Everything is All Right

For Al Tribe

A fundamental tenet of Buddhism (and science) is that nothing can be lost from the world: life and death are one continuous flow of form into other forms. In our blood are minerals that once were rock, observed poet Lorine Niedecker. Rock and water flow in our veins, and we flow back into them. We know this much. Which makes birth and death opposites — the entering and escaping of life from a given form. But life and death aren’t opposites; they’re partners in an infinite dance. Death is the means by which life renews itself.

Despite this understanding, when someone we love dies, we experience a hole in the world through which something beyond value has slipped away. Life feels utterly changed, and we know it will remain so. And yet life doesn’t pause in deference to our loss, but proceeds with seeming indifference.

Poet W.H. Auden wrote about the death of Icarus:

“…the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

This is the sadness and the beauty of life — that it sails on, with and without those we love, with and without us. The sun shines because it has to. This is all that life knows how to do, the never-ending to which its ingenuity is devoted: it goes on.

Even in the thickest beginning of our grief, there are moments when we forget our loss. Then the memory breaks over us, and we’re shocked anew, and remorseful for having forgotten even for a second…for having sailed on. Death is harder on the living than the dead, because we have to continue. We think of questions we want to ask, jokes we want to share. We have long conversations with our memories and our imaginings.

Some Buddhist monks meditate in charnel grounds. This is a way of holding death where it belongs: in front of our eyes, all the time. Because we would live our days differently if we lived them intimate with this reality, rather than in virtual denial of it. Of course, we know we’re going to die. But we think of death as something that will happen sometime. And we think of sometime as a time removed from now. This fallacy enables us to be petty, to waste life, to obsess about things we know don’t matter, and to take for granted ones we love.

If we felt in our bones that we could die at any moment, which is the truth, how would we live? If we knew that each meal might be our final one, would we taste it more? If we thought that this day could really be our last, or another’s last, what would we say to them? How would we behave in the world?

There is a ground that is neither denial nor despair. It’s a middle path not halfway between those extremes, but beyond both: a way that embraces life-and-death as one, a practice that Pico Iyer describes as “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.”

My friend Al Tribe was, among many attributes and qualities, a Zen priest, psychiatrist, and deeply loving man. For about two years we met once or twice a month on Thursday afternoons at the same coffee shop. During one of these conversations we discussed enlightenment, which now seems odd because it’s not something I think about much. Maybe I was testing him; I tend to be skeptical about dwelling on enlightenment. Anyway, Al wrote his understanding and experience of the word on the back of the receipt for our lunch. It read, “EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT.”

For nearly a year, the receipt sat on my altar. Al died just before Rohatsu, the first week of December, dedicated in the Buddhist world to silent meditation in honor of Buddha’s enlightenment. In the middle of this meditation, I visited his family, taking a copy of the receipt for his wife. I worried whether it was too soon for that particular message, but it was the only one I had in his handwriting. It turned out to be all right.

This is just to say I miss you, Al. And I wonder — even on days of least light, is it conceivable to feel that everything is all right?




A Fierce Egalitarianism


“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.”

— John Maynard Keynes, 1930


Writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, Keynes was optimistic that when economic conditions improved so that people had enough money to live, their values would shift accordingly. Material acquisitiveness would cease to be a virtue; success would no longer be synonymous with a person’s “net worth” — a curious expression: net of what?

Clearly Keynes’s hopes have gone unfulfilled. If anything, American society is more hag-ridden than ever by pseudo-moral principles like Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good.” Or the belief that people who are poor don’t deserve help because their poverty is their fault — they’re lazy or stupid or otherwise unfit to live in a society in which capitalism has been neatly translated into social Darwinism.

Life itself has become a commodity of conspicuous consumption, advertised via social media: “Look where I am! Look how much fun I’m having!” Young people who never knew a world before cell phones and the internet learn to value themselves according to the currencies of Instagram and Facebook, by “Likes” and “Followers.” Some of our contemporary values aren’t just morally questionable; they’re downright creepy. Time was, only aspiring dictators and cult leaders needed followers.

Northern California is an especially strange land these days — recently awarded the distinction of being the most expensive place in the nation to live, yet every day I walk around people sleeping on sidewalks. Communities live beneath overpasses and bridges blocks away from one-bedroom apartments renting for $3,000 a month.

While versions of this scene play out in cities across America, I find it especially morally painful in this region dominated by the “high” technology industry, which proclaims its supposed mission to “make the world better” from shiny billboards along the freeways while quietly displacing entire urban populations beneath them, creating masses of domestic refugees. From the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, Silicon Valley’s “better world” looks a lot like highway robbery.

Our government has been timorous about restraining the monopolistic practices and profits of what European anti-trust officials call “GAFA”: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Because in this country, capitalism is our abiding religion. From Wall Street to health insurers and pharmaceutical companies, our economic and legal system privileges corporations over people, rich over poor. We still consider ourselves the most “advanced” country in the world, despite decades of statistics to the contrary in areas such as healthcare, public safety, education, and happiness.

John Lanchester’s recent New Yorker article, “How Civilization Started: Was It Even a Good Idea?” cites anthropologists, political scientists, and economists whose work suggests that in many ways “civilization” has made us both less happy and less civilized than the people we think of as our “savage” ancestors.

Lanchester quotes anthropologist James Suzman about the Bushmen of the Kalahari: “The sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

From here, it’s hard to imagine a world where material inequality is not tolerated. Here, we live in a zero sum game: for one person to succeed, many others must fail. Here and now, inequality is not merely tolerated; it’s venerated. It’s our measure of success, not failure. What happened on the way to civilization?

In some ways, says Lanchester, “It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took [a Bushman] only about 17 hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another 19 hours were spent on domestic activities.” The hunter-gatherers averaged 2,300 calories a day, slightly over our recommended amount, though short of what we need to maintain our obesity epidemic.

