The Taste of Awakening


Imagine you are standing in the ocean. Your feet and legs are immersed in the water, which is moving to its natural rhythm. You stand there feeling the wetness against your skin and the motion. You are searching for something. Surely there must be something more to this experience, you think. You yearn to understand, to see more than you can see at that moment.

Then you notice someone who is also standing in the ocean, and you approach them. They look no different from you but, for some reason, you suspect they may know more about this. So you stand closer to them, and you try to ask a question, but you’re not sure what it is you want to know about. The person looks at you and tells you that the ocean tastes salty, that it is entirely made of salt water. You hear this and you think you understand it. Eventually you realize that you are also made of salt water. This must be the thing for which you were searching.

But the fact is that you don’t know anything about salt water really, because you have never tasted it. So you begin to ask questions about what salt water tastes like, and you begin to daydream about what it must taste like. The person standing next to you tells you about the taste of salt water, making up all kinds of poetic ways of describing the taste so that you might understand. However, until you actually drink from the ocean, until you actually swallow a mouthful of salt water, you will never really know the taste of the ocean. There is nothing stopping you from tasting the ocean, not the person, or the ocean itself or your own body or mind.

One day you are able to scoop up a bit of salt water in your hand and take a taste. It is completely new to you and yet nothing special. Now you know your own taste in a new way and you know the taste of everything around you. Now you know what the other person knows. You know that the taste has been there all along, within you and without. You know that the person described it accurately, but you simply couldn’t imagine it. Knowing in this way, everything has changed and yet you are still simply standing in the ocean.

Awakening is also like this.


The Virtue of the Flower

In everyday life it’s fairly common go around judging the objects with which we come in contact. It’s a habit that is an extension of  the vedana, or the charge, that each thing has for us. So, before even naming it, you have an experience of positive, negative or neutral when you see a flower. Then you might go on to develop an idea about it and, sometimes, to verbalize that thought. For example, you walk by a flower and you say, “That flower is beautiful.” In this case, “beautiful” is a judgment about the flower, although it is a positive one.

dahlias IMG_0895 IMG_0902Perhaps that’s why Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught that when you say, “The flower is beautiful,” you separate yourself from it. That is, you reinforce your sense of separation of subject and object by making a judgment. I would add that even if you only say, “The flower is,” then you have separated yourself from it. And even if you only say “flower” you have separated yourself from it. In fact, the Diamond Sutra can be seen as a teaching about the way in which people develop an idea of something, rather than have a direct experience, and then come up with a linguistic label for the idea that reinforces that perception. This stands in contrast to the direct experience of things as lacking solidity and existing only in the sense of a temporary flux.

Successful Flowers

virtuous flowers

However, you have to use language in everyday life. So how is it possible to practice with the flower, and with your judgment of it, without separating from it?

To respond to this question I suggest you turn to one of the key teachings of the Zen school, the understanding of the physical world in the context of the Dharma. In Zen all objects that we encounter are understood to be equally teaching the Dharma. That is to say, the various and sundry things that we encounter in the physical world we live in are all expressing some form of wisdom. Thus, in Zen, we can practice with things as much as we can practice with people.

One form of practice that you might consider is the practice of observing the virtue of the flower. Virtue is a word that, according to Merriam-Webster, means “the beneficial quality or power of a thing.” Or it can mean “a commendable quality or trait,” presumably of a person, place or thing. Thus, you might say that the flower has the virtue of enabling the pollenization, and therefore the continued life of the plant. You might also say that the flower adds color to the landscape. These are some of its virtues.

However, at a more fundamental level, Zen teaches that the flower has the virtue of speaking the Dharma. It has the virtue of being completely, fully what it is and thereby speaking the Dharma of pollen and transformation, of color and attraction, and of growing and withering. It has those virtues simply by arising as flower, and not due to any comparison, or any words we might associate with it. Also, by manifesting those virtues, the flower is espousing the seals of the Dharma: impermanence, lack of inherent self or core, unsatisfactoriness, and the liberation that is peace amidst these facts of life.

By really settling with this teaching it is possible to experience the virtue of the flower, and by finding the virtue of flower we may very well find our own virtue and the virtue of everyone around us.

In the Service of Wisdom

Though “zen” is a word that is used for many things, including MP3 players and beauty salons, the tradition of Zen is known for a variety of practices and arts. What can we learn from these practices that is applicable to life in the West?

Redwood zendo trioZazen

Zen is known to many for its meditation, a form of sitting that involves facing the wall. Although there are as many kinds of meditation as there are minds, zazen can be described as a form of meditation that is at once single-mindedly concentrated and open to a wide field of experience. That is, zazen is sitting that fully meets all aspects of our experience of the moment.

