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.




Of Mere Being


A couple of weeks ago, Akiba Roshi, teacher at Kojin-an temple in Oakland, asked after zazen: “What’s the purpose of our lives?” The person standing next to me said that all of life is an ecological system, like a forest. When a tree dies, a space is created, and something grows to fill that space. Each of us is filling a particular space until we die, when another form will take shape in the emptiness.

I thought this an elegant explanation and have been turning it over in my mind since — that for example, I’m filling a Molly-shaped hole in the universe simply by being, and perhaps mere being is enough…I might not have to worry so much about doing. This is a very relaxing thought, and I believe it’s consistent with zen’s widest view of life.

A few days ago, I thanked this same person for washing dishes, and he answered that he was glad to be of at least some use. I was struck by the contrast with his earlier remarks, especially because I myself am always thinking about how to be most useful; I’m obsessed by the question. I always equate being useful with doing something — mere being never feels enough. Zen certainly encourages the intention to be helpful to all beings. But how does this fit with the larger idea that we are enough when we are simply ourselves?

I believe we express ourselves most eloquently through our actions. And also that our motives matter greatly. For instance, my yearning to be useful is more than a desire; it’s a need. It’s fueled partly by genuinely wanting to help people and things, and partly by a need to justify my existence on this planet, which is a selfish and unhealthy motivation — unhealthy because it implies that I feel my existence isn’t worthy in itself, that my worth as a human being is contingent on what I accomplish. This is in fact exactly how I feel, although I wish I didn’t.

I hope this is making some sense despite being written on the sixth day of Rohatsu sesshin. I’ve never written from the midst of a sesshin before, and it might be ill-advised, but this sesshin has been full of things I’ve never done during sesshin before, so why stop now? Although I am going to stop now, and let one of my favorite poets have the (almost) last word. 

Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
— Wallace Stevens


The bird sings. Its feathers shine. These things are more than enough in the place “at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought.” In this place, “mere being” doesn’t merely suffice — it’s the source of our joy: our own mere being and that of the palm, the flame-feathered bird, the slow wind in the branches, the song and the shine.

It’s rare for us to feel that mere being is enough because to feel it, we have to get to the “end of the mind, beyond the last thought”. Anyone who has sought this place knows how elusive it is. The harder we seek, the less we find. And our lives are full of things that feel more real than that place: getting and spending, struggling and achieving, and always, always thinking.

Is there a happiness beyond what happens, a worth beyond what we do? A peace that neither rejects nor depends on our experiences, but runs imperturbably beneath them like a current underground?




Not Knowing


A zen story says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” When we don’t know, our minds are open and curious — we draw closer to our questions, eating and sleeping them, walking them down the street. But as soon as we think we’ve got the answer, we break our engagement with the questions — case closed.

In Say Anything, a classic movie of my generation, released the year I graduated from college, the hero, graduating from high school, is reproached for his aimlessness by his guidance counselor: “All your friends know what they want to do next, Lloyd.” Cheerfully, Lloyd attempts to reassure her with a quintessentially zen response: “They think they know. I know that I don’t know, which puts me ahead.”

Not many of us have as much equanimity about not knowing as Lloyd; I know I don’t. An open mind sounds like nice place to visit — spacious, relaxed, airy. But who’d want to live there? Living each day with the truth of not knowing is a fearsome project.

I remember a zen teacher introducing a dharma talk, “You might think you chose to come here.” She then listed several of the innumerable conditions that had happened to enable our presence in that place at that time, and a few of the countless others that had allowed our presence by helpfully not occurring.

When we think we’re deciding to do something, it’s not only us deciding; ten thousand things are deciding our decisions with us — all the myriad causes and conditions of the world.

This insight particularly dismayed me because my life had long been driven by the desire to “do the right thing,” if only I could figure out what it was. Naturally, this determination was accompanied always by its shadow, the profound fear of doing the wrong thing.

The right thing is an elusive animal, visible mostly in hindsight. It’s something we invent afterwards, when we see how things turned out; it seems rarely to appear at the moment of decision. And things are forever “turning out” — the consequences of our actions play out infinitely. Miles Davis said there’s no such thing as a wrong note, because it’s the note you play next that determines whether the previous one was good or bad.