At the time of the study, the average American week required 40 hours of paid work and 36 hours of domestic labor. Despite our modern, time-saving conveniences, we somehow enjoyed half as much leisure as the Bushmen. Because we had to pay for the conveniences. And pay not just enough to cover the cost of their production or a living for their inventors, but enough to make companies and their owners rich. Henry David Thoreau defined the cost of a thing as the “amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Some of the principles that distinguish the Bushmen’s society from ours are: “[They] do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, then stop. They exhibit…an unyielding confidence’ that their environment will provide for their needs.” And above all, they share, with fierce egalitarianism.

When was the last time we ate or bought simply what we needed, and then stopped? I think it’s become difficult for us to recognize when our needs are satisfied because we’ve been sold on packing all kinds of desires into our idea of need. And as the Buddha observed, desires are inexhaustible. So we suffer a constant state of imaginary scarcity which feels so real to us that we can’t stop worrying, acquiring, or hoarding.

We have no faith whatsoever in our environment to provide what we need, and how could we? Because our society doesn’t value sharing; we prize competition instead. Such competition is supposed to be good for us, motivating us to create better products and thus better lives. Has our great American experiment in free-range capitalism proven its hypothesis? Has it made better, happier lives for our majority?

In a chapter titled, “Mistaking Technological Advancement for Human Transformation,” Kodo Sawaki (Homeless Kodo) wondered half a century ago, “Advancement is the talk of the world, but in what direction are we advancing?”


1826 into 1926, Charles Howard



Jumping Fences


“Free your mind and your ass will follow.” — George Clinton


I once lived with a husky puppy in a house with a picket fence. As he grew, he displayed the independence typical of his breed, and an impressive way of leaping vertically into the air before pouncing on things visible only to him.

One day I looked at him, curled under a tree next to the fence, and saw that he was actually big enough to clear the fence easily, and had been for a while. I worried about whether we needed to build a taller fence. But then I realized that he’d learned a long time ago that he couldn’t jump this fence, and had long ago stopped trying. He didn’t know that things had changed — that he had changed. His early relationship with the fence (I can’t get past this) functioned like a spell, keeping him in place, frozen in time and space. And I thought, this is how it happens to all of us.

We grow up in an enchanted forest of the mind whose scenery changes slowly, if at all. And often we continue to live under the spells cast by our childhood and culture without ever recognizing them, or realizing the extent to which our feelings and actions are driven by them, or noticing their surreal ability to remain unaltered while everything around them changes.

Buddhism sometimes talks about enlightenment as “waking from a dream,” or life itself as a dream, which would presumably make death the awakening. (This is how Shakyamuni Buddha’s death is described — as passing from life into nirvana.) In our everyday lives, we assume that we wake from dreams into reality. But reality isn’t the single, universal entity we like to imagine. We’re always living in a unique construction of reality: ours. This reality is colored by our karma — our experiences and actions, our thoughts and feelings, and all the spells we haven’t unravelled.

These spells are simply conditioning that has led to fixed habits of mind. Such conditioning includes ideas about who we are and how the world is. It arose in response to a particular environment, a specific time and place, but it doesn’t recognize or adapt to changes in that environment.

Buddhism tells us there’s no self, which means no fixed, unchanging self separate from everything that surrounds and pervades us. The true self is co-created in each moment by everything around us, and changes moment to moment in collaboration with myriad causes and conditions. This self is interdependent on everything, and remarkably flexible. It responds freshly to each new constellation of circumstances.

Yet it’s much easier for us to identify with a false self. We feel more comfortable with an idea of self that is a certain way: constant and discrete. This self is perhaps the way we think we should be. Or who we were told we were — how we experienced ourselves and the world when the spells were cast and time stopped. It’s this false idea of self that imprisons us in a realm where the deepest things never change, because we don’t let them. If we think we know exactly who we are, and if that conception hasn’t changed in a long while, then it’s time to get curious.

The past happened, though not necessarily as we remember it. We’ve been conditioned to think in certain ways, but we’re free to teach ourselves to think in others. And what we think can change our reality. Imagination is our ally in this unweaving of spells, in the creation of fresh perspectives on ourselves and our world. It’s not easy to re-imagine a self or a life; it takes practice and perseverance, because our minds tend to follow well-worn tracks of thought and feeling. We have to bushwhack new trails without knowing where they’ll take us.

Maybe we start by simply having a look around, inside and outside, scanning for what’s different, noticing what’s changed. Don’t be the scientist whose attachment to her hypothesis is so strong that it blinds her to contradictory evidence. Contemporary scientific understanding of the neuroplasticity of our brains is beginning to catch up with a spiritual insight more than two thousand years old: karma can be transformed; spells can be broken. Fences that have been standing for years can be cleared in one good leap.






Believing All the Way

One of the hardest things to do is believe in something all the way. This is true of reality, religion, life, relationships, and alternative medical treatments. Many things are partly true, with their opposites often equally true. Most human motivations are dazzlingly mixed.

Choosing things and people to believe in is a dicey business — one conducted largely unconsciously, in realms where we’re easily misled by our habit-bound ways of perceiving and thinking about the world, our fears and desires. To believe in something freely and accurately, you first have to see it clearly, and that is nearly impossible for us to do.

We see things through the filter of who we are, which means we see them partially and with prejudice. There is no other way for us to see them. This is why Uchiyama Roshi observed that when a person dies, an entire world dies with her: the unique world construed by that person, believed in by her.

I’m thinking now of a particular kind of belief — faith. To me, faith is not imperviousness to “the facts,” those elusive entities more often cited than proved. Faith is a decision in the absence of conclusive evidence. This poverty of proof is our usual circumstance, with the things that matter most to us often least susceptible to being proven.

How we cope with the unknown that is our lives, which beliefs we choose, exert great influence over our experience: what happens to us and how we feel about it. We know of the placebo effect, when faith in a treatment makes it work. Such faith is powerful and common enough to pose a challenge to find drugs that outperform it. Its opposite, the nocebo effect, is equally powerful, although its mechanisms are less well understood medically.

