Saturday, November 28, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday November 24, 2009. To hear the podcast of this talk, click HERE.

Eshu is giving a Dharma talk in the third sit. Radical! Ah, what a great opportunity! Thank you all for your patience. I sometimes am thinking, “Oh, Brad Warner was here last week, I’ve really got to say something good this week, really impress people, what am I going to talk about? No idea… and then all of a sudden, situations… circumstances arise, and like magic a talk is delivered. Mmm.

So tonight we have this situation where – you know, we say, “Oh, people should arrive at 6:45 so they can receive an orientation”…and then, a few minutes after seven, somebody arrived – Ah! What to do? We find our preferences rise up. And we say, “Damn, I was just starting to get into my sit and here comes a bloody newcomer, ah man, I have to go help this person. Aw.”

Practice is a really hard thing. We live in a culture that really encourages us to not spend time doing practices like this, to not spend any time looking within, looking at ourselves, looking at how we relate to the world around us. It encourages us and offers us all kinds of opportunities to distract ourselves, to make ourselves happy by grasping at other things. You know, “watch this” and “do that”, and “eat this” and “drink that”, and “smoke this”, and “screw that”, and it’ll all make you happy.

But sooner or later, for most of us – well for many of us, at least for some of us who have arrived here, it comes to a point that we say, “well maybe we ought to do something else. Maybe the resolution or the solution to our difficulties doesn't lie out there, doesn't rely on us grasping things that we take as being out there and trying to bring them inside.” We start to say, “Maybe I just need to look at why it is that I'm having difficulty”.

So when I see somebody come in the door, even if they're a little bit late, I jump up and I say, “Oh geez, here’s somebody who in spite of all the money and all the effort and all the myriad opportunities that are being thrown at them to pursue their happiness in external objects, here’s a person that's got up and made an effort to go and sit and look at the floor in the zendo for an evening”. So all the sort of ‘self’ stuff, all the “Oh, but I’m just sitting”, “Oh, how am I going to figure out what I’m going to talk about”, all “me”, kind of drops away. And I go “Oh, shit, I’ve got to go talk to that person and help them establish this practice”.

And this is really strange sometimes, I think, for people who sit with me, students of the Victoria Zen Centre, because I'm also the person that will close the door on a Zen student who’s five minutes late for a sit – “No, you can’t come in!” This is a different situation. And I hope – I don’t want to go on for too long about this but I hope for the members that you can understand…that you can grasp the difference in these two situations. One, the situation of a person who has committed to training, the other, a person who is curiously making their first step. Their first step to investigate what it is that brings us to suffer.

On the weekend during the zazenkai – once a month we have this crazy thing called zazenkai. It’s a one day intensive. We sit from six in the morning until five in the evening and the whole day is an immersion in formal Zen practice. And this weekend we had a guest teacher, Brad Warner. Brad spoke a little bit about anger and I wanted to bring up one particular aspect that he spoke about because I think it's something that goes far beyond anger. Anger, in my opinion, is – is one manifestation of suffering. Something that brings us to suffer. And what Brad was talking about is something that I think is really at the root of so much of how we suffer, whether it's anger or whether it's grief or whether it's self doubt.

Even – physical pain – which, you know, giving me the opportunity to speak in the third set provides an ample opportunity for us to experience this physical pain. And this is the gap that comes up between what we figure things ought to be like and our experience of them as they are. So I wanted to talk a little bit about the difference that we have between our experience of pain, difficulty, and what we can recognize as suffering.

Now the members – several of the members of the Victoria Zen Centre are headed towards sesshin. Sesshin is something that we do twice a year here in Victoria and it's a five-day intensive where we go from four in the morning until around nine-thirty at night. During this we have lots of opportunity to investigate pain and suffering. And usually when we talk about pain and suffering they’re synonymous, they’re the same thing. And what I want to talk about tonight is how we can understand them as being different, and that by clearly recognizing these two things – pain or discomfort, and suffering – as being not the same, as being different, I think it's an important window into practice.

Buddhism is focused at liberation from suffering. And I think that this is a really important thing to understand. Because when we come into Zen or Buddhism, we can think, “Oh, I’m going to be free from suffering, and that means that I'm never going to be uncomfortable again”, or “I'm never going to have anger again”, or “I'm never going to have grief again”, or “I’m never going to have self-doubt again”.

So I’d like to talk about this from a physical perspective, because it’s something – form, our bodies, are something that we can really look at quite easily. In our day-to-day activities we can understand, we can experience this, and we can experiment with it a little bit. When we’re sitting – you know, I think the most common places that we have pain is in our knees and in our back. And as we go through our lives we’ll have all kind – we’ll slam our fingers in doors, and all kinds of stuff. And when we do this what I want you to do is investigate that and look at the experience of it.