Shodo, Shakyo, and Sumi-e

Shodo is the art of Japanese calligraphy. Shakyo is the art of sutra copying. Sumi-e is the art of ink drawing. These arts, using a brush and black sumi ink, are forms of expression that require focus and years of practice to master.

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

In this age, when it’s possible to simply scan the most beautiful copy of an ancient text, upload it to your favorite copy center, and have 1000 copies made at 0.6 cents each, why would anyone want to write out a text by hand, much less using a brush? Or what is the value of painting yet another stalk of bamboo? Yet the beauty and uniqueness of each of these expressions is renowned.

Shojin Ryori

Shojin ryori literally translates as “devotion cooking” and means Zen temple cooking. It was the topic of a famous teaching by Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen. In the piece, entitled Instructions to the Cook, Dogen explains the way in which cooking is a practice on a par with meditation and the study of the Buddhist teachings. His audience of practitioners would have consisted mostly of men who likely viewed cooking as, at best, a daily necessity or, at worst, an undignified chore. Yet Dogen taught,

Take one stalk of vegetable to make the six-foot body [of buddha]; invite the six-foot body to make one stalk of vegetable. This is the divine power that causes transformations and the buddha work that benefits beings.

- translation by Taigen Dan Leighton

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Japanese gardens

Looking at a Japanese garden your first thought might be, “What kind of garden is this? It hardly has any plants.” The monastery in which I lived had moss gardens in its interior courtyards, a vegetable garden where we grew quite a bit of our food, and a flower garden on the street along the exterior wall. Much of the daily life of the residents involved tending the gardens. Imagine spending an hour weeding a patch of moss the size of one square meter. Kneeling on the coolness of it, with weeding fork in hand, a monk bends closer to look for the tiniest of grasses. Or a person sweeps the trail in the forest with a broom made of bamboo twigs, lifting the leaves into small piles, even as they continue falling from the trees.

Common Denominator

So what is it that can be distilled from this odd collection of practices? What do these arts have in common, and what can we learn from them?

Each of these traditional Zen arts is taking an everyday activity and turning it into a practice. It is taking the mundane activity of life, such as writing or weeding, and doing it in the service of wisdom. This turning toward wisdom takes place through the intention, the awareness, and the Mind that is applied, and it transforms the way we experience the activity. It’s not that it makes the activity into something magical. The cooking is still the cooking, chopping vegetables and boiling water. Yet the experience of cooking is met in an entirely different way, a way that connects to cooking as enlightened activity.

By Andy Serrano

By Andy Serrano

This way of meeting our everyday life as enlightenment is the inheritance of the practice of the Zen ancestors.  Start by understanding that every moment is a moment of enlightenment, ripe with the opportunity for realization. Because this is so, then sweeping must be enlightenment when it is fully engaged. This full engagement takes time, and it demands our full attention. That is why the Zen way is often the slow way. Doing even mundane things is the activity of a Buddha, and it is up to us to encounter how this can be so, whether you are sweeping in Kyoto or in Kansas.

Loving Haters

Sitting in the sandwich shop the other day, I noticed a young man wearing a baseball cap. On the back of the cap, in lovely embroidery, it said “I love haters.” At first I was put off by this statement. I thought to myself, “What?! You enjoy and encourage people who hate? Don’t people who hate cause all kinds of harm in the world? Don’t people who hate cause suffering?” I wondered whether this young man was simply wearing the hat to cause a stir. Or whether he was identifying with haters, loving them as only a fellow hater could.

Frowny Face by Colin T Griffin

Frowny Face by Colin T Griffin

But the more I thought about this phrase, the more I realized that this is a wise person’s statement. I love haters. I embrace even those that have aversion to me, or to someone or something else. I am able to find a warm place in my heart for those who cannot find a warm place in their heart. Whether or not I agree with them, whether or not others agree with them, whether or not they understand or I understand, I am still able to embrace them.

It puts me in mind of Shakyamuni Buddha’s oft quoted teaching in the Dhammapada:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.

By non-hatred alone does it end.”

That is to say, the only way to deal with haters is not to hate them. Hating haters only robs you of energy for life, and gives them more energy to fight against. Responding in kind only adds fuel to the fire of hatred. Hating hatred allows hatred into your own heart and mind. Why would you want to do that? The only way to have peace in your heart is to make peace with haters.