Carl Jung wrote that when one finds oneself with a question whose answer cannot be proven one way or the other, one should select whichever belief is most helpful. Advice both pragmatic and idealistic, one of my favorite combinations.

The time to believe in something all the way is for as long as you’re doing it. Or living it or loving it. If what you do, live, or love turns out to be unhelpful, you can always change your beliefs and actions based on your experience — something we’d benefit from doing more often. But hedging faith hinders the unknown’s ability to help, and to prove itself. The only way to give an unknown a fair chance is to believe in it with all your heart.


The Business of Life

“The most solid comfort is the thought that the business of one’s life is to help in some small way to reduce the sum of…degradation and misery on the face of this beautiful earth.” — Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)

The business of one’s life is a very businesslike expression. To me it suggests the way I spend most of my time: dealing with practical necessities like doctors’ appointments, medical bureaucracy, car repairs, meal planning, ensuring a sufficient supply of toilet paper, etc., etc.

Business could also be interpreted as one’s principal employment or job — in my case, zen priest. Here I would seem to be on solid ground with Evans’ statement: one could say the vow and activity of a zen priest is to help reduce the sum of misery in this beautiful world. But that’s not what I spend the lion’s share of my time and energy doing; it’s a mere fraction of both, the remainder I allow myself after everything else has been done. There’s the vow, and there’s the To Do list — notice which is in capital letters.

One of the most radical decisions we make is how to spend our time — which things we prioritize with lists and deadlines and capital letters. Reducing the sum of misery doesn’t usually make the to-do list (which can at least typographically be cut down to size). Why not? Maybe it’s too hard to check off? Does it meet the SMART criteria of goal-setting: specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, time-based? Reducing the sum of misery as written isn’t specific or measurable, but it can be made so with little effort, and in myriad ways. And some have used significant and meaningful, rather than specific and measurable, as the first two SMART criteria. Furthermore, what about the possibility inherent in “dumb” goals? Goals that are outsized, immeasurable by current methods, perhaps impossible, unreasonable, and lengthy? Are these goals not worth aiming at? We wouldn’t have many of history’s innovations if someone hadn’t been stupid enough to try them, and keep trying past the point of all reason.

One of the things that bothers me most is when I lose track of what matters, when it gets buried by things that I’ve thoughtlessly imbued with a false sense of urgency. Yes, the car must be fixed and the laundry done. But maybe those tasks could be interspersed with some attempts at misery-reducing, instead of relegating the real work, the central vow of my life, to the time that’s left over after the inbox is clear.

Because that time doesn’t exist. The inbox will never be clear; we know that for the cherished delusion it is. As long as we’re alive, life generates things that must be done. Even after we die, our lives continue to create things that must be done, except that someone else has to do them. But every moment we’re alive, we’re deciding what’s most pressing on that list or in that box. Yet the biggest, most important things live outside such containers, because they’re things we don’t know how to write down, or don’t think we have to. 1) Pay attention to the people I love…Check!  2) Enjoy this fleeting life…Check!

When one of the people I love left for work this morning, I was attempting to muster the energy for a day of extricating the truth from insurance agents, checking legal documents, doing laundry, retrieving prescriptions, and visiting the doctor. As Chris walked out the door, he called down the hall, “Write something — that’s the most important thing.”

Knowing in a given moment what’s the most important thing is one of life’s greatest challenges, its constant koan. The moments add up quickly, and no one wants to get to the end of them and realize we were in the wrong business the whole time.

What’s the business of your life? Are you busy doing it?




My teacher, Shohaku Okumura, was supporting his zazen and translation work with traditional Buddhist begging practice (takuhatsu) on the streets of Osaka when a boy, about 10 years old, came up to him as he stood in his robes, holding out his bowl, and said, “You want money, don’t you?”

Okumura Roshi said he didn’t know how to answer the boy’s question, and it became a kind of koan for him. It was true he wanted money to support his priest’s work, but if money were his real object, there were much easier and more effective ways of making it than begging.

He also said he found it so moving that people put money in his bowl without knowing anything about him at all, except that he was a Buddhist priest: they had faith in his practice, in his life’s work and its value. His gratitude led him to constantly question his practice and whether he deserved the unconditional support he was given.

In this country, zen priests have no regular practice of takuhatsu, and we have to figure out how to support ourselves in a culture whose mainstream doesn’t particularly value what we do, no matter how many products are bought and sold with the word “zen”; the real religion of this country is capitalism.

When I practiced at my teacher’s temple, we had a five-day sesshin or retreat every month, plus zazen starting at 5 a.m., so it wasn’t possible to hold a regular job and follow the temple schedule. I supported myself by teaching English to foreign students at the university. Since most were East Asian, they understood when I had to take a week off each month to work and practice at the temple.

Many of the priests and other full-time practitioners visited a local food bank once a week. This organization wasn’t government sponsored, so it hadn’t erected huge bureaucratic obstacles to receiving food; you simply had to sign a paper attesting that you earned less than a certain amount, or needed help for other reasons such as illness.

It took me a long time to show up at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. I had been encouraged to be very independent since childhood. I was embarrassed to need help. I didn’t think I deserved it, because I had made a choice that resulted in being poor, rather than having been forced into poverty by circumstance. I saw families waiting on line and felt guilty.

But eventually I realized someone had to do this job. Someone had to commit her life to being a zen priest, to manifesting the truth, to a different object of devotion than money. And I reasoned that I was a fair candidate for this calling, because the things I had to give up (having children, professional prestige, expensive possessions, financial security) cost me something, but they didn’t cost me what they would cost someone else. And because I trusted I could be a good priest someday.