When pain arises in the body we become aware of it as a physical sensation. As the first sort of layer of awareness is just this general awareness, this sort of tingling experience. Just as when – if we close our eyes for a second, just sort of allow ourselves to relax, and then we suddenly pop our eyes open, the first thing that hits our eyes is light, color. And then there's layers that sort of pile on top of these experiences. We start to recognize shape, movement. We start to identify and name, compare, contrast. And then we start to judge, we start to discriminate between things.

And the same goes with physical sensation. When we first become aware of physical sensation there's no assessment, there is no comparison, there is not even a real clear identification of it. There’s just this awareness. Then as we start to investigate it more, as we start to think on it more, we begin to identify it– is that a tickle, or is that an ache? Is that an acute, sharp pain or is that a low frequency kind of a numbness that’s going on? We start to make these kinds of assessments.

And then beyond that we begin to judge. We begin to make value assessments. We begin to say “Pain. Oh, that’s pain. Pain is bad. I don't like pain”. And still we haven't entered into the round of suffering. This is just still this very physical experience, this experience of the faculty of form, physical sensation.

Suffering enters into it when we say, “This is what I'm experiencing and it should be otherwise”. We’re sitting there feeling pain in our legs and our expectation of the situation is that we should be comfortable, is that we should be free from difficulty, is that we should be at ease and away from pain. And the degree to which we fixate on that idea, that we fixate on that expectation, freedom from difficulty, freedom from pain – and its distance from our experience – is the degree to which we suffer.

And so it's the same when we are in a relationship, when we have a work situation, in our environment that we're in. If we're hot, we’re really hot. This is a great one if we're in a hot climate in California or something like that, it’s really hot. If your expectation is to be cool but you're hot, it's suffering, it’s miserable. “God, it’s humid, God, it’s hot, this is terrible”.

And you can also experience, you can practice this… breathing and letting go of our expectation, our assumption for things to be other than they our. Melting into the experience of heat. And we find that in a moment – and usually, only for a moment – the experience of suffering disappears. Haaaa [breathes out]. And then we separate again. We say, “But wait! I should be cool!” And the experience of that suffering comes up again.

And it’s the same with the physical body as we do zazen, as we're sitting for longer periods of time. If we practice, if we investigate this experience, we can find that as we let go of the expectation for things to be otherwise, as we let go of the anticipation of the bell, waiting for the period to end, we find that we can feel our legs, yeah, they’re sore. But that's it. There is no suffering attached.

We find that if we are in relationship and we can, even for a moment, let go of our expectation of what the other should be or should do or should say and just completely embraced or witness what it is that they’re doing or saying or being at that moment, then this suffering is diminished.

This is a difficult, difficult practice. It’s something that we engage in over and over again in formal Zen practice. We expect the bell to ring here, we expect so-and-so to walk there, and our practice is to investigate it, in the form of practice. Because what we find over and over again is that that expectation that we have, the way that we bind ourselves to an assumed or expected outcome, is not different inside formal practice as it is outside formal practice.

We have the opportunity to experience letting go into things as they are. The opportunity to embrace and become intimate with this moment as it is in our life. To let go of what things ought to be and for a moment experience our lives as they are. In doing so, to be free from suffering.

Having gained insight into this practice, having met with our expectations, having found ourselves stuck and attached to them and practicing haaaa [breathes out], just letting go, dissolving into things as they are, as we go forward into our lives we are encouraged and have some practical experiential basis to go forward into our relationships and into our work, and to do the same practice.

When we find ourselves getting tied up by what we expect, how we think things ought to be, we can remind ourselves, “Ah, this is no different. Breathe. Let go into it. Allow the suffering to drop away and to experience our lives just as they are”.

Yeah, OK [laughs]. Enough experiencing pain and suffering.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday November 10, 2009. To listen to this talk on a podcast click here.

Tonight I'd like to talk about faith. Faith is a word that comes up occasionally – we might find it in some of the sutras that we chant – and I think it's a really a loaded word for many people, particularly people who are exploring a practice like Buddhism. Faith has a particular meaning for many people and for many people, including myself, the meaning of faith was blind faith.

My personal story I think is, thanks to the marvels of the Internet, becoming a little bit better known to the people who are coming to practice here. A lot of people know that when I was a child I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition. A lot of people know that when I was nine, my mother had a stroke and was unconscious for a couple of weeks during which time I did a lot of praying, beseeching, for my mother to be okay, for my mother to come back to me. And that – a lot of people know my mother didn't come back. She in fact died. And a lot of people know that for many years of my teenage years I was very angry about it. That I quite repetitively, quite loudly, shouted from the mountain tops that religion was a waste of time. There was no solace, there was no comfort, there was no function or meaningful purpose in religion. Faith was the practice of fools. So to be here sitting here talking about faith is a very strange place for me.