This is how life is; there’s rarely an objectively “right” answer, and one moment’s solution easily becomes the next moment’s mistake. But this also means that each moment offers the chance to redeem all the moments before it, all the moments that culminated in this one and are alive within it, not to mention all those yet to come.

Carl Jung advised that when we find ourselves facing a question to which the answer cannot be known, we should simply pick whichever belief is more helpful. I think it’s important to remember that we choose our beliefs, and that they might be wrong; fundamentalism is a cheap way out of a mystery.

So we must make from partial and contradictory information our best decisions for our own lives and others’. This is an undeniably appalling fact. Our consolation is that if the “right decision” is a chimera, the wrong one is equally a fiction. All we can do is know that we don’t know, and play our next note.





For All the Days After


“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” — Paul Farmer


What to do when the unconscionable happens? When lies and hatred carry the day, the next four years, and the leadership of a nation ostensibly based on the ideals of “liberty and justice for all”?

A few days ago over tea at Kojinan temple, the topic of enlightenment arose, as it likes to do among zen practitioners. Specifically the question: what is enlightenment? In Flowers Fall, a commentary on Dogen’s Genjo-koan, Yasutani Hakuun described enlightenment as action in oneness with all things.

Action takes myriad forms, but the form we begin with in Soto zen is zazen, just sitting. By letting go our thoughts and feelings while sitting, we let go what separates us from everything else. After this practice of sitting in oneness with all things, we stand up. That’s when a difficult practice becomes all but impossible.

How do we work in oneness with all things? Protest in oneness with all things? Fight bigotry and hatred in oneness with all things? It’s not only what we do that matters, but how and why we do it — whether we create karmic fallout with our sometimes self-righteous motivations, exacerbating circumstances even as we strive to better them. Asked whether he felt anger toward China, the Dalai Lama responded, “The situation is bad enough — why add anger to it?”

The Dhammapada counsels us, “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Not the law written by human beings, but the law that is simply the way things are, the truth.

Once I sat zazen outside San Quentin prison in the hours before a man was killed there by the State of California. A small envoy from San Francisco Zen Center arrived to a frightening scene: a crowd of people screaming in darkness broken only by the prison’s blinding lights. Some people screamed for the prisoner’s blood; others screamed against murder by the state.

Three or four of us sat down in the middle of this. I was terrified by the noise and the crowd’s barely contained violence, afraid we’d be trampled in the conflict. Finally, a few more people showed up from the zen center. And after awhile, people began to detach from the crowd and join us on the ground. At last, there was a substantial circle of quiet — I couldn’t call it peace — in the midst of fury and murder. That was how I learned that zazen itself can be a protest, and silence sometimes more persuasive than a scream.

What to do when the unconscionable happens? There are ten thousand responses. But maybe first you could sit down for awhile. And then stand up and do the next thing, whatever it might be, in the spirit of oneness with everything, with all that you love and all that you cannot abide.




On Faith


In zen, faith can be difficult to talk about. Since zen isn’t a theistic religion, when we talk about faith, the question immediately arises: faith in what?

I love Sheryl Crow’s lyric, “She don’t believe in anything, but if you ask her she’ll say there’s plenty of things to believe in.” The idealistic/cynical stance of someone who believes there are things worth believing, even if she doesn’t believe them.

According to scholar of religion Karen Armstrong, the word translated as faith in the Old Testament came from a Greek word meaning “trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.” In the New Testament, the word became credo, from the expression, “I give my heart.”

yosemite-bathroomSo faith is not merely believing in something, but giving our hearts to it. The use of faith to mean intellectual belief came later, and many Buddhists wouldn’t use these words interchangeably. For Alan Watts, they’re opposites: “Belief is holding tight to something; faith is letting go.” Hence our expression, “leap of faith”.

Throughout our lives people tell us what we should believe in and give our hearts to. The urgings, subtle and not so, begin early and continue as long as we live within society.