After some weeks of standing in line for food, my doubt and embarrassment gave way to something else: an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Like my teacher, I was humbled by the fact that this community organization gave me food without knowing anything about me except that I needed it, and supported my practice without benefitting from it. Picking up my food each week became an exercise in thankfulness, and whenever I cooked or ate, I asked myself whether my practice was worthy of the food that nourished it.

My second experience of takuhatsu in America is the online medical fundraiser that an already very busy friend organized for me last week to help with the expenses of my Lyme disease treatment. She first proposed this a year ago, but my need had to overcome my resistance. I’m reluctant to ask for assistance even with small things like lifting a suitcase down from the overhead bin of a plane. Although I’m very grateful for the financial help my parents and my closest friend have given me while I’ve been sick, it’s also a challenge to accept even from them.

Widening this circle represents deep vulnerability, possible feelings of disappointment and rejection, and the perhaps even more threatening possibility of actually being helped, which again raises the question: Do I deserve this? Do I deserve it because I’m a zen priest? An ostensibly “good person”? Or simply a sick person who needs a little more help?

I told my dear friend that regardless of the outcome, this fundraiser would be good practice for me, and it has been: a roller coaster of feeling small and naked, loved and forgotten, embarrassed and deeply grateful. And always questioning.

If you’d like to have a look, here it is: https://www.youcaring.com/mollydelightwhitehead-823283. Please share it with anyone you think might want to help.

With my heart in my bowl, thank you.



Beginner’s Mind, 20 Years Later


Toilet, Point Reyes

I’ve been practicing zen for two decades now, and in honor of this anniversary, I wanted to write about how I got started. I used to do black-and-white photography and built a darkroom in my house. A photographer friend came over sometimes to use the darkroom, and he talked about Tassajara, where he had helped build the new bathhouses. He thought I’d like it there, and lent me Suzuki Roshi’s classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which, in the true spirit of the title, I could hardly make sense of. But I liked it. This is one of my favorite things: that although I’m always trying to understand everything, I can still like, and even love, things I don’t understand.

After months of ignoring my friend’s advice to visit Tassajara, I finally signed up for five days of their spring work period. I was taken by the sound of the creek outside my window, the kerosene lanterns, the wood architecture, the quiet, and the zendo, especially its faint but lingering fragrance of incense. Although I was seduced by all this beauty, what made the deepest impression on me was an experience that the beauty made possible.

My work assignment was painting cabin interiors white. I took considerable pleasure in this way to make things look fresh without actually having to clean them, like snowfall in a city. The work leader stopped by occasionally to see if I needed anything, but she never seemed to be checking my work, how well or quickly I was progressing. I so appreciated her trust in me, in my unsupervised diligence, that I felt a need to justify it, and I began to set goals; I’d finish this much by lunch, that much by teatime. I started making these commitments to her when she came by.

After a while, I noticed that I wasn’t enjoying painting anymore. Instead, I was feeling stressed. The work had become only about finishing. In the quiet spaciousness of that environment, I saw that the pressure I was feeling hadn’t come from outside — the work leader had made no demands. My stress was completely self-imposed. I had created it out of a need to prove myself worthy of what had already been given. And in doing so, I’d switched my attention from what I was doing to how well (quickly) I was doing it, thereby robbing myself of the joy of the activity itself, the joy of just doing. I wondered how many other pains in life were like this — experienced as arising from external facts, but in reality self-generated.

The desire to see life that clearly and inquire into it that closely was the seed that grew into a twenty-year practice. Since then, I’ve been shown over and over the value of cultivating beginner’s mind in each moment. As I wrote to a friend recently, it’s not simply about keeping an open mind or avoiding arrogance, although those are worth doing. The bottom line is that beginner’s mind is one of the keys to joy.

Teaching English in Japan for several years, I noticed that beginning students were delighted when they could assemble simple sentences. When they couldn’t, they tended to laugh at their mistakes. Either way, they had fun. Which meant that I had fun too. But the more students advanced, the more they hesitated to speak. Because suddenly they weren’t thinking about how to make a sentence; they were worrying about whether to say “a” or “the”.

They were focused less on what they wanted to say than on all the possible mistakes they could make in saying it. They often looked pained. And because they were so reluctant to speak, I probably looked pained too. I kept urging, “Just say something, and then we’ll fix it. If you don’t say anything, I can’t help you.” I realized ruefully that the students who most exasperated me were the ones most like me.

In contrast, I had a private student who was an unusual guy in many respects. He owned his own travel agency, called Gump Travel because he’d loved the movie. He adopted stray dogs, which was rarely done in Japan. And he persisted in practicing English every week for years although his grammar was beginner’s level and never improved, and he knew it. But he had an ardent curiosity and desire to communicate, and our conversations ranged widely, encompassing complex and controversial subjects. I was amazed that he never failed to understand me, nor I him.

I won’t say that doing things well doesn’t matter, because it does. And to do things well, we usually have to employ our faculties of discrimination, of recognizing and caring about differences in quality. But the moment you notice that you’ve stopped enjoying something, ask yourself whether expert’s mind has hijacked you — whether you’re too focused on details, mistakes, finishing. To paraphrase a comment about a famous painter, “If he could have drawn better, he wouldn’t have been as great an artist. His energy would have been diverted into finessing the wrong things.”

Expert’s mind has many uses, but it can lead you astray, into finessing things that don’t matter at the cost of what does. And maybe more importantly, expert’s mind limits the expanse of what you can love. Once you’ve tasted freshly ground coffee, it’s harder to enjoy instant.

Long ago, a mechanic advised me that when shopping for a car, you should always drive the smallest, most basic model first. Because you might love it — it might be enough. If it’s not, you can always try the next one up. But if you start with the most luxurious, you’ll never be entirely happy with less. His words still rank as some of the best advice I’ve gotten about life. Desire Management 101.