For me this strangeness began – the realization of strangeness began one time when I was – after I had been ordained as a monk, I was the Jikijitsu, which is the role that Nori is playing, ringing the bells and offering incense – at the main Temple in Los Angeles. And there was an assembly of – I don't know, sixty or seventy people – and I was up there making the incense offering with a shaved head and robes on, bowing in front of this altar, and the thought arose in me, “Wow, this is really religious, how did I get here?”

Faith as I have experienced it in practice, Zen practice, couldn't be farther from how I understood faith before in my life. Faith, however, is a crucial aspect of this practice and there is no getting around it. Faith, however, in Buddhism, is faith in what? It is not faith in some external super-being; it is not faith in things that we cannot see or feel or experience. Faith in the Buddha's first statement, “Wonder of wonders, fundamentally we are all awake but we don't realize it” – this is the first article of faith in Buddhism, I guess you could call it. That we have as our capacity awakening. We have as our very nature unification with all things. We have as our birthright limitless potential.

Now as I talk about this, I think that it's very easy for us to sit around and say, “Huh, I can believe in that. That sounds so much better than all this other crap I hear. I have limitless potential, yeah, I dig that”. But to have faith, from the perspective of Buddhism, is not blind faith. It’s not just belief. It's not just, “Oh, that sounds good”, or “That sounds better than the alternative”. It is gaining experiential insight into that. Realizing it for ourselves. And from the perspective of Zen, there is no acceptable alternative to experience.

The Buddha, in fact, very clearly in the Kalama Sutra talks about this. Don’t believe things that you've been told. Don’t believe things just because they’re tradition. Don’t believe things just because that's the way that things have been done. We have to investigate them. We have to grind them through ourselves in every thought, in every fiber of our beings, to ruthlessly investigate the experience of this moment. What is this? Ah……

So, this aspect, to us heretics, to us nonbelievers – “Now that sounds good! Now we’re getting somewhere! I have as my potential limitless awakening, and I don't need to believe anything without experiencing it first. Wonderful.”

Now, the third aspect of this, or the other corner, is where we run into trouble. This third aspect is also the reason that I found myself shaven-headed and dressed in robes, bowing before a butsudan, offering incense. The third aspect is the aspect of responsibility. We are asked to investigate this practice. We’re asked to investigate the nature of this experience of this moment just as it is. We're asked to investigate the innumerable teachings that we come across in our lives. We are asked to be honest about them, honest about our experience, honest about our insight. Being honest about what it is that we’ve experienced, we have to accept the responsibility to change our lives, to move into harmony with the wisdom that arises out of our practice, out of our experience. That’s the difficult part.

We can enter into a practice with all kinds of ideas about what it is that we need to get, what it is that we should be seeing, what it is that we should be experiencing, what it is that we don't need or don't want. But as we practice, we will meet this moment. We will awaken. We will develop insight in experience of the activity of this moment. And sometimes it is other than what we expected. Sometimes we find our mouths gaping open with what we've seen. Sometimes we experience the vastness of our true nature and it shatters who it was we thought we were.

And we're faced with a choice. We can try to pretend that it never happened. We can try to pretend that we haven't seen the things that we've seen. We can try to pretend that we don't know what has been revealed in practice. Oh, but this is a miserable path. We will find ourselves going to greater and greater ends to try and cover up what it is that we've experienced. To great ends to distract ourself from our own faith. Or, we find ourselves embracing the path. Embracing what it is that has been revealed, what it is that we’ve awoken to. Accepting the responsibility for our own faith. Not a faith born out of ideas, but faith borne out of experience.

For me in my practice, thankfully I was never asked to make any kind of leap of faith. I was never asked to believe in something that I couldn't first experience. I was asked to just do the next step, grasp it, look at it, investigate it, take it apart. Having gained insight into what it was that I was experiencing, my responsibility was to take the next step. That’s it. Just as when we walk we proceed one foot in front of the other.

For me, this path led me to standing before this butsudan as a monk. This path has led me to guiding the practice of the [Victoria Zen] Centre, being in relationship with people who are engaged in practice. It isn't something that I had some great plan about, but rather just a matter of following one foot in front of the other, where my faith led.

So when you come to practice here, you will never be asked to believe something. You already possess all the wisdom you will ever possess. You already possess all the wisdom that there is. The only thing that you will be asked to do is to trust it, to awaken to it, to live by it. And I can tell you that doing that is far scarier than just having blind faith. To do that is difficult. This is why we come together as a community. To support one another to live not out of our thoughts, not out of our concepts, but out of our experience, out of our own awakening.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Hello all,

Recently I was interviewed by Adam Tebbe of the Sweeping Zen website. The complete transcript can be found HERE.