In fact, one thing you might notice when you begin to love haters is that you may have a bit of hater in you too. There may be some part of you that is a hater. So the same teaching applies. You could to treat the hater in you with non-hatred and see what happens. See whether that helps the situation, whether it helps you to let go of the hatred, instead of fueling it or covering it up.

Now, to be clear, that may or may not have been that young man’s message. But for me, the phrase “I love haters” takes on a new meaning. And to be clear, loving haters does not mean allowing them to be destructive forces in the world. That is more like ignoring haters. I believe that the best way to love one another is to ensure that our behavior has appropriate consequences, both positive and negative. Yet those consequences have to come from the mind that embraces haters, or it will simply be destructive and arbitrary. It is like the difference between verbally reprimanding a child for disrupting the class, and hitting the child with a ruler. In the end, hitting the child only teaches them the lesson that the one with the stick gets their way. This is not the Buddha Way. The Buddha Way is, “I vow to embrace haters. I love haters.”

Forget About It



At the conclusion of a sesshin, an intensive meditation of several days length, my Master Sekkei Harada Roshi would often give a brief talk. He would typically say, “For those of you who do not live in the monastery, please go home and forget about Zen.” This was usually a topic of discussion afterward, and people would inquire what the Roshi meant by such a thing. Some were disconcerted to hear it, after having worked so hard to embrace Zen, sitting long hours and forgoing so many of the comforts of home.  To be told just to forget it was hard to hear. For others, this was a relief. They were glad to leave behind the strict schedule, painful knees and elaborate meal rituals. They hoped to forget about it before even leaving the temple gates.

Yet either response fails to see the Roshi’s meaning.

The point that Roshi was making is that Zen *is* your life. There is nothing you need to take home with you; no way for you to add it to your agenda. Zen is already here, there and everywhere. Even in a fast-paced, constantly distracted, over-stimulated modern life, Zen is fully manifesting. In fact Roshi also said, “Your life is completely resolved in each moment.”

Still, just saying it’s so doesn’t really cut it. If it were as simple as telling yourself that fact, there would be no need for monasteries or teachings or practice at all. We could all just sit in front of the television or the computer with our snacks and soda pop, and say that everything’s okay. We could even say it’s all perfect and we are all Buddhas. Sounds a bit Polly Anna don’t you think?

Thus, practice outside the monastery is to abide in this mystery, in the inconceivable teaching. It is to connect with the way in which this very life is ineffable: beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond the new notch in your belt after you sat a sesshin. You don’t get to go home and tell your neighbor how well you wielded your chopsticks, or that you asked the most insightful question, because that’s not the point. The point is that you sat on your cushion in a place where there is no distraction from the Zen of this very moment. What did you experience?

So you might say that practice off the cushion is experiencing the Zen of this very moment, whether that moment is sitting behind the wheel of a car or drinking a cup of tea at your desk. Practice off the cushion is abiding in the mystery, stepping closer and closer into intimacy with the present until there is no boundary between you and it. Practice in daily life is about being open to the way in which the mundane is expressing the absolute, being open to the way in which life is saying something larger than life.

Saying it that way, it becomes clear that Zen lives at the monastery and Zen lives outside the monastery. It becomes clear that wherever you live, the task is right in front of you. No matter what you wear, or what haircut you have, or how many minutes of meditation you have done, the task is so simple it may evade you. Don’t be confused by words and concepts; these are just pointers along the way. The Way itself is right before you, each moment and place full of opportunity. Remember, everyday mind is the Way.

So I ask you, how do you abide in the Zen of your life? How will you connect to the Zen of life in 2014?

Happy New Year! May you be safe, joyful, free from suffering, and may you fulfill your infinite potential.

The Answer Machine is Not In

Much has been said in recent months and years about the dynamics between teachers and students in Zen, primarily due to instances of boundary crossing that go beyond painful into harmful. This kind of relationship is unacceptable and should not be tolerated by students, teachers or sanghas. Yet there are Zen teachings that seem to lead to gross misunderstandings about the way to have a skillful relationship between teacher and student, particularly as that might be understood in Western culture.

One such teaching is the role of teacher in pointing out patterns of thought that the student is unable to identify for themselves. Often these patterns are ways that students relate to themselves but fail to acknowledge their own agenda. Sadly, some teachers have gone from shining the light of wisdom on such delusion to entangling it in an intimate, sexual relationship. Certainly this cannot lead to greater clarity for either person.

Bodhidharma's scowl

Bodhidharma’s scowl

Also, I believe there is another dynamic at play. I call it the “answer machine mentality.” That is, once a student begins to have confidence in a teacher, this can evolve into a desire for the teacher to provide the answers to all of the student’s questions. The student ties him or herself into all kinds of knots trying to find the perfect question. Certainly, Zen rituals such as Shosan, in which students present themselves one by one and have a public dharma encounter with a teacher, superficially seem to encourage this kind of thinking. Yet it could hardly be further from the truth.