A Crack in Everything


Wall, Oakland

Recently I’ve been re-learning how to be doshi, the priest who leads service at a zen temple. Re-learning because when I practice on my own, I don’t do service. And because the forms of service vary from temple to temple. So the ones I learned at Tassajara and at my teacher’s temple, Sanshinji, are different from those at my current temple.

I remember a class at San Francisco Zen Center, where students often discussed “the forms” and how much they mattered — when and how we bow, ring a bell, chant certain verses. The visiting speaker was a bishop of the Pure Land school. When someone asked about the forms — i.e., do we really have to do these things the way they supposedly did them in Japan in the 13th century? — he said, “Well, first you have to remember that someone made all this up.”

Somehow this simple and obvious statement triggered an explosion in my mind that still reverberates today. Like many other students, I’d been trying very hard to get the forms “right,” while wondering why exactly it mattered to do so. I’d noticed senior teachers flash angry looks at students who rang the bell at the wrong time or in the wrong way, and I felt their reaction said more about the teacher’s practice than their student’s, that an error so small could disturb their equanimity. Yet I didn’t want to be the student who disturbed it, either.

Linda Ruth Cutts, leading a practice period at Tassajara, said: “Please don’t use the practice of zen to reinforce your pre-existing psychological conditioning.” In other words, if you’re a perfectionist, don’t use the forms as a weapon to beat yourself.

Even more fundamentally, don’t use the practice for anything at all. As soon as you use it, you lose it. This is the meaning of Dogen’s “no gaining idea” and “just sit”. An agenda beyond the action itself corrupts the action. The zen understanding of a pure act is something done for its own sake alone. Precious few of our actions are taken in this spirit, although we would enjoy our lives more if they were.

Because we do most things to get (or avoid) something, it’s natural to bring this gaining (or escaping) mind to spiritual practice. But the whole point of practice is to free oneself of this mind. So it’s ironic to find myself on the cushion spending zazen in a state of high anxiety about the service that will follow, and whether I will do things “right”.

This “right” is problematic in itself. First, because someone just made these things up a long time ago. Second, because people have interpreted them differently since then. I learned to do this Sunday service from a disciple of the temple’s abbot, and I took careful notes.

The next time, I watched the abbot himself do the service, and some things were different from what his disciple did. So I changed my notes. A week later, I watched the abbot do the service again, and he did a few things differently from the week before. What to do now? Change my notes again? Ask the teacher which time he was “right” and which “wrong”? Not appealing.

Some people view zen forms as a kind of mindfulness exercise, because they force you to pay attention. But the question is, what are you paying attention to? To how you look or sound as you do them? To what other people might be thinking? To the expression on your teacher’s face? To your karmic need to do things “perfectly” so you can justify your existence on this planet?

All these concerns are centered on yourself as a performer, which makes what you’re doing a performance. But spiritual practice shouldn’t be a performance. Neither should life. It could be an offering, whole-hearted and heartfelt. A gift with no room for how you look or what you think people think. A gift that really has nothing to do with you at all, but is a pure action, done for itself, in devotion to something, maybe these things: the truth (dharma), the realization of the truth (buddha), and the intimate and infinite interdependence of all things (sangha).

As zen priest Leonard Cohen sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in.



A Case of Mistaken Identity?



“During our dependent and vulnerable childhoods we develop the psychological, behavioral, and emotional composite that we later mistake for ourselves.” — Dr. Gabor Mate


In zen, one’s “true self” is often explained as “no self,” or a self so interconnected with and interdependent on everything else in the universe that there’s no separate “there” there. This is sometimes called the emptiness of self.

Yet self also has a form. In the net of interdependence, each intersection of the shimmering strands of being creates a unique jewel, a form, that reflects the entire net within itself. It’s this identity — a zen-spirited word that manages to connote both sameness and uniqueness — that I want to discuss today.
According to Dr. Mate, many of us suffer a case of mistaken identity: we confuse an environmentally conditioned set of adaptations with our actual self. And then we compound the error by presuming that this self is fixed, even hardwired somehow — genetically, perhaps — and therefore beyond the reach of transformation.
The only thing more disturbing than such an assumed, immutable identity is the realization that it might not be accurate. Because if we’re not our conditioning, our karma, then who are we? I don’t think the emptiness of interdependence is a sufficient answer to this question, although it’s part of the truth.
“The emotional contexts of childhood interact with inborn temperament to give rise to personality traits. Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, [but] only coping mechanisms acquired in childhood. There’s an important distinction between an inherent characteristic, rooted in an individual without regard to their environment, and a response to the environment, a pattern of behaviors developed to ensure survival.”
Bearing our inborn characteristics, we develop in such a way as to ensure the best chance of thriving within a particular environment: a given place and time, family, class, culture. Then the environment changes, and sometimes we do as well. But sometimes it’s as if we never noticed the change in scenery. We keep doing the same things even if they aren’t necessary or desirable in our new environment. One of the reasons we do so is that we’ve adopted our adaptations as our identity, the essence of who we are, rather than a by-product of where we were.

Even our genes, the modern version of destiny, are sensitive to changes in our physical and emotional environments, capable of being switched on or off by various external and internal mechanisms. One of the most powerful of these influences is the thoughts and emotions that we choose to fuel with our time and energy.

How do we distinguish our true selves from our “convenience” selves? Inborn characteristics from environmental adaptations? Which is not to imply that inborn characteristics are good and environmental adaptations are bad. It’s recognizing which are which, and learning to work with them all to polish our moon: to continue becoming our best and brightest selves over the course of our lives.

Who are you, really?

And if you wanted to, could you change your self, and never be the same?





The Fine Art of Freedom


Glass Dome Tacoma

Dome of Glass, Tacoma


“What’s the most liberating thought you’ve ever had?”

This question was passed along by Rob Brezsny, author of the most liberating words I’ve ever read:

You do not have to think thoughts that make you sad and tormented.

You do not have to feel emotions that other people try to manipulate you into feeling.

You do not have to live up to anyone’s expectations.