One of the most important challenges of our lives is finding our own faith. Because as David Foster Wallace observes, there are no true atheists — “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

I worship trying to see things the way they are, and I worship trying to make them better.

And you?




In the Maze


From the time I read William Wordworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” I believed events were best discussed after they happened, after one had “processed” one’s feelings — made peace with them, transcended or transformed them, broken through to insight or wisdom.

If you wrote from within an emotion or experience, you wouldn’t have the perspective, or what in zen we call the spaciousness, to describe it accurately, much less synthesize meaning from it.

When my zen teacher talked about his teen-age determination to find the meaning of life by reading all the books about philosophy, religion, history and science he could get his hands on, he often described his quest as “foolish”. Once I asked him about this, and he clarified that it’s not the search for meaning that’s foolish, but the assumption that there’s a single answer, and that it can be found “out there”. Meaning isn’t objective or static; it’s a co-creation of the ever-changing self and its times.

Because my intention with this blog is to encourage and inspire, I’ve usually written about dark events in retrospect, from the other side, so that I could write not only about the maze, but about the way out, so that every story could have, if not a happy ending, at least an empowering one.

I think of this as my profession, the vow I took in becoming a priest — helping people enlighten themselves by enlightening myself and telling about it. Not that my path will be yours, my meaning your meaning, but that any one person’s finding a path, a graceful way through, encourages us in finding our own.

I’ve been working and waiting for the right time in my two-year fight with Lyme disease, the time after, when I’ll be able to sum my experience into a story with an uplifting finale. So far, I haven’t been able to write from the middle, the time during. I’ve wanted to offer something, but had nothing besides exhaustion, sadness and fear. Along with the losses wrought by illness, I lost my ability to make offerings. For someone whose calling and vow this is, there’s no more destitute feeling.


How to write blind, from inside the maze? What to offer with empty hands?

Outside the hospital where I had surgery long ago, there’s a labyrinth. Walking a labyrinth is a meditative and reassuring exercise. You can’t figure out the way to the center by looking ahead, so you’re forced to focus on your feet, on the step you’re taking now. This is relaxing. And it’s spiritually reassuring, because you can’t help but reach the center, and the way back out, if you simply continue walking. This is because labyrinths are designed to be “unicursal”: one road in, one road out.

But life, especially life with a poorly understood illness, is more like a maze. There is no one path. Instead, we’re faced with myriad intersections where we have to choose. Some choices lead to dead ends. There’s no guarantee of finding the heart of the matter or the way through. In a maze, a person can spend a lifetime walking in circles. And it could feel like your fault, for having taken the wrong turns. Although a counselor told me there might not, at any given time, exist a “right” move. I can’t decide whether this makes things better or worse.

I can say it’s hard to keep faith in a maze, unlike a nice, trustworthy labyrinth. You can lose conviction in your chosen direction after just a few steps. And it’s hard to keep walking for long without conviction. Every day my belief in what I’m doing unravels, and almost every day I thread it back together by taking the steps that seem to make sense today, although I know they may lose that quality before tomorrow. This is what there is to do in a maze, and why there aren’t mazes outside hospitals.



An Approximate Position


Dead reckoning is the process of determining one’s present position by projecting course and speed from a known past position, and predicting a future position by projecting course and speed from a known present position. The DR position is only approximate because it does not allow for the effect of leeway, current, helmsman error, or compass error.

— National Imagery and Mapping Agency


I learned today that the word evolve means to unfold. The etymology doesn’t connote progress but revelation  — not that things will necessarily become better, but that they will become more clear. Which is a form of progress, I suppose.

To use dead reckoning, you need a known point. And these tend to be more elusive in life than on navigational charts. The past is as subject to revision, to shifts in perspective and changes of heart, as the present. Our perception of where we came from depends partly on where we’ve gotten to, where we stand now. Just as our understanding of where we are now will change depending where we go from here. Fixed points feel to me like unicorns or sasquatches — things that live more in our imagination than our experience.

This is relevant to me now because I’m between places — where I used to live, and where I’ll live next, with the latter yet to unfold. I’m staying in a beautiful home with very nice people, and I’m grateful to have landed so fortunately. Yet where I am now feels a bit surreal, because I don’t yet know where I’ll be.