Not only is the “answer machine mentality” a lazy way to practice, it also sets up a dependency upon the teacher who is seen as the source of wisdom, while the student is seen as simply a receiver. It is dangerous, in part, because it sets up a hierarchy in which the teacher can be tempted into thinking that the student lacks something which she or he can and should provide. Thus both teacher and student relate to each through the illusion of power dynamics and guru worship, sometimes confused with filial piety. It can even become a form of infantilization of the student and a Napoleon complex for the teacher. That is to say, it leads to even further delusion about the nature of the self.

This is sad, not only because it creates further entanglements, but also because it goes against Buddhist teaching. Each and every being is intrinsically capable of enlightenment, inherently able to relinquish suffering and experience ultimate wisdom. So hierarchy and experience are merely aspects of the veil which is the samsaric world. It is the student’s responsibility to find themselves equal to the teacher, and the teacher’s responsibility to point the student toward their true self again and again. The only “answers” would be directional – hotter or colder, if you will.

So I urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your time vainly crafting the perfect question and vainly awaiting the perfect answer to fall from your teacher’s lips. Bring forth the self that skillfully, completely meets the self and demonstrate how equal you really are!

No Time to Lose

Yesterday I was at the park relaxing in the grass with a friend who is a long-time sitter. She said she often encounters people who are interested in meditation and are just getting started. My friend asked me how to respond to people who say, “I can only sit for one or two minutes, and then I have to get up because I can’t stand it anymore.” I too have heard this comment, and I don’t doubt that it happens. Hearing it, I am reminded of the Zen tradition’s emphasis on posture both as a support for, and an expression of bodhi-mind, the mind of awakening. That is not to say that sitting up straighter will cause your mind to go blank, and result in a mental state of ultimate peace. Rather, it means that in Zen one doesn’t focus so much on the imperatives associated with thoughts. We simply abide in body and mind, without attempting to add anything or take anything away. In and of itself, it can be a tremendous relief to sit down on the cushion and know that, for a limited span of time, there is no need to get up and start doing something else.

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school, put it this way:

Just this seeing and hearing

Goes beyond seeing and hearing,

And there are not other colors or sounds to offer you.

Having completely settled within this,

You are genuinely beyond concerns.

Notice that Dogen mentions “Just this…,” subtly giving a nod to the fact that you might want to seek for some quieter or calmer state, particularly when you feel agitated, or as you get older and lose our seeing and hearing faculties. Alternatively, you might seek for some more exciting state, feeling more comfortable in the swirl of activity. Yet there is no better experience to be found, because awakening is already expressed within the everyday experience of delusion. In fact, it is impossible for one to be anywhere else but in the present moment, since everything is in the midst of being created in every instant. Still, to say this and accept it as a concept is what we call in Zen “a painted rice cake,” something that is not going to satisfy your hunger. Zen is a lifetime practice because ultimately the present moment is indefinable, and thus it cannot be conceptualized. It is a practitioner’s endeavor to encounter it, to live it.

So the question arises, “How does one settle within this?” Here you encounter the body, abiding within the sensations and mental states that arise. You might notice tightness or pain in the body, or a tight jaw. You might encounter a subtle sensation of fear and its sidekick adrenaline, or of anxiety, or of simply feeling sad and overwhelmed. You might encounter the sound of ringing in your ears, and of a rapid, shallow breath. The real question is, so what? What is so difficult about sitting in the midst of that? Is it that you think it will go on forever? It cannot, as there is nothing that goes on forever, even Shakyamuni. Is it that you think you need to do something about it? Well, sitting is a form of non-doing something about it and, if you sit long enough, you will see for yourself that your mind will change. In fact scientists have now shown that, due to neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the physical brain to change its structure over time, any activity that you do regularly will tend to be easier to do over time because your brain builds the pathways to enable it. However that is simply a symptom, I believe, of the truth that by sitting we can experience the natural stillness of mind within the world of activity.

And when you are sitting and you find your mind racing or simply wandering, pay attention to the way you are sitting. Are you able to balance between left and right, between front and back? Are your hands in an open, relaxed position? Is your chin tucked in enough to lift the crown of your head?

zafu zabutonThe teaching of the Buddha is that your fundamental nature is peace and clarity. It’s okay to doubt that, but please don’t doubt it so much that it knocks you off your cushion. Just sit!