You do not have to strive for a kind of perfection that isn’t very interesting to you.

In short, you’re free to be exactly who you want.

To me, this passage resounds like a declaration of independence. If one accepts the validity of each tenet, then the conclusion is inevitable. And yet we find it so difficult to believe that we are actually free to be whomever and however we want.

Partly it’s a terrifying statement, because it means that we’re finally responsible for who we are, for what we make of ourselves and our lives. I’ve said before that the most important work of art we create is our life.

Scholar of religion and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong contends that spiritual practice is an art form. “Religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you.” And because of the interdependence of all things, it changes everything around you.

From Dogen’s Bendowa: “Grass, trees and walls bring forth the teaching for all beings…. And [beings in turn] extend this dharma for the sake of grass, trees and walls. The wholehearted practice of the way allows all things to exist in enlightenment.”

So if we pay attention, actively resist our karmic conditioning, and exercise our imaginations, we can create ourselves and our lives in harmony with the ideals we most cherish. There are many things in life we don’t get to choose, but who and how we are in the world is not one of them.

Zen priest Leonard Cohen observed that “Any artist who remains true to herself becomes a work of art herself…. If someone has that vocation, and diligently applies herself to the exigencies that arise, she will lose a great deal but she will have created her own character.”

If we diligently apply ourselves, and the artistry and alchemy of our practice, to our lives — what do we lose? Perhaps the thoughts that torment us, the emotions society tries to manipulate us into feeling, and the Sisyphean task of attempting to be and do things that don’t matter to us.

These are “losses” worthy of the word liberation, although I’m guessing Cohen had in mind other losses as well.

What’s the most liberating realization you’ve ever had? And what did you do with it?


More Fun Than A Circus

“[Pauline] Oliveros’s compositions…can’t be disrupted. If anything, they are enriched by interference. I listen to them in an illusion of an apartment…within vomiting distance of six late-night bars. I’m not comfortable drowning out noise with louder noise; it makes me feel claustrophobic. A far better option is to play something…by Oliveros. Then something quite extraordinary occurs; the abrasive clanging and crashing…all around me isn’t obscured but rather miraculously incorporated into a mutating opus that makes no distinction between good sounds and bad ones. Dislodged from their mundane context, each pitch, each tone, every vibration, finds a new relation and contributes to a far-flung and evolving sonic universe.” — Claire-Louise Bennett

Life CircusMo Willems wrote a children’s book about Goldilocks trapped in a house with dinosaurs. He said the moral of this tale was that when you find yourself in the wrong story, you can leave. While some stories conveniently have exits, in others the only way out is to rewrite the whole damned thing. Easier said than done, although in fact we’re constantly writing and rewriting stories.

I read somewhere that “an estimated 70 percent of all continuous-loop thoughts running through our minds are negative, and 95 percent of our life activity originates in the subconscious, which was programmed by observing others.” And telling ourselves stories about them.

Which is why I found Ms. Bennett’s commentary so thought-provoking. Obtrusive noises surround her, creating disquiet. “Neutralizing” them by drowning them out with something louder makes her feel cut off from the world. So she plays a kind of music that, partly because it’s based on the sounds of everyday life, weaves the ambiance of the moment into itself, transmuting it from noise into music — simply another part of life’s ever-changing symphony, equal in worth to every other part.

Whenever I’m suffering, I wonder what I’m not seeing. My perspective narrows, and it’s often what’s left out of the frame that compounds the interest on pain, accumulating suffering. For example, I could tell the story of my persisting illness in many ways: as bad luck, as a blight on my life, as an object of unceasing curiosity, a challenge to grow in different directions, a Joseph Campbellian hero’s quest.

How I feel about my life will depend partly on which story I tell. And the story I choose will depend partly on how I feel; story and feeling are interdependent. Some might define a zen life as one freed of story — simply experience in a “pure” form without anything extra, such as interpretation or meaning, layered on. I don’t know if some people can live like that, but I’m pretty sure writers can’t. 

So my question is, how can we consciously create an inner composition rich and open enough to enfold events usually experienced as discordant so they become part and parcel of life’s music, rather than disturbances of it? One friend said that this would be enlightenment.

There are many interpretations of enlightenment; one is seeing the world whole, embracing it as such, and acting from this awareness of the unity of all things. This reminds me of the final lines of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which convey the proof of Siddhartha’s enlightenment to a doubting friend, who bends down to kiss him and is startled to see reflected in his face the infinite forms of life and death, the countless joys and sorrows, and arching over them all a smile that “reminded him of everything he had ever loved in his life, everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.”

How do we see the world whole, and love it whole, now? How do we hear every sound as music?

Stress and the Infinite Field


Flute Bird

William Kentridge, drawing for The Magic Flute. A bird in the hand, tamed, and the birdcatcher feels he’s succeeded. But who’s caught whom?


Akiba Roshi said the other day that everything happens within the body of buddha, which is the world. I understood him to mean not only the quotidian world we presume we know, but the many other worlds that exist, not beyond this one, but within it — for instance, the 96 percent of matter and energy that scientists know they don’t know. The life we take for granted suffused with a mystery to which we’re blind.

Dr. Gabor Mate writes that for humans, “Psychological factors such as uncertainty, conflict, lack of control, and lack of information are considered the most stressful stimuli….” Much of our life is expended in efforts to control or manage our surroundings so we can feel safe(r).

Uchiyama Roshi wrote that we cannot expect to perceive the infinite (world) with the finite (our minds). Since we can’t even survey this endless field of form and emptiness, we cannot hope to control it.

So we narrow the field, believing we can at least establish and maintain control at home or work. But this goal proves no more attainable, and we come to learn that we can’t even control our own bodies and minds. We’re well evolved if we can manage to control our actions.