Even more disconcerting, when I drove through my former neighborhood a week after leaving, everything looked different, almost unrecognizable. This seemed impossible. But maybe places are changed by the mere fact of departure, altering as soon as we turn our backs. Who knows what happens when we aren’t looking?

I can only say that since I don’t know exactly where I’m going or even where I’ve been, I feel a sense of unreality about where I am. This time and place aren’t yet part of an internal narrative — they’re just now. While experiencing life this way is a zen ideal, it’s disorienting. We humans have a yearning not only to be somewhere, which is inevitable, but to feel we know where we are, which proves more problematic. We’re always somewhere real, with an approximate idea of it.

Last night I saw a movie in the city I hope to live in. Afterwards, I was tempted to wander the streets but thought, “I’ll have plenty of time to explore here after I move.” So I decided to revisit my old neighborhood for dinner. But I passed the exit I meant to take, the one I’ve taken so many times and never missed before.

This highway isn’t forgiving of those who miss their destinations — by the time you get an opportunity to turn around, you’re already at the next town; there’s no place in between. I couldn’t go home because my friends were hosting a dinner we’d decided was better for me not to attend. So I figured I’d drive two towns further, past where I live now, and check out a restaurant I’d always meant to visit, although I didn’t know where it was. Turned out it was at the very end of a pier, dark and silent when I finally found it.

Hungry and feeling geographically challenged, I passed an establishment with its lights afire, the only spark of life in an otherwise empty village. It was called The Wayfarer. I thought, that’s what I am now, so I should stop here. There’s no way to leap forward to a place that doesn’t exist yet, or return to one that doesn’t exist anymore. Years ago I saw a play with the line, “Where you are now is a place too.”



Valentine’s Day All Day

My new, first-ever smartphone informs me that today is Valentine’s Day, All Day. But I knew that. The heart-shaped boxes of chocolate inching closer to the discount rack and the red-sweatered employees of my local grocery store made the day eminently clear this morning at 6, a time things are rarely clear.

The question was, what did the day mean to me, moving out of my apartment this morning, a few hours ahead of a blizzard? Maybe it meant that everyone who came to help actually helped. I moved in February in Maine amid snowdrifts as tall as I am and temperatures in the single digits.

But no one snapped at anyone else or complained. No one malingered, cherry-picking the lighter boxes. Everyone seemed oddly happy under the circumstances. There was even a young teenager, present voluntarily, who carried most of my books after being out late dancing last night. With no attitude at all. I’m still awed by this Valentine’s Day miracle.

To my mind one of the most useful skills in life is the ability to discern love in all its guises, to know it for what it is. And to do everything in one’s power to make sure the world’s love doesn’t go unremarked, or unrequited.

On this note, I have a beautifully made cherry pie waiting to be savored, along with some sparkling red wine that strikes a rare balance between sweet and piquant. Which is not unlike the feeling of a supermarket at 6 am, its fluorescent splendor empty and overflowing at the same time.

Here’s a toast — To all the unlikely beauties of this world: the long shots and the near misses, the late-game reversals and the death-bed epiphanies, the indivisible harmony of opposites and the everyday feats of impossibility.

You know who you are.


Image Ian Vollmer


Beginning Again

2015After a year’s worth of posts, it’s time to begin again. In last week’s Homeless Kodo study group, the subject of faith arose with its accompanying semantic difficulties, like what is it, anyway? One person testified that because of his religious upbringing, he initially equated faith with blind acceptance, often of things that make no sense. This is a depressing definition, I think.

For me faith is closer to trust, a sense that things will work out as they can over time. A zen teacher once said, “I trust people. Not necessarily to be what I want them to, but to be themselves.” This is faith in the real…that people and things will be themselves because in the end, that’s what they know how to do.

Faith is allied not only with trust but with innocence, because only people who trust can afford to let go of their assumptions and approach life freshly in each moment. Alan Watts wrote, “Belief is holding tight to something; faith is letting go.”

