we can sort of have our cake and eat it too. How we can have the good aspects, what we call good aspects, of a relationship or spiritual practice or employment or education without having to commit ourselves, without having to give ourselves fully to what it is that we’re doing.

I feel that I am highly qualified to talk about this, not because of my remarkable ability to commit, but rather because of my remarkable, historical ability to avoid commitment. I was definitely one of the guys that I think my significant other spoke frequently about the difficulty of extracting commitment from me. But I’m not going to get into those stories tonight. Spiritual practice is something that requires us to commit. When we find ourselves engaged in a path, we find early on, particularly with a practice like Zen, that there are some very rapid... quick effects, we start to notice a calming of the mind, we start to notice an improvement in our awareness, the ability to be present in this moment. And then as these changes begin to impact, begin to really take effect, as we begin to distract ourselves less from what’s going on inside of us... as the practice really begins to work this is where we start to struggle. This is where, if we’re going to break, if we’re going to leave, if we’re going to turn away from practice this is the place where we’re going to do it.

It isn’t any different than commitment in other aspects of our lives. Who can’t enjoy relationship in the first couple of months where everything is fresh and new, where everything is a new discovery and a new spell and a new sensation? But then after the newness, after the ornamentation begins to fade into the background, and we begin to see what’s really going on, this is when we break. Whether it’s relationship, or whether it’s employment or whether it’s our course of education or our spiritual practice it doesn’t matter... it’s at this point that we say, `Ohhh, you know, this looks like it’s going to be work, and I think I’d rather do something else'.

So take caution. We have to be wary of this because, just as I was talking about last week, we have this remarkable ability to distract ourselves from what’s going on. We can this culture of so many possible relationships, so many possible jobs, so many possible courses of education or spiritual practices... we have the opportunity to turn something which is aimed at realization, at deepening, at working through what is difficult, into just another distraction. Maybe as we continue to practice we find `Ohh, Zen’s tough ... it’s starting to feel like it’s too much work ... I think maybe I’ll try yoga, that’ll be better. Or maybe I’ll try martial arts, that might work’, but what happens is we start to find that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what it is we choose if it’s authentic practice, whether it’s yoga or whether it’s martial arts or whether it’s a committed relationship, sooner or later we come up against this difficult spot where the shininess isn’t functioning anymore and it requires us to make an effort, to engage.

My point, I guess, is that this difficulty, this struggle that we face each time we cut through the honeymoon isn’t dependant on the activity that we’re doing, it’s not because of the relationship, it’s not because of the job, it’s not because of the courses that you’re taking or the spiritual practice that you’re doing. It is rooted in how we hold our self. It’s the bag that we pick up and carry around with us wherever we go. So it doesn’t matter if you quit doing this practice and it doesn’t matter if you break-up that relationship or quit this job or decide to move to a whole different course of study or different school. No matter where you choose to sit, no matter where you choose to practice, no matter who you choose to spend time with it’s always going to involve YOU. There’s a great Bob Marley song `You’re running, and you’re running, and you’re running away... but you can’t get away from yourself’.

So in Zen practice what we do is we ask you to commit, and there are many different ways that we can practice commitment. It’s in the way that we bow. Do we bow as a function of fulfilling what’s expected of us, because we have to bow, kind of dip our head, or do we understand that in this moment what is called for is bowing? Do we turn into the moment and give ourselves completely to the activity of bowing, dying into the activity of bowing? Nothing else to do... nowhere else to go...we begin here in Zen practice. Each moment, each breath that we experience in practice offers us an opportunity to die, to stop running, to stop looking for the next way of getting away from ourselves, avoiding what’s going on. It offers us an opportunity to commit.

Zen practice, I think, is a very steep wall because there isn’t a lot of allowance for half measures. In the formal discipline we ask for commitment. If you don’t want to commit that’s o.k. but you shouldn’t practice then, you should go do something else. Find something else that you can commit to... if you’re going to commit to practice we ask for full commitment. Give yourself to practice fully without hesitation. People start to think ‘what’s this guy asking us to commit to ... what is it that we’re being asked to do?’

This practice is about living your life. This practice is about not being distracted by thinking, reminiscing about the past or dreaming about the future. It’s about committing to the activity of this moment...committing to the activity of arising in this moment...being born together with everything else in this vast universe, in this moment. It’s committing to letting go...completely allowing all things to disappear. It’s committing to experiencing ourselves as not separate, not experiencing ourselves as one with all things in this vast universe.

Commitment is frightening. For most of us, when we’re confronted in such a face to face way with a request or demand for commitment, our general approach is to immediately run in the opposite direction. But when it comes to practice, and for that matter, when it comes to life...when it comes to our relationships...when it comes to our work...when it comes to our education...each moment offers us the opportunity to commit. To commit to what’s going on in the moment that is unfolding before us, to commit to the activity of this moment which, as I say over and over again, is the content of our lives.

We keep running...we keep trying to avoid that which is difficult that arises in this moment. But all we’re doing is running from ourselves... running from our own life... running from what’s happening right now. In the first koan of the Mumonkan, which is a collection of teachings in our tradition, in the comments there’s a statement that if you are unable to break through this barrier, if you’re unable to commit to what’s happening in this moment, then you’re condemned ‘to live like a ghost, clinging to bushes and weeds’...looking for comfort, looking for shelter, looking for distraction and this and that...a half person.

So, what I want for all of you, what I want for everybody, is for you to give rise to the courage to meet the commitment of your life. Stop running around trying to get away from yourself. In the studies that you’re engaged in, focus! Commit! In the work that you spend your time with, commit! Stop looking around! In the relationships that you’re using your life doing, commit! In your spiritual practice, commit!

If you’re in a situation, whether it’s your spiritual practice, whether it’s your relationship, whether it’s your job, whether it’s your school and after serious consideration you just don’t feel like you can commit, then get out! Find something that you can commit to!

There’s another saying in our tradition, it’s a verse that’s often said. ‘Birth and death is the great matter. Time passes us by us swiftly, and the opportunity to realize is lost. We must strive to awaken... AWAKEN! LISTEN UP! Don’t waste your life!’ If you’re engaged in something, whether it’s work, or school, or relationship, or practice and you’re not committed, you’re just burning the candle for no reason. Get in, or get out!