Even without control comes responsibility, which Mate defines as the ability to respond with awareness and choice, rather than reacting automatically according to our conditioning, our karma. This response-ability is crucial. Mate observes, “The fundamental problem is not external stress but environmentally conditioned helplessness.”

An intriguing expression: environmentally conditioned helplessness. Conditioned by what or whom? By our valid suspicions that we are not in control? By disabling cultural beliefs that some lives are worth less than others? By family dynamics that yield our earliest reflections, distorted or not, of who we are and what this world is?

To live a life grounded in reality, we must wake from both the fantasy of control and the paralysis of helplessness. Finding a middle ground, not halfway between these two, but somewhere beyond both, requires investigating what exactly we are responding (or more commonly) reacting to. As Mate observes, “The definition of a stressor depends on the processing system that assigns meaning to it.”

Are the experiences that feel stressful tied to our deepest values, the things we cherish most? Logically they ought to be, but often they’re not. Six years ago, the night before my ordination, I was feeling sick to my stomach, anxious about the choreography of the ceremony, which is strict and detailed. Another priest, a former dancer, told me she had practiced her ceremony moves for days beforehand. I couldn’t imagine doing this, partly because I wasn’t sure enough of the steps to know I’d be rehearsing the right movements.

I don’t take to formality or ceremony, although I can understand why some people do. I prefer simplicity, a graceful and heartfelt economy of speech and action. The fewest words possible convey the most meaning, provided they are the right ones. So I realized that evening that I was stressing myself about things I don’t actually care about.

I asked myself what mattered to me about the ceremony; the answer was being wholly present for it, alive in every moment to the vows I was making. I didn’t want to be distracted from the meaning of the experience by concerns about whether I was “doing it right”. Afterwards, I wouldn’t care much if I stumbled or bowed at the wrong time, but I would deeply regret missing a moment that mattered because my mind was somewhere that didn’t.

The definition of a stressor depends on what you assign meaning to. Where we place our attention largely determines what we feel and how we experience our lives. Sitting in meditation in front of a wall is the epitome of nothing happening. Yet when we stand up, we feel happy or sad, calm or angry, depending entirely on what we were thinking about, where we bestowed our attention.

It’s worth considering whether the thoughts we make a home for in our minds, feed with our time, attention, and energy, are the ones we actually care about. Someone once said we think so many things that we know are not true. And that we know are not important.

We can choose what to think about, and how we think about it. It’s not easy, but it’s more practical than trying to control a four-percent-known world. And we also get to choose how we respond to the things that stress us — whether we surrender to our conditioned brand of reactivity or helplessness or try something new.

A small town in New Hampshire recently passed a law guaranteeing their residents clean air and water. It’s a local law, and some question whether it could prevent fracking or other environmental destruction in the area. But who would have predicted the strength of the resistance at Standing Rock? A lawyer noted that such efforts could be the future of American democracy: people deciding what matters most to them and protecting the particular piece of the infinite field on which they stand.



Warp and Weft



Buddhist priest’s robe from Edo period


‘A messy, practical, beautiful type of perfection can be realized through a patient, faithful, dogged accumulation of the imperfect.’ — Rob Brezsny


A hand-sewn okesa, or Buddha’s robe, is a fine example of ‘a patient, faithful, dogged accumulation of the imperfect.’ I was taught the short strips represent delusion, the long ones enlightenment. It pleases me that this symbolism is skewed on the side of optimism. And that the strips are sewn together in a pattern representing the flow of water through a rice field.

I think the essential point is that delusion and enlightenment are tied together, that one flows into the other, and neither can exist without its complement. They aren’t opposites in the way we think of opposites, as things that negate or cancel each other, because enlightenment arises from and thanks to delusion, like the lotus rooted in muddy water. ‘Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.’ And since enlightenment is no more permanent than anything else, one moment’s enlightenment easily becomes the next’s delusion.

So how do we weave a coherent life? I finished sewing my okesa on Epiphany six years ago. I’d started it on New Year’s Day the year before. Unlike many priests-to-be and unlike the spirit with which I approach most things, I never worried about when it would be finished.

I trusted that whenever the moment came, it would be in time. Each stitch was a liberation from expectation and from time, much like zazen — sitting just to sit, not to get anywhere, not to be “done”. I had faith that eventually the stitches would add up to something that would hold.

Another unusual attitude for me was that I let the stitches be as they were — crooked, uneven, however they manifested themselves. I never went back and removed a stitch to improve it. I felt the stitches had their own integrity and were inviolable like moments flowing in a single direction — if I didn’t like how one turned out, I could try to do the next differently, but I had to accept what had already come.

At my first dharma talk after moving to Tassajara, the teacher characterized zen as a practice of acceptance. I surprised myself by raising my hand and objecting, “I thought zen was a practice of transformation.” The teacher smiled and said, “Yes. And transformation happens through acceptance.”

A dozen years later, I’m still grappling with this statement and its ramifications. Obviously, on the simplest level, one can’t hope to change something without first acknowledging its existence. But I suspect more is meant by the zen practice of acceptance. What is this?

All my life I’ve been driven by the desire to change myself and the world. I’m inspired by forward motion and growth. I don’t have much tolerance for denial or passivity or anything that feels like stagnation.

I support acceptance in the sense of seeing clearly and admitting, “This is the reality; this is what’s happening.” But if zen asks us to add, “And it’s okay,” that’s where I balk. Because a lot of things are in no way okay. It’s not okay that the United States will soon be presided over by a misogynistic racist. It’s not okay that a minority of people amass ridiculous amounts of wealth by contributing little to society, while others starve and freeze in the street. It’s not okay that human beings around the world suffer torture and genocide at the hands of corrupt governments and guerrilla groups.

The list of things that are not okay is a long one. What does transformation through acceptance mean in the face of these things? How does it work? And where do we find the faith to lay stitch after stitch in a pattern we can believe in?





Us and Them


In view of our recent election, I wanted to re-post this excerpt from a talk I gave on September 11, 2011.