Faith isn’t optimism — it’s being at peace with never knowing how things will turn out. In the eighties classic Say Anything, Lloyd Dobler’s high school guidance counselor chides him for not knowing what he wants to do with his life, while his classmates have their futures sorted out. He offers a joking yet incisive retort: “They all think they know what they’re going to do. I know that I don’t know, which puts me ahead.”

It puts him ahead in only one way, but that way is important: he’s living in the reality of not knowing, while his classmates are living in an idea of the future. It’s great to have dreams and goals and to work toward them. But it’s a delusion to think we know. Delusions tend to make our lives easier and more comfortable, whether they’re positive or negative. They reduce infinite possibility to something limited enough for us to navigate — the world as it’s already understood by us. This is a kind of karma: the pressure on things to happen the same ways so that we can feel at home, whether or not we’re happy there.

To my mind it takes tremendous courage to live the reality of not knowing with anything resembling grace. When I see that quality, I call it faith. It can’t be mistaken for indifference or aimlessness; it’s an unmistakable steadiness of heart.


Great Faith, Great Doubt

If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. — John Irving

Yes, I’m trying to sneak in a last post before the year pulls its tail through the doorway and pads off to time’s Florida. Usually this turning point is one of my favorites, since I live for resolutions and fresh starts. But I’m not experiencing that hushed sense of promise this year because I feel so frustrated in my battle for health.

It seems like the past four months have been a series of failed experiments in treatment, the only apparent result being that my liver is getting cranky in reaction to the drugs it’s been bombarded with. It’s not the only organ to feel that way; my brain keeps wanting to threaten, “I can’t take this much longer,” with much left conveniently vague. But I’m wary of issuing an ultimatum, even a vague one. Life tends to respond to ultimatums badly, if at all. And understandably so — ultimatums are a nasty business.

It’s for these reasons that John Irving’s statement caught my heart. There’s no doubt that I’ve found/made a way of life I love, despite its tenuousness according to our usual standards of “security” and success. The former is surely one of our most cherished delusions. Someone said, “Most of us would trade anything we have for a good, false sense of control.” And any good sense of control is bound to be false. So it hasn’t cost me much to give up something I don’t believe in.

Not that I disdain cars younger than twenty, or houses in which one can sleep through the night — these are very nice things. They just haven’t exerted sufficient gravitational pull for me to give up the work I believe in for something better remunerated.

When I first began practicing at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, I had just returned to the U.S. after five years of living in Japan, and I was in shock, cultural and otherwise. ThanksgivingDuring that summer of fumbling through zen forms, an older student said to me, “This practice was made for people like you.” I reversed her words in my mind: I was made for this practice. I sensed that much, and a decade later I have no real regrets.

What is this way of life I feel made for? Radical simplicity and straightforwardness, for a start. I don’t want to waste time on the intricate fictions our society abounds in, as perhaps all societies do, since part of what defines a society is shared fictions. Radical in the sense of values lived down to the roots — not betraying what one believes in with what one does. And empathy, and concern for the consequences of one’s actions in the world.

Working toward these ideals the long way is the life I love. As for courage, what’s most difficult sometimes is keeping the faith that what I’m doing matters. I loved cleaning the cabins at Tassajara, a job widely despised, even in that zen environment. I’d walk into a room in some stage of dishevelment and restore an idea of order. Finally, I’d stand at the door imagining how the room would look to the next person who entered. I always felt a sense of accomplishment, of having tangibly helped.

Growing up I dreamed of becoming a doctor. I borrowed surgeons’ biographies from the library, imagined working in a hospital, saving people’s lives. I started off pre-med in college before realizing bodies didn’t interest me very much; I was more intrigued by what went on in people’s heart-minds.

So I wound up working with the world of the intangible, the felt and imagined, feared and longed for. And this work naturally entails an ongoing struggle of faith that the inner world matters as much as the outer, the one we can see and therefore don’t need to believe in, the one where people get sick and sometimes don’t get better. Without great doubt, great faith wouldn’t exist. It’s possible that incurable skeptics make the best idealists in the end.

And on that note, how about some resolutions?