I was born in New York City. My brother is a NYCpolice officer there. Ten years ago today, he was heading home after working the night shift when he got the call. He watched the Twin Towers fall. It must have been horrific; I can’t imagine. When I visited New York that winter, a hundred days and nights had come and gone, and still the air smelled burned.

So the question is, how do we respond to things that happen? The President said, “You’re either with us or against us.” That sounds simple enough. But who is us? And who is them?

When his father died in the World Trade Center, Jeremy Glick was in his mid-twenties. He signed a petition, a Statement of Conscience protesting our wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. After this petition appeared in The New York Times, Jeremy was attacked by Bill O’Reilly on his TV show. O’Reilly raged about how Jeremy could defend the people who had murdered his father. The young man calmly asked, “Why would I want to further brutalize and punish the people of Afghanistan? The people of Afghanistan … didn’t kill my father.”

Surely if anyone would be justified in hating, Jeremy would. But he knew the truth: us and them don’t actually exist. In Buddhism we say that all of life is interconnected, a shimmering net of interwoven strands. At each crossing of the strands lies a jewel, a being. And every jewel reflects the entire net.

Because of this interdependence, an early Buddhist text says, “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

So what then must we do? The petition that Jeremy Glick and thousands of others signed read, in part:


LET US NOT ALLOW the watching world today to despair of our silence and our failure to act. Instead, let the world hear our pledge: we will resist the machinery of war and repression and rally others to do everything possible to stop it.”

Resistance of war and repression begins with resisting the first fiction: us and them. The foundation of any real religion is reverence for life. So we are asked to love life, in all its manifestations, with all our hearts. To love it in joy, and love it no less in heartbreak. That’s the work we have to do in this world.

We do it with hope that one day we will learn the smallest of our actions has consequences beyond our imagining, and we will learn to care for these consequences, because the present gives birth to the future. We hope that people everywhere will one day come to know that many of the things we fight for, the borders and prejudices, us and them, are invented – that in reality there is no separation – everything exists together, intimately linked, a single life force expressed in infinite, breathtaking variety.



Staying With


‘Entities are made manifest over the course of time….
The idea is that staying with an entity as it unfolds affects the manner in which it is made manifest.’

— Lawrence Berger on Heidegger


Maybe what lies in the middle ground between mere being and ceaseless striving is this staying with things as they unfold, keeping them company, and by our attention and presence affecting the way they manifest. What is “staying with” things? In his “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” Dongshan says, “Turning away and touching are both wrong / for it is like a massive fire.”

Faced with a fire, we’re advised not to turn our backs and abandon it, nor to grasp at it, both courses of action being unwise. Between them is an attitude of neither running from nor chasing after, but simply being with. It’s a steadfast stance that can be tremendously difficult to maintain, especially when our flames represent danger or desire.

I’d like to reflect on staying with illness, since it’s the experience uppermost in my mind at the moment, and for the past two years. During this period, I’ve often had the disorienting sensation of time moving forward without me — of seasons and holidays coming and going, and my feeling stuck in a particular moment, a moment of being sick that I haven’t succeeded in transforming despite strenuous efforts.

When you’ve been sick a long time, you can forget what it feels like to be well. And the longer your illness continues, the harder it is to imagine things turning around. In her memoir The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso wrote, “I don’t believe in recovery…I believe in relentless forward motion.”

This sentence resonated strongly with me. Since I couldn’t imagine feeling healthy, I focused on simply trying to take as many steps forward as I could each day — researching medical problems and solutions, trying to find good doctors, making sure I got the right lab tests and drugs, keeping after my insurance company. And somehow managing my fears about everything that was happening, and everything that could happen.

Sometimes I’ve wondered whether my inability to imagine recovery, much less assume it, is an impediment. I remember writing that ghosts, like many other things, can’t hurt you if you don’t believe in them. But maybe things you don’t believe in can’t help you either.

sidewalk-previewWhich is why zen falls somewhat short on the consolation scale of world religions. Not knowing may be most intimate and most true. But is it most helpful?

Zen teacher Reb Anderson once said that he wanted a practice that would see him through cancer, through blindness, through any kind of loss imaginable. I feel the same way. A practice you can only do when things are going well seems no practice at all.

Yet, a friend told me that his zen teacher, a cancer survivor, says that whenever he hears someone talk about practicing with cancer, he feels like throwing up. Because sometimes it’s enough just to survive; survival can be practice enough.

This cheered me, because I feel I’ve practiced badly with Lyme disease, that my illness caused me to lose touch with my practice, which felt like losing touch with my life. I used to sit quite happily for days on end. But for more than a year, every time I tried to sit zazen, I just did what I was doing all the rest of the time — obsessively trying to figure out how to fight a disease some doctors don’t even believe in, and few know how to treat effectively.

I want to know how to practice with feeling as if you’re losing your mind (literally). How to practice when your life is full of just surviving. Of waiting an hour to see a doctor who then lectures you that you can’t possibly have what your lab tests show you have, and he can’t suggest anything else that might explain your symptoms, so you must actually be fine.

Or being just about to infuse a drug into your arm when you realize the pharmacy’s sent the completely wrong one. Or trekking to a lab in the city, which feels in your current state like running a marathon, and being informed your doctor hasn’t written the proper codes on the order and the lab can’t reach them, so you’ll have to come back another time. Or your insurance company writing you that despite their best efforts, sometimes mistakes are made, and your reimbursement check was one of them, and they want their money back, immediately.

Over the past two years, I’ve won battles, but not the war. While I’ve been busy, it’s felt like running hard to stay in place. I can’t muster a reassuring faith that everything will be fine in the end, and whenever someone says so, I think, How do you know? I haven’t prevailed over sickness, and I don’t feel I’ve practiced with it either. But I’ve stayed with it, neither denying nor giving in to it. I hope that this staying with will one day affect for the better the manner in which it is made